An Interesting Moment for Kim Addonizio
from An Interview with Kim Addonizio
by Susan Browne
Five Points, Volume 14, Number 1
As part of her line of questioning, Browne apparently wants Addonizio to talk about the “split” in American poetry. Is there “a” split? I think it’s probably more like a net of fissures. But over and over again, when I hear people talk about contemporary American poetry, they often talk about it as if it were these two creatures. One is a semi-autobiographical (or autobiographical-sounding, or pseudo-autobiographical) narrative/lyric that revolves around a realistic-feeling scene with an identifiable lone speaker going through some generally domestic task. The other side of the split is usually described as something like “energetic word play.” What bothers me most about this, is that the first category is centered around content, and the second, around an attitude toward language. That sets up the question of what we’re looking for when we go to poetry. We know examples that are usually trotted out for each. For the first category, we have Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins. For the second, we have John Ashbery, et al, and groups with names (LANGUAGE poets, Post-avant, experimental, etc).
The problem—well, one of the problems—with this is that it isn’t so cut and formed as that. Where does Dean Young fit, for example? Category A, we agree. But why? Where does Kay Ryan fit? Also A, but why? The lines are, in many ways, political. It’s like party affiliation. So lately I’ve read things by people trying to claim Rae Armantrout into Category A, from out of Category B, so that people can feel OK reading her work, I guess. Or something like that.
What a mess. Kim Addonizio is a solid Category A poet, though, which makes the following exchanges all the more interesting.
Here are a few excerpts from the interview:
Addonizio: When I write, I'm making a poem, period. I don't care what people think about how I portray them or myself (or rather "myself"), because it's a construction. It's a fiction, to me, as much as a novel or short story, and operates in exactly the same way; the underlying concerns are mine, but the drama of how they are enacted on the page may or may not directly correlate.
Let me try and put it another way, because this bugs me, the whole "confessional" brush with which I'm tarred. In a poem, I might take a fleeting feeling and amplify it for the sake of making it more dramatic. I'm not suicidal, for example. But if I have a moment when I can inhabit the consciousness of what it would be like to want to kill myself, I might write a poem with a suicidal speaker. I might even write the poem in order to inhabit that consciousness. Or, at the other extreme, I might ramp something up for the sake of the comedy. I'll change details, etc. I don't give a shit about "what really happened," because it's confining to stick to it; I'd much rather make things up. And if there is an "I" in the poem it might or might not be me.
So far so good. This is the party line on autobiography. But then it starts to get more complicated (interesting):
Browne: Your poems, in the past, often have been narrative. Do you feel your work is changing now? What about that thorny issue, narrative/non-narrative? Some contemporary poems are all leap and no heart, so difficult to follow and resistant to meaning that I feel they lose any connection to anything other than language play.
Addonizio: I do believe in poems making a kind of sense—the sense of each part being necessary to the whole. But when a poet seems to be setting out to say something, and yet that "something" remains obscure even with a lot of investigation on the reader's part, I end up as frustrated as you.
Browne: What poem of yours surprised you the most, either in rereading or writing it?
Addonizio: I just created a poem out of a revision exercise I gave my students. It's from The Practice of Poetry. You cut up an old, failed poem and save just the good parts—little bits of intriguing language—and it usually turns out there aren't very many good parts. My poem was originally titled "By Way of Apology." I had a few phrases, one of which was "a pair of big, invisible hands." Just for the hell of it, I made that the title, and got led into a very weird and fun piece. Another surprising one was generated by a writing exercise I found on the Internet that poet Josh Bell had given a group of students. It had all kinds of random requirements to follow. I love how, using chance, you still pull in the things you need to address. Some level of your brain puts it all together. And it's more interesting to me, right now, than sitting down to tell a "this happened, and then that happened" kind of story. I love narrative, but the way I know how to write a narrative bores me, and I want to do something different. I want the drama to be lyric, and not narrative, if that makes any sense.
Browne: I want to hear more about that.
Addonizio: Take a poem like "November 11," from Lucifer at the Starlite. As Orwell said, "The war is not meant to be won; it is meant to be continuous." That poem has narrative moments: a character drives to the gym and thinks about various deaths—first some closer to home, then it moves out into the war deaths, and slings back to a neighbor's niece. So all that happens in the poem is that she runs on the treadmill. But of course it's not about the gym. That's the framework.
Browne: It's interesting how you weave little bits of the narrative all the way through. If you didn't have the narrative, I don't think I'd be there. . . What about emotion, which seems so suspect in much contemporary poetry? I'm thinking of another poet—call him Poet X. His poems have interesting language play. Maybe, at the very end, they have a glimmer of heart. Then I say, OK, and go on to the next poem and a bunch of language pyrotechnics that are nicely done. Even though I have a pretty good vocabulary, I look up these words and learn some new ones, and the poem is over, and I feel nothing. So is it me? Maybe it's me. And I don't care how much Poet Y has been broiled over the non-narrative fire and turned into a brisket because of that—but I can't wait for her next book to come out because I think I'm going to hear, as William Carlos Williams said, some human news.
Browne’s response is as interesting as Addonizio’s comment. It seems to me Browne is almost admonishing Addonizio to keep from straying too far from the narrative (the party line): The Narrative, the solid Category A platform. It’s quite an interesting moment. The poet, Addonizio, is expressing boredom with the party, wanting a little of that Category B mix-it-up attitude, and is being nudged back by her reader, Browne.
And why must there be this frame? This narrative frame of the person going to and then at the gym? Is it a counterpoint? Is it necessary? Life vs Death? What would the poem be like if it were to be just the stuff Addonizio seems to want to talk about (the piles of dead), rather than what she feels she needs to add? It’s a small moment, but telling, when it comes to our predispositions, our assumptions about what art needs. Browne is reminding Addonizio not to forget to add the frame. Why? Because if it weren’t there, Browne wouldn’t know how to follow it. But why does the narrative frame help? Why can’t the poem just be the web of accruing associations around the idea of death? Would it then be a Category B poem? Possibly. Might this be the line of distinction?
So Dean Young is Category A, because as imaginative and various as his lines are, he still maintains a hint of this narrative frame. And a poet like Ashbery doesn’t . . . But what about the Category B poet who writes a project book? Cole Swensen, perhaps? There’s a LOT of frame in some of her books, but it’s not the personal narrative frame. That seems to be it. The moment of difference. And Addonizio is growing weary, perhaps, of politely staying on her side of the line. I hope so. And I hope a lot of other poets also grow weary of this unspoken requirement. It has long become a telegraphed move. This next bit is also telling, in this regard: the Category A poet Y and the Category B poet X (I know, I know, the math is getting complicated, but this is what happens when people refuse to name names):
And what of a poet like James Tate? He's always been a heavily narrative poet. And what of Mary Jo Bang? I'd call a great many of her poems narrative . . . So it's not just narrative, but a particular flavor of narrative, where the associations don't get too wild (tinged with the surreal, maybe), and the language is treated as a conveyor of singular content (without the messy Derrida troubles?). There seem to be a lot of rules in Category A/Y. And so what of the special cases, like Dean Young and Kay Ryan? Or are they special cases?
Addonizio: But you know, I'm a little bored by Poet Y. I couldn't get through the last book; the poems seem to make the same moves over and over, so I know where Poet Y is going already, and I lose interest.
Browne: Me, too, but would you rather read Poet Y or, oh God, Poet Z?
Addonizio: Anyone but Poet Z. Who is doing very well without my readership.
So yes, back to a little joke to break the tension. We can all agree about Popular Poet Z. But what about these Xs and Ys? Category A and Category B? For me these categories are almost completely useless, unless it’s to simplify voting day. It’s like Democrats and Republicans, when really both parties are a huge mix of tendencies.
Yes, but, back to the questions: who gets Russell Edson? James Tate?
It’s one of those things that only looks like you’re really talking about things if you’re flying 1,000 feet up. So let’s say Poet Y is Rita Dove (or Lynn Emanuel), and Poet X is Forrest Gander (or D.A. Powell). Who is poet Z? Probably Billy Collins, then, I guess? He really gets it from everyone. But anyway, you get the point.