The poem is my own experience: An interview with Andy Stallings

By Erik Vande Stouwe

Andy Stallings is a poet of the New Poetry. He writes in and out of the vertiginous accumulation of the Modernist influence. Consistent across the work I have read is an aggressive interrogation of language. This necessitates also a confrontation with sound, nation, and self.

Stallings hails from Washington state and holds an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He is an editor of the literary journal Thermos, with his wife, Melissa Dickey.  Both poets teach creative writing at Tulane University, and live in Algiers Point with their two children.

Room 220 is pleased to host Stallings, along with poets Andy Young and Jessica Henricksen, for an evening of live poetry at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 17, at the Antenna Gallery (3161 Burgundy St.). More information about the reading is here.

The following interview was conducted by email, early April 2012. Monument and Violent Men are former names of manuscripts in progress.

Room 220: What sort of impulse do you associate with your poems? From where, compositionally speaking, do they come (a scene, a rhythm, a word, an emotion) and in what final, crystallized form do you hope them to end (in the mind of the reader)? Do these places tend to be the same, or are they possibly never the same?

Andy Stallings: While my poetic practice is extremely various, I think I could say with some sense of honesty that the impulse has almost always to do with an intersection of sound and language. If it isn’t that, it’s conceptual—a form I’d like to try, a bridge for which I feel the need between two sections in a sequence. Only very occasionally, as in this stanza (the opening stanza in the last poem of my manuscript Brim Terrain), is the impulse a deeply felt emotion that I find it necessary to record in lines:

My daughter, my daughter –
distant body within
whose heart distant
within my arms
beats – sleep –

Should I feel more strongly more often? Would it make me a better poet? I don’t know—but the associative motion of sound in a poem I’m writing, if ultimately functional, is its own sort of felt thing, an experience in its own right. And of course, as you can see from the repetition of words like “daughter,” “distant,” “within,” and the hesitating rhythm of the stanza, it’s as likely that the example I’m using emerged from a sonic/rhythmic nexus as it is that it truly emerged from a deeply felt emotion. Though it did—in this case, the poem was written the morning after my daughter, Esme, went through a night terror, a terrifying experience comprised of transportation for the child and alienation for the parent. Anyhow, this is the exception, as I said. Primarily, I move through sound either on the local level (word level) or the rhetorical level (sentence level). My ear is my surest guide, I’ve learned to believe—and I don’t believe much besides that.

Is there a crystallization? Not one I hope for, beyond the expectation that after a certain shape or number of lines occur(s) the poem will have occurred. I don’t consider a reader. While I love very much to have readers, the poem is my own experience—of transformation and the possibility of transformation. It must be possible that someone reading a poem of mine could experience something like transformation, however slight or temporary; but the initial experience of transformation is mine—the motion of myself as poet which I call poetry. I say that is what it is—the motion of the poet. Nothing more. How, then, for the reader, could poetry be the same as for the poet? Even if, as is likely, the reader is a poet?

Rm220: When writing the sort of terse lines that characterize Violent Men, does the choice of the next word feel most motivated by the scene, the action, or by the impulse embodied in the language itself? For instance, in the stanza,

night sent – arched
back o sky bowl
over – chamo-
mile beneath

is the point the scent or the sound of chamomile? Presuming the answer is an explication of the word ‘both’, how do you mediate those values?

AS: Not to be contrary, but in this case the answer is actually not both. In that poem, as in all of Violent Men, I was focused entirely on the sound and rhythm as articulated by the line. During the time when I was writing those poems, I was convinced more than ever that meaning was entirely secondary in poetry—so the scent of chamomile, which I actually associate strongly with the specificity of my childhood, didn’t even occur to me, either as I wrote the poem or, later, read it over and over. I was after the word only, and specifically in this case the word as broken in half by the line. Of course I recognize that the word connotes a scent, and that there is meaning necessarily in a poem that operates under principles of something resembling ordinary syntax—and wasn’t trying at all to avoid either outcome. But in terms of composition, all that mattered to me from word to word was its sound related to the words around it and the lines dividing them.

Rm220: In the longer-lined poems of Monument, where narrative seems to supersede sound pattern, what metric did you use to choose certain words and reject others?

AS: In those poems, by contrast, I was shouting. While I was thinking about individual words at times, the unit of composition was the sentence, not the word. I was working at a sort of prophetic voice (though of course the result is not especially prophetic), and the prophetic voice sprawls more often than not—so while I wasn’t thinking strictly in terms of narrative, you’re right to say that something supersedes sound pattern. I’d identify it as rhetoric, I think. The patterning was still that of poetry rather than that of story, the leaps and disjuncts often sizable. Every one of those poems came straight from nothing, and in their beginnings relied on something I almost never rely on—inspiration. More often than not a line would occur to me as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, and I would force myself to memorize it, hold it in my head overnight—something I’ve never had success with in the past. And they built up from whatever rhetoric was contained in those lines, by a process of contrast and response, accreting toward something like meaning. As I was, in this instance, interested in making meaning, the choice of individual words was subsumed into the process of constructing a meaningful sentence, even as sound continued to play a prominent role in sentence-making.

Stallings with his daughter Esme, on a night without terrors.

Rm220: What is the role of precision in this process? Is precision an element of musicality, or is it lyric’s counterweight?

AS: It sounds like you’re positioning musicality as somehow subservient to lyric. I don’t think I agree with that. While musicality certainly is a large part of what we’d probably agree upon as lyric poetry, I think it’s also available as an element in non-lyric poetry. But to answer what I think is your actual question, precision is an element of poetry, period. Not of musicality, not of lyric—though it must necessarily be present in anything that could be honestly called a poem that is also musical or lyric. It seems to me that precision is as important to a sprawling, indeterminate poet (such as the John Ashbery of Flow Chart) as it is to a chiseling, definitive poet (such as George Oppen). If that’s true, then precision can’t be taken to mean the careful selection of right words at every juncture. I’d call it, then, getting it right—where “it” might mean each individual word, but might also mean a rhetorical structure, form in the visual sense, or a pure sort of openness. Whatever it is that makes the poem Poetry (in the sense of a value judgment), that is the element of precision in the poem.

Rm220: The poems of Monument express a deep anxiety with structuring power. What potential (technical, not performative) does poetry have to explore issues of power?

AS: I can’t see what potential poetry has to explore issues of power that any usage of language does not. Perhaps I’m guilty here of an undue modesty regarding poetry, or a form of ignorance regarding the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement, but it seems to me that a sentence is a sentence in most cases. Especially when it comes to something like power, which I take as a political entity with vast implications in actual living, I feel like exploration or statement on the matter has more to do with intention than it does with technique. I’m familiar with the unease many poets feel regarding inherent and inherited power structures contained in our language, and share in those concerns—but while poets have been responsible for a lot of the recent explorations of what might be done to circumvent those power structures, I don’t think that makes it necessarily a poetics issue, or something that poetry specifically can address. It is rather a sentence issue, or something language in general can address.

Rm220: What poets have especially been influencing your recent writing?

AS: Most recently, Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire. By extension, their translator (in my editions), Ron Padgett. I’ve been in love with Cendrars’ Nineteen Elastic Poems and, less recently, his Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jeanne of France. As well, with Apollinaire’s Alcools, particularly “Zone.” I wrote in a recent poem that I’m writing to the Europe of 100 years ago, and that’s actually true, in the sense that I am writing directly at these poets/poems. In the other manuscripts you mention (Monument is presently titled Les Fenetres, though I’m far from certain that will last, while Violent Men has become part of a manuscript entitled Brim Terrain), the poetry was largely influenced by, in the former case, Ashbery’s translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations, Eshelman’s version of Cesar Vallejo’s Trilce, and later on, Eshelman’s translations of Aime Cesaire’s The Miraculous Weapons and Solar Throat Slashed; in the latter case, primarily by George Oppen, especially Discrete Series, though also, in places, by William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All and Paul Celan’s Breathturn, as translated by Pierre Joris.

Thanks for asking this, by the way—direct influence often goes unstated, and I think it’s an important thing. I happen to be a poet constantly influenced by other poets and, due to whatever mis-learning, consider that to be an asset rather than a failure.

Erik Vande Stouwe is co-editor of MUG.