Monday, November 30, 2009
MATTHEW HENRIKSEN INTERVIEWS JANE GREGORY
MATTHEW HENRIKSEN: Your poems seem to come from a place inside the brain that speaks; though cerebral, that voice seems more concerned with musicality than explanation. What do you think about when you’re writing?
JANE GREGORY: I’m not sure I will be able to answer this question. While I am sure that I must be thinking while I’m writing, I’m not sure it’s the kind of thinking that takes an object, that there is any thinking about going on. The kind of thinking that happens during writing feels more like trying thinking. Like trying to think in noise, make noise thinkable, or make noise the material thoughts are made of. It probably goes both ways. While I do not actually hear voices, sometimes writing a poem feels like trying to understand voices that are just distant enough to be indiscernible. Sort of the way the neighbors are, even when they are loud. I can hear what the thoughts sound like and then the business of writing the poem becomes a kind of trying to say the thoughts the noise is trying to think in order to impersonate noise’s thoughts. That description sounds either like bullshit or like madness. But we know that poets are very often wrong about their own work, so there is my first wrong answer.
MH: Does the voice in your poems come automatically, or is there some process out of which the voice emerges?
JG: I don’t really know what voice is. I know that some of my poems are more “voicey” than others and those are the ones that I’m most comfortable reading out loud in front of other people. Those poems also often tend to be the ones with regular punctuation, which makes me wonder what the grammar of voice is or if there is one. I hope that voice isn’t exactly personality and that it isn’t exactly style or signature. I think it’s important that poems are transparently trying to communicate to other people and maybe voice is what we call that quality of feeling like we’re being communicated to or spoken to. Maybe voice is always interrogative. Tell me more about what voice is and I can tell you if it’s automatic or if emerges out of a process?
MH: I mean by voice exactly how you define it, the quality of speaking or being spoken to, or at least the quality of some sort of speaking, even if to the self or to a wall. I don’t mean that voice has to imply a personality, but it does imply a person. Sometimes poems are merely made of words and don’t point back to a source. I wonder how the sort of language that adheres itself to a speaker occurs. Can you explain whether that voice is something that naturally comes to you or something you have to discover?
JG: I guess I would like to combine both of the possibilities you’ve offered here. I think that voice comes naturally, but by coming naturally, it necessarily comes through a process— the process of trying to discover what there is to say or trying to discover a way of saying what there is. So, it’s natural but not effortless, and that effort is the adhesive that binds language to a person. Communicating is difficult and I tend to like poetry that manifests that difficulty and the effort it requires. (Poetry that grunts?) I’d like to learn how to write in a voice that points as much to a receiver as to a speaker.
MH: Do you think of the page as a formal constraint? Can you explain how you interact with the page during composition?
JG: Sure, in the way that any formal constraint, if it is working, is a tool. If I’m being honest, I interact with the page in large part through the screen that mediates between the page the poem began on and the one it will end up on. I work from hand written notes and so when I am writing the poem, the vertical page (or whatever the screen is) is a way of organizing the relationships between units in the poem—those units are sometimes single words, lines, stanzas etc. I am terrible at math, but I want to say that if space is used primarily going down the page (between lines or stanzas) it is operating like division, subtraction or addition. Maybe multiplication too but that’s much harder, maybe impossible. If space is being used across the page, (between words or if there are several columns of lines or phrases) it is establishing equations not between the terms but in time. When I use the horizontal space of the page, sometimes it’s to try and play around with simultaneity. Of course it’s impossible, because we read from left to right and from up to down, but it’s fun to try and play with space and see if I can deprioritize things for the reader, so that things are competing for attention and priority. I also think that space on the page is important for when we stop reading. Things we need to pay attention to aren’t always already consolidated for us in the world, we have to cross several types of distances to make sense of things.
MH: What is the relationship of a poem’s sound and its arrangement on the page?
JG: When the page helps to establish correspondences and resemblances in sound I think it makes the reader more necessary for the poem’s completion. When we first learn to read we do so by sounding out the phonemes until they make a recognizably meaningful unit, usually a word. Using the page to emphasize that sounding out allows the reader to make meaning accumulate. So if you put the word “intuition” above or beside the phrase “in to it,” intuition defines itself by way of sound. That’s a silly example. In the essays, “Notes on the Structure of Rime” and “The Truth and Life of Myth,” Duncan talks about some of this much better than I can.
MH: You are writing prose poems now. What are the disadvantages of writing in prose?
JG: That sounds like a loaded question. Maybe the first disadvantage is that if you are like me, when you pick up a book of poems you’ve never read and you flip through the pages you might not read the prose poems right away. But I think a good prose poem can have a variety of lengths and paces in it, just like a lineated poem can. It is harder to make a prose poem contain the spaces needed to let lines or sentences “breathe” or be absorbed by the reader. Because I’m writing prose poems right now, I’d rather not think about this question at length. I have a friend named Geoff Hilsabeck who was writing these wonderful prose poems but he insisted on calling them paragraphs instead of prose poems because for him a prose poem had to be lyrical. By lyrical he didn’t just mean musical; he also meant that the prose poem had to engage with the kind of address we think of as the lyric address, either a troubled or untroubled lyric address. As someone who values both the music of a poem and the kind of ‘you’ that the poem tries to make, maybe that is a disadvantage of a prose poems. I can’t imagine Celan (whose you is the best you) writing too many prose poems.
MH: Has theory, or any other recent readings, influenced your writing in unexpected ways?
JG: My first answer is: I hope not in any detrimental ways. I’m in graduate school now, and I hadn’t anticipated how disturbed I am by how often theory effaces or mutilates the object it tries to explain, especially when that object is poetry or any other art form. Being in school has made me really careful about not making my poems do theory. I don’t want my poems to be able to demonstrate any theory, or at least not until I come up with a theory. I do think poetry has a really complex and interesting relationship to philosophy, but I don’t think that good poems can ever really listen to theory, even when it’s theory by a poet, even when it’s poetics. If you try to use A Vision to read Yeats’ poems, you will probably screw up the poems.
MH: You have broad tastes in books, cinema, music, cracks in the sidewalk, hot dogs stands, and so forth. What has gotten the mixer in your brain turning recently?
JG: Right now, I feel really protective of what I’ve been reading so I’m going to be vague. In part, that’s because instead of doing my PhD homework I read other things that are incredibly unfashionable in PhD school. For school I am reading a good deal of critical theory and poetics texts, but I often pretend that I’m a spy. As a spy I read short stories I loved as a teenager, books about death and attitudes, poetry, the dictionary, a variety of mystical texts, all while listening to loud and strange music and eating fake hot dogs because I live in California now.
Matthew Henriksen is the author of Another Word from DoubleCross Editions Single Sheet Series and Is Holy from horse less press. He co-edits Typo, publishes Cannibal Books, and hosts The (now irregular and locationless) Burning Chair Readings.
Jane Gregory's poems have appeared in Absent Magazine, Cannibal, The Hat, Notnostrums, Soft Targets, Typo, and elsewhere. Cannibal Books published a chapbook in 2007. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona and is currently a PhD student in English at UC Berkeley.