Brian Blanchfield is the author of two books of poetry–Not Even Then (University of California Press) and A Several World, (Nightboat Books, 2014)–as well as a chapbook, The History of Ideas, 1973-2012 (Spork Press). His collection of essays, Onesheets, is forthcoming from Nightboat in 2015. His recent poetry and prose appear in many publications, including The Nation, The Brooklyn Rail, A Public Space, Guernica, The Paris Review, Lana Turner, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Boston Review, and Brick. An editor for Fence, he lives in Tucson, where he teaches creative writing at the University of Arizona.
Turner Canty is an Omnidawn poetry editor and features writer. He lives in Oakland, and his writing can be found in Fence, 580 split, and several other magazines.
A poem by Brian Blanchfield follows the interview.
Turner Canty: Hi, Brian, it’s good to talk again. To begin with, I would just like to note that I was pretty astounded by the physical landscape presented in your new book A Several World. L.A., Montana and other unidentified and perhaps interchangeable parts of America are present and deeply intertwined in the titles and inner workings of the book. Do you see these as starting points for further investigation or locations of specificity and intimacy? I guess I’m asking if these places found you, or did you find them and run away with them in the way that you wanted?
Brian Blanchfield: “A Several World,” the phrase—those three words—may well imply multiple or parallel or variable landscapes; and indeed the poems in the book (like myself the last few years) are itinerant and sometimes site themselves in particular places, at locations so specific (and intimate, yes, just so) they’re off the map—like Nimrod Falls, Montana, known to locals only, skinnydippers mostly. Only the tallest big rigs on the nearby highway can see swimmers in the little lagoon there (and they know to slow down to look). It’s also true, though, that the book’s title comes from a short 17th-century poem by Robert Herrick. His whole poem reads: “Here we are all by day. By night, we’re hurl’d / by dreams, each one, into a several world.”
What concerned Herrick there—our respective nightly individuation and separation from one another and then the daily repair of a collective identity—is a concern of A Several World, too. Which condition is the ultimate one? The book’s primary pronoun is we, and the first part of Herrick’s hermeneutic pertains to your question maybe more than the rest. Here we are all. As though here—this place—(and wakefulness “by day”) are the conditions for the unity (“we are all”) he claims, the unity broken each night. If there is an us-here or an us-down-here in my book, it has been shaped by a specific locale you know as well as I. This is a book that came together in the three years I lived in (your hometown) Missoula, Montana. Because it’s a valley town, surrounded by bright, giant, half-bare hills, and covered either by the imposing season-long inversion or else by the famed “big sky,” I found living there to be suffused with the feeling that higher up it’s possible see the thing in whole (a fantasy) and the feeling that one is perpetually overseen (or overlooked), one of a number of movers in a field. Even in a poem set back in Los Angeles (“The History of Ideas, 1973-2012: Time”) the relationship between aerial vantage and collective identity pertains—to see the blimp that hovers over Hollywood means not only that it’s Oscars night but also that everyone else in LA has made the same inference. I think the lived-in landscape of Missoula structured that commons somehow.
The terrain of the “commons” is one other poets I really admire are working in now: Jena Osman, Chris Nealon, Prageeta Sharma, Geoffrey G O’Brien, Rachel Levitsky, Rodrigo Toscano, among others. Especially where the first person plural is manufactured from place, or the idea of place, I trust those writers who are clear that we is not the plural of I.
The idea of landscape as theatre is a pastoral one, and in several ways I found myself measuring real, rough on-the-ground conditions in the Bitterroot Valley against traditions of the pastoral, including idealized community (recall the fantasy idiorrhythmy of the shepherds drawn together in Theocritus, for instance). The contrasts were hard to resist, when a shepherd regularly drove a flock across the hill behind my home and when many Montanans still embrace the motto “the last best place,” which bespeaks both pastoral retreat and scarcity-model entrenchment—I mean, who’s invited to share the settlement of that valley? That’s a question rumbling under some of these upcountry queer poems.
TC: In “The History of Ideas” poems in A Several World, in addition to a “we” I found there to be both a lingering prophetic authorial voice and a scatter of other voices and figures alluded to in epigraphs and the quotes at the endings of the pieces and in the pieces themselves. For instance there is the child being told to heat money with his hands in “Authority” and the occurrence of a sort of judge figure in “Casuistry,” asking for things to be read back to him. Given that the title of this section is derived from a book you cite called The Dictionary of the History of Ideas and that the section contains numerous voices of certainty who are often central to the poems, what kind of mask or effect did you try or try not to create here? Also what kind of space?
BB: The poems in that third section, The History of Ideas, 1973-2012, are all built alike, according to the same parameters. The poems each correspond to an entry in the four-volume 1973 reference work you mention, and the epigraphs are each formulations of fact pulled from those entries. The poems each end with a quote as well, and those are often-recognizable platitudes belonging to the last few years and attributable to our era’s public intellectuals: Thomas Friedman, Jill Bolte Taylor, Malcolm Gladwell, Antonin Scalia, etcetera. So, received wisdom brackets each poem, and a 39-year (life)span runs beneath it, and the “updated history” of the idea is a kind of landscape. A scene of some sort develops there. There are other constraints that helped to contour these poems. Conceptual idylls. I published the suite of them as a chapbook with Spork Press last year.
Each one drops in on a scenario somewhere deeply underway, often a ritual or custom—some monkish men concocting a kind of aggregate pavement; a kind of reconnaissance via the screen of a video game in a gay bar; a young man being made to account in court for what desire has to do with poetry, for example—and, yeah, I think there is therefore a spray of overheard authoritative statements in these pages—sometimes ambient (orienting or bewildering) and sometimes head-on. Authoritative language is in the poetry wardrobe, and I like to try it on often I suppose. I realized the other day that I’ve written three poems in the last couple years with the imperative, Get in. “Get in here and hold me up.” Who said that? Me, kind of.
TC: The idea you mentioned of dropping onto a “scenario somewhere deeply underway” is curious to me. I’m also curious about the temporal or non-temporal world that’s created in that action and other actions in A Several World. For those who have not read the book I’ll note that the scope of time you present is quite immense. We have allusions both to Herodotus and “hot-boxing.” Yet I feel there is still a contemporary quality here that is planted in today’s era, although maybe not comfortably within it. It’s a kind of newness of being I suppose. I’m thinking here of the coded perplexities in “Man Roulette,” or in “According to Herodotus” the impulse to define the word demonym; a word which I was surprised to hear is only 22 years old. These moments stand out to me as forces of orientation or disorientation. I would like to know more about how you might orient yourself (politically, humorously, or otherwise) as a writer born before but now residing in the current digital/information era, and how that’s affected your “Poetic Wardrobe” since the release of your last book, Not Even Then, in 2004.
BB: Hm. Interesting question, a lot packed in it. I wonder if what you suggest is true, that in this book I am performing or betraying a discomfort with present-day technology and/or constructions of social order. For sure, as a reader, as I’ve implied, I enjoy dropping in on an ongoing scenario or system and gradually (at first not fast enough) orienting, inferring the customs and the offstage or antecedent occurrences—that’s life, continually immersed and adjusting (like Hart Crane’s Charlie Chaplin, like Beckett’s Molloy) and convinced the rules are clear to everyone but oneself, and this is in a way the method of the little “scenes from an epistemology” in The History of Ideas poems.
In the poem you refer to, “The Inversion,” (very much set in Missoula) the hotboxing boys crammed in a parked car are watching the parkour kids hoist themselves atop and over the dugouts at the ballfield they all used to share. So, bewilderment and nostalgia is at first only beheld in others—where, regulated by the self-policing strictures of masculinity in a pot haze, it is bemusing—but it flavors this poem that later, near its end, announces wistfully “we push along the word until / and lug the other since. / It isn’t balance, it’s double work…” (In Missoula city parks, parkour and staying stoned are recognized as equally reasonable preparations for and until an apocalypse, which is rather what life under a meteorological inversion approximates.)
I suppose there is a repeated move in this book, to present an individual stunned by contemporary life: Herodotus’s Phoenicians are swapped out for Arizonan Phoenicians confronting bigoted immigration policies, and a twenty-two-year-old word is conflated with a twenty-two-year-old boy, long-lashed, under headphones—in the next moment he might be kissed or deported, and that ought to stun; or, Nijinsky is stuck with a sexually possessive Diaghilev watching late-night cable tv in a hotel in Seattle; or, the Corinthians Paul and Timothy chastised for their polytheism seem to have awoken as New Yorkers whose talk / listen / door buttons no longer function on their intercoms. It’s somewhat characteristic of this book to have Fortinbras and post-exposure prophylaxis coexist, or Huguenot Calvinists and Man Roulette. I haven’t finished thinking about what that might have to do with my being born in an era where information was not something crowd-sourced or cloud-stored. More sincerely, I suppose I do worry that, with technological advances, networks of desire and networks of knowledge are more virtual, less social, and less productive of solidarity. “At least it used to be a gay bar” (an aside in “Ut Pictural Poesis”) is some of that ideology popping in, I suppose.
TC: I appreciate your position on apocalypse and inversion; it brings a nice sense of irony in regards what I find to be the idealist concept of 21st-century “cloud storage.” I also can’t help but draw attention to a few reoccurring pastoral or semi-pastoral forms in A Several World, namely the “Eclogue” and the “Edge of Water” poems. In some ways they mirror each other; at times you even place them side-by-side in the book. “Put that third. Make a rule. Edges of water / are promise places” you say in the last stanza of the book, in the poem entitled “Edge of Water, Moiese, Montana.” The aforementioned lines are presented almost as if you are making up rules to a game or a dance. Did you create or edit the “Eclogue” and “Edge of Water” poems with any specific relationship or rules in mind? How did you intend for these poems to operate within A Several World among so many other diverse pieces of work?
BB: Yes, there are four “eclogues,” and three “Edge of Water” poems made it into the book. One opens and another closes the book, and they are similarly distributed throughout, cooperating variously with other poems. The eclogues are in their way complements to the “idylls” in The History of Ideas sequence, participating in a kind of reclamation of the pastoral’s queer origins I may have already insinuated here. Like traditional eclogues they are either soliloquies or dialogues among “shepherds,” but updated to and affronted by our postpastoral moment so that the premise of the “locus amoenus” is thrown in relief—eclogue on the Ten East jealous of the hot young joyriders racing past on the shoulder, eclogue in line to view an art film during one’s window of efficacy for post-exposure prophylaxis, et cetera.
The Edge of Water poems do in fact observe a kind of algorithm, a set of guardrail constraints, in a particular homage or attachment to one of my favorite poets, Merrill Gilfillan, and his “al fresco” writing. The Edge of Water poems are by his definition “days-in-place” poems, in that tradition, and in them (especially the one you quote) I’m drawn to notice a kind of private sortilege or animism that one moves through, or in any case that I move through when I’m in one spot in the woods—or, now, the desert—for a while. This seems to me a very human experience, watching oneself attune to relationships (the passing cloud and a sudden flash of memory and the appearance of a moose or owl or beetle), and permitting oneself deep in the midst of it to conduct small, irrational performances to contrive those junctures. I like when poetry can be both score and performance. “Rake your face cheek to jaw / with broken mica and the moth traffic / triples at your back. Is that a fact?” To my mind, the kind of self-making that Donald Winnicott observes in play in nature continues well past childhood.
To be clear, I don’t think this is an aim or concern of Gilfillan’s, though it is demonstrated in his poems, in the fit-together method of their joinery, one occurrence precipitating the next, seemingly.
TC: I’m interested to hear more about the “Score and Performance” aspects of some of the work in A Several World, but I’ll try to hone in on a final thought. Eileen Myles has mentioned that when writing she will try to exit her poems the moment she has any sort of thought to leave. If the process begins slowing down, or she can’t think immediately of what should come next she will end the poem and make an impromptu exit. She likens it to going to a party and leaving the moment you have your first thought to go, not lingering even slightly. Your work in A Several World has both casual and sometimes very climatic exits. “Pferd,” for instance, closes with the speaker repeating: “Did they / say that in your audio tour? I said, / Did they tell you that in your audio tour?” Given that most of the poems in the book are similar in length (between one and two and a half pages with some outliers), and most do not seem to have any strict formal structure, how do you know when to exit?
BB: Barbara Herrnstein Smith writes somewhere in Poetic Closure (the best, broadest, most readable book I know on what we call structure or tension in poetry—almost fifty years old now) that there is a valuable difference between how a baby’s cry stops or the breeze stops and how a song or poem concludes. Central to the difference she charts between language and literature. I like that. Eileen’s poems vacate suddenly, sometimes, and whether to end or cycle back through the poem’s established elements is often the perceptible hedgy pleasure she has been sharing with you (ever read her poem “Peanut Butter”?—a favorite of mine); so when it stops it’s kind of like she releases the reins, or the leash. Something keeps driving forward with or without you, after the finish. It is a great conclusion of the tension she’s perpetuated, and pretty unique.
I’ve been experimenting a bit with compositional improv and movement improv the last few years, and had the great experience of working with the choreographer Katherine Ferrier this January, with twenty-four other dancers in a movement field. When you’re making a piece of undetermined duration, how to end the piece becomes the drama or dilemma, and often it happens with the soft or full return to a motif that had been established, so that the movers (it’s all about presence and attunement to one another) come to agree to draw down and cease movement when the piece feels whole. But the gold standard in compositional improv, I have come to learn, is a “moving ending”—that is, unspoken consensus agreement that the piece has concluded even while at least one dancer is still moving. My friend and sometime partner in these compositions, TC Tolbert, relishes the moving ending, and wishes any player could detonate a blackout button, to shut the lights during some repeating gesture, suggesting it goes on endlessly.
There are a million ways to end a poem. You just listen for your ending, I think, one that helps you complete the circuit or release the demon. There’s a poem in the book that ends with the surprise word “heterosexuality.” Those eight syllables and four beats, a full line of poetry, steer the poem off its tracks in a way I enjoy, the train comes to a complete stop, safe and silent but looking back around for what just happened here. It’s all about pleasure, the exit as you call it. Repaying or thwarting expectations, repeating or varying an earlier phrase or gesture. Occasionally, a poem will rhyme for the first time at the end of the last line, and it’s as though a trapdoor has opened, and you fall willingly into the instant sense of inevitability.
Repetition proves a natural mechanism (if that’s not an oxymoron), at or near the end of a poem, useful if you haven’t seen it coming. It scores, it keeps time. I like what Gertrude Stein teaches about repetition, that there isn’t ever exact repetition in a poem, since a poem is durational, in time, and therefore we are seconds older when we repeat a phrase or gesture. She suggests poetry is a device for demonstrating in miniature the further implications of this. At the end of “Pferd,” there’s an extra eery pleasure in the expediency of the immediate repetition, since in that poem there has been the sense of stirring someone—a diabetic, a father—who has lost consciousness and of demanding to have one’s point heard by someone without capacity. It comes back to score and performance perhaps, degrees of abstraction. There’s a difference in register between the first and second instances of the challenge about the audio tour: to hear it again is no longer to “overhear it,” as is customary in poetry. I needed a quickening moment there at the end.
Edge of Water, Nimrod Falls, Montana
Bareness in greater proportions, bare
in the pairing, the slow man and his son;
that estimation, too, the boy steps ahead of. Behind,
upshore, a study of the swimming hole and his
buttery way down the rocks, rippling dilemma
who, it will be said, must learn to shave,
whose aptitude on his own pertains. If uncircumcised, sorry
and self-innocent, example. For feet, the wet white dumplings
manage for now the body weight. Then, immersion, then
a shallow paddle he picked up somewhere.
No place is dangerous. The situation arrives
as we do. Dad, when he wants someone
to give attention; Butthole, he calls back to the bank
to chide what he contrives is caution, when
contrivance suffices; Baby. The man stands dry.
The boy remarks the cooler water in the cove.
There and back, imitation bats, cliff swallows
hector the falls and the sulfur air and recur
to the limestone, a thousand-chambered console.
Originally published in A Several World, Nightboat Books, 2014