by Shriram Sivaramakrishnan
Regan Good has published two books of poems, The Atlantic House (2011) and The Needle (2020). She teaches writing to first year architecture students at Pratt’s School of Architecture. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. The following conversation happened over a series of emails in the summer of 2021.
Shriram Sivaramakrishnan (SS): I would like to kickstart our conversation with the interview you gave to Hannah Judson last year. I found it fascinating for a number of reasons: Jorie Graham’s The Dream of Unified Field (I am a big fan of her work), your interest in archaeology, in Orkney (I went to Orkney a couple of years ago for the same reason), Gaston Bachelard . . . I will touch upon these at various points during our conversation. But first things first. In the same interview, you speak about your interest, more like a longing perhaps, to be in Nature, as well as a sense of disillusionment with the urban landscape as we know it. I feel an undercurrent of this same longing throughout The Needle. For instance, in “The Sailor Cannot See the North, but He Knows the Needle Can,” the needle becomes an embodiment of civilization as we know of, “The needle was the central engine for everything!” And yet it is “all the points without exacting names, the interstitial / directions in-between” that the speaker seems to be interested in, even as the speaker acknowledges this “whine of industry” to be a “work of art” . . . how did The Needle happen? Can you talk us through the journey?
Regan Good (RG): Let me answer your question in discrete parts and address the interests you point out one-by-one? Otherwise, I’ll be incoherent.
Poetry: I’m a big proponent of not knowing too much about what I am writing about as I am writing. I like being in the Cloud of Unknowing—I’m referring to the Christian mystical guide written by an unknown author in the 1350s, who writes about not really being able to know God in the particular, only in the unknowing—the unfastening of the mind from all fact. The idea that poems aren’t about anything, but are from a place inside one, keeps me interested. That deep unconscious “place,” that’s where the resonate language is most fertile, pure and true. To be clear, I do not believe in a Christian concept of God. I usually replace the word God with the word Nature. I do believe in the teachings of Jesus, however; just not the Disneyland stuff that got attached to him.
Jorie Graham was an important teacher for me (and many, many others) and her title The Dream of the Unified Field is one I think about, and have thought about, what it implies, how it speaks to what human lives are like and how our great hope is that, at the end, there will have been some continuity or order . . . it doesn’t have to be patterned, but a totality of something that ends up meaning more than a bunch of random thoughts, or poems. (It’s the enactment of Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Idea of Order at Key West,” basically—how meaning comes from an ordering that “song” or art provides.) I tell my students that poetry helps us order the world for ourselves, and possibly others, so to “communicate” ideas is hardly the issue. The didactic moralizing of much contemporary poetry really bores me. It’s like a bunch of Victorians have risen from the grave to tell us how to behave. Poetry is about, as James Tate wrote, the deeper mysteries of the human mind and soul.
Archeology/Orkney: The other weekend I came across my childhood copy of a 1970s Random House book called All About Archeology. As a kid, I’d dig in our backyard and find old keys, old toy soldiers, odd metal bits, etc. The archeology book included a photo of the famous dying Pompeian dog that I’ve never gotten over. Actually, the Romans are much too late for me now, and I really prefer prehistory where we only have their markings, artifacts and architecture (i.e., no writing) to try to divine what they were thinking. It’s an old archeology joke that archeologists see ritual in everything, but the world was magical in prehistory, and I long to see the world as magic. If we humbled ourselves to the world, and approached water and trees and animals and plants and seeds as astonishing/magical, we might not keep poisoning it, trashing it, killing it and the bewildered creatures who creep across it. I don’t just mean ecologically. (The human race is in trouble. As Bowie sang decades ago, “Homo sapiens have outgrown their use.”) Orkney is a Neolithic archeology dreamscape, and it is a deeply meaningful place to me; I feel like my ancestors are from there (they are from the Highlands and possibly the islands), and really the minute I touched ground, I felt in the right place for once: sea, sand, rocks, wind, grasslands, sun, rain, insane clouds. I can’t believe I live in a city though, of course, cities have their charms, and magic spots, as well. So, there is, in addition to the prehistory there, a kind of “who am I” quest going on . . . where did I really come from . . . you know, beyond Brooklyn and Connecticut.
A few years before I got to Orkney, I watched about 25 years’ worth of the English TV show Time Team in one summer—I couldn’t stop—and the old childhood dreams came back alive. I was fascinated how one walks over the buried past always and everywhere. The past is close in the British Isles it seems, it exists in people’s back gardens, farmers’ fields, and under every car lot. I love to think of the gold torcs, homes, buildings and burials still undiscovered. By the time I got to Orkney, I had become interested in a Neolithic mystery, the so-called Cup-and-Ring marks found on exposed rocks across Northumberland and Scotland. No one knows what they mean, and that is the perfect thing to contemplate as a poet.
Currently, I am interested in ritual deposits, both at the founding of a building and/or at the decommissioning of one. It’s hard to say which is more interesting, really. The Ness of Brodgar in Orkney has examples of decommissioning, i.e., there is evidence of a giant feast before the site was intentionally buried, as if a new religion had arrived and this sacred site was no longer needed. On the island of Westry, there is the totally amazing Links of Noltland site, with its mysterious Structure #9, where they found 28 upside-down cattle skulls deliberately placed within its foundations. The skulls had been collected over a span of 400 years . . . so these were collected, passed down, and then deposited into the walls for some reason that was meaningful to these people. Also found at Links was a wonderful artfully arranged deposit of a scallop shell placed between the horns of a sheep skull. Another “composition” found was an arrangement of various animal jaw bones. In Structure 18—called the Grobust House—there is evidence of “decommissioning” with the discovery of 18 cattle skulls and six sheep skulls placed into the floor of the entrance passage to the building. Of course, the famous Westry Venus was also found there, placed inside a wall, into a little hidden cell. She is, by the way, the earliest example of the human form in their art; mostly they were into abstract lines. And then there are the enigmatic carved stone balls, not related to ritual deposits I don’t think, though some have been found in “contexts.” I could go on and on. But again, I really don’t want to know too much. I want to think about these things, not really know. (Beyond Orkney there is the Göbekli Tepe site in Turkey . . . I gotta stop, because that place truly scares me.)
Seahenge in England also lit something in me. Do you know it? It’s such a profound image. Archeologists uncovered a site with an oak stump turned upside-down inside a ring of split oaks, all positioned bark-side out so that the site might look like a giant oak. The central oak stump’s exposed root system provided a kind of platform of branches, possibly for bodies (or a body) to be draped over as it decomposed, or shed its “bark.” The honeysuckle vine twine they had used to drag the oak stump into place was found tangled around it. One of the outer oak planks has a split in it so one could enter the structure, but there was also a post stationed right outside that opening so that no one else could see inside. All of it is evidence of humans thinking and working with the world to make something meaningful to them. The upturned oak stump resonates in many ways, and I find it to be profoundly moving.
Teaching: I teach first year architecture students at Pratt to read images and write essays, but also to write “captions” for their models and drawings. The architectural caption is a weird animal, not a sentence, but it is to convey what is happening spatially with a heavy leaning on verbs. It’s a way to keep the architectural process sort of up in the air, not fixed, so that the students don’t determine too quickly what should happen. I tell them about The Cloud of Unknowing, and I tell them how architecture is like poetry: you find your form as you build it. When I teach poetry the real lesson is, for God’s sake do not “decide” what your poem will “about.” It really all comes down to that. I have some “good practices” I impart, but really, I just want my students to find the poem and to have it satisfy them without them feeling like they have nailed down a “message.” I also tell them to put pressure on the language, and themselves. Poetry is special language, it’s not laid down like a weak, workaday sentence; each poetic line should be perpendicular to the previous line. I also tell them to read the dead poets, they are less contaminated by the world and so are closer to poetry. I tell them to imagine when poetry was preverbal, when it was people stomping and clapping around a fire so that the fruits will come back, etc. I see so much chattering and posturing out there, so many A+ students writing poetry that is about them, not about trying to be a pure tributary adding to the deep River of Poetry. This poetic climate is not for me.
SS: There are a lot of things to unpack here. I suppose I must begin with your views on poetry, that it “helps us order the world.” There is something scholarly about this statement, even though you are traversing a different register here, which is to say, I am tempted to read in this ordering the particularity of a recipe, an instructive approach to add—at the very least, arrange—ingredients,
“events,” into a petri dish. I am reminded of jarring in “Making Jelly, Westport, Connecticut”: “We jarred each, black-ended worm intact, until the mash/took on the color of unwashed baby flesh.” Maybe it is the presence of the worm (word?) that grounds this act of jarring in a temporal zone, even though it is supposed to “preserve” that which is being jarred, against the vagaries of time. The result is, I would like to think, is one of magic.
And when the speaker calls it “[a] crude gruel, a viscous juice. A jarful of thickened/spoil plugged with a cap of paraffin,” I cannot help but excavate a fact: that paraffin, in its form as wax, is frequently used as a preservative. Elsewhere in the poetry collection—I am referring to “Spring Song in the Fallen Catholic’s Yard, Westport, Connecticut”—the speaker “shook the egg mass in a jar ( . . . ) shook the eggs in pondwater until the egg sacs burst.” All of this makes this act of jarring a kind of ritual. Maybe poets, like archaeologists, “see ritual in everything.” This is not to say that the speaker has a definite sense of what constitutes a ritual. As you said in your response, “No one knows what they mean, and that is the perfect thing to contemplate as a poet.” Is that why—in “The Long House, Westport, Connecticut”—“[w]hen the sticks spoke, we were afraid.” Because I, too, “want to think about these things, not really know,” which brings me to my question, if you “love prehistory, where we only have these artifacts (no writing) to try to divine what they were thinking of,” how do you reconcile, if you do reconcile, with the reality that as a practitioner of writing, you are endowed, and cursed, with the language? Would you consider poeticizing, insofar as I tag your writing under poetry, as an act of divining? If so, what are you trying to divine?
RG: I am no scholar, as my friend Rebecca Wolff once said about herself in an interview. Ordering things (and I don’t mean this pedantically, like order as clarity, order as explanation, order as paraphrase or summation) seems an okay definition of what artists do—while understanding that they do other things as well. When one experiences great art, the world looks different afterwards. (Again, I think of Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West.”) I try to put pieces together, make connections that might add up to some sort of truth. You don’t want to leave an audience out, I guess, and make it too hermetic, but my poems are only good when I am putting pressure on finding out why an image or memory or stone circle means something to me—why it gives me a feeling of potential, or a feeling like being in a Cloud of Unknowing.
I like what you see in the “The Long House” poem, a poem “about” my family really, and what to keep from that experience. One doesn’t just jar the beautiful fruit, sometimes things go wrong, insects get in or air or some agent that spoils what you are trying to preserve. No matter how much you try to hold on to things, or people, or their memories, the rot is going to get you in the end. Also, the rot of families, difficult families, that experience sets you up for your life and the memories are jarred in your mind, and again, it’s not all delightful marmalade. There is worm shit in there, too.
As for “Fallen Catholic’s Yard,” yes, that could be a kind of ritual, only here it’s not about preserving what is in the jar, but setting it free, or activating the life force. The frog eggs in the jar—that could be an ars poetica, meaning that I want energy and life in my lines and poems, as if each poem is some poor frog’s egg that I have forced to be born. I felt horribly guilty as a kid after doing that because the tiny tadpoles all died, but for a moment they were alive and I had been the agent responsible for that. Their death is what it feels like to finish a poem, occasionally, when it’s done, or one abandons it. It’s also the arc of a human life. We are born into the world, no one asks for it, and then, eventually, we all go belly up. It’s just the truth. The two invisible processes were both there, twinned in that jar, so it’s sort of an image of a creator, or a poet.
Great question about loving a time in the world when there was no writing, they probably enacted the greatest poetry since it was urgent and indivisible from their world. Poems made of rhythmic stamping around a fire, as I mentioned earlier, songs sung in their language—I wonder what that sounded like and how it pushed them deeper into their world. They did have art that was material and lasted and so I look to artifacts like the Lowenmensch or the Broighter Boat or the Cup-and-Ring marks, or the carvings in the passage graves at Loughcrew, or Neolithic building deposits—all that activity that meant so much but now is a disarticulated remnant, removed from its world. Their muteness interests me, their powerful meanings felt, intuited, but never to be known. While it may be frustrating that we will never know definitively, we do get these images that endlessly open, and that feels like hope to me. Look, writing separates us from the world even as we try to cathect to it with words. Our words will never ever be the thing, and one chooses to believe in the medium or become tormented by its inadequacies. I’m a lotus eater and don’t feel the need to know, as I’ve said, so I’m at once selfish, useless, and lucky. I’m a tribe of one. What am I trying to divine? Whatever I can while I am here . . . .
SS: The ars poetica of “frog eggs in a jar”! That is fascinating. And while the tadpoles live for a glorious moment (or two), and “the rot is going to get you at the end,” they make the case for the poet being the midwife of the language. I understand what you mean by the death of tadpoles and the finality of the poem, whether the latter be done with or abandoned. But this doesn’t seem as bad as it sounds. In that sense, The Needle explores, and extrapolates, the poem-as-a-worm motif. In “The Worms of Westport, Connecticut,” “the poem accretes, a regenerative worm” while the poet “writes toward the worm . . . and its mineral meaning,” even as she twists “some long, to dry to tines. And wove others [worms] into a wormweave the angel wore in splendor.” I wonder if the wormweave resembles a garland or a wreath, since the angel that wore it “stood / in the driveway calling in those pieces of the sublime.” I can’t help but think if this is what you meant when you said you “try to put pieces together, make connections that might add up to some sort of truth.” The angel seems to know it, whatever “it” is; the steeples, in “I Walk from Steeple to Steeple,” too, when they point out, “needle-like in their insistence / that the answer was always up.” I see the steeples through the archaeological prism you have given me here, “their muteness interests me.”
But there is another thing, rather a qualia, which I consider to exist in the same plane as that of steeples: memories. Memories: “all that activity that meant so much but now is a disarticulated remnant, removed from its world.” I go back to “The Worms of Westport, Connecticut,” to the line “when cut in two / both halves lived to crawl away from its opposite / like a human mind crawls away from its end.” Do you, everytime you ‘access’ a memory through the language—notwithstanding the fact that “words will never ever be the thing”—everytime
you try to find out “an approximate why a memory means something to you,” do you see you and your memory moving toward each other, like a “worm ( . . . ) and its mineral meaning,” or do you think these two halves, insofar as I conceive them to be so, “crawl away from” one another? Your words and the world they yearn to represent, do they attract or repel each other?
RG: The Westport driveway worm image “crawling away from itself ” operates in a few ways, I guess, the first being the way humans push the fact of death away in order to live. It also addresses how the world is slippery and hard to render in words, how hard poems are to write. The world does “crawl away” if you are putting pressure on your memory or an image or feeling. Poem as worm . . . that’s nice. Of course there are many famous poetry worms, some fly through the air, some crawl upstairs, some glow, some are pinned and wriggling . . . . Worms are of the earth and they eat the world—and corpses, of course—worms break it all down; they are of the underground and death but, if severed, both halves live . . . that interests me. As a kid, I chopped lots of worms in half to see that phenomenon happen. As an adult, that twinned image of death and life has resurrection overtones—and not necessarily Christian ones. Wormlife, human life . . . what is life? I mean, the basic spark, not the spirit or soul which is built, as Keats writes, “forged.” A worm has the same motor I do and you do . . . the same animator.
I imagine most poets are interested in the mute world, or at least the poets I love are. We make our own worlds to live in with our poems, we investigate or “order” it so it might have meaning. You push on the planks until they start to give way, to use an image from Emily Dickinson but in a different context. You must bust through all the under planks till, till what? Until the poet is satisfied they’ve gotten somewhere that resists further plank-breaking. At least that’s how I work and how I think of things. Someone once said to me “You are a Romantic Idealist,” and this was said as a pejorative to what they were calling the poetic approach of the day which was, in their words, “Ironic Relativism.” I was happy to be called a Romantic Idealist in relation to that work, I mean who wants ironic poems? Poems where the writer already “knows” their subject so well they trivialize it with that approach? I really don’t. The tone of those poems really depressed me in the ’90s; the poems all sounded very similar, and I thought it was a huge mistake, a truly unfortunate detour . . . those poems were more about the poet’s ego than humility before their lives and the world.
I try to employ “soft eyes” (versus “hard eyes”) when I write, as the famous and very wise riding teacher Sally Swift advised her students to do in her book Centered Riding. In this way, my poems are built, as Frost says, “as way leads on to way.” But this is my experience of writing, and since I am not really well-published or famous or being asked to do commissions and so on, I’ve been able to really not care about communicating. It’s wonderful, actually. What you say about attracting and repelling (like magnets) resonates with me; that implies a struggle, that implies work, and all animals want to shirk work, a horse, as I said earlier, wants to get away from a rider’s weight on its back, but a rider asks the horse to carry both the rider and itself. I prefer when I feel the poet doing those two things at once . . . be the horse that centers itself in its own weight, then the man/animal creature is one, it is fluid, elegant, and soul-to-soul. Honestly, otherwise, both rider and horse are unbalanced and look ungainly; it’s also dangerous. I’m sure that metaphor could be rearranged or opened up in smarter ways, but that’s all I’ll say for now. Carry the weight, don’t skitter out from underneath it. When that weight is avoided, you just get what is called creative writing, and that is not poetry. The Cloud of Unknowing doesn’t mean coasting or daydreaming, or creative writing; it’s more urgent than that. And gravity works the same in the Cloud of Unknowing.
SS: I see what you mean. Poetry, more than any other form of expression known to humans, can be urgent and yet “not communicate.” Expression. That’s what poetry is, isn’t it? Where communication prioritizes the listener (or the reader) and so clarity, expression places the focus squarely on the speaker and so on authenticity. It is interesting that you mention magnets. I can’t help but think about the force of magnetism and its effect on a compass needle. This needle exists in its own Cloud of (Un)knowing, I think, in that it “knows” magnetic north and nothing else. Even birds, which “make a pattern in the evening air,” and the “migrating monarchs,” are known to possess an inbuilt compass-like system that allows them to align with the earth’s magnetic field for navigation. I wonder if this Cloud of Unknowing is instinctual, not the way the wasps build their “paper pleasure dome” in “The Wasps’ House: The House in Westport, Connecticut,” nor the way the eponymous buds of “In the Deep Dank Dark, the Magnolia” open their seals, “tricked by the oily warmth of the underspace.” I am referring to our guiding instinct as a kind of unknowing, the way the horses of “Blake’s Horses of Instruction (For My Rental Horse in Pennsylvania)” “know these trails. And the direction home.” For so long we have associated this instinct with an innate ability to know things, but can we instinctually not know something? Maybe it is this instinct that keeps a good poet from trivializing their subjects, in which case the best way to reach home (from the garden) is to probably follow the claps, you know . . . Clap, clap, clap. Clap, clap, clap. Clap, clap, clap.
RG: This is so smart, smarter than I am, but I do think these things are in the book, though I didn’t set out to do any of that. Yes, the Cloud of Unknowing is a place of instinct, where one goes to feel their way, in the Christian context, to make a direct connection to God—forget using normal reason, forget thinking within any prescriptions of the Church, you comprehend the bigger mysteries through yourself. Think about Gloucester in King Lear, his eyes plucked out, blinded, sent to find his way “feelingly” all the way to Dover. That’s how I think of it. What triggers, evokes a full feeling? Funny you end on the clapping in that poem, that was a kind of magical thing. In our last apartment, our cats were allowed to go outside; we had a kind of football stadium of back gardens where cats could roam that was fairly contained. We would clap to call them home. I loved it, that my clapping, heard by the cats, would trigger their return to the apartment . . . . It was like when I was taking care of a horse in Iowa when I was at the Workshop. I would leave it out in the paddock most of the day. When I would bring him in, the same thing, I’d clap and the horse would come galloping at me from far away. It was so wonderful, as if he would run right through me. I love animals beyond measure, and cats and horses are especially elegant and remote animals—they are not dogs, which I also love, but dogs are more heart-breaking. Cats and horses have some artifice—and horses especially seem to me to be pure mythic beasts that walk among us.
Anyway, thinking can block the intuition and apprehension, and for my poems to be as I want them, I suspend thinking in a normal sense, and capitulate to dream logic or dream thinking. There, I suppose one finds the psychoanalysis concept of the “unthought known,” discussed by the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas—(he’s very good on Wallace Stevens, by the way). The “unthought known” is also related to the concept of True Self, the Authentic Self, that Donald Winnicott talks about. That Authentic Self is free and spontaneous and feels authentically alive during experience. That is a state, that Self, I trust to write my poems. I often think of poetry as mystical, to be honest, and I think about the “purity” of the poem, and the language—and though I’m not a real Christian, I do think the truth in poems is often a religious sort of truth, though that truth is of the poet’s own divining, and isn’t attached to Christ or Mohammad or Buddha or Vishnu or Zeus or any Supreme Being. There is this great Tom Petty song called “For Real” that was released after he died. At one point in the song, there is a clip of Petty talking about his work, and he says: “If you’re a young band and you have a choice whether you are going to do this or not, you’re in the wrong business. I never had a choice; I would do this anyway. I would do it even if no one liked it.” And that’s pretty much how I feel, too. Tom was a Bodhisattva, as my friend Mari L’Esperance says. I love the sort of savage, single-minded dedication Tom embodied—I could name poets who have this quality as well, but hey, Tom was a poet, too, just with the unfair advantage of an electric guitar—and the Heartbreakers.
SS: I sense that, too, in your work. I mean, a sense of ineffability that strives, insofar as I can use that word, to describe what Dana Ward calls in his poem “The Crisis of Infinite Worlds,” “a model /of terrible momentum / with unity of purpose / toward nothing so much / as cold, radiant nature / stripped of Eros, of becoming.” I would like to consider this striving as a becoming: to dig space, the way the wasp does in “The Fig Tree Wasp,” for death and life; this is not to say that your poetry can be reduced to a style of writing bound by a “unity of purpose.” That would make it “[t]oo easy a metaphor for life.” But it does open the possibility (for the reader) to consider your language for real. How else can I read something like “[a] wasp enters a fig”? It is that, and just that. I love the idea of poems being a truth of the poet’s own divining. I wonder if that’s how I must approach a piece like “The Deer Pit in an Iowa County, Twenty-Five Years Ago.” On my first read, it came across as a recollection, something that poetry revels in. But the bullet flies past the speaker’s ear in lyric time, and not in real time (of memory). Maybe it is not just an act of recollecting a trauma, but a way of renegotiating a better version of the trauma? Maybe this is what divining is? That bullet, it is still traveling . . .
RG: I learned the Japanese word “yugen” from Jorie Graham in graduate school, which basically translates as the ineffable. It’s a fabulous word that I now teach my students—it saves me a lot of yacking. Poems aren’t “about” anything, or the one’s I love aren’t, for the most part. I love the emphasis on the “unity of purpose,” if it doesn’t suffocate things and shut the poem down. That “unity of purpose” reminds me of the amazing A.R. Ammons poem “Guide,” where he writes “unity cannot do anything in particular.” And then the amazing questions the speaker of the poem asks the wind, “Are these the thoughts you want me to think I said but / the wind was gone and there was no more knowledge then.” Jesus! That is one of my favorite poems in the world, and it’s nearly impossible to teach because it’s nearly impossible to paraphrase in any satisfying or approximate way unless the students have been practicing Buddhism or are religious saints or something.
And “The Deer Pit” poem, it does have to do with poetry (the act of divining meaning, making meaning out of the shards), but it’s not an ars poetica, though maybe all poems are ars poetica at some level. The fact that a bullet flew past my head that day meant less to me than did the dead deer and the horror of the pit—all these beautiful animals dead and rotting, complex animals thought of as tossable roadkill—they seemed like poets, or those who fail at happiness because of the truth of the world or the truth of their lives, those who fail despite best efforts, those with pure hearts, etc. My brother is at the heart of the poem, really, a wonderfully talented person who lived a difficult, short life. I like that you say the bullet is in lyric time . . . because yes, the poem is not really about what happened; the bullet killed nothing that day, not me, nor any of the dead deer. The bullet is for whatever retards a person’s stride, whatever “forces” ruin people. People get crushed in this life, and I love Petty’s “For Real” for saying, forget the judges, forget the peanut gallery with their opinions and biases, forget the world that wants to kill you, and, basically, write your songs because you have to. It’s a highly romantic belief about art-making that I just happen to completely and totally believe.
SS: Yugen is such a poignant word. Thanks for bringing it into our lives. I am now scrambling for that A.R. Ammons poem. Speaking of wind, there is one in your poems. I am referring to “Spring Starts Early in this Frozen Sphere: A Poem on My Fiftieth Birthday after a Drawing of a Tomb.” In it, burnt charcoal bits, “tinkling /chimes the wind rearranged and then carried off.” I love what comes immediately after: “(I understand that harder things vanish with less force.)” Maybe “those who fail despite best efforts, those with pure hearts,” belong to this class of harder things. Having said that, the bullets and the dead deer notwithstanding, the more I read your work, and I refer to both The Needle and The Book of Nature, the more I think they are paeans to the natural world, by which I mean, under the loam of your language your poems teem with lives: the worm, the egg, the wind, the wasp . . . the ants who “move our world to theirs in pieces and in parts.” And the children, the wise-old children, who incorporate death into their play. Aren’t all these, “who fail despite (our) best efforts,” totemic beings? I want to include the poet, too, or is it just the speaker, who witnesses “a metaphor take place” in the molting of a snake. Should I, or would you, include the poet, too? I pose this question after much trepidation. Despite Jorie Graham’s insistence on yugen, or Keats’s on negative capability, the poet of the day seems to have a predilection of sorts to reach toward the ineffable. In “The Water Place: Worms and Mentor,” for instance, “[a]n apple is of great moral purpose, it falls / without grasping after fact, meaning it lives to rot,” while the poet, and the speaker, worm their “way through to the [apple] core.” I am double-reading this as an allegory to our almost postmodern quest for meaning, as in meaning-making as an art-form. As a poet, how do you guard against it?
RG: Oh, but I don’t guard against it, if I understand you correctly. I do think art is about meaning-making, which I guess is uncool. One can write freshly without capitulating to the drearier aspects of postmodernism, i.e., the feeling that everything has been done before. I think that gave rise to that ironic tone I mentioned earlier that dominated the ’90s. And Jorie didn’t insist on yugen, she accepted many approaches, even the ironic ones, but giving a name to the ineffable meant a lot to me. We were all influenced by French Theory then, even if we hadn’t read any! And we were very anxious about the lyric I, for some good reasons. We were also very anxious that words are slippery, and not the thing; put one word down and it explodes like a spider egg . . . lots of babies pour out.
Truly, these are important things to think about. So, I was happily opened up by the postmodern ideas but that realm was ultimately not for me . . . too thinky, as Berryman would say. But there are many approaches, and I just happen to prefer a more mystical approach. Everyone has their own set of circumstances, poets come to poetry through so many different channels. “The Mentor” is actually for Jorie, after 30 years, thanking her for the ways in which her teaching forced me to consider, well, many things, but the idea not to grasp after meaning, not to synthetically construct it, but let the situation of the poem ripen to its moment . . . not to force the hand, not gamble with the need to “know.”
I’m also not sure I separate the poet and the speaker of the poem either, probably another way I am not with the times. All poets are failures, I guess; we want the impossible to happen, and we write our hearts out trying to achieve whatever it is we want to achieve. I do my best, and try to use my materials completely; I mean, I try to make my life make sense to me, again, I don’t really set out to do anything but scratch an itch. I have a Yankee sensibility and want to use everything I see, not a tennis match on TV, but something like the deer pit in Iowa. It took 25 years for it to make it into a poem. Again, I’m not a scholar, and I am comfortable not knowing. Ashbery’s poem “And Others, Vaguer Presences” is a good example of the kind of poem I love, though I really don’t love all of Ashbery. But that poem in particular endlessly opens and offers us the mind of the poet as he’s pulling together half-thoughts and memories—he mentions a plaza and a stairwell, then the sonnet form, love, aesthetics, the “pretty lunging of the wind,” doorways and windows, those “lozenge-shaped openings” . . . what else? Is there anyone who “knows” what that poem is about? I like not knowing, and feel the hugeness of the thing. “The Frozen Sphere” poem was written after I purchased an amazing drawing of a tomb by poet/painter Peter Richards for myself for my fiftieth birthday. The tomb is empty. Turning fifty, one accepts a bit more that mortality is real, and like hard wood reduced to charcoal bits scattered by the wind, sooner than later I will be nothing at all. My family—mother, father, and brother—have all died and been cremated and I guess I’m going to be cremated as well.
SS: “All poets are failures.” Yes. Maybe all poems are failures, too. Monuments of, and more importantly, FOR nothing. Empty tombs! which would make reading a poem a bit like excavation, an archeological act. It seems we have come full circle. I can’t think of a better way to end this amazing conversation, Regan. Thank you so much for taking time to patiently answer my often lengthy questions!
RG: Thank you so much for asking them, Shriram!
Shriram Sivaramakrishnan is an alumnus of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry and an M.F.A. student at Boise State University. His poems have appeared in DIAGRAM. His debut pamphlet, Let the Light In, was published by Ghost City Press in June 2018. He tweets at @shriiram.