JOSEPH MASSEY: Tell us more about your forthcoming book Money Shot. There are several connotative layers there. Peel some of them back?
RAE ARMANTROUT: First, these poems were written during 2008-2009, the "Great Recession," so, of course, market manipulation, reckless greed, and the damage it does were on my mind. That's the literal "money" in money shot. In porn, the money shot is the one that shows the male orgasm. It's evidence—or it pretends to be evidence—of satisfaction. It's what they want you to see. The title prepares you, I hope, to examine the evidence critically.
There's a poem in the book called "Money Shot" which starts out by playing around with the name of one of the first banks that failed: IndyMac. Anyway, as soon as I gave the poem that title, I thought I'd like to use it for the book as well. I hesitated for awhile but I couldn't get the temptation out of my mind—so I did it.
JM: How has the landscape of southern California shaped your poetry? Do you ever long for other landscapes?
RA: It would be easy to come up with some reductive response such as that my poems are sparse because the landscape where I live is semi-arid or some such. But I don't really believe that. When Eileen Myles was here, though, she said she really "got" my poetry for the first time. She meant that there's a kind of isolation in southern California—which is such a car culture—that she also sensed in my work. You often see glimpses of things in passing. She thought my poems were composed of such glimpses. I don't know.
There are things I really like about the landscape here. One is that you can see great distances often. The sky is always a big part of the view. The terrain is rolling hills and canyons covered with brush. To the east there are mountains and on the other side a real desert. There's a lot of light.
Do I ever long for other landscapes? Well, yes. This summer we're going on a long car trip around the West, stopping at Zion and Grand Tetons. Lately I'm enamored by Seattle, the way it sits low on the water, the way it's surrounded by snow capped peaks. I'm a kind of landscape-whore actually.
JM: When I read one of your poems that ends without a period, which occurs frequently throughout your books, I imagine the poem is on a loop—a sculpted echo chamber—an Ouroboros of words. So, when you do end a poem with a period, what is its significance to you? How much does it weigh?
RA: That's interesting because I have more often been asked why I sometimes leave off the final period. Just flipping through Versed I see that such poems as "What We Mean," "Had," "Concentrate," "Hey" etc. have no final period. I'd say it's just about half and half. Sometimes I want a definite sounding statement at the end. In other cases, I want the statement to trail off rather uncertainly. Of course, even when the poem ends with what sounds like some pronouncement, that doesn't necessarily mean that I'm convinced of its truth. It's more like, "What happens if I declare such and such to be the case."
JM: Do you have an active dream life? Do you ever lucidly dream? Do you return to the same places/spaces in your dreams?
RA: I'm aware of dreaming every night. Some nights I remember a dream vividly, but more often I don't. I know that my dreams are full of chatter, full of voices. From what I read, I don't think that's necessarily true of everyone's dreams. Dreams fascinate me because in a sense they are little plays we make up for ourselves. We're the directors and the audience—and we're a good audience too because we almost always suspend disbelief.
In terms of lucid dreaming, I seem to have some control over my dreams. For instance, I don't really ever have nightmares. If a dream starts to get too disturbing, I generally wake up before anything too bad happens. Or sometimes the scary parts will be put at a distance somehow, happening to a character who doesn't appear to be me, for instance.
Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had a number of sad or ominous dreams. I recorded some of them in Versed. Examples would be the 4th section of "Later" and the last part of "Worth While." If you read those sections now, I think you can see that I was giving myself a warning.
JM: Are you superstitious?
RA: Well, I'm not afraid of black cats or anything—but I do take note of coincidences. That is at the root of superstition, I think, and also at the root of poetry. I've had experiences that felt uncanny. For instance, as I told you, I had dreams shortly before my cancer diagnosis that seemed to foretell death. That's probably why you asked me this question. I think our senses pick up all kinds of things that, for whatever reason, don't enter our conscious minds. I'm interested in the things we know without knowing it. That kind of shadow knowledge is uncanny.
Joseph Massey was born in Chester, Pennsylvania and has spent the past nine years in Arcata, California. His latest books are Areas of Fog (Shearsman, 2009), The Lack Of (Nasturtium Press, 2009), Mock Orange (Longhouse, 2010) and Exit North (Book Thug, 2010). Work is forthcoming in the journal A Public Space and the anthology Visiting Dr. Williams: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of William Carlos Williams (University of Iowa Press).
Wesleyan will publish Rae Armantrout’s next collection, Money Shot, in June of 2011. Armantrout’s most recent book, Versed (Wesleyan, 2009), was a finalist for the National Book Award, and was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Next Life (Wesleyan, 2007), was chosen as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by The New York Times. Other recent books include Collected Prose (Singing Horse, 2007), Up to Speed (Wesleyan, 2004), The Pretext (Green Integer, 2001), and Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). Her poems have been included in anthologies such as American Hybrid (Norton, 2009), Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (1993), American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Language Meets the Lyric Tradition, (Wesleyan, 2002), The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford, 2006) and The Best American Poetry of 1988, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2008. Armantrout received an award in poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2007 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. She is Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, San Diego. Writing in Poetry magazine, Ange Mlinko has said, “I would trade the bulk of contemporary anecdotal free verse for more incisive, chilling poetry like Armantrout’s.