A CONVERSATION WITH RON SLATE
Gregory Donovan: One of the things I particularly paid attention to in your book was the individual way that you approach the subject of memory and it has to do with your own personal history but especially your family history. You are a child and a grandchild of the Holocaust in a manner of speaking—is that the correct way of thinking of it? And I know that books have been written and studies have been done about children of Holocaust survivors and the peculiar psychological burdens that puts on their lives, the unusual orientation that they have a sense of responsibility for just plain being alive under miraculous circumstances, that they, in a certain sense, almost shouldn’t be here and yet they are. They have all that burden placed on them, sometimes by their families, either intentionally or just accidentally by the pure circumstance of it. And I think that often, naturally, would produce a particular orientation towards memory—the responsibilities of memory, but also the burden of memory. That shows up in your book and you have, for instance in the poem “They Called Me”—“child of the safe place.” How do you feel that did, in your case, affect your writing, your life, and your orientation towards this particular book?
Ron Slate: Well, I just had a kind of a discomforting experience a couple of weeks ago. My mother’s first cousin, Genevieve, who went through the war in France with her, has lately been telling me a lot of stories, mainly because I’ve had the chance to see her frequently, over the last couple of months. And she said, “It’s wonderful telling you these stories to pass them on.” But then she said, “I never thought that you were interested.” That really gave me pause because certainly that must have been based on a very definite impression she got from me, but I’ve always been interested in it, but quiet about it, always listening. The poetry now is converting everything that I have heard in piecemeal, into some kind of codified myth—a story—to explain the actual stories.
But what I rely on are impressions, such as lying in my bed when I was a kid. My bedroom had a wall that was contiguous with our den, with the television in the center of the shrine, and listening to wailing, wailing, when my mother would tell the story about how she had to sew the star on her clothing. The story itself is very typical and you hear it all the time, but it’s the wailing—and then getting up in the morning and she would be there making my breakfast and nothing else was said, no further explanations. But there would just be these outbursts and the way my family communicates on my mother’s side is with a very abrupt kind of in-your-face statement of things and also much laughter, incredible laughter. The other thing I heard on the other side of that wall was just crying with laughter at Jack Benny—the comfort of the American comedy and this coming into this life.
So that’s one way I feel about it. I have just a lot of impressions. For my children now, they want to hear the stories and I was telling somebody that this Genevieve I was telling you about—her brother was Charles, the oral surgeon—and now that he is gone. . . one thing I did manage to do in my last job was I worked then for a company that sells these data storage, information storage systems, that allow these big institutions to stream video, and there is a thing out in L.A. that was started by Steven Spielberg around the time that he did Schindler’s List, called the Shoah Foundation. And they have done over 50,000 interviews with survivors, digitized them all, and they are all available on-line, they can all be streamed to you. And they created a database so that they can identify all of the dentists who went to a particular school, who immigrated to Brooklyn. You can now start putting people together. Their children can start touching each other and these stories live on.
GD: Could you go ahead and tell that story about Charles. That’s an interesting story about memory as well, a different side of memory.
RS: History is a blind force that cares only about itself and one of the dangers to a poet who is really interested in history is that you make too much of a differentiation between the forces of politics and personal forces because one thing you find out is that the politics of the family, the politics of business are the same as the politics of government and even though our politicians lead us into forms of violence that you don’t normally see, let’s say, here at the university. The psychological apparatus is the same because it’s all human. There is, in fact, such a thing as corporate culture, which is determined by the CEO. His personality will radiate down, and it’s the same way with the President, the same way with your parents and your family. These things, they’re forms of control in a way. It’s what Kafka objected to, really; all he wanted was privacy, more than anything else.
Anyway, to go back to my cousin Charles. He came to this country in 1947. He ultimately got his high school equivalency diploma, speaks English, goes to Tufts, met his wife at Tufts. He was a poet. He then went to Penn to dental school and emerged in his twenties as a dentist. He then felt that he wanted to serve in the U.S. Army to pay back. This is his mentality. He's a very, very positive person. He didn’t like people who whined. He didn’t like people who complained. It was all, “You can do it, you can do it, you can do it.” He went to Japan—he was posted in Japan—came back, served the remainder of his service in Washington, which is where ended up settling down in Bethesda. Well anyway, he was serving at Walter Reed Hospital. He was just doing his normal rounds. It was November 22, 1963, and the president’s body was flown back from Dallas and wheeled into the autopsy room and he was tapped on the shoulder and they told him “You’re going to participate in this autopsy.”
There were many papers that he had to sign and his responsibility was to examine the oral cavity of Jack Kennedy. I was telling Greg last night that his fingers were very pudgy. And I would look at his fingers; I would see him and I would always hug him and kiss him, both cheeks, French-style, and then you know, I would see his fingers and I always, always looked at his fingers to think about where those fingers had been, into the mouth of my beloved president, killed on that day. History then becomes really, really, personal. And in fact, Kennedy appears a couple of times in my book. It may seem like very distant, anecdotal stuff to those who didn’t go through it, but to me, it was an extremely traumatic thing.
David Wojahn: I don’t know if you know this book by Susan Gubar called Poetry After Auschwitz. She proceeds from the argument, from the very beginning, that as Holocaust survivors die off, as the Holocaust fades into history in terms of facts, she’s saying that almost the only art form that can contain the subject for the Holocaust anymore is poetry.
RS: The danger of history for a lot of Jews—the Holocaust is the equivalent of the Passion play. It’s kind of crucifixion; it can create a victim mentality. It can give you rationalization to do horrible things in defense of your position of being wounded, of having been wounded, so it cuts both ways, and I see it cut both ways. That’s why I’m very skeptical about the embrace of reminiscence, memoir, writing that isn’t very good literature, that seems to tell that same story over and over again without revealing something that helps us see it as something current, something dangerous. And I don’t mean just that we don’t want Holocaust to happen again. What I mean is that when we incorporate catastrophe into our lives, it cuts both ways. There’s that beautiful poem by Adam Zagajewski which appeared in the back page of The New Yorker about praising the mutilated world [“Try to Praise the Mutilated World”].
And actually, my poem that I read last night about the Cocoanut Grove [fire] is about how, when you have catastrophe in your family, and it becomes an explanation for the present moment, it can seem very suffocating, especially if you didn’t live through that moment, and you can distance yourself from it. But at the same time, that poem has lots of details about the fire because there is something attractive—and enticing—about history; you want to know the details at the same time. That difficulty of the allure and the repulsion of history, that’s the difficulty. That’s why that poem needs to be written because that’s difficult for me. It’s difficult for me to sort that out. I always feel that if I can’t incorporate that difficulty into myself, then I’m going to end up writing a poem that is partisan or didactic. And I write poems like that because I have a tendency to, so I’m especially afraid of doing that because I know what will result. It will be not superior work; it will be flat work, gratuitous work.
GD: In your poem “Granite City,” you take up that same ambivalence. The quarry, that allowed people the granite to make monuments and memorials, as well as curbstones and buildings also made gravestones and churches. And the incident that you recount from that poem of the girl who drowns in rainwater, which ordinarily would be life-giving, here it is, in this place, a hole carved out in the name of memory, perhaps, becomes a receptacle of death or a dangerous place. That’s part of your thinking behind that?
RS: Yeah, exactly. You told the story about being thrown out of town. The mayor of Quincy lives around the corner from my father. And my father is very proud of his son, and he sends the book to the mayor because there are references to Quincy and the surrounding area. Word gets back to my father through my Uncle Al, who also lives two houses away, that the mayor didn’t care for that poem too much because Quincy has a reputation about these quarries, which are now being filled in and developers are building golf courses over them. There are a lot of stories about mafia hits being drowned in there, and kids being drowned. Every summer, we’d go swimming up there. Somebody would drown. Somebody would jump off the rocks and hit their head and drown. The cops were always chasing us away.
But it’s that same thing—the rejection of, not just things are not standard, but anyone and anything and any statement that may reveal, or try to get at, what is actually is happening, what is actually going on. And that’s what Octavio Paz said; he said the one thing that poets have had in common from the very first poem to wherever they’re going, is an interest in the hidden side of life—the other side of life, pushing through the envelope to the other side. It occurs in the language as you write, in the confrontation with the language.
DW: It’s interesting, too, to pick up on a poem that precedes “Granite City,” “An Essential Tremor, ” because in that poem—we often talk about what’s the emotional agent that triggers memory—in that poem, it becomes a physical manifestation of memory. The speaker is, literally, taken over.
RS: It hadn’t occurred to me how much memory has to do with those, although they’re obvious reminiscences. I do have this familial tremor, or essential tremor. My mother is like this. It’s somewhat of an exaggeration. I’m not shaking, but when I’m tired, I tremble, and it’s probably not the same kind of trembling that my mother’s going through, but it is an apt metaphor, I think, for something caused by something that happened.
The story about my grandfather in that poem—they lived near Place de la Republique in Paris on Boulevard de Margenta, and very close to the Place, which, when I visited there for the first time in 1966, had merry-go-rounds and bumper cars, and things like that. When the war started in 1940, there was something called “The Phony War.” The Germans declared war on France, but then they failed to show up. Ultimately, of course, they did, but when they first came in, the gendarmes came to the apartment, which had already more or less been vacated, and they just took all the furniture out, took everything out. My grandfather was across the street watching them put all of this furniture on this truck. He would tell me this story, but he would just laugh and laugh. He would just say, “It shows you what kind of crummy taste these people had.”
GD: In your poems, often you seem to be very interested in locating yourself in that place of ambiguity, or you’re ambidextrous in that sense, spiritually ambidextrous, because in the title poem of the book, “The Incentive of the Maggot,” the very thing that, perhaps, when a person would first come to the book and see that as the title, they would probably imagine that to be a negative poem. It’s a poem about death. But the irony of it is it’s a poem about salvation; it’s a poem about how the maggots actually save the people, so it has that other element in it. The people whose injuries were attacked by the maggots—
RS: Well, first of all, I’ve always been a little wary of that poem because I know how it was made. Actually, when we put the book together—I’ll mention, too, about the titling of the book in a second—but when we put the book together, it seemed like we needed a title poem. In fact, it was recommended to me, “Write a title poem.” It was put to me as, “Well, that’s all you need to do. Just write a title poem.” And the problem with that is, I don’t want to write a poem about summation that is too aware of what all the trends are in the book, and let me craft something that will do. In fact, I thought, “I can’t write this.”
It turned out that there was a period of a year where I wasn’t writing after I had finished the poems of the book, but I was writing these nine-line poems, and I wrote a hundred nine-line poems and they were all based on headlines in newspapers. And it was really just to play. I wrote a nine-line poem called “The Incentive of the Maggot,” which is essentially the last nine lines of this poem. It’s about going to see the clairvoyant. It’s not exactly those lines, but it’s that story. My wife and I were having dinner one night, and my oldest daughter Abby, who’s a nurse, came in and said, “Dad, I saw gangrene for the first time.” During dinner. And told me the story about this woman who came in septic.
Then I went upstairs, and I took those notes. I want to get back to my skepticism about the poem, because I do see it more of a collage than as something that seemed to be chemically whole in my head. It’s one of those that I’m skeptical about. It’s also very influenced by Robert Pinsky, his 9/11 poem. Among all of the poems that came out about 9/11, I love his the most because it really looked at 9/11 as a concept, as a word, as something that we speak constantly.
Robert also wrote a poem about going to Auschwitz and being unable to emote. And in fact, it’s difficult until you feel the distance. You don’t want to get hooked by what is expected emotionally; you want to be more careful. That’s all built into this poem, and when it comes to the titling, it turned out that I had no talent at titling the book. None at all. Because I came up with a bunch of them. The original title of the book was from this poem about going to Cyprus and the last line is “A song too strange to die.” And the original title of the manuscript was A Song Too Strange. I worked with Louise Glück on this book and she said, “That is just horrible.”
I was in Portland, Oregon, and I got a phone call from her after she had been working on the ordering of the poems and so forth, and showing me different ways of going about it, and she said “Why don’t you call it The Incentive of the Maggot? I thought about it for a little while and it seemed at least as good as anything I had come up with originally. That was a title that I wrote, but it wasn’t something I thought would work as the title of the book. And actually, some people like it, and some people really don’t like it. The people at Houghton Mifflin really didn’t like it. You know, I was told, “Well, we don’t want the people inside of Houghton Mifflin calling this “The Maggot." Basically, I would say, the title has worked.
RS: Yes, and I love Oppen’s work, by the way. One thing about writing and not writing. When we talk about the sources of writing, we say they’re mysterious. When we talk about the sources of not writing, we say they’re pathological. But in fact, they’re equally mysterious. I’ve come up with lots of explanations to explain to myself, how did this happen, why did this happen. The explanations conflict with each other, and they fall into two categories. One category is, I did this intentionally. I needed to put certain obstacles in my way in order to break certain habits that were driving me nuts in my work. That’s one. Category number two, this is something that happened to me. This is like the perfect storm of poetry, all things converging to make it impossible for me to write.
Sometimes that seems true, sometimes it does, although many of those forces were things that I created myself. I think there’s more credibility for me in the former category because for all of those years, I would go up into my study where I have long, long shelves of poetry from all the review copies I’ve got over the years, and books that I buy and so forth. I’ve been an avid reader of poetry, but I would go into the room, I would see all of my notebooks there, and I would turn around and go out the door. So that sounds intentional. I was making a decision not to write. Somehow, in my mind, I felt I had to write poems that were like this: I go shopping. I come home. I want to write a poem about going shopping because this is my life. So I write a poem about shopping. So maybe you get two or three stanzas of descriptions of things that happened while I was shopping, and then you get a stanza of illumination and comment, and then a couple stanzas at the end that kind of wrap it up, just in case you missed the point, with some kind of witty ending.
There was a lot of poetry like that at the time, in the early 90s. I thought, “Damn it, that’s the kind of poetry that I really ought to be writing,” because I like the comical and I like the everyday and so forth. It turned out that was absolutely unlike what I was coerced to do once I started mysteriously to get back into it. There were definitely stories in my work, but I don’t think you can say that I’m a narrative poet. Narrative was dangerous because of the psychological mechanism involved, which is to use poetry to validate your life. That just can’t work because it can’t sustain your creativity over a long period of time. It can’t. It’s a mechanism that gratifies you in the moment but the poems become predictable; there is mechanics of vindication. It’s cheap stuff, and I knew it was, and I couldn’t stop doing it, so I had to put an obstacle in my way. And the obstacle that I put in my way is the whole damn world, because I felt that every poet ultimately has to ask, “What do I see into that other people only see?”
The obstacle that I put in my way, namely, get into the world, try to integrate yourself into actual living and not this thing in your mind which turns into poetry. That did lead me to the business world, which is pretty rough and tumble and so forth. I traveled a lot, but I worked in communications. And in communications work you always write for someone else. You’re either writing for this corporate entity, this shapeless entity, which has kind of personality, or you write for your CEO who is giving a speech.
I write for this guy now. That’s the distance that I feel, and having that sense of distance allows me to be really strange about myself. A poem has to be strange but lucid at the same time. That’s what I strive for; I strive for the feeling of feeling unhinged. I know when I’m maybe on the verge of doing something half decent when I feel unhinged. And one of the reasons why “The Incentive of the Maggot” and other poems tend to leap around, is that when I sit down, and I feel like something’s happening, I get so nervous and crazy, that I’ll write six or eight lines, and then I have to get up and go downstairs and play with my dog or eat something or kiss my wife and go out into the yard, pull some weeds. Then I’ll go back up and write eight or ten more lines. Of course, by that time, I’m bringing something else back into the work. That feeling of excitement and astonishment is what I love in work that I read, these very surprising things. The poems that really work are a complete astonishment—to say “How the hell did this happen?”
GD: I liked how in “The Apparition of the Virgin,” you take something that I actually recall hearing about on the news So it was this story about a window in a hospital where people saw an apparition of the Virgin. The mundane writer would have recited the facts of the event because they’re interesting enough. It was quite strange in and of itself, and perhaps want the reader to say, “See how smart I am and observant—I picked up this odd thing, and here it is. Look at it.” But you went further.
RS: Well it isn’t that I am a particularly modest person, but I'm scared of poems. I’m scared for me. If you were to do it, I might love it. If I say “Well, something very strange happened around the corner,” anecdotally, it’s brilliant. I know I’ve got a great story here. If I just proceed to describe it and then to put myself in it, I’m all the way back to twenty-five years ago when I stopped writing.
I’m paranoid about approaching a work that way. It isn’t just a matter of taste or judgment, it’s something else in my brain that goes on. Of course, another thing is that I’m a Jew, and this is a story about the appearance of the Virgin, so there’s also a distancing involved there. And if I could just tell you one incredible anecdote that I had to push away is that this image was there and people—all sorts of people—started coming into this parking lot. There were Vietnamese Catholics there; there were little old Italian ladies there with rosary beads. And it was really quite startling, the image; the contours were very, very precise. It was a spooky thing. Dogs were running around.
And then a second image appeared—same level of the hospital, right around the corner. And it appeared to be an image of a fetus. Then, suddenly, there were people asking, well, are abortions being done in this hospital and so forth? And it went on and on for a couple weeks. So that would have made a great short story or poem or something like that, but I felt I had enough, because I really didn’t want to just tell the story of this image, but how we have a tendency to want our symbols—to want symbols and make those symbols take the place of experience, and yet the experience of seeing a symbol itself is quite an interesting thing. So this is a poem without resolution at all. It’s just about how to deal with something so startling. I mean, I felt moved—very moved—looking at this image, but at the same time, it was a goddamn circus up there.
GD: Well, at the end, you mention something that probably happened, but in a sense, you draw a veil over it and call our attention to the fact that when we can’t stare at the source image, we end up staring at the veil. And that ends up being what we ponder. It’s not interpretation; it’s almost the opposite—admitting honestly your own confusions and questions that head in many different directions as you look at this thing. That seems a characteristic gesture of a lot of your poems that don’t summarize, don’t simplify, allow the inherent mystery to be present and to be part of what you’re experiencing.
Patrick Vickers: I have a question and that is—I don’t know if it’s particularly American—but the idea of this term “morbid curiosity,” as if there was a type of curiosity that is particularly inappropriate. And that usually refers to things like the doctor who attended Kennedy, or things like that. Or even Holocaust. How much attention do we want to turn to these things? At a certain point, does it become unhealthy? Does it turn into obsession? Does it then begin to damage your current life? Or is it all a sort of a fallacy, a modern creation, so that we don’t have to face the harsh realities. We end up protecting people in a way that maybe isn’t healthy. And I was wondering if you could speak towards that.
RS: It reminds me of something that occurred. I went over to see my folks. This is a few months ago. I frequently stop by. I get there in the early evening, and I walk in and the two of them are elated because they have just seen on CNN, an airbus, a commercial jet, has come into LAX. The pilot was unable to get the landing gear down and the plane lands safely, and it’s live on TV. And they were elated because they had seen this thing which could have been a catastrophe, which could have been another one of those images that we’re drawn to of the fireball. But instead, it worked out and now it becomes a story of the pilot is a hero, and everyone is happy.
I get back in my car, and I am driving home. I turn on the radio, listening to the news—they’re talking about this. And it’s said that inside the plane, the passengers were watching on their screens CNN talking about the plane coming into land. So they’re just about to watch themselves become immolated—actually in their life—to see the image of themselves, the entertaining image of themselves in the media, going up in flame. That’s the conundrum of the imagery. And that’s what I started talking about early on in the Williams’ quote and the quote from Larry Levis, which is that you push back. It’s what Stevens called “the pressure of reality.” By that he meant the sound of the media, even in the early 50s, of these things that take away your presence of mind.
On the one hand, the morbidity of those images can be horrible. On the other hand, you could say that they don’t show us enough about what is really happening in Iraq, that there’s the repression of images, just as in that poem “The Incentive of the Maggot,” there’s a repression of the images of the coffins landing at the Air Base in Germany because Bush doesn’t want us to see them. Which is very strange because I grew up in the Vietnam generation, where photojournalists were out in the field, and every day we were getting the body count of how many NVA were killed and wounded, and how many Americans were killed and wounded, until that came to an end. So there isn’t an answer to how many images we should see or not, but we have to be damn careful, because on the one hand, we can become polluted; on the other hand, when truth is being repressed, there is some image that we are not allowed to see.
GD: When I ask students, even today, who are somewhat, of course, distant from the Vietnam era. . . One of them, by the way, was a little confused in “Granite City” about what dimension of the boy who dived into the water and then lived to go on and be killed in Vietnam. They were a little confused by that. They thought that was maybe just something you made up. And maybe you did. But it’s not the kind of thing that would have to be made up because it really occurred.
But when I asked them, what are the two most famous photographs of the Vietnam era, they all agree—this is an astonishing thing, that everyone agrees that it is the photograph of the man who’s being shot in the head, and the photograph of the girl running away from her napalmed village. Everyone agreed about that. Those have become the icons of that entire conflict. That strikes me as very strange that there would be such agreement about this. And I wonder then, what will be the images of the current war? Or will there be any? And that brings up what you’re talking about, repression of images. I wonder if we will have any. We’ll just have a kind of vague, dust storm memory of this thing, you know, “What was it?”
Tarfia Faizullah: I noticed in the book that it’s sectioned into three parts. And the first part really talks generally about the world, about your travels. And then, the second part is filled with these sort of childhood poems, your memories of childhood. And the last part of the book sort of ends with these two poems of you standing in front of water. And I wondered if you could talk a little bit about why you felt or chose to make the progression of the book towards that.
RS: I had some help in ordering this book. If you like the way it is, or if you don’t like the way it is, somebody else is involved with me. “Writing Off Argentina” was always the first poem. Most of the first section was always what that was. This book was originally thirty-three poems, and I think there are twenty-nine now. So even at the end, we were taking things out. So that first section was supposed to be standalone. Here I am in the world. What is going on? After that, it was a little less thematically coherent because it becomes somewhat more personal in nature, and more associative. The ending, that last poem being kind of dreamy and cerebral, was suggested to me as a good way to get out, instead of the poem immediately preceding, which kind of has a snapshot ending.
TF: Last night you were talking about how when you—I wasn't sure if you were in an MFA program twenty years ago—but you’ve talked about how this time around, when you started writing again, you got it. And I wondered what you didn’t get back then that you got.
RS: Well, I got my degree in 1973, and I went out to Stanford to get this master’s in writing. And Yvor Winters had died in ’69, I think, but his ghost was still hovering. His good son was running the writing program, so it’s as if he were there. And to this day, I have no idea why they wanted me out there, except maybe to entertain them because my work didn’t exemplify any of the standards that were held at that time. Winters didn’t like Romantic poetry, and the metaphysical poets were the poets, and then there were a certain number of poets in the canon. And one memorized “Eros Turannos” by Robinson, and “Simple Autumnal” by Louise Bogan. No Whitman, but we’ll take some Dickinson and Jones Very.
I went into that environment. I thought it was very strange, and it was very demanding. But I didn’t have a teacher who took a real interest in my work. Also, in 1973, it was very politicized. In the workshops, there was a lot of raving about politics, governmental politics, racial politics. I wrote very anecdotal short poems, and I walked out of there having done my finger exercises. I knew how to write in forms. I didn’t feel that I left there with an insight into my work.
That didn’t stop me from starting a poetry magazine, however. Without insight into my work, and without a sense of the firm identity of myself as a poet, nevertheless, I got into the poetry business. I think the poets that we remember—they die, but we still remember them—turn out to be poets who escape from a disordered identity into one that they will and consent to. And sometimes it takes some of us longer than others to arrive at a point were you can say, “I’m an actual human.” You know, in my twenties, I always felt like I wasn’t an actual person. The way to attempt to move towards a concrete identity is to be in the world and to do things. To have to try to have an affect on your world and look at what those results are. Somehow or other, that led to being able to write, and I’m not sure exactly how.
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