Contributor David Rivard’s sixth collection of poems, Standoff, has just been released by Graywolf Press. David Rivard is also the author of Otherwise Elsewhere; Sugartown; Bewitched Playground; Wise Poison; winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award; and Torque, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. His poems and essays appear regularly in the American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Tin House, Poetry London, Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize, and other magazines and anthologies. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, as well as the 2006 O. B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Jerome J. Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review. He teaches in the MFA Program in Writing at the University of New Hampshire. He graciously answered these questions from Memorious editor Rebecca Morgan Frank about Standoff.
“Don’t Doubt It” and “Iron Rising Out of Iron” were among the earliest written for Standoff—when I read them now they feel as if they emerge out of some of the impulses that govern my previous book, Otherwise Elsewhere: there’s a certain density of sonic effect and perception, and a voice that’s recognizably a person but without totally admitting to the autobiographical. A voice that’s singular, but common? Shared? The person who’s being addressed in both poems has a sense of solitude and loneliness about him—a distant cousin to hopelessness. The narrator doesn’t exactly identify with this “you”—he (or is it she?) is conscious of a wider horizon line than the “you” is. She knows about the strange, slightly bewitched randomness of the daily world. She’s very gently putting her hand against the back of “your” head and redirecting “your” attention.
“Here We Go” was written a couple of years later, under the influence of Michael O’Brien’s poems, and maybe the aphoristic prose of Pierre-Albert Jourdan and Antonio Porchia. It’s quite fragmented (to state the obvious), each set of images being almost haiku-like. The movement within and between fragments in associative. The associations are reinforced either syntactically or mechanically in the last line of each unit, so that the final line folds into the first line of the next fragment in some way. It’s basic cubist form, but the prosodic effect might be more obvious when read out loud. I wrote a lot of fragments, then cut back, and arranged and rearranged to create the associations through juxtaposition and parallelism. My mind is associative by nature, and I’m drawn to non-linear logic—I’m pretty intuitive about all this. I like the way the poem funnels down to birth date—mine as a matter of fact. Then the speaker is fully present all of a sudden, and the “story” feels as though it’s on the verge of starting up again. I feel like I may have been 3-5 years ahead of myself when I wrote this.
Much of this collection seems elegiac—from the loss of your father, to a daughter leaving into adulthood, to the passing of Mike Mazur. But rather than a direct focus on grieving in this collection, there’s a sense of a speaker continually trying to find his ground in the changing order of the world. In “Arriving from a Destination” the speaker says “my father–/do I know him at all?” and later “What is it my daughter sees me as?” To this reader, the result seems to be a book that is partially steeped in memory and partially sees the world with new eyes. Did you have a sense of this collection, your sixth, being different than previous ones, being shaped by the changes in your own life, and if so, how so?
Well, yes, my father’s death in particular, I would say—though factually he died toward the very end of the time when I was writing it. The book registers in all sorts of indirect ways his decline, but I don’t feel that I was aware of that exactly when I write it. The approach of his death, my awareness of its coming nearer, and the mix of emotional vulnerability, vibrancy, physical frailty, and willfulness that he seemed possessed by in his late 80’s, early 90’s—those things are all in the book, but not always visible. They’re hiding in plain sight. So, yes, the tone is elegiac in one sense, but it seems to open onto new, unexpected views at every instance. It’s not just a closing down. At moments like this, in anyone’s life, you’re being shown your losses with a clarifying intensity. But the grief can be bracing. You’re really awake in those moments, whether you want to be or not.
I want to say something about the aesthetics of all this. I’m not trying to record or report the details of my life “as it happened.” I’m not an autobiographical poet in that sense. I want simply that the writing of the poem be engaged with my thinking and feeling, entangled with my life as it occurs to me moment to moment. I want the form of the poem to be as close to the actual way I think and feel as it can be, an experience of such. On a day-to-day level, I don’t experience grief—or longing, or anxiety, or political outrage, or love—as if it had the shapeliness of an essay or story. My feeling and thinking is rarely insightful and almost always arrives in non-linear ways. It’s full of blank spots and inarticulate intuitions, prone to baffling surges and leaps, and often open to memory only through random, fragmented images. All of that stuff is going on constantly, along with a voice that seems to be narrating and giving it shape in my head from moment to moment. My poems are chasing after the sensation of that voice.
I have to ask about the poem “That Year,” which begins, “I meet Margaret Mead that year….” Is this autobiographical: did you really meet Margaret Mead? And study anthropology? How has that study shaped your work?
I did meet Margaret Mead, pretty much under the circumstances related in the poem: I was hired by one of my professors in the grad school of anthropology at Princeton to make slides of the Balinese shadow puppets that Mead and Gregory Bateson had collected in Bali thirty or forty years earlier. I was 23, and stayed in the program for only a year—during which time, as the poem also makes clear, I was doing things other than studying as well: i.e., selling weed and acid in the “eating clubs” at Princeton. I left school because I wanted to write poems, and sensed that becoming a professional anthropologist wouldn’t allow it. I had been showing my poems to the late Ted Weiss, who taught at Princeton then, and Ted encouraged me. He also made very clear the demands involved in being a writer. I’ve always felt grateful to him for both things. He was a fine teacher and good man.
I left the Ph.D. program, and crushed my parents really—I was the first person in my working class family to go to college, and they loved that I was at Princeton, and thought I was nuts to give up the opportunity. There was a sadness in that for me, but also freedom, and clarity—I was forced to recognize what I was giving up, and it made me take writing seriously. I highly recommend that kind of moment to anyone who wants to write!
I was drawn to anthropology because it required a “watchfulness,” and that was something I could sense very strongly in myself. It’s as much an art as a science—it requires a willingness to be baffled and clueless about what’s going on, openness to patterns that don’t make immediate sense and are often shifting. Malinowski says that the anthropologist’s job involves “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” A good anthropologist has some of the same sense of “play” that an artist or writer has.
The title poem begins, “I like reality, I like Rome….” And to me this captures a sense of this being a very urban book, set in, well, “reality.” I can imagine many of these poems beginning through observations on the streets, out in the world. What so you see as the role of the city in your work? And where do your poems tend to begin?
I’ve lived in cities all my life, and I love the simultaneous intimacy and anonymity of them. Also, that feeling that anything could happen as you drift through them, and that almost anything you see—no matter how ordinary (like a plateful of sausages on a handcart, or a woman joggling her baby while ordering a coffee, or a book left on a bench)—could come to seem as if it has some secret meaning. You know, some revelation is always about to occur in the city. I love walking in cities, drifting—some of the rapidity of changes in image and tone in my poems comes from that walking, I think.
My poems begin usually with some compressed sort of musical phrase. Whether it’s image or statement, I like it to sound springy—like the thought or image has been compelled by the music, called into being by it—so that I have the feeling of a thing leaping out of the background, as I do when I’m walking, leaping into some interior space, where it starts to transform itself into other thoughts, feelings, “things.”
Also, the images at the beginnings of my poems are often “abstracted” in odd ways—they’re playing with how recognizable the image is, almost as if I want the thing to seem a bit strange, unfamiliar. Philip Guston said once that he was trying to paint a book in such a way that it would convey what a book felt like to a blind man. I find that enormously appealing—as an idea about process.
This collection is populated with writers and artists; Zbigniew Herbert appears a few times and Transtromer has a poem as well. Are these two poets ones who have been particularly influential, overall, or for this collection? And who else were you reading over the course of this book?
Transtromer, yes, he’s certainly one of the most important long-term presences for me, maybe the most important. I can remember reading his long poem “Baltics” in a Tucson book store in 1979, and being completely floored. I’m working on an essay about his work—in particular, recent translations by Patty Crane and Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassi. It’s shocking to think of how long his work has remained important, relevant—he represents a sort of endurance test. He’s a profoundly political poet in many ways, but his work possesses an interiority, a transformative vision rooted in metaphor and perception, and as such it poses a challenge to the current embrace of documentary poetics in relation to the political.
Herbert was also an early influence, along with a number of other Central European poets: Milosz, Szymborska, Zagajewski, Salamun, Debeljak. But I think I have more arguments with Herbert’s way of perceiving the world, history in particular. You know, like that moment in “What’s It to You?” in Standoff, in which I sample his idea there are too few souls to go around—as an explanation for evil, for greed and maliciousness and obliviousness, it seems kind of shrewish, too easy. His greatness it’s clear, but after awhile it’s a little like reading Robinson Jeffers—the approach becomes a little predictable, even if powerful.
And to take that question a little further, to a bit of a regular question for these spotlights has become this one: if you were to think about your poetic lineage, who would make it on to your family tree?
My grandparents would be W.C. Williams and Frost and Dickinson (it’s a ménage a trois in the mode of Jules et Jim). If I were to state it as a formula, it would be: perception as idiom + narrational voice/tonal flux + phrasal compression/speed.
My parents would be Adrienne Rich and W.S. Merwin, because they were the first two people I heard read poetry, both within a week of each other. I’ve always felt that they “imprinted” themselves on me—I hadn’t even written any poetry when I heard them. They made me want to write, and they made me aware that poetry was both social and private, public and internal—if it has a purpose (which I doubt), it’s to be both those things simultaneously.
My cousins are numerous. I’ve always read and loved a lot of work in translation—Jean Follain, Rimbaud, Adelia Prado, Patrizia Cavalli, Gottfried Benn, and others, were important to me in writing Standoff. Also, a lot of writers oriented to a more “open field”/improvisational approach: all of the NY School poets, and mid-60’s Snyder, Objectivists (especially Oppen and Niedecker), and Black Mountain types like Creeley, Levertov, Blackburn, Dorn. I would make Creeley’s selected poems one of my five “desert island” books, for sure.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on altering the sense of time in my poems—not just pacing, but the plotting of time, how it composes the poem. I’m also trying to see how much explanation and rhetorical language I can strip out of the poems.
I hope that’s abstract enough to allow me not to have to talk about what the poems are “about,” because (as I think Williams says) when you know what the poems are about you’ve reached the end of your means. Anyway, really, maybe mine have always only ever been about some sweet and sour taste I got from licking something I probably shouldn’t have licked but am happy that I had the chance to and did. Lord knows, maybe that’s all anyone’s poems are ever really “about.”
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