INTERVIEW WITH DAVID BAKER

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  • May 29, 2019

David Baker was born in Maine in 1954 and spent his childhood in Missouri. He received PhD from the University of Utah and has won fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, the Pushcart Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Currently a Professor of English and the Thomas B. Fordham Chair in Creative Writing at Denison University, Baker is also the poetry editor of the Kenyon Review. He lives in Granville, Ohio.

Baker’s collections of poetry include the widely-acclaimed Changeable Thunder (2001), Midwest Eclogue (2007), Never-Ending Birds (2009), and Scavenger Loop (2015). The poet Carol Muske-Dukes, calling Baker “a reliably illuminating presence in American poetry,” noted that the poems in Never-Ending Birds are “tightly controlled, but aching with loss.” Edward Byrne, writing for the Virginia Quarterly Review, said: “Baker speaks to the importance of memory even when selective or ambiguous, the value of life and the language to describe or explain it, the need to know how to connect the past with the present, to blend memories with continuing events in a way that seems to keep all alive simultaneously in our minds, to mourn but also to learn from the past and the people who still reside there for us in order to direct the present wisely or to turn with optimism toward the future.” In addition to his poetry Baker has also published several compilations of literary criticism. Meter in English: A Critical Engagement (1996), Heresy and the Ideal: On Contemporary Poetry (2000) and The Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry (2009). Baker is also the author of the collection of essays Show Me Your Environment: Essays on Poetry, Poets, and Poems (2014). In this interview with Ilya Kaminsky, Baker discusses his new book, Swift: New and Selected Poems, just published by W.W. Norton.

I want to start by speaking about your poems from the last decade or so. Overall, there is a remarkable continuity of tonalities and registers of language throughout Swift—the way you use registers of language, syntax, repetitions. The way Swiftis put together, it really gives us the book as a journey of one human mind in time, as it moves through time, setting itself to music. And, yet, there are some very clear innovations in the poems of the last decade, clear departures. I am thinking specifically of the ways you use syntax in poems such as “What Not to Say,” “Checkpoint,” “Elegy, in Words,” “Five Odes on Absence,” “Scavenger Loop.” There is a kind of music of brokenness here. Or, to be more precise, you are able to **find** the music for brokenness, to put it in words. “Elegy, in Words” one poem says. Another stalks the absence knowing how much it is a part of presences. Could you speak here a bit about how you see turn your work took in the last 10-15 years?

Thank you. It’s been a daunting and lucky thing to have a chance to put together a new-and-selected of my own poems.  I’ve helped other people with theirs, no problem, but it’s taken years to get my own right.  If it all does sound like a singular thing, a journey of one person, then whew, that’s one of the hopes I have.  That it makes sense.  That it traces a self and a self-among-others in poetry.  That it sings.

I think you’re right that the last decade has seen some new ways to think of a poem—and to think inside a poem—for me.  But that’s true all the way back.  There’ve been a few big new pursuits in my poems or in the way I write or conceive of poems.

For instance, I think for my first few books I was working on formal varieties of narrative. That is, in my early books like Hauntsand Sweet Home, Saturday Night I hoped to learn a kind of narrative polyphonia, a lyric multiple exposure.  I’m still fascinated with memory and music, the turning of a piece of story toward a different one, a crossing over:  the relation of a linear narrative to nonlinear thinking.  I wrote a long, crazy poem, “Sweet Home, Saturday Night,” where that collision was front-most, though I also didn’t include this poem in Swift.

After that, for a few books, I turned toward shorter poems, at least generally, and a more compressed lyricism.  After the Reunionis really just a book of elegies and erotic poems, and by The Truth about Small TownsI was working toward both a new subject—the neighborhood, the Midwest as a kind of complicated community—and a new sense of line built around syllabic structures.  I still work more often than not around a syllabic measurement, which I find endlessly pliable, endlessly fascinating—both normative and quantitative syllabics.

And so to your actual question.  Yes, I think you can see another thing emerging about 10-15 years ago, with Midwest Eclogueand especially into Never-Ending Birds, Scavenger Loop, and the new poems in Swift.  Is it possible to deepen the lyricism yet also build a poem around rupture?  Is it possible to create a poetic presence out of the visible and cognitive inevitability of absence, erasure, loss?

I was married for nearly twenty years, and we separated in 2005.  That’s part of the biographic of the poetic.  Tectonic plates shifted under me, and so did the poetic plates. I have wanted to think about fracture and cohesion, stunned silence and some kinds of overlapping song.  But there’s more.  A couple of years later I got involved with someone who is now my partner, Page Starzinger, and for the last ten or so years we’ve been migrating back and forth from my little village in Ohio, Granville, and her big Greenwich Village in Manhattan.  She’s motivated by the visual arts, and we’ve been avid museum and gallery-goers together, and I’ve learned more about poetic language and form and materiality from her sense of innovative art and from her own poems.  I think she’s affected me in deep ways as I write poems

And you’re right:  it’s about finding music for brokenness, or ofbrokenness; about an imaginative and visceral acceptance of rupture and repair, the constant give-and-take of things. How to find a form and voice for that, or forms and voices, and to let those things vibrate on the page.  Even still, in some of my most visibly torn poems, on the page, you can find a form beneath the rupture—a syllabic base from which I then take apart the shape, or turn the shape into another shape.  “Early May” does this, “Belong to,” and in different ways so does “The Rumor” which is a dissembled syllabic.  For all its formal variety and splay, “Scavenger Loop” is mostly syllabic, too, if you look.

Brigit Pigeen Kelly is the poet in your generation who is well known for finding a new kind of music in her poems, yes, but also for finding the music that is precisely married to the content of her work, so the music becomes the content. Poetry is not about the event, after all, it is the event. I mention her work because I feel you have a deep kinship with it. I don’t mean it terms of echoes between your work in hers, but in terms of aims. In your poetry silence seems to be a musical instrument, too, and it articulates the content, too. I suspect this has to do with your use of precise language and with your expertly understanding of what syntax can do. But I wonder if you could speak more on this subject.

Yes, she’s one of the poets of my generation who finds a new music, or her own true music.  I do think we are cousins, Brigit and me.  She lived such a private poetry life and a rich personal life.  I knew her for many years, though not well; and yet, inside her poems, I think I know her well.  I share this intimacy with zillions of others, who find the same inviting, strange, welcoming, questing soul in her poems.  That’s part of her splendid paradox.  It is the splendid paradox of lyric poetry always—that it is intimacy, interiority, and that it shares this intimacy with many, publicly, socially, politically.

So another thing I keep thinking about with Brigit is her line.  Oh, those long freighted lines, those short sentences and phrases.  How there can be such deliberate movement, such exactly right shifts of attention.  She was a master of that kind of music, which can feel downright oracular, visionary, as it so slowly unfolds laterally on the page.

I think about music in my poems foremost.  I was a musician, I taught music for several years, and performed for many years, and I still play now, mostly for myself and friends.  There is the deepest kinship of poetry to music, and their genetic bond stems from both sound and mathematics.  The rigor and release of measurement in our phrasing, our lineation, our clauses, as well as the more apparent sonic qualities like repetition, alliteration. Poetry is as mathematical as music is, as physics, as dreaming.

I mentioned Kelly above, in her work, as in yours, there is always a subtle relationship between the narrative and lyric. The narrative is always there, and yet it is always the lyric that draws us in, that lifts us up. I wonder if you can speak about the relationship between the two, for your work. What does it mean to you?

I want stories that sing.  I want linguistic songs that slide in and out of episode, circumstance, event, drama, all those elements of narrative. But I admit I find our way of situating these things unsatisfying.  Let me say more.

Ultimately I find the relationship of lyric to narrative to be a forced binary.  Look at other ways we are learning to doubt the binary—in everything from gender theories to politics to physics again.  I think this obstinate binary is not just misleading but wrong-headed. I think virtually all post-classical poems are always both lyric and narrative.  So for me the question is not whether a poem is lyric or narrative.  The question is the degree to which it leans one way or the other, and the effects of those leanings.

Here’s what I mean.  Lyric seems to describe some particular, purposeful musicality.  Not necessarily “elegant,” not even tonally pleasant.  A lyric can be atonal, or cacophonous; it can be soothing or polyphonic. In fact, to be a poem a piece of language—a text, yuck—has to belyric or lyrical.  It has to attend with unusual degrees to the nature and effects of its music, and that’s a fundamental ingredient of what makes it poetry.

Second, all poems—all language—is narrative.  The very basis of language is narrative, as the first relationship of a subject to a predicate, or one gesture to another, is narrative.  I’m not talking about story here, about mere plot, but elapse, even the tiniest elapse of time to the hugest.  Time exists, as the physicist Carlo Rovelli writes, only and always in the physical relationality of entities—whether particles, galaxies, or words.

In contemporary science, sociology, mathematics this is true.  Karen Barad says just as we are not “simply located at particular places in the world; rather, we are part of the world in its ongoing intra-activity,” so we can apply this intra-activity to a text.  Julia Fiedorczuk and Gerardo Beltran in Ekopoetyka, write, “The intuition that diverse elements of the world—human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic, material and spiritual, natural and artificial—are interconnected or, as quantum physics would express it, entangled, have often surfaced in poetry.”  The sciences are these days using words like “mutualism”and “relationality”to further describe this entanglement of things, taking apart their own binary or polar entities, recomposing them, again as Fiedorczyk and Beltran put it, “in a complex mesh of co-emergent material entities.”  The humanities call this “intersectionality.”

What this means is:  It is essential to understand any element, any phenomenon, any poetic or linguistic gesture, in its relationship to others, even others we might consider opposing or different elements or gestures.  Out with the binary, the either/or, the Platonic duality, in favor of the multiplicity, the complexity.

So instead, I try to think about the extentof each narrative, the fullness, brevity, crossing-over, talking-over, turning-into, or sustained blending of my narratives; and I think about the natureof my lyric sense, my music—the loud or soft, the homely or odic, the personal or public or polyphonic, the sustained and tectonic or the shifting, fluid, ever-active relational nature of it all.  How may they come to pass, in a relationality, an entanglement, in a dynamic field of forms, rhetorics, musicalities, and temporalities—on a single page.

In another interview, you say: “I don’t think I have a relationship to landscape. I think I am, we are, landscape. Nature doesn’t so much serve as a figure in my poems as an inevitable circumstance, an enablement, a living possibility of sensations and ideas. It’s less art than home.” That’s beautiful. I am reminded of the final lines in your poem, “Tree Frogs,” wherein we see ourselves:  “Can the ending of things ever be heard? So slowly it crawls with the gross weight // of all our needs, our goods, our ghosts. / Such little things we are, and so much noise.” These are frogs, and us, too, of course. And, I want to come back to your saying “I am, we are, landscape.” I thought of this phrase as I was reading your lines about John Clare. Except for Anthony Hecht (in his homage to Clare) and to some extent, John Ashbery, few contemporary American poets tend to go back to Clare. When you write about him, saying: “All his life he’s tried to get words right– / …get birds right. Or the trees. It is not code / exactly–” when you say that, I hear this as a homage, yes, but also as an ars poetica. You are really talking about two poets here, not just one. So, I wonder if you could speak about your relationship to his work, and also to go a bit deeper about your language’s relationship to landscape. 

 

I love Clare, poor tormented fellow.  We think Emily Dickinson was incredibly prolific for her 1800+ poems.  Clare doubled that number, and some of his poems are hundreds, even thousands of lines long.  His is alternately to me an encouraging and a heartbreaking life-story.  I don’t know if I’d say he wrote a single perfect poem; there’s always a botch, a run of silliness or cliché or a clunker of phrasing. Yet he feels so authentic and of-the-earth to me, connected to a vein of something so primal it seems to remember the origin of things.  Did you know he shared the same publisher as Keats?  John Taylor thought Clare would be the great one.  I love the farmer and gardener poets.  Clare, the great Virgil, Stanley Kunitz, William Merwin in his way, Emily Dickinson.

And sure, I think the lines you cite are about two poets here, as an ars poetica.  We work through our available language toward some connection with each other, a connection that may be both beyond and before language as well as amid it.  It is as natural as cultivation, planting a bulb or sapling, digging with our fingers into hardpan and loam, moving bits of our earth around and hoping something nourishing will grow.  I think I am deeply of the earth, and grateful for my time here as an animal among animals, able to breathe deeply and drink the water and sense the breadth of this whole living cosmos.

This has become more of an urgency in my poems, too.  I guess I’ve been moving from being, in part, a kind of nature poet toward a more alert ecopoet.  The separation of ourselves, our self, from “nature” is both wrong and suicidal.  I mean this personally as well as communally.

Another contemporary poet of landscape who comes to mind is Susan Stewart. Is there any relationship between your work and hers? I think, for instance, of her short lyric that opens her book The Forest:

We needed fire to make
the tongs and tongs to hold
us from the flame; we needed
ash to clean the cloth
and cloth to clean the ash’s
stain; we needed stars
to find our way, to make
the light that blurred the stars.

I hear this when I read your:

Poisons

the soil 

to kill

the worm

that eats

the corn

that grows

in soil—

 Here, I should add, of course, that this isn’t about Stewart, but about Mother Goose, and the old English riddles. It is about Earth Took of Earth. Which is really the question on how various registers of language allow us to see/portray various registers of our relationship to landscape. Which brings be back to the question of language & landscape. With this in mind, do you care to add anything to what you said above?

You got me again. I adore Susan Stewart’s poems, and especially The Forest.  She’s so much more sophisticated than Clare, but these poets share an essentiality in their relationship to the green world.  I mean, for all her learnedness, Stewart makes her deepest references not to learning but to a much more primitive thing.  The passage you cite sounds like a chant, doesn’t it?  A tribal song that carries the heavy rhythm of social memory—that’s the power of the plural voice, so hard to manage without presumptions.  The passage is litany, celebration, and yet it also exists as practical information.

Maybe my little poem does that, too.  Its title is “Harmatia,” the tragic fatal flaw. I wanted to write a sliver of a poem, in monometer, that captured the radical irony of our human aspirations and doom.  I think I’d been reading Frank Bidart, who is a guide for such ironies.  A long poem like “Second Hour of the Night” will virtually crack open for one of these little aphoristic ironies:

—As a dog whose body is sinking into quicksand

locks its jaws around a branch hanging

above it, the great teeth grasping so fiercely the stable world

they snap the fragile wood,—

That’s the irony. The thing that drives us to survive with such blinding vigor is the thing that drives us to our demise.  It is a pure paradox, this kind of irony—not the irony of witty banter or snark or sass, but rather the irony of primary circumstance.  Harold Bloom calls this irony “the clash of incommensurate forces.”  Bang: that.

I mentioned Old English riddles above, which brings makes me want to ask: what is the relationship between the lyric and the spell for you. Your poems, such as “Never-Ending Birds,” could, in another time, function as spells. Your syntax, in lines such as these, also makes me think of a spell:

                           …there are so many, too 

 many of us,

the world keeps saying,

      and the world keeps making—this makes no sense—

            more.

 This brings me back to various very expertly uses of repetition in your work. What is the function of repetition as a poetic device for you?

I’ve never quite thought of it in these terms.  I and appreciate this new insight.  I do love the Anglo-Saxon riddles, as I love aphorism and chant—Antonio Porchia and Emerson, Buson, the complex Navajo sweathouse chants.  For all of my own study, my theorizing and chatter, I turn to poetry at the deepest level for a glimpse of magic and mystery.  I mean, that other paradox, I know no other linguistic form that uses language to bring us, potentially, so close to that which can’t be spoken or depicted by language. The primal, the animal, the of-the-earth, the thing that survives by instinct.

It sounds crazy. But we hunger for crazy.  Children spin and spin until they are dizzy and fall down.  We stand at the edge of a skyscraper or a gorge and look down until it scares us, our temptation to step out and fly.  We alter our minds in innumerable ways to take us away, out of our bodies, out of our heads.  That is the dictionary definition of ecstasy, isn’t it?  Ek+ stasis= out of our stance; apart from our stability.

Poetry can perform that ecstatic task and then restore us to ourselves, sometimes changed, even if just a little changed.

Although I began this conversation with questions about nature and landscape, I don’t want to give readers the impression that this is the sole focus of your writing. In fact, your works is very varied.  In the pieces such as the sequence “The Truth About Small Towns” you give us a portrait of a whole community in just four poems. Then, there are poems that have very clearly civic tone: “America, it is hard to get your attention politely,” you write, “America, I swear I don’t believe in you, but here I am.” The range between these poems and many others in the book is huge, and yet there is a powerful sense of consistence throughout this New and Selected Poems. Which brings me to a question of how you put together such a book, a collection that would function as one whole and yet give us so many different registers of speech, so many different kinds of poems?

This book took me years. Of course it took my whole life to come to each point of each poem, and Swiftis a gathering of about thirty-five years of poems.  But I also mean that composing the actual manuscript took years.  I did the first iteration of it in around 2012 and ’13; then set it aside to write “Scavenger Loop,” the poem, and then the book.  I started over entirely with Swiftin 2016.  It has been in several orders and arrangements, and it was originally quite a lot longer.  I have been especially guided by poets whose new-and-selected books have been genuinely selected, poets with a severe demand.  Ellen Voigt, Stanley Kunitz, Don Justice, David St. John, and especially Paul Muldoon in his Selected Poems 1968-2014. Here’s Muldoon, a poet with a lot of books, a lot of very fine poems; but he selected only five poems from each of twelve books, and the result is like a new magnificent single poem.  That’s what I wanted, in my own way, for Swift.  I left out a lot—poems I stand by and believe in—but I hope I made a thing with a new sense of my art.

 

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