(This article appeared in the summer 2002 edition of RAIN TAXI.)
Ann Lauterbach is one of the most intriguing and challenging poets writing today. Manipulating the dimensions of space-time in language, violently and continuously arriving in the present, she displays a dedication to complexity which is elusive. There is a constant tension in her work between the clean edge of socio-philosophical ideas and the messiness of their articulation in a language that sees through the confident, illusory transparency of newpaper-prose and other forms of mass communication.
Her newest volume, If In Time: Selected Poems 1975-2000, traces the many changes this work has gone through. The leisurely, meditative, lushly Stevensian poems of 1987's Before Recollection turn to the more edgy heteroglossia of 1991's Clamor. And somewhere between Clamor and the book And For Example (1994), Lauterbach's work underwent a dramatic formal splintering and a shift toward emphasis on the present moment of arrival. This mature style of Lauterbach's, which extends through 1996's On a Stair and a volume of new poems here, The Call (2000), is inextricably bound up with the notion of mourning and the question of how to live with loss.
Lauterbach has stated in past interviews that the process of formal splintering in the poems began with her sister's death around the time of the book Clamor. But though the death of an individual began a process of mourning that still haunts the poems, the mourning throughout these recent books feels very large, very public. It eschews the surfaces of what is for what came before, but what came before doesn't look too good either, so the mood here can't be nostalgia.
Instead, in these recent books there is a kind of rootlessness (or awareness of multiple roots), an immersion in ongoing structures and processes. These new poems voice displeasure with both the present and the past, but always stated with a kind of backward nod. This feeling of the "rootless elegiac" in Lauterbach's work may be partially related to the profusion of Edenic metaphors (images of gardens and utopian spaces), and her figuring of the garden as a kind of poem-space outside time -- a thing that holds both past and future at bay, a place where hierarchies could be reversed or re-visioned. I suppose there is a yearning here, (in the distrust of commodification and the urge to stop time) for something iconic, but this yearning is complicated by Lauterbach's strategy of positing multiple icons in a poem, even at the level of individual words and names, none of which holds any epiphany or final answer.
Whereas Stevens' icons resulted from a process of imagining, Lauterbach's demonstrate how models or images provide concretions central to the process of thinking as eros, the places where thinking intersects with touch. Lauterbach's concretions are not so much "iconic" as they are passing flashes of the world's landscape, part of a larger flow over time. Furthermore, though like Stevens Lauterbach tends to build philosophical arguments whose "sense" is dispersed among its objects, she is more aware of how much transparency can actually be communicated by language--her "arguments" are repeatedly disjointed or dislocated with every line break, evoking recognizable rhetorical structures yet ultimately moving through a series of digressive leaps. In Lauterbach's work, the elusive dream continually disappears from the tomb of the word.
Tim Peterson: You have said that in poetry, subject matter is different from content, and that making sense is different from meaning. Could you elaborate on these distinctions, and how making them might be important to your most recent poems?
Ann Lauterbach: Subject matter is what you’re writing about, the aboutness in the poem, so it’s a poem about X: “my trip to Alaska.” The content of the poem is going to be what you have to say about that “aboutness,” so it’s more connected to the work, the formal ingredients, of the poem. The meaning is something that can only come from the reader. You can’t invest a poem with meaning; only a reader can invest a poem with meaning. Making sense is only one possible way of making meaning, and poetry has other ways of making meaning. There are conventions to making sense and some of them have to do with the way in which causes and effects are related, and that’s in syntax, in English syntax, subjects and objects and so on; it’s in prose, and it’s in the way in which we imagine that a certain kind of picturing or defining or depicting gives us something like sense. And it does—I don’t deny that reading the newspaper makes a certain kind of sense, but it’s not a kind of sense that I am primarily interested in in my work. I’m much more interested in a more difficult kind of sense-making, and I mean difficult in the sense of complexity, and obscurity, but not willful obscurity, just the fact that there are certain things we cannot penetrate and do not know, we can’t know, we may never know. There are things that are furtive and peripheral and ephemeral—I like the idea of being responsive to some of that kind of content. Or, given what I just said, I like trying to make the content address that, those things. So the subject matter in my work is often under the poem, or to the side of the poem.
TP: I remember a poem where you talk about going under the pond, or under the ice.
AL: Yes, one of the “On” poems. It’s a poem to Rick Moody. And there’s a much much earlier poem of mine which I don’t think I kept, in which the first line is “under the surface.” The poem is called “Tremble in a Late Age,” because Gertrude Stein said it was hard to write poetry in a late age. It’s from my first book, actually. So I think I’ve always been interested in a kind of subversion, or submersion, or something that is about the relation of making new and compelling surfaces by getting under the surfaces of things. And that’s pretty exact for me.
TP: You also said that you’re very interested in creating pleasure. What is the relationship between the pleasure of the surface and that submersion?
AL: Well, I guess one has to define what one means by “pleasure.” For me, it’s about something that demands concentration, that allows a reader or a listener to leave where he or she is, and go to another place, because those are the things that give me pleasure. And it’s almost a kind of erotics, there’s a kind of erotic quality to it; I don’t mean sexuality particularly, but I mean that thing of being called, or being compelled, or being drawn, or daring. And there’s a desire for me of a certain kind of dumbstruck quality (and I don’t mean that I ever achieved this), where you are so surprised and thrown that things come unstuck in your own ways of being able to understand. I love doing that, and I love having that happen to me. So I’m always trying to make something that has those kinds of possibilities, and that makes linguistic events happen that sit on the edge between comprehension and incomprehension.
TP: What is the relationship between how you write a poem, and how you anticipate a reader’s experience of the poem? In the past, you have talked about writing poems by field—how when the reader experiences a poem, they’re going to experience it in a different way than when you’re writing it.
AL: That’s absolutely, necessarily true, because the underpinning of one of my main beliefs is that I don’t believe you can have my experience. Of anything. So I’m not interested, either, in your finding me in my poems. I want you to find something else.
TP: So you’re not interested in objective correlative?
AL: Well, Eliot’s objective correlative is interesting, because he does believe that you try and find something in language that is the correlative of what you feel or know. He’s wrong about Hamlet, but he was onto something about the workings of language, the limits of signification. But he wanted too much equation, too much symbolic tropism, if one could say that. I like an image to be true as image, not as a stand in for something else, and I want the reader to be able to engage that image directly.
Some artists want to be strongly, directly, linked to their poems. Robert Pinsky wants to be linked to his poems, I think. Or, for that matter, famously, Frank O’Hara. Robert Frost wanted to be linked to his poems: he had a voice, he had things he had to say, he wanted to be recognized within that voicing or presence, and I have no problem with people who want that—it’s just not what I want (and when I say I, I mean “I” the self, the “Ann,” not necessarily “I” the poet. That’s a distinction that John Ashbery once made. He said there’s a distinction between “Ashbery the poet” and “John”). So, to try and answer your question: I collect material through scanning, a peculiar way of hunting, a disparate movement in time and space, a form of listening, and I get this material, and then I try and make it into a language event, which I place before the reader. And the reader can have any number of ways of thinking through it or responding to it. Somewhere underneath the work, again, is a kind of tonality or emotional space or affective clarity that is important to me. So finally, even as I’m engaged in formal issues, I’m interested in trying to say something, or rather, to put a way of saying something forward. So that’s a kind of contradiction to what I just said. I do have things I think of as instructions, not in a didactic way, but maybe more in a philosophical way. They’re about offerings, or supposes, or inquiries, or “how about trying it this way?” because I’m compelled by the idea of granting people a sense of their agency. So my work has to be emblematic of that, both the risk of that and the pleasure of that.
TP: Do the forces that Bakhtin says "serve to unify the verbal-ideological world" play a role in your work, and how does the sublime relate to that? I'm thinking of the way the Language poets tended to draw the connection between the world and words rather tightly—I'm thinking also about your love of prepositions, or connective tissue in language, and I wonder if there's some kind of latent metaphor lurking there about the connections between the one and the many, or between private people in a public culture.
AL: On the idea of connections, the prepositional, I'm as equally interested in the disconnections as in the connections. The gaps are as significant to me, because I'm interested in what happens in a gap, or even what a gap is, because in some sense in the fullness of the world there are no gaps, there's only the conceit of a gap. Everything is continuous and contiguous, and it's just a matter of where you decide those continuities and those contingencies all operate.
One of the gaps, I guess, which one wants to heal (so it's more like a lesion) is that place between the public and the private, and that place between the one and the many, and so that goes back to very early American tropes, I think, and is about a fundamental understanding of the relationship between the Democratic and the individual. And what I see constantly is this divorce between the function of individuation in relation to the group or the community and a desire for that relationship to be flexible and porous. I think the great invention of democracy is that nothing gets stabilized—it's always in motion, and this is what Whitman does, and in some other completely different way it's what Dickinson does, because Dickinson's sense of scale in language is second-to-none. Whitman needs all those lines, and Dickinson needs very few, but essentially they're both, I think, struggling with issues of the relationship between self and world, and world in the sense of "the many" and are very much less interested, it seems to me, in that creature that comes out of high modernism—“the artist,” that named figure.
In terms of "ideology," I want to think about forms of resistance and subversion, on the one hand, a questioning of public rhetoric, and a responsibility to one's own set of beliefs on the other; the ethical space that opens within a poetics and suggests "a form of life." Oppen is important for me in these regards, his complex investigation of the notion of "clarity" in relation both to silence and to transparency; the way he thwarts transcendence but doesn't quite submit to the rational. The "sad marvels" of the actual world; the "shipwreck of the singular."
TP: What about Stevens?
AL: Stevens takes language to an uncanny place, for me, anyway, despite his lushness and materiality. Oppen and Stevens. They're different kinds of poets, but both of them come right up to the edge of thinking about transcendence, and being thwarted by it, not being able to get to it. The limit. In Stevens there is a bravery and extension in the work that I find extremely moving as he comes up against the idea of "the possible." Inside of that possibility he invents tropes, images which will suffice. He cannot bear the landscape, the real, stripped of its potential to engage our imaginative capacities. You are left with "the the." And I have to say that the music is sublime, like Bach--you know, you can't imitate him, because you'll just sound like bad Stevens; the music is so consistent, and the way in which he does what he does is so consistent. But you can learn an enormous amount from him still, I think. At the heart of this is the idea of pleasure.
TP: A lot of the contemporary poets who have been influenced by Stevens usually cut Stevens with Williams or someone else. I think that your recent work does interesting things spatially in relation to Williams. These motions you make with your hand while reading, what you call "drawing the shape the sound makes in space," strike me as an interesting way of integrating the visual text of someone like Williams, whose line breaks you can't hear, with the oral performance of reading. What is the relation between the visual and the oral in your recent poems? Would you rather have them be heard?
AL: I would love them to be both heard and read. I think that I'm interested in how the voice makes abrasion and discrepancy and gap bearable, because it's a knitting—it's an integrating—it's just like an instrument. People often find it easier to come to the work, on the whole, when they hear me read than when they read the poem to themselves. Of course, that also makes me unhappy, because I keep thinking that when I die, the poems will die, because I won't be able to perform them. But I don't know whether I can ever come round again to a more pure narrative intactness, although it's an interesting challenge. I love the idea of being able to leave that left hand margin (which I think of as the spine of the poem's body) because that again collapses time and space. So in a way the oral and the visual are inseparable. They play against each other, but they are deeply committed to each other or related to, about, each other. So when my poems move off and make little eddies and shapes over on the right, it's just as if you had walked out your door and turned a corner and then turned another corner and then found this little flower sitting there, or you walk through a house and discover a thing or a room. I sometimes think of it that way, the poem as an architectural space. Or, alternatively, a piece of music in which suddenly there's just one instrument. Berlioz, for example, goes from these huge immense sounds to to one single melodic line by an oboe. And those kinds of declensions and shifts are so powerful for me that I need to make them. And the hand, the drawing of the shape, I guess it's a way I can stay with the poem in the present. It could be about the act of writing. On the one hand I'm conducting, that is to say, it's about the oral space. On the other hand, I'm drawing, and that's about the visual space, the shape of the sound, and I want them to be as close together as they possibly can be. Olson is probably a more important influence on me than Williams, in regard to the page, although Williams certainly shows us, by the placement of his prepositions, how to build a verbal image.
When I was in the 6th grade, we went upstairs on the roof and we were told to write down our impressions of what we heard or saw, and I remember writing these lines—I'd just learned how to write, actually, to write script. My 6th grade teacher, a wonderful woman named Mrs. Hawkins, commented to my mother about this peculiar synesthesia that I had, and I think that that's true, that somehow the different senses cross over each other, or are not kept apart in my experiential space. They're really very close, or I believe in their closeness. The action or gesture of the hand acts as compensation, a companion, bringing the visceral and affective to the foreground of thought.