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Monday, December 20, 2010

Poetry Daily Prose Feature: Interview with Rae Armantrout

I have expressed my admiration for Rae Armantrout's poetry before, and posted some connections and quotes from interviews. Here is another interview, this one with some clear remarks about her process - which is helpful to read and understand her poetry.

I start with a healthy quote:

Can you talk about the importance of voice in your poems?

There are so many voices in the air. Sometimes they become the voices in my head—voices from the media, or a tone of voice from my mother. All of those voices go into who we are, and are distinguishable from us too. My beginning point is to separate myself from them, or throw them off by putting brackets around them. There wasn't much conscious use of other voices in my first book, Extremities. However, the first poem in my second book, The Invention of Hunger, was taken partly from a Scientific American article about termites and partly from some material about S&M bondage. And certainly my use of outside voices continues: for instance, here is my poem "Integer," from Versed:

1

One what?
One grasp?
No hands.
No collection
of stars. Something dark
pervades it.

2

Metaphor
is ritual sacrifice.

It kills the look-alike.

No,
metaphor is homeopathy.

A healthy cell
exhibits contact inhibition.

3

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

4

"Dark" meaning
not reflecting,
not amenable
to suggestion.

The third section came directly from my phone bill. While I was working on the poem, my husband Chuck read that aloud to me and said, "What does this mean?" and I thought, That goes in. We didn't know what temporary credits were, but it sounded sort of ominous—temporary credit now being revoked.

It's interesting to note how that found section is embedded in the poem, and how the poem responds to it, as it is echoing and questioning its terms.

The Fourth section responds to the word "reflected" in the third section, but it also responds to the word" dark" in the first section. That pulls the three sections together, at least in my mind, and then goes to "not amenable to suggestion"—as if reflection is a kind of suggestion. It also connects back to the second part and portrays metaphor as a kind of reflection.

Can you talk more about the use of question-and-response as a rhetorical device in your poems?

A good example of that might be the last two sections of "A Resemblance," in Versed:

Look alikes.

"Are you happy now?"

*

Would I like
a vicarious happiness?

Yes!

Though I suspect
yours of being defective,

forced

I ask two questions, then give an answer. "Look alikes" actually responds to some of the comparisons I've made before—it refers to the similes poetry is supposed to deal in. And then, "Are you happy now?"—okay, so I've made some similes, are you happy now? That's the kind of voice you hear in a relationship ....

Or one you might hear on television—it's a stock phrase.

Right—it's also something that might occur in dialogue. When I use such phrases, I call it "faux collage"—sometimes they are "real" found language, and sometimes they only seem to be real. Putting "Are you happy now?" in quotes makes it look like the former, but it isn't, really ... I didn't see it somewhere or hear it on television. Sometimes I do pick out phrases I see or hear on television, but sometimes I just make them up because they're already in my head.

By contrast, the next question, "Would. I like / a vicarious happiness," seems wholly original.

And I answer it with "yes" and an exclamation point. What follows undercuts that "yes" a bit—it's as if I'm saying I'd like to share your happiness in a vicarious way, although I'm also suspicious that you're faking your happiness. Which I'll never know.

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Much more to read and enjoy at http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_armantrout.php

Some poems at http://www.jubilat.org/n11/armantrout.html

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