Densities of Light
An Interview with David St. John by Christopher Burawa for Hayden’s Ferry Review
I encountered David St. John for the first time in the used book section of a local Tempe bookstore. It just so happened to be on the cover of his first book, Hush (1976). I had never seen, outside of posthumous collected works, the use of a poet’s photograph as cover art. The photograph seems less a posed perspective than a candid snapshot. He isn’t standing in front of a flaking adobe wall, or leaning on a harpsichord, back-dropped by Swedish ivy, and softened with a heaven-sent filter. No, the poet sits on what appears to be a thrift shop Victorian couch, wearing glasses (God forbid), and there is, obvious to the trained eye, an open tallboy of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the lower right frame. His right arm and most of his right-crossed leg leave the picture. No, this poet was no poseur. Then I randomly opened the book to the second poem, a lyric on a miscarriage, “Naming the Unborn.” I can’t tell you how many times I have gone back to this one poem, just like I can’t begin to explain how many ways I’ve approached the book—back to front, every other poem, poems that begin on the verso, etc. “Iris,” St. John’s elegy to his grandmother, is, I believe, one of the finest poems ever written by an American poet. If David St. John had never written another word, Hush would have earned him the status of one of our greatest lyric poets. But St. John writes on. He continues to produce books of acute observation and exceptional beauty—further exploring the nature of human relationships through the lyric, creating expansive narrative poems with recessed lyric sensibilities, and crafting formalist poems that never stumble.
In fall 2002 and spring 2003, I heard St. John read from his latest book, Prism (2002). What struck me about these poems was their music and movement. And I realized that St. John had ventured into new territories of lyric voice, adapting the sonnet, or in this case, wrong-sonnet, to purposes that bring to this work an intimacy that has as its only equal the poems of Rilke. However, St. John’s poetic lineage to this source may seem too easy a connection to make. In reality, St. John has looked inward, into the essence of motive and desire. What’s rare is St. John’s compassionate capacity to look into even the most difficult circumstance and communicate what he sees with original language, all the while never flinching or turning away.
For his accomplished work David St. John has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Prix de Rome Fellowship in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation. His new book, The Face, is forthcoming from HarperCollins in May 2004.
The following interview was conducted by email.
HFR: Is there something that is resumed in Prism that lost some of its emphasis after Hush, after you began experimenting with longer poems?
DSJ: What are you trying to ask me, Chris? If I’d lost my early lyric touch, some of my exquisite sense of lyric inscription, along the way? Maybe so. Well, there is, in Prism, something of that fierce lyric intent coupled with—I hope—a kind of elegance and ease that I imagine to be in Hush. So the answer is yes, perhaps, if I’m lucky.
HFR: In Prism, as in Hush, you explore new kinds of lyric possibilities, how the lyric turns narrative and oblique at the same time. But what is so remarkable is how you accomplish this. The speakers in the poems have clear individuated personalities, an honesty, where you seem to be sharing the circumstances of a personal life.
DSJ: I hope that the illusion of that “honesty”—or the sense of revelation—is everywhere in the poems, as I believe it’s a way of engaging the reader in the fabric and drama of the poems. We all want to care about somebody, to care about the speakers in the poems we’re reading, and so the details (or what seem to be the actual details) of a life are always compelling, I feel. And yes, it’s the attempt to carve a kind of lyric inscription along THE FACE of a narrative that has always been an urgent ambition for me; in other words, I want to tell pieces of a story in such a way that the reader feels he or she is actually experiencing the whole of the story. The knife blade scratching along the marble of the tomb, I suppose I would say; lyric flourish against the singular narrative of death. I know that’s a bit crude and even quite melodramatic, but there you are.
HFR: Prism is your second collaborative book of poetry, this one with photographer Lance Patigian, and the first, Terraces of Rain: An Italian Sketchbook, with architect Antoine Predock. How did the collaboration on Prism come about, and was the nature of the collaboration with Patigian any different than in your first experience?
DSJ: In both instances the artists and I worked independently, though we showed each other work. Antoine was living in Rome when I was, both of us were at The American Academy in Rome, and I had seen many of these luminous sketches he’d done while traveling throughout Italy. So, when the time came, after we were both back in the States, he sent me a batch of slides and I selected the ones I wanted for the book.
Lance and I had talked about the premise of Prism; more exactly, when we discussed the possibility of a collaboration, and I asked him what the prevailing concern of the book should be, he said, simply, Color. I decided very early in the process to let Lance, the publisher—a visual artist and poet named ‘Lyn Follett—and the press’s designer decide on the images for the book; they made the decision, together, to group the images in four sets of four images each. I was thrilled by what they did and what they chose.
HFR: It seems to me that in Prism you are interested in revealing how, psychologically, a particular color rises to prominence within a certain context or experience. I’m thinking of the poems, “Fatigue,” “Coral Shallows,” or “Brick.”
DSJ: Yes, it is indeed this territory and this complex notion of interchange and process—of an emergence, let’s say—that is at the heart of the way—in Prism—any particular color resonates or surfaces within the psychological landscape of a particular poem. It’s the pressure of the color within the experience of the poem that I hope to enact, to convey. I suppose that’s why the vignettes work for me in this book with a kind of breathless sense of abandon. I’m hoping to keep the reader a little off balance as the poems unveil themselves.
HFR: You have read widely in French literature, particularly the Symbolists and Post-Symbolists. In the poem, “Blackberry,” you not only pay homage to Francis Ponge, but you also say of him that all American poets owe a poetic debt to his work. Your generation of poets was first introduced to Ponge through translations in the 1970s. Could you explain the nature of this debt?
DSJ: Yes, there are the translations of Ponge by Cid Corman, William Matthews and Mary Feeney, Beth Archer, Lane Dunlop, Margaret Guiton, John Montague, and C.K. Williams to name just a few. But I was fascinated in the early Seventies by the Tel Quel group in Paris, the magazine edited by Julia Kristeva, her then husband Phillippe Sollers, the poets Marcelin Pleynet and Denis Roche, and a few others. They adored Ponge, and my belief is that much of recent French critical theory owes its soul to him. Of course, Mary Ann Caws, among others, has written well about Ponge and the poetry of France during this time.
HFR: What debt do we owe to Ponge when we may really owe a debt to these translators’ interpretations of Ponge?
DSJ: We owe Ponge a huge debt for his conception of language as an (un)//natural landscape and we owe his translators a debt of gratitude for their vision and their brilliance in bringing these versions of Ponge to us in English. We may one day find that, of all twentieth-century poets, Ponge will have exerted the greatest long-term influence.
HFR: It seems to me that if, as Ponge showed us, we can actually form a deeper relationship to our universe through the word, then the depth of our cognitive life can only go as deep as our vocabulary, and in the case of your book, you are providing us with the vocabulary of color.
DSJ: And, one always hopes, the experience of discovering a suitable vocabulary with which to say the unsayable, to voice the unvoicable. Not to put too fine a point on it. Color is useful because it presumably resonates in our imaginations somehow, also beyond cognition, so I hope the poems exist with a flavor of the mind that feels a bit unique. Was that oblique enough?
HFR: As children we were given box sets of watercolors, and in our loose experimentation with neighboring colors always wound up producing gray. Are the temptations of experimenting with relationships subject to the same result? Does experimentation of relationships lead to the same drabness?
DSJ: You mean relationships in art or relationships in life? Well, I suppose I’d say experimentation in the service of fate never resolves to gray. You can see how, in Prism, the experience and experiments of the figures and characters always in some way refracts towards vividness—or so I would hope—even if they appear to be dressed in gray. You know, there is a poem I cut from The Red Leaves of Night, but which later appeared in The Ohio Review in a chapbook feature called, “Lost Leaves,” that is exactly about this issue! How funny to think I was working with this dilemma even then.
HFR: Many of the poems employ titles of colors we can easily imagine. Yet you also employ a strategy similar to what Rilke uses in his sonnet, “Blue Hydrangea,” where he abstracts the blue and green from the hydrangea, the color then becomes independent from the bloom, and is finally defined by the associations to other things. You are using this strategy, it seems, to not only aid the reader but to expand the readers’ vocabulary for perceiving.
DSJ: You’ve just said so eloquently and beautifully what I was stumbling to say earlier, so I can only say that, yes, this was my desire in these poems and I hope that expanded vocabulary begins to live in the reader during his or her movement through the book.
HFR: I was reminded after reading the title poem of what Rilke said in Letters on Cezanne, “Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further.”
DSJ: Well, there is certainly an end-of-the-road exhaustion in these poems; perhaps it’s not accidental that I began them not long before my life was about to break apart. Certainly one sees that brittle sense of the world in the men and women who populate Prism. But of course these men and women also appear elsewhere in my work. In No Heaven and The Red Leaves of Night as well, most evidently. Nevertheless, I do believe—and I feel they believe—in some sense of grace, even in hope, however much evidence these poems might give to the contrary.
HFR: Hope seems to be a major theme running through the book. If we telescope down into this word and through it, as Ponge suggests, a whole universe of guises arise: for example, the business traveler who hopes for relief from the road and intimacy in a strip club.
DSJ: I’m afraid all of those types of figures seem to me beyond any of those hopeful fantasies, which all are in some way fixed in the real world. In my mind, they’re participating in a nostalgic sequence of illusions about those very hopes, but they don’t really believe in them any longer. If any late grace still remains available to them, I think it will come to them with a sort of visionary surprise.
HFR: I think your poem, “Woman and Leopard,” in No Heaven is a good example of one form in which you explore this visionary surprise. This poem seems to illustrate how an object of desire, and in this case a worn leather jacket, can lead someone to an “aha” moment in a sudden turn of events.
DSJ: Exactly, as often happens to us in any epiphanic moment. It is the act of the seeking, our seeking, after a particular desire, hope, yearning—spiritual or otherwise, carnal or otherwise—by which we are often brought face-to-face with some experiential revelation, some peeling back of “reality” to perceive the otherness beyond. Sometimes, and this is not necessarily pleasant, what we see revealed is simply ourselves in our raw spiritual tatters. Still, we often seek after those things we don’t fully understand; we all know that mystery often looks like desire. Mystery often wears the raiments of desire, hope, and that elusive something we imagine to be transcendence.
HFR: You have written poems without punctuation before, a few in The Shore and all of the poems in No Heaven. Is this in any way related to the importance you place on music in the language?
DSJ: The lack of punctuation is really used in conjunction with the aggressive-at-worst and peculiar-at-best line breaks of these poems. It is, as you say, a means of creating both a movement and a music that I hope are both alarming and compelling. I’ve always loved the sense of narrative suspension that Merwin is able to create with his more aggressive line breaks.
HFR: I’m curious about the wrong-sonnet form that you used for the book. Did the pseudo-sonnets happen to fit into the writing of Prism once you began it, or was it a conscious decision to use this “maimed” form?
DSJ: It was extremely conscious from the outset. It seemed to me like the right pseudo-form for the right (write) pseudo-moment in my so-called poetic career. You’d be amused by how few people have noticed the formal compulsions of Prism. However, I’m not done with the sonnet, especially the “corrupted” sonnet. I still intend to abuse the form as much as possible before I stop writing.
HFR: Your latest work, The Face, is a book-length poem. What is the book about? And, what did you discover in writing such an ambitious work?
DSJ: This book is a complicated ballet of tone. It’s concerned with a man falling apart and trying to put himself back together in the world. At the same time, a movie is being made of his life. So, it’s a constant dilemma of self-consciousness and self-assertion, much as we face that dilemma in the course of any day. It’s about faith in the human and a congruent faith in something divine, sacred, “other”—whatever that might be and whatever face that-or-it might wear. What I discovered in the writing was how much I love writing poetry, how it helps me survive the otherwise horrible humiliations of our daily lives. Writing this book became my own simple act of faith, I think. I had in mind some unholy trinity of Lowell, Baudelaire, and Ashbery. My editor actually saw the Lowell and Ashbery in it instantly, which I really thought nobody would get. I think it’s the best book of my life and I’m very proud of it. I’m prepared for a lot of dismissiveness, however, because of the Jacob’s Ladder of tonal shifts that occur throughout. To some readers it will seem both old-fashioned and hopelessly/self-consciously posturing and hip. It’s a book that creates the temptation to skim the text for plot, actually, and so I just hope that readers read it more slowly, as poetry, since it pretends to a more casual, conversational and prosaic movement.
HFR: Arctos Press, a small press out of Sausalito, California, published Prism. It seems there has been a resurgence of small presses publishing poetry. Many poets are choosing to self-publish or publish each other’s work a la vanity presses. In light of this, how do you see American poetry evolving?
DSJ: Well, I’m a huge fan of small presses. I’ve told elsewhere the story of having given Hush to a very small press and how, through a weird series of twists of fate—after that press folded—I ended up at Houghton Mifflin. So, I won’t retell that story here, but it’s true. I wanted a very small press, not a big press, for my first book. I’d seen what lots of attention had done to a couple of friends who’d won prizes and had been frozen, paralyzed by that for years. I wanted a smaller, kinder entry into the world of poetry. Of course, that wasn’t to be. Finally, if poems exist in a book—or a chapbook, as I love chapbooks—then they are there to be read by anyone, which is really what matters. I admire self-publishing. I admire the publishing of one’s friends. Poets aren’t in it for the money, or if they are, God pity them.
I think it’s easy to see how small presses have attained in recent years the same prestige as larger presses. It simply doesn’t matter any more, in my view. Publishing has become happily de-centered. I keep hoping to see even more desktop publishing ventures. I’m thrilled by the explosion of poetry books of all kinds. I’m a pluralist and I want to see all kinds of poetry out there in the stores and in the streets. I’m so old-fashioned of course that both in poetry and out, well, I suppose I’m still waiting for the revolution.