Peter Richards was born in Urbana, Illinois in 1967. He is the recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry, an Iowa Arts Fellowship, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and the John Logan Award. His poems have appeared in PEN Poetry Series, Agni, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Fence, The Yale Review, and other journals. He is the author of Oubliette (Verse Press/Wave Books, 2001), which won the Massachusetts Center for the Book Award; Nude Siren (Verse Press/Wave Books, 2003); and Helsinki (Action Books, 2011), which was recently translated into Portuguese by the Center for Translation at the Federal University of Southern and Southeastern Pará, under the coordination of Dr. Dirlenvalder do Nascimento Loyolla. Richards’ translations of Slovenian poets Tomaž Šalamun and Aleš Šteger have been widely published. He has taught poetry at the University of Montana, Missoula (Richard Hugo Visiting Poet), Harvard University (Briggs-Copeland Lecturer), Tufts University, School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and Brown University.
Richards is also a prolific visual artist—painting, printing, and sculpting in Vermont since 2015. To define him as an action painter may provide a point of entry for his work, but to do so would prohibit the full appreciation of its investigatory nature. Richards’ is a work of unknowing. In one painting, overlapping grids and spirals could become a self-portrait. In another, an improvised addition of color may produce a scene of his dog, Aki, standing in the snow holding a stick. His sculptures resemble artifacts—remnants of a singular or collective moment or idea, something materialized from his paintings or poems.
One of the joys Richards and I share is the making of work alongside each other, independently working at our own creative enterprises in tandem. It is not uncommon during such afternoons and evenings to work while listening to Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, or the Rolling Stones. We occasionally stop “to take Aki for a spin” around the neighborhood, read aloud a poem or passage, appreciate a moment of musical phrasing, or share a meal and stories with his wife, Bindu. There have been many hours-long detours of speed chess; many outings for pizza slices, comparing the writing of Yiannis Ritsos and Milorad Pavić.
We’re neighbors, and I walked from my apartment down the street to Richards’ home two consecutive temperate evenings in August 2017. We talked in his painting studio, surrounded by various works on paper, some as large as bed sheets—pinned to a strung line, draped over boxes and chairs, and still other in various small piles. Richards works on glass, and we set up two chairs in one corner by his workstation—a mirror the size of a dining room table, set one foot off of the ground. I started the recorder before the interview as Richards got Aki settled. Richards spoke freely, comfortably alternating between sitting, standing, walking, looking at paintings, and petting Aki. When I visited him six months later, on a raw night in late February, to ask the final questions of this interview, we sat in his living room by the fireplace. I placed and started the recorder on a bundle of logs. Richards’ recently finished library bookcases lined the room’s largest wall—the faces of a chess clock looked outward on a shelf shared with Tomaž Šalamun’s Poker, both at standing eye-level. Aki took turns visiting each of us, Bindu rested upstairs, Richards and I joked about an imaginary comedy sitcom, and the recorder became as naturally part of the background as the fern hanging in the window.
Where the Details Seem Infinite
Interview by Henry Finch
In Helsinki, memory and its collisions are central to the speaker’s life, and have the power to distort and release the past. Details and gestures create a history of the speaker’s body and its mental rooms. Is memory a seed that creates life and collateral lives/spaces?
Well, memory is really interesting for a writer, or for anyone, precisely because it’s, as unreliable as it is, gathered from an individual or from a society (official or un-), all we really have to know what happened. History is memory. We can barely say memory these days without it having to be said in italics or quotes. One of the things I was trying to do in Helsinki was to use that for artistic and advantageous reasons. Those types of distortions and lies inform the horrible, ongoing history that’s happening. But it’s also those very distortions and slippages that create subjectivity and the individual. Partly what I’m doing in Helsinki is creating an ether where memory can be alive and present—both in terms of its historic and institutional consequences—where we see the war crimes of the speaker. One of the reasons he doesn’t completely remember, even though he may have been the perpetrator, is because there are events that his own civilization also actively tried to forget or distort or make slip.
But then how do you form a Self? These things are part of the atrocity being buried and lied about and denied, but how does this affect the speaker, who is nothing if not—at this point in his life/non-life—he’s nothing if not greedy to know more about where he is, which for him is How did he get here.
A dissonance arises between the empirical truth and the desire to not have the emotional memory of the collective consciousness of those events. You say slippage and distortion, and if there were a touchstone I would present to people in your poems—and Helsinki is a large example—is the generative nature of slippage and distortion on a linguistic level, and what those things can lead to and reveal. You and I often discuss the nature of Chance—how it generates an unintended subjectivity for us to pursue and peruse. On the scale of Helsinki, how do those slippages and distortions aid in creating those collisions?
I’m not personally recommending that distortion—distorted versions of things, whether events or language—is the goal of writing. No. I’m talking about memory as a place where those things happen. Ultimately, I think, even the most wild, oblique poetry is that way, precisely because it’s clearest way to write about a subject, even if there is a subject. I can say everything is a subject. Even if it’s an activity and not having a subject. These different modes are explored during composition.
It might even be useful to think of such a thing as distortion as a discreet element, like a filter that can be, at times, applied to a piece and then taken away and then maybe applied again. The word distortion, ultimately, probably has some derogatory connotations, so I’m worried that it becomes the thing that is celebrated. It’s useful to bring different kinds of distorting devices into a composition, whether it’s at a moment of a line or the choosing of one word, or if it’s in the larger scale of a whole poem or a whole book. These distortions are only interesting devices if they’re used inside their opposition. It contradicts the notion of binary, but it would be nice to think that one thing has more than one opposition. And I do, selfishly—it’s an enabling fiction—entertain that possibility for everything. That’s partly why I’m such an animist. I find it really useful to entreat an object in all the ways I can, and then ask, “Well, what are the different kinds of self-possessed entities this object can have? Is it here for no other purpose than to have its volition succeed?” And I’m talking about a Q-Tip. (laughter) That’s something that I like to bring to a poem. One of the lovely things about writing a poem is that you can bring all those different filters and they don’t have to cancel each other out.
One of the things I realized in painting, and I guess one of the reasons I’m drawn to it now, is that it’s so easy to destroy a painting—and not even on purpose—and a poem, even if you’re really disciplined about it, and you’re a little organized. If I had one poem, I would print it fifty times, with all the changes. This is one of the things I’ve had to learn in my art—how to metabolize all the differences of one poem that are in fifty versions and then assimilate it.
Does that lead to our own subjectivity, because we are the source of the sound, and by extension, the utterance?
Artists are the last one to know what their obsessions are.
If one of the tools of writing is collecting and then casting out into the air, then eventually material is colliding with something. With Helsinki, what are those moments of collision?
One of the things an artist does is create. They are able to suspend knowing what their work is about, even though it’s most intimate to them. But that, in itself, is not a skill. Especially if they’re working with aleatory methods or where there is an adroit ability to forget one’s obsessions, and to forget what one’s path is—this is probably the most important. I say to friends my age, “Don’t try to repeat your past successes. Not only will you fail, but you will destroy the successes you managed to pull off.” It’s useful then, if you forget your past successes, then, maybe, you’ll do something that’s a father or sister in thought to one of those successes. The piece or poem may catastrophically bear no resemblance to everything else you’ve done. Guess what? That’s the good thing.
You meet these American artists, especially visual artists, and they have been hoodwinked into thinking that repeating oneself and having something recognizable—the word brand comes up. Even before the word brand was on every sophomoric Facebook kid’s lips, the argument was made, the suspicion was held, that the gallery money world of the visual arts rewarded continuity. Of course, it does. That’s also why so much of American culture is anemic. Luckily, we have so many reasonable, lucid advisories against working this way. Someone as calm and sage as William Carlos Williams—and I do think of him as a poet of husbandry—says that if a poet knows the subject of his work, he’s at the end of his resources.
Francis Bacon, the painter. His interviews are, if nothing else, an exploration of this dilemma and the promise composition can hold for those comfortable working, not just with unknowingness, but putting unknowingness into the work. It’s not like you can just decide to do it. It’s helpful as a writer, one of the most exciting things you can do is to notice the ghost in the machine. A symbolic referential universe does not exist behind what’s happening right now. It’s not a veil. It’s not symbolism. “The kingdom of God is at hand.” (slaps table) This is it. This is where things are happening. It doesn’t mean Heaven doesn’t exist or an afterlife or that there isn’t a supernatural world. What it means is that it’s braided throughout us already, because it’s already happening, which is exciting.
If you look at the Bhagavad Gita or almost any epic, there’s a way to read it where the assumptions you have going into it have been put there by symbols and lies and other vapories that humans love to have around. Part of this journey is that you are going to have no recourse of physical objects and physical events and physical sensations—that they are real, and the information these things have has been neglected by you because of symbols and because of your own intentions. So much stuff is quotidian. That’s why I bring up Williams. There is simultaneous important things that are being championed and put in our advisories. And I think it’s true of Williams. Yes, everyday things are holy and beautiful. Once you, in your own life—it’s not just about how you put it in your poems—once that becomes an understanding, then, simultaneous with that is knowing the virtues of not knowing what your art is about. That’s how you let Nature in—Chance. Chance is Mother Nature for an artist. We’re realists. We’re painting nature scenes. We’re painting the mind’s activity trying to make something artistic, and one of the ways we can bring in Nature with a capital N is through Chance and also accidents. People should get involved with Chance Operations. It does become very didactic. And there’s the OuLiPo way to do it. Or the discipline of maintaining an exercise. I totally appreciate that because I know how having the strict rules creates the recipe for the mind to rebel in ways that are fruitful. But what also happens for someone that’s been doing it for 40 years, it’s like putting on an audio CD. You could put it on Speed Search, and if you really knew the song, whether it was going 20 times faster or not, you could figure out where you were on the album. I think you probably work this way. I know you do. It’s like a Ro-lo-dex. I used to do, let’s say, word quotients, when I was in college. I’d write out a line. I knew the sound was right. I’d have a line written and I’d do ten other words, maybe twelve, that sounded acoustically kin. I wrote that way for years, and then I started realizing that I do a lot of my writing when I walk. Or just sitting. Inside my head, there’s a desk there, and I can, without doing the slightly time-expensive thing of getting out the paper and doing the quotient tower for each word, there’s a way in which I do it in my head as I go. And there it goes. The only time I like to use abstraction in a poem is if there’s a way in which—not always the abstraction being indicted—there’s some type of transgression going on where it becomes a physical thing. I enjoy doing that. But again, those are all methods that, when I’m in a trance mode, when I’m creating, I forget all that. I’m able to suspend, in a way, the things I know.
And to not adhere to executing a procedure.
Because when you adhere too much to execution, execute is exactly what you do to the creative process. One of my singular moments with poetry, when we first started working together—you gave the workshop group the task to write on the board, as quickly as we could, random words for one minute. (both laugh)
The goal was for them to have no associative value. We were doing that in conversation with [Richard] Hugo’s writing, in which he makes that declaration that it’s impossible to write meaningless sequences.
As I recall it, the person beside each was asked to find associations between the words. The mind is associative. Working in a state of suspension, meaning and value are cumulative. They are not prescribed. By removing intention, value accumulates naturally.
Maybe even in some ceremonial way that makes it unconscious, the artist forms ceremonial ways of forgetting, so they themselves can forget what they’ve done in their work before. This also brings up sigils and forgetting. For a sigil, a spell that expresses some intention, to be effective, its effectiveness depends upon it being forgotten by the practitioner. That can mean burning it. That can mean burying it. That can mean letting it become litter.
Intention has a function.
They don’t really forget. There’s a way in which, by honoring the fact that certain knowledge has instruments or certain acts for producing fruit, the creator needs to then forget they are the creator. It’s the same in sports. There’s a point where self-consciousness is regrettable. It’s the same with dancing. One of the reasons abstract painting is so intense and interesting is the amount of times it can go wrong. Our own personal ceremonial ways of forgetting. These ceremonies exist at different scalabilities. We do it in our careers, in our lifetimes, and we do it in a book. There’s nothing worse than a book that knows itself so well that the author can paraphrase what it’s about. That’s nothing to be proud of. We call that vulgar where I come from.
How do you see memory functioning as a way to create life?
If the universe is conscious, I see it being useful as an enabling fiction for me, and that can be used as a kind of vague possibility that lets me create an imagined past as a kind of fecund contingency, then I can develop a presence of a character simultaneously with the landscape. Helsinki’s setting is, because the protagonist is also, the villain. I created this setting in a way in which the language can give a setting the power to have volition. It’s almost like the first Artificial Intelligence. It already existed. It’s called a character in a story. That’s what AI is. And they do take over if you’re a writer. You know what that’s like. Most of the time it’s great. Sometimes it’s not great. Helsinki had both of those. In terms of my own mercenary purposes in writing it, I found memory useful to invent lives that had to be invented for the sake of the adventure story.
Would it be fair to say they were invented to populate the narrative space?
Exactly. To populate with presences and, let’s say, time components. Time doesn’t really exist unless you have a consciousness to perceive it. Sometimes, for the speaker, as much as it’s a battle for volition, he’s having these memories, but it’s not right to call them memories. His dipping down, like he’s on the pendulum, but there are other rings spinning around him, too. They’re synchronized and they have to deal with each other. The landscape is still there. Even things that were maybe in his proximity, too, when he was there, but didn’t perceive, maybe it moved over, so they’re now talking, because everything is animate for him. That’s his negotiation.
How does panspermia find its way into constructing this narrative space, if intelligence already exists?
Understanding what the premise is behind panspermia, and how this study describes itself, is pretty exhilarating. Just as a sentence or thought—that life did not originate on Earth, but was introduced here by a comet or meteor or on some solar ray. And there are other outlying theorists that are quite comfortable accepting the idea that life did not originate here, that it was introduced here by another intelligent civilization. When I was writing Helsinki, I began—it was really before Helsinki—I learned about the Red Rain of Kerala, which, interestingly enough, is where my wife, Bindu, is from. She’s actually the one who first told me about this. It was happening at the time. There was a period in July 2001 when, over the course of six weeks, it sporadically rained very thick red-colored rain that people described as blood. The immediate answer was that this was spores that were aloft and floating high up in the atmosphere and somehow got pulled down—that’s an explanation used for other types of colored rain. There’s this professor at the university there, Dr. Godfrey Louis. He had the foresight and, I dare say, fortitude, to ask, “How come no one’s tested these rain samples?” And so he collected some of his own and, with due diligence, was able to ask people to save their jars. And some people had saved it, it was such an odd thing. He had a nice sampling from all over the territory and started looking at this stuff with an electron microscope and other equipment. It didn’t look like spores at all. It looked like biological cells. In fact, it looked almost exactly like red blood cells. And red blood cells are, usually, easily identified. They’re like the Sherman tank of cells.
There were differences, though. The walls on this thing looked even thicker. And he said, when you’re looking at a particulate that might be biological, one of the first things you ask, “What does it eat?” and “What’s its favorite temperature to eat at?” So he’s introducing different types of mediums for it to eat, and sees a little activity, starts to heat things up and, turns out, this organism’s starting to replicate when it starts to reach 300° Fahrenheit. Not only does it not perish, it begins to replicate, and replicate quite happily. And what’s also really interesting is that it still replicates as high as 390° F. They didn’t know how hot it could get because they didn’t have any equipment that could get that hot. In the world that we know about, in terms of extremophiles, organisms that live and thrive under extreme conditions, we do have organisms that live in the hot methane and geothermic activities out West, or we have the organisms that live down in the vents in the deep sea, the tube worms—the hottest I think it gets is 180° F. And this stuff is thriving at over 300° F. And replicating. And doing all sorts of strange things.
The good Doctor, Godfrey, is a beautiful writer, and these scientific studies are eloquent and great examples of clear, precise, visual writing. He describes how, when these cells start to separate, they might separate into usually six, what he calls “daughter cells,” but the original cell, the starfish-shaped issuances of itself, it’s just a kind of detritus. Other cells go off and do their thing and then what happens, under the microscope and on film—the separate parts of the mother cell reconstitute. They get together again and reform the membrane and become the mother cell again.
And another thing! They can’t find any DNA in it! There’s no DNA in it. So it has some other chemical mechanism, which makes sense, for recording information of what to do with itself as an organism. I interviewed this gentleman on two separate occasions and read all his studies, to the point where I was absolutely, indisputably convinced this was true. What’s mind-blowing about it isn’t so much the scientific fact that we live in a biosphere that is greater than our little atmosphere. As great as that is, it’s not what’s shocking. What’s shocking is that so many people are convinced that this isn’t true, or that they don’t have any curiosity or wherewithal as intellects to say, “Hey, this doesn’t make sense.” And that becomes an exhilaration of its own.
So the cells would, under extreme heat, begin to replicate.
The mother cell would, but here’s the other thing you have to understand. It did this most happily in chemicals like ammonia, gasoline, kerosene. You couldn’t throw a more toxic element, or what we might think of as toxic to other organisms, to it. It loved the scariest stuff. Except, there was one substance that kept it completely dormant. Do you know what that was? Salt water. And Dr. Godfrey Louis, along with his colleague, Dr. Chandra Wickramasinghe, a Sri Lankan doctor that is considered one the pioneering fathers of panspermia—and this will help us in talking about time and memory—postulates a description of a cosmology of our solar system, and maybe other solar systems. On a time scale, it’s useful for us to think about. He postulates that this organism and others similar to it, are probably ubiquitous out there in the universe, and what they do is collect on a comet, let’s say, and head towards a planet that is either at the beginning of its life or at the end, where conditions are very fiery. If it’s a planet with lots of life, chances are a lot of it is going to hit the ocean and it’s gonna go dormant, like spores do, like yeast, for example—that thing can last hundreds of years. It can easily last for a million years underneath some sand in the salt, because this thing doesn’t even bat an eye when it’s boiling at 280° F. So what he postulates is that this comes to a planet, hits it, and then, as with any planet, its stars eventually goes red dwarf. It heats up, and the planet starts to be too hot for most things, except our Red Rain cell, and that thing starts to wake up and go on an expedition because there’s a lot there. He postulates it’s very possible this organism takes steps to secure refuge in the end days of a planet, that when the red dwarf recedes, you have a very intense ice age. So the Red Rain cells are happy with ice, too. And then we go into another kind of stasis. Only now, the planet’s biomass might be 50% Red Rain cells, and it’s a big ol’ ball waiting for the next comet to come and hit it. That’s how it goes and colonizes a galaxy and a universe. It’s been happening for eons and eons.
I want to push this a bit toward absolutes. When we study super cool particles, when you cool an element toward 0 K, our unobtainable absolute, let’s say a gas, as it becomes colder and colder, its seemingly disparate particles will huddle together and start behaving like light waves. They, in essence, change their make-up, their behavior. If Helsinki’s protagonist/villain is floating through these rings of experience and memory, how do you imagine the boundaries of Oblivion?
We distinguish Oblivion from Hell, right? Oblivion is almost the great unmentionable place in Helsinki that is being referred to and avoided, and projected out of and into it. And the idea of stasis. And things repeating themselves. Patterns repeating. And there not being volition. These are things I thought when I asked, “What would really constitute Hell?” It was only after writing Helsinki that I started thinking that if Heaven really is Heaven, then it’s going to be a place where artists do work.
So stasis is a form of Hell?
Yes, yes. If it’s an ongoing relaxed moment. Waste. I’d rather at least be one of God’s tinkerers. It would get boring otherwise.
Does dormancy denote stasis?
No, because then there is sleep stasis, and also, let’s say, hibernal. All sorts of fruitful things happen in that period. The gestation happens then. The wintering-over. A very useful and accurate metaphor for what happens to intention in our artistic project, in ways that may be ceremonial. There needs to be some sleep, so the unconscious can reign. And you still want to keep yourself as lucid as you can, so you’re staying alert. There are different ways to do that. You can even do it grammatically in the context of the poem.
With sigils, there needs to be something—maybe as simple as an offering to God as a sort of causation. When we bury this intention that we’ve described in letters—themselves composed with aleatory methods—we need to have some sort of forgetting of it. That, to me, and you know of from your own writing, and anyone that composes well, the work we find most promising is usually when we hit this moment, an almost sleepy familiarity. We get bored even about complaining about writing every day. We just keep writing every day. Then, out of that seeming stasis something is percolating. Or, you know from living here [in Vermont], how much I like having friends around when I’m painting. Especially if we’re talking about stupid shit. It’s fascinating. Sometimes there’s zero connection between the mood that’s in a room and what comes out in the painting. So maybe when we’re happy, we feel safe enough to write the inconsolable, sad poem. Maybe when we’re totally sad we’re trying to rescue ourselves, so we write the earnest, happy poem.
Are poems forms of ritual?
Not ritual, no. There can be ceremonial ways of forgetting that you build into a daily practice. You can make it specific, like site-specific, but we’re talking about poems. You devise your own ceremony of forgetting for each poem. And sometimes that ceremony can be enacted in the poem, and the reader doesn’t have to know what you know, and that’s there, which makes, and you know, a beautiful dilemma. It’s this place in the poem where you’re doing the slightly occult work of forgetting, and it’s in the poem, so you have to read it later. I think that sort of contradiction is fun. It’s something that good artists have been doing all along. How you stay a beginner. Only the masters know how to do that. It’s the same with meditation. “It takes a rare fish…” Is that the expression? I’m joking.
The same thing happens with related intuitive forms of acquiring knowledge. It’s something as, maybe, pedestrian as psychic clairvoyance. I think we all agree that we’ve had interesting things happen and, from looking at it on my own and talking about it, it is true that when we’re in the midst of those moments of clairvoyance, the quickest way to shatter it is to notice it, celebrate it, commemorate it. It just shatters when we become conscious of it. If you’ve ever done any work with a dream journal, it’s amazing, after only six days of just writing down one word, even if you don’t tell what you dreamed, if you just say what you wished you dreamed for only six days, people are remembering their dreams. People can learn—let’s say they’re having a pleasurable dream—to stay in it and do some lucid dreaming. I’ve never had that much success in lucid dreaming, but I love reading about it because I think it’s such an apt description of what the writing process is like for me, what writing a poem is like. When I’m writing, or painting—especially now—that negotiation with outcome and how you get there without searching for it, that’s something I encounter when composing my poems or paintings. And it’s not just one way of doing it. You and I were talking about this before, but when you’ve been doing this for 40 years, all these different methods or activities you have for, let’s say, bringing in Nature—in our case it might be Chance or noticing a very promising subject of a poem, tipping your hat to it, saying, “Maybe, but I’m still looking,” and then forgetting about it. How do you do that? There are myriad ways to do that, and you need to do it all the time. It’s almost like you do it at every moment of the poem. I like to, as soon as I have an expectation for what the poem is doing tonally. It’s not that I try to undermine it, but see how much dimensionality it has. How much volume does it have? Is there a slight perspective suggested here with a house and a tree in the background, or is it like a Rembrandt etching, where the details seem infinite?
If eschewing one’s intentions, in the making of a poem, is an ideal, is it possible to appear or to have a poem represent one’s self, fully?
I don’t think so. I don’t even think that’s a good goal, or useful. Is it a good way for us to get a good test drive on our various capabilities as imaginers? I think it’s excellent for that. Partly because, yes, I want to be keeping this Rol-o-Dex of strategies for dismantlement that you put yourself through, always spinning—zzzzzt—so you’re constantly dismantling yourself. And then, with all potent purpose, you write a poem. Sometimes, I think, understanding the ecology of what happens in each poem is when a voice has arrived and the voice is a spirit—I’m not saying literally, but sometimes it is. When you have that character, it’s like that moment when Dr. Frankenstein’s monster twitches to life.
For me, as you know, every poem should be a dramatic monologue. That’s how I think of it. That’s what entertains me. If anyone thinks that cancels out a certain kind of poetics, then they don’t know what I mean by “dramatic.” It could be a concrete poem. It’s also having this skill to let the character speak. Let the guest come in. Let the stranger sit down and tell his story. Sit back. It just drips out of your fingers. And that happens more and more. In Helsinki, the voice, the spirit, the soul, seemed the same, but the gender was changing, and the orientation was changing, his rank, what the conflict was. When he goes into the hypothetical future, into the Formless Realms—that was the other constraint, or challenge, that was a vehicle for this—reading about the Tibetan Buddhist concept of Formless Realms. I was hearing about it a lot, these formless civilizations, with just as many details and everyday worries and things going on as we do here, except there’s no form. Ever since I heard of it, I’ve thought, “This would be the perfect challenge for writers.” The whole point of any literature—to transport the reader to some place tactile. That’s why we have persona, right? But it’s also to give them, visually, a sense of being located in a place that’s being described. That’s thrilling. Newsflash.
If the Formless Realm was such a generative tool for Helsinki, and it features a persona that has no fixed form, independent of the text, do we as people ever appear “precisely as ourselves”, as is suggested in an early poem: “it’s one of the qualities underground / we each appear indelible visible / precisely as ourselves…”?
I’m talking about a Heaven in which everything is resolved. The very fact that it’s happening in this postulated Heaven shows how dubious I am about it being possible to be precisely ourselves. That it happens only in Heaven. Heaven, even that is precarious! We can never appear precisely as ourselves. The only way we would appear precisely as ourselves would be if you were wed to change in a way that was full of tranquility and poise and courage, which is interesting because the two groups of people I think of doing that successfully, the practice that goes into various meditation practices in India, are the Buddhist and Hindu sides. Once they’re trained, their signature sound, something that Joe Pass talks about, their tonal voice solo becomes part of that subject matter. That’s a subtle frequency, one of those things you can’t really point to, and yet, of all the ways someone might be able to appear precisely as their self, it may be the thing that is the most invisible, like musical knowledge. The other arts do it in kind of auxiliary, subsidiary scales. Music is the art of art. In poetry we get to do it, too.
In any practice there’s this seemingly pedestrian advice: to writers, we say, “Read as widely as you can” and to painters, we say, “See as many paintings as you can,” be as vast in your experience of the craft as you can, be hesitant to define your style. Would it be safe to say that it is a form of stasis to arrive at a style or arrive at a moment where you feel a precision, an enactment of self that is precise?
You have those moments, and hopefully in succession and cacophony of precision moments, but I don’t think those should be rare. I think having a precise self is rare. Those moments set out from the fact that they can never have the same exact self. That’s what you get out of it, and then, that thing, being able to compose with some reflective cognizance, then becomes a kind of self. It’s the one way out.
With one way out in mind, early in Helsinki, the speaker recalls “…the initial deathblow / Helsinki prepared for my boyhood drawing an invisible / orange line at the base of my skull leading to this villa / my parents shared between them each room holding / a portrait of one of my parts…” As the speaker swings between death and childhood, the recurrence of one’s own presence in different moments in time, traumatic or not, close the doors to these rooms. How can one escape?
What kept Helsinki going, and what keeps the character trudging along, partly why Julia keeps haunting him—What is the source of curiosity? The surly and at times vulgar, callous, cruel things the speaker can be as a war criminal at one time in his iterations, the one that he never really stops, he can’t really seem to shake, is going over falling in love at different times, because those are his agonies. That’s even worse than hanging from the parliament ceiling upside-down. I don’t know how many lives he’s had. At least three. And they’re from different times, so he starts to nourish this memory like you would a drink. These memories start to conjure up all sorts of related expectations for the universe. And lust, it goes from desire, carnal longing, and greed, and quickly returns, like it does in one’s life. Those things, the heavens—both the very physical, concrete—wondering what kind of other life forms write poems out there, and wondering about God—and it’s definitely more likely there’s more than one God, but I don’t know how I feel. It’s probably the same amount of dopamine. It feels just like falling in love, when you feel God all around you. For some of us, that feeling—why I love the Bhagavad Gita so much—that feeling is synonymous with, when we look at the Milky Way, anyone who sees the Milky Way, finally some darkness there, and you see just how much surrounds you, you feel like you’re on the edge of something flying 70,000 kilometers per hour through space. In the Bhagavad Gita, the longing for there to be contact with the luminous realms and its officials—that isn’t separate from there being other civilizations. When you look at these early texts, you have vehicles that are described, not supernatural, but using fuel. I don’t want this to turn into Ancient Aliens. Studying panspermia gave me the exhilaration for writing Helsinki. It opened it up to me in terms of realizing that there are other cultures around us.
There’s looking outward for a generative or expansive truth, looking out into darkness. In Helsinki and in Dante’s Inferno, truth and the seemingly unknowable are found in a subterranean place. Do you see those two as binaries?
I think it’s a mistranslation when people hear the term Underworld and they immediately think of it as Hell or a place of punishment, whereas, in other traditions, the Underworld is more of the universe of unseen things, or the other universe inside this earth. It is a kind of inverse echo of what it looks like to look out into outer space. It’s not a place for the losers or evil-doers necessarily. What you ask is exactly what fascinated me—they are very separate physically, but they come together. From a practical, utility, plot function point of view, it was a way to make the spaceship a multi-dimensional space where volition had already been vanquished by the entity that is both the pilot, the armature, and the tragedy of the ship. All those things.
One of the most visible formal features of Helsinki is its fluid syntax. Helsinki has no terminal punctuation and is arranged predominantly into a series of sonnet-like poems made up of ten-syllable lines of run-on sentences. If Helsinki is reminiscent of scriptio continua (“continuous script”, writing without spaces), then Helsinki is an example of sententia continua—“continuous feeling”, “continuous thought”, “continuous sentence”. Fluidity of syntax and animistic narration operate in tandem. Its speaker is an amoeba, and that amoeba is consciousness, volition, and possession of a soul. The result is animistic cubism, wherein a singular fluid consciousness produces simultaneous first-, second-, and third-person narratives. In light of these, Helsinki is a contemporary epic. How does history inform your writing? How did epics inform Helsinki?
History is the archive of different kinds of composition—that are, that have been. And what those processes are like, how they’re described by the people who enjoy them. And not enjoy them. That’s probably the most, for me, poignant way to think of history. When I was young, I read about those tragedies—in very didactic ways. The cool thing is, in many ways, they’re all saying the same thing, in terms of what to do with the medium, and what the implications are for the consciousness making them into something that’s imaginary. It’s exciting. It’s a cool way to study history, too. Look into it—Bach’s improvising, when he’s composing something; anyone that’s ever made anything creative would say, “Oh, I bet you he’s scatting, I think, a bit here.”
It’s funny what happens with a little bit of awareness about just how comfortable one should be with uncertainty. If you really internalize that notion, get totally comfortable with that notion, and then use it as a kind of lensing (chuckles) wherever you go, it’s quite useful. I guess I do think of it that way. The ethics is a good way, also, to think about how to have a fulfilling life. Not knowing the subject ahead of time. Getting comfortable with that in life is a huge, wonderful, asset. You do a little research, and all the hip scriptures are saying it in their various traditions. Or it’s being in a relationship. A love affair. A marriage. The healthy ones don’t have their partner out there in fixed, finite place, some idolized perfection. If you love someone, they evolve, and they’re going to look very different in ten years. Hopefully you grow with that. Like you would if you’re painting something and took a completely different turn. You don’t say, “Oh, man! My painting’s ruined!”
If history’s an archive, then is Helsinki a contribution to the catalogue?
Those are your words. I don’t know.
Do you agree?
I don’t think about its place. It is what it is.
Helsinki makes continuous reference to hay. (Peter laughs) In addition to the pastoral tradition, I’m reminded of Monet’s series of paintings, The Stacks at Giverny, which depict haystacks during different seasons.
I love those.
Both Helsinki and Monet’s haystacks are meditations on the transient nature of perception. Helsinki was also published 100 years after Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” was painted, and contains simultaneous narrators that can be viewed as isolated elements—the text also allows for such representation. How does visual art—its theories, practices, and limitations—inform your writing?
For my writing, visual art is equally or more influential as the poems I love, and the writings that I love. Partly because one of the constraints I have always given myself in my poems is to purposely find a tone. As a teenager, I was thinking there were tones that came out of paintings. I thought, “If I can say those in a poem, it’s gonna be really cool.” And probably because I had an estranged relationship to school, I was just inventing my own little strategies to understand shit. I would start a poem with the purpose of finding that tone. I knew I had the tone in me. It was like a hum. You kind of carry it in a hum, but feel it emotionally. (Hums pitch) And then it was just throwing mud at the window—the stuff that looked like the tone I’d let stick, and the stuff that didn’t I’d rub away. Do that for three days and you have a sonnet! Do that for ten hours a day, for three days. It’s not about being hardworking. I know. I was not going to stop until I got that tone. It’s an ambition that’s not about making the poem published. It was more like I wanted a little canister to carry that tone around in.