Interview: Jasmine Dreame Wagner on Simultaneity and Wrecked Legacies
by G.C. Waldrep on October 2nd, 2012
In a poem we didn’t include in the anthology—“V.I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport,” from the current issue of Aufgabe—you quote the Russian Acmeist Kazimir Malevich: “but a surface lives, it has been born.” What is the relation, for you, between poetry and this living surface? Literally or figuratively defined?
Is “the pastoral,” then, a surface? How or why does it come to be “born,” in a poem?
I think of language, literature, and by extension, poetry, as a living and evolving surface, both literally and figuratively. Literally, when the pen transforms the page, something new is born. Reading, too, is a kind of birth. Every word you read wakes in your mind.
Thinking less along the lines of the psychology of perception and more along the lines of cultural production, language is a lot like graffiti on a wall. New tags cover the old. Some tags endure, sprayed in brighter paint, in higher places. Sometimes authorities come and whitewash it all.
Every year, new technologies are born, and with them, new words we use to refer to them. I’m not too apt at guessing people’s ages by their physical characteristics, but if I can speak with a person, I can count on their vocabulary, their points of reference, their cultural capital, to reveal the technology and the dominant moral code of the decade they were born. My grandparents have different words for “sneakers” and “jeans” than I do. My grandparents also have different cuss words and situations where using them would or wouldn’t be appropriate—and so do my students, who can, and do, communicate entirely in truncated texts and compounded punctuation. “YOLO” is as much a creation of their generation as “OK” was creation of my grandparents’.
One thing that truly excites me about the living, evolving surface of contemporary poetry is how we are able to access and watch (and participate!), first-hand, as new words are born. More poets and critics are grappling with our accelerating modes of communication and the accompanying abundance and availability of texts than ever before. The public sphere is dizzy with conversation. How does one even begin to account for, acknowledge, and be influenced by all of the voices?—this is one thing I wonder when I troll the internet.
When I began to get into poetry, like, really get into writing poems and caring about poems, I was stunned by the blog arguments one could follow in real time, especially the arguments that pitted one kind of poetry against another. I wondered how the established, aging, and (comparatively) moneyed generation of poets who came of age writing Romantic-leaning, introspective, narrative confessionals could be so bold as to denounce the aesthetics of both the Language poets that have been tearing up the floorboards for years, and also the New Sincerity, the New Ironic, Alt Lit, the Postmodern Lyric, the anarcho-formalist poets working in erasures and 15-line sonnets, the Flarf Poets, the Cowboy Poets, and also, also, also. One could find an argument for and against every kind of poem, every kind of poet from every demographic. In spite of all of the bickering and the calling of names, in spite of every argument that narrative is fascist, that hifalutin vocabulary is elitist, that “the new sincerity” is actually “the old irony,” in spite of every sigh, cry, or angst-fueled rant that originates out of, about, in, after, or before an MFA workshop (or in spite of one,) in spite of everything, every form exists and is utilized, every tone of voice and timbre of sentiment finds its place in the current climate and it’s big and beautiful and wild.
So why do we attempt to frame and order the wild surface of poetry? Is it because we want to see ourselves as its brave pioneers? Do we want to know where we stand so that we may claim a plot on poetry’s prairie?
Why all the Romantic longing?
When I read the blogs, I wonder why the Romantic idealization, the obsession with framing and wildness? Why do we romanticize a poet’s sexual wildness, her bad-seed animal nature, her dirty mouth, her inability to color within the lines? Why do we romanticize our critical history of Great Men bickering as though they (both the Men and the words) were of divine status? Why do we romanticize our Gatekeepers and the mythic locks and keys they dangle above their articulate array of aesthetic camps and grant categories? With all of the news-blog articles and Twitter feeds decrying the profligate irony of the Millennials, the proliferation of MFA programs, the overabundance of “nice reviews,” it sure seems like our media has a solid, idealized conception of (and an institutionalized nostalgia for) “how good things used to be.”
Our Western world didn’t gleam with the patina of nostalgia until we moved from the fields into the factories. We should know better than to marinate in our yearning for a pure, untouched world that’s essentially a fiction, right? Our cultural memory is a Great American Novel. As poets, we should know this. We read Whitman, we read Wordsworth, we read everything that comes before and everything that follows, so we should understand how we contain both a stalk of grass and a field of daffodils, that we construct our forms as we construct ourselves. We know how memory can “take us back,” but remembering isn’t the same as actually attempting to engineer a time-travel machine, or a utopia modeled on past fashions. Which is what I think a lot of poets writing “pastoral” or “nature poetry” try to do. Time-travel (to relive past glory), or build a retro utopia (of antique speech).
So why do we romanticize a past that wasn’t necessarily any better than the way things are right now? We can’t go back to the pretty sheep-dotted landscape in the painting. We’re too aware of its context: the frame, where the painting is hung on the wall, the way the sunlight has accented the hues of the shadows, the patronizing tilt of the viewer’s gaze. We’re aware of not just the frame and the method and the content and the gaze, but the room, the house, the state, the planet, the universe, the realm of the mind, how we are all connected in the vastly unfolding future that careens like a sports car in a narrative poem that ends ambiguously holy. This is the extravagant, the glorious, the uncomfortable surface of the poetry we live in. It’s wild.
Perhaps it is because the state of poetry today is Pastoral.
(Am I molding the definition to fit my own ecstatic will and biases? Maybe. Mostly, I like to think of poetry as ecstatic compassion at the crossroads of contingency and a brain.)
The most remarkable thing about your poems, it seems to me, is how they register—delimit—claim (even) a particular place or space. They map, and what they map is territory. Could you speak to this question of mapping, of territory? In general? As regards “Champion Mill”?
To continue with what I was saying earlier, whether you are writing or drawing or otherwise documenting, when you put a pen to paper, you create something out of nothing. The page is transformed. It becomes something other, something new. When someone reads what you’ve inscribed, they see and hear the things you’ve described, narrated. They live the narrative, your narrative. Your territory becomes theirs. Text is a vehicle for empathy. The fact that we use symbols, soundlessly, to give our experiences, our visions, life in another person’s body, to relay not just knowledge but the experience of being human, never ceases to amaze me.
When I was a child, I spent hours digging in the dirt. I thought that if I dug deep enough, I’d find arrowheads and diamonds. I remember believing that all dirt, everywhere, contained arrowheads and diamonds. What I pulled up from the ground instead were Coke caps and mica schist. My neighbors thought I was weird because I dug up trash, but the items I found didn’t feel like trash to me. The faded logos of the bottle caps felt as ancient as dinosaur bones. The mica fell apart in my hands, stuck to my knees like glitter. Dirt never felt like dirt to me. It felt like a universe.
When my mother enrolled me in public school, I couldn’t understand my classmates’ disinterest in dirt. They played video games and collected American Dolls and snorted crushed-up fluorescent candy. This is how I feel about writing poems and, to some extent, participating in culture as an artist, a poet, and musician today. I feel like the kid taking pictures of dewdrops on spider webs while the other kids snort candy under the bleachers.
On a more serious note, every day, I step into the world and give it my sustained attention. I don’t think too much about the act of mapping or the idea of territory while I’m writing, but I am very conscious of the sustained attention I give to my surroundings. What I think I’m going to find, arrowheads and diamonds, I never find. What I do find is always unexpected. I never know what’s there until I dig. Sometimes, in my day-to-day life, I feel surrounded by spectacle, suffocated by the flash and sparkle and its demands on my attention and on my pocketbook. That’s one reason why I think I’m drawn to these dilapidated places, places nature is working to reclaim. Capitalism finally gave up on them. They’re quieter than the forest.
I might visit these buildings, these places like the Champion Mill, for the peace and quiet, but I think about them and write about them because I want to understand the culture that created them. The culture that, every day, makes me. Places like the Champion Mill and the V.I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport have much to teach us about being flawed, being human. They linger like scars on appendages and abdomens, suggesting narratives, lessons we should learn or should have learned. These places were designed and built by human hands and they have the unique ability to reveal the desires, bodies, and beliefs of the humans to whom those hands were once attached. They are places where the spiritual history of capitalist America comes in direct contact with the secular history that frames it: here is our belief, our desire, its manifestation, its systems and hierarchies, its witness and its testimony, all at once.
Our wrecked mills and spoiled soils are our legacy. They are “ours,” thus, our territory. They exist on the outskirts of towns. They frame our livable areas. We live and move between them. Or perhaps I should say, they exist between us, because they are in limbo, in purgatory: neither dead nor alive, neither damned nor saved. Not intact, not completely disintegrated. Many of these sites are too toxic to rehabilitate. There’s a building in Waterbury, CT, where the Radium Girls painted watch dials for the Timex Corporation. Years later, the rooms of the warehouse are still radioactive. A developer wanted to renovate the building into low-income housing for the elderly, but local politicians wouldn’t change the radiation threshold of the code that prevents it. Thankfully, in my opinion. It’s cruel to house people in a place that will kill them and call it charity. But every day, industrial sites sit untouched for years until a zoning board changes a chemical toxicity threshold, permitting mixed-use renovation. Progress, or not? How much of a chemical can we take before innocuous becomes poisonous? Where do we draw the line?
The entire existence of these places hinges on the “drawing of lines,” on border-marking and toxicity thresholds, marginal measurements. It’s interesting to think of these places as being both dependent on thresholds and as the physical margins that edge us. It’s a double whammy.
We view them as our frame; they lend us context. When we view them as landscape, we see them as they are, in their decrepit physicality, but we can’t forget what they once were. We can’t forget the idealized America, the old industrial strength, entombed in them. We can’t separate past from present in these places, the way we ache when we touch a scar, even if the wound healed years ago. These places have become a new pastoral, even more so as nature reclaims them. When we view them, when we place our frame of context around them, a frame they, themselves provide, the frame is constructed in real time by whomever has the guildsmen’s privilege to survey and voice their narrative. If these buildings completely decay or are knocked to the ground, the narrative, the voice is gone.
As urban development sprawls outwards from city centers, as exurbs develop into planned communities and public parks that spiral outwards from their gated entrances like spirals of shells, as mixed-use becomes residential, evidence of our former reign as an industrial superpower disintegrates. Buildings like the Champion Mill disappear (at the time of writing this, the Champion Mill is completely gone) and are replaced with picturesque patios and sidewalks and condominium complexes with names like “Sterling Ridge” and “Eden’s Grove.” Some people like the slate wiped clean, and in a way, this rebuilding and renaming (and rebranding) feels a lot like poetry that is written Romantically, in disregard for the way things are right now. There is, in some poetry being written today, a picturesque valorization of nature and the natural-scientific that, when combined with references to mythic figures, Biblical characters, dated speech styles, wistfulness for unrequited love, and introspective narrative, strikes me as strictly Romantic. It’s a kind of poetry that wins prizes, but it’s philosophically irresponsible.
I think that what people forget most when thinking about nature poetry and landscape painting or any form of representational art is that the world doesn’t exist for us to exploit it. And just as we can’t go back to seeing only the painting’s content, as we can never return to just seeing. All experience is mediated. There is no human expression, not even a handshake, that isn’t tainted by capitalism. There is no wilderness that hasn’t been mapped by satellite. The only way we can truly explore is to press our boundaries deeper into space and deeper into our bodies and minds, and here is where we find the most legislation, limits imposed by cost and ethics and media and the power of the powers-that-be. (Few can afford to build their own space program, and fewer can press the ethical limits of bioengineering and the psychology of advertising and mass marketing. All progress in these uncharted areas is mandated, corporate.)
Also, I can’t really talk about marginalized experience and place without talking about the marginalization of the female voice. As a writer and as a feminist, I follow VIDA and am disappointed by the gender breakdown every time a new count surfaces. There are times in my life where I have been silenced by authority, and I am sure that the silencing had to do with my gender and class. I’m grateful for the rising interest in female narratives, girlish voices, and the aesthetic of the “Gurlesque.” However, it seems as though everywhere a female writer is being championed, she is young and sexy and her voice rings out of sex and anger and violence. These are the voices that are being widely published and discussed, heard and reviewed. Which is a good thing, because women speaking in certain tones of voice or on certain topics have been silenced for too long. However, (and it seems there is always a “however,”) I am concerned with the spectacle (spectre, should I say) that haunts these discussions. Are we actually giving voice to voices that have been silenced? Or are we allowing our media to exploit women’s bodies and hurts just to keep the machine oiled?
As a woman and as a poet who feels drawn to write about place and landscape, the world of things, rather than my romantic history, I can’t help but worry. In our confessional culture, it seems démodé to keep something for oneself. By meditating on marginalized places, on desire as arc of land instead of arc of flesh, am I further marginalizing myself and my writing? Would people be more likely to lend me legitimacy as a radical, a feminist, if I were to write about sex instead of buildings? When we say “edgy,” we mean, “of the edge.” All that is truly experimental must exist in the margins. Then why does it seem like the body, fashion, and relationships—all popular topics—are the only legitimate feminist literary subjects? Is the idealized female body an Arcadia in itself?
Sometimes I think that the most radical thing you can do is water a wildflower when no one is looking.
I have to admit that I’ve lingered a long time, in thoughtful bewilderment, between the title of “Champion Mill” and its epigraph: “variations on a field, Missoula, MT.” Coming from North Carolina, I find it hard to think of “Champion Mill” is anything other than an industrial behemoth (in particular, the paper mill at Canton, N.C.). I often find myself drawn to the conceptual spaces between titles and poems, or (in this case) between titles and epigraphs—it’s a sort of wilderness within the poem, an unacknowledged space in which both poem and reader perform various works. How do you move between title, epigraph, and poem? In this poem, or more generally?
When I think of the word “epigraph” my mind moves instinctually to the word “epitaph,” which is why I rarely use epigraphs. I don’t want to think of a sub-header as something that lays a poem to rest. I don’t want to think of a poem as something that lays the world to rest, either.
That said, my use of epigraph in “Champion Mill” was intuitive, not entirely logical. The original title for “Champion Mill” was actually “Variations on a Field.” I chose to use the place’s name for a few reasons, but mostly because I felt it deserved to be known by its name. It deserved my respect.
The poem, or more specifically, the sonnet sequence that composes its backbone, is a series of variations on a theme. One day, I went for a walk by the Clark Fork river, took a detour, and the Champion Mill is where I ended up. I felt at home there, so I visited daily throughout my time in graduate school. At the time, I was thinking I would write poems as though I were painting en plein air. I was also thinking that I wanted to write a poem that felt like Bach’s “Fugue in A Minor,” which is how seeing this building and the field that surrounded it felt. I wanted to express the density of the structure, its repetitive ornamentation, its sadness, hauntedness, otherworldliness. How each mill building was an individual unit, but the fallen beams, tumbleweeds, barb wire and debris unified the sight lines.
Intuitively, it didn’t seem right to keep the original title, “Variations.” I felt as though the emphasis on variety would lead the reader to experience each “field” too discretely. Like a string of days or memories in lieu of a life. While I did want the poem to be read, comprehended, and perceived visually as a discrete series, I wanted to emphasize their unity.
There are also a few thoughts in here on the sonnet as a machine, the poem as a machine, using verse form as a generator, the Champion Mill as my sonnet factory, all product from a singular factory as a unified whole, like a barge full of rubber duckies, but that’s a whole other question.
The Champion Mill, the field in its gut. One day, there was a baseball game at the neighboring diamond. One day, it snowed. One day, I walked the river with a friend. When I began to draft the poem on my computer, all the days and thoughts I’d scrawled in my notebook seemed to flow from end to end. They all happened at once, all the little histories.