A Conversation with Stephen Burt
Oct 28, 2013
24 Min read time
The ethics of the imagination: after crossing the threshold into a fantasy world, can we safely dispense with social norms?
Boston Review readers may know Stephen Burt better as a critic than as a poet, but hopefully this interview will help to right this imbalance. Burt has been described as “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation,” and some of his most frequently referenced essays—including reviews introducing the terms “Elliptical Poets” and “The New Thing”—first appeared in these pages. A protégé of renowned poetry critic Helen Vendler, Burt currently teaches at Harvard University. He has published three books of poems—Popular Music, Parallel Play, and most recently, Belmont.
Like the sci-fi writers he teaches about, Burt has often been preoccupied with the ethics of the imagination. After crossing the threshold into a fantasy world, into the realm of art, can we safely dispense with ordinary obligations, with humanist precepts, with social norms? From what moral position can we criticize the impulse toward the imaginary? How comfortable are we with the distinction between art-making and escapism? Burt’s poems have always struggled with these questions with rigor, sympathy, and an aesthetic that delights in the particularities of landscapes and artifacts.
But in his recent poems—some of which appear here—these questions appear in new guises and with new urgency. Sparked by his recent decision to be more public about his transgender identity, Burt’s new poems ask to what extent we can rely on the imagination to craft something sufficiently durable, versatile, and portable to serve as an identity.
As a disclaimer, I should add that Steve and I have been close friends since graduate school, so our conversation below, which we conducted over email late last summer, may be flavored by some of the luridly-colored beverages that have fuelled our many late-night talks about poetry and life.
Read “Paper Stephanie,” “Like Stephanie,” and “Fundamental Attribution Error (Meret Oppenheim & Stephanie)," three new poems by Stephen Burt.
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Monica Youn: In your new book Belmont, you say there are “two I’s in disguise.” I hear two main “I’s,” two speakers in the book. One we might call Minerva, “goddess of adults.” Her voice is authoritative—she has the academic’s fondness for the first-person plural, and she makes use of the second person to dispense diagnoses and expert advice. She tends to fall into strongly accented pentameter to bolster her arguments. The other voice—hesitant, fragmentary, subjunctive—we could name Stephanie. She tries on various costumes, she poses in front of the mirror, she lapses into silence. She is haunted by italicized voices, by half-remembered scenes. When both Minerva and Stephanie occupy the same poem, Minerva tends to get the last word. Are both of these voices disguises, fabricated “I’s”?
Stephen Burt: I love your way of finding these two figures throughout the book, and I think there are at least two figures in there, but I’m hesitant to align them so thoroughly with consistent forms. Some of the girliest, most flirtatious, most escapist poems (written in first-person singular, yet) use strong closure and strict pentameter or exact rhyme schemes (“Fictitious Girl Raised by Cats,” “For Avril Lavigne”). Some of the most adult, “expert,” real-life-has-to-be-this-way poems use free verse and slippery pronouns and post-Ashbery overlapping references that defeat prose sense, or might defeat it given time (“Exploring the Suburbs,” “Owl Music”).
And yes, they are all disguises—but they’re all real. I now believe all poems are persona poems, though often—when the speaker seems indistinguishable from the poet, when the speaker seems to share the poet’s biography—it’s a zero degree of persona: this speaker just happens to share the region, education, family circumstance, etc. of the real person who happened to write the poem. All poems are also like costumes, like clothes; when you read them you are, in a sense, trying them on. (Some fit many people; some fit a few.)
I am not saying all poems are inauthentic, or fabricated in some pejorative sense. It is the glory of poetry, or at least a glory of poetry, that at its best it corresponds to something deeply “there” within you, something that seems to preexist the poem, and yet is also something we get to make up.
MY: Yes, any number of mythic and demi-mythic figures are slouching, strutting, mincing, and flitting through these poems—Muppets, superheroes, anatomically improbable insects. I didn’t mean to suggest certain formal strategies have an indexical relationship to particular categories of content. It would indeed be dull, perhaps tragic, for Minerva and Stephanie to be confined to their respective domains, with Minerva able to write only about “adult” topics and Stephanie always trapped in the back of the school bus. It’s much more fun to get both their takes (as well as those of other speakers) on the binary tensions at the heart of this book—real vs. imaginary, suburban domesticity vs. urban post-punk, sexual normativity vs. “paraphilia,” etc.
Which brings me to my next question. I’m wondering whether you consider Belmont a kind of coming out as transgender in your poetry. In earlier poems—I’m thinking of “Tiresias,” “Amaretto Sour (Drag Night at the Nines)”—you had featured transgendered subjects, but you had never identified with them as explicitly as you do here: “Oh my companions in microfiber & leather.” And Belmont was published shortly after a profile of you ran in the New York Times Magazine—a profile that dubbed you “Poetry’s Cross-Dressing Kingmaker,” identifying you as transgender for a wide popular audience. How does the concept of coming out in these poems intersect with the notion of disguise and persona we’ve been discussing, with the statement that “What we can’t say openly / we say in poetry”?
SB: Good question. I like being out in person, in real life; I much prefer having to explain some things over and over (for example, I’m not wearing girl clothes at every public appearance, only at some of them; transgender is a spectrum or a collocation of related things, not one thing; yes, my family knows; no, I generally wear guy clothes at home) to the feeling of keeping a secret. I’d rather be seen. And yes, the appearance of Belmont, the book, comes at the end of what I suppose has been a coming-out process: I wore girl clothes in public during the 1990s, but not much during the 2000s.
And yet I don’t know that Belmont’s really a coming-out book; most of its poems were written before the NYT magazine piece, which functioned as a kind of performative—by saying that I was more visible as a cross-dresser than I had been, it enabled me to become as visible as I wanted to be (my thanks to Mark Oppenheimer, again, for writing it).
There are a couple of coming-out poems—“Stephanie” and “So Let Am Not,” in particular—but I think there will be more Stephanie, more explicitly, in the next book, the one I am writing now. (Or there might just be more personae.) It’s going to be a girlier, wilder book, I think, not because I like suburban parenthood or domestic reality any less—I like them as much as ever, which is a lot!—but because it’s going to be a different book.
“The Paraphilia Odes,” the poem you quote above, is about odd sexualities of all sorts, those that turn me on and those that don’t (for example, I’m not into leather). “My companions,” in the first part of that poem, denotes a very big and almost boundary-less queer collective identity. I don’t think of that poem as especially part of a coming-out process, and in fact it’s one of the oldest poems in the book (one of three finished before Nathan was born).
“Amaretto Sour” on the other hand, which was in my last full-length book, Parallel Play, is absolutely 100 percent autobiographical, with no persona-disguise-fictive elements at all—I can point you to people who were there at the time—but there’s no way to know that just by reading the poem, and that’s the way I wanted it. (I have a few other poems that work that way—they could be fiction or nonfiction, there’s no way to know.)
I sometimes feel I was out as trans in my poetry from the time I began writing, or at least from the time I began publishing, poetry—my first few published poems in non-student magazines (they are the first two poems in my first book, Parallel Play) are about teenagers who dislike their bodies and want to be different, and feminine. (They are about other things too, but that’s one of the things they’re about.)
But of course those were poems. I had plausible deniability. (Or, as Jack Spicer, whom I don’t quote often, said: “No one listens to poetry.”) Now I’m Stephanie in print, even in prose.
There’s something extraordinarily liberating and morally and politically important about coming-out stories—not just coming out as lesbian, trans, queer, but also “coming out” as an undocumented immigrant, for example, or as someone living with a disability.
But there’s also something deceptive, or oversimplified, about coming out as we understand it in popular culture: it’s not (at least not necessarily) about pulling back a curtain and revealing “the real you,” the only real you, who will be exactly the way you are now, forever.
My experience of who I think I am, and probably your experience of who you think you are, is still evolving, even if some things are unlikely to change. I believe in individuals, even in souls, but I don’t think they can ever be described completely; nor do I think they are guaranteed (like rocks on display under glass) to stay the same forever after scrutiny.
I have a couple of poems—one’s in my first book, and one’s in this Web feature here— that say “hey, we’re all still becoming, like it or not.” It’s possible to get frustrated with that sense of still-becoming, that sense of always being in-process, of always being incomplete; but it’s also possible to get frustrated with the obverse, with the demand that we say—that we know already, and in all ways, and permanently—who we are.
One of the things I like about poetry—about this way of using language that is always over-determined, that is always figurative or figural, that seeks at once the beautiful and the true—is that in poetry, you get to have it both ways: you can be your literal self, or not, or both at once, and the poem will be judged and received and enjoyed (or ignored) (if anybody listens to it) not for its consistency with an earlier utterance, with your literal life or with your prior personae, but as a thing made, a linguistic act, that can stand on its own.
Belmont stands for the place where Minerva, in her triumphal Subaru, might well pull up next to Mitt Romney in his Town Car.
MY: Yes, the term “coming out” is frustratingly all-or-nothing, in a way that seems untrue to the concerns of the book. Because if Belmont the book explores the binary tensions I mentioned above, then Belmont the place stands for the “studiously unglamorous” side of the equation, the place where Minerva, in her triumphal Subaru, might well pull up next to Mitt Romney in his Town Car. It is the place our younger, hipper, transgressive, creative selves would have sneered at, would have escaped from. It is paradigmatically the place, as Stevens puts it, “That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves,” but despite this alienation (and because of it), it is the place from which “the poem springs.” As such, Belmont presents an aesthetic and ethical challenge. Faced with a similar conundrum, Stevens alternated between the escapism of “blazoned days” and the necessity of the “plain sense of things.” My sense is that Belmont the book is a search for a very different resolution, one that doubles down on the interpersonal.
SB: You’re right; that’s exactly the search the book conducts. But since “you’re right” can be an oddly unsatisfying answer, I’ll say more (turning first to Stevens, then back to myself, or to my selves).
Stevens—at least after Harmonium—didn’t so much alternate between escape (into the imagination) and facing reality (“the plain sense of things”) as experiment with ways to make them inform each other, to make each transfigure the other, to make each take the other into account, so that we could live within whatever fictions we found necessary and, also, live with a truth. Often, as he got older, that meant he attempted to embrace, to live within, fictions that were drabber, sadder, weirder, less consoling that our need for escape would lead us to seek or expect. I’m thinking not only of “The Plain Sense of Things” but of other late lyric poems such as “Crude Foyer,” in which it turns out that just a little metaphor is all the metaphor we need, or maybe more metaphor than we can maintain; I’m also thinking of late long poems such as “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” where reality (whatever that means) might be nothing more than “a dust that traverses a shade.”
I value Stevens’s attention to the interplay between fiction and fact, between what we make up or seek in imagination, on the one hand, and what we get from the real world, on the other. Next to his thoughtful grandeur, Belmont feels like a spitball or a paper airplane. But I do hope that Belmont finds a resolution that’s un-Stevensian, not least in how I wants to bring other people, and other people’s imaginations, into my own. Once I have linked my imagination thoroughly to what other people create, my sense of the division between imagined and real, escape and facts faced, may not seem quite so binary, nor so harsh. The real world outside myself, after all, is not composed entirely of Subarus; it also has G. M. Hopkins, and Avril Lavigne, and Kermit the Frog. And owls.
Belmont the title does stand for Belmont the town (which voted for Obama in 2012 by two to one, by the way). But it also stands for the place of escape, the place of romantic love, the place of musical performance, in The Merchant of Venice, where Jessica and Lorenzo end up in the moonlight. The adult reality contains the possibility for the adolescent imaginative romantic escape—and, perhaps, vice versa.
MY: Ha! I knew you wouldn’t let me get away with so simplistic a claim about Stevens. Yes, part of the sadness and the greatness of late Stevens is the continuing frustration of his efforts to achieve reciprocity between the imaginary and the real. He makes efforts to reach the real but can’t quite get there, he’s still tethered to the pole of the imaginary. This leaves him with only “Reality as a thing seen by the mind.” He’s unable wholly to persuade his mind of the reality of the real, so he can’t find his way out of a fascinating but ultimately solipsistic echo chamber. But the move Stevens never makes, and the move you emphatically make in Belmont, is to turn not just to the real but to the personal. Reading late Stevens is a little like watching a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? who doesn’t know that you’re allowed to phone a friend.
But in Belmont, when the tension of the various binaries becomes too painful, your impulse is to reach out to friends, to family. You mention some of the various personae in this vein—Muppets, owls, superheroes. But a persona is only a mask away from the self. For me, the poems that go furthest in bridging the divide are the ones more directly oriented toward a particular real person, especially the poems for Jessie and Nathan at the end of the book. Earlier in the book, in “Paraphilia Odes,” there is a clinical account of the Fall, a prescription for self-abnegation: “And so we take greater pleasure, for much of our lives, in helping our friends and partners get what they want than we do in taking what we want for ourselves.” But the end of the book suggests this divide between self and others, like so many other distinctions, dissolves in practice. Does it matter that a poem (“El Nido”) is a command performance if it offers the chance to indulge in luxurious description? Is the Fall from the imagination to the real so jarring if the descent is cushioned by a fabulous hand-drawn, hand-colored parachute?
SB: That is a terrific reading both of me (thanks!) and of late Stevens (yikes!). But then you ask two particular specific figurative questions and one much larger implicit one, which I will answer in reverse order.
First, yes, the Fall is jarring, though the jar is only slowly falling, because once you’ve figured out that the real takes precedence over the imagined, that the literal is at the root of the figurative, you will have figured out that being all by yourself makes you lonely and sad, but being with others confers responsibilities that get in the way, or constrain the imagination. By “you” I mean me. Being with others at least some of the time, with some of my headspace and some of my energy, is vastly preferable to a life spent alone! Especially if the others include the adult love of my adult life, and the children we have together, both of whom now draw things that look like parachutes (though sometimes they’re labeled, alas, as weaponry).
Second, I love command performances, commissions, excuses, anything that makes my own poems feel a bit more like collaborations (over which I nonetheless retain some kind of imaginative control), anything that makes me feel that what I make will get some attention after I have made it, and anything that makes me feel like my own work has some connection to some real other person, or other people—whether those people are the beloved in a love poem, or friends who get inside jokes, or editors (such as the remarkable Caleb Klaces of Like Starlings) who commission particularly constrained work. Commissions, constraints, dedications, arbitrary projects set by others are ways to connect what’s imagined to what’s outside the self, and to what’s real.
Third, my favorite branch of theories about the mind and the emotions in general is the set of psychoanalytic and post-psychoanalytic ideas called object relations theory, associated with the British analyst D. W. Winnicott, given a feminist turn (or at least made compatible with feminism!) by Nancy Chodorow and Jessica Benjamin, and sometimes popularized by Adam Phillips.
Object relations theory says that you are not a monad, not a little wind-up toy with “drives” or machine parts inside you (such as the ego and the id) so much as you are a person who has been formed by the other people you’ve known, especially but by no means only the people who were important to you growing up, especially but by no means only your parent or parents: it is as if you had versions of these people (whom the theorists call, confusingly, your “objects”) inside you, as tiny talking action figures, predicting, and reacting to, what you do. (The early not-feminist versions of this theory say that the most important first objects are mommies; the better, more recent ones say that the most important first objects are parents and caregivers.)
If you take object relations theory seriously it tells you that when you think you are talking only to yourself, doing something just for yourself, you are also responding to internalized versions (“objects”) of people you care about greatly, people who might care about you. What they are like, what you think they want, what you think they can understand affects what you do.
That doesn’t mean you can never be alone; it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a self. It does mean that your self is porous, influenced, connected, even when you think you are alone; it means that even when you speak to yourself in solitude, what you say and what you understand has something to do with what you think other people would do, or would say, or could hear.
It seems to me that object relations theory—not to split too many hairs about it—is true. At least, it’s true for me.
And so I don’t think there’s a bright line to draw between the poems I write for named other people, on commission as it were, and the rest of the poems I’ve written so far. On the other hand, there are all sorts of distinctions among different kinds and subgenres of poems I write; some of them imagine different audiences than others, which is to say they are written for—if not by—overlapping, collaborating, not quite coextensive parts of me.
“Should I fear scissors or love them”? Both, if I am a paper doll, or an artist who works in paper. (How much of my old self would I ever want to cut out?)
MY: What you say about object relations theory and traditional “monadic” selfhood dovetails nicely with the book, and with the new Stephanie poems printed here. Belmont the place is emphatically Minerva’s home turf, and we only occasionally glimpse Stephanie peeping out from behind the rhododendrons. But in these new poems, Stephanie takes center stage, albeit in a very particular way. She is not a stand-alone figure, but instead manifests herself as a outline or motif that emerges from works by other artists—Meret Oppenheim, Tom Tierney, Kayla Escobedo, even Michelangelo (I think). The common thread (if I may) is a sense of delegation—that someone else has control over one’s body, one’s appearance, one’s identity—that the self is a loosely knit collection of parts. But if roping these parts together is ungainly and occasionally uncomfortable, the threat of disassembly is actively terrifying, even if it may suggest some future reconfiguration. As you put it: “Should I fear scissors or love them?”
Is this sense of Stephanie—as newly emergent self, as assemblage—a consistent theme of your current work-in-progress? How does it represent a departure from other modes of polyvocalism in Belmont?
SB: It seems to me that we have selves but that they are not exactly independent entities; they emerge from and keep on being informed by other people, which is to say by our ideas about other people—both the other people whom we have known (in childhood, or in prior relationships), and the other people we see in our current lives, from hour to hour and from day to day. They affect what we do, we affect what they do (if we matter to them), we are all like molecules pinging around in a beaker, bouncing off one another, interacting, sometimes forming larger complex structures (crystals, emulsions, etc.) that affect what we do, and how we can be seen, and that might change our sense of ourselves as well. You can feel on your own or out of place or unintegrated; you can feel very well integrated; you can feel (as I often feel) like a soap molecule, the kind of thing that integrates compounds that otherwise would not mix.
That analogy from chemistry is just one way, or one side, of the sense of the self that object relations theory gives me; another analogy might come from theatre, and another still from knitting or sewing, as your own question points out; and another still from looking at paintings, collages, sculptures: Do you see yourself in them? What part of yourself do you see?
If you have no control at all over how other people see you—if they can take you apart and put you back together however you like—that’s terrifying and disheartening. If you have total control over how other people see you, on the other hand, that suggests that other people might not care very much about who you are. That would not be a good way to live; it would certainly depress me. A lot of life—childhood, adolescence, and adult life (whatever that means)—consists in a search for the right kind of collaboration. I’ll help you build, or re-build, your self, or some part of your self, if you will help me with mine.
The new set of Stephanie poems, or the new Stephanie, is certainly me, and I feel as if she had always been me, though I also feel that she could not have been put together—in life or in poems—much earlier than right now. But that sense of collaborative reassembly—I put together new versions of the self, with help from imagined readers, and from prior works of art—isn’t new: the first poem in my first book has nosy journalists filing reported stories, a sense of the self and the speaking voice as coming together at dawn out of disparate parts, and a cameo by Sylvia Plath.
I suppose that these days I’m making my sense of my self as constructed, collaborative, subject to disassembly and reassembly—and also my sense of my self as a girl, inside, or as someone who would like to be a girl—absolutely unmistakable. But I feel that those senses have been in the poems all along.
So, I hope, has my countervailing sense of my self as someone who, no matter how inconsistent I seem, no matter how many personae or costumes or tones or different audiences I addresses, is consistent enough to keep promises, to make commitments, and to make clear what I believe. I think that a lot of Belmont is about clarifying that consistency, about coming to terms with it, about accepting boundaries (linguistic, emotional, even geographical). Some of the new work consists of experiments or tests about what I can do within those boundaries, how far I can get from myself and still be myself.
As with everything else that belongs in a poem, these experiments involve mixed feelings: “should I fear scissors or love them”? Both, if I am a paper doll, or an artist who works in paper. (How much of my old self would I ever want to cut out?)
MY: Turning to your work as a critic, let me reality check with you my impression that readers and writers of contemporary poetry are in a mood to draw lines in the sand. From the present moment, the past decade feels like a kind of Pax Poetica, in which roads and bridges were built, with much fanfare, to connect previously hostile camps (New York School, New Formalism, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, to name some obvious ones). Amicable hybridization was the name of the game. But lately, in reviews, blog posts, and conversations, I’ve noticed a certain impatience creeping in—a desire to set some standards as to what are, and what are not, worthwhile aims, techniques, and modes for poetry now. I’m not talking about Mark Edmundson’s blunderbuss harangue in Harper’s, which has already received far more attention than it warrants, or the standard complaints of the usual grumpy suspects. Instead, I’m hearing this impatience from past advocates and, in some cases, exemplars of the hybrid style—Cal Bedient and Ange Mlinko, for example, in print, and many others in private. Even you, in conversations, have been using the phrase “the real thing” with far more frequency and emphasis than I recall you employing in past years. Is this mood attributable to isolated events, such as the recent publication of Paul Hoover’s new edition of Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology? Is it just that we can’t believe that people are still talking about Flarf? Or are we poised on the brink of a new re-entrenchment?
SB: Each condition creates the means by which it becomes obsolete, or gets replaced. The poetry wars of the 1980s and early 1990s, in which poets and critics expected critics and poets to choose sides, created a climate in which young poets did not want to choose sides, but rather to learn from anyone, or from everyone.
That’s the climate in which you and I grew up. But that climate, along with the proliferation of small-scale venues for poetry and for writing about poetry (on the Internet, in particular), and along with the diminished public attention to the kind of poetry that comes in books (diminished compared to 1980; I don’t know if it’s diminished compared to 1998), generated a world of reviewing and criticism in which if you didn’t have anything nice to say about a particular poet or poem, you didn’t say it; and the exceptions to that rule were obvious outliers for reasons of temperament, and sometimes they were kind of old, too.
It’s that climate that has generated a hunger for distinctions, I think; we want to read debates about poetry in general, some of us even want to see attacks, anything other than “here’s another fascinating take on what it means to be alive now.”
And so flamethrowers, bomb-throwers, people who draw bright lines, and people who announce that everything outside their orbit is now obsolete, get attention. (While Allan Peterson and Angie Estes and Deborah Woodard and Erika Meitner and Catherine Imbriglio and Harmony Holliday just go on writing startling, wonderful, thoughtful poems.)
I will run a movement up a flagpole and see who salutes, I will take a hammer to a clay-footed statue, when it will help people read the poems I like. I understand why there have to be trend pieces, manifestos, lines in the sand, and vituperative reviews. But they’re not why I’m in this business. I’m in it to show people how to read, and how to like, and how to learn from Allan Peterson, or from Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt. Or from Keats.
October 28, 2013
24 Min read time