Commentary, Interviews

Interview // To Invite Time: A Conversation with David Baker

by Zach Savich | Contributing Writer

David Baker is the author of many books of poetry, including Scavenger Loop (2015) and Changeable Thunder (2001), and prose about poetry, including Show Me Your Environment (2014). His newest book is Swift: New and Selected Poems (W.W. Norton, 2019). We corresponded about this selected volume, the dance between accuracy and mystery, and about how poetry can “invite time.”

Zach Savich: Two of the new poems in Swift extend from a phrase from Lowell’s “Epilogue”: “why not say what happened.” I had that in mind while reading the collection. Most broadly, I’m curious about “what happened” as you assembled it. What was it like to look back through thirty-some years of work with this volume in mind? Did you find what you thought you would?

David Baker: Here’s what happened. I started this book, Swift, in 2011 or so. I spent a long time selecting poems and thinking about the structure; a year or so of fiddling, remixing, and showing half a dozen friends. But something else was coming along at the same time, too, in the form of a long poem about the Midwest and farming—about factory farms, pesticides, small towns—though I couldn’t get it right. I was trying to juggle Swift with this new poem.

And then in early 2013 my mother, who’d recently moved with my father into assisted living, began to fail. She died in mid-2013. All my other concerns just evaporated for a while. I spent her last few weeks with her and him back home in Missouri.

When I returned to work later that summer, and to that long poem, I knew I had to set aside Swift and focus on this new thing. I mean, the Midwest poem had to include my mother and her last weeks and her death. That poem became “Scavenger Loop.” It also become the title poem to a whole book of new poems that was eventually published in 2015.

Long answer, I know. But with Scavenger Loop finished, I could return to Swift, and when I did, I returned with deeper intensity, a purposefulness, to cull. I was writing new poems while making and remaking the structure of Swift. I wanted this new-and-selected to be as sharp as possible, as demanding of each poem and each book it represented. In the end, I included no poems from my first book, and only seven from my second and third books together, and only seven from each subsequent book. I picked out a tight set of new poems, fifteen of them, in three loose suites. I have left out poems I like, poems I sometimes read at readings; but I wanted a representative, lean volume of poems from my past and present. It’s less a greatest-hits than a book with a dynamic movement of its own. I hope. And you understand, this is much clearer in retrospect than in real life. Mostly I had very little idea what I was doing, and mostly I was just trying to proceed one poem at a time. I prefer that to thinking in terms of big-pictures and, especially, in terms of projects.

Lowell’s poem also suggests—or hopes—that “grace of accuracy” may “give / each figure in the photograph / his living name.” In Swift, precise identification—naturalistic, medical, historical, regional, emotional, and so on—often gives way to further mystery, and it’s mindful of its limits. “That’s the last he said to me in words. I can’t imagine,” concludes one of the new poems. How are you currently thinking about the relationship between the “grace of accuracy” and what we can’t imagine, what we can’t say in words?

It is essential to me to name names, whether that’s in terms of etymology, or natural typology, or political accuracy. I love the names and the history of the names of things; that’s a fundamental fascination of poetry, isn’t it? Every word was once a poem, says our dear Emerson. Names are part of our manner of identification: how we recognize things, but also how we related to them.

But I guess it’s part of my own nature to see these precise identifications as only pieces of a bigger, maybe singular thing. As we parse and factor the world, we may be missing the biggest picture. I mean the interdependence of things. Timothy Morton coins a great paradigm for this in his term “hyperobjects.” Not a single thing is really independent of all the other things.

That’s what you are calling mystery. Me, too. I think it’s like this, for me. I want language—all those names and identifications and signifiers and pointers—to take me to the place where they are meaningless, irrelevant. Where they evaporate into some thing that isn’t especially lingual or lexical. I do have in me a streak of mystic, or magician, or some sense of the holy-beyond-words of it all. Words lead me to a place where there aren’t words.

I guess I finally like those poems best that lead me to the point—not at the ending—the point where the words aren’t there. Dickinson is best at this, I think, but I also turn to Celan for this paradox, to Merwin sometimes, to Buson sometimes, to Whitman.

Let’s try it this way. The end of the poem can be the conclusion; it can be the accomplishment of all its language and its tactics. Or: it can be the place you stand looking even further out, or in, or with. That’s grace, as you say. Toward eternity, Dickinson says. This is the single greatest use of a preposition in American lyric poetry. “And yet / Feels shorter than the Day / I first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity—”

Do you have other nominations for “single greatest” parts of speech in American lyric poetry? I ask, in part, because I’ve been drifting around the “or” in Whitman’s phrase “all these I feel or am”—how much calibrates in that.

Okay, you touched a nerd. I mean you touched a nerve with your part-of-speech “drift” question. In fact, I do have some other nominations. I haven’t got an example for all eight parts of speech. How to pick the greatest noun in American poetry, or verb?—since those are the fundamentals of imagery for nearly all poets.

Maybe for nouns I’d just refer anybody to Edward Taylor, the 17th century poet-preacher-doctor. He’s the strangest, most audacious, most delicious spinner-out of nouns in our poetry. Just pick a poem, from his hundreds, and you’ll see: “Distaff,” “Wedden-Knot,” or how about his “Crystall meele Bowle”? I’m a sucker for archaic nouns.

And I suppose I do have a favorite verb. We’re not supposed to like being verbs and instead depend on transitive, active verbs. But get a load of this:

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

This little gem—the whole poem—is “Prayer” by Galway Kinnell. And that run of three consecutive “is” verbs is a tour-de-force display of doing what a lyric isn’t supposed to do. Plus out of its fourteen words, half of them are pronouns. Indistinct pronouns and being verbs are usually the bane of specificity.

As for interjections, I’ll refer anybody to Albert Goldbarth, who must have more “Boffo”s and “Blam”s than anybody else per square poem.

Here’s my favorite conjunction, as it appears in James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” This is the whole short poem:

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home,
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

That “cluck” is a good verb, isn’t it? But “Therefore,” on a glaring line by itself, has to be breaking at least two or three poetry rules. How can that word work as a whole line? As a part of speech, it functions as a conjunction—my favorite example in American poetry—though I think one could also claim it as a conjunctive adverb.

It also breaks another rule. In his terrific essay, “Nuts and Bolts,” Richard Hugo warns again using words of “temporality, causality, and opposition.” He wants us not to signal our transitions but just, boom, go from thing to thing with no grammatical stitching. That’s generally a powerful tactic. I’ll show you what I mean in a minute.

But I love the Wright example. I like it because it operates as a self-conscious syllogism. You know: because A, and then B, therefore C. The sons growing suicidal is given as a cogent result of poverty, rupturing hard work, and the torture of disadvantaged families. The sons’ action are a direct result of those conditions, and the hyper-obvious conclusive “therefore” seals this not just as a powerful image but a fatal fact in a terrible argument.

Another famous American poem, Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” functions like a syllogism, too, like a catalog of evidence. But where Wright wants to land hard on his conclusive “Therefore” and the subsequent images, Stevens leaves out any causality in his lists. In one section he says:

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I might imagine a “thus” before the second sentence, or some other rhetorical marker. The whole poem proceeds by stacking these images without any explanatory transition. But the fateful ever-present blackbird seems like an inevitable result as well as an inevitable fact—all the more spooky because it just appears without logical “proof.”

I shouldn’t skip Wright’s powerful adverb either, “suicidally,” working such oxymonic magic with “beautiful.” But my favorite adverb in American poetry is from William Matthews. At the end of his poem, “Loyal,” about the pathos-laden problem of euthanizing one’s old dog, he says:

         I wanted to weep,
not “like a baby,”
in gulps and breath-stretching
howls, but steadily, like an adult,
according to the fiction
that there is work to be done,
and almost inconsolably.

To weep inconsolably about putting to sleep your pet would be pathetic, especially given the world’s more gruesome horrors. “Almost” has such nuance, practically winking at us, as it undoes the very act it seems to be describing.        

Maybe those moments show one way precise utterance can open beyond the lingual. “Scavenger Loop,” among other poems, highlights how a related sort of “semantic drift” can kindle distinct decompositions. “The wood returns to the soil”: this is mystical, but also—what?—simply fundamental?

“Semantic drift”—that’s a cool phrase, isn’t it? You pulled it from my title poem, and I pulled it from linguistics. It’s a term for the fluidity of meaning. The drift is essential to poetry; rather than try to stabilize a word or gesture, a poem can find its deepest purposes in the exchange of meanings, inside the drift. I’ve hope the conceit of the scavenger could stand as a figure for a poet, in this work, someone who picks up, digests, expels, refreshes things. It’s about planting; it’s about conversation of matter into matter, mattering into mattering. I think that was my deepest hope in that poem. The scavenger as the natural hero.

This suggests other kinds of exchange. You’re also a critic. Looking back at the work in Swift, do particular theories, terms, dynamics from the last decades of American poetry come to mind? I see continuities across the collection, but I’m aware that these poems were written while you may have been talking with people about, say, the “elliptical” in one year, the “post-confessional” in another, “nature” and “environment” in various ways. Are there poems in the book, for you, that especially show the record of those exchanges? Or that, from your current view, reveal something about poetics that an earlier year’s debates may have missed?

I see patterns where there probably aren’t any, and I surely don’t see things that other folks will see plainly. I try to write one poem at a time, and sing truly, and invent with adventurousness. After a while things change, a self changes, aesthetic and social conditions change. A book like this, covering many years, is an inevitable record of those changes and consistencies, intentional or not.

I do see some fundamental things. I have always been a “nature” poet, and that has deepened into more pointed political conviction, at times into more intrepid naming of names at times. John Shoptaw, in a fine short article in Poetry magazine a few years ago, even gave names—nature poetry, environmental poetry, ecopoetics—to three stages of recent evolutions of this poetic. I think I’ve been all of those at different times. One thing I learned in doing Radiant Lyre, especially in the year I focused on “nature” poems, was the delicious old relationship among the pastoral, the idyll, the georgic, and the eclogue. During my work on that chapter for Radiant Lyre, and ever since, I’ve explored those modes in some of my poems. I even have poems called “Late Pastoral,” “Midwest Idyll,” and a book titled Midwest Eclogue. I’ve always been a nature poet and have tried to sharpen my art to think about what that means in more and more ways.

I’ve also always been interested in the relation of story to song—narrative to lyric—and I think I have always been both kinds of poet. Well, I think a good poem is always both, to some degree, along a sliding scale. Perhaps my narrative sense has grown more fractured or doubtful, more inviting of breakage and repair. Perhaps my lyrical sense has grown deeper or more spacious. I hope so. But my conviction has also deepened that those two modes of expression are always partners in every good poem. Language is itself a narrative construction; and every good poem, to be a poem, must have some manner and serious degree of lyric artfulness.

I am not the right authority on this, but perhaps I lean more toward a latter-day Romanticism than toward Post-structuralism. I am restless enough, too, not to have intentionally settled into “my voice” or a continuous style. I trust myself over the many years to become myself rather than to try to become myself. Whatever that is. There are gestures with which I feel affiliation (a kind of deep sincerity alongside self-skepticism, a groundedness in nature) and there are others that I distrust or turn away from (sarcasm, snark, easy humor, meanness).

This seems like it could connect to your work as an editor, to trust yourself, without simply asserting yourself.

From my lucky vantage as Poetry Editor of the Kenyon Review, I have the privilege of reading and seeing just about everything that contemporary poetry is and does. I try as an editor to appreciate and engage with so much more than I try to accomplish within my own poems. I definitely don’t try to appeal to the flavor-of-the-day poetry, nor try to calculate the social-media appeal of my work, as some poets seem to do. The task is to distinguish between a fad and a deeper new thing; and even as I say that, I align myself away from poets for whom the fad, the pop-culture zinger, is an appealing thing, and more toward a kind of patience. But I’ve learned this. I’m not writing for a wide audience. I’m writing for a long one.

As for trusting myself as an editor, I guess it really means that I trust myself as a reader, a curious one, with demanding goals. I trust myself to change and yet to expect a kind of quality of invention and language in what I look for or what I read.  I trust myself to find things of real interest that I didn’t know I was looking for: that’s the hardest thing, staying open, and that’s the most important.  It means continuing to be educated by poetry and poets.  And again, I have a far wider aesthetic expectation for the magazine’s submitters than for my own work. I really don’t think about my own work when I’m reading for the magazine, though I have to be aware of my own tastes and preferences, to trust them, to doubt them, to change them.

I see I didn’t name many specific poems in this answer. That’s for someone else.

Well, I can be that someone else. This volume ends with “Haunts,” the title poem of your 1985 collection. It’s a poem one could read alongside other works about the missing, about the lives of the lost (Roethke’s “The Lost Son,” Matthews’s “Search Party,” etc.), and it brings us back to questions of identification. The poem extends from an epigraph concerning a skeleton “identified” as “that of a hunter reported missing from his home 27 years ago,” pairing that disappearance with the birth of a child, “David.” That pairing—its identification—merges in the end, through a kind of bestowal, or even inheritance:

He will try to rub his legs
and remember his name.
He will stay there

finally too cold to shiver,
relaxing, gun on lap,
and look over the beautiful, sweeping
emptiness the world has become,
for all my life.

I think this is very beautiful. It’s not a single part of speech, but I could go on about all the tones I hear in “for all my life,” and I appreciate that this collection finds the poem another twenty-seven years and change down the road. With that scope in mind, could you say more about how you imagine the “long” audience for poetry? What practices and values can foster and sustain it, given all the world has presently become?

“The Lives of the Lost,” that is a great evocative phrase for one of the fundamental purposes of poetry, don’t you think? Some of those lives are our own. Doesn’t Phil Levine have a book called The Names of the Lost? This speaks to the memorial and elegiac use of the poem. And, especially in Levine’s title, to the identifying use, just as you say.

Anyway, once I decided not to include in Swift any poems from my first book, Laws of the Land, I knew pretty quickly how to end this collection: with “The Anniversary of Silence” leading into “Haunts,” and the ending of “Haunts” leading onward, pointing outward. The book reads back through my writing life, from recent to old, as we’ve discussed. At the end here I wanted it to continue looking into—what? time, or patience, or selflessness.

I don’t mean that in any heroic sense. I mean it practically, existentially. We’re here for a trice and gone.

Maybe this connects to your question about the long audience. I hope to conceive of my audience—my ideal audience, the readers I write for and think about—as extending backward and forwards in time. What would Emerson say, and Wyatt, what would Dr. Williams think if he read one of my poems or books? Would it hold up? What might my daughter in fifty years think of her father’s poems? What about someone coming across Swift in a library, or someone who stumbled across some poems a long time from now? I try to write poems that are made well enough to stand up to time, to invite time. It’s ludicrous to say this here in print, even to think it. But it is more ludicrous to write poems and not to think this. Time will erase all of my work, and yours, and our nation and eventually our species. Accepting that erasure, the benign disregard that natural processes hold for us, is what Li Po enacted, writing his poem beside the stream and then folding it into a boat and setting it to sail away down the waters.

I feel sure that we will continue to have poetry as long as we are here. I don’t know what forms it will take. Poetry has been many things, and with the growth of social and electronic media, computer-generated intelligence, all the growth in biomedicine, AI, interactive textual engagement, on and on, I have no idea what it will look or sound like in the future.

But humans need music and magic and measurement. I’m certain of this. They need a way to remember what has happened and a way to project forward, and to do so with some grasping toward beauty and precision. They—we—need a way to sing of our deepest emotions. What is more essential than this? What is more human?

Zach Savich‘s latest book of poetry is Daybed (Black Ocean, 2018). Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Burnside Review,Colorado Review, Laurel Review, Sixth Finch, and Under a Warm Green Linden. He directs the BFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of the Arts and co-edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series.