A Brief Interview for American Literary Review
Kyle McCord: David, there is such a lovely range to the work in The Auroras. I’m eager to get to that, but I did want to ask a little bit about your collaboration with Cole Swenson on American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry. The anthology takes on the difficult task of articulating a theory that encompasses such a huge range of contemporary voices and “hubs,” as Cole describes them. Cole explains how the book complicates the two dimensional view of poetic influence. In the interest of clarity, I’ll add her description here:
“The two-camp model, with its parallel hierarchies, is increasingly giving way to a more laterally-ordered extensive network composed of intersections, or hubs, that branch outward toward smaller hubs, which themselves branch outward in an intricate and ever-changing structure of exchange and influence.”
My question is this: where do you envision your work in that network of intersections? If I were to look at your scope of influences, who do you think readers would be surprised to find you reading?
David St. John: Cole and I wanted to offer evidence of a more complicated understanding of American poetry than the one we saw being promulgated all around us in classes and reviews. I don’t want to speak for Cole, but I think we both view our own work as emerging from hybridized poetries and forms, and from the work of writers who have themselves relished those ambitions for impure forms.
My own influences have been wildly various, perhaps even contradictory. However, it’s been interesting that, in fact, over the years, reviewers have noticed the French influence from the Symbolists to the Tel Quel group, especially Marcelin Pleynet and Denis Roche. Of course when I was an undergraduate, in Fresno, I read a lot of the Objectivists, because Oppen was an important poet for both Phil Levine and Charles Hanzlicek. My second and third books have italicized, unpunctuated, broken field poems — but nobody really associates me with that kind of stylistic gesture. I’ve talked about this in other interviews, but Ashbery’s work was an early and profound influence. I’m an eclectic reader of poetry, maybe even a slutty and indiscriminate reader; basically, I read everything I can, by everybody. I try to keep up with younger poets especially, because I’m always curious to see what new flavors have reached the counter.
McCord: I’ve resolved to talk about The Auroras, but I have some curiosity about your transition from The Face: A Novella in Verse to the new work. Did you always intend to return to collections of poems rather after writing the book-length poem? Did the return to a collection of individually titled poems from the longer form in The Face feel like a return? I think poets put certain strictures on themselves when they undertake a project. What boundaries from that project did you feel yourself dropping or allowing to linger as you composed what we see in The Auroras?
David St. John: Yes, The Face was in some ways an anomaly. Yet, I’ve always had longer poems or projects that I’ve worked at alongside the shorter poems, and I think of every one of my books as a book-length volume, not simply a collection. In fact, it was HarperCollins idea to add the subtitle “A Novella In Verse” to The Face. I wanted it simply to say, “New Poems.” I trusted that the reader could figure out that the forty-five numbered sections were meant to be read as a whole.
The Auroras is unusual for me, in one regard, in that is has three far more stylistically distinct sections than I usually gather within a single book. Most often, even in the books that give the appearance of being collections, there is an arc that prevails. That kind of arc is also, of course, operating in The Auroras, but the individual sections were consciously written to feel a bit more autonomous.
Also, it was an interesting experience to write the libretto for the opera of The Face (the music was composed by the superb Donald Crockett, and it had its premiere at the end of August, 2012 in Los Angeles), which I drew from the book, of course. I decided that there needed to be a much clearer through-line in terms of a dramatic narrative in the opera, especially since the forty-five sections of the book are each suspended individually, somewhat like pieces of a mobile. And it was equally fascinating to watch those scenes and passages of text emerge in the individual songs themselves, and in the acting of the four remarkable singers on stage. It taught me a lot about the intensity of the phrase, not simply of the line itself.
McCord: I really admire opening the book with “The Lake.” The idea of opening with a poem with such bold syntax: ellipses, dashes, italics, and then to close the poem with a single word—“Rain”…it’s a gutsy set of moves. When I was studying at Iowa, a professor once told me to open my book with a poem that taught the reader how to read. But, in some ways, “The Lake” takes a whole new tack and sets up a challenge that complicates the rest of Gypsy Davy (the first section). What trajectory do you see “The Lake” setting within the book?
David St. John: Yes, I often tell my students to allow the opening poem of their manuscripts to be one that will teach the reader how to read the collection ahead, yet also to set the poetic metronome — to establish the rhythm of the voice, the qualities of verbal music, that the reader will be hearing. But, as you’ve noted, for The Auroras, I decided to upend that whole notion – I wanted “The Lake” to be somewhat disorienting and dislocating, perhaps as a way to create an open playing field for the book’s first section, to create a sense of wild possibility, and to suggest that this first section would be weaving together many tonalities and voices. I had thought that some readers might have a little hesitance or reluctance about that opening poem, but it fact it’s ended up being a favorite.
McCord: There’s a number of dichotomies that run through the book. The contrast and overlap between light and dark, flesh and spirit are perhaps the most noticeable. But The Auroras also investigates silence and speech. The refrain I find in “The Aurora of the New Mind”—“I had been so looking forward to your silence/ & what a pity it never arrived”— and the conclusion of “Without Mercy the Rain Continued” collide with the “hymns,” “small brass cymbals,” and “glorious sound, chimes, and rattles” populating this book. What’s your relationship with silence and sound like, and how did that find its way into the book?
David St. John: Well, silence is clarifying in a cacophonous world, yet the struggle against silence is what writers always wage, and the consolations of music – verbal or otherwise — are always at risk of being silenced by something as simple as mortality. We live in a time of unusual and often unexpected harmonies in our experience and in the world. Maybe that’s the simple lesson of American Hybrid — here are some varieties of poetic music that one hasn’t heard played together, in conversation, and in concert. I love the idea of a choir of disparate voices.
McCord: One of my favorite poems in the book is “Hungry Ghost.” The poem is surreal, but also simultaneously deadly real and immediate. When you write, “At one point she reached over/ Reached right inside you/ & slowly twisted off a moist/ Wafer of your heart,” I’m so gripped by the suspensions in the line that I nearly overlook the metaphor rife with theological complication. Please, tell me about this poem. I’m eager to hear its evolution.
David St. John: I’ve written other poems with similar concerns, using figures at moments of extreme distress in their lives. But, for a few years, I’d wanted to write something touching upon the ways an addiction is sometimes formed to individuals, and to behaviors, as well as to substances. I wanted to explore the reality for the individual — often an intimate — who becomes the caretaker of the addicted one. We all have given ourselves over to things beyond us at different times in our lives, and it’s a dimension of experience that both fascinates and confounds me.
McCord: Formally, the final section of The Auroras behaves so differently from what comes before. The couplets and quatrains are gone. The lines get longer and longer until they spill over. The dark exploration of the California landscape in the previous section gives way to an introspective call and response between voices riddled with questions. This concludes in a meditation on light and dark, death and life in the final section. What’s unleashed here? Is this an aurora of a different type that has exploded into darkness? Is this the “flash of revelation” the book has summaoned?
David St. John: As I mentioned earlier, I wanted each of the sections of The Auroras to feel distinct from the others and yet for the imaginative arc and qualities of emotion moving though the book to feel part of a continuous whole. I wanted these twelve sections of the long title poem to be reflective and speculative, and somewhat philosophical in a very intimate, personal, and perhaps almost private way. So, I decided to layer within the poem these questions revolving around anxieties about — and a whole menu of issues inflected by the notion of — mortality. In this section the speaker can see a time when, inevitably, the light of even so Protean a force as the auroras might be stilled by the dark. I suppose, since it’s impossible to provide answers to these kinds of questions, or to these interrogations of the darkness ahead, the questions themselves, as well as their dramatic circumstances, better be both interesting and compelling to the reader. One never knows, but I hope these are.
McCord: You mentioned in an interview with Susan Terris that “’…I always try to respond to what I feel is the internal pressure of poem—internal, that is, within me and within the poem itself.’” These poems reflect such a linguistic and image rich world. I’m so delighted to see such a gem coming from those pressures. The book really is terrific.
David St. John: Thank you.
First published in American Literary Review (Fall 2012/Spring 2013 Double Issue)