Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Conversation: David Koehn and Dean Rader

"A line is a dot that went for a walk." 
 -Paul Klee 
poetry & the twittering machine

("I ruin poems by getting in their way"- David Koehn)

 ( I suspect poetry and the poem would be perfectly happy 
if the poet would just leave them alone..." -Dean Rader) 

David Koehn: Good morning, Dean. Happy Easter. Do you want to talk about poetry a little bit?
Dean Rader:  Happy Easter! Great idea. Yes! books and poems and all that great stuff.

DK: Let me begin by saying that I have a huge affection for Landscape Portrait Figure Form.

DR: Thank you.

DK: For any variety of reasons including affections for Klee and for some of the subject matter in the book. The book is beautiful. I’ve written a review, which will appear in Borderlands, so that’s all exciting. I don't know if there’s a jumping off point that you wanted to start from?

DR: I really appreciate that, David. Thank you. You are a good poet and a savvy reader, so that means a great deal coming from you. I also like the book. I have a fondness for it. I think Omnidawn did a great job with it. It’s beautiful. They treat it with care. I am especially happy with the artwork on the cover, which is a painting by a fabulous artists named Lora Fosberg. The words coming out the head of the guy on the front are phrases Lora liked from the poems. It’s the best part of the entire book!

Also, though, the cover is an entrée into the book through its mixture of written and visual language. In truth, the whole book explores the matrix of poetry and painting. You actually do something similar in your book. I was reading through Twine last night. I loved the Klee “Twittering Machine” poem.

DK:  It’s a weird one. That was written quite some time ago. Arthur Sze had been challenging some of us to write in the form of a haibun. Doing a sort of conventional or stereotypical haibun seemed against the grain for me. I took a weird acrostic pseudo-political, historical tact. At the same time, I was trying to get at what the painting meant for me and simultaneously do something interesting with the figure of Klee. 
At the end of the day, it’s also in conversation with this confusion we have about how art means or what art means and when it means because it’s situated in a particular time and meaning changes in time. Klee himself had some interesting challenges as it relates to art.  So the “Twittering Machine” was a muddy attempt at trying to frame an aesthetic journey in response to that particular painting. Thanks for mentioning that. That was a curious poem to write.

DR:  Maybe you can talk a little about why you choose to begin the poem with that quote about democracy, because it suggests that the poem may or may not have a political or social component to it. Klee is essentially saying that democracy is going to lead an artist to the middle, to an uninspiring mean; whereas the artist’s journey is spiritual (as opposed to political or democratic). Were you thinking about those things?

DK: Yeah, for sure. A couple of “grand pronouncements” around assumptions, if I may: I don’t write political poetry full stop in any intentional way. If I’m coming at it -- it’s coming at it from a slant. A second “grand pronouncement” would be something like aesthetic choice will trump political choice in my process almost every time.

“Grand pronouncement” number 3 is that the pilgrims’ progress, the intention of my process, is primarily a spiritual one in nature before it’s anything else—whatever spiritual may mean— which for some could mean physics and for others could mean a guy with a gray beard in the sky.

I think in particular it is this twist on that particular stance which is the subject— the subject is political in nature, meaning subject to the democratic potential.

Most of the time, with the consensus process, the community process— if the choices that are made are determined by the Zeitgeist— you end up in a place that is either only accepted by a micro-community or alternatively accepted by a dispersed community — and in both cases the dependency on the acceptance has trumped the aspiration perhaps, or it has trumped the potential of the art’s goal or the piece’s potential. I ruin poems because I get in the way. If I can stay out of the way of a good idea, I have a far better shot at adding a page to the book (and the book being whatever the long history of writing poems means). 

The “Twittering Machine” piece was invested in that thinking process.  I think there’s a subversive attitude in the piece, but the idea is to put the resulting artifact in front of the point of view or the “politics”.  Community is somehow wrapped up in into this. I’ve said this before, but I operate outside of the poetry community in general. I sometimes long to be part of the community in general, and at the same time when I’m near to or part of the community, I long to be a part from it.

DR: I think that’s most of us. 

There’s a lot to like about the poem, but one of the things I was especially drawn to was something I was just talking about with my poetry workshop the other day: the poem juggles a lot of balls. There’s a lot going on in it. You’ve got the epigraph about democracy, and then you’ve got information about Klee that is sort of woven in with historical facts, not to mention the play with twitter . . . 
DK: That’s right.

DR:  Add to that the intricacies of the painting itself, The Twittering Machine. It’s one of my favorite paintings by him. It’s this big, crazy machine, perhaps built on and out of stilts, but in your poem it suggests democracy and the machine of capitalism. Plus, you have the haibun thing going on, so there’s prose and haiku. There’s eastern influence mixing in with American things, poetry mixing with prose, European Modernism mashing-up with Twitter...
DK:  There’s a couple of comments there. One is it was definitely a piece that was flirting with all those heterogeneous ideas. There’s also this assumption that the referent in any poem any more doesn’t have to be necessarily an appositive because we’re in an age where every single word at an instant can be exploded into all of its constituent parts.

There’s some element of that changing nature of information and reference at work. It was written before Twitter became a huge success, but the piece operates in the context of the technology backbone behind all of us. As much as we may like it or dislike it, the conjunction and disjunction of information that has come from the instantaneous hierarchy of every single reference that becomes immediately possible is also a part of that. 

DR:  Your poem reminded me that I also have a Klee haibun.

DK: That’s cool.

DR: It was published in Borderlands.

DK: I read that.

DR: I wrote it a couple of years ago, I think. I should try to dig it up.

DK: One of the reasons I wanted to run the review of Landscape Portrait Figure Form in Borderlands was because of that weird interconnection. I was pleased when Borderlands picked up the review for that particular reason. Those sort of funky interconnections are just fun, and are a secret joy.

I would love to get a copy of your haibun either from Borderlands or from yourself and take a look at it again. By the way, thanks for reading Twine at all. When we first started our conversation, you actually signed my copy of Landscape Portrait Figure Form before Twine had ever come out. I don't know if you remember what you wrote. You wrote, “Get Pinsky to blurb your book.”

DR:  That’s right, and he did! It was a good blurb too.

DK: Yeah, it’s a beautiful blurb. I was talking to Jeffrey Levine about the blurbs and he said, “Who’s going to read the book? Just read the blurbs.” I couldn’t be more flattered by it. One of the poems we talked about that night was your poem “The Poem Chooses Its Own Adventure.”

DR: Right.

DK: What reminded me of that poem was one of the things I said earlier, which is that in most cases I ruin poems by getting in their way. “The Poem Chooses its Own Adventure” is one of my favorites in the book.

I like it so much because it’s working on just a fundamental absurd narrative level but It’s also working on this meta level of how Dean Rader thinks about composing poems. For any writer, it’s an object lesson if you will. It’s one of the things that I admire in your work: that ‘polysemousness,’ to use Duncan.

DR: That’s a kind and smart reading of the poem. I had a lot of mixed feelings about that poem. In fact, that poem was not in the first version of the manuscript that I sent to Omnidawn. I wasn’t really sure if it was a successful poem or not. But, as Rusty Morrison and I were talking about assembling the book, I showed her the poem. When she read it, she said, “Yeah, this has got to go in the book and near the front.”

My fear is that it’s a little winky winky. I hope not. What seems to work about that poem in particular is that readers feel like the “you” in the poem is about them. Poets feel like the “you” in the poem is the poem talking back to the poet. I like that the voice in the poem can go both ways. On one level, it is a faux mean poem to the reader, but in truth it is totally a love poem to the reader.

On another level, it’s about poetry just being tired of the poet. I suspect poetry and the poem would be perfectly happy if the poet would just leave them alone…

DK:  Exactly.

DR: I always think that the poem would probably prefer anything to being in a poem. That’s what I wanted to play with in the poem. Ironically (or not), it was one of the only poems I’ve written that just completely took off on its own. I didn’t really do much. It just went its own way and got crazier and crazier. I didn’t try to reign it in. I’m always trying to slow down my poems, to work on restraint. I decided for this one just to use zero restraint and let it be over the top.

DK:  I want to circle back actually to that Rusty comment. She is a fantastic reader. I had her look at an early version of Twine, and poems that either 1) I was going to exclude from the manuscript or 2) had excluded from the manuscript she ended up identifying as quite right for the manuscript.  

There were also once where I was like, “I don't know. Maybe, maybe not” where she was like, “You don’t see what I’m seeing. This is what I’m seeing and this is why.” I was like, “Wow.” Those poems she anchored on are some of the best poems in the book — little did I know. She said something to the effect of “don’t discard your orphans.” 

Rusty as a reader is really unbelievable, and worth mentioning, as she had an impact on your construction and she also had an impact on mine as an early reader of Twine.

DR:  She did. I respect her preference for ambition and risk.

DK: Exactly. She would notice when a piece was taking risk and had depth and those risks can come in all kinds of shapes and forms, depth can come in all kinds of shapes and forms. Her desire to peel and go was influential.

DR: I totally agree. I also wanted to ask you about landscape. Formally, you have this really nice mix of traditional and experimental forms in Twine. You rock the sonnet, for example. I was particularly taken by “Notes from a Lecture on Sterna Paradisaea”.  How do you pronounce the last word?

DK: Mitqutailaq. 

DR:  Funky ass poem.

DK: Yeah.

DR: A lot of fun. So, to “theme,” as the kids say. I noticed you seemed interested in nature and history, or at least historical figures. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that. I assume that with the twine metaphor which comes up in your epilogue poem, you’re thinking about ways to stitch things together, or tie things together, or ways in which things are threaded. Maybe you could talk a little about the way history and landscape are intertwined, to use your word.

DK: There’s so much in that question. Form for me is part of the conversation with the art. I also abandon it and shred it and twist it so that there are certain pieces that are rigorously formal if you will.

DR: That’s true.

DK: But there are also pieces that are wildly not. This is just “grand pronouncement” number 4, which is “it’s all available to us” — the lyrical poems that run down the side of the page, burying between 3 to 7 beats in a line. Maybe a line of 8 beats to really throw off the reader. But also available to us is the syllabic poem like the one in the book  “Faith Healing,” as is the highly (iambic) metrical poem like “Above the Ranch.” 

Sonnets are also available, couplets are available, villanelles are available, pantoums are available. Then perversions of those are available. There’s no adventure that we shouldn’t permit ourselves to take both within and without form. 

For example, “Notes on a Lecture…” is wildly experimental poem in one regard,  but also highly regular in another way. It’s a Carme Figuratum in one way, but its versification is also eccentrically consistent. The topic of the poem is a lecture about the Arctic Tern. But it’s also about the Arctic Tern, the bird (not the lecture) and having lived on the northern tip of Alaska for a significant period of my life— somehow about the arctic in some way as well.

In fact, my 19-year-old daughter was born in Barrow, Alaska. The northern most tip of Alaska. The Northern most point in the contiguous United States. A little- know truth of that experience is that an amazing range of birds come to Barrow during the summer months to breed and the Arctic Tern is the one that travels (essentially) North Pole to South Pole every year. Not exactly the whole range, but the bird is capable of that range.

The Arctic Tern has this unique flying behavior. It has a particular beauty to its flight. It has in that environment a natural history that we’re familiar with from naturalism and biology. But it also has a natural history that comes from the native people of the North Slope, the Inupiaq.

I struggle with this all the time in my Alaska poems: “Is this another white guy writing a poem about Native Alaskan experience?” It’s a huge, huge struggle for me in virtually every poem that I try to write about my North Slope experience.

Mitqutailaq is the Inupiaq word for Arctic Tern. Mitqutailuq means “missing middle tail feather.” The poem intentionally omits one specific phrase right in the heart of the poem. There’s this oblique intention to get people to look at the Arctic Tern not just as a biological or naturalist object but as a bird that lives in the story of the people of the North Slope, the Inupiaq, and to not privilege one over the other but allude to the one that I want people to connect to — to take advantage of the opportunity to go explore for themselves without asserting my own bias.

The Tern plays that role in the poem. The Tern is a thing in nature that is so amazingly dazzling to watch in its own being that, while I try to explore some of that dazzle, I also wanted to leave the poem open to the missing middle tail feather, which is that there is a lot of other points of view on that dazzle, and ways of looking at that bird, that this poem only just barely alights upon.

I don't know if that even answers the question but that’s part of what was going on there.

DR: I can see that. The form of the poem underscores your interest in movement and action and pushing on. It’s a really interesting poem.

DK:  What’s going around the back of my head is the Elliot quote that challenges that kind of effort where it’s a fallacy to try and use the shape or syntax in a poem to mimic the object of the trope. That was one of those “I shall not break” rules that I chose to break because I thought it would work.

Whether it did or not is a different question. It was definitely a whisper in my classically trained ear — I was being told “don’t do this”— and what the poem was saying was “this is how the poem needs to be.” I don't know if that even answers the question.

DR: I think so . . .

DK: The North Slope was a place where I was exposed to native writers and started to work with American traditions that didn’t come out of the east or the west. For the first time I started to think about voices that contemporary poetry had yet to be fully informed by. I had some limited experiences with Sherman Alexie at Fishtrap. 

But it wasn’t until I got to Alaska and started the bibliography of North Slope Literature that I came into contact with the number of voices that populated the tapestry of the United States that weren’t dead white people. That was a piece of my story as well. The book itself is trying to intertwine all kinds of contemporary, social, political and aesthetic concerns.

It’s 3 sections of 19 poems and the final poem, the epilogue is 3 poems. There’s these symmetries and then there’s all these divergences. I think that the interconnection between things is apparent. There’s also this movement from self-perception to a dialogue with the objects of the poem to moving the poem into its own space and getting out of its way. There’s this attempt to make sure that the personal and the aesthetic evolve over the course of the book.

DR: I can see that. I think the book bears that out. It feels intentionally put together. The sections talk to each other.

DK:  It’s such a huge problem thinking about intention. I wouldn’t want anyone to be married to my intention. I would prefer they have their own reading of it. You’re invested in scholarship around Native American literature yourself, right?

DR: Indeed. My first scholarly book was a collection of essays on contemporary American-Indian poetry that I edited with the excellent poet Janice Gould. My most recent scholarly book was this big ambitious interdisciplinary study of recent American Indian art, literature, and film, entitled Engaged Resistance: American Indian Art, Literature, and Film from Alcatraz to the NMAI. That book appeared in 2011, I think. Oddly, (or not), it shares many of the same concerns as Landscape Portrait Figure Form—the interplay of poetry and painting, the ability of artistic practice to alter and inform the world, the role of art and writing in contemporary society.

Native studies is certainly one of my interests both as a teacher and as a writer—and of course as a human as well. I always think that American Indian texts (as with American Indian interests) get overlooked in political, social and cultural realms.

DK: Are you reading anybody right now?

DR: I’m reading Jennifer Forester’s book Leaving Tulsa. I’m going to write a review on that and two other books. I’m actually behind. I was supposed to finish that review already. I like that book a lot. I like Natalie Diaz’s new book and I like Orlando White’s poems a lot too. I think he’s a really, really interesting young writer.

He’s got a book called Bone Light that came out with Red Hen Press a few years ago. He’s a Navajo poet who has written an entire book of poems about the letters of the alphabet.

DK: That’s so cool.

DR:  It’s really smart. It’s fascinating because if you read the poems you would never assume that White is Navajo. He doesn’t really include any of what you would assume to be “American Indian” themes. I’m using finger quotes here.

DK: Yeah.

DR:  Readers often assume that Indian writers have to write about Indian issues, or perform their Indianness, or prove their Indianness. He doesn’t do any of that. The opening of the book situates his Navajo-ness, but the rest of the book is all about the beauty of the letter I, the shape of J and how much he likes the letter O. Great stuff.

DK:  Yeah. I don't know the book but will definitely check it out. I was pleased over the last 4 or 5 years to see the emergence of Joan Naviyuk Kane. From my perspective, she’s the first sort of North Slope contemporary to emerge.

There’s been others in history. I don't know if she reads them or not but there was Sin Rock, an Inupiaq poet who was recorded, captured and inserted into the contemporary at the time but in a very aphoristic way. I think Joan’s work is great.

During my 5 years on the North Slope one of the projects we did was “Walking in Two Worlds.” We brought into conversation 5 different classrooms, a Tlingit classroom, a Yupik classroom, an Inupiaq classroom, a Navajo classroom, a South Carolina classroom, and I think a Riverside, California classroom.

The genetic makeup of that reader response was just crazy. It was enlightening to see. There were several books that we focused on but one poem in particular was Luci Tapahonso’s poem, Hills Brothers Coffee. To see some of the responses that emerged from the kids —  just amazing.

A lot of those kids went on to be very successful and it was a great experience to see that kind of dynamic, self-driven conversation. I think it’s healthy that Joan has emerged. I think that there’s a growing, healthy perspective on Native American literature in general.
Again, I think what you’re reaching beyond is we know we’ve succeeded when we don’t have to talk about poets talking about their race, gender or status. When that becomes an accepted part of — as opposed to our novelty about— then maybe that’s a success. I don't know.

DR:  Not too long ago I curated an issue of Sentence on contemporary American Indian prose poetry. One of the things I talked about in my introduction was how many of the poems by younger native poets are about aesthetic concerns, or travel, or being parents. Even my students seem to expect “Indian Writing” to deal with “Indian Issues,” as though parenting and travel and aesthetics are not.

There is something reassuring and I think maybe confidence building in a writer being able to identify as a Native writer and write about whatever he or she wants. Again, it provides a nice balance. I think that one of the concerns I have in teaching Native literature is that some readers think that if they read say a Louise Erdrich novel or a LeAnne Howe poem they are experiencing Choctaw culture or Ojibwe culture. And that’s a problem.

If you read LeAnne Howe’s great novel Shell Shaker you’ll learn a lot about Choctaw histories and realities that you probably didn’t know. But, it’s not folklore, it’s not ethnography. It’s art.  You’re experiencing art. It’s art and it’s as much about an individual project as it is about being immersed in an Indian experience.

Art is a window onto things; it is not that thing. Except when it is . . .

Let me ask you real quick. What are your hopes for Twine? What would you like it to accomplish? What effect would you like it to have on a reader?

DK: I have no idea how to answer that question. Did you say effect?

DR: Yeah. 
DK: I’m not sure I think about effect. I’m usually trying to create a piece wherin or where through the reader has an aesthetic experience, whatever that may be. Ideally, a deeply resonant aesthetic experience. If each and every poem in the book provides such and those experiences resonate, if the reader both relates to and is surprised by the work—what more to ask? I guess I look at the book as a series of notes, or a series of experiences, that have connection but also have disconnection. This (dis)arrangement creates a kind of disjuncture that adds to the overall experience. 
The perfect outcome of any one poem in my mind is that, if I can deliver what Koestler in The Act of Creation called the “Ahhhh,” the “Ha Ha,” and the “Ah Ha.” If one can do that in a single poem, that’s not a bad outcome. 

The “Ah” being the experience of the sublime, the “Ha Ha” being the funny disjuncture of surprise and laughter in comedy and humor. The “Ah Ha” being that sense of innovation or discovery of “I’m seeing something I had not seen before.” When those 3 things happen for a reader in a poem and people have  deeply resonant aesthetic experiences and come away from the book connecting to the work, that’s more than I could hope for. 
My assumption of course is that books of poetry have a very short shelf-life. My assumption is that Twine it will be washed away into the ocean of time in a matter of weeks. The book, largely forgotten forever, because that’s how things go. I don’t have any ambitions for the book other than if and when people read it, they have resonance with hopefully many pieces if not all the pieces in the book itself. That’s a weird answer to your question but that’s about it.

DR: That’s a good answer.

DK:  How about you? Is there anything else you want to say about Landscape Portrait Figure Form?

DR: I would say that with Landscape Portrait Figure Form, my concerns were primarily how the aesthetic and the social might interact. For the aesthetic part, I was obsessed with the things that poetry and art share—in particular the vocabulary they have in common: “landscape,” “forms,” “figuration,” “portraits,” “syntax,” “grammar,” “language,” and in particular the dual concerns with “the line.” Both painting and poetry begin with “the line.”

Klee talks a lot about line and poetry. He, too, is obsessed with lines.  One of my favorite Klee quotes Is: “A line is a dot that went for a walk.” I love that!  I think that extends to the poetic line as well. The sentence, the word, the letter begin with a dot because your pen starts at a point that winds up going for a walk across the page. I was (and am) interested in the practice of art and the practice of poetry. What do poetry and art share, and how do they go about making emotive meaning?

I’m also jealous of painting and photography’s ability to have an immediate emotional impact. Painters and photographers can address social and political issues more indirectly and obliquely than writers can.

You can have a photograph of a war-torn village or a rundown house in Detroit and it makes an emotional and political statement without having to rely on language to explain.

DK: Without the rhetoric. 
DR: Exactly, without the rhetorical explanation. I was also trying to do that in some of the poems, most notably with the opening poem in the book “American Self-Portrait.” I hoped I could write poems that maybe visually made an argument or posed questions about social or political issues without being confined to a stance.

DK:  Really well-said.

DR:  I hope that it’s at least moderately successful.

DK: Yeah, really well-said. Thank you, Dean.

DR: Thanks. Dave, this was a lot of fun. We’ll continue it.

DK:  We should.
David Koehn's poetry and translations were previously collected in two chapbooks, Tunic, (speCt! books 2013) a small collection of some of his translations of Catullus, and Coil (University of Alaska, 1998), winner of the Midnight Sun Chapbook Contest. David's first full length manuscript, Twine, now available from Bauhan Publishing, won the 2013 May Sarton Poetry Prize. David's poetry has appeared in a wide range of literary magazines including Kenyon Review, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rhino, Volt, Carolina Quarterly, New York Quarterly, Diagram and many others. His essays and reviews have appeared online and in print across a similar variety of magazines and he currently writes and runs a first book interview series called First Verse for, the Web property of Omnidawn Press.

Dean Rader’s debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize. His newest collection, Landscape Portrait Figure Form (Omnidawn) was named by the Barnes & Noble Review as one of the Best Books of Poetry of 2013. Recent poems appear or will appear in Best American Poetry 2012, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, TriQuarterly, Ninth Letter, Colorado Review, and Zyzzyva, which featured a folio of his poems in their fall 2013 issue. He reviews and writes about poetry regularly for The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, and The San Francisco Chronicle. Rader recently edited an anthology entitled 99 Poems for the 99 Percent, forthcoming in 2014. He is chair of the English Department at the University of San Francisco. You can read more of his work at


No comments: