Steffi Drewes: Let me start by saying that your two most recent books, Sight Map (University of California Press, 2009) and Pleasure (Ahsahta Press, September 2010), are testament to your expertise at creating vivid poetic terrains—both books contain a beautiful fusion of geographical, sexual, theological, and linguistic landscapes. Before addressing the Biblical garden paradise that is so central to Pleasure, I am wondering if there are any gardens or green spaces that figure prominently into your memory, specific landscapes that have either directly informed your writing or served as personal sanctuaries? You write with such a fierce attention to natural detail—and by fierce, I mean stunning.
Brian Teare: Thanks so much for your kind words about this recent work, Steffi—and for your own very fierce attention to it.
The first garden I knew must have been my mother’s: she had an L-shaped planter in the backyard that was all hers. But she was a mother of six, and anyway indifferent to plants, and so it never contained much more than a few straggly rose bushes, some low-maintenance perennials and bulbs bought from a catalog—crocuses, daffodils and the likes—a gesture toward the idea of a “garden,” and very little else.
But this was in rural Alabama. We lived on the edge of a small town; our house was largely bounded by pine forest, and I was not a boy given to boundaries. My affinity for the natural world started just past my mother’s half-hearted garden, where the forest, by closing in upon itself, opened onto another kind of horizon.
Mine was the kind of childhood that allowed for many unsupervised hours outdoors, and that was the greatest freedom I knew: the trails and trees and seasons of that place, unmediated by reason. I mean that I know that I loved the forest because I experienced it as entirely outside of “law”: it was a place where familial and religious orthodoxies didn’t follow.
Of course I have lived in and loved other places since, and Sight Map travels through many of them—the Susquehanna river of central Pennsylvania, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and Lake Merritt in Oakland—but as an adult I have been all too aware of the various kinds of law and/or order at work in structuring my experience of the natural world.
You might say that Sight Map records the collision of those two gestures at work in my relationship to the natural world: Romantic idealization (faith) and self-conscious critique (doubt). Transcendentalism meets post-structuralism.
SD: In your newest book, Pleasure, there is a three-part poem titled “Eden Tiresias” in which alternating lines of the first and second sections seem to be remarkably spliced together to create the third section. As soon as I finished this third part, I went back to read the first two again and could have read myself in circles, guessing which came first and intrigued by how seamlessly the first two sections functioned on their own and as a whole. Could you talk a bit about the structure of this poem, how it originated and evolved?
BT: Though Pleasure is foremost an elegy, it’s also an encounter with Gnostic thought—which I was in thrall to for the better part of a decade. I was and remain especially taken with the Gnostic tractate “The Thunder: Perfect Mind,” which both reifies the binary system upon which Gnosticism depends and destroys it through an insistence on paradox as basic to the structure of being. Given that many scholars believe the poem to be spoken by the feminine principle of wisdom—Sophia herself!—paradox would seem to reflect a gendered relationship to knowledge and to reality.
Paradox is a wholeness that acts like a fragment when we try to think about it. That’s what makes it so interesting. Even when we think we’re close to understanding something like “I am the honored one and the scorned one,” we encounter something like, “I am the barren one/and many are her sons.” Just as it seems possible to grasp, paradox always turns some part of itself away—sort of like the moon in its phases. A full moon doesn’t last long, but the light of comprehension is bright while it shines.
So that’s one significant half of the poem’s background. The other is the figure of Tiresias, whose condition seemed to me to be a lot like that of Sophia, but queer: he embodies knowledge gleaned from both sides of the binary. And if in some Gnostic myths Sophia visits the garden of Eden in the guise of the snake offering much-needed wisdom to Adam and Eve, snakes play a crucial role in Tiresias’ transformations—as Ovid tells us, snakes attended each transformation that allowed him to become her to become him.
To reveal how I wrote the poem might risk dispelling its magic, wouldn’t it? Basically, I wanted to write a poem whose form was paradox: binary but dialectical, discreet and chiasmatic. I set out to do so in a fairly methodical way—by which I mean I created a working solution to the technical problem of writing a poem whose two halves work on their own and together—but I’ll say that what I actually wrote, the content of the poem, surprised me: especially the prevalence of rage and refusal in the closure.
SD: This book, Pleasure, is so deeply personal and urgent and yet so intertwined with philosophical and religious narratives that have such cultural magnitude. In one of my favorite poems, “Dreamt Dead Eden,” you write “I walk the graveyard garden schemata.” I think that is such a telling expression of the speaker’s precarious position throughout the book, the straddling of two worlds related through paradox. And in the collection, there are so many other boundaries (binaries) that are explored: self/other, creation/destruction, life/death, knowledge/intuition, pleasure/pain, mind/body, entrapment/escape. Do you find yourself taking a similar philosophical approach in your recent or upcoming projects, or does the new work feel like a departure from that structure?
BT: I once had a teacher who told me that all of my poems were arguments—at the time I took this to mean quarrelsome or aggressive. I was, after all, writing explicitly queer poems set in and against traditional patriarchal family structure, which in my case was also highly religious and regionally inflected by Southern culture. But now I think I didn’t hear all the meanings she intended to set at play in the diagnostic word “arguments”: I think she meant it literally, as in the poems are structured by a rhetoric which is aimed against other rhetoric.
Which is a long way of saying I’ve long been aware both of the rhetorical and ideological contexts within which I was raised and those which have framed and informed much of my adult experience and writing. But rhetoric has its own music, evokes its own prosodic structures—as does counter-rhetoric. Hence the “graveyard garden schemata” by which the speaker is constrained but within which the speaker is also mobile. This structure seems generally true of all of my work. For instance, during the time I was writing Pleasure, I was certainly testing the general formlessness of my own experience of mourning against the received structures of Gnosticism—perhaps that’s my particular music, the counterpoint of mobility (or the illusion of mobility) against constraint.
If my new work differs philosophically from that of Pleasure—and it does—it’s first because Gnosticism no longer has the central importance it once held for me, and second because I’m testing my own experience against other systems of thought. It’s also because, though my own experience remains relevant to the poems, their structures are far less likely to be narrative—a combination of collage, prosodic and syntactical compression, and allegiance to aural improvisation rules my process of writing at this point. Probably my friends could paint a much better picture of the continuities and changes in my work than I can, but it seems fair to me to say that I remain that student writer who is always arguing with something.
SD: At one point, you speak of “the roar before order,” which struck me as a very dynamic line, one that could easily refer to the process of writing, to the process of grief, and of course, to the process of creation. Am I making a fair assessment?
BT: That line—from “Of Paradise and the Structure of Gardens”—was gesturing toward what it must have sounded like to be a priori : before names, before an understanding of the strictures imposed upon us by having a history. Biblical accounts of the garden posit naming as a good thing—evidence of man’s stewardship over beasts—but I love the idea of the garden before man as a kind of cultural pre-linguistic stage. It’s like trying to imagine Western Civ as an infant! But I take full advantage of the generally potent metaphoricity of the Biblical myth of Eden, assigning all sorts of tenors to its vehicle. For example: Pleasure posits the world before Jared’s death as a kind of Eden and his death as a kind of Fall. The snake here is not AIDS—the garden is not a conventional moral space—but rather the Gnostic spirit of Sophia. If we fall from union into wisdom, it is our only consolation, and it protects us from nostalgia, a harrowing affliction because our idea of origin is often so compelling. In the Biblical narrative “the roar before order” is the welter of the world in its purest Being; it’s a kind of chaos whose power is harnessed and briefly controlled by naming and divine sanction; the fall essentially returns us to a state in which the world is uncontrollable and does not answer to a name. Grief is like this, yes. And so, sometimes, is writing.
SD: Writing an elegy, especially a book-length elegy, would appear to be such an inherently daunting, yet therapeutic (and in some cases, necessary), task. What were your biggest fears about writing these poems, if you care to tell? Was there anything that you were most afraid of uncovering or discovering in this uncertain lands of Eden, ecstasy and intellect?
BT: I can’t say I had many worries when I first began writing these poems: I started the book in 2000, a year after Jared’s death, and I can’t say I thought much about what I was doing at first, a fact I attribute to grief. Even the recurrence of “Eden” in the poems at the beginning was incidental; once I had four or five it dawned on me that I was working on a sequence or group or poems. When the energy for those poems slackened off, I was worried about what to do with them; they seemed so unlike anything I’d written, yet they didn’t add up to anything on their own. Then in 2002 the “Californian” series began and the second half of the book began to open up in front of me. It took me until 2004 to write “To Other Light,” after which the book snapped shut behind me. It was only then that I began worrying about the book itself: that it’s too concerned with God and theology for most contemporary readers, that its two sections are too different aesthetically, that it’s too depressing.
But these were shallow and/or unfounded worries; the real ones suggested themselves soon enough. For ethical reasons, Jared’s story was largely not mine to tell—the narrative aspects of it, I mean. So I was worried that the poems would seem too involved in their own experience, not mournful enough of him in all of his specifics. On the one hand, this is not an unusual quality for an elegy, and is, in fact, almost a trope of the historical genre: both “Lycidas,” In Memoriam and Sonnets to Orpheus (among many other poems) eclipse the lives of those they mourn for. On the other, there’s the contemporary genre of AIDS elegy that the book participates in and honors—I’m thinking specifically of Paul Monette’s Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog and Mark Doty’s My Alexandria as well as Tory Dent’s harrowing series of auto-elegies Black Milk—and when measured against these books, Pleasure is largely less domestic and more mythic in its scale.
Though I was certainly inspired by books like Monette’s and Doty’s, my experience of Jared’s death was probably theological and spiritual first—the politics of it came in a close second. This blend of experience, theology and politics moved me to write into a register of language I found in elegy throughout its generic history, thus putting me into a very different conversation with the history of ideas than many of the contemporary books that had been most important to me—though I was constantly reinforced in my ambitions by Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates and John Taggart’s When the Saints. My basic desire was to forge a language in which I could fuse the mythic and the personal, rather than have to choose one over the other—.
The recipient of Stegner, National Endowment for the Arts, and MacDowell Colony poetry fellowships, Brian Teare is the author of The Room Where I Was Born, Sight Map, and Pleasure, as well as the chapbooks Pilgrim and Transcendental Grammar Crown. On the graduate faculties of Mills College and University of San Francisco, he lives in San Francisco, where he also makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.
Steffi Drewes was born in Iowa. Her poems have recently appeared in New American Writing, Parthenon West Review, Bombay Gin, Shampoo and Monday Night, and her manuscript, Her Wingspan In Inches, was a finalist for the 2010 Cleveland State University Poetry Center FirstBook Award. She lives in the East Bay and is a contributing editor for MAKE: A Chicago Literary Magazine.