Interview with Susan Briante

Susan Briante, whose second book Utopia Minus is now available from Ahsahta Press, recently visited Buffalo, where she gave a reading at our house (part I is above; part II can be viewed here). Her first book, Pioneers in the Study of Motion, was also published by Ahsahta, and she teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas. We first met many years ago in Austin, and it was a pleasure to catch up with her during her visit and later via e-mail, in the exchange reproduced below.

***

DH: You’ve been concerned with tracing the vicissitudes of Capitalism in your poetry for quite some time now. This is most obvious in the ongoing “Dow Jones Closes…” series, in which you personify the DJIA, and recently, as I understand it, use those numbers to help generate search procedures to lead the poetry in various directions. Tell me about the evolution of that series. How did it first occur to you to write these poems, and how has it developed over time?

SB: There are actually two separate stock market projects. I was finishing work on Utopia Minus, when the recession really started to dig in deep. Although, for those of us who did not see our fortunes rise as a result of the real estate bubble, the sense of limited economic possibility was already palpable years before. I wrote the opening poem of Utopia Minus, “The End of Another Creature,” in response to the original “crisis” of 2008. Like many people I was shocked (see Naomi Klein) to witness the limited focus of this “crisis”—panic over Lehman Brothers, panic over the stock market. No one was talking about the fact that even prior to the crisis the housing “bubble” priced many middle-class families out of the market in ways that were not true just ten years prior. No one was talking about how health care costs made the middle class more vulnerable in many ways. No one was talking about decades of wage stagnation. All of that “too big to fail” rhetoric started to make many of us feel as if we were held hostage by the “the market” that was “reacting,” “responding,” and “rejecting” federal economic policy. I mimicked that personification of “market” in that poem with the lines:

The Market migrates; the Market scatters across the Metroplex.
The Market dreams my carcass onto the highway, groans
a few blocks deeper into my neighborhood.

I wanted to explore the idea of “Market” as a person. That exploration became the chapbook, “The Market is a Parasite that Looks Like a Nest,” in which the “Market” becomes an aging baby boomer.

As the recession really started taking hold, I was again struck by how the dominant narrative to describe economic events became tied to the stock market, specifically the closing number of the Dow Jones Industrial Average and other so-called “economic indicators.” Jobs were lost; homes were lost. The only thing that seemed to matter was the stock market at least in terms of policy. The closing numbers seemed to exert some magical influence over all of us. I wanted to find a way to explore this feeling of helplessness before those numbers even for those of us who don’t have portfolios—especially for those of us who don’t have portfolios. I started thinking about the Kabbala, numerology. I started recording the closing number of the Dow. I’d take the number and let it lead me to a text by plugging it into Google, Project Gutenberg, Bartlett’s Quotations, an on-line version of Paradise Lost, other texts and search engines. I let those found texts and quotations inspire, influence, or infiltrate a poem written for the day. As the project took shape, it became part poetic journal recording my days as well as the Dow’s. I’ve published a chaplet of these poems. Now I am working on completing a full-length manuscript under the working title $INDU or Ghost Numbers. You can find examples of individual poems published here and here.

DH: The concern with capital is not confined to that series; in my reading, it seems to permeate a lot of your work. For example, here are some lines from your new book, Utopia Minus: “What a coin we could make from Walt Whitman’s soft eyes!” “O Sunglass Hut, we hardly knew you!” “window screens / taking on gold, an inheritance…” So, when I introduced you recently for a reading at our house in Buffalo, I talked about Keats and the idea that his keen mimetic ability helped him sense the way the early Industrial Age was seeping into and altering his environment. And how this is really woven into his poems. I wonder if you could talk about this more subtle “economic” thread in your poetry.

SB: I wanted to write about the post-industrial landscapes that were so familiar to me having grown-up in New Jersey. Living in Austin, Texas, I started to notice a different kind of disposable real estate: not empty factories but abandoned strip-malls or a half-constructed office building (what was going to be the Intel headquarters) that “rose into ruin” to quote Robert Smithson. They tell a story about booms and bust in a much more tangible and eloquent way than the closing number of the Dow. But they often don’t receive much of our attention. When I started looking it seemed there were ruins everywhere, not the ruins of war or natural disaster, but the ruins of late capitalism: abandoned factories, commercial spaces, foreclosed homes. Those ruins and their narrative became the scaffolding for Utopia Minus.

In addition, I think when you come from a middle- to working-class background you think about money in a different way than folks who come from more privileged backgrounds. I feel very lucky about my economic situation, but I don’t have wealth. And that creates vulnerability as well as awareness. Maybe that vulnerability influences perspective: you see how economics like a window screen can color everything.

DH: What about lyricism? That same poem I referenced (in part) above, “Scrap Metal,” contains some lush description, and I particularly admire the precise but unostentatious use of verbs in the poem:

Dusk pales
at its hemline.

Copper light scores the westside of my chokeberry tree;
rush-hour trafficopters
buzz over live oaks, ignorant to how much weight these branches might hold.

I feel like there is a persistent lyricism—which I guess I would define as pretty word-sounds and imagery—but it’s also contained; almost never do you seem to use figurative language, and even in the above passage, we’re not free from “trafficopters” and their buzzing.

SB: I admire a precision of image that I trace back to the haiku masters and certainly the Imagists. The haiku masters are also models for having a poetic viewfinder that notes both big seasonal change and house spiders. Smithson, too, challenged our notion of what art could be: what belonged in a museum, what consisted of a monument. I like that pushing of boundaries. I think the lyric can hold a lot. It is also important to me to make art that “defamiliarizes,” that shocks us out of our habitual modes of perception, to quote the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky. I try to remain open to beauty from a wide range of places (the county dump, the construction site) and to accept that beauty as it comes often cut with “trafficopters” or high voltage wires or shift whistles.

DH: In addition to what’s been noted above, there are some other threads that run through this book: Olson, Melville, General Sherman… I wonder if you approach a book of poems in a project-oriented way, in response to reading and research you may be doing? And what specifically drew you to these figures, alongside the Civil War and post-bellum references that resurface in different poems?

SB: My thinking about ruins became a scholarly as well as a lyric project. I wanted to understand how “ruins” (by which I mean abandoned buildings fallen into some amount of disrepair) function in the American imaginary. We associate ruins with the “old world” of Europe. And yet there’s a history of ruins in the United States. You can start with the images of great ruined cities in the South after the Civil War. You can follow that through waves of development and reconstruction. Capitalism seeks to remake the landscape with such speed there is a constant building and tearing down, destruction and redevelopment, until the flow of capital sputters or stops.

The scholarly project then offered a series of ideas that I was able to explore lyrically through the poems of Utopia Minus. In a sense, Olson is obviously one of the patron saints of any long-term intellectual poetic project. I take very seriously his call in “A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn” to “dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other.” I don’t know if I succeeded….but I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about ruins, memory, economics, and national narratives.

Melville, obviously, is also relevant when thinking about the long investigation. And Melville like Whitman records the important process of nation building. Looking at Civil War photographs for the ruins, initially, really got me thinking about nation building and myth making: Whitman and Melville both seem important contributors to that process.

DH: “‘Sex is difficult,’ Rilke explains.” You quote him in “Dear Mr. Surgeon General.” I believe, given the other Rilke quote in this poem, but correct me if I’m wrong, it’s from the Notebooks. First, was Rilke another touchstone for you in this project? Second, this hints at a theme that begins to take on more prominence as the book goes along: Eros, love, sex. “What a time, then, to be an American in love!” you write in “Dear Madam Secretary of Homeland Security.” A later poem begins, “Come autumn, we find a new way / to fuck.” Talk about the “difficulty” of sex (and love), more particularly writing about it, and in what ways (perhaps, taking a cue from Rilke) it’s bound up with distance and loss.

SB: Actually the Rilke is from the Letters to a Young Poet. I was admiring the intimacy and range of those letters and all of their concern for love, art, and distance. If there’s a sense of loss or longing in my epistolary, there’s also a longing for the kinds of relationship that existed between a poet and a mentor in Rilke’s historical moment. I’ve had some terrific mentors in my life, but—and here’s where economics comes back in—at a time when many of them are juggling a writing career and an academic career (if they are lucky) I don’t think we have the time or luxury for those kinds of long correspondences.

The difficulties of sex…yes…hmmm… I think I’ll stick to the difficulties of writing about sex—per se—or romantic love. My interest lies in the process of reconstituting what’s “romantic” (lowercase “r”) finding a new vocabulary for describing the erotic. There’s been a lot of writing about sex that takes its inspiration from the natural world. I was interested in exploring what happens when we make “erotic” poetry from a combination of chainsaws and earthmovers.

DH: And here, too, the movement of the first part of the book seems reversed in a way. Instead of Capitalism creeping into poems that are almost pastoral in their descriptions, we have these formally addressed political-seeming poems, into which a sensuality kind of sneaks in. Was this a conscious design on your part? And on a slightly different tack, talk about the genesis of these “formal address” prose pieces (“Dear Mr. Surgeon General,” etc.) and how they seem undercut with all kinds of intimacy, personal reference, and so on.

SB: I was wondering who might be my Rilke. (My poem “A Letter to Eileen Myles” explores that question in another way.) I was thinking about the relationship between power and intimacy as well. When I began writing these poems, we were in the midst of the Bush presidency, the beginning of the Iraq war. Like many Americans, I began to doubt my actual agency in the political system. This administration was making decisions in the name of the American people without regard to the opinion of many of us.

There’s a wonderful quote from a high-ranking Bush administration official from an interview with the journalist Ron Suskind published in The New York Times:

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.

And I thought: let’s pretend that these bureaucrats who act like they know everything and want to control everything really have both that knowledge and power. If they want to pour their policies into every aspect of my life as if they know what’s best, maybe they do. Tell me about love, National Security Adviser. Bring it. Obviously, it’s absurd. I did send the letters to their corresponding officials during the Bush administration, but no one ever wrote me back.

As in the Dow poems, I am also very interested in using the lyric as a place to frame our intimacies within the political and economic systems, which weigh so heavy upon us. So I get pleasure out of seeing the title “Dear Mr. Director of a Census Bureau” hang over a lyric that attempts to understand my own birth. In that way, the concerns of that series go beyond any one administration. Again, it is a question of delineating a relationship of power, of showing the scaffolding of a larger social economic structure.

DH: Another thing I admire about your poetry is that you seem utterly unafraid to write the long poem. And even the longer prose poem. Longer lines, longer poems. But also the occasional short poem, such as “At the Lake.” We’ve already touched on Olson, but I wonder if there are other poets who’ve influenced you in terms of form and length of line and verse.

SB: Certainly Olson is a model, not only for the long poem, but for the kind of lyric investigation in which I am most interested. Eileen Myles is model both for the long poem and for writing about economics as is Alice Notley. There’s a ton to learn from the New York School—look at Schuyler if you want to think about observation and the lyric—but I think the second generation New York School writers offer really important work that grapples with poetry and economics.

For the short poem, I look to Jean Valentine, Joanne Kyger, and Hoa Nguyen. There’s a lot still to learn there—especially about the line.

I’m also a sucker for prose. I love the sentence. That’s kind of a new development.

When I was writing my first book, Pioneers in the Study of Motion, I was really interested in the fragment. After six years in Mexico, there were many stories I wanted to tell, but I knew I was writing in the complicated wake of many other traveler/writers. Instead of trying to tell a story—to offer a version of Mexico—I found myself thinking about the field note: non-linear, observation-based, provisional and speculative—much like the best poems. Rosmarie Waldrop writes: “The glint of light on the cut, this spark given off by the edges is what I am after.” In many of the poems of Pioneers in the Study of Motion, I wanted to use juxtaposition to create sparks like those you see in the contact between two metals—the conquers’ sword and warriors’ shield—or the smoke sometimes observed when the wheels of a plane touch down on the runway. I hoped juxtaposition would draw the reader’s attention to the poem’s surface lest they be fooled into believing they might actually be seeing Mexico rather than a glimpse of my mind.

Before I started writing the poems that would become Utopia Minus, I was reading WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. In that book, Sebald proposes to take readers on walks through the English countryside, but actually he creates a journey through syntax and thought and history. Likewise, I wanted my poems to start from a fixed place—a building (often abandoned), a batholith in the Texas Hill Country—but I wanted to challenge myself as to the intellectual distance I could traverse without resorting to collage. I wanted to walk through these thoughts. I love falling asleep somewhere over Kansas and waking up on the tarmac in San Francisco. But I also relish the process of taking things mile by mile, word by word, to notice every historical marker, strip mall, roadside curiosity, to savor every preposition, verb, clause.

DH: And how does your own poetry training perhaps feed into this—I know you did a PhD in poetics at UT-Austin, but I’m not sure about your study, formal or otherwise, prior to that.

SB: I lived in Mexico City during the 1990s, where I had the great fortune of working with the poet Roberto Tejada. He and his magazine, Mandorla, really opened up the American (by which I mean from the Americas) avant garde for me. When I left Mexico, I ended up in Miami and stumbled into the MFA program at Florida International University. I was still in the process of coming out to myself as a poet, and from the perspective of my working class background, the MFA seemed like an incredible indulgence. It was the only MFA program to which I applied.

I was so fortunate to end up there with the poet Campbell McGrath, an incredibly savvy and generous teacher. His first book of poem is called Capitalism, so it is not hard to see where I became inspired to write about economics. His third book, Spring Comes to Chicago, includes the 63-page “Bob Hope Poem,” which is one part Ashbery’s “The Skaters,” one part documentary poetics in its investigation of consumerism, the real estate market, the myths of America etc. It’s really an amazing feat. I think my interest in documentary poetics began there—although I wasn’t calling it that when I first read it, and I don’t know that he would call it that even now.

DH: This leads to your immediate poetic community and environment. Clearly, a lot of poems mention Farid (Matuk), your husband and a fellow poet. The two of you met in Austin while you were both students at UT, if I’m not mistaken. There was a burgeoning poetry scene that sprang up around UT, as well as Hoa Nguyen and Dale Smith, who were still publishing Skanky Possum, and Scott Pierce, of Effing Press—all of you were (and are) fast friends, and I was lucky enough to return to Texas at the tale end of that era. To what extent was that circle, the art and poetry being created by those folks, and the other poets you may have exposed each other to, important to the work you’ve done since?

SB: What was happening in Austin happened outside of the university. I think there’s value to literature or creative writing programs, but poets also have to learn how to be in the world outside of an institution. Poets need to learn how to be part of a larger conversation. Dale, Hoa, Farid, and Scott—as poets, publishers, curators of reading series, and essayists—were models for me. Their work in all of those areas inspired me. It was like I was doing another PhD on the side, a PhD with a lot of tequila. I am still learning from them.

DH: Now you and Farid are married, you have a daughter, Gianna, and you’ve moved to Dallas, where you teach at UT-Dallas. There is a palpable sort of loss (it seems to me) registered in this book around that move, as well as an effort to find the beauty and eros and interest in your new locale. Lately, you’ve been reunited with an old poetic comrade, Roberto Tejada, there, and I gather there is a growing poetic community in Dallas as well. How has all this—the family, the move, your academic position, the Dallas scene—further informed your writing?

SB: I don’t know if the loss is personal. My life is very rich in many ways. I can get nostalgic about Austin because of the great community we had there, but I am happier now or happy in a different way. I have a lot more ground under my feet, a stronger sense of economic, emotional, and artistic security. It is the kind of security that allows one to take risks in art.

The loss registered in Utopia Minus comes from a placelessness I find in Dallas, but I think is evident in much of the American landscape. Dallas is a city that doesn’t show a very pretty public face: on the surface it’s Target, Best Buy, Wal-Mart. When you linger you start to notice snowy egrets floating like awkward angels, monarch butterflies on their way to Mexico, a big old radio tower near downtown, the abandoned hotel, an empty cobalt blue restaurant across the street from the dive bar named Ships.

Like many American cities, Dallas hasn’t figured out how to talk about its own history. It’s a complicated one especially in regard to race. That lack of history contributes to a sense of loss, but it also creates a kind of freedom. Austin has a real sense of itself as a refuge for old-hippies and young hipsters, but that narrative has become a kind of branding (“Keep Austin Weird” ) that prevents Austin from seeing some of the more complicated issues of its past and present. With Dallas, the story is still being written and that is liberating.

DH: Finally, this is your second book with Ahsahta, after Pioneers in the Study of Motion several years ago. That kind of relationship with a press is pretty rare these days. I wonder if you could close by saying a few words about Ahsahta and your experience working with them on two different projects now.

It has been a great gift working with Janet Holmes at Ahsahta. She’s not only a fantastic editor and incredibly smart about the publishing business, but she’s an amazing poet. (See: F2F and Ms of My Kin for a sense of the intelligence and diversity of her work.) In every part of the publishing process, I had the privilege of collaborating with someone who cares for the poems line by line. When we were working on Pioneers, she sent a first set of galleys with the explanation that she thought Futura would be a good typeface for the titles because of its association with William Carlos Williams. Swoon.

I am going to start a fundraising project to clone Janet. Then we can still get more books from Ahsahta and more poems from her.

In all seriousness, this brings me back to economics. So much of the best poetry that is happening today comes from people like Janet who have always worked incredibly hard and are working harder still in the grip of the Great Recession. But I don’t know how long we can continue to count on these extraordinary efforts. We are all tired and working too hard and worrying about our job security and our health insurance and the kinds of opportunities that will be left to our kids. But on top of all of that heavy lifting, we have to imagine a different economic future. We must refuse to accept the narrow possibilities offered by our current political and economic system. If we the poets, researchers, rabble-rousers can’t imagine it, who will?

***

from Utopia Minus:

Isabella

The problem is that I always want two
things at once: to linger on Egyptian cotton sheets
and to be up at my desk hard drive whirring;
to sit on the dock dangling my feet in Eagle Lake
and simultaneously writing you this letter
about the ripples I send clear to the far bank,
how my toes hang above reeds and tadpoles,
about the family of geese that came on shore
yesterday afternoon and shit everywhere.

I am learning to row. Winds blow from the west.
An oar can act as brake or motor.
The ribs of the boat make a cradle.

Last night’s sleep was shallow, and I dreamt
I flung myself over a group of children
with arms spread until my winter jacket
opened to wings. Men torched
parked cars. Police hurled grenades
across a street. And while we huddled
behind a Gap advertisement near a subway
entrance, my rather ran towards
the barricades calling
another woman’s name.

*

3000 Block Kings Ln–Demolished Apartment Complex

central set of 8 steps to the courtyard,
small rock garden,
kidney-shaped pool, 8 feet deep,
blue flox, purple crepe myrtle,
white plastic laundry basket
in a parking lot beyond the cyclone fence
Apartments for Rent
1-3 Months Free Avignon Realty
,
railroad ties, cracked foundation,
It’s all George’s fault in black spray paint,
and black-eyed Susans
to which I feel no relation

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