First Verse is a series of conversations with a poet who has recently had a first book accepted or won a first book prize. These conversations navigate the process and experience of conceiving, developing, and bringing a first manuscript to its final form as a finished book.
Ezra Dan Feldman is the author of Habitat of Stones, winner of the 2015 Patricia Bibby First Book Award and forthcoming from Tebot Bach. He is also a graduate student in English at Cornell University. His poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Gertrude, Narrative Magazine, Third Wednesday, and Nasty Magazine. More at http://ezradanfeldman.com
Liza Flum’s poems appear or are forthcoming in The Collagist, H_NGM_N, Lambda Literary, and The Southeast Review. She teaches writing at Cornell and is a poetry editor for Omnidawn.
A new poem by Ezra Dan Feldman follows the interview.
Liza Flum: Hi! So, I’ve been thinking a lot about your interview and I thought maybe we could just shoot some e-mails back and forth. I’ve loved reading Habitat of Stones. There are a few poems that I think are nodes of the collection (like stones in a river?) and so I’d like to just point to them and spin out some questions from there
A good place to start seems to me to be the (very beautiful, very rich) “Sonnet for the More Than Knowing (We Were There),” which seems like it’s acting as the collection’s frontispiece. That poem is wonderful. This opening stanza suggests so much:
revealed no realm inside, but he and I
loved its flecked surface, warmed in our armpits,
between our legs, or cooled in cool water
and darkening and drinking liquid in.
So many things are coming up in these lines. It makes me think about surfaces and hiddenness, as they relate to this book. There is something going on here with the “full exposure” of the stone and yet the hiddenness that exposure preserves — we can only interact with a stone’s surface, and yet the thing about the stone that’s most noticeable, its weight, is what’s inside. Somehow I want to relate that to the interiority of the speakers in these poems. What do we know about the people in this book? What is hidden? This connects, for me, to the ways the speaker’s identity and body and gender are at once “exposed” and “handled” and yet never “clear” — but, like the stone, they are very physically present. So, can you talk about the surfaces of your poems? The visibility of bodies? How does this question of surface and interiority inform the voice or voices speaking in this collection?
Ezra Dan Feldman: I think it is interesting that you lit first of all on a poem that’s quite new, one of the very late additions to the book. At a certain point in the process, I came to the possibility of using the stones to ground a collection that moved very rapidly among various speakers and voices. The book was about gods and their wish to be or know incarnated humans; and also it was about humans in sexual relationships that exposed their alter-egos or invited those personae to make themselves more manifest. And for a long time it was a struggle for me to combine those two themes, even though the poems shared a concern with the division between self and other and the way that division, when one cares about another, gets reflected into oneself. How could a god remain one, for example, and also know the solitude of its creations? And at the same time, how could a person hope to understand her or his own desire without reflecting internally the division or separation that makes the space in which desire ignites?
Originally the title phrase “habitat of stones” was just an extraction of an image I liked from one of my favorite poems in the collection. And originally “The Arrogant Man” was the collection’s “frontispiece,” as you called “Sonnet for the More Than Knowing (We Were There).” But having discovered the stone at the end point of one iteration of the arrogant man’s violent passion, I realized that the stone could serve as you see it in the manuscript now, as a blank or abstract surface where desire gets projected, but also as the case containing a secret interior: a miracle of water, as in the biblical story; a bright flash of color, as in some geodes; or even the different miracle of uniformity or randomness continued right through the center of the thing.
Isn’t it a simply miraculous or holy idea that a thing could be same, right through? Never happens.
Relatedly, a lot of the sex and the desire in these poems has been polarized — I mean in the way that light is polarized when filtered through certain materials — by small revisions in language, especially in the gendering of the pronouns. Many of the poems are hermaphroditic in the sense of having, in their version-histories, the pronouns of two sexes. And so the book’s fields of desire have aligned sometimes this way and sometimes that. But I largely settled on male pronouns (I don’t think that “she” or “her” appears anywhere but in “Codicil of the Arrogant Man”) in order to mark both the queer desires of the speakers (though not all of the speakers are male) and the affinity between the male speakers and their objects of desire. I hope, too, that there’s no easy way through the desires that many of these poems articulate — and I hope that the book will jolt with something like an alternating electric current. Love of self (to the extreme) and love of another (to the extreme) are both represented, and I want both to link only tenuously to questions of gender.
LF: Ok. Something that occurs to me (and I think this is related to what you’re saying about the genealogy / composition process of these poems) is the question of flux, and flow and shape-shifting in this book. This relates in obvious ways to the speaker’s identities and desires — but in the same ways the speaker is shape-shifting, the forms of the poems are always changing. You have so many kinds of poems in this book — almost different kinds of poetics. You have already started speaking to this, but talk to me a little bit about flow and flux and change!
EDF: About form I’m an agnostic. There’s a romantic part of me (I’m not using that word in a technical sense here) that is drawn to the notion that every proto-poem, every poem-idea, let’s say, has its particular formal destiny, towards which the lucky, the skillful, the diligent, the honest poet sails on a voyage of discovery.
But then there’s the other, differently romantic part of me for which nothing is more exciting and liberating than the idea the match between form and content is ultimately arbitrary, not fated; accidental, contingent on circumstance, the poet’s mood, and whatever the writer has been reading recently.
— And this same tension is at play in Habitat of Stones. Just as the desires of the personas struggle to fit into the bodies the poems sometimes depict, so those desires work their way among the poems’ different voices and different forms. “Prophet to Whale” and “Letter to Jonah” are almost like two sides of a triangle, and now that I think of it that way, I really ought to have written a poem in the whale’s voice, addressing the Old Testament god.
with your silver skin, your glimmer
in the eye — joie de combat —
straight for your gapejaw,
begged you to bite.
No mark on the forehead
made you wait.
Inside you no possible grip.
No grapple appears. Here’s
no limb to lock.
Scourge of me, see:
I strike to my own
hard bone. You know no
struggle will ensue.
Unwhisper to me what you’ll whisper, undo
what you do.
Letter to Jonah
Is my name secret? Have I hid it all
too well? I only want your splintered voice
and view to summon me. Then I will save
the captain, helmsman, crewmen, and the yawl.
Knee to deck in curse-quick water
each frantic sailor bails – though lightning scars
the flimsy mast, the staggered hull, the spars;
tongue thick, each stammers misdirected prayers.
For him, dear prophet, will you not pronounce
the syllables that check the ocean’s power?
Call out to the all-merciful but once;
defer your flight and give my fame an hour —
or ditch the innocents and swim your way
amid my loyal thunderbolts, my spray.
In both poems, the speaker discovers a preceding failure: Jonah has tried to fight or confront the whale; he expected a struggle; but instead the whale gulped him down easily and without doing Jonah any harm. Meanwhile, this god character realizes that it may have concealed itself right out of the conversation, and I think of god’s adoption of the sonnet form as an extra effort to speak in a specifically human voice.
LF: In my reading of the book, questions of religion and gods seem more secondary but they seem to be part of the book’s intellectual foundation. Why god(s)? Why now?
EDF: I think that the appeal of gods (not necessarily of religion more broadly, though) is very much akin to erotic appeal. This appeal is a feeling we cannot wish away when we encounter it, and it is one that we can and do often yearn for. But what’s the ethical status of a being, a person, who goes about trying to produce that yearning in others? I think there is something pathetic in the image of an all powerful God (capital G!) who really, really, really wants — what? To be worshiped? Yuck! But if we think of it in terms of love, somehow, it makes a great deal more sense, since love is the kind of thing that might slip through the fingers even of the Omnipotent.
LF: These questions of power seem to connect to the figure of the arrogant man, who recurs throughout this book. Talk to me about the word arrogance!
EDF: The figure of the “arrogant man” in this book is a hybrid human and god. He shows up and he does things, but I don’t often give the arrogant man a voice, unless we read him as the alter-ego of some of these poems’ speakers, or unless we decide he is god or Elohim. That embodied arrogance, though, is meant to waver between self-indictment and the indictment of a tyrant — a ruler for whom a desire and its realization are separated from one another, if at all, only by accident and circumstance, but never effectively by someone else’s competing will. “Codicil of the Arrogant Man” is perhaps the arrogant man’s voice at a distance, written into a fantastical legal document, and it is a boast, on the one hand, but also there’s the beginning of a recognition, at the end, that there is something sad after all about dissecting the moon on a plate. The arrogant man is just the kind of person who would run the moon over on a starlit road, not even drunk, but inattentive in a deeper, more personal way.
LF: Ok, so when you say this about the arrogant man, it makes me think about a question I have about absurdity and absurdist humor in this book. Is the arrogant man absurd in a serious way? Is he absurd in a surreally humorous way? The first arrogant man poem is a great example of dissonance that I find nearly funny but also deeply unmooring:
He has mistaken a bathtub for a grave, a grave for a pothole.
He has run a rabbit to earth for its chattering.
In the kitchen he’s scalded his hands on a glass of ice water.
Where he lives, cold means cold.
He has taken your bare breasts for an advertisement; your wall of books for a fortress, taken cats for snoops, dogs for wild meat.
He’s thrown you to the sidewalk to save you from a hail of butterflies.
In a laundromat he asked once why everyone kept on feeding the animals.
He’s taken the world for a machine, a baby for a doll, a gun for a candy bar, which he offered to everyone.
He once mistook a hammer for his own hand.
Once he made love to a wall.
He burned everything in your dressing room to clear the jungle.
He grew a forest of candles and cried when it succumbed to wildfire.
He wanted to restore the natural habitat of stones.
But there are many more moments that are almost laughter-making in maybe a more delightful or playful way. Here are some other examples that are really striking to me — all of “A Man in a Monkey Suit Believes in Himself,” of course, and surreally funny lines, like “Unhappy Banana,” “Oh, I perambulate the perimeter,” “Once in a car he said, ‘Marry me.’// I thought about that,” “We were full of the vigor of yarn,/ not the strength of our bodies. We hung out” etc. In Habitat of Stones and beyond, this is something I really like about your work, the way it often has this surprisingly playfulness or non sequitur that also has urgency and inquiry behind it. I think it’s hard to be funny or playful in poetry without falling into gimmicky-ness or cleverness, but you do it.
Then there’s the “One Armed Lovers” poem which I have to admit is a poem that really troubles me, and seems to be doing something with the grotesque that gets at absurdity through a different path. It makes me think of Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s circus freak show poems, and it also makes me think kind of seriously about disability.
What is going on with things that are absurd, grotesque, darkly humorous, or even silly in this book?
EDF: You’ve hammered the nail by identifying the combination of urgency and inquiry in the book’s humor. The inquiry has many directions, though. I am drawn to the absurd and the surreal as a way to defamiliarize the world in which we live (“One Armed Lovers” stemmed from the feeling that shoulders get in the way a lot when two people lie beside each other bed, rather than from a meditation on disability), but also as a way to return the surfaces of language to the consciousness of readers. A joke is as good as (or better than) a rhyme at doing this — but the point then isn’t the laugh as much as the pause before or after. The arrogant man’s mistakes in his eponymous poem are absolutely serious attempts to reframe the everyday, even as the arrogant man’s insistence on keeping to his own, very strange framing means that he is capable of objectionable violence.
Languages change all the time, and although I don’t align myself with a rear-guard prescriptivist approach to usage — even in my teaching! — I think it is worth underscoring that linguistic change is often violent, not gradual; and sometimes it is even malicious. Seeing butterflies as hail, or as a hail as of bullets, may be original and exciting and peculiar, but it can also make the innocuous register as a threat. (Beauty is always a threat — but not usually the kind one escapes by hitting the deck.)
Finally, a lot of what is apparently absurd in these poems is really nothing more than a transformation of scale between the speakers and the things they about which they speak; and the way that representations scale things in the world up or down so that they fit better the human perceptual apparatuses is something I’ve been obsessed with for years as the subject of both intellectual and aesthetic investigations. As a kid, I had a subscription to a puzzle magazine — “Provoking Thoughts” or something like that — and my favorite recurring puzzle took the form of an ultra-close up photograph of an everyday object. The goal was simply to identify the thing that now seemed utterly alien and was blown up so much that it obliterated cues to its context. It was a form of abstraction, I think now, but simultaneously a form of the most minute attention. I think zooming in that way can form a powerful tribute to an object’s beauty or power; but zooming out has some reciprocal effect that I don’t know as well how to describe. Habitat of Stones is more about the zooming in, but my new project, Salt from the Moon, is about scaling things in the other direction. It’s about detachment.
LF: I’d like to end by asking you to talk at greater length about a particular poem. Is there a poem you want to talk about?
EDF: I think that this zooming in is especially clear in “Ruin at Breakfast”:
mouth sad and fine as anything
once green and unripe.
One of us screaming Strawberry
flinging his seed morning
The other, taut-sphere Blue,
berry two, atop toasted grain in a bowl.
There’s blame for its breakage, a grudge.
Shredded wheat: shucked sweetness
lain down dry.
How ugly, our things, bare
savor, raw straw in the field,
splattered milk, a sputter
of the hand, clamor in the sink,
shattered ceramic. The street
cleared of gravel by murderous trucks.
The eighty-eighth day our spines, bent
beautifully over the table,
switch to the touch.
If the scene is one of daily domestic verbal combat, that scene gets projected from the kitchen at large down into the cereal bowl with its decorative fruit. That’s the poem’s first part, before that little bar which I use to break many of the poems in this book into unnumbered sections. In the second part, I imagine the aftermath of a violent reaction — someone smashing that bowl of cereal down in the sink, where it breaks, where the food goes untasted, and where cracking of the bowl and spilling of its contents clears the way for perception that (almost) returns to the human scale. At the end of the poem, I try to shift from spatial scaling to temporal scaling, and I’m not sure what people will really make of the 88 days I name there. It’s a long time, but less than a season. At the end of that time, deformation and anticipation persist. They are aestheticized, but, I hope, not evaluated by the poem itself. I’m happy to leave that image — that whole poem — as an invitation to puzzle.
Credits: “The Arrogant Man” originally appeared in Narrative Magazine.
of beautiful blanks, he says, cut
The arrogant man thinks everyone
agrees. Potential perception
an empty reel
back of closed shutters.
But shut up
in a box of photos three or four
a couple of dandelion heads,
a pack of crickets, a pinyon framed
to crop the date and hour
the arrogant man thinks over
this beautiful thing.
For me the catastrophe
from love was equanimity.
That he could do it