June 2012
interview_koestenbaum interview_rohrer interview_zucker

Wayne Koestenbaum, Matthew Rohrer, & Rachel Zucker

[Poets]

“I’m so fucking sick and tired of hearing about other people’s transformative experiences, I just want to hear what they ate for breakfast.”
Taboos in poetry:
Backyards (with or without birds)
The cost of a haircut
Heterosexual, marital, monogamous love
The class war
Your kids’ grades

My poems have trash in them. Also: soccer balls, puke, toddlers, the New York City subway, dirty dishes, sex, my husband, toilet training, other poets, and groceries. It’s dangerous writing this way—I could slip on a banana peel or, worse, be labeled a “mommy poet,” which is this century’s version of those “scribbling women” Hawthorne scorned. Hawthorne complained that he had “no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash.” I don’t think Hawthorne meant trash in the literal sense, but I do. I mean that I am occupied with a literary rendering of domestic material including trash and, even, sometimes, trashiness.

So I approached Wayne Koestenbaum and Matthew Rohrer—two poets I greatly admire and who also write about domestic material—about the pleasures and pitfalls of including the details of their domestic lives in their work. I wanted to know if they, too, experienced such content as dangerous and, if so, why they embrace it. I wondered if putting shopping lists or babies in their poems is even more taboo for them as men than it is for me as a woman, or if the privilege of the male voice protects them from censure. I wanted to know if and where they drew a line: were there things they would not write about?

Matthew, Wayne, and I met twice for lunch at Wayne’s apartment. It seemed fitting to meet in Wayne’s home rather than in a public space, given the subject of our roundtable. In between bites of lunch from a café around the corner, we talked about poetry and the domestic and the domestic in poetry. Speaking together at length was exhilarating and inspiring and also felt transgressive, which is exactly how I feel when I read their remarkable poems.

—Rachel Zucker

I. NURTURED AND EXPENSIVE ARUGULA

Rachel Zucker: Let’s talk for a minute about how each of us defines the word domestic, what domestic is, or what we mean by domestic.

Matthew Rohrer: Well, I’ll start, because maybe it was my griping that made this conversation happen. I was thinking about some of my recent poems that are very “domestic,” and I was feeling uncomfortable about it a bit, thinking it would be something people would object to, or that I should have edited that stuff out before it even got to the page. Then I started thinking about how we live—especially those of us who teach in MFA culture—in this poetic culture that says there are no rules. But then I thought, The one thing you can’t do is be domestic. You can write about anything you want, but the domestic is attacked by everyone from every side. Experimental people consider it too pedestrian, and I guess that’s the epitome of the bad workshop poem: “I’m looking out into my backyard and there’s a bird and it makes me feel transcendent.” Even more narrative, lyrical people think it’s the most debased form of talking about yourself. That made me more willing to do it, actually, because if everybody hates it, there must be something interesting about it.

Wayne Koestenbaum: I never knew you weren’t supposed to include the domestic in poetry, like I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to wear white after Labor Day—or before Memorial Day? Nobody told me. It actually never once occurred to me that the domestic was taboo.

The domestic—a category that includes the food I eat, the errands I run, “lifestyle” arrangements, my household’s day-to-day doings—has always been front and center in my poems and prose, just as my dreams have always been my prime material. (When I was an undergraduate, a creative-writing teacher told me that you weren’t supposed to write about your dreams.) But for me, the things that are truly taboo are income, what things cost, and teaching—my job. When I was unemployed, or before I became a professor, I could talk about my temp jobs, and if I were an adjunct I could still talk about work, but since I’m tenured, I can’t talk about employment except in the most ironic and veiled ways. In my poems, I like to talk about food, but if the arugula is too nurtured and expensive, I can’t mention it. I mentioned in a recent poem a tip I gave a hairdresser, but I think I lied about how much the tip was, because I spend so much to get my hair cut and colored that it would probably disqualify me forever from poetic street cred if any readers knew.

MR: The personal has been the happy hunting ground of so many poets, but it seems to me the domestic is the boring part, the household maintenance. The personal is shopping, but not how much things cost; lifestyle, but not how much you spent on a haircut. The domestic is the downstairs part of “upstairs-downstairs.” It’s the stuff about cooking dinner, how you go about your day. And I guess the extreme of it is—I can’t even think of who the perpetrator is, but the poems about the backyard, the robin…

RZ: It’s so funny that you keep talking about the backyard!

MR: I just don’t have a backyard, so I’m bitter.

RZ: I don’t have a backyard either, but to me, if I were writing that poem about the bird in the backyard, it wouldn’t be domestic, because it’s outside of my domestic sphere. But I understand what you’re saying.

MR: And the dream thing… it’s so disappointing, Wayne, to hear that someone said that to you. To say that dreams—

WK: Surrealism—

MR: —to just disallow that whole part of your life! Why would I disallow dreams, just like why would I disallow washing the dishes? I wash the dishes more than I write poems. An acupuncturist once told me, just by looking at my tongue, that I had a very rich dream-life. She just pulled out my tongue and said, “Oh you have a very rich dream-life and you recall your dreams very vividly.”

WK: We must have the same tongue.

MR: I get very suspicious of people who very neatly don’t allow those parts of themselves into their poems.

RZ: I guess some people feel poetry should be language that is very special, about a special or unusual circumstance or situation—

MR: —like there has to be an occasion for a poem.

RZ: Right, and that occasion has to be in some way transcendent.

My experience also was that I never knew you weren’t supposed to write about those things. At the same time, when I think about my first book, Eating in the Underworld, I wonder if part of why I needed the story of Persephone in there was because I didn’t feel like I could make it about myself. There were things I wanted to include that were not just personal but domestic—details I thought would be kind of radical and interesting and experimental if I put them in terms of the story of Per-sephone, but if these domestic trivialities were in my story, it would be bad poetry. So maybe in my early work I did have some idea, as I was doing it, that it wasn’t a good idea.

II. THE WALKING POEM

RZ: Wayne, I’m fascinated by the fact that on the one hand your work is so honest, so accurate to daily life, yet there’s sometimes a lot of artifice. That’s something I greatly admire and haven’t achieved myself. I’m thinking of Model Homes in particular. Did you feel like you wrote those poems as ottava rima cantos because you felt: I can say the most banal thing if I’m saying it in this very complicated, artificial form?

WK: For me, there’s virtue or necessity in having some kind of formal or structural problem that I can concentrate on, to distract myself from the content. If I have a system of some kind, then the content can take care of itself. When I wrote Model Homes, though I hadn’t used rhyme in a long time, I was reading Kenneth Koch—I’d never paid much attention to Kenneth Koch, but I remember thinking, His tone is so beautifully flat, how come he’s not more celebrated for bringing flatness into poetry—a virtuosic flatness? So I thought, I, too, want to do this flat-rhyme thing. And it was so hard that immediately the labor of rhyming distracted me from my current idées fixes about what were the appropriate subjects to be writing about, and I just started talking about my mom and my boyfriend, Steve—my meat-and-potatoes subjects—and these personal subjects seemed newly riveting to me.

This process is not unfamiliar to any poet: you set up some sort of structure and then you don’t have to pay any attention to the content, and the result of that oblivion is a yield of pleasure.

RZ: There’s a way in which the formal elements of your work—they don’t elevate or change the poems, but they signal to the reader that this work is important, that it’s careful, that it’s art.

MR: I’m really interested in how to allow or formally trick yourself, or give yourself the structure, to allow everything in there. I think it should be the goal to let the form be a space where everything goes in: the important, the mundane, the embarrassing. What saddens me is when I see my students, or even colleagues, or other writers who are famous—hugely famous—who have clearly decided that these things will not be what they address.

WK: I wanted to ask you guys: what subjects are truly forbidden in your own work, currently?

MR: That are self-imposed?

WK: Foreclosed, forbidden, beyond the pale…

RZ: Someone asked me a question about my last book, Museum of Accidents, that prompted me to say that the whole book was just a way for me to say that I love my husband, which seemed to me the biggest taboo—to proclaim a heterosexual, marital, monogamous love. The thing that was scariest to say wasn’t “My husband is such a fucking pain in the ass,” or “A lot of times I don’t really like my children.” That maybe felt hard in the moment, but then later I realized, No, this was actually the hardest thing to say. I don’t know if that’s being a woman. I don’t know if it’s because I spent all the other books talking about how I didn’t like him. I don’t know. The dares I give myself are: what would make you almost die? Oh! Writing a book about your mother. And then I have to.

When I was recently at VCCA, I had just read Matthew’s book and thought, This is so pleasurable! What would it be like to write poems that aren’t so highly anxious beyond belief? What would it be like to write a pleasurable poem—a poem that wasn’t so, almost, suicidal all the time? So I thought, Well, maybe I should try that.

MR: One thing I’m trying to make not a taboo, because of recent political realities, is the class war. I sort of suddenly feel that it’s people’s duty to call attention to what’s happening with money, corporations… Let’s bring that into the mix, along with washing the dishes. The other thing that’s currently taboo for me is: I have a terrible problem with being judgmental. I’m super, horrifyingly judgmental and angry. And I think I do a pretty good job of keeping it on the inside. You might not describe me to your friends as a very angry, judgmental person—[Wayne laughs]

MR: That’s probably not the first thing you would say about me! But I feel that horrifying person is inside me very much. And I don’t want my poems to be really angry—

RZ: Is it partly because you want to be a likable speaker?

MR: Maybe. I suppose. But everybody likes angry—I mean, I feel like the older I get, the more you’re allowed to be. There’s more permission to be a crotchety old man. Everybody thinks that’s funny. But I don’t think it’s good for the poems. The other day I was trying to write a poem while walking to the doctor, and this car went by playing this really misogynistic hip-hop, and it just really made me angry, and I started having this whole conversation with the driver in my head. And I thought, No—I’ll have to turn this into some sort of line of poetry, and that sort of meta-conversation about it diffused it.

WK: Wait, can I just ask—when you said “writing a poem on the way to the doctor,” what do you mean?

MR: I was walking—

WK: Do you often write while walking?

MR: Yeah, sometimes. It’s hard to read it when I’m done, but yeah, I like to walk and write.

WK: I don’t think I’ve ever written while walking. That’s exciting to think of as an assignment.

MR: I do think it’s exciting, but my inborn Catholic guilt makes me feel like it’s cheating, the same way I feel like road-movies or road-books, as much as we love them, seem so easy. Like when you peter out in a scene, you just drive to the next town. I feel the same way about the walking poem.

III. “I’VE GOT the KIDS IN THERE”

WK: I really want to bring up Robert Walser. First of all, he lived in a mental hospital, so what’s really domestic about that?

MR: Well, in his book of short stories that I was just reading, there’s that really long story “The Walk”—he was itinerant, really, and he owned, apparently, nothing, and he’s always so focused on renting a room, and he describes this room so lovingly. And in The Tanners he sees this room, and it’s far too opulent for him, and then he goes on this long, self-deprecating rant about how he could never afford it and how he wishes he’d never looked at it in the first place. So is there that sense of the domestic in the rooms?

WK: It’s “hotel consciousness.” Frank O’Hara’s household was provisional and improvisatory, and queer and makeshift and glamorous, too, but makeshift because, for him, the domestic was an art studio—

MR: —the city.

WK: Yes. There seems an advantage to being a New Yorker without much space. In our lives in New York City, the division between what’s inside and what’s outside is very porous. Imagine if one had a palatial townhouse: goodbye to poetry, or porosity. But I know for a fact that when I lived in New Haven, and I had a house with a backyard —

MR: —with the birds!

WK: Yes! I, too, became a poet who celebrated backyards and flowers. One of my “problems” as a writer is that I have a house—I call it a cottage; it’s very small—with a backyard. And I know that my work can be contaminated by a certain species of comfort. I’m aware of always needing to remind the reader of how small the house is, how cheap it was…

RZ: In my poems, I’ve got the kids in there, and I’ve even got their throw-up in there, their body fluids, their—

MR: —grades?

RZ: Maybe.

WK: Maybe? Is it like the taboo of writing about money?

MR: You don’t want to reveal how smart your kids are?

RZ: Actually, that is hard. It’s harder for me to say, “Oh my god, my kids are so smart” than “They’re so annoying.” It’s like the evil eye. But there is something… like when I’m writing prose or a certain kind of poetry, all I’m doing is holding my life up to someone without rearranging the furniture, and sometimes I feel that’s not what good artists do. It’s my fear of someone saying, “Ew! It’s not just that you have these children all over the place and you have all these disgusting things in here—what offends me is that you didn’t make it into something else.”

WK: Rachel, to praise you for a second—if I’m allowed to do so in the precincts of this interview—what makes Josh one of the great husbands in contemporary poetry is that you mention him to mess up our expectations and to disturb politeness. His concreteness and the concreteness of your relation to him interrupt the customary protocol, ethics, or decorum of self-presentation as a poet. Your evocation of him is an act of ravishing particularity that is poetically profound. It’s a great example of how a seeming lack of care can be the highest form of poetic tact.

RZ: Well, thank you for saying that. I also do think I’m moving away from my teenage self, which really liked it when everyone died in the book. I feel like I have to come up with a way to write about happiness, or at least a wider range of emotions.

WK: I’m now thinking of Sigrid Nunez’s phenomenal memoir of Susan Sontag, Sempre Susan. What’s great about what you’re doing, Rachel, isn’t that you’re emphasizing the downside of marriage, but that you’re violating the writer’s conventional code of good manners. So here is Sontag, a philosopher who seemed to wish to transcend her daily life, and here’s the brilliant and mannerless interloper Sigrid Nunez coming in and laying out all the domestic details and ruining it posthumously for Susan, but thereby thrilling the reader.

RZ: I wish everybody would just include all that stuff, always.

WK: Yeah, like the time that Sontag knocked on the bedroom door of Sigrid and her son and begged, “May I come in?” [Laughter]

RZ: It’s really upsetting to me when I see a movie and the characters have children and there is no childcare for those children. Like, who the fuck is taking care of those children? There’s action going on on the screen and important things are happening, but I want to yell, “Your baby’s dead now because no one fed it!” I get really, really angry.

Nobody told me that being a woman, a wife, a mother, a human being, was going to feel like this, was going to involve so much drudgery, so much unremitting… so much “Do I have a high enough pain threshold for this?” It is intolerable to me to that I would write a kind of poetry which didn’t include who is taking care of the children right now, what’s happening to the body, why am I so fucking tired.

There was a book that came out recently, which—there are a lot of baby poems in it, and it has kind of a romantic… everything is sort of halfway to being a symbol of something else, and you’re supposed to really like the speaker, and the speaker goes through the world and has realizations, and the baby’s like a prop, and it really bugs me! The baby doesn’t feel real to me, even though I know the poet actually had a baby!

WK: Anne Sexton—whom I love—when she writes, “my daughter, my stringbean,” or “little girl, my stringbean,” the “my stringbean” moment is not Anne at her best. It’s not just that she’s making a metaphor out of her daughter; she’s sentimentalizing the love and custodianship she has over her daughter. She’s dragging the reader into a relation of admiration toward the poet for having that metaphorically playful relation to her daughter, and it’s slightly sickening. If she said “my daughter, my bitch,” that would be much better.

RZ: For so long it felt like I had to choose between the life of the mind and the life of the body, the life of the domestic or the life of the intellectual, the life of the domestic or the life of the artist…

WK: Adrienne Rich—she was incredibly important to me when I was younger. She and Frank O’Hara were my twinned queer gods. Her political quest was to bring together the severed halves of consciousness. For her, the nocturnal or shadow side of being a drudge-mother—the drudgery and serfdom of domestic doings—was opposed to the realm of the planetarium, the questing heroic intelligence…

MR: I think someone else who does an incredible job of that is Alice Notley. And also Ted Berrigan. Although you get the sense he wasn’t actually helping out that much.

IV. THE HUGE COCK BEHIND THE COUCH

WK: If you’re a—let’s just say a confessional writer, maybe nouveau confessional—and you’re involved romantically or otherwise with somebody, that person will show up in your writing. For a long time, one of my “couple” role models was Joyce Carol Oates and her late husband, Raymond Smith. She has quite an erotic imagination, and it’s all filth and serial killing and stuff, and her husband never read any of her work. That fact I found so great. They seemed to me the ideal couple—the wife has this molten, fecund, filthy imagination, and the husband says, “I will not read her work.” I’ve been lobbying for that approach because I’d slightly prefer that my boyfriend not read my new book, Humiliation.

RZ: Luckily, my partner prefers being written about, even unsympathetically, to being ignored.

WK: That’s so great.

RZ: It works well for us. Sometimes I feel the only way Josh knows that I’m thinking about him at all is when he reads the poems.

WK: That’s really funny. Do you totally ignore him? Of course not.

RZ: Well, I can’t ignore him, he’s always, “Blah blah blah,” you know…

WK: [Laughs]

MR: Susie has now gotten to the point where she only reads the book now.

WK: Is she a writer, too?

MR: No. It used to be she would read most of the things that I wrote. Then, over the years, that whittled down, and now she’s basically just like, “When it comes out, I’ll read it.”

WK: What’s the scene of her reading it? Can you see her on the couch reading it, or does she read it when you’re not there?

MR: She’ll take it on the train, probably.

WK: It used to be that I could write about my childhood and make just a few references to Steve, but my childhood was over so long ago, and I’ve had thirty-two years with Steve! Much in our relationship is taboo for me to write about, and so I find that—to borrow your lovely term, Rachel—I need a bad-wife space. And I have found it. My paintings are the new space of the bad wife, because now, via art, a lot of other cock enters this apartment—

RZ: [Laughs]

WK: You should see, behind the couch, there’s, like, a three-foot-long cock . . .

RZ: [Laughs]

WK: I’m not even kidding! I’ll show it to you on the way out. If Steve says, “So what have you painted today?” I’ll show him. Usually he doesn’t say, “Oh, I love the impasto.” He’ll usually say, “Wayne, you’re out of your mind, what are you doing?”

MR: What you’re saying about needing to carve out the bad-wife space, the space that’s still full of possibility, I understand. ’Cause being married or being in a really long-term relationship is sort of the opposite of possibility. I’m sure this affects all of us in varying ways. Springtime in New York is a very distracting place for the monogamous. There are terrifying amounts of… beauties wandering around. [Pause] Sorry, it just felt like, ’cause yesterday was the first warm day . . .

RZ: [Laughs] You’re saying sorry to me?

MR: I’m just saying that yesterday was the day they officially unveiled themselves. Every year I feel unprepared.

RZ: Josh has a yearly springtime depression that has only to do with this. You can see it. He comes home and he’s like… “[Sighs] The girls are out again.” I don’t have that so much. For me it’s—I just keep thinking about cows being milked, and thinking, Oh my god, I really miss nursing my children. But it was such a tether! But I found a way to make it be what I wanted, and to make it feel right. I can’t say that all these things I continue to choose don’t also feel like some sort of huge pen. A lot of the time that’s what writing the poems and putting the domestic in them does for me: I’m either letting the reader into the pen with me, so I’m not alone in it, or I’m sort of telling it like it is, which seems like a way of breaking out of the pen. The poems, for me, are like the huge cock behind the couch.

V. A COLLISION OF CONTEXT

RZ: Our work is so connected to our homes, but we overlook how many people’s lives exist in a professional sphere. I’ll just speak for myself—that is a country I haven’t been to yet.

MR: Is it overstating it too much to say that there’s a quasi-political choice to talk about the things you’ve gathered around you, or the places you’ve known, versus—though I know we all love popular culture—that voice that is raining down on all of us constantly? Is that part of the attraction to the domestic for either of you? You know, the sense that it’s your music, your space; that you have chosen the things that are bombarding you?

In my class, I have two students who I think are great writers, and one of the ways that they’re working is, basically, reconfiguring language from Jay-Z and Lady Gaga. It’s funny because most of the teachers hate it, and one of them even said, “To read this, I really had to check my psyche at the door.”

RZ: Interesting.

MR: Their poems are strange because they’re strictly language from these highly visible people. They’re doing this sort of epistolary series of letters from Jay-Z to Lady Gaga and back and forth, and Beyoncé is also in there… maybe that’s the extreme version of the “nondomestic,” because it’s not personal, and it’s all received chunks of text.

WK: Except that somewhere in it is the subjectivity of the scrapbook-maker or the collagist: that Bartleby-like space of refusal that Walser and Dickinson occupy, which would also be the space of Ray Johnson or Joseph Cornell—or these students who are quilting, or crafting weird, noncommercial, maybe even pirated texts that are meant to jam the marketplace.

RZ: I’m thinking of Letters to Wendy’s, by Joe Wenderoth, and of what it means to be a human being in a nondomestic space—bringing the personal and the highly subjective into a place that isn’t the home; that appropriation or occupation of the work-world by the homemaker or the artist…

WK: If this conversation is recording us somehow for posterity as advocates of the domestic, I would prefer to be a spokesperson for the Letters to Wendy’s sensibility of choosing your encampment and dragging your subjectivity into spaces that seem to bar it. Wenderoth appropriates the Wendy’s response cards as a lyric or epistolary space. I stand behind that much more than I do the domestic. Suddenly the domestic next to the Wendy’s device seems much more cloyingly aware of the privileged, safe, sanitary sphere. Squatting is actually what we’re talking about, and that’s what Walser—

MR: —right, right, he was a squatter—

WK: —you know, people who encamp in public, private, or commercial spaces without paying, and make a home there, are engaged in a very simpatico practice.

RZ: So maybe what we’re saying is that the inclusion of domestic material or subject matter or attitude in poetry isn’t so much about breaking the taboo of “we weren’t supposed to have this in our poems at all,” but some kind of move where we’re bringing something that belongs in one world into another world. It’s not so much about “We can’t say this at all,” but more “You’re not supposed to have the kids in a fancy restaurant,” or “You’re not supposed to have sex in the museum.” Because there is writing about the home where the home stays in the home, and it’s very contained and beautiful, and there’s no collision of context.

VI. ON THE SIDE OF FANCY

RZ: Someone emailed me recently and asked for a Passover poem. They said they wanted “something about springtime or rebirth, or renewal.” And I said, “Well, I have a Passover poem but it’s actually about Passover, and it has my brisket recipe in it, which is extremely useful, and it’s all about blood libel and drugs, and I think you’ll really like it.” I sent them a link to it and they never wrote back, and I thought it was so interesting that they didn’t want it. They didn’t want a poem about Passover, but a poem about spring which they could say was about Passover.

MR: You asked me recently, “Do you want your poems to be timeless or timely?” It made me think of those poems that are timeless—they’re actually accounting. Those books that are still on the racks four thousand years later—Li Po’s or Sappho’s accountings of their daily lives—that’s what’s interesting about them. I mean, The Odyssey

RZ: “…and then we put twenty barrels of wine into the boat, and then we put ten barrels of oil into the boat…” But I do sometimes worry that all this time I’ve been writing memoir or documentary, not poetry.

WK: I think we’re hesitant to espouse the memoir because it sounds so Oprah-ready—or whoever the new Oprah is. (No offense to Oprah.) That’s why I like to think of autobiographically oriented poetry as accounting. I’ve always preferred the presence of accounting and bookkeeping in poems to the romantic or postromantic tendency to make a metaphor out of personal objects. The accounting tradition starts with Benjamin Franklin and continues through Thoreau’s journals, and from there you could trace it in a million directions. It’s perhaps an error in taste or philosophy to elevate yourself to a mythic cloud—à la Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” even though that’s a great poem. To immediately turn the position of yourself contemplating an edited perspective of your backyard into a poem opportunity… but if you were to recount, in detail and in an anti-romantic style, the details of your backyard, that’s a different matter.

RZ: Matt, you wanted to talk about imagination, and I’d like to hear you talk about it because I don’t really understand what it is. With my work, I sometimes feel like I’m just sort of organizing it; composing rather than painting, y’know? Like moving the camera a little to the right, a little to the left. So I don’t really get where imagination comes into it.

WK: Reader, reader, I’m going to make tea while Matthew answers that question.

MR: Well, imagination’s a word that has so many different definitions, depending on who you’re talking to. There’s Coleridge, where he has the imagination versus fancy. The imagination, to Coleridge, is basically a spark of God in us; the original creativity in us. It’s not bounded by our finite beings. It passes through us. Then fancy, to him, is what you’re talking about—where you’re moving things around that are already preexisting.

RZ: Putting things together—

MR: —novel rearrangements.

RZ: I feel like I’m totally on the side of fancy.

MR: T. E. Hulme was a, y’know, fascist, like everybody, and he was friends with Pound, and he has the absolutely opposite concept of imagination and fancy. His idea is that imagination is stupid; it’s when you apply the powers that we call imagination to fleety, romantic things—to emotions. Fancy, he much prefers. Fancy is when you use those powers to talk about the things that are, and you actually transform them and make them amazing.

I brought this quote from Coleridge, and he says, “During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbors, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colors of imagination.” So according to these guys, these are the two things that poetry does—you either make nature real or you wow people with the imagination. Then he goes on to say, Mr. Wordsworth’s job—his poems in Lyrical Ballads—“was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us.”

RZ: I feel like that’s such a male perspective.

MR: Which one, Coleridge’s?

RZ: Yeah. I’m now substituting “the domestic” for “nature,” but it’s not that I want to make the trash or the childcare stuff beautiful. It’s more to really see things as they are, and to see myself in relationship to those things as they are without transforming them into something else. If we’re going to use imagination and fancy, or the truth of nature versus the supernatural, I actually feel really opposed to the supernatural.

MR: Well, I mean, I agree. I think that as a child who grew up reading science-fiction novels and fantasy, I have a great allegiance to the imagination, but I’m actually more aligned to Hulme’s privileging of fancy over rampant imagination—looking at the thing that’s real so the reader sees what’s given and real in a fresh way. I mean, if the writer’s not having a sort of transformative experience, then how can you expect the reader to?

RZ: I don’t really feel like— [Sigh]

MR: What?

RZ: When you say, “Well if the writer’s not having a transformative experience, how can the reader?” my initial thought was, I’m so fucking sick and tired of hearing about other people’s transformative experiences, I just want to hear what they ate for breakfast.

WK: Tennessee Williams kept these great notebooks where he basically—in a form of shorthand, without literary finesse—described the drugs he was taking and the guys he was sleeping with. I love these notebooks. He called his sleeping pills his “pinkies.” He’d say, “Had three pinkies before breakfast,” and just the description of what pills he was taking and what drinks he had… it’s not really literature, exactly. It’s a poetic reporting without imagination and without fancy. It’s not even “honest,” because “honest” brings with it a kind of sentimentality and bossiness. The grain of the real is evident. So much stuff falls between the cracks of literature, stuff that has nothing to do with either the imagination or fancy. That stuff—the untransformed, factual, forbidden, raw material—I want to side with the prurient details that stimulate my curiosity. I chose to become a poet because I wanted a place in my life for my language as it really happened, for my perceptions as they really happened, before they got… transformed or domesticated into ways of being or speaking that were more easily digestible.

MR: If I could go back—

RZ: Yes, but I have to pee. Can I use your bathroom?

MR: I’m gonna… forget this…

RZ: Don’t forget.

WK: Maybe just start saying it.

MR: Well, I want to take back my word transformative. ’Cause as soon as that word came out of my mouth, I realized that was not the word I meant. I’ll remember when she comes back.

WK: OK.

[Time passes]

RZ: OK, what’d I miss?

MR: What if I went back and retracted transformative and replaced it with, like, pure observation? Or, like, new observation—where instead of it being a transformative moment of someone else’s that you’re watching, it’s the poet’s new observation that you’re privy to… like “new seeing.”

RZ: As you were just speaking, I thought, I also don’t want new ideas.

MR: I don’t want any ideas!

RZ: OK, so what do I want?

MR: I hate ideas.

RZ: What if all I want… is a relationship?

WK: With whom?

RZ: With the poet.

WK: Just the thrill of contact?

RZ: Like friendship almost. Yeah.

MR: Yeah. You know, the part of America that cares about books—they really want writers to be smart. And I don’t, really. Smart’s really the last thing I want my artist to be. I mean, Frank O’Hara was very smart, but I don’t think his poems work because they’re smart. In fact, a lot of people think they’re stupid. But the books that win the prizes and get people’s attention are the books that make the writer seem intelligent. A lot of poets we hang out with never want to let their guard down. They have to be on top of things at all times—they have to be on top of you as a reader and can’t show a weakness. But I think what they think is weakness is what many of us really want from a poem—a real human moment.

[Wayne serves everyone lunch]

WK: You know, if I were to write a poem right this second, which I’m not going to, but if I were to, I would really need—as I sat down to start typing the thing—I would probably feel compelled to mention that my fingernails need to be trimmed. And I would think, before I wrote that observation down, That will be a line that obviously has to be omitted, or, Here I go again, this is completely stupid, everyone hated the fingernail-trimming passage in my earlier poem.

Anne Carson, in her brilliant “The Glass Essay,” wrote about intimate moments with her lover, but I don’t think Anne Carson would talk about her stomachache, or the fact that her socks weren’t completely pulled up. She would wish to avoid the triviality and non-gravity of those details. So beginning to write a poem, I would be haunted by this prohibition against the trivial, but I would also know that to exist as a writer, I would need to include these details right now, even if I were going to cut the lines later. I would say to myself, “Well, here I go again. I can’t help it!” But these prohibitions are why I didn’t feel qualified to become a poet.

Wayne Koestenbaum has published fifteen books of poetry, criticism, and fiction, including, most recently, Humiliation (Picador, 2011), The Anatomy of Harpo Marx (University of California Press), and Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background (Turtle Point Press). He is a distinguished professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Matthew Rohrer is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Destroyer and Preserver, published by Wave Books. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at New York University.

Rachel Zucker is the author of four books of poetry, including Museum of Accidents. With Arielle Greenberg, she coedited two anthologies and cowrote Home/Birth: A Poemic, a nonfiction book about birth, friendship, and feminism. She lives in New York City with her husband and three sons.

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