Mini-interview: Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout is an American poet generally associated with the Language poets. She has published over a dozen books of poetry and has also been featured in a number of major anthologies. Armantrout currently teaches at the University of California, San Diego, where she is Professor of Poetry and Poetics.

What draws me to the writer: A B Series brought her to (Ottawa) town. I can’t recall if that was my first meeting with the work, or only with the person. At any rate since that innovative series over a decade ago, I seem to be falling behind in my Armantrout reading, having read her previous books Conjure and  Partly, Just Saying and Versed, and chapbooks. That said she remains one of my favourite U.S. poets with her plain  language, curiosity, the humour in turns. Poems don’t rush but seem like they are the product of sitting and waiting for clarity and honouring the lack of answers. There’s a sense of ampleness and frankness and a world that is cosmically faintly comic.

Book: Finalists, (Wesleyan, March 2022)

About the book:

What will we call the last generation before the looming end times? With Finalists Rae Armantrout suggests one option. Brilliant and irascible, playful and intense, Armantrout nails the current moment’s debris fields and super computers, its sizzling malaise and confusion, with an exemplary immensity of heart and a boundless capacity for humor. The poems in this book find (and create) beauty in midst of the ongoing crisis.

New pages described Finalists with an excerpt:

“What we share is distance: telephone poles / leaning this way and that, a wayward / crowd that staggers drunkenly / toward an empty, mauve horizon. // We can’t wait to see / who dies next.”

This is not a book of poetry. It’s a collection of daily meditations to see us through. To what? Exactly.

Reviews:

“I have great respect for the recalcitrance of Rae Armantrout’s poetry. Every line is a twist and every twist a glimpse into a world animated by thought’s incipient edges. Her sheer, often hilarious, ingenuity is an aesthetic triumph. Her social care creates a space in which life comes to life.”—Charles Bernstein, author of Topsy-Turvy

“For the record, Rae Armantrout is my favourite living poet.”—Nick Cave

“Rae thinks in poetry by now that must be it. That one can turn out book after perfect book and it turns out they are all made of poems but what are poems made of. Rae I think. What she is.”—Eileen Myles, author of For Now (Why I Write)

Sample:

SURPRISE, SURPRISE

It began
with sensing difference,

but since mind
is the gape
of surprise
propped open,

we can stop
and think.

If comparisons are sketchy,
what about contrasts?

*


Since mind
is the gape of surprise
propped open,

we get bored.
What’s the good of that?

*


Since mind is the gape
of surprise propped open,

a rollercoaster
has been placed
between those painted lips.
*
I keep rolling
this lozenge
around on my tongue.

Where’s the good in it?

Finalists, Rae Armantrout


PP: In your City Lights reading you mentioned the idea of foregrounding the eye over the I. Do you have ways of easing yourself into the quiet of reflecting and observing or do you jot continually and assemble later?

RA: Well, first I want to say that I don’t deliberately avoid the first-person pronoun. I picked up the book at random just now and opened to pages 138 and 139. The poem on 138 begins “What I want in a word…” and the one on 139 begins, “What I call this buzz….” Lyn was saying that there isn’t much overt autobiography in my poems. There’s some. I think it’s clear, for instance, that I’m occasionally interacting with children in this book. And in a poem called “Twinge” I even narrate one of my dreams! But she’s right that, compared with a lot of other poets, I’m not very autobiographical. It feels artificial to me to pretend to stand outside myself and tell an audience what I’ve done. The idea bores me. I write about what interests me at the moment and that is often something I’ve just noticed. It could be something I see on the street or in the sky, but I’m often also wondering how my mind works and what a mind is.

Now for the practical question. Before the pandemic, I would frequently jot as I went about my day. I’d assemble my notes later. Obviously, the pandemic curtailed my movements. Gone are the afternoons when I would sit on a coffee bar patio and pick up fragments of conversations, scraps of music, and the way the shadows moved on the flagstones. The fact that I’ve moved to a colder, wetter climate contributed to the change as well. I’ve been learning to write in longer, more continuous bursts. It’s for someone else to say whether my work seems to have changed. And, yes, to write I need to be able to quiet my mind. I can’t worry about doing my taxes while I’m writing! Writing and meditating have that in common. You have to be able to hold a space open for the poem to start coming in.

PP: What was my favourite moment while making the book?

RA: If only you knew how much I hate choices! I’m pretty sure I don’t have a favorite moment. I could answer this in two ways. First, I feel like in the second section of the book, Finalists, I was stretching to write longer poems than usual and longer lines too. I noticed this was happening and started willing it to happen more. And it worked, not all the time, but fairly often. That was exciting. My style has been pretty constant for decades really so to see a change happen is a pleasure for me.

Then, once in a while, my friend Ron Silliman, who knows my work very well, will say that a certain poem of mine is “my best poem ever” or one of my “best poems ever.” He was enthused like that about “How to Disappear,” “Surprise Surprise” and “Password” in this book, as I recall. I take it with a grain of salt but, still ,those were good moments.

PP: Does writing poetry remind you to keep perspective with humour or does humour remind you what you could share in a poem?

RA: The humor in the poems seems like an integral part of them–,or some of them anyway. I think you’re right to talk about perspective. Sometimes it’s a sudden change in perspective that seems comical—the way that, if you take the long view, the problems and issues of the day can seem ridiculous. Or the humor can be triggered by a change in who’s looking at something—what does it look like to another person or to a bird, for that matter. Surprise makes people laugh because it makes them a bit uncomfortable. My poems often have what gets called dark humor. I guess that just means I’m not joking. As every comedian knows, if you just come out and say what people know but don’t want to know, that’s “funny.”