Interview with L. I. Henley for Aperçus Quarterly 2.4
Henley: I am particularly interested in The Auroras as a triptych and what that structure (or form) connotes. Are you interested in visual triptychs—paintings, photographs, altars, things that must unfold in order to show the entire landscape? And speaking of altars, would it be unfitting to think of the The Auroras as a kind of altar—an altar to mortality, to what is transient?
David St. John: I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the triptych, especially in those Renaissance altarpieces I’ve been able to see traveling throughout Italy, and also while I lived there. The idea of the center panel being somewhat dominant, and being held by the viewer in what we can call, perhaps, the deepest perspective, is something I’d always wanted to play with. The fact that the three sections of The Auroras are somewhat distinct stylistically helps, I hope, to create this sense of a triptych.
In The Auroras, that center section, which is itself titled “In the High Country,” is figured in the past, in memory, and the poems are often located in the California of my late teens and young adulthood, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley and the lower Sierra Nevada mountains. This section forms the gravitational center for the book, although I wanted the first and final of the three sections not simply to be supporting as in “ancillary” or “subordinate,” but instead as autonomous as columns, more like they are framing the center section. Nevertheless, the first section, “Gypsy Davy,” is meant to dislocate the reader a bit before moving toward the very fixed landscapes of “In the High Country.”
Of course, the final section, the title section of the book, is a sequence of meditations on mortality, little prayers to what is transient, as you say, and reflections upon the people and places that have already gone missing in one’s life. The poems also make the recognition that so much more remains to be dispersed to nothingness.
Henley: Though I hadn’t consciously thought of the center panel as dominant, I was strongly pulled to it during my first reading of The Auroras—probably because of the “fixed landscapes” of young adulthood, the mortal attachments, and, to be honest, because many of the poems have to do with women. It seems that in this section a significant portion of memory is devoted to various kinds of connections to various females, and these connections are very much intertwined with the physical landscape of California. In particular I think of “From a Bridge,” “Cambria Pines,” and “Creque Alley.” Why, do you think, these early adulthood connections with the opposite-sex stay with one in such an indissoluble way?
David St. John: Well, if I really knew the answer to this last question I’d probably be writing self-help books and living in the south of France. Instead, in these poems, I hope I’m asking precisely those kinds of questions, but giving in the poems both scenes and vignettes that reveal the complexities of those kinds of connections, the often confusing ones we tend to make at those moments of early adulthood, though perhaps later as well. The poems here are quite purposely set against the relatively stable backdrop of physical landscapes of California, as you mention, as a way to shape the poems in memory — but specifically within a particular frame of memory.
Psychologically, my poems have always stood on sexual terrain, one that acts as its own landscape, its own backdrop, to foreground the relationships between the men and women in the poems. I believe the most interesting and terrifying recognitions we make about ourselves take place in that dynamic of relationship.
The point is that it’s all about the struggle of making and sustaining any relationship between two people, about that wreckage of “relationship” in which we see, perhaps, something we might not otherwise be able to nor wish to see. Because of the power and potency of sexuality, the territory of relationships seems to me rich, fraught, and powerful.
In the case of the poem about my mother, “From a Bridge,” a piece that considers a special kind of futility, I wanted to illuminate a relationship completely unlike all of the others in the book – and it is, as you say, one of those “mortal attachments” one necessarily has to consider.
Henley: Ah, I like the idea of poets writing self-help books; they would have no chapters and be full of questions, which is probably more helpful than anything else. My self-helper would be titled I’m Not Okay, You’re Not Okay & That’s Okay.
The last poem in this section that I’d like to ask you about is “Human Fields.”
A woman—most likely a friend of the speaker’s—is hiking through a jungle “Where hundreds of bodies/ Had been shoveled into shelves// Of earth & sockets of rock.”
Of course this poem’s physical setting doesn’t take place in California, and yet I feel the skeletons of our own dark soil move beneath my feet. There seems to be a consciousness of shared culpability for human welfare woven throughout The Auroras. How does this consciousness interact with/ push up against/melt into the final section’s “recognition that so much more remains to be dispersed to nothingness”?
David St. John: “Human Fields” attempts to uncover, in its own way, what gets buried by any culture trying to deny its own history, and every part of the world has its layers of skeletons beneath it, both figurative and literal. This poem is meant to ask a larger historical question located in the experience of a particular individual. The title sequence of the final section, I hope, caries with it these human recognitions of mortality that show up in both “From a Bridge” and “Human Fields.”
Henley: The final twelve poems make up the section entitled “The Auroras.” Can you speak about the connection between death and dawn, and also dawn and revelation? I think of the “Dawn Aurora”: “In the still dark/ & uncertain dawn, there begins that slow revelation larger/ than the mind’s, as the light grows coronal….”
David St. John: The dawn often seems to promise things it can’t deliver, such as a “new day.” Perhaps the only thing we’re really certain of is that a dawn brings us one day closer to the dark – the absolute dark. In this sequence, the shifting effects of the light are also similar to the ephemera of a life, in that each time we try to fix a point of reference, well, we discover there really is no such thing. Experience illumines our senses of ourselves in a wild variety of ways, not all of them consoling. Still, the speaker in these poems feels something latently glorious in the dawn, however infected and inflected by mortality all of these poems are.
Henley: Can you speak a little about the importance of reading, especially for writers? And not just reading what first attracts us, but what we have to wrestle with, lie down next to, get uncomfortably close with, smell the breath of, etc.? When you sit or stand or lie down to write, do you first read?
David St. John: Well, simply, one can’t write unless one reads. I also tell my students they need to read widely, in order to discover what they don’t like as much as what they do like. Making artistic choices involves moving away from what one despises or finds untrustworthy in art as much as yearning to be part of what one loves.
I have had friends with bad backs who have stood when they wrote, as did Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe (who was so tall he supposedly used the top of his refrigerator as a writing desk). I tried it at one period, using a raised drafting table, but it felt like I was in a classroom of some kind, so that didn’t work. I felt like I was in my junior high school mechanical drawing class, I think. I can’t imagine reclining to write, though hear it’s been done! I prefer reclining for other reasons. I do like sitting in a chair to write longhand and I also like to sit at my desk to revise on a computer.
Henley: What’s on the horizon for David St. John? Are you involved in any musical projects at the moment? How will you keep your life “luminous” and “keep the day delivered?”
David St. John: After doing the libretto for the opera of The Face, with music by the amazing Donald Crockett, and watching that come into being, I was eager to try something else as well. So, yes, there’s a new musical project on the horizon. I’ve done the text for a choral symphony by my friend and colleague, the wonderful composer Frank Ticheli. Frank was commissioned by the Long Beach Symphony Pacific Chorale to write a piece to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the tenure of their conductor, John Alexander, who has been a champion of Frank’s choral work for many years. Our piece is called The Shore, and my text includes some pieces I’ve drawn from poems in my second book of that same title. This is a chorus of 125 voices, so it’s very exciting to imagine hearing this work performed with the Long Beach Symphony; the premiere is on June first, 2013. Frank’s music is superb, but I haven’t heard any of the text sung yet, though I will attend some of the rehearsals soon.
I think of my life as being remarkably luminous at the moment, and with the help of my wife, Anna Journey, and my friends, and with the appearance of a few poems I know are waiting to be written/delivered, along with the days to come, well… I’m feeling pretty relaxed about whatever is ahead. It’s a nice feeling.