interview here between Jennifer L. Knox and Alan Michael Parker was conducted
on the occasion of the publication of Long
Division (Tupelo Press, 2012), Parker’s seventh book of poems [and this just in: 2012 North Carolina Book Award winner]. His six
previous collections are Days Like Prose, The Vandals, Love Song with Motor
Vehicles, A Peal of Sonnets, Elephants & Butterflies, and Ten Days (with
painter Herb Jackson). He has also written three novels, Cry Uncle, Whale Man, and The Committee on
Town Happiness (Dzanc Books, 2014); and served as Editor of The
Imaginary Poets and two other
volumes of scholarship. His poems have appeared in The American
Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The New
Yorker, Paris Review, Pleiades, and The Yale Review; his
poem, “Family Math,” appeared in The Best American Poetry 2011, and was awarded a Pushcart Prize, his third. Parker’s essays
and reviews have also appeared widely, in journals including The
Believer, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker.
He is Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Davidson College,
and a Core Faculty Member in the Queens University low-residency M.F.A.
JK: I’ve noticed all your books are very different, one to the next.
AMP: The work changes: I’m interested in reinvention, and in the possibilities of new impossible problems. For example, there are a number of “list poems” in Long Division, a poem I used to believe wasn’t possible for me to write (beyond what I tried to write in junior high). So, because list poems seem so hard to write, over the last few years, I’ve been trying to write them—and I’ve discovered that they’re surprisingly elastic, and liable to turn into dramatic monologues when I’m not looking.
by book, if I’m repeating myself, we’re all in trouble. I’m just not
interesting enough to repeat myself. Naturally, there are higher-minded ways to
think about reinvention; in this, Yeats remains my model, given how his work
changed so profoundly in various periods of his life. (The Yeats of “The Tower”
may well be the Yeats I re-read most, of late. . . .) But he’s still Yeats.
What I hope is that a reader will recognize my concerns no matter the volume,
and yet find the new work new.
JK: Speaking of the list poems in Long Division, you said you eventually found them, “surprisingly elastic, and liable to turn into dramatic monologues when I’m not looking.”
How does a list define a character? How would you personify the speakers of the dramatic monologues that your list poems are sneaking towards? Are all of the Long Division list poems spoken by the same character?
Reading through them, my emotions ran from, “This is fun,” to “I’m watching someone lose their mind and I’m worried about that,” to “We’ve all lost our minds—don’t hold on to the illusion of control.”
you think of any poem in which the voice is not a construction?
AMP: List poems are so deceptive! Think about those awful ones from when we were eleven-years-old, my god—when competitive social interactions were all we felt. More recently, I’ve learned that the form of a list lends itself to broader neuroses, and to demonstrating the futility of ordering a universe, in light of emotional upheavals or psychological pressures.
As a result I think that we learn a lot about the speakers as the evidence accumulates in a list, in part because of how the data doesn’t especially compute. That makes them all constructions, no?
Irreverence is a list poem’s friend.
By way of persona, think about the somewhat hysterical voice of “Eighteen Ways to Consider a Neighbor Whose Holiday Lights Stay Up All Year.” I hear that voice as a version of my own voice, but altered too, and belonging to himself. I think of persona this way: some combination of Self and Character that is and isn’t both, or is and isn’t either. The persona in that poem may well recur in others, as a couple of the list poems in Long Division can be attributed to a specific, associatively minded poet-speaker. (Reading Russell Edson and Mary Ruefle helped me hone that voice.) Ultimately, that one speaker’s paranoia is strategically deployed as a narrative device.
What I learned: if I decided at the outset that a poem would have eighteen items, or twenty-three, or whatever arbitrary number, the poem would become a closed form.
I found hard: trying not to out-joke myself, item by item, so that the list
poem would read as more than a collection of punch lines, some punchier than
JK: Your “voice” is so distinct from book to book. It feels as if each of your books has its own singular speaker. Even The Vandals, where the voice is in third person, there’s still the impression of one person speaking. The commonality is that all the voices obsessively—but not in a manic way, the effect is far more elegant—turn over every angle in exploration, like a Rubik’s Cube, opening up possibility after possibility. Yet, with all those surprises, all the zigs and zags, you stay in the voice. And that’s safety.
Are you conscious of creating that simultaneous chaos and cohesion?
Does the idea of letting a poem fall apart appeal to you?
AMP: Cool observation! So here’s my challenge—and please do note that it’s a personal challenge, and neither a self-righteous claim nor an attempt to justify my own aesthetics. . . . I want to write poems that are relatively approachable, by way of their surface tensions and linguistic difficulty, while maintaining philosophical and conceptual rigor, that is, cohesion from the more disparate elements presented.
I love big ideas: it’s possible I’m a member of the Reverse Williams School of Poetry, for I believe that there are “No things but in ideas.” Sure, that’s not very Platonic of me, and maybe a little grumpily abstruse, but Ideas are really important to me: good, hard ideas.
And now I’ll answer your question: book by book, I’ve read different philosophers, and different poets (in a previous book it was Ludwig Wittgenstein and T.S. Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop, for example, while for Long Division, it’s been Søren Kierkegaard and Larry Levis, with a dash of theory related to the practice of geography, and a pinch of Alan Dugan, a soupcon of Wislawa Szymborska, and some chopped chervil from Pablo Neruda).
All reading changes the poems, I’m sure—and yet the speakers of a book may well come together in a way, correlating to a certain perception of humanity.
As for letting a poem fall apart specifically… while the idea appeals, and I do assume poems always fall apart,I¹m more interested in the work of art as a stay against entropy, no matter how futile the act. I think that this interest may be inferred from my obsession with forms, new and nonce and otherwise., new and nonce and otherwise.
JK: You touched on how you turn the list into a closed form. Is that “closedness” good, bad, or just a technical consideration?
One of the themes I perceive in Long Division is that freedom is an illusion (closed), but one should aspire to be of this world (open), to connect, to love, and to accept—even embrace—the illusory nature of our lives. What do we have beyond acceptance?
That’s adult thinking. I’m looking for a response on this, rather than an answer, I suppose.
AMP: Ah, the acceptance of aging combined with fear . . .
I am very much interested in the “illusory nature of our lives” as well as the illusory nature of things, philosophically.
Ideas endure: that’s what I think. Art matters. Love’s it.
JK: You say that you want to write poems that are “relatively approachable, by way of their surface tensions and linguistic difficulty.” Me too.
I think you can only explore those big ideas effectively through crystal clear writing. You can pretend to do it through convolution, and no one’s going to call you on it, because they can’t actually follow your line of thought. That’s like adding fog to rain to make it sunnier.
Without naming names, I see the style in contemporary poetry as moving away from approachability and instead embracing, well, nonsense. For some, it’s word salad. For others, it’s a series of seemingly random, disconnected statements. Sometimes it’s funny. I find it, at most, maddening, and at least, stupefying. Why would anyone want to spend so much time avoiding the heart of a matter? Maybe it’s always been this way, but I don’t think so.
Does this resonate for you? What do you see as “the style” in poetry these days?
AMP: I hoped you’d be dangerous! Without naming names, Senator McCarthy...yes, I’m suspicious of one particular trend in contemporary poetry, which is to substitute a certain kind of abstruse or difficult language for craft. My gosh, my suspicions probably classify me of the order poetisaurus obseletipus, but I want my poems to communicate first, and be an experience the reader can have rather than watch.
As for style, my interests as a reader tend to be catholic—by which I mean that I hope to like any poem—even as I suspect that style itself is something bought in the Used Poetry store, and accessorized accordingly.
JK: Do you begin with the big idea, and look for a way to exemplify it through a poem, or vice versa?
AMP: Words first.
JK: When I was reading the book, I wrote down this: “a mathematical soundness to life’s absurdity.”
AMP: Well, hell’s bells, thanks!
The naming of the world that poets do seems to me related to the naming of the world mathematicians do; in this volume, aside from giving in to my mild obsessive-compulsive disorder (that is, how I count everything near me), I’m also trying to excavate formal equivalences between grammatical structures and various kinds of equations.
I’ve always loved math—you should hear about my new system for winning at roulette (which is damnably futile, of course, but to me a lovely idea)—and I tally syllables and scan speech and ad copy and . . . well, pretty much any unit of language nearby. So I decided to see in this book how poems and proofs were at least analogous.
Yes, writing poems and thinking about math both provide me with ways of refuting the darkness.
The math led to a kind of breakthrough, too: I’m seeing myself differently in relation to things, which has become my little bitty version of Martin Buber’s Ich-Du.
Buber had a great beard, by the way.
JK: What are the concerns that have stayed with you from book to book?
AMP: I’m concerned that the world is too literal a place: I would call that fundamentalism.
I’m concerned that people believe the imagination isn’t real.
I’m concerned about poetic lines that don’t have a couple of types of sounds interacting.
I’m concerned that I not fall into predictable modes of understanding.
I’m concerned that I don’t read enough. I’m concerned that I don’t laugh at myself enough.
A new concern: compassion.
A passing if not past concern: childhood.
But what’s with this: these weird
sentences bifurcated by colons? A new concern: these colons.
Alan Michael Parker will read from Long Division in New York City, this Sunday, October 7, 5:30 p.m. for "Writers Read," with Zsófia Bán, CM Burroughs, Joel Hinman and Lucinda Holt. Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker Street.
Jennifer L. Knox’s latest book of poems, The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, is available from Bloof Books. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and four times in The Best American Poetry series. She is working on her first novel.
I am more than half the age of my father,
who has lived more than twice as long
as his father, who died at thirty-six.
Once a year for four days
I am two years older than my wife,
until her birthday.
In practical terms I am three times older
than the Internet, twelve times
the age of my obsolescent computer,
five times older than the new century
and only now a half-century old.
I have taught for more than half my life.
Most afternoons of teaching
follow unfinished mornings.
Yesterday I held a book seven times older
than I am. Twenty-eight hours
and a few minutes later, I still recall the smell,
a leathery, mildewed tang.
Seventeen and one-half years ago, my son
was born, which took twelve hours.
His delivery came two weeks late.
The smell in the delivery room
seemed primordial, iron in the blood,
and shit, and another kind of smell—
more abstract, if that’s possible.
Twenty-six years ago I studied
abstract ideas in school, and I still don’t know
what’s possible. Now I teach.
My mother taught for twenty-nine years
until she retired to read.
My friend remembers all he reads—
so when does he finish a book?
I can’t remember when I stopped counting
on my fingers: where was I in language?
I feel older than all the wars going on,
but I’m not, some are very old.
Sadness remains the source of my politics.
In my home, very few items I own
are older than I am, and almost none I use.
We say “the wind dies down.”
Is that what we mean? The wind has lived?
When babies are born, they don’t know
either night or day. We teach them.
Tomorrow is not my birthday
but all the math will change again.
More to busy me, more to figure and record.
More to have. More to let go.
Eighteen Ways to Consider a Neighbor Whose Holiday Lights Stay Up All Year
- He’s hopeful.
- He’s negligent, and unable to read social cues.
- This is how he treats his body.
- He’s secretly against mirth.
- He’s obsessed with Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason (1781).
- He is spelling something into space.
- At breakfast he began to the hear the voice of his long-dead, hypochondriac mother saying Eat! Eat! and then he felt as though slapped suddenly on the back of the head by the air.
- He knows my father-in-law, and they’ve conferred.
- Now is the winter of my discontent.
- He and the mailman and the UPS woman (she’s new) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses dressed like busboys and the Trick-or-Treaters and the meter guy with his can of mace and the middle-of-the-night flat whap of the newspaper on the front walk. Who can go anywhere?
- He’s helping me be Jewish.
- When in Rome, burn.
- How am I to write a poem for fun?
- He knows. He never forgets.
- Like lamps lit for all those husbands lost at sea.
- He’s my muse, my indignity.
- I, with my little words that always go out.