Sarah Rothberg: According to Amazon.com The Mandarin is a novel. Any thoughts about this categorization?
Aaron Kunin: I call it a novel too. I'm very proud of it.
SR: In Folding Ruler Star, you use parenthetical statements, sometimes in ways that break from the dominant syntax of the poem and sometimes in ways that seem as if they could be alternate continuations of the words that precede or follow. In some sense this creates a number of possible poems within each poem (some examples: the poem excluding the parentheticals, only the parentheticals, the whole poem straight through). Can you talk about the implications of the parenthesis in Folding Ruler Star.
AK: The parenthesis is conceived as a fold, a way of marking a division without making a cut. It indicates a relationship between parts, inside and outside. A lot of things could happen inside the parenthesis: a new speaker, an esoteric line of thought, a theatrical aside, a translation into intelligible language, a second poem running underneath and occasionally joining with the first one when it surfaces, and so on.
The parenthesis as a device is specific to these poems, but other poems have ways of doing the same thing. A poem "creates a number of possible poems," as you say very nicely, and reading usually means making some choices.
SR: I read some elements of your poems as silly (for example, in the poem “False Nativity” you write “the desk was/ terrified/ that I might sit on/ my glasses and what/ my bottom would see”). Does silliness play a role in your writing?
AK: Really? Silliness? Okay. There is something I like about that. I like for a poem to have an element that doesn't recur and isn't meaningful, that if it made you laugh you wouldn't be able to remember why afterwards, and that maybe one person in the world would find amusing. My writing might not be the first place to look for that element--I can think of other writers who are better at producing it.
Those lines about the desk are pretty serious. The glasses are on the desk, so in effect the desk is wearing the glasses, and the glasses are doing what they do, correcting the desk's vision. The desk gets a picture of something scary. How awful it would be if I sat on it. It wasn't made for sitting; it's not a chair. (The name for that in engineering, when you use something for a purpose for which it was not designed, is tool abuse.) Then, seated on the desk, I would be wearing the glasses again, but not with the part of me that sees. I guess the word "bottom," and treating it almost as an independent agent rather than part of me, does make it sound silly, and protects against some of the terror.
SR: Some of your poems share titles, which at once delineates them as separate poems, while nominally they are the same. Can you speak to the particular ways in which you see these poems with the same titles relating to each other?
AK: Yes. In Folding Ruler Star, the relationship between the inside and outside of each poem, however you interpret it, is reproduced in the relationship between pairs of poems. Again, two parts of a whole. Writing the poems was sort of like solving an algebra problem, where if you do something on one side of an equation you have to perform exactly the same operation on the other side.
The form of a poem really is a solution to a problem. So you keep finding the form until the problem goes away or the solution stops working. If you get the same answer every time, that helps to confirm that it was the right answer.
SR: You often apply multiple formal constraints, like meter and word-recycling, in your poems. What’s your reasoning when applying these constraints?
AK: I don't view form as constraining. What people mean by formal constraint is not completely wrong: in this world of change, where everything runs away from itself, form freezes things into definite shapes, allowing you to examine them. The phrase is misleading in that form is not really for stasis. It would be better to think of the form that a thing has as a funnel through which materials pass. Form packs things up so that you can move them around.
SR: You’ve been working on the Jack Spicer archives along with Kevin Killian. Has immersing yourself in Spicer’s poetry affected your own?
AK: I sometimes use the words "community" and "society" to mean something slightly odd. That is probably Spicer's influence. He talks about how a poem establishes a community. Poems are not just props for the social bonds that keep people together; they are members of the group. They are a society by themselves. That usage was reinforced for me by later reading (Berger, Arendt, Latour), but I first encountered it in Spicer.
Aaron Kunin is the author of Folding Ruler Star: Poems (Fence, 2005), and a novel, The Mandarin (Fence, 2008). Another collection, The Sore Throat and Other Poems, is forthcoming. He lives in Los Angeles.
Sarah Rothberg makes poetry, fiction, art, music, and the occasional short autobiography in the third person. Her writing can be found in recent issues of Cal Literary Arts Magazine, Berkeley Poetry Review, and hopefully some other places in the near future. Her music is available to listen to at myspace.com/thingspeoplesay and myspace.com/bigweirddutchpeople. Her art cannot be found.