"A Poem Argues for its Own Existence": An Interview with Elizabeth Willis

Sean Patrick Hill

Sean Patrick Hill: To begin, I’d like to ask about the title of your book,Address. Obviously, there are a couple thematic dimensions to it: addressing others on both a small, personal scale and a larger, more political address. Did you set out to create a unified book? Did you have a guiding principle in mind?

Elizabeth Willis: I like your sense of the title. I wanted the book to have that kind of openness. I wanted there to be room for the peopled world to flood in. I didn’t set out to write the book as a single work, but I could feel something like a “guiding principle” taking shape while I was writing it. At one point, the manuscript was almost twice as long, and I realized it was really two different projects that seemed to be fighting with each other, and I just had to separate them. 

SPH: At times, such as in the poem “This Is Not a Poem about Katherine Harris,” you seem to undermine the very idea of an address. To what extent do you think you are complicating the idea of the “address”?

EW: Well, I definitely wanted to preserve the richness of the complications that “address” implies. A lot of the energy in that poem in particular sprang from a feeling of voicelessness and the pressure generated by that voicelessness. Some of the edges in the poem’s rhetoric spun directly off of Harris’ own public addresses. It’s amazing what you can hear in public discourse if you listen to it poetically, if you listen to what’s being implied, the innuendo behind the inflection.
    I’m interested in the ways that an address is time-bound. It might be written, but the emphasis is on its articulation, the invisible waves of meaning it sends out into the air. Yet a public address, the kind of speech that comes over what they used to call a public address system, is spatially enormous, far beyond the natural reach of the voice. It suggests a massive embodiment. Even when the voice is distant or displaced, the audience it imagines is embodied.
    I wanted to set aside what can seem like a kind of self-absorption within certain strains of the lyric—but to maintain its human frame, to shift something in the balance between speaker and audience. 
    I think about what it means to be addressed, directly, as a person. It means you’re being seen, that something is intended specifically for you. It’s an acknowledgment. It carries a quality of attention that seems essential and primary—the mirroring that happens when one person addresses—or is addressed by—another. When you attend to something, you address it. 
    One of the things I love about Walt Whitman is the way his voice can be wildly inclusive and yet keep returning to a delicate intimacy. When he says “you,” sometimes it’s America, sometimes it’s the imagined community of his readers, sometimes it’s the imagined community of people who care about the same things he does, and sometimes it’s just you, singular, and he’s right there with you. 

SPH: This book is strongly contemporary, modern, and experimental. Yet, it also responds very strongly to tradition. There is an acknowledgment of form—the sonnet, nocturne, ballad, and the litany—even as it attempts to undermine those forms. There is also the weight carried by references to Rousseau, Baudelaire, and Virgil, to name a few. How do these references to form and figure serve to anchor or drive the poems, to your mind?

EW: Well, I often think of a poem as a dialogue. Not just between reader and writer but a dialogue with its own history and with the history of its form. Because of the way language accrues meaning through usage, every word has some relation to a past, a record of its public and private usage, where you learned it, how you heard it used or misused, what the contexts were in which you tried it out. Where did you first say “love” or “come” or “here”? How did you arrive at “hunger”—and how did its meaning evolve? 
    The English language is always sliding into figures of speech—and the complexity and resonance of our usage has to do with how we’ve heard these figures and how we try to shape or inflect them in order to echo those histories or to step away from them in order to mean something else. I want to do both of those things. I like generating and playing on top of echoes. With language the echoes are always there. What’s harder, I think, is when you want to set them aside to articulate a cleaner melody line—which might be closer to what I’m trying to work with in some of my shorter lyric poems, to intensify the line rather than embellish it, to use familiar materials from common usage to generate new patterns. 
    It’s true that there are a lot of direct references to poetic forms in this book—but the forms that are there are very open forms. I think one of the most significant ways we use form is simply as a cue to the reader. What if this book were classified as nonfiction? Our sense of what a poem means arises out of our composite sense of what a poem looks like and what it can “do.” So the mere fact of genre and form shape the way we take it in. 
    Some of the references you mention are conscious and some are unconscious. There are works that keep coming up for me when I write, poems that gave me a sense of permission—in Robert Duncan’s sense—an understanding that I was part of their conversation, that I could think inside them, that the work they were doing has shaped something about the work I’m doing. I’m not interested in being merely citational or allusive; I want to build a new architecture out of the ones I inherit.
    Whitman and Rousseau and Rimbaud are definitely reference points for me in this book—in part because of the ways each of them was thinking through social and political issues within their writing. I could talk all day about Whitman, but he’s not far from a quality I love in Rousseau, something in the honesty of the way he addresses his own development as a person—his lies, his failures, his moments of revelation. And that becomes the ground for his political philosophy. It’s a performed poetics. It’s filled with anxieties about imposture and a kind of delicacy that makes the discovery of a wildflower a climactic event. As much as I resist the “confessional,” I love the open structure of confession as a form, especially in Rousseau and Augustine.

SPH: You’ve spoken in the past about the lyric poem and its future. Mark Tursi, in his Double Room interview with you in 2004, spoke to what you called “the music of thought.” What is this music in Address, and how has it changed for you beyond, say, Meteoric Flowers, if not throughout your writing career? To what frontier do you think these poems, as lyric, have carried themselves?

EW: The sound of Meteoric Flowers seems very dense to me, and I definitely wanted to expand outward from that, to let there be more air around the line. But each moment has its own music. The sounding of thought is always changing in relation to the background noise we’re thinking on top of. Each poem is at least potentially a sonic reinvention of the world in which it is produced.

SPH: In that Double Room interview, you spoke about identity, how it is a creation of language, how it is “tried” by the poem. These poems speak of hovering anxieties that are “trying” nearly everyone in America. I’m interested in this identity for the speaker of these poems, especially in that the speaker seems to make an earnest attempt at address. Because you’ve said that the poem is of two voices—both the reader’s and the writer’s—I’d love to hear about what makes these poems unique in that relationship.

For me, that sense of “trying” is the most interesting aspect of what gets referred to as “experimental” poetry. Isn’t all writing an experiment? A way of trying something out? I agree with your sense that this is not at odds with the poem’s “sincerity.” In fact, on the contrary.

SPH: I’m interested in your own influences. As a former undergraduate at SUNY Buffalo—this was back when Creeley and Charles Bernstein were still there—I’d like to know how that program, and Creeley in particular, helped to shape you. But also, who do you see as significant influences coming to play in this book?

EW: Robert Creeley was the reason I went to Buffalo in the 1980s—really far back—before Charles and Susan arrived and before the Poetics Program. It was an amazing place even then.
    The whole atmosphere was like a big conversation. I really didn’t have a very comprehensive education, so I just ate it up. I had worked my way through college, so just having all that time to read and write was a revelation. I loved the “second city” feeling of Buffalo—the sense that it didn’t have to import its culture, that it was as interesting and productive to be there as it was to be in places like New York or San Francisco. 
    Leslie Fiedler was still there when I first arrived. I worked with Jack Clarke and with Diane Christian on Blake. And I worked with Bruce Jackson in a course on Fieldwork that dealt with documentary and folk materials. I think I audited as many courses as I enrolled in just to hear what other people were thinking about. 
    One thing I loved about Bob and Charles and Susan was their openness as readers. It wasn’t about liking or accepting anything you read—not at all—but it was about allowing yourself to be surprised and to allowing your preferences as a reader to be idiosyncratic rather than doctrinaire. It’s a more challenging orientation to have toward the world. 
    Creeley certainly influenced my sense of the music of a poetic line. And Susan’s work opened up my sense of what could happen on the page. Charles made me think about audience and rhetoric in new ways. They’re all connected in some way to my sense of the performative qualities of language. And they were all incredibly kind, which might seem beside the point, but it’s not. 

SPH: The formal element of Address is fairly consistent. Poems, for example, are generally unpunctuated, with short lines, composed many times in singular stanzas, though there is a strong use of regularity in the couplets. It is apparent to me that a great deal of the tension of the book is generated in the coupling of strong ideas in terse lines. What is the relation between subject and form in these poems, and in the book as a whole?

EW: I don’t know what to say about this except that I’m glad that tension comes through. I like to feel that a line has a spring in it, that it risks something and that it has an unpredictable energy, a pull between the potential of what might follow and the kinetics of what appears on the page. How the sound of one line pushes off from the line before. 

SPH: I’d like you to speak to your intention in regard to diction. Again, there are your short lines, but they are heavily weighted with words carrying a modern heft: government, political party, toll, money, currency, voting—all these words are twisted out of context, releasing a great deal of energy and at the same time stripping them to the bone. This, more than anything, is a book of words: “nightfall’s / hourly wage.” What do you make of the torsion between weighted words and the poems’ brevity?

EW: I think the torsion and weightedness you’re talking about are what interests me in figures of speech and in the poem as a figure of speech. There’s so much compressed energy in a metaphor, and I’m interested in what happens when you take that to the level of the line or the couplet or the poem.

SPH: The Political is obviously a focus, as much as, say, Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation. I have to say that this book is one of the strongest I’ve read lately, and it is a nearly perfect illustration of a poetry responding to its time, a kind of detailing of the post-9/11 anxiety. War is here, hubris, consumerism. There is also the Historical or, as you say, the “ahistorical” or “accidental history.” Did you deliberately set out to write such a politically-inflected book?

EW: No, I didn’t set out to do it—but yes, I have been concerned with all the things you mention. Our lack of historical memory—really the politically-motivated erasure of historical memory—was definitely a concern. It’s still a concern. I think it marks the end of a certain vision of America, and it works against the possibilities of a more progressive “us” on almost any level.  
    There have been so many false uses of history too—like Bush using the rhetoric of World War II to make the Iraq War sound like a war the country had already accepted. But the question of history also has this very intimate thread. Who are we? What do I mean? Pronouns have enormous power in establishing political agendas. And of course they determine the aperture of a poem, its intimacy, the alienation or belonging that occurs in and among its readers. 

SPH: I want to talk about theory; obviously, there is a great deal of it floating about these days. In an earlier comment you made to me concerning theory, you said that you find theory in poetry. You said, “Poets have been dealing with indeterminacy and thinking about systems of relation forever, haven’t they?” Still, I can’t resist asking how this book “works.” There are rhetorical flourishes throughout: “A poem ends / when the sound of it is finished” or much of what is in the poem “May Day,” your address to Robert Creeley. When the poet Graham Foust asks, “What is the poem,” what do you say?

EW: I think you know something is a poem when you’re in it, either as its writer or its reader. Your comment makes me think of the poem “A Species Is an Idea” where the poem suddenly articulates itself as a corridor and then “you write this down / you’re at the end of it.” That was the poem telling the poet that’s all it has to say, that the voice has carried it to this place, and now the poem is over, you can stand up, go make lunch, whatever. But it’s also a line that puts the reader in exactly the same position, being told that the poem they’re reading is a physical, architectural space, and now “you’re at the end of it.” I think it’s a poem about the subconscious, about the meaningfulness of what you forget, the fact that you’re always leaving things behind. When you travel through a poem, it is your reality, it carries you. 
    There’s a lot of literary and cultural theory that asserts similar things. When I first heard about Deconstruction, a lot of people were acting like it was the end of literature, but I felt the opposite. It seemed to be articulating something that was implicit to the work of the poet—that the text is always getting away from you, that it’s not about intentionality—or that the slipperiness of intention is part of the wager of the poem. 
    But I also think about Postcolonial theory and the extent to which it is embodied in foundational work by poets like Aimé Césaire. It’s part of why I think poems can be “progressive” even when they’re not asserting a particular political agenda. It’s about thinking the world differently.

SPH: While I’m thinking of Foust, who I see as sharing a great affinity with you in terms of style and thought, especially the turns of language, what do you think is the place of irony in poetry? Both you and Foust have wonderful turns of language; for you, simple phrases like “bellwether friend” or more complex twists like “prosperity is just around / that hairpin turn.” You seem very interested in linguistic irony, in reclaiming language that has been stolen in the Orwellian sense.

EW: That’s interesting. I almost never think about irony because it seems to me a function of inflection more than of what actually appears on the page. I think of irony as hiding one “real” meaning with another surface meaning. I’m more interested in multiplying those layers into something more polyvocal, so that you hear several meanings at once and there’s not a code that suggests which the “right” one is. You might, for instance, hear double meanings in a single word, but that word could appear in a familiar syntax that’s been flipped to say something other than what you expect. 

SPH: I’ve asked a lot about tension and politics, but there is also poetry itself. In the poem “The Witch,” you speak of the struggle with the “unknown force.” To me, the poem seems to be an extended comment on the struggles with art and being an artist. But what is the book struggling with, or against? For that matter, as a poet, what is your struggle?

EW: Do you mean what is at stake for me in the making of a poem—or what is it that I’m struggling to do? These are great, fundamental questions, but I’m not sure they’re answerable!
    I love talking about poetry but there’s always a “why” moment in the background. Well, you didn’t say “why do you do it?” but that’s what I hear in the question of struggle. It’s easier to talk about politics because the forces we’re talking about are more immediately evident. With poetry there’s something essential that is, at least to me, inexplicable. How language works—how to name what poetry does—is still a mystery to me. That’s part of what is so compelling about it. Poetry argues for its own existence.
    But there are these larger implications to the naming of “the struggle,” and I’m interested in the way that constitutes a question in its own right. It has to do with the way various struggles—including a range of political and human rights struggles—are connected with issues of language. This goes back to basic questions about representation, the very ground of voice and address. How do we interrogate and clarify our relation to each other? Who and what are we responsible to? How we name something is a serious, ethical question. 
    I’ve always loved the story of Jacob’s wrestle with the angel, which I still find emblematic and mysterious. Why does that story ring true, even when its meaning remains enigmatic? It has to do with the internal struggle that I think we all have with language. How do we make our interior world manifest? How do we understand the relationship between abstraction and embodiment, agency and identity, spiritual and erotic life, what we inherit and what we do with it? 

SPH: To return to rhetoric, briefly, what is its place in Address? “Valet of the Shadow of Death,” as an example, is ferocious, unblinking, as in the opening:

Welcome to our treasured island
seized from the tribe
of enemy combatants
who nursed us through
the winter of 1642

This is, however subtly, a profound statement, and it’s but one of the many stunning statements of the book.

EW: Well, thanks. I think this connects to what we were talking about relative to history—and to the fact that in certain circumstances simply remembering something can be a subversive act. 
    If we continue to view our experience as singular, if we insist on seeing it as unlike and detached from the past, we are bound to reiterate a history of violence. I am often amazed at the extent to which public discussions of terrorism and immigration avoid the obvious fact that Europeans violently seized this country from its native peoples. We forget the extent to which they relied on the assistance of precisely those people they were set on displacing and destroying. To my ear, most reporting on the Middle East still relies on the language of Manifest Destiny and on a corrupt idea of American history. Reporting and storytelling are also full of embedded rhetoric. I guess I’m drawn to rhetoric’s undoing. 

SPH: In “Unseasonable Pastoral,” you mention the “test.” Specifically, a “test of composition / to open the field.” Who could resist thinking back to Black Mountain, to Olson, and especially Duncan who, though his style is quite the opposite, still resonates with the grand statements ofAddress? What I’m asking is, for you, what is the test of composition inAddress? To what extent do you think the book has been successful in its undertaking?

 I think the “test” is the extent to which a poem opens or closes the mind. But that test could be applied to any form of composition.

To end, I once took a workshop with Marvin Bell, who had recently finished Mars Being Red, and he had much to say about “political poetry.” Which means he had advice. What is your advice on the matter, especially to someone who wants to make an address for him- or herself?

EW: On some level, I think that most of what we’re talking about is something like the byproducts of poetry. 
    I don’t know why I write poetry, I don’t know if it has any effect, but I do it, and I value the work that other poets have done. 
    But when it comes to poetry, the answer is always in the poem.