AN INTERVIEW WITH LYNN EMANUEL
Mathias Svalina: I'm Mathias Svalina, speaking with Lynn Emanuel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, November 22, 2002.
I told a friend of mine recently that you are my favorite noir poet, explaining the noir influence that I saw in Then, Suddenly, especially in "The Politics of Narrative" and the pieces that we have in Blackbird now, and I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about how you see noir, and why you see it affecting you.
Lynn Emanuel: Do you know that I didn't even realize how foregrounded a noir aesthetic was in my poetry until Gerry Stern picked The Dig, frankly, for the National Poetry Series. I had chosen a title that was Big Black Car or something like that, and he said, No, he said, you don't want people to read you only according to that aesthetic. So actually the noir influence seeped up like ground water, it was nothing that I consciously appropriated. I think the way I came to it was, when I went to the University of Iowa, and for the first time really had the time to write a lot, and think of writing a book rather than sort of sneaking poems in around a real- world life and schedule, I started to devour the library at Iowa and for the first time I read Raymond Chandler, and I read some of the other famous noir writers. And I think I was so enraptured, especially with the lusciousness of the writing, and it seemed in poetry if I went after lusciousness, I couldn't find any models that I found pleasing or that I didn't feel would be appropriate to me. But the kind of richness of those noir writers seemed possible to appropriate and use to do something within my own writing.
So I think I was looking for a certain poetic style, and oddly I found that by reading all the old noir writers I found a way in to that style that seemed easier or a better way in than when I read certain poets. Of course, along with that I had to imbibe their iconography, and then I think that some of that started putting pressure on my work. I think that issues, for instance, of class and gender, all of that started to seep in because of my interest in those writers. But I was actually quite naïve. I'd not read Dashiell Hammett, I'd not read Chandler, I hadn't read any of the noir writers, so it wasn't as though I started out wanting to imitate something I knew and admired. It was that I came upon them as a surprise, and they led their way into my work, pushing it around and pushing in a certain direction, which is maybe how more influence happens than we might expect.
MS: Do you think their lushness is more appealing because it was tempered with a kind of dirt and grime?
LE: Absolutely. I absolutely do. And also, you know, this was 1980s; there was not a lot of distinctive stuff going on right at that moment, or at least I think for the generation of people that I was at Iowa with. I think we were all kind of looking for who we were going to be, and there were lots of different influences. Larry Levis was at Iowa at that time, and a lot of people were influenced by his work. Donald Justice of course was there. And a lot of people, a surprising number of people like Marilyn Chin, who worked very closely with Don, were very influenced by him. But it was a kind of grab bag of different aesthetics, so it didn't seem so odd that I would go to this novelistic tradition and catch a hold of it to do something in my own work. But yeah, absolutely. I think in a certain way it reproduced parts of my own life, that style, but did it symbolically or metaphorically. I mean the kind of issues of class, issues of money, issues of power, gender, all of that.
MS: I ask about the contrasts there, the lushness and the dirt, because in the poem in Blackbird you say, I think, the final line of "Noir Food" is, "It's a hard and dirty world," which doesn't seem to be fitting of your aesthetic. And I think what I see in the noir usage that you have, you're able to turn a cliché into something new and delightful with the noir language. And you're able to have the dirty streets and such and the long dark roads but the beautiful language as well that very much fits a lot of what you're trying to do with your poetry, in the contrasts.
LE: I think that's absolutely true. I think there are other things about the noir sensibility that really appealed to me: It's intensely obsessive. It recycles the same images, film to film to film. In Then, Suddenly, I wrote that poem "The White Dress," which people take to be a shroud, a wedding dress, whatever, and it is, I suppose. But I was also thinking about the way that in noir film, for instance, there's a white dress that's in any number of different films. And the white dress is the character. The actress comes and goes, changes, it's this actress, that actress, but you know that that dress has a certain iconography a certain character a certain meaning that is pretty stable from film to film. And I found that tremendously interesting. I found the recycling of images, the steadiness of the symbology that goes through noir film and noir novels, really appealing, and maybe it was a way of keeping certain control over, I don't know, my subject matter, but I found that very appealing. The fact is that noir happens in black and white, and even as a sort of beginning writer, I think I was just intensely aware of this kind of odd parallel. I was writing in black and white, noir film happened in black and white. It's crude, but it nevertheless kind of haunted what I was doing. You have two colors. Black. White. It's either white or it's dark, and that's it. And I found a kind of interesting parallel with issues of the book, the page, all of that.
MS: You mentioned "The White Dress," the kind of ongoing iconography. Is that something that you attempt to do when you're putting together a book, try to keep a recurrent image that maybe doesn't have a particular meaning or a predefined meaning?
LE: I don't know if I try to do it, but I certainly don't prevent myself from doing it. I remember Ted Hughes writing some place about Sylvia Plath's work. He said something like, "She never lets anything go to waste. Whatever scraps are lying around, she will make them into a poem." And I think in an odd way I feel like, well, that's a perfectly good image, and if I hadn't used it in this other poem it would fit very well here, and so I'll put it here. So that whatever rule that mostthat I think a lot of poets, and for good reason, have developed about not repeating certain kinds of images, or looking at things originally from poem to poem, that rule skipped me, so that I feel perfectlyit's perfectly okay with me to re-use something. So I don't know that I set out to do it, but I don't prevent myself from doing it. I notice that one of your questions has to do with art. I think that probably part of what supported me in my feeling that I could do this was watching painters work, who will, canvas after canvas, use the same kinds of images, create sequences of images, the same image, same tree, it's set in different lights. And so whether I consciously thought of it or not, there were other kinds of models of making that influenced my doing that, my repeating of things.
MS: Do have conscious models of making from art that you take on?
LE: I think actually not. Other people like, well, Ann Lauterbach, who worked in the visual arts for a long time, or Susan Howe. I think their consciousness of working with models of the visual arts, graphic arts, is much clearer and stronger than mine. I don't think I have a more fully thought-out, or formulated, or complex way of thinking of the visual arts in my own work other than what I have said.
MS: I ask because you make frequent analogies to painting in particular. I wonder if you recognize the influence retroactively.
LE: I think the subject matter is there. I think Ann Lauterbach's work, and I think Susan Howe's work, the poems themselves are put together in ways that were influenced by their experiences with the visual arts. I don't think that's true of my work. I think the subject matter is present, but I'm not sure that the way of composingI don't know that there's any overflow into the way I compose or think about the object of the poem.
MS: In Then, Suddenly, you make some of your poetic or aesthetic influences very clear, even stealing their voices and taking them on for yourself. I was wondering whether you could talk about the different ways that influences come to you by maybe talking about Gertrude Stein's influence on your thinking or your poetry, as compared to Italo Calvino's influence on your writing.
LE: To me, Gertrude Stein and Calvino, they're really the same writer. I think what I found so empowering, and sort of flabbergasting when I came upon them, what I adore about Steinwell, first of all I think she was an utter genius, and utterly ahead of her time, as were a number of people in her generation. But it's fascinating to me how much, for instance, critical theory she, in a senseshe was talking in a way that now the semiotics and other kinds of ways of presiding over literature in terms of critical theory are doing now. And I think the way that she, for instance, will linger upon, and define, and make into an object and an architecture, the issue of the subordinate clause, or the issue of the period or the semi-colon, I felt that incredibly freeing. She made the invisible visible. These were the materials that I was working with daily as a matter of course and yet doing so in a way that they were just kind of beasts of burden carrying the meaning of the poem around with them. I adored that. You know language poets talk about abrading the transparency of language, and I found her way of doing that very exciting and productive, and annoying.
And then when I started reading Calvinoand I really started with If On a Winter's Night a Travelerafter a while I simply had to prevent myself from reading that book because I thought, Well, I don't need to write a book. Any book I've ever wanted to write, it's here, it exists in this book. But I think again, the way he takes the relationship of the reader and writer and almost, you almost look at it sculpturally, almost sort of like in the book, chapter by chapter it kind of turns you around that central figure of the reader and writer kind of locked together, and I found that again very influencing and very nourishing.
And also, to talk about influences, I'm always interested in the very local context. Around the time that I was working on The Dig and Then Suddenly, Vikram Seth's novel Golden Gate had come out, and there was an enormous amount of attention being given to the novelistic book of poems, or the narrative book of poems. And I found myself extremely uninterested in these books. And I was upset that I was because I understood why people were. I understood that the scope of them, the way they admitted into poetry certain things that had not been admittedBut you know, I realized, frankly, that the reason I wasn't so interested in these books of poems was because I wasn't interested in the novelistic tradition that they were written in, which was sort of straight, psychological realism, characters getting up in the morning, doing things, having conflicts, and all of that. I was much more interested in the tradition of Calvino, and if I wanted to write a book of poems that was in some way an interconnected set of short stories or novelistic in some way, I wanted to do it in the aesthetic of Calvino, rather than in the aesthetic of Cheever, Updike.
MS: Friends of mine and I have talked about "The Politics of Narrative" and the many ironies at work in there. The speaker of the poem is lambasting prose in a prose style, or in prose writing. But I've always found it most ironic that you are taking a lot of the narrative techniques, and a lot of the meta-fiction novelist techniques into Then, Suddenly, and then claiming that prose is something that is not of interest of this narrator.
LE: Right. I think that what I did was
say, Oh well, poetry is more aligned with this novel, this sort of novelistic
school or technique. Prose is of the other. Whether that's accurate or
not didn't much interest me. I just asserted that it was true, that Calvino
was more of a poet than John Updike, or that his way of working was more
MS: I'm Mathias Svalina, speaking with Lynn Emanuel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, November 22, 2002.
Do you see any connection between Calvino and the meta-fiction approach and noir writing?
LE: Actually, yeah, now that you mention it, I think that's a great observation and yeah, I think there really is. I think that one of the givens of noir writing is its irony, its self-consciousness, its incredibly stylized surface and way of being. The plots I can't remember because I have to say now it's been a long time since I've read Raymond Chandler, but there are a number of his novels where really you cannot know what's going on, and it doesn't matter what's going on. What's important is the style of it, and the language of it, and the cultural critique of it, and all of that. So yeah, I think there is a connection there, although I hadn't made it until you asked me that question.
MS: I guess I'm interested in how influence works. For me so much of the dominant model for that was The Anxiety of Influence [Harold Bloom], and that's how I was taught you are to understand all influence, and the more I think about it the less that model makes sense in the actions of taking in the whole world, taking in the world of poetry and writing and coming up with some new product. And while I could see Calvino's influence on you fitting into that model, Stein seems to be so much more of a foundational or a thinking influence. I guess I was interested in influences that don't fit Bloom's model.
LE: So you mean even the actual work, Bloom's work, the kind of influence that that had on you as a writer, the ideas of that book. I can name I think at least three different models of influence that I feel operate on me or in me, or with me. And one, I like that word "foundational." It is an interesting assumption, isn't it, about writing, that influence will show itself in a certain way, it will manifest itself in this way. It is actually very formulaic to think about things that way. For instance, in the sciences, it would be much more recognizable that a certain work would have what you're calling a foundational influence, but that whatever work you did may not bear direct relation to that earlier work, that earlier discovery or whatever it might be. So one would be a kind of foundational influence, and maybe most of my important influences are those. I studied with Adrienne Rich in 1972, '73, when Diving into the Wreck was published. That was a seminal influence, that experience. beyond, probably, any other. But my writing is nothing like Rich's, and I think that without my asserting the importance of her work, asserting the importance of my studying with her, I'm not sure that you would even know that from my own writing, and yet it is the case.
For me the Gertrude Stein poem, as is actually the last poem, the title poem of The Dig, it's about the way influences choose the writer, rather than the writer choosing the influence. It's about the way that certain kinds of figures or ideas or whatever seem to walk out of the culture and knock on your door and they're inconvenient. I've got one poem to Gertrude Stein; I found that a very inconvenient fact. I knew it would raise questions about, Well what is this poem doing here, especially since nothing else looks like it? You know, it is very inconvenient.
I think other inconvenient influences would probably be, given at the time that I was writing, and when I was a young writer, Plath, and Sexton, those kinds of writers. I think sometimes you don't get to choose your influencesthey choose you, they're using you to leave the grave, and you don't necessarily get to say, Oh yes, well, you are my beloved. It doesn't quite work like that. And I don't think that's the same as anxiety. I see it as a struggle, but I don't see it in the Bloomian sense, as that anxiety. I see it as an inhabitation, a complicated symbiotic relationship, but not one that you need toyou don't need to lop off the phallus, it's something different than that. I think one, that it doesn't need to show up stylistically. I think two, influence is a kind of at least a dialogue. The influential writer says something to you, you say something back to that writer. She presses against you, you press against her. She re-writes you, you re-write her. That's, I think, how I see it.
MS: Is that the goal of the Whitman poem and the Stein poem?
LE: Yes, it was. The Whitman poem was really much more than an homage to Whitman. It was really an homage to Fernando Pessoa, who in the late twenties, I guess, wrote this exceptional poem about Whitman, the most stunning, sort of both love poem and critique of a contemporary writer that I know of. And in this critique, he really sees Whitman in the most contemporary way. He is the one who calls Whitman "the poet of stampeding ambition," and he's the one who diagnoses Whitman's politics as something other than simply the way we think of him, the great liberal, the great democrat. He's the one who really critiques Whitman as that American who feels he has the right to inhabit any experience, to appropriate any suffering, who feels that he is able to know how the horse feels in the harness and the worker feels in the field. It's an astonishing poem. This was the anxiety of influence. At least I can write about Whitman in a cheekier way, a kind of cheekier critique of him.
MS: Did you stop reading Calvino?
LE: Yes. I have stopped. It's like stopping smoking. I still have not read The Baron in the Trees, which a lot of people think is his best novel. I think it was one of his very earliest. No, I have not read that.
MS: You said before about being in Iowa, having time to start thinking about a book rather than sneaking poems around your life. And your books to me seem to be such concentrated pieces themselves. All the poems seem to speak to each other. The books seem to take on unified intellectual challenges. Then, Suddenly seems to explore every permutation of dialogue between reader and poet and poet and speaker and poet and influence. So I'm wondering if you have a kind of unified idea when you're working on these books.
LE: No, I don't. Then, Suddenly started out as a book I wanted to write about film. I wanted to write about the differences between film and poetry. I adore film. That didn't work out. I noticed that you had a question about issues of moving. That's sort of where that idea came from, the moving pictures and how moving film is, how much more moving in a sense it is, can be than, say, poems. But I often start out with a kind of dichotomy, or kind of binaryfilm, poetry; moving, stillnessand then I work from there. But I think that being overworked, it's like writing a novel as compared to writing short stories. I think sometimes it's easier to have an extended piece that you're working on rather than every time you sit down at the page saying, Ok, I'm starting a new poem, what is it about. But to see that, Oh, I have this context, and I have these pressures that are moving this way and that way in these different poems, and maybe I will speak to those in a different way, or I've been reading X, and that's an interesting way to think about these other things that I've been thinking about. I think when you're exceptionally overworked that can be a better way or an easier way to write than sitting down and saying, It's Tuesday. I will write a poem.
MS: Once that context becomes clear, do you find yourself writing the sneaky poems that don't fit into it then?
LE: I certainly did that with The Dig. A t a certain point the story of this little town in Nevada, and all of that, I was going to throw up if I had to write any more of those poems. I can't remember where I got the idea, but the idea came to meif the narrator were to die, I would have a whole other landscape to work with. And thenthis is a kind of spooky parallelas I was writing Then, Suddenly, my father did die. I was simply not able to get around that in any way. So that kind of broke open the book.
MS: It's also, for me at least, the part of the book that forces the reader to re-evaluate the seriousness of what is going on, that no longer are these literary techniques and esoteric ideas being explored, but a real honest-to-God dramatic situation has inserted itself. I was wondering whether you had qualms fitting the autobiographical material into a book that was very much about ideas and techniques?
LE: Well, first of all thank you for that reading. That would be my ideal reading of the book and the function of that autobiographic material in Then, Suddenly. I don't know if I had qualms; I didn't feel I had a choice. My great grief at that time, aside from the classical grief of grieving for someone who's gone, is the lack of a tradition for writing the great elegy. I wanted to be Keats. I wanted to be Keats. and I felt the sorrow of the historical moment so deeply. Those grand elegies. I wanted to be Tennyson. I wanted to write In Memoriam. I wanted to have all of that possibility, and I didn't. So I don't think I felt uncomfortable, I saw these poems as the best or the only possible elegies of the time. That's how I explained them.
I think one of the really tough things about Then, Suddenly, and what's made it very hard to workI was then, what I was like forty-nine before I experienced real mortality, and I was totally, in a sense, unprepared for it. What happened was it absolutely evaporated both my love of and my confidence in language. And so most of the poems to and about my father, for my father, with my father as a collaborator, I hardly recognized their style. There were too many words in the lines. I don't recognize the line lengths. I don't recognize the line breaks. I don't recognize the images. To me they feel utterly odd, and I think it was because I no longer had any confidence in language or poetry to please or comfort, or anything. And it's actually taken me a long time to recover from that. It's taken a long time to get back a sense of the pleasure and take pleasure in the materiality of language and poem and sound.
MS: How has that pleasure for you changed now?
LE: Well, I try not to think too much about my lapse of faith. My new poems are longer. They are much more fluidly lineated. The lines come, they go. There are thick stanzas followed by rivery couplets, long thin lines followed by short stocky chunks of language. I can't write the poem that needs to be in the column anymore. I don't know why, but that vase is broken for me, and whatever I'm feeling, it's not going to go into that particular vessel. And oddly I think that one of the things that's happened is my language isI'm hoping, I think this is happeningit's even getting richer, a little more voluptuous, as a way of pressing back against the sense that languageat the end the body wins. I think that my language has gotten thicker, more delicious, as a way to sort of press back against that period when I couldn't do it. I had no courage to take up a word.
MS: You mentioned not writing in the column now. To me, I think that you've strayed away from that pretty frequently in the past as well. When you've worked with longer lines in the past, has it been to achieve a particular effect, a more prose-like effect, which I see sometimes in your poems with longer lines? I guess I'm asking how you used the longer lines and the not-so-columned approach in the past.
LE: I can talk about that in Then, Suddenly as an example. Molly Peacock said, I think she said something like: "I was so unhappy and so hurt that the only way I could write a poem was to move from syllable to syllable." And then she said some wonderful thing like, "And so that's how I started counting syllables, and that's how I became a formalist," which I think is a kind of wonderful explanation and so much more satisfying than "I loved Wordsworth." I think the prosier lines, especially in Then, Suddenly, came out of just what I was describing. I was not capable of writing what to me was a more shapely line. I just couldn't do it, and so that's how it happened. I did not do it for an aesthetic effect. I did it because I was incapable of a certain tautness of language that had informed my first two books. I was incapable of it. So that's where it came from.
MS: So you maybe lost a belief in the shapeliness as well?
LE: I think for me it took a lot of control and energy and stamina to write a shorter line and a more shaped, thin poem. When I was grieving, I did not have the stamina or the control or the resources to do that. Ashbery says that it's really taking out things that makes the poem. I didn't know what to take out, and so the line grew long, and it got "prosier." That's how it happened.
MS: Go back up to that idea of moving you mentioned before, Einstein's quote in the book: nothing happens until something moves. What is this idea of moving? How do you define it fully, I guess?
LE: It was my meditation on What is it that poetry can do? What kind of animal is it? I thinkand I don't think I'm alone in this, although I think I share this sense with people who don't necessarily write like mebut I think there's a sense of, What is poetry's function? Or not function, but why do we need it? And I felt as a person walking around in the world that I could sit down and read a book of poems, and then I could go to a film, a movie, and the classical way that I was used to feeling moved happened much more readily in the film than in the book of poems. And so partly, I just kind of obsessively moved that word around in the book as I pondered this. That catharsis and all of that job that literature seemed to do was now being done by this other kind of text, the filmic text, and that also in another way it's about the artifact of the book, about the dryness of that, the low technology of turning the page to continue something. Stein says people sitting in movies are not, they're not looking, they're dreaming. In film, you simply sit there, and the dream passes before you. It's liquid and complex and all of that, and you're much more, I think, a voyeur in a sense but nevertheless. . . .
So I think that's the connection that I made. And then I think Stein is right. I think there's something about American culture, getting in the car and going. My childhood was spent on planes and trains, and I don't think I was alone in this. I think a lot of American children, you know, they grow up in one place, they move here, they go there, they end up here, they, you know like, where are you from? Some people are from a single place, but a lot of Americans have lived three, four, five places, and it's always a process of going someplace, moving someplace, leaving something, going someplace else.
MS: Just to close up I guess, what are you working on right now?
LE: I counted it up, and it was like seven years between my first and second book and seven years between my second and third book. And I'm five years into that period, and that five years I have had a job. I'm administrating a writing program that is the size of the college I went to. I have done this job gladly, and with great interest and excitement, but I have to say that the energy that it has taken, it's going to be a while before I have another book. What I'm working on right now is, I think I described to you how I'm thinking about it. I'm thinking about the form of it. What I know is I want the language to do X, and I want the lines to do this other kind of thing. And I want the poems to feel that they can go on and unroll, and unroll and unroll, and that I don't have to think anymore about the column, and I don't even have to think about snipping things off at the end.
I'm writing what I think is going to be a long poem, and all the sections are just connected by ampersands, so that where in long poems you'll sometimes get a little symbol or an asterisk. . . . And I think that the poem, I guess I think the poem is about plenty, and it's again another argument with the culture of plenty, which is the American culture, and the bard of the plentiful, who is Whitman. It is about after having not had plentiful writing, having it again and the conflicts of that, the sense of colonization with the voice, that every blank thing, every computer screen, every page, every surface is inscribed with your voice and your words and the overflow of that. So it's about that, it's about that expansiveness, it's about goods and services, it's about the too muchness, as both a blessing, as I think the too muchness of Whitman is an enormous blessing, and also the sort of politics of too muchness. But the opposite of too muchness is dearth, and you don't want that, either. So all I know is that there are these ampersands, and that I am in the poem mistress of the ampersand, guilty of the ampersand that adds and adds and adds. Guilty of the and, guilty of also, guilty of furthermore, that is the character I play in the new poems, the character who is guilty of plentifulness and living in a culture of plenty.
MS: Thank you for speaking with me.
LE: Thank you.