The Poem Remembers: A Conversation with David Baker
By the time we sat down to speak—by way of Skype, with David in his workplace at Denison University and me at house in Durham, NC—David Baker had already given several interviews about Swift: New & Chosen Poems, so we decided to take a slightly totally different strategy, specializing in a number of of the brand new poems after which wanting via those the bigger physique of labor collected there. (But not too giant: it’s a generously slender e-book.)
The longtime poetry editor of the Kenyon Evaluate, the editor and writer of quite a few books of criticism, and a poet in whose work rigor, vitality, and imagination are endlessly entailing each other (in addition to being, I ought to word, an exquisite mentor), David can also be a terrific talker, capable of transfer comfortably via multiple fields, much as he does within the poems themselves. Beginning from a small handful of poems, we have been capable of touch on all the things from physicists’ understanding of centrality to the importance of the guide’s title to the inherent irony of the pastoral tradition that he has inherited and revised over the course of ten books of poems.
Right here is that dialog.
The Rumpus: I needed to start out with the primary of the “Why Not Say” poems. In Lowell’s “Epilogue,” the question that you simply use as both title and opening phrase—”why not say what happened?”—is a type of volta. It’s preceded by “yet,” and it turns away from a want to write down something fictional. It seems to me that your poem is in pressure with some other, unnamed causes you won’t say or one won’t say what happened.
That’s the start line—though the phrase comes back up about midway via the poem partially, or no less than an echo of it. I needed to see should you’d be prepared to talk somewhat bit concerning the things which may argue towards saying what happened.
David Baker: It’s a fantastic query. The first response I’m going to offer is footnote already: you realize, I’m the last individual to ask about any of this. I’m carried out with it in a means, so it’s not mine to—
Baker: Nonetheless we do. My second footnote is then, because I wrote this poem in 2015 or 2014, I overlook. In contrast to lots of my poems, in this one I had a fidelity to the actuality of events that I typically don’t. This was about my father; my dad was very ailing. I’ve written about him all alongside, although not lots. Simply every so often he exhibits up. He showed up in my first ebook in a number of poems. None of the poems from that guide are in this one.
My father was not a verbal man. He didn’t have language. But he valued saying things that have been true. He didn’t end highschool, had to drop out because his father died, and he needed to go to work at sixteen. Then he lied about his age and received into the Coast Guard, after working in a bakery a short while.
He valued actuality. He later turned a numbers individual. He was a surveyor, a map maker. And it was really essential for him to make maps that have been extremely notationally correct to the contours of the land, as we walked them. He taught me the right way to survey. So I feel that was there. I had gone again to Missouri and I used to be staying with my brother and his wife. Dad was within the hospital, he’d had a stroke—no, he had fallen on this one. He had fallen and broken his hip. Which, for those who’re in your mid-eighties, is usually one thing you don’t recuperate from. We didn’t know if he was going to recuperate. This poem remembers early mornings going forwards and backwards from my brother’s home to the hospital. And all of the things that have been going by means of my thoughts, what I was seeing, what I was studying. I was studying Linda Gregerson, who pops up on this poem. And I was studying Lowell again. And that poem, of Lowell’s, is where the phrase comes from.
I wrote a poem—it’s in my first ebook—about my grandmother, and I made up an entire bunch of it. My dad taught me how one can ice skate, in rural Missouri once I was somewhat boy. But within the poem it’s my grandmother as we skate on a country pond. I wrote the poem, anyone learn it at her funeral, and I keep in mind my dad—this may have been 1980, early ‘80s—I remember him saying, that didn’t occur like that, did it? How does that work? He never ready my books. Or he didn’t tell me that he did. Mother did. Oh, he in all probability did. However he was curious that it appeared to be permissible to tell a story about someone pricey to me and modify the details, lets say. It all the time bothered him. So that was in my mind, too. I needed to get something about this one proper as a approach to be—I used to be gonna say obedient, however trustworthy to him, of his approach of storytelling. One thing like that.
Rumpus: It seems necessary, in talking about accuracy, that you simply depart within the poem so many moments of revision. So most of the sentences on this poem start with “no,” rejecting what’s been stated however not eradicating it from the poem. I’d be curious to hear you speak concerning the significance of leaving in statements that the poem claims are inaccurate.
Baker: I’ve been all my writing life in polyphonic music and polyphonic poems, what might even look like a single voice. I don’t know what voice is. I don’t even know what a self is. I have lot of doubt concerning the independence of any of those things. And typically I’ve let myself be more adventurous about how you can display that in a poem, and typically not. This poem is so personal. I’m driving out in the midst of nowhere; time and again one converses with oneself. There’s also in this poem a conversation that’s about correction. It could be my father’s corrective voice, it may be my very own, and it could be an aesthetic correction: “Oh, let’s not do this, let’s do that instead.”
There’s some mixture of a parental obedience and correction, as well as an aesthetic one. I just like the imprint of the process as much as I like the ultimate factor typically, at the very least the shadow of the imprint of the method. I don’t have sufficient post-modernist in me to love them all the time, all the unfinished things. But I like the reminder of plurality and self argument.
Rumpus: Not just in this poem, and not just in the new poems, but in poems you’ve been writing for some time, that polyphonic quality also becomes a supply of bounty. I’m curious to hear you speak a bit of bit concerning the totally different modes of understanding. Because I don’t assume it’s just “different voices;” it’s alternative ways of understanding the world. Whether that’s traditions, literary traditions, musical traditions. It may be scientific information, it may be intimate, subjective experience. So I used to be wondering in case you would speak a bit of bit concerning the impulse to have all of this stuff dwelling together in poems.
Baker: Typically I like that, typically I don’t. Typically I try to write very small, very pure—typically I just need to play one notice, from beginning to finish, and just make it beautiful. And typically I would like the whole band there. The polyphonic thing, this goes all the best way back to music for me. I want to know learn how to play plenty of instruments. I want to write poems typically where it sounds as though there are a number of devices. You possibly can’t do this unexpectedly. Solely Susan Howe can do this on the page. Ha! However the poem remembers different idioms, different forms of intonation, different tones, other individuals’s language, their specific sort of language. The language of etymology or entomology or biology or arithmetic. I’ve even used mathematical formulas in two or three poems, which as soon as it dawned on me, I assumed, “duh.” Arithmetic is this remarkably actual elegant language, so why not?
Now that can also look showoffish or imposing or standoffish, and I have to be careful about that. But I’ve used musical notation in poems. I think of poetry and mathematics and music as sort of the three biggest languages we’ve ever developed. Why not try to use those?
I’ve some very type of idiomatically coherent poems, the place the form’s very locked down. And I’ve others that aren’t in any respect. I’ve finished a few readings where I’ve carried out “Stolen Sonnet” with a musician. There are little pieces of track embedded in that entire poem, and he played items of the music. And I’ve completed different readings of that poem where I’ve had as many as three or four individuals reading elements.
One of the things I do to push back towards that moment the place polyphonic might grow to be cacophony is to introduce some type of measurement. “Stolen Sonnet,” once you reassemble the strains, is fourteen ten-syllable strains. So I like that left aspect/proper aspect strain on something that would in any other case simply fly aside.
Rumpus: I’d like to talk a bit about velocity. The e-book’s title is Swift, which additionally seems to be one of many trajectories of the larger collection: a movement in the direction of larger velocity. It appears that evidently as the poems grow to be extra obtainable to more methods of figuring out and extra kinds of language additionally they tend to move quicker. You’re somebody who could be very much invested in a pastoral custom, regardless that you’re not taking it up entire material. Traditionally, we consider that custom as being towards velocity, towards hurry. Are you able to speak a bit of bit concerning the investment in swiftness here and in other current books?
Baker: In an early draft of a poem, I used to be desirous about whether or not I would like the power of the poem or the speed of the poem to be vertical, for it to maneuver extra throughout the web page or with more compulsion downward. “Why Not Say” strikes left to right throughout the web page with extra velocity than it does down the web page. With those longer strains, I was all in favour of shorter phrases, and in seeing a poem with lengthy strains and little phrases disrupting the motion throughout the web page.
The one we just talked about, “Stolen Sonnet,” strikes down the page with some velocity. With those little 5 syllable strains, the motion down the page is fairly intense. So the poem is in sections with those asterisks to delay the movement only a bit. There are all types of versions of delay in that poem. Dashes, caesuras, italics, all these little flashes and impositions that one might embrace in the poem to delay the velocity.
See, the problem with velocity, with swiftness, is the top is The Finish. And the title in all probability refers back to the velocity of our life as a lot as it does to anything. That’s one of many reasons I needed this e-book to go backward. Once I found out that I didn’t need any poems from my first e-book, I knew immediately which poem I needed to have end the guide, and it’s “Haunts,” where the man’s sitting out on the mountain wanting throughout at his life. I needed the whole movement of the guide to be that. And not to really finish. Because it’s so quick.
As I worked on the e-book, it acquired shorter and shorter and shorter. It has poems from perhaps eight books however it’s not a really huge e-book.
Rumpus: Since we’re talking about brevity, let’s shift again to the very first poem within the guide: “Pastoral.” The word “center” exhibits up twice in the poem’s first two strains, which seemed slightly ironic. The poem puts the speaker within the middle of the sector and the middle of the universe, however at the similar time it imagines a universe that’s so vast that it’s virtually pointless to be at the middle; there isn’t any real middle. The poem imagines the self as inevitably central, however that bumps up towards the vastness of the university and experience, in order that being central is nearly what causes one to really feel overwhelmed.
Baker: That could be proper. Every part in the universe is the middle of the universe. We know that from physics. Each point within the physical universe is the middle of the universe out from which the whole lot else expands in an equal proportion. So the Sun is the middle and the Earth is the center and a planet a bazillion mild years away can also be the middle of the universe so far as we will measure mathematically. The whole lot is the middle.
I needed this poem to be simply riddled with absences and gaps and hesitations and pauses and emptiness. And I played a bit trick on myself as I wrote this one, a trick I play lots in my poems. I wrote an entire e-book, After the Reunion, kind of with this trick, which is to not determine whether what I was writing was a love poem or an elegy. Is the individual lifeless? To remember holding palms together with her in the “last minute” sounds like it. Or is the individual an absent or a misplaced erotic companion? Each, I assume.
That goes back to the chic: terror and awe together. The two of which, even in Lucretius, are the required components of the chic—they usually happen in that exact chronological order. So to your question, absolutely. All the things is a center. Though the first-person pronoun only seems in that poem, once and much off to the suitable aspect, not at the middle.
Rumpus: I need to ask an absurdly giant question. As someone who spends lots of time considering and writing about nature, what for you are the implications of pastoral custom at a time when our understanding of nature has to, if we’re going to outlive, change fairly radically?
Baker: Yeah, has to vary very radically. I don’t know. Even in the earliest pastoral poems, the individuals studying and having fun with the pastorals weren’t the shepherds. They have been the students in Alexandria on the library who have been reading pastorals with a heavy dose of irony. Within the unique pastorals there’s no audible irony in any respect; these are very sincere poems. However the audience can be studying with a substantial amount of irony because none of them have been shepherds. That they had in their lives considerably more ease and luxurious than the individuals about whom the poems appear to be written or sung. That irony all the time abides, and I’ve tried to take care of that irony.
Although I feel I’ve all the time been something like a nature poet, what meaning to me has changed pretty radically within the last twenty years with a growing consciousness of calamity. John Shoptaw had an awesome brief essay in Poetry about two or three years ago, where he describes three levels or three kinds of poems concerning the pure world. The easiest he just calls nature poems, poems which might be descriptive, like idylls. The second he calls environmental poems, poems with more deliberate awareness of not just nature as a passive thing that entertains us and supplies for us, but one thing which is environmentally our house and of which we know we are inseparable part.
And the third is what he calls the ecopoem. That’s the poem more vigorously in advocacy of a type of activism or political stance relating to the human being in nature, in the Anthropocene.
The essay is just some pages lengthy and it’s incredible. I exploit it all the time now to ask, once we are talking about nature poetry, what are we speaking about? I discover my very own poems having moved along that spectrum, too, toward more deliberation. Towards a type of activism. Naming names. “Scavenger Loop“ does that. A couple of different poems in Swift do this. Fairly quite a lot of my newest poems do this.
Rumpus: Earlier than we end, I need to contact on the poem “Tree Frogs,” which ends “Such little things we are, and so much noise.” There’s a very acutely aware irony there: you’re talking concerning the tree frogs singing, in fact, in the midst of your personal track, your personal act of creating noise. And there appears to me to be one thing salient about that when it comes to what you’re as much as in a number of these poems. I needed to listen to extra simply concerning the act of creating noise, making music.
Baker: I fussed concerning the ending of that poem for a long time. It ends virtually too much like a bumper sticker. “Such little things,” it ends with such a thematic harrumph. I won’t have written that line, or I won’t have let that line stand twenty years in the past. I would like typically to have the ability to be more declarative the best way that ending is. To let it go ahead and be summarizing of the patterns of picture and patterns of presence in that poem. I let it do this.
I’ve let myself solely embrace one lengthy poem, although I’ve written fairly numerous lengthy poems. One of the very first long poems I wrote was one referred to as “Sweet Home, Saturday Night,” the title poem of my third e-book. That’s a noisy poem. It’s about being in a rock and roll band, late at night time, on a stage in a bit of bar with all of the devices enjoying and everyone hooting and hollering to this horrible Lynyrd Skynyrd music, “Sweet Home Alabama.” The poem makes plenty of noise; it crosses over itself.
It’s one of the poems where I actually, one of many first occasions I actually let language crisscross. Voices on prime of different voices, borrowed voices. There’s just a little Toni Morrison and a bit Kundera and a variety of Lynyrd Skynyrd in that poem. To let it get cacophonous and pull that again out and let it get cacophonous and pull it back out. I don’t assume a poem’s job—or a poet’s job over the course of a whole lot of poems—is to edit the world out and depart solely one thing singular or easy or pure. The query is how much noise to make.
Rumpus: So that is sort of a silly query but I feel perhaps it’s one value answering—
Baker: I’m the proper man.
Rumpus: What’s the worth in happening and adding extra noise? And making more human noise amidst all of this? In making extra things?
Baker: The value is inclusion. The worth is in valuing every little thing that there is. And doing that kind of equally. One of many poets I’ve been studying once more, I just love his work, is Arthur Sze, who writes a poem in contrast to anyone else I know, or has an impact in contrast to anybody else I know. Arthur’s poems are often in kind of one-line or phrasal episodes. Or there may be one or two-line episodes making no transition from one to the subsequent and stacked. He might have a line about nuclear waste after which a line a few fowl after which a line a few childhood memory. And the thing that’s exceptional is he makes no judgments. He doesn’t presume or need to make the argument that any a type of issues has any more gravity or is any extra lovely or has any more or any less proper to be there greater than anything. It’s probably the most equalizing—I’m hesitating the use the word “democratic,” however one thing like that.
So the point in together with is strictly that, is being inclusive, making an attempt to make an artwork over the course of a few years or a life that’s more embracive and welcoming than not. The danger is making too much noise or simply yelling or not doing that with an clever priority.
Noise is noise, and the chaos and reality of noise is a strong supply on which to attract for poetry. But a poet then applies poetry’s many assets to that supply: line (or not-line), stanza, image, narrative, level/s of view, even when those techniques are themselves shredded or partial or fluid. Mere noise is mere noise, but poetry can seize that power whereas nonetheless being, in methods previous and new, poetry. It’s a worthy a part of our artwork, or else we’re simply making flowery, fairly wallpaper on a regular basis.
Fairly is merely pretty. However beauty might be breathtaking, even terrifying. It’s essential to remember, once more, that terror is a central aspect of the chic. And it’s essential for a poet, over the course of many years, to succeed in for all method of clever magnificence and not merely bang, or caress, or cajole the identical observe endlessly.
Photograph of David Baker © Katherine Baker.