I first met Memorious contributor Adam Day at Louisville’s InKY Reading Series where we shared the stage for an evening at the Rudyard Kipling, a dive tavern in town known for gathering fringy bohemians, intellectuals, and artists. Cheap beer and decent food made for a perfect place to hear poets, hometown and far a-flung. Just before Adam took the stage to read, I spilled an entire glass of water on his manuscript. Embarrassed, I apologized emphatically, and he was gracious, though—justly—a bit disoriented from the fumble. His pants and shirt partly soaked, he stepped up to the mic and read, holding up wet pages by the corners, still dripping. He read with command from a poem now titled “Diorama—(Scarlet and Liver)” which appears, varied from my original listen, in his first full-length collection, Model of a City in Civil War, winner of Sarabande Books’ Linda Bruckheimer Series in 2014.
That poem stuck with me and I was glad to encounter it again in this new book. Day’s poems are animal with lucid fixations and powerful fires—elemental intuitions woven through fragmentary micro-narratives that traverse personal, historical, and cultural experiences with bewildering range of voice and ironic, not insincere, balance. Whenever I would recall Day’s poems in the years to come after the first time hearing them that evening at The Rud, I could easily intuit the stark utterance and tonal shifts between restrained and flagrant violence, Day’s code-switching composites in language and picture amid discrete, original descriptions. I’m glad his poems are just as alive on the page as they’ve been in my head all those years since I first heard them.
Model’s potent lyrical renderings are typical of Day’s manifold voices, which are sweeping, but without ecstasy, and vivid, though without the ostentation that often categorizes such variety. The book is diverse and complex, effortlessly navigating the peculiarities of the broken and breaking incompletenesses of personhood, family, marriage, and society. Pitting the peculiar against the political, Day is aware of the tensions inherent in human obscurity, our potential to act and damage, debilitate and unadorn. As readers, we are looking into a model of a world born strange and familiar, with Day’s speakers soberly articulating the tragic and comic via the eroding material of language alive to it’s own paradox, modulating between failed shots for salvation and flourished reaches into humane insignificance.
The following is a series of questions I pitched to Adam, hoping he might discuss some elements of his process and style, the writing of his new book, and some of his experiences that brought him to the place where he is now. In it, he discusses his views toward writing and experiencing violence, reading widely with depth, and the challenges of writing contemporary lyric poems.
Model of a City in Civil War is filled with poems of intense violence written in a restrained, distant, and otherwise detached voice/s. It is one of the trappings of the book I like most, I think. Can you talk a little bit about how you write violence into poems and what might account for that vivid detachment in your work?
Well, the human body is a huge source of engagement for me, and Merleau-Ponty has always been influential for that reason, and that engagement is probably linked up with how I write violence into poems. Kafka imagined the multi-layered horror of the human waking to the body of an Ungeziefer, but imagine the horror of the “verminous insect” waking to the body of a human. A body at loss of definition. Merleau-Ponty, Rabelais and others, as a corrective to the philosophical history of finding consciousness to be the seat of knowledge, placed the body as the fundamental site of discerning or knowing the world, and insisted that the body and that which it perceives cannot be extricated from each other.
My sense is that the world is violent, though that’s relative, of course, and I don’t think of violence pejoratively. But whether it’s accidentally running over a raccoon, breaking up with a lover, integrating mutually enjoyable rough stuff into one’s sexual relationships, instigating a coup, giving birth, going to war, tearing out the evergreen shrub in front of your home, giving a patient stitches or your kid their insulin shot, &c. it’s everywhere, and more often than not it’s interesting and nuanced. The Greeks and Romans certainly found room for violence in their poems and plays. In any case, I do feel that (American) poetry too rarely reflects that kind of content. And, too often, when it is addressed it is done so in a way that memorializes, sentimentalizes, or prettifies it. Though, my inclusion of violence in my poetry is not part of some polemic or mission. These thoughts are only retrospective.
Rabelais, Beckett, Elfriede Jelinek, Jean Genet, Pinter, Pynchon, Kafka, Chaucer, Ellison, Jakov Lind, Ionesco, Sterne, Joyce—there is a compelling viscerality, an urgent grotesque, an engaging grittiness that isn’t stunt or shtick, but rather a more objective, and fuller reflection of life. I think poets like Dan Chiasson, Hughes’ Crow and Prometheus on His Crag, Catherine Wagner, Ikkyū, Sandra Simonds, Aase Berg, Berryman, Gro Dahl, Phil Levine, Fred Moten, D.A. Powell, and others work to speak to the violence in our lives, in the world outside of our own lives.
My restrained voice is probably related to my sense—though, again, I’m thinking of this only after or outside of writing—that violence is not strange, or unusual, or inherently personal or dramatic. Alternatively, part of what is compelling about it, is that it can be both everyday and of magnitude. It seems difficult to do justice to the magnitude of something if you can’t address it with some objectivity and distance; otherwise you take something you care enough about to write about and simplify it, leak it of its subtlety and complexity.
I grew up in a part of Louisville that was relatively run-down, had a low-education rate and a healthy jobless population, but was otherwise was very working class—picture mullets, professional wrestling, Quiet Riot and Trans Ams—with the requisite trailer park up the street, and where there were some gangs. My neighbors belonged to one. And I’d see or hear about fights involving table legs, bike chains, pool balls in tube socks. Some of that was racial violence, though most of it wasn’t. One of my aunts and her sons lived in some projects a few blocks from our house, and those were the most racially diverse place you could find in that area of town. Though it was an area that also attracted a lot of immigrants new to the States—Vietnamese, Laotians, then Central Americans (many escaping U.S. proxy wars: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, &c.), then people from the former Yugoslavia, then Sudan – you get the idea. It was more of a simmering to boiling pot than a melting pot, I guess. Walking home from the bus stop was often an “adventure.”
As I got older—by middle school (about 1989)—I was skateboarding and going to local (punk and hardcore) shows, two things that went hand-in-hand, and skateboarding gets you fucked with a lot. Or at least it did then. And the shows were going at an historical moment in American sub-culture when (racist) skinheads were coming back to prevalence in the scene, and the straight-edge movement was strong, and you also had S.H.A.R.P.s (skinheads against racial prejudice). That’s all a way of saying that it wasn’t unusual for shows to turn violent. But because back then very few kids of color were going to shows, it was mostly the skinheads versus anyone they felt like going heads up with, often straight-edge kids or S.H.A.R.P.s, but just as often with anyone for no good reason, at all. Later, very ironically, a lot of those same guys who were skinheads at 14 years old, were listening to hip-hop, wearing track suits and wife-beaters, selling crack and blow, and flashing guns at 18 years old. What didn’t change was their penchant for violence. This was crucial for me, though, this time—I became so aware of social issues and politics through that music scene. I was listening to music—much of it local, but also bands like Born Against, Minor Threat, Big Black, Operation Ivy, Bad Brains—that spoke to sexual violence, U.S. intervention abroad, racism, the monotony of a certain kind of adult/domestic life, poverty, corporate exploitation of the environment, &c.
Anyway, the common theme throughout all I’ve said is, primarily, financial disadvantage. You got low-income kids, with parents who are frustrated because they can’t pay the bills or afford their families the lives they wish they could, and that frustration gets taken out on their kids or is simply present for their kids to stew in; and because their parents are also working their asses off and/or are under-educated, and because their local schools blow (as is common in low-income areas), their kids are largely mentally unengaged and bored, and all of that frustration and anger is going to find an outlet somewhere: whether it’s through starting a band, finding a cause, dealing, moving to California to turn pro with Blind, beating the crap out of someone, or becoming a poet.
These poems also draw on discrete historical narratives, events, and various contemporary media (books, articles, etc.). With all this compositing of texts, stories, and ideas, what kind of work do you do in your writing process to keep the voice unified, exacting, and clear? From where do you draw the impetus for the occasion of a poem?
I seem to have worked in bricolage for some time now. I suppose it’s fitting, given how much I value the work of artists like Schwitters and Rauschenberg. I’m not sure how I keep the voice unified; I seem to assimilate the language pretty thoroughly, because honestly it doesn’t occur to me “how” to utilize those other texts (using the term broadly) in my own. They tend to stick with me long before I try to write with them; that may have something to do with that assimilation at the time of writing.
I’m actually just finishing up work on a book-length site-specific poem that utilizes a travel article from the New York Times: “36 Hours in _____” series as its template, over which is written a confusion of that article’s geographical context with an alternative geo-political context. There is a central character/speaker, but overall the poem is spoken in five different registers. Within the poem, concepts and ideas function with as much import as traditional aesthetic and content concerns. And I’m just beginning a longer “poem” that reworks the really, just laughably horribly-written sex scenes penned by authors like Updike, Roth, Franzen, Henry Miller, Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Styron, Brodkey, and others, in the context of a few things: the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in the UK (1981-2000), protesting American nuclear cruise missiles being based there, as well as in the context of two great, radical art house films; the former French, the latter Belgian: Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967), and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (Chantal Akerman, 1975), and in the context of the visual art of Justine Kurman, Laurel Nakadate, Robert Melee and others. Further contextualizing the “poem” is work from Ikkyū, an iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist Monk who wrote eccentric, often crude and sexual poetry; the “Circe” section of Joyce’s Ulysses, which usefully confuses gender and sexuality; and Rabelais’ intelligently, flagrantly vulgar, and scatological, Gargantua and Pantagruel.
As far as my impetus for the occasion of a poem, I have no idea. I don’t have a writing schedule, but neither do I believe in some kind of divine inspiration. I don’t really write if I’m not reading or consuming film. Though, I rarely write in reaction to poetry. I certainly almost never use language from the poems of others. That is one instance where I find it impossible to assimilate the language of an other.
These poems, it seems to me, work against both the ironic and sincere conventions that are often characterized to be separate streams in contemporary American poetry. Whether they’re lyrically rendered persona poems or sweeping and engaged narratives, they seem to be trying to resist both cynicism and epiphany at once. Could you comment a little on this aspect of your work, whether or not you feel that’s a fair categorization? And how you see your work resisting this classification?
Yeah, that feels like a fair categorization. Some of the poems in Model of a City are older and some of them are relatively new, so the book probably captures an evolution away from a certain kind of earnestness. I like this idea you’ve put forth of the work being neither maudlin nor glib. There is definitely irony in the poems, but it is, I hope, born out of engagement rather than detachment. A good deal of irony in contemporary American poetry is simply a way to avoid actual confronting of difficult experiences and ideas, or a way to simply entertain. It bugs me. The funny thing is, the Brits are always complaining that Americans don’t get actual irony, and it’s pretty true. Danes, Argentines, Indians get genuine irony. It’s easy to be glibly ironic. In turn, the epiphanic/cathartic/revelatory poem feels just as naïve, one-dimensional and disingenuous. If an idea, event or issue really seems worthy of memorialization or capable of bringing about catharsis or epiphany—clearly, complex experiences, in themselves—then it must demand sophisticated engagement and writing. One of the reasons that Carl Sandburg is little read today is that while he wrote about important class and labor issues, he did so with a sentimentality and simplicity that likely did not do those issues justice. Oppen or perhaps even Levine, on the other hand, seem to have written with a nuance and complexity about those issues.
I wonder how you might feel about that tricky and commonly discussed idea that poetry is a political act, or an act of witness to the death and chaos in the world. Do you feel any political responsibilities as a poet? If so, to whom or what? If not, then what/who should a poet have allegiance to?
I feel kind of ambivalent about that. Also, it’s hard to answer those questions without sounding preachy. In any case, holding a protest in your family room is a political act, but its effectiveness is suspect, to say the least. Writing poetry is a political act, but on a spectrum, and also within a matrix where context matters a great deal. The act of poetry in Zimbabwe is not the act of poetry in Finland. The family room protest is less politically effectual than the act of poetry, obviously, but those two things are far closer on the spectrum, to my mind, than say community organizing, or working for the ACLU. That’s not to say, by any means, that I don’t think the teaching of, learning about, reading of, and writing of creative writing isn’t or can’t be politically impactful. That seems obvious, of course, but I feel like a lot of poets are pretty defensive about the whole poetry/politics thing. No one wants to think that their life or work is effete. Of course, we also live in a culture where most poets, or very many, seem to think that teaching at the post-secondary level is the primary way one might spend one’s life as a writer. I think the art and the politics of our country would be greatly enriched if there were more poets who pursued work as therapists, gamblers, engineers, journalists, attorneys, stockbrokers, &c.
I feel political responsibilities as a person, regardless of being a poet, to what? I was a political science major, as well as a creative writing major, in college, so maybe political and social issues are more at the forefront of my mind than for others. I don’t know. I suppose I don’t think about who or what I’m “politically responsible” to. But class, race, gender, sexuality, the environment, power, immigration, geopolitics, &c. are things I see in the news, books, films, and art I engage with, and those issues find their way into my thinking and writing. And they would be of concern to me even if I weren’t a writer/poet.
I do think if you spend a life writing poems and aren’t actively engaged by, and engaging with, politics, social issues, &c., then, yeah, I mean, I don’t really know how that’s possible. I’m sure many would argue that practically every poet, at some points, does take on such issues. I’m not saying you have to write agitprop—some of the worst poetry is concerned with political and social issues, because it reads as one-sided, polemical and pedantic. But Thomas Sayers-Ellis, George Oppen, Laura Sims, Brian Teare, Fred Moten, John Yau, Phil Levine, Timothy Liu, Juliana Spahr, Catherine Wagner, Nathaniel Mackey, Jason Schneiderman, Sandra Simonds, Douglas Kearney, Fanny Howe, among others usually do a great job of tackling such issues. I’m simply saying that I don’t know how you could be thinking analytically about your experience of life and the world and not find yourself actively coming to terms with larger political and social issues. Of course, this engagement doesn’t have to take place in the arena of one’s writing, necessarily.
Contributor Dave Harrity’s work has appeared in Memorious, Revolver, Killing the Buddha, The Los Angeles Review, Confrontation, Softblow, and elsewhere. His first full-length book of poems is Our Father in the Year of the Wolf” forthcoming from WordFarm in 2016. He teaches at Campbellsville University and lives in Louisville.