In this twist on the contributor interview, we’ve invited contributors to enter into conversation with one another. In this first edition, Sarah Barber, author of the newly released The Kissing Party, interviews Joshua Rivkin, whose blog offers more links to his work.
SB: I want to start off by asking you about “The Fingerprint Clerk.” There’s something so lulling about the opening and end of the poem and yet your choice to include Li Po and Bobby Fischer in the poem really pulls us back to earth in a delightful way. So I’m going to ask you to explain despite your “Don’t ask me to explain.” How did this poem germinate for you?
JR: The pleasure in writing a kind of persona poem is that the writer can step back and say, with perhaps a slight smile, oh that’s not me. So unlike the speaker, I’m happy to explain. Though I sort of imagine him as the kind of man who wants to be asked, if only to refuse. This poem started with an actual experience, which I then wanted to transform. I had to have a background check for a teaching job and while I was being fingerprinted (it’s all electronic now) I thought about how few rarely we’re touched by strangers. There was something at once strange and ordinary about this act. With a doctor for example, it’s often an ongoing relationship, and one in which one expects physical contact. But this experience had a kind of resonance: an act both coldly formal and highly intimate at once. What does it mean to touch a stranger? How does a fingerprint offer some kind of proof of one’s self? How do fingerprints mark at once both something individual and communal? As I started writing the character formed around these questions. I knew from the start that I wanted to write this from the point of view of the clerk; it seemed an occasion to move outside of myself, and within that voice, clipped and impersonal, a way to capture and collapse the distance between the intimacy of the action and the reserve he claims. I like how you say those quotes pulled you back to earth, I hoped those would be markers of personality and locate a sensibility for the speaker, a reticence to speak, to interfere, and yet perhaps revealing a kind of knowing and longing within the gestures.
SB: You’re right, of course, how rarely we’re touched by strangers—maybe even how rarely we’re touched by those we know as we spend more and more of our waking lives hooked up to all this equipment—but what really strikes me is the way your response highlights one of the things that drew me to your work in this issue, the combination of the strange and ordinary, as you put it. The domestic—touch, friends, objects—seems blended with the uncanny in your other poem from this issue, “Housewarming,” and I wonder if that’s something you consciously aim for in your work and whether you see it as a significant direction for contemporary poets?
JR: I don’t think I’ve considered it exactly in those terms before, but I’m really taken with your description of how the strange and the ordinary come together in my work, and I think perhaps more generally. Tony Hoagland has a terrific essay about Larry Levis in which he describes the poet’s metaphor making as an act of moving both away and towards at the same time. Even as a metaphor pushes away from what’s there, it returns and illuminates the thing the thing being described. Is the same true of seeing the strange within the everyday? Perhaps I hope that’s the case. That by moving away, either in imagination or metaphor or expectation, somehow the domestic, or really the relationships within that sphere between lovers, friends, family, will be understood in a new way.
Maybe there are two ways of considering it; one is seeing how ordinary the uncanny can be, and the other is to find the strangeness within the everyday. I guess I’m perhaps more interested in the later, and while I don’t think it’s something I aim for intentionally, I think it come from a kind of restlessness. Samuel Johnson said something to the effect of, “The mind is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it.” The desire in my work seems to be one of transformation: to take the given world and see it, and beyond it. I think about poets and poems that I love—that opening of “Birches” where the speaker wants to imagine the boy swinging, or the embodied trees in Levis’s “Two Trees” mocking the man, or that turn towards that dream space in Mark Doty’s “Tiara.” They are all poems and poets who transform the landscapes they’ve been given, turning the mundane (ice storm, tree, funeral) into something extraordinary through acts of intense attention and imagination.
And while I’m not sure I could make a generalization about if this is a direction for contemporary poets, it’s maybe something ingrained in the act of writing. The turning of the world into language seems to be itself an act both strange and ordinary. The poem uses the material of the everyday to say what isn’t, or can’t be said, within the everyday. I feel like I’ve drifted far from your really insightful point, but I think finally I’m interested too in moments of shift or change, when expectations alter and surprise—that move to hang the bottles in “Housewarming” or that kind of faith at the end of “Fingerprint Clerk.” These seem like openings, occasions to be considered, and small windows into the mechanics and mystery of experience. Or at least that’s the hope.
SB: What things aside from poetry have been startling you, lately, into seeing those windows opening before you?
JR: Right now I’m really excited by the essay form. From the personal to the lyric, the essay has an inclusion and depth and emotional openness that I find really attractive right now. In his introduction to The Best American Essays 1997 David Foster Wallace makes the case that “many of these essays are valuable simply as exhibits of what a first-rate artistic mind can make of particular fact-sets.” I think that’s one of the things I admire so much about the essay: how it can show a mind at work. Thinking isn’t separate from the process of writing, but deeply ingrained into the making of the piece. Visible and necessary. Some of my interest some of it comes from writing essays and some comes from teaching creative nonfiction classes, but really I think I’m most thrilled as a reader. I have that sense of discovery and surprise I had when I first started reading poems seriously. It’s not that I don’t have that now with poems or poets, but it’s perhaps more infrequent.
When reading an essay by Joan Didion or David Foster Wallace or Richard Rodriguez or W.S. Di Piero, I feel engaged in conversation with the writer and with a world of ideas. I just finished Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land and I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. In both terrific books the quality of meditation, story, digression, and meaning making, come together in a way that invites and includes and challenges. I’m the kid I was, reading for escape from the world. And reading to understand it.
Others have remarked on this as well, but there are certain overlaps between the essay and the poem: their modes of investigation without “answering,” their ways of thinking-in the form, their forms of obsession, their interest in voice and tonal variations, and of course the way in which they use the unit of the sentence. Syntax, wrote Jorie Graham, is a poet’s soul, and I’m really interested in writers of prose and poetry in which the sentence, with its possibilities for progress and delay, is employed and deployed not only for its effects of saying and meaning, but for how it can reveal that soul. It’s one of the reasons I love fiction writers such as Marilynne Robinson and Alice Munro and Vladimir Nabokov. Or why I return again and again to poets such as Carl Phillips, Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Thom Gunn, Emily Dickinson, Gerald Manley Hopkins, or Robert Hass. I think I find in these writers what I love about the essay – the sense of circling and fixation, the investigation of world and history and ideas, the ability to digress, include, and surprise, an engagement of both the emotional and intellectual, and a feeling that within the language itself is a struggling, thinking, and fully alive self, becoming in the writing, more fully itself.
Since I’ve more or less avoided the first question, maybe I can ask it back to you. Who are you reading? Why? Where are you finding openings these days for your writing?
SB: My impulse is to dodge my own boomeranging question, but I’ll admit to a similar attraction to non-fiction. I’m also drawn to the “circling and fixation” that seem inherent in the form, but I find myself so moved to wonder at the breadth and depth of its exploration into subjects that I must admit I am as often reading for content—to learn—has I am for process. Unlike you, however, I find myself—despite my efforts—simply a reader of essays rather than a writer of them. So perhaps here is a good place to ask how does your work in non-fiction square (or fail to square) with your work in poetry? Do your own efforts in the two genres seem bound together for you?
JR: I don’t think I’ve written enough essays to claim with any certainty how they’re connected in content or obsessions. If there’s a connection, it’s more about a way of working. I write from a place of questioning. Even when a piece claims some truth, it feels to me temporary and provisional. There’s an amazing passage from Don DeLillo’s Mao II where the character says, “I’m a sentence maker… I’ve always seen myself in sentences. I begin to recognize myself, word by word, as I work through a sentence. The language of my books has shaped me as a man.” I think that it’s a quote that resonates for me in how it describes the process of writing as a form of thinking. Just as I’ve shaped my words, they too have shaped me—how I think, see and understand. Frost claimed the poem as beginning in delight and ending in wisdom. It’s a sentiment that feels perhaps old fashioned on face value, but he’s a tricky writer and I want to think of that delight as arriving from both pleasure and pain; delight can be the delight of profound uncertainty or loneliness or fear or desire. And the wisdom he describes isn’t necessarily fixed or final, but is a place where more questions, more searching can start.
A friend of mine and I recently got into a disagreement about the value of consistency versus innovation. What started as a conversation about another poet’s work ended with us in extreme positions (me—innovation / him—consistency) about the value of one or the other. Later that night, as good friends can do, we laughed about it and took back a little of what we’ve said. As a side note, this is one of the things I fear about an interview is that often I want to put tiny asterisks next to my answers, as if to say, I think this now, but I’m willing to reconsider. But I will say that ambition towards innovation is something that I strive for all of my work—poetry or otherwise. The nature of ambition I think is tricky for an artist—a thin line separates what pushes us toward the limit of expression and what pushes us backwards into ourselves—but I want each poem or essay to attempt something I haven’t before either in form or content. This isn’t to say that I want each piece to be a radical departure from the ones before but only that each time I sit down to work, I want to challenge what I believe and take risks in what I say, and how it’s said.