A Mutant Gene in Language
D. A. Powell interviewed by Tadeusz Dąbrowski
Apr 20, 2016
17 Min read time
Poet D. A. Powell on lowercasing "aids" and surviving a plague.
Photograph: Matt Valentine
I almost missed D. A. Powell when he came for a few days as a visiting writer to the Vermont Studio Center in the fall of 2011. While he was running his workshops, I was away on a reading tour to promote my collection Black Square, but luckily I made it back in time for his event at the Town Hall and a couple of beers afterwards, just before he left the foggy town of Johnston. The poems he read, without insistence, but with awareness of their power and dramatic potential, made a deep impression on me, but also left me slightly confused about how much intimacy or even indiscretion the beauty of these verses could convey. Sometime later I came across Powell’s recommendation of my Black Square on Goodreads, which gave me a sense of what we might perhaps have in common as poets: a “theatrical” writing strategy, the poem treated as a stage (or the front line of life), and the lyrical hero as a potential (experimental?) version of oneself, sent out in pursuit of adventure, a scout who will report back on what is happening on the horizon of language, spirit, and body. Poetry is a space of unlimited freedom but also of major responsibility. The game played with the text may be artificial, linguistic, “poetic,” or painfully existential. Powell’s poetry draws its truth from suffering recycled into beauty, but not into just paper and ink,the “rhetoric of beauty,” which makes him a modernist after the school of postmodernism, from my point of view. As artistic director of the European Poet of Freedom Literary Festival I had the pleasure of inviting Powell to Gdańsk, on the northern coast of Poland. The following interview is one piece of evidence of our meeting in Poland and within metaphor.
Tadeusz Dąbrowski: Does your poetry arise from an excess or a lack, from a glut or from famine?
D. A. Powell: I think a bit of both: an excess of emotion, certainly, and of thought and language—that feeling of “I simply cannot contain all of this feeling and perception in any other way except to create a kind of external hard drive, a place to record and store all of this information.” But also a craving, a longing, a desire to bring back experiences, ideas, people.... To call the lost world back into being.
Life ends in death. But everything up to that moment is still very much life.
TD: The foreword to your debut collection Tea (1998) begins, “This is not a book about Aids.” Many readers would probably hear in this an echo of Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe, captioned “This is not a pipe.” What role did AIDS play in your early work if it wasn’t what your work was about? What might your poetry be like today without the illness?
DAP: Well, I think, philosophically, this is a hard question to answer; it’s rather like trying to separate form and content and to consider them as independent of one another. I think in the first place we need, as artists, obstacles. A river flows faster where there are more rocks; the water has to push through the barriers, and perhaps ultimately it is the very essence of a river’s energy, this impediment and pressure formed from encountering resistance. Aids was a force that exerted pressure on the poems, but my hope was that the poems triumphed over that pressure, that they were language broken free from the times. And so, even as we need obstacles, we need velocity, we need an internal desire to break free of what shuts us out or blocks our way, we need to be ever striving to reject the language of control and confinement and to work ourselves past the words that seek to define us. So I don’t know what my poetry would look like without this obstacle and my intent to resist it. Something else. Perhaps I would be writing love poems to people still alive, instead of elegies for those who are not.
TD: In the same foreword a beautiful passage appears: “I do not deny this disease its impact. But I deny its dominion.” While writing Tea and your subsequent books, did you try to transform the disease into paper—in a sense, to textualize it? Do you feel you have finished writing it out by now?
DAP: I wish and hope to have transformed the disease, literally and figuratively. When I started on the first book, it was still very much a scary, capital, looming shadow of a word—it was “AIDS.” I would not write the word again in a book until Chronic (2009), and by then it had shifted from its immense power as a signifier of terminal magnitude to one of chronic illness, and I wouldn’t let it be capitalized any longer. I argued with my editors who wanted to keep the old usage, the foreboding capitals. I said, “It’s not going to loom over the other words in this book. It’s going to be demoted to lowercase.” Hell, we did it for the word “scuba,” which started out as Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA). If we could normalize that word and absorb it into the language, certainly we could do the same for “aids.” I find it helps to neutralize the power of a word, especially if you’re going to have to see that word continuously. Make it small; minimize its power.
TD: Can we call Tea, Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004) a triptych about getting used to death, about entering into death? In Tea you regard it slightly from one side as it deprives you of friends, in Lunch you examine your own disease, but still as something alien that has forced its way into your body (“don’t want to catch my death”), and in Cocktails it seems to be something personal by now, something domesticated, which in some poems paradoxically leads to an affirmation of life.
DAP: I wouldn’t even say it was about getting used to death so much as about getting used to life. Life ends in death. But everything up to that moment is still very much life. I moved from elegy to ode, from memorializing to simply honoring and celebrating life.
TD: These books appeared in the days when AIDS prompted terror in the general public, and was synonymous with exclusion. How do people read them today? Recently they were published in a single volume, Repast (2014). Was it a sort of test for you of how much the energy of these poems is not dependent on the metaphors (in Susan Sontag’s understanding) of AIDS and the fear of it, which—since it has become a chronic disease—has significantly softened?
DAP: Yes, it’s both strange and reassuring that, by the time all three books appeared in a single volume, the disease went from being seen as a dire health crisis to being seen as a historical event, born and raised in fear but now resembling more of an ache, an old wound. Our cultural coping mechanisms are such that we can’t dwell in loss indefinitely. Perhaps the most chilling thing about aids is how we have ceased to see it as the global threat it once was. Especially since it is not eradicated nor cured. It is simply less untreatable, less hopeless. But that is not the same as a cure.
TD: In interviews you’ve said that you don’t feel entirely native to any particular place. On the other hand, you say that at heart you are a country boy. So what do the provinces mean to you? The cultural periphery?
DAP: I grew up in various rural areas, and though I am shaped by them I do not feel I belong to any one of them anymore. So yes, that sense of peripheral existence, that sense of being at heart a rustic, a wild gene, an uncosmopolitan soul has never left me. And yet I live for the most part in a city now. But my voice is still populated with the vernacular of the American South (Georgia and Tennessee) and the Central Valley of California (the agriculture heart of the state, not the urban or coastal regions, though they too give me words and ideas).
TD: In Chronic you verge on ecological involvement. In an interview with Joey De Jesus, you suggest that “the reason why the landscape is eroticized for me is because if it’s erotic, people will care for it. They will love it. They will desire it. And hopefully preserve it.” Can poetry be socially committed? Where is the line between commitment and agitation, between art in the service of ideas, and rhetoric and manipulation in art?
DAP: Well, I’m not sure. I do think that W. H. Auden is correct when he says, “poetry makes nothing happen.” That is to say, poetry on its own is not action. But poetry is also very much a living record of ideas and conditions that form us at local, regional, personal levels. And though a poem is not necessarily going to change the world, we can look to a poem as a source of inspiration, a field of inquiry that might very well give voice to something active and transformational inside of us. I like what William Carlos Williams wrote: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
TD: In The Harvard Crimson you state, “Poetry, at its best, is a cloud of subjects in opposition to one another. It’s not the best way to convince somebody of something. If I were moved to be an activist, I would probably be writing essays.” I’d like to ask, then, in a slightly Bolshevik way: Is poetry an escape from responsibility? Does it always need to cover up its own impotence with beauty?
DAP: An escape from responsibility? Not at all. It is a place where messages of great value and import can be woven in, like the hidden but not-so-hidden calls to freedom and safety that are found throughout the lyrics of spirituals. When enslaved Americans sang “Wade in the Water,” it wasn’t merely about baptism, it was a call to escape captivity by hiding near the river, to cover one’s tracks by stepping into the current where the scent of the runagate or fugitive could be masked from the pursuing hounds. For me poetry has always been a place to put the most urgent messages of existence, because they can pass through undetected. The urgent message can hide in plain sight.
TD: You were recently a guest at the European Poet of Freedom Literary Festival in Gdańsk. Is freedom in life the same as freedom in poetry?
DAP: I wish! Poetry is far more forgiving and far more mutable than most of living. Poetry is a mutant gene in language. It adapts and transforms much faster than we do. Music, painting, fashion—many of the arts are similarly transformational, but they are often more beholden to economic and social mores. Poetry is largely free of its own conventions (although we certainly have lots of conventional poems). Its freedom to grow in new ways is an innate part of its formal strategy, and—because it doesn’t depend upon a “buying public”—those new forms of poetry are just as possible, just as likely, to take root and grow. Poetry is a quick mutation, with lots of variants. Who would have thought that Tristan Tzara’s rants or Emily Dickinson’s enigmatic prayers would change the course of literature? And yet they both have, in their fashion, transformed the art of poetry in ways unanticipated by readers or by history.
TD: You originally became interested in poetry through plays. Has that had an influence on your writing? In your poems I can see a sort of dramatization, a strategy of “insinuation,” which doesn’t want to remain hidden at all. And your language—because of its melody, allusiveness, and imagery—is for me a form of “action” in itself.
DAP: I do think of my language as having “onstage” and “offstage” versions, and I think rhythmically, all the time, though perhaps not self-consciously about the rhythm itself. It’s more that I think in rhythms, and those rhythms can be quite regular and formal, and therefore perhaps more “onstage”; or quick and offhand to break the fourth wall, or at least to appear to break the fourth wall, between the speaker and the audience. Also I notice that I consider an implied listener and a reader as being quite separate. The poem might be addressed to an “other” but not to the reader. It’s more often the case that I intend the reader to be “overhearing” the poem as it is spoken to someone else. And I certainly like to try on all sorts of costumes and masks in the poems. They are spoken through characters who are seldom as boring as myself, though one cannot help, sometimes, being boring on the page. There are moments where boredom is actually working in the writer’s favor. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is perhaps the best example.
TD: You combine Romantic vocabulary with slang, disco kitsch with biblical pathos. You’ve said, “Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash were as important to me as Gertrude Stein and John Keats.” Just as important in what sense?
DAP: I don’t labor under the delusion that poetry is only certain kinds of language and only building upon or inspired by “literary” sources of influence. Particularly invaluable to me has been the instructive and superlative rhyme and rhythm of hip hop, the emphatic sprung accentual prosody along with the surprising inventions of triplets and internal rhyme. I was never trying to be any one kind of poet, and I like all kinds of poetry, sound, wordplay, lyric, image, diction. But I have a particular admiration for language that has the immediacy and risk of the contemporary, and it seems hip hop has been quicker to evolve in that regard. “It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes mewonder how I keep from goin’ under.” That’s raw, my friend, that’s live. Listen to the urgency of that triple rhyme. It’s fierce.
TD: Do you recycle the trash of pop culture? Or is it that you want to save it, to preserve it in a poem, to put it in a showcase marked “cultural goods”?
DAP: Well, deciding what’s trash and what’s “of cultural value” is a really complicated dynamic, isn’t it? I don’t know that I would want to be a major decider. I mean, who’s to say that an ancient Incan potter might look at the bowl of his we’ve preserved in the museum and say, “What?!? You hung onto that? I made a million of them and gave them away. They’re pretty useless. Why didn’t you save the ones I made after I got good at it?” Queer culture is an odd aesthetic, because it includes “camp,” which I can best define as: defending the sentimental, gaudy, or beastly cultural objects that meant something to you and for which you were publicly shamed or chastised for loving “pretty” or “girlish” or “uncouth” things. Part of what makes the queer sensibility so rich is the willingness to elevate, celebrate, and make fun of (yes, they can all happen simultaneously, this is virtually the same combinations of impulses that creates satire) these hokey songs, silly movies, tacky decorations, obvious wigs, and badly rendered paint-by-numbers poodles. The protective layer of camp also includes the very moving fact that oftentimes, underneath all the intentional trash, there’s a deep core of genuine love of what’s discarded or ridiculed by others. I mean, I really love my Carmen Miranda showerhead with water coming out of her big red-lipped mouth. It means something to me. It was a gag gift but came to stand for the person who thought I would appreciate the gag, which I very much do. Most people would not have wanted, all these years, to stand under the nozzle and have, as one friend wrote, “a movie star spitting on you every morning.” But what’s more glorious than the idea that a movie start might deign you worthy enough to spit on? After all, whatever comes from such artfully rendered plastic lips must be just this side of holy water.
TD: Chronic brings new tones and themes to your poetry. It’s more reflective, reconciled, sometimes even religious. The danse macabre seems to be over. The pain has partly dissolved. This book is personal in a slightly different way than the previous ones. The corporeal nature of your poems has gained a new, holistic dimension. And the phrasing has changed, too, and titles have appeared. Please tell me something about this change of direction.
DAP: A couple things, I think. One was that, by the time Cocktails was in production, I was already writing new poems—not always good or keepable poems, but still I knew already, while I was working on Cocktails, that I did not want to have any preconception about what would come next. Or, that anything would come next. I also don’t think we can really say where it is that a book begins, only where it ends. A book closes. It finishes by being gathered up into itself and pushed out of the nest. Chronologically speaking, Chronic follows Cocktails. But some of those poems surely had a genesis that preceded poems in the other books. So in that way, I really don’t know what I was thinking as the book began. But there was also a relationship that began after Cocktails, a love that really did burn in all kinds of ways, bad and good. Much of that book grew from that new vine, and there was a liveliness sometimes in the form, a desire to move away from the safety of the margins I had dwelt in so well, a rising pulse of energy that gave the poems a distinctly different prosody. But it didn’t happen all at once or overnight. It came together as a duet. A duet for one voice. That was the ache of it. And the splendor. And then when it ended, I hurried along into new work, not a book yet, simply a body of poems, and they were themselves an escape from the present into a different present, a present in which the present was built on the past.
TD: In your latest book Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (2012), adventures of the body are at the same time adventures with the landscape. Is this collection a sort of variation on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but with the body as a mainstay, a final measure of the truth in the leading role?
DAP: I really hadn’t thought of Useless Landscape as being a response to The Waste Land, although I can see where that argument could be made. Eliot is such a bummer though. I like to think Useless Landscape has more lightness to it. Even with all the wreckage and destruction, I see the ultimate energy of the book as one that is joyous and affirming: “Be unafraid of what the future brings.” “Triumph over death with me. And we’ll divide the air.”
TD: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Polish poetry?
DAP: Because my awakening into poetry also coincided with my move to San Francisco Bay Area, I think first of Czesław Miłosz, his “A Song on the End of the World,” which I think is one of those poems that ghosts behind so many things I write, or “City Without a Name” in which he writes, “The Earth, neither compassionate nor evil, neither beautiful nor atro- / cious, persisted, innocent, open to pain and desire.” There is a gorgeous, triumphant beauty in Miłosz’s work because it is all about seeing, the fearlessness of seeing, and a truly broad view of history and the world. His work is true in the strongest sense of the idea of truth.
TD: What do people who don’t read poetry lose?
DAP: Even those who don’t read poetry benefit from poetry’s existence. At its most basic level, poetry is a form of puzzling over meaning, large meaning and small meaning, record-keeping and concept dreaming, problem naming and problem-solving in a way that allows us to consider each choice and its repercussions while still delighting in the process of choosing. Poets make language leaps on our behalf. They invent metaphors, they solidify imagination, they erase and record and erase and record. The people who don’t read poetry may have completely wonderful lives. But when they are searching for meaning, where do they go? What source of philosophy or religion or science does not owe its language in good part to poetry? Reading a poem puts us closer to the source.
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April 20, 2016
17 Min read time