An interview with poets Steven Toussaint and Lee Posna.
Last month, Compound Press published an elegant pair of chapbooks by a pair of American expats living in New Zealand. Both Lee Posna’s Arboretum and Steven Toussaint’s Fiddlehead are book-length poems: the verse is rewarding and difficult, and the voices run counter to the habits and conventions of New Zealand Poetry. These are talented, deep-thinking writers who respond to the challenges of the artist’s life with intense feeling and unflinching self-analysis. I asked them the hard questions—about tradition, irresolution, poetic preoccupations, and whether joy is a choice.
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JOAN FLEMING: There’s heavy yearning in these poems. The language is beautiful, yet they weigh the reading body down, and when I finished them I felt a measure of relief that the chapbooks were as small as they were! Too much longer in those depths felt dangerous (although I did keep returning and re-reading). Is this an effect you feel glad to have on a reader?
LEE POSNA: Yes, and thank you. I’m glad you felt that way. I think that’s what I tend to want out of a longish poem, as well as ferocity, mystery, darkness, the dark country of revelatory speech, exerting all the gravity of a homeland. Maybe ‘longish’ poems—Carson’s ‘The Book of Isaiah’, Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, Tranströmer’s ‘Baltics’—are of a certain length especially suited to sustained tone and intensity, something like the 800-metre race in track, keeping in mind that form and content are co-inceptive and inextricable. The contract for this kind of poem between poet and reader is a serious but reasonable one.
I hope one day to write something really ferocious. From childhood I’ve tended to transmute ferocity into melancholy, with stoic lucidity as an upper limit—or so I can hypothesise. Maybe the heavy yearning is for the buried ruins of ferocity. It’s also an expression of the dissonance of the fait accompli of anonymity and death when one is still a youngish artist—how about these ishes, eh?
STEVEN TOUSSAINT: One of my preoccupations at the moment is poetic duration. That is, how does a poem spur you into awareness of its existence in time or, better, as a time? Repetition is the way I have tried to approach this question in Fiddlehead. I am interested in the way that the repeated elements—e.g. the refrain, rhyme and other sound patterning, recurring figures like birds or fern fronds—might strain against their own re-sounding. In other words, is there a tension between the thing said and the thing said again? For me, what prevents repetition from becoming ‘repetitious’ is that the replica wants to be utterly unique. This is what I believe Ezra Pound meant by what he called “developed expectancy,” the lively antagonism between a word and its own echo. I am enamored of repetition—the shapes it makes in time, its relentlessness, its obstinacy—but am also slightly frightened by its clout in the poem. I realise there is something potentially authoritarian about it. Does it make the poet into a Time-Lord? Do I risk monotony and exhaustion, as when something once fresh and generative becomes a habit, and when a habit becomes a compulsion? For me, these concerns are as much spiritual and ethical as they are aesthetic.
JF: When I re-read Fiddlehead on a plane, it actually lightened and expanded for me, whereas Arboretum remained an exquisite stone. Funny how this kind of immersive poetry can function as a psychic mirror—my own mood and sense of time, in the moment, affected my reception so much.
I read both poems as a kind of vivid purgatory. There’s a sense of impossible suspension in both; something caught, but something willing about it.
I die right now.
Now I am past
not by wingbeat alone
do stone birds fly
what solders us to the bell
curve. And yet —
ripe fern swivels, vows
to meet the world
Is willing irresolution a generative space for making poems?
ST: It is interesting to me that both Lee’s poem and my own take place in an imagined afterlife. Each sketches out a spectral, liminal space between fixed worlds, and each seems to me to suggest that in this unfixed space once discrete mythical or historical narratives intertwine. Maybe there’s something in the water? More likely the overlap is the result of shared curiosities that formed the basis of Lee’s and my friendship when we met a few years ago.
Irresolution interests me insofar as it describes the infinite striving of something tending toward a limit it never quite reaches. There are practical implications for poetry—the ‘integral’ for instance, by which Louis Zukofsky defines his poetics: “Lower limit speech / Upper limit music.” But I think irresolution is also an appropriate way to describe the journey of the mind to God that gives Dante’s Commedia its structure. Lower limit Dis / Upper limit Rose. I like to think of the poem itself as the asymptotic contrail of this striving.
LP: The first lines you quote—the first in the poem—come from being struck by the emptiness of the first person present form of to die, a kind of caesura of semantic existence. ‘I will die’ and ‘I’m dying’ are familiar. ‘I died’ is the province of art and the spiritual. Perhaps ‘I die’ as an utterance belongs to Hamlet as ‘gyre’ belongs to Yeats. I think the tone of the poem, the twilight that washes through it, expands from that ultimate present: the moment of death, ever divisible, the infinite centre of beauty. This is a willing irresolution. It fights against the unwilling irresolution of being soldered ‘to the bell / curve’, subject to all-powerful chance, caught between amor fati, the love of fate, and the yearning to overcome it.
JF: How much of writing poetry is craft, and how much is witchcraft, mystery, magic?
LP: I didn’t study craft or recognise any of what I was doing until fairly recently. I used to write with sound in mind, but nowhere near the front of my mind (maybe it has to go to the front before it can work in the back). I see now that I was really into dactyls and the tension and play of Anglo-Saxon and Latin: “the city at night in its magic water. / The human amphibian in the Camden aquarium,” a tension akin to (but obviously less dynamic than) Shakespeare’s “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red.” These things just sounded good to me. Over time the more conscious I became of craft, the more I could understand how poets conveyed meaning and the more precisely I could do so myself. Without it, I could just unconsciously approximate effects and get lucky once in a while. I’m still far from understanding craft in a sophisticated, conscious way and so I can’t comment further except to make the general statement that Nietzsche’s idea that the perfection of Greek tragedy lay in a balance of the Apollonian and Dionysian seems to me to apply to the craft and witchcraft of poetry.
ST: Craft is utterly mysterious. I think it gets a bad rap because of its associations with the Workshop, as if it signifies some Procrustean bed in which poems are hobbled and tamed. When craft is presumed to be distinct from expression, or critique, or vision, it nearly always appears rote and conventional by comparison. But craft isn’t just the spine; it’s the whole vertebrate.
The inheritance of craft is a magical inheritance: its cultivation requires serious apprenticeship to beloved poets and their materials. It involves studying how their words extend in time and space and how these extensions produce real physical, emotional, and intellectual responses in the reader. This learning is intuitive rather than deductive. The closer the scrutiny, the more the work recedes from knowability. I will never completely fathom, for example, what it is about this passage in H.D.’s The Walls Do Not Fall that makes me feel precariously balanced, that makes the final cadence feel so inevitable:
be firm in your own small, static, limited
orbit and the shark-jaws
of outer circumstance
will spit you forth:
be indigestible, hard, ungiving.
so that, living within,
you beget, self-out-of-self,
I could point to the dynamic lineation, the listing, the blips here and there of short ‘i’ sounds, or the aural chiasmus in the final lines. But, oddly, the way the subordinating conjunction, so that, slows the poem to a standstill, concentrates attention, holds the breath for a bit longer than usual, seems somehow more fundamental to this particular sense I have. Pound ends the first of his Cantos with these same two words, as if to suggest that the whole epic mass that follows is the effect of one first cause. So that: in both cases, the ‘sooth’ is inseparable from the ‘saying’.
JF: A fiddlehead is a kind of fern. It’s also an image for how the poem proceeds: a marriage of music and cognition, as I see it. The title of Fiddlehead suggests both the natural and the human—though as I say this, I realise that I set up a dichotomy between the human being and the ‘natural’ world she inhabits. I know that in North America, they eat fiddleheads, whereas in New Zealand the koru or fern-head is a potent (though arguably overused) symbol of potential and new life. The poem says, “perhaps ferns gather us,” suggesting that we are made by our landscapes, rather than the other way around. Is there an environmental (as in conservationist) concern in the poem? I found it difficult to extract the psychology of the speaker’s mind from the imagery of, say, the grime of a polluted landscape—though perhaps that’s the point.
ST: I was drawn to the fiddlehead for its shape and, as you identified, its name. It operates in the poem primarily as a figure for music as cognition; that is, the contour of thought in the poem would resemble, in its recursive nature, the shapes of the early musical forms I was studying: rondo, chaconne, passacaglia.
If you were to grasp the koru at its centremost point and pull outward, I think you’d get something gyre-like, something resembling the Mountain of Purgatory with its seven encircling terraces. So, for me, the shape signifies something to be endured as much as it suggests ‘new life’. Incidentally, The New Life is the title of Dante’s collection of courtly love poems to Beatrice. In the first sonnet, the angel Amor, “a lord of terrible aspect,” feeds the lady Dante’s burning heart. I have never eaten fiddleheads. Is it true they possess medicinal properties?
I persist in calling Fiddlehead a religious poem. I wrote it to be read aloud as a purgative for spiritual malady, its original condition. The trashed landscape is the most conspicuous symptom of this malady, even a metonym for it. In other words, the poem doesn’t advance a particular ecological cause, but contending with our collective and individual sins means contending with environmental catastrophe.
JF: Who is the arborist? Why does he turn blind?
LP: The arborist looks after the arboretum as a posthumous, dislocated voice. The poem ‘Arboretum’ constitutes the first of five sections in a book (i.e. manuscript) of the same name. The metaphysical arboretum at the heart of the book is the eternity of art, a man-made/-curated Garden; Eden is to the Arboretum as the New Jerusalem is to a ‘New Alexandria’. The arborist/poet observes its trees, the east, its boundaries and the ‘Cherubims’—like the ones barring the way against Adam and Eve—who guard the forbidden poetic fruits of immortality. For instance, 31 (the initial death toll of Chernobyl) ‘Chernobylite Cherubims’ guard against the entry a poem, however clear its lens on modern environmental degradation; the pastoral, the innocent has been expelled. There are also ‘six million Jewish Cherubims’, which suggest another loss of innocence; they enforce (or act in the spirit of) Adorno’s famous dictum, having expelled the pre-postmodern Romantic. The Arboretum is barred to poetry, standing yet at the centre of poetry.
He goes blind when he can no longer see what he’s writing.
JF: I am intrigued by the lines:
Of wrung eternity, appled
before fruit, sound before song,
man before song. . . man after song. . .
One might read the repetitions here as a kind of post hoc, ergo propter hoc: the fruit exists because of the flower, the song exists because of the man. But is there a way in which the poem, to your mind, enacts man existing because of the song? Perhaps in the sense of needing culture to live fully as humans—or a poet needing poetry to properly exist, to fully arrive as him or herself.
LP: St. Augustine, by way of defending the first words of the Bible, “In the beginning God created,” against a temporal interpretation, distinguishes between four types of precedence: “when he says that God made matter first formless, then formed, he is not absurd if he be but able to discern what precedes by eternity, what by time, what by choice, what by origin. By eternity, as God pre-exists all things; by time, as the flower is before the fruit; by preference, as the fruit is before the flower; by origin, as sound is before the tune.”
I saw in these distinctions something that could apply to art and the artist; God is the artist, or vice versa. ‘Young vision’, in a kind of Wordsworthian division of one’s life into prelapsarian and postlapsarian eras—though the ‘lapse’ might not be so clear as the crunch of an apple—corresponds to the flower, beauty without the fruits of age, and precedes ‘old vision’ in time. But then the young vision is ‘appled’ too; it contains the potential or the announcement of a different kind of vision in the future, as Eden’s uneaten apples hold within them the fall of mankind. These ‘visions’ aren’t mutually exclusive. The sun, for instance, can in a moment erase the boundaries between them. Sound precedes song: “when a song is sung, the sound that is heard is the song itself: it is not first heard as a formless noise, which is afterwards formed into a song… the song is inseparable from the sound, which is its material.” This leads by syllogistic movement to ‘man before song’. Note: I use ‘man’ because of its polysemy (see below) and ‘his’ to agree with ‘man’, but prefer ‘her’ as default pronoun.
In extending Augustine’s figures to ‘man before song’ I hoped to find in the artist’s relation to his art all forms of precedence and their (mystical) inversions (‘man after song’): the artist precedes his song in eternity, time, preference and origin, and vice versa. His precedence in time branches between the individual ‘man’ who is in one state before hearing—or writing or singing—the song, and another after. But also, ‘man’ as in ‘mankind’, which may one day exist without song. Ellipsis.
Contained in this figure is the idea of man existing because of the song, a mystical teleology. It’s interesting; that idea transcends the postmodern one of texts always referring to other texts rather than reality. But to take it figuratively, I’m not sure if humans need culture to live fully as humans. I imagine the widening gyres of fundamentalism, environmental disaster, political conflict and transhumanism will underscore that very question.
JF: Is joy a choice?
LP: I’m not sure whether joy is any more or less a choice than love, contentedness, passion, pleasure, hunger. I have times where I’m more susceptible to joy, where it runs just under the surface like tears do other times. Maybe it is a choice, or at least a habit, which is like a diffuse choice. It’s something you can cultivate, succeeding in proportion to wisdom and luck. Job was eminently wise and eminently unlucky. If there is any joy in The Book of Job it’s the sublime joy of Tolkien’s ‘great, temporal defeat’ of the gods by the monsters (‘Chaos and Unreason’), a defeat that is ‘no refutation’. I think that kind of joy can be prepared for over the years; the preparation, deep and constant in the artist’s arc, when it surfaces is itself the joy.
ST: There is something pre-secular about that word, joy, and certainly pre-capitalist. It implies a kind of exultance for its own sake. This-or-that commodity can’t sate an objectless Hallelujah. Joy is distinct from contentment, or even happiness. It is a kind of fullness made projectile. In this it looks a lot like love and rage, and like love and rage it is not among the sanctioned humours of our day because it is critical and powerful and insatiable. A person can choose to value joy, but joy itself requires a great deal of energy: it is not freely available to everyone in all circumstances.
JF: You are both poets to whom belonging to a poetic tradition feels important. I reckon we live in a post-secular, post-canonical age, where a sense of tradition in all parts of life—not just in reading and writing, but in living and loving and thinking and feeling, too—has been jettisoned in favour of fashion and some kind of scientific notion of advancement. My own formal literary education was fairly piecemeal and scatter-brained. I learned to love certain poets in fragments and photocopies and anthologies, and I still can’t get over feeling like a bit of a fraud when I claim, say, Hopkins and Whitman and Neruda as my poetic forebears in their re-enchantment of the world. What are the difficulties with finding tradition? What are the rewards?
ST: My education in poetry has been, similarly, untidy. But I am thankful for it, as it allowed me to make my own connections and discern a lineage I might aspire to be worthy of. In this sense, I think ‘tradition’ is a creative activity, not just an inheritance. The poets I perceive as masterful are those who, by their vision and efforts, make compatible traditions that were previously thought incompatible. I am thinking, for example, of Robert Duncan’s dogged pursuance of the mystical foundations of Anglo-American Modernism. His family tree would include both Ezra Pound and St. John of the Cross. The important thing is that Duncan, himself, turns the ground and plants that tree. Whether a spiritual motivation is implicit in the Modernist project or Duncan’s own embellishment, it is a bold reading and makes his poetry possible.
So, the difficulty and reward of finding a tradition is the difficulty and reward of making one; it involves the lessons delivered—what the student has received from the past—but also what is given in return—what the student contributes to poetry’s current incarnation. I am as suspicious of those who would ignore the wisdom of the ‘old lore’ as I am of those who would deny the importance or vitality of current writing. As a balance between those two extremes, I try to write the poems that I would like to read but haven’t read yet.
LP: I wish I could speak to this question from a higher vantage, but really I can only tell you my experience, which leans all too heavily on the word ‘I’. I’m still very much trying to find and understand the traditions that have been and will be central to my poetry. The negative space around learned words in learned books reminds me how little I can accomplish in a day though I put all my effort into it, and how impossible it is to make up not just for the sheer lost learning time of a super-benighted childhood and its long shadow, but also lost reading momentum/speed, capacity for synthesis, memory, food for the absorptive, transformative, painful, magical young brain in its limited formative window of time… None of this would matter if I didn’t love reading and believe so strongly in its importance to how and what I want to write. Unfortunately it’s one of the least interesting and most crippling problems a writer can have; it turns me inward against my will.
The difficulty for me with finding tradition, at least in the beginning of my awareness of its absence, was knowing what to read—not that I was even aware of not knowing what to read. One problem is reading something that requires (or points to) prerequisite reading, i.e. pretty much everything. One solution is starting from ‘the beginning’ (—the West’s—) i.e. a beginning: say, the KJV and the Greeks, and corresponding history. This is not conducive to getting anywhere in a hurry. Who knows? This could be the ultimate waste of time in a post-canonical age. But it could also be ideal for the idealistic poet, so little material good or recognition being available to compromise her ideals. It does mean I must continue to make these painful caveats for a long time yet. The rewards for me are inspiration, joy, fulfilment, knowledge, which has its positive and negative virtues, knowledge of self, rootedness, salvation, deeper love of art. Their maternal sources, like the orphan’s yearning, are virtually inexhaustible.