Owing to technology's accessibility and the sort of compressed sense of time we all feel as extremely busy/important/modern people, I conducted this interview with Geoffrey G. O'Brien via e-mail. What follows is an illuminating response to this accessibility and compression and its effect on the world of contemporary poetry as it expands or possibly [hinders--this word sucks but I can't think of a better one] it. O'Brien decided to reply to my last and fourth question first: questions 1-3 follow..Gillian Hamel.
Gillian Hamel: You seem to keep a lower profile than many contemporary poets in terms of giving or attending readings and lectures, putting out blogs or criticism, and generally maintaining a public persona. What are your thoughts on the role of the poet as a figure in the artistic community against or alongside just being an artist?
Geoffrey G. O'Brien: I want to start with your last question first, in part bc the ambivalence I feel around the fact/question of public presence has made me late in responding to this interview form, despite your great questions and the good feeling that surrounds the Studio One series. I've been reluctant to produce much of a net footprint (blog/comment-fielding/interviews, etc.) bc I'm paralytically aware of what good intentions can devolve into on the web, a space, like every other cultural space capital permits and maintains, that's characterized by brevity and disposability and by the reaction-attributes that accompany brevity and disposability: speed, loudness and, often, aggression, contempt, caricature, branding, etc. It's not that I don't think mutual regard and atelic inquiry can happen in the thereless there, they do, but not often enough and not thoroughly enough for me to see it as a peculiarly exciting public space for thinking about poetry with others. And it's hard for me to risk thought about poetry with such uncertainty about fellowship.
I guess I'm saying the web doesn't feel like much more of a public space than any of the other spaces that are supposed to pass for a commons--is there really anything inherent in its technology and protocols that should make it more likely to sustain regenerate exchange? Its main difference from meeting for coffee is bodilessness, which it shares with other material modes of writing (codex, graffiti), and its main difference from other material modes of writing is the speed and width of its transmission. And it's those last things, a speed and width of dissemination, that usually get talked up as features of a coming community but which to me are also its most traducing features, allowing narcissism and tastemaking to cloak themselves in generosity, care for a nationless commonweal, etc. I don't like thought to be paired with speed outside the joke, I don't like it to become rigid pronouncement anywhere, and I don't like what happens to people when they think a huge audience is listening (or, just as bad, think it could and should be listening but isn't or isn't yet). Beyond the Internet, the question becomes more about what moves me enough to venture thought, with venture and moves indicating both how seriously I take speaking about poetry and also how timid I can be about doing it. I've come out of the woodwork a few times for Palmer and Ashbery while mostly avoiding weighing in on the work of my contemporaries, either bc they're my friends or bc I don't feel like I have the distance to be useful.
Poetry is the public speech I most want to offer. I guess I worry that surrounding it with other forms too easily becomes intercessory or self-promotional, becomes *only* social rather than public. But I'm happy to register this as a private hygienic fear rather than a public fact to which others have to assent, and I hope to make myself uncomfortable about this opinion over time.
GH: Your last book, Green and Gray, seems to bring the sociopolitical bent of The Guns and Flags Project into a more personal, "you and I" atmosphere. Can you talk about what you’re working on now, and if it engages these same themes, or if it takes off into different terrain?
GGOB: Both of those books offer a brevity of figure (a thinking of the rate of its decay) and a musicality that have to do for me with imagining noninstrumental relations between persons and between persons and things--that's the politics they want from within the politics they have. You're right that Green and Gray's flight from personality doesn't as often preclude First Person or address to the Second, and that the first person is often more difficult to distinguish from my life-situation and the sense experience I record here in Oakland and Berkeley. I wanted to counter the first book's angry pastoral, its deliberate omission of the damaging equipment of the modern, with less possible-worlds-building; instead, more pointing at the already built in all its unfortunateness and the little streaks of the better than that.
The collection I've just finished (a few days ago) is unfamiliarly allocated (3 of its poems comprise 59 of its 87 pages), more liable to a mimesis of casual speech, and much less allergic to proper nouns and explicit reference. I'm so given to abstraction that I might as well not start there and instead see what happens when resolute particulars like street and missile names are hoovered up into the machine of their cohabiting. The book ends in a 40 page prose poem written in an emphatic iambic rhythm that records the falling of verse into prose (the embarrassment of meter) and along the way thinks a bunch of other passages between putative opposites (New York-California, communism-capitalism, workweek-weekend, subject-predicate, etc.). To return to the question of speed I mentioned in relation to netspeak--this poem, called "Metropole," is massive, ponderous, slow, demanding, archaic sound obtruding through contemporary terms--I don't console myself with or even want an ideal, tireless reader who would take it on in a single sitting. It's meant to be returned to, dropped again, maybe even abandoned. I increasingly tend to think of Valery's chestnut "A poem is never finished, only abandoned" as as much about reading as first composition.
GH: Your poems tend to avoid the kind of ending that makes a big sort of fanfare effort to subvert or validate what the poem has been working toward. Instead, they often behave as if the ending is an interpretive choice rather than a necessity; for example, the poem “Several Endless Statements” addresses this outright as it trails off with a repetition that is almost an afterthought: “chagrined would be the word,” as if the speaker’s train of thought could continue if there were more room on the page. What's your view of the last lines of the poem as a space for explicating or contradicting the thus-far-established narrative or mechanics of the poem?
GGOB: As you know, I'm obsessed with formal closure, with what Barbara Herrnstein Smith calls "terminal modification"--that mutation or abdication of the poem's procedures that announces it won't go on forever, the machine is breaking down or up, etc. I'm fascinated by this for many reasons, some of which would be: 1) bc I can't believe people keep doing it, can't believe that pattern break keeps affording pleasure (but it does), 2) bc I'm interested in the moment where the poem has to enjamb on world (both the material world and the fact of the rest of the past and present of language use), where its utterance and work-internal relations must also abut everything else, where the fact of page or screen reacquires solidity and depth, etc. and 3) wait there is no 3.
However, I also like writing against that common method of handling ends (relying on it to happen elsewhere) by thinking instead of a poem's close as a last instance of what it does everywhere else rather than emphasizing finish as a special region in the poem. This petering out or trailing off can then happen even if one doesn't make use of actual repetition--you have merely the last term of a finite series you couldn't apprehend until it went terminal, an endless statement that still stops. But this less fanfaring way of closing is, as I said, reliant on more emphatic closure's happening elsewhere and elsewhen--that expectation of pattern-abdication is so dominant that to instead offer pattern's last instance is still to participate in closure's traditional economy. Lastly, it's only apparently less loud--its quiet is loud, its loudness is its departure from typical loudness, etc. When Keats ends a sonnet "Silent, upon a peak in Darien" he makes the line's (and poem's) final beat, which is usually its loudest, even louder bc of how much effort it requires to raise "en" from silence into prominence.
I think it might be more accurate to say that I used to be very loud in one way at poem's close (in Guns and Flags), as loud as rhyme even, but that I've been getting quieter over the course of subsequent work, or differently prominent, renouncing the end as a place in which to dramatize the establishing of formal demise but unable to elude the audible drama of a certain renunciation.
GH: There's talk that the very dense, developed, language-oriented style of John Ashbery and his contemporaries is giving way to a more imagistic or perhaps surrealist style. How do you feel about the existence of such distinct "schools" of writing and the transitions between them, and the validity of organising one’s poetics in such a way?
GGOB: I hate that kind of belonging and border-policing and I'm entirely suspicious of attempts to identify it (suspicious both of the power to see such formations and of the motives behind efforts to see that way) while loving some of the writing that can come from those who so self-identify.
Gillian Hamel’s poetry has been published by The Trainwreck Union and in Sorry IV Snake. She has also given editorial assistance for fellow writers, local publishers, and the grammatically impaired. She currently works transcribing interviews and news reports on the misdeeds and shenanigans of America’s financial institutions, and will begin pursuing an MFA in creative writing at St. Mary’s in the fall.
Geoffrey G. O’Brien is the author of Green and Gray (2007) and The Guns and Flags Project (2002), both from The University of California Press, and coauthor (in collaboration with the poet Jeff Clark) of 2A (Quemadura, 2006). He teaches verse writing and literature in the English Department at UC Berkeley and at San Quentin State Prison.
Come check out O'Brien read tonight at 730 at Studio One Arts Center with Mike Young and Film Artist Jake Gillespie.