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RAE ARMANTROUT

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A collection of poems by Rae Armantrout. This book began its life in a restaurant: “Would you ever have interest in collecting those poems of yours that worry about one of life’s major axes, money?”

Printed by Emily Johnson in an edition of 250 at Yale Union on a Miehle Vertical V-50. 40 pp, 4.5 x 10.75 in., 2014. Edited by Rae Armantrout, Aaron Flint Jamison, and Robert Snowden. Published by Yale Union.

Rae Armantrout was born in Vallejo, California in 1947. She teaches at the University of California, San Diego, where she is Professor of Poetry and Poetics. She has published ten volumes of poetry. In 2010, her collection Versed won the Pulitzer Prize.

Thanks to Bayard Snowden and Wesleyan University Press.

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Rae Armantrout by Ben Lerner

A key word in Money Shot , the new book of poetry by Pulitzer Prize–winner Rae Armantrout, is point : “Apes can mind-read. / Studies show // what makes us human / is our tendency to point.” The cover of Money Shot has a detail from Goya’s The Duchess of Alba —a bejeweled hand pointing (the detail is doubled, so that the hand could be read as either pointing to the book’s title or to its own reflected image). And the different senses of point cycle through the book: “That we are composed / of dimensionless points // which nonetheless spin;” “The pundit says / the candidates speech / hit / ‘all the right points’;” and so on. Pointing as a basic communicative activity, or the sense of point as the salient feature of a speech or text, keeps collapsing into the notion of point as something with position, but not extension. A point and not a line. A particle and not a wave. A sound bite and not a syllogism. Point as a change in fluctuating market prices as opposed to something we make in human conversation. The poems in Money Shot , as in Armantrout’s work in general, capture, with unsurpassed precision, our contemporary atomization. But they also record the struggle to point to something outside of spectacle, to integrate isolated units into higher orders of meaning. Less a minimalist than a pointillist, Armantrout proves that poetry’s singular capacity to figure and reconfigure relations between part and whole makes it a powerful tool for addressing the contemporary and its contradictions. The following exchange was conducted via email between Brooklyn and San Diego, where Armantrout has lived and taught for many years.

Ben Lerner: According to a (poorly sourced and ungrammatical) Wikipedia entry, “The pornography industry adopted the term ‘money shot’ because [ . . . ] ejaculation proves to the viewer that they have witnessed an authentic sexual act.” As if the “money shot” might serve to underwrite the reality of all the other moments retrospectively. You composed these poems at a time in which value in our economy seemed to evaporate suddenly—when we found ourselves unable to prove there was real value anchoring all that monetized debt. How do your poems relate to the systems of value offered by porn and finance capitalism?

Rae Armantrout: The consumer of porn, presumably, is buying access to a guarantee that pleasure—value, life—exists somewhere (else) and can potentially be transferred to him. The porn star’s visible semen is currency (even if the act it verifies inevitably happened elsewhere at another time). Money is a signifier of value, as a sign is a signifier of meaning, only if it can flow. If it’s not moving, it’s meaningless. The threat in the fall of 2008 was that this shameful truth would be revealed: a different kind of money shot. Some of the poems in the book deal with these issues directly, some indirectly, and some not at all.

The first poem in the book, “Staging,” is indirect. It doesn’t appear to have anything to do with sex or money, but it does raise the question of what constitutes an entity or unit. At first it evokes, perhaps, biological processes in which new entities are created by the reshuffling of parts. The second section turns the bits to be reshuffled into experiential units: things seen and heard in a lobby or waiting room. These experiential bits are arbitrarily paired and paired again to create hypothetical entities. That’s not all I could say about this poem, but I don’t want to exhaust it.

The title poem, “Money Shot,” is, of course, more directly about the financial system. But it works, at least in the first section, in a similar way. The poem begins with the name of one of the first mortgage banks to go under, the humorously named IndyMac. That name struck me because it seems to consist of an oxymoronic aggregate of two meaning-units: Indy, suggesting independence, and “indie,” or alternative status, and Mac suggesting conglomeration, the Big Mac. Then come semidetached (as in “pre-existing”) or free-floating prefixes and suffixes ready to be recombined, reshuffled. The second section is quite different. It’s a dream narrative, though I don’t know if that matters. I, the dreamer, am served an unappetizing breakfast item, a mound of soggy dough. Dough is a potential (persistent?) pun that the narrative tries to disallow. When “I” complain about the obvious mistake, the waiter snaps, “Why don’t you just say what you mean?” Since this is a kind of true story, I’ll say that I woke up with that question ringing in my mind—and no answer for it. What did I mean? What had I really ordered? I didn’t know. If I did know, if I could come out with such a thing, that would be another kind of money shot. But what would it authenticate?

BL: What you say about bits being shuffled into experiential units makes me think of how your poems often delve down into the atomic or subatomic level—“As if / the space around / each particle were filled / with countless / virtual particles;” “light is the wail of atoms / pressed to the touch;” “Rolled to the brink, / a subatomic particle / will sometimes turn away;” etc. I wonder if there is a relationship between this set of themes and your signature short line. I remember Charles Bernstein describing Robert Creeley’s poems, talking about how in Wordsand Pieces “waves of thought” would threaten to break into “particles of sound,” that the extension and motion of syntax would give way to the sense of words as isolated points. Your writing seems to take place on the threshold between point and line, bit and experiential unit, between the word as a thing and the line as a motion: “Just now / breaking // into awareness, falling forward.” It might also be worth noting here that the word point appears, in a variety of senses, with considerable frequency in Money Shot.

RA: You are so right about the predominance of the point (and line) imagery in the book. When I scanned the text, I could see it everywhere—sometimes it’s the same idea in different words: the moment versus the arrow of time; the one and the many. I picked out other poems, almost at random, that illustrate your point about the point in one way or another. There’s this from “Second Person”:

This reflection
spins,

a bead on a string.

I can take it with me.

Or this from “Homer”:

If good is the all-enduring
intention
that carries you
to the future,

evil is the present’s
animal magnetism.

I had been reading the Odyssey that summer. Another example appears in “Number”:

The assumption, one
of going on,

budding off
into what

will be multiple.

I’ll stop there. The odd thing is that I didn’t think about that as a conscious theme in this book. It simply reflects an old preoccupation of mine. For some years this preoccupation has taken the form of an interest in quantum physics, which now, as you know, posits either the “standard model,” in which the smallest unit of matter is the “point particle” or, alternatively, string theory, in which the basic unit of matter is a vibrating “string.” Maybe we could think of the word as a point particle and the line as a string. Even within the standard model, though, the particle can sometimes act like a wave. One thing that especially interests me about the subatomic world is how the closer we get to what is supposed to be basic, the more complicated things become. When you get down to the “building blocks of matter,” there’s no “there there,” as Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland. I suppose we could make a leap from that to our previous discussion about the value of debt, and/or the lack thereof, in the new economy.

As we know from physics, and from neuroscience, any single object we will ever see is, in fact, a buzzing multiplicity which we have found it practical to identify as a single entity. We ourselves are colonies of cooperating (knock wood) cells. It was only a year and a half ago that I read Alain Badiou’s book on set theory, Being and Event. He articulates the issue I keep wrestling with more logically than I ever could, or would. “The one, being an operation, is never a presentation. The ‘count-as-one’ is always a result.” I wrote the poem “Staging” before I ever read Badiou, but I think that the composite entities I’m constructing there, (“Stillness of gauzy curtains // and the sound / of distant vacuums”) are examples of the “count-as-one.” The poem stages alternate perceptual sets. Actually, one of the poems you quote, “Concerning,” contains a quote from Badiou—probably the only time I’ve sampled a philosopher, though I quote scientists and politicians all the time. The second section of “Concerning” goes:

I look away before,

“Whatever concerns may mean,
an event

always concerns a point
in a situation,”

before the gyre
is a floating island

of plastic debris
the size of the United States

adrift in the Pacific.

I read Badiou with great interest and respect, but, in the poem, I am playing his abstract version of concern off against a very concerning, as in worrying, event/point located in the actual Pacific/situation. The abstract depends on the concrete for support, for example, but they are often uneasy bedfellows.

BL: The drama of point and line in your poems, how words and phrases hover between being isolated points and elements in a larger syntactic pattern, might be one way to think of your relation to Language writing. In The New Sentence, for instance, Ron Silliman described how a certain kind of experimental prose frustrates our “will to integration,” our tendency to assimilate sentences into higher orders of meaning like paragraphs, chapters, and plots. The disjunction of the new sentences was supposed to block this dematerializing motion, to keep us focused on the materiality of the language. I wonder if you see—or saw—your verse as involved with the kinds of concerns Silliman was articulating in the late ‘70s. How do you position yourself inside or in relation to Language writing as a literary movement or moment?

RA: I like that phrase “the drama of point and line.” To some extent I got my sense of the line from reading William Carlos Williams in my youth. From him I learned that line breaks can create suspense and can destabilize meaning through delay. I’ve known Ron Silliman since we were undergraduates at Berkeley. We were both big Williams freaks. It’s true that as Ron started writing long prose poems some years later, as well as theorizing the “new sentence,” his poems began to look very different from Williams’s poetry. But, as Williams created suspense and surprise between lines, Ron started to create interesting disjunctions between adjacent sentences. (He wasn’t the only one, of course. There were several Bay Area Language poets working like this at the same time—Lyn Hejinian and Carla Harryman, for instance. He may have named the “new sentence” but he didn’t create it. Like most interesting things, it just happened.) I think Ron is still very Williamsesque in his sensibility, the precise and respectful way he attends to the material world. My poems, on the other hand, which still look a lot like Williams’s, are pretty different beneath the surface. For one thing, there are more voices in my poems than in Williams or Silliman—and you can’t always trust them. And I’m more apt to create problematic (zany?) conjunctions of the abstract and the concrete.

It’s always exciting to find two things/images/observations side by side that at first appear to have nothing to do with one another but which turn out, on second thought, to be somehow related. I think all of us Language poets (Are you now or have you ever been . . . ?) are interested in disjunction because we’re interested in new forms of connection. I never went in for the long “new sentence” prose poem myself—though I did try it out a few times, most notably in the collaboration I did with Ron called “Engines,” which can be found in my selected poems, Veil, and his The Alphabet. In my poems, the unit of meaning is either the stanza or the section. (Most of my poems are divided into sections.) The disjunctive leap or juxtaposition happens there. To go on, you need to find a way to connect/reconnect. Maybe that mimics the way I experience the world. You might have noticed that things/events don’t arrive with narratives to explain them.

BL: You haven’t gone in for the long “new sentence” prose poem, but you do write short prose poems (“The Deal”), and you have various poems across your books with prose sections (the first section of “Recording”). Do you have a sense of what occasions a prose poem instead of a poem in verse? Or how verse and prose push off each other in your poems and books?

RA: I think I move toward prose when I hear the voice of a conventional narrator in my head. By the way, I don’t think narrative is any more natural than a sonnet. We don’t go around narrating our actions to ourselves—at least I don’t think, you know: “I pocketed the change and headed directly for the supermarket door,” or some such. So when I hear a narrative voice in a poem, it’s usually associated with a sense of genre. There’s the genre of the dream narrative, for one, and “The Deal” participates in that—though it’s really more about insomnia or those moments when you’re falling asleep for a second and then waking up again. It also partakes in the mystery novel genre. The words suspect and private dick appear at the end not because I had been writing toward that ending, but because I found myself, for whatever reason, writing in a way reminiscent of detective fiction, which then suggested those words to me. Whenever I employ a voice like that in a poem, the artifice feels a little campy.

BL: I’d like to hear more about voice and artifice. You mentioned the multiple voices in your poems. There is certainly plenty of quotation. But there is also a concern with the degree to which the “I” and its voice are in an authentic relation. I’m thinking of a poem like “Measure”:

I join myself
to it, this

measured
disinterested voice,

speaking as if
in retrospect,

as if
to another person.

Here the poetic sense of measured as regularized by prosody meets the more vernacular sense of measured as restrained, projecting an image of calm. Instead of the voice being internal to the “I,” it’s something the first person is attempting to catch up with, to suture to itself. Is there a suspicion here about poetry’s ability to take the measure of a voice? Or of the legitimacy of voice as a measure of a person?

RA: Well, the internal statements I’m aware of as my thoughts often do have tones or styles associated with them. I hope that doesn’t make me sound crazy. I’m not saying that I deliberately write persona poems. I don’t. But I often become aware of tones as potential personas within the writing.

I love the way you describe the second section of “Measure,” by the way. Yes, if you hear yourself talk or hear yourself think, you are, in that moment, two people. And you have the option of identifying to a greater or lesser degree with what you hear. In the quoted lines, the poem might be seen as describing the narrative function: “speaking as if / in retrospect // as if / to another person.” It is also mimicking the objective tone of experts, scientists, and reporters. And, as you point out, meting itself out in careful snippets. That second section occurs in a context, of course. The first section presents me (using my real first name, Mary) as a sort of forensics expert, possibly removing a brain from a skull, but, at the same time, as a poet removing a thought from the “stream of consciousness” and presenting it for public display. A bit ghoulish, maybe.

Do I distrust the voices that appear in my poems and my thoughts? Yes and no—or sometimes more than others, I suppose. I try to speak truth—but then I hear the hubris in those words. The voice is what we’ve got, but it’s never entirely our “own” voice. It’s composite. I sometimes dramatize that sense of voice by clearly appropriating language from various sources in my poems. For instance, in my poem “Integer” from Versed, I juxtapose a sentence from a Scientific American article about the biology of cancer with a sentence from my phone bill. That may not seem very promising on the face of it, but both sentences have something ominous about them. I broke the phone bill sentence into the following lines:

These temporary credits
will no longer be reflected
in your next billing period.

In “Integer” menace takes various forms. It even speaks with the impersonal, bureaucratic voice of AT&T. Of course, this is somehow my voice too—or it becomes my voice for the moment since it speaks my fear.

BL: Speaking of “public display,” I imagine it must be interesting and/or disorienting to have gone from being a poet associated with writers and presses critical of the dominant poetry of the day, to being one of the most conventionally celebrated poets in the country—in the last year you won the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and were a finalist for the National Book Award. You’ve been profiled in the New Yorker and you’ve been generously covered in the New York Times. When John Ashbery became the center of immense critical attention, it began to enter his poems—there are passages in Flow Chart or “Litany,” for instance, that read as a mashup of, and/or a response to, the critical industry surrounding his work. I wonder if the reception of your poetry has entered your poetry, or otherwise affected your writing? I’m thinking here of a poem like “With” in the new volume, that speculates on both the isolation and potential sociality of writing:

It’s well
that things should stir
inconsequentially
around me
like this
patina of shadow,
flicker, whisper
so that
I can be still.

I write things down
to show others
later
or to show myself
that I am not alone with
my experience.

“With”
is the word that
comes to mind,
but it’s not
the right word here.

RA: Well, it’s always strange to hear yourself described by others, even positively. It’s like hearing your own voice on an answering machine. It’s creepy because you know that’s how you sound to others, but it isn’t how you sound to yourself. I have never listened to a recording of a reading or interview I’ve given. Personally, I don’t know how singers stand it. I’m interested by that in certain contexts, but apparently not in others. This is just to say that I have a very ambivalent relation to fame (even the kind of bush-league fame poets get). Being “recognized” implies being depicted by others.

I think Ashbery handled the pressure of being “recognized” in a very ingenious way. He takes the measure of fame with a kind of melancholy humor. And, of course, when he might seem to be talking about the reception of his own work, he is also talking about the waxing and waning of poetic fashions and, beyond that, about ephemerality in general, and mortality itself. His work received public attention earlier in his career than mine did, so he’s had time to process it. So far, my gut-level response is aversion. Anyway, I think the fact that this happened to me at a later age makes a big difference. It would have been more difficult to put it in perspective when I was, say, 40. I can remember when James Wright and Galway Kinnell were huge. And I remember when the world was divided between Robert Lowell and Charles Olson. I hope their work will always be read but, let’s face it, they are not the facts of literary life that they once were. So it goes.

I am worried a bit now that my “prize-winning” book, Versed, is going to suck all the air out of the room and leave the new baby, Money Shot, out in the cold. Now there’s a mixed metaphor. Pulitzer Prize–winning poet commits mixed metaphor!

I should say, by the way, that what happened to my book recently wasn’t completely anomalous. After all, the “experimental” poet Keith Waldrop did win the National Book Award and, as I write this, C. D. Wright is a finalist for this year’s. I first became aware of literary prizes about nine years ago when Fanny Howe won the Lenore Marshall Prize for her selected poems. Then a few years after that Nathaniel Mackey won the National Book Award. That was when the existence of that whole prize world registered on my personal radar. Now I know too much about it! I know, for instance, when you could expect to hear whether or not you were a finalist, etc. I want to go back to my innocent state.

For many poets, including certainly me, poetry is first a way of talking to yourself. I started writing when I was a child to keep myself company. Readers are never there when you’re really doing it. There’s a loneliness to poetry—and that’s important. That’s what you’re seeing in that poem you quote above, I think.

BL: Although the recognition might be recent, one notable thing to me about your work is that, to use an ugly phrase, your “mature style” is present from the beginning. Your work isn’t repetitive, but, unlike many writers, your early poems are as unmistakably yours as those in the most recent volume. I don’t see you as an artist with clearly delineable “rose periods” or “blue periods.” Do you think that’s accurate? Or do you think there have been tectonic shifts?

RA: If you live long enough, it’s hard not to repeat yourself. But anyway, I do think that my work has gone through phases. Maybe they’re subtle, but, like the seasons in California, they exist. In my first book, Extremities, there are quite a few short and even very short poems. “Anti-Short Story” is three lines long. “View” is four. I had been a bit influenced by Zen koans, like everyone my age, as well as by Williams. At some point, I really tried to stretch my poems out. I found I could write somewhat longer poems if I strung separate sections together using asterisks or numbers. My first successful longer poem was “Xenophobia,” which was one of the last poems in my first book, so, yes, I’ve been using that trick for a while. I first used found language in “Natural History,” the first poem in my chapbook The Invention of Hunger. I used a Scientific American article about termite mounds and a piece about a dominatrix in that poem. I don’t know if it was coincidental that I was pregnant at the time. I think that my life circumstances have influenced my poems over the years. That must be true of all poets. After my son, Aaron, was born, he became a pretty big presence in my books—not so much because I wrote about him, but because we were paying attention to the same things. So I would get images from children’s books or cartoons. There are a lot of cartoon images in my “middle period.” And, about that same time, I started using more dream imagery, so that a book like Made to Seem can seem surrealistic, though it was all coming from my daily life. My preoccupation with physics, i.e., time and space, began about the same time Aaron left home. Maybe a form of empty-nest syndrome? You start to see that in Up to Speed. And then, of course, cancer makes its presence felt in Versed. But now I’m talking more about content than style, I guess.

To hark back to your question about reception, I had a funny experience recently when I read at the National Book Festival in DC. During the Q and A, someone asked me, “Do you need to have a serious illness to win a Pulitzer Prize?” I said, “No, but it probably helps.”