Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Conversation: Rodney Koeneke, Sheila Davies Sumner and Casey McAlduff

"Some constellation of ideas about the ancient and contemporary, the dead and reborn, the translated and the silenced, the historical and the disappeared, gradually took shape. Eventually, Etruria—my Etruria, anyway—came to seem like the right place for Jack Spicer to lay down with Sharon Mesmer, or Marianne Moore to fleer in an antiquated hat." 

- Rodney Koeneke 

Casey McAlduff: Your book Etruria (Wave, 2014) is a delight. The poems are thought provoking and have sincere emotion, and they’re also funny and filled with surprising language. The poems remain contemporary despite their complex interaction with ancient civilization and classical history. Many of the poems also contain a language & motion that is reminiscent of Flarf poetry. Even though your poems are clearly intentioned, they have a sense of freedom about them—the reader is never quite sure what will happen next. Can you talk a bit about your involvement with Flarf and how it may continue to inform your work? How has Flarf changed the way you use and approach language?

Rodney Koeneke:  What I tried to take forward from Flarf in Etruria—aside from the humor and surprise I’m glad you found there—is a certain approach to syntax. The language we were mining from the Internet back in 2003 wasn’t especially disjunctive. People were expressing themselves online in the most heartfelt and exposing ways, using everyday speech with a telegraphic directness a lot of us found exciting. It was different from the “eat your parataxis, its good for you” ethos we cut our teeth on in the ‘90s. But it wasn’t Ashbery’s syntactical suavity, either. (He’s gotten flarfier with age though, don’t you think?)

I think I wanted to see—without so much thinking about it, just sitting down and doing it—how much could connect inside a poem, how disparate the contents could grow and still feel semantically whole. In that respect, the poems in Etruria mimic my happier feelings on the Internet, where everything can seem potentially, surprisingly connected through those long link loops you pour your office time into.

That’s just the old problem of form transferred to digital though, isn’t it? I guess Flarf gave me metaphors for working through questions of form—what to record and what to filter, how to shape data into a poem.

Sheila Davies Sumner:  I think you achieved what you set out to do. While reading Etruria, I felt a strong sense of the book’s semantic ‘wholeness’. Despite its multiplicity of tone and style, there seems to be a whole pluralistic reach to the work. Stranger and antigod pass through the community, as well as mythical elders, Dido, Hermes, and Dante who stop by briefly, and the many modern poets dropping in for sustained visits such as O’Hara, Koch, Moore, and Spicer. The community really unifies and solidifies throughout the book into a comfortable neighborhood. I imagine this unity was built through intention and randomness. How did you find your way to it?

RK: Coming up with the title helped clarify what the poems were up to, and how they might settle down together into a book. I’d written the title poem early on in the process, which starts off with Napoleon’s Kingdom of Etruria, the realm he cut whole cloth from Italy and tossed to a Bourbon princeling. Over time, the “Etruria” idea took on more layers. I read D.H. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places (beautiful title) and discovered the work he gave Etruria to do, keeping life in a healthier balance with death, like the ancient Etruscans, who built their cities in parallel with their tumuli until Rome ploughed them both into empire.

On a visit with poets Ben Friedlander and Carla Billiterri, Carla told me that in Italy, “Etruria” still connotes the sophisticated and luxe—“Etrurian Watches, ” “Etruria Organic Food Products,” things like that. (The Romans had been great collectors of Etruscan art.) It was through Brandon Downing, I think, that I learned about Josiah Wedgwood’s model pottery works in industrial Staffordshire, which he named—you guessed it—“Etruria.” (Artes Etruriae Renascuntur, he took for its motto: "The Arts of Etruria are reborn.") My friend Julian Brolaski tells me it’s been cracked, but at the time I was writing, I thought the Etruscan script was still undeciphered, keeping its mysteries since Rome erased it. So there’s the frisson of that.

So some constellation of ideas about the ancient and contemporary, the dead and reborn, the translated and the silenced, the historical and the disappeared, gradually took shape. Eventually, Etruria—my Etruria, anyway—came to seem like the right place for Jack Spicer to lay down with Sharon Mesmer, or Marianne Moore to fleer in an antiquated hat.

CEM:  I too felt a sense of different entities uniting throughout the book. I was especially impressed by how you manage to maintain a coherence of tone across the titles of individual poems, despite the varying subjects and thought processes that the individual poems undertake. Do titles come easily to you? Do you have a strategy for titling your poems?

RK: Some come easy, some don’t. “Etruria” was a no-brainer; “no title,” like the name suggests, was a little tougher. I’m glad you mention tone; that was more on my mind than structure or concept while writing these. I didn’t want a monotone collection, but I hoped for some coherence—maybe a harmony—across the book. Titles helped with that, like in the reprise of poems named for poets, or called after the genres they comment on (“ghazal,” “nocturne,” “epithalamion.”)

SDS: As any reader will see, Etruria is an encompassing book of poems, with its contemporary and lyrical diction, spherical emotions, and then a wonderfully big poetic appetite. I really appreciate the level of evident feeling –– sorrow, humor, love –– and your willingness as a poet to let it fluently occupy the work. 

“... knowing how pale / 
and approximate any discussion of feelings will finally be, despite the / 
originals undeniable power.”

(“Toward a Theory of Translation”, p. 1)

Is this a controversial navigation for you?

RK: Navigation’s the right word! I often felt lost while writing these, not sure where the next line would come from or where it would lead. Any fluency appeared retroactively, looking back from the pier and tracing the wake. Which, when things worked, turned out to be the poem.

That’s a “pale and approximate” process, by its nature. You can’t always account for the end you arrived at, or recover the relationship between the finished poem and the original urge that launched it. If there was any inner controversy in putting the book together, it’s probably in that.

SDS: One poem that particularly strikes me is “Bardic Genetics” (p. 65), which is a poem “essentially about life and death.” You also write “Maybe the dead know how to live more fully.” How do you interpret that line? Do the dead have a better deal?

RK: “Bardic Genetics” chases after D.H. Lawrence’s “Bavarian Gentians,” where death appears as a kind of velvety, “blue-smoking” seduction that leads down to Persephone’s wedding bed.

I don’t especially like the Lawrence poem, but I’m intrigued by the way anthology pieces like that get talked about, the functions we expect them to perform. In a culture that doesn’t enjoy much of a ceremonial connection with the dead, the reverence for poems like Lawrence’s, or artworks of any kind, steps in to fill the hole. So it’s easy to feel, as a “live” reader encountering a dead writer, that the poet did live more fully, if only in leaving behind the poem we’re reading.

Also, the poem itself, in the moment of attention we give to it, is a sort of knowing intrusion of the dead upon the living, like the blue gentians are in Lawrence’s “soft September”: “Whom have you come for, here in the white-cast day?”

I didn’t have this thought out in any front-brain sort of way when I wrote that line, but it formed part of the mood that produced it. Joni Mitchell was probably a little closer to hand: “Don’t it always seem to go / that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”    

SDS: “Bardic Genetics” also “ plays with the relationship of Self & Other: 

“... through the voice of the speaker the reader can feel the /
emotions and thoughts of the author”

It seems as though you’re making a distinction between what is voiced and what is mute. I think of Tolkien who, in his introduction to the Fellowship of the Ring, refers to the “freedom of the reader and the purposed domination of the author.” Is this at all relevant to the poem you've written? 

RK: I like your Tolkien quote! Author as Sauron, reader as Hobbit, poem as Ring.

Your question makes me think how that interplay between author, speaker, and reader, which makes poems so slippery, also makes them good allegories for a certain kind of freedom. Etruria lies closer to the Shire than Mordor, I think. But I hope it also conveys at least a muted sense that Sauron’s at work out there somewhere, like History and Progress and Science and Time, eager to smash the round door.

Rodney Koeneke’s Etruria is just out from Wave Books. Earlier collections include Musee Mechanique (BlazeVOX, 2006) and Rouge State (Pavement Saw, 2003). Recent work can be found in The Brooklyn Rail, Fence, Granta, Gulf Coast, The Nation, and at Harriet, where he was August's Featured Writer. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches British and World History at Portland State.

Sheila Davies Sumner and Casey McAlduff are the co-curators of the Studio One Reading Series.

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