Rick Snyder: Your work is very lyrical, but not in the sense of the contemporary lyric as confessional and written in the first person. Instead, in works like Of Piscator, you break down the lyric and present different speakers, even giving voices to inanimate objects like a Fence and Sycamore. Is this a play on pastoral conventions? Can you talk a little about your approach to the lyric and genre in general?
Martin Corless-Smith: I dont focus on writing as a personal confession as obviously as some writers, though I wouldnt like to give up every possibility of that in my work. I do see the lyric as a form involved in the cult of individuality, and I want to play with what is personal and what is general. I do feel myself alive, and all that, but I feel myself as part of a series of relations, not somehow separated in my perfection! I take the personal for granted in lyric, it will out itself at any given instant and I do feel compelled by the emotions but as John Skelton has it "It is general to be mortal" so we start with that in common. The lyric presents a site of relation, and I do want to be actively read, made by somebody, anybody. I love the earliest Middle English lyrics, mostly anonymous, which use conventions, and are little interested in presenting an individual genius represented by brilliant innovation on the page. Here the lyric is a public homage. We only really have the religious lyrics surviving, but the idea of the lyric as a public song appeals to me. Even something as supposedly personal as a love song is of course littered with conventions, and the making of a series of love lyrics by Cowley or whoever, seems to me to have as much to do with the job of singing something recognizable as with the job of saying some new truth about this self that speaks for us all etc., etc. Its an historical anomaly this English anonymity. At the same time in France we have thousands of names, and in Italy. Its rather odd, but interesting when trying to construct the lyric as a genre given over to the biographical. And all those lyrics remain anonymous as though the gesture to make them was itself enough, the tagging on of a self as poet comes along, and existed in Early English, but this odd period provides an alternative to the idea that the poets body following closely behind the words is a necessary fantasy to hook our interest.
Poets' biographies sell very well. There is perhaps a nostalgia for origins taking place, which Im interested in, having it and confounding it. I do think I experience some Romantic impulses along with a communistic verve and a belief in the absurdity of transcending the written. I did go into poetry because I liked other poems, but I was also attracted by the idea of being a poet, a little like an academic pop star or some such rubbish. But I cant dismiss the impulse, or the push of vanity that plays a role for most every writer, I should think. And biography is the commonest narrative we live with, so it would be an obvious resource for us. We never shut up about ourselves. I suppose that might be a distinction Id make, saying I do want to be personal, and I make choices out of a sense of telling something accurately, only its not always biography. Having a sycamore say something in a poem is still personally charged for me, but it does play with what we thematize as personal. Even something like this interview is straightforwardly interested in the body of the poet, as though a question might be asked directly of the poet that cannot be asked of the work. I dont think it vital to know. In fact I might think that the lyric, and all languaging contains an important element of not knowing. I like that element in the sustained double meanings and paradoxes in many of, say Donnes poems. Youre not to end the poem, it keeps itself active in its unsolveability. Same knottiness in Dickinson, same closeness to meaning in Barbara Guest or John Godfrey. Having said all that, I also grew up reading nonsense poetry, which I still find captivating. And nonsense can be so moving! Again because we expect the lyric to do that perhaps, to move us. So perhaps Im inclined to describe fantasies of the personal, with words mattering. God what a lot of little Ive written.
I certainly do play with the pastoral genre. It is a similar proposal as the self. The pastoral presents this desire for the ideal, which we may agree to be impossible, but whether that stops us desiring it, I dont know. I think I am interested in nostalgia. Im prone to it, and find it ridiculous. I grew up in the countryside in England, having a silly old time of it in amongst trees and streams etc, so all that stuff manifests the personal again, and the myth we make of our own childhoods. I specialized in the religious lyric for my Ph.D. exams whilst at the same time Cathy (my play fellow) was focusing on the pastoral, and she likes to sound out all her ideas, so I had her telling me all this stuff, which was massively engaging but also in the way of my focus, so I wrote these big cathartic pastorals like The Garden. A Theophany. Its a mask, as is it all. And the historical rural phantasy is another way of looking at the narratives we imposed as biography, so the pastoral and the lyric run into similar concerns for me, mister simple. And then again I did have this lovely rural time of it, expecting nymphs and elves to appear any second. Id say I accept the conventions as I see them, and then play about.
RS: You play extensively in the garden, I think. In fact, that element of play is one of things that elevates your work far beyond the concerns of the typical American or English lyric of the self in an environment be it urban or pastoral (or typically, suburban). In reviewing Of Piscator, Devin Johnston wrote that your sense of play with language worked in the vein of Bottom or the Shakespearean fool, who generates tremendous meaning, seemingly, without intention or with intention that works outside the bounds of normative expression. Your work, in The Garden as well in Of Piscator, often falls into this category of meaning-making beyond the conventions of discourse. In both of those works, for example, your play with pastoral speaking parts breaks down in places, so that the indicated speakers can, at times, seem to be not speakers but statements in apposition to what follows the colon. Beyond that, the punning and verbal play in your works can be extensive, especially in The Garden, where it seems, at times, as if youre decomposing the language to get maximal connotative value from its constitutive elements. In places, you seem to get layered meaning at the level of the syllable, word, line, and phrase all playing off one another. Thats quite an accomplishment and one that I think is difficult to come by in English, where words dont inflect very much and were bound to a certain word order to make any kind of sense. Im wondering if studies of other languages have affected your compositional approach theres quite a bit of Latin and Latinate distortions in The Garden (Eccohome for Ecce Homo and so on), for example, and your On the Nature of Things obviously works from Lucretius. I think that this sense of play of meaning floating around at different levels in the poem is important because it so actively engages the reader, and makes him or her a kind of co-creator of the poem itself. With this in mind, I was struck by what you said about the lyric as a site of relation, as a place where the poet, and I think you also imply, the reader, are made into somebody, anybody. Is this type of self-creation in language something that you had in mind subtitling The Garden, A Dialectical Lyric? Another direction for this dialectic, of course, is evident in your statement that the lyric and all language contain an element of not knowing of opacity and resistance, or the Derridean trace, as it were. As you point out by referencing Donne, both the play of meaning and the resistance to ultimate, tidy packages of meaning are found in traditional, canonical literature. Do you have any thoughts about the foregrounding in poststructuralist-type theory and poetry of opacity, or of the very materiality of the language itself? Your poems, to me, seem difficult resistant, at times, yet with the levels of meaning I mentioned above, they dont privilege materiality or stray into nonreferentiality (if language can ever actually do that) which, to me, seems a problem with some Language-y work, where an element inherent to language and present in any good poem is foregrounded and made into what seems to be the only real subject matter of the poem. Sorry if this convoluted, but its tough to talk about poetry and really more enjoyable to read and write it.
MCS: I have been amazed at how much flack the Language poets have taken, it does seem to me a little burst of anti-intellectualism floating about. In the Ph.D. world Ive been floating past lately, the term Language school is bandied about as an example of solipsistic crap, which is solipsistic crap. The foregrounding of the material of words hasnt just happened. And it does seem useful and important to me to have it be discussed. But like every codified school, it gets usurped, and I suppose we are naturally waiting to jump into, and then out of the next "ism." Ive read some discussions about new emotion and new lyricism and that seems to be written in mindful opposition to the Language school. Whatever. Actually, it does seem that the deconstructive techniques of Derrida are held up as somehow fraudulent or lacking in assertive desire. I love his stuff, and find him to be most articulate about structurality. He seems to me to be quite concerned with thinking about the most ardent subjects, not at all little academic forays. But I think because people can articulate the rudimentary processes of deconstruction then that becomes the salient feature of Derridas enterprise and he is seen as that monkey on that bicycle. A similar dismissal of him and the Langauge poets is possible, and happening a little. So there. I remember all the hoohah in England when the Tate bought Carl Andres Bricks. It was a similar witch hunting of the modern, bloody hell anyone can stack a bunch of bricks, wheres the skill, but those questions are there in the piece, and it isnt just bricks, its also not a Rembrandt, which we have already. So we dont need another Shelley, and we dont need another Bernstein. And we cant have one anyway. Innovation is perhaps a Modernist paradigm, but its also Romantic I do this this way because I am an innovator. At the same time we also sit on a lot of shoulders. Art is I suppose a mix of conservatism and revolution. I wouldnt write how I do if I hadnt read Middle English lyrics, or Wordsworth or the Beano or Susan Howe. Actually the ECCOHOME was a misprint I read in a Susan Howe book where she is referring to Nietzsches Ecce Homo, but it is misspelled as EccoHome, so the having of the cake and the eating of it. This is man, and the idea that we are reflections of sound made into a self. I like the idea of us as complex samples of influence. It doesnt kill off the idea of a self to allow it to be seen as a mass of collected information, the way a body is not killed if we talk about vitamins. In fact I do think politically the West is a little too in love with the individual. We end up with a very selfish attitude due to the humanist notion of a self perfect and away from the universe. What I enjoy about deconstruction is that we must see the self in relation, which might have implications politically if it caught on. We dont simply have America is right Iraq is wrong we have a complicated exchange that needs to be examined, not a self that needs to assert and reassure itself with victory. As Milton said in "Areopagitica," "[It is] not impossible that [Truth] may have more shapes than one." I see myself as an animal, with a rather perverse involvement in the noise of my gurgling.
I do see the lyric as a common ground, and I think politically I enjoy the free exchange. I certainly go and pick up what I want on the common, and I throw it out for the next reader, If I happen to have one. Having said that, its not selfless. Its vanity as well as community.
I would say that language is foreign to me. I learn it as well as I feel like. But its a huge place, and the Latin is there in the English, as is Greek as is German, so learning English is learning these other languages as well. I do like how built on the landscape is, how you see the evidence of older roads beneath this road. This might be a way that someone English imagines the landscape a little differently to how an American imagines landscape. The West still has a little fantasy of the wild beast tamed about it, which seems to provide an unhelpful bravado when you consider how we must now acknowledge that we are royally fucking the planet. We dont need to tame anything but our consumption. So maybe the good puritan backbone will show out and well all be saved. Hurray. Anyway, I do see the language as one way of looking at the up til now, and the where to next. Gardening is another way. So the pastoral genre is a way of thinking through inheritance, of our place in relationships, with the past, with desire, with pleasure.
I think I enjoy poems for numerous reasons, and I wouldnt be at it if pleasure werent there. Music is one of the most important elements to me. And the intimacy provided by reading something so worked. I dont know if I find opacity a problem at all. I think people used to think Ashbery was terrifically opaque, but isnt seen so now. And then there isnt a poem Im interested in that doesnt provide some puzzle. I think Im probably showing right now that the idea of being translucent is a fantasy. What I think Im saying you think Ive said blah blah. I know that when my parents see my stuff they try to read knowing that it aint trying to say something else than what is written. So reading a poem becomes an act of faith. You believe you can make something of it.
RS: I agree that the Language poets have taken a lot of flack. In many ways, this flack is testament to the importance of their work for silence, outright dismissal, seems to be the most damning criticism. I dont get much exposure to the more-academic environment you mentioned, but every now and then I too hear some type of silly, reductive, and ignorant statement about a writer or the "movement" as a whole (which was diverse to say the least) that does seem amazing. At a certain point, I dont understand why Language poetry still seems to frighten some people so much. As you point out quite correctly, writing that stresses materiality (and not all Language poetry does this, of course) is far from new Stein and, to a lesser degree, mid-career Williams come to mind immediately and the nonsense poetry you were talking about earlier can be seen in this light, I think, as well some strains of Dada and Surrealism. Moreover, almost any Continental philosopher, it seems, will say that Celans later work renders the individual signifier quite opaque, highlighting materiality in a way thats not typically associated with methods used by Language writers. These are concerns Im interested in, but all in all, I think its getting increasingly harder to talk about Language poetry and the lyric, per se, because both terms have become so reified, and seem to carry different politicized connotations for different writers. Id like to ask you if you feel this problem exists (provided you agree that it does) in the English poetry world. Has Language poetry made the same impact in England as it has over here?
In your last response you mentioned Susan Howes work as an influence, and that makes a lot of sense, as both of you address ideas of history and lyric expression. Also, she came to mind (you had just mentioned her, of course) when you were talking about the ways in which someone English might imagine a landscape differently from an American. Obviously, her work shows a great concern for the ways in which history can / cant be recaptured, and the ways in which the attempt to do so alters our perceptions of history and ourselves. In this regard, she probably derives as much from Olson as the Language poets. Do you feel any affinity with his work or with Williams in his attempt to excavate / deconstruct (anachronistically enough) history and the local environment in Paterson?
Aside from these concerns, the importance of music in your work is very evident, I think. In this way, I think your work is lyrical as well lyric working with the sounds of the language and concerned with subjectivity and desire, and with relational community. Its in this last sense (of community) that the opacity I mentioned before is valuable, I think, for its basic idea of a lot of Language writing (Im thinking of McCaffery, Silliman, and especially Bernstein, in the "Artifice of Absorption") that opacity, or resistance, is what allows the reader into a work and lets him or her work more actively to co-create a meaning in a poem. At the same time, I also place a lot of stock in what you said about translucency being a fantasty because all language slips it is just a differential code we more or less agree on, a metaphor for experience and cognition, but one that, I think, actively shapes experience as well. In terms of both the music and the opacity, I think that your use of alternate spellings and somewhat archaic diction in places Im thinking of The Garden and, especially, I guess, of the Songs at the start Of Piscator does a lot to both defamiliarize and engage the American and, I would guess, the English reader too. Id like to ask you how you think about the use of archaisms, as well as the use of English and/or American diction in your work. Also, Id like to ask if you feel your work has been received differently in the U.K. than the U.S. Maybe this is just an Americans generalization, but the music and English English in your work make me think of Bunting and, at times, David Jones, who is Welsh, of course, and whose work is really underappreciated over here, I think. In more general sense, Id like to ask you about contemporary English poetry, which I dont know as much about as I should. I love Raworth, especially the earlier work collected in Tottering State, and I find Prynne interesting. Could you talk a little about the English writers whose work you currently admire?
MCS: I do see a connection between Susan Howe and Olson. Of course her place in History takes writing, moving amongst the words of others: Dickinson, Eikon Basilikes author, Charles Peirce. In a way she is the invisible inhabitant, as are the Native Americans in Perry Millers history of settling America. So white space becomes a vital element, a compositional device. I think Olson uses space oppositely, as an extension somehow rather than an opposition. Perhaps Olsons is still Romantic in a way. Positive in its assertion. And Howes becomes a plenum, every space filled already so where to breath. I must say I feel perhaps more kinship with Howes project, so it is more than simply an issue of gender, though that is there, particularly figured in how Dickinson was rewritten by men (and becomes rewritten by Howe) or in The Birth-Mark. But Howes revision is very East Coast, very New England, and haunts the puritan drawing room and the Ivy League Library. A lot of Ghosts there. And a sense that institutions (or individuals as institutions, like Melville or Dickinson) are upheld, even when they are nonconformists. It happens to the most radical writers. Milton is upheld as the preeminent Christian writer by the Victorians and what he actually suggests is so radical it is completely ignored. Blake is a fucking industry and that is such an un-Blakean response. So the radicals get institutionalized and the radicalism is eaten. Susan Howe could easily be a subject for one of her own studies. But of course she is anyway.
I do enjoy Paterson, and Olsons connection to Gloucester. Perhaps eight or nine years ago I may have been more compelled to think about it. I write, sort of about Worcestershire, where Im from. But its a deliberate conflation of historical reports of Worcester with any reminiscence I might have. Im reading, say, Defoes tour of England and Wales, or Lelands Itinerary and it becomes my Worcester as much as any other experience I have. This seems to me to have commonality with Howes work, in ways that Im currently interested. I think Williams is wonderful, but its like the Beatles or something, I dont really need to hear him that often. Neither Williams nor Olson is pivotal for me. On the other hand Bunting and Jones are. I make an effort to teach Jones whenever I can because he is such a source of ideas. He presents sort of a commonplace book of Roman Catholicism. Hes actually from London, so the poems become the site of his Welshness (and his Roman-ness). I love how awkward and alien the world is for him. He collects words like fossils and information like a schoolboy reading an encyclopedia, as though the world would be explained. Its not simply naive. Its a response from faith. He believes that if the Catholic Mass can enact all of history in its instant then all of history is simultaneous, and his poems are like giant costume processions. I think the easiness with which he melds time (he just keeps singing, though some of the words need to be described so we can rhyme them for ourselves) certainly gave me a sense of what was allowed. I dont worry about skipping the odd five hundred years between words. And really I think I do it because its part of me, I read this stuff and the words are beautiful. It isnt simply obscurantism in Jones. He is a chronicler. I feel something of that impulse, married to an impulse to just sing about my own arse or how much I love birds or Mum etc. I like that this is also an old impulse.
I think Bunting is important to me now, but actually I was pointed to him maybe seven years ago when I had already developed something of a manic musicality. I love his poem Brigflatts, and some of the odes. I find quite a lot of the rest boring. But when he is good hes wonderful. And the construction of details, the way he reimagines old Welsh forms and Celtic symmetry is wonderful. I think to him and to Jones they see poetry as a sacred craft that takes years to master. And the job is to sing for the tribe. They are both very tribal. Jones for the Welsh, Bunting for the Northeast of England. He hates the Southrons as he calls us. Im a Southron. But I doubt it was much more than rhetoric. But I take the role of the poet very seriously (and lightly) as well.
I do feel like an English writer, though Ive lived for the last seven years over here. It obviously has something to do with exile. Not sure if I would have felt free to write the way I do back home, but it matters not, this is how it worked out. When the New American Writing British special came out, or when I saw it I was amazed. I was at Iowa writing all these odd bits and bobs which seemed perversely out of sync. And then lo and behold I had a context. I felt great affinity initially with the writings of Ric Caddel and Alan Halsey, who are quite different from each other and me, but their work was the first by living poets that I felt that odd connection to. So I did the only sensible thing I could, I bothered them. Id count them both as friends now. And their work is still a huge source of pleasure. Ric writes very lyrical border country poems, something like a Celtic Neidecker. And then hell process a long ancient Welsh poem for what he wants, and I had been doing the same, and like him believing it my right as a language user. So the socialism is there and the history and the language of music. Hes a lovely fellow who drinks scotch too, and runs the Bunting archive in Durham, or did until last month when he sadly retired through ill health. Anyway hes one Id encourage people to read, though he gets some readers over here I think. Alans work is maybe less traditionally structured. He uses a lot of other texts to examine the impossibility of certainty. Hes very witty, his books tend to be fabulously beautiful objects as well. One of my favourites is the text of Shellys death which juxtaposes conflicting sources written about Shellys death. Very moving and funny. And treats lightly the whole desire for the poets heart and the poets body, and is a sort of way of laughing romantically at Romanticism. He may be the English Susan Howe, but thats a shitty analogy, really.
Certainly in conversations with him I get the sense that humour is what he misses from the Langpo group. But I dont think Im in any position to say what the general response is. Perhaps none is the most accurate. There is a core of "innovation" in Cambridge kind of based around Prynne, though what they get from the U.S., Im not sure. Seems they are more interested in Canada and Australia from who they get to visit and read. But I wouldnt want to speak for them. I have heard Coolidge talked about, and Rodefer was a big storm when he visited Cambridge I understand.
Prynne is certainly established with a number of vocal fans. I find him both wonderful at times and then really annoying at others. He defies the notion of trajectory in his work, or so it seems to me at this stage. I think his latter stuff has degenerated into dry word games, hes obviously got a huge sink of esoterica at his fingertips, and the danger of that is Who gives a fuck? Theres enough for a pocket industry, hundreds of graduate students researching documents on geographical terminology. Its perhaps about scale, or patience, or wanting the job of reader rather than wanting a companion text. Jones can seem daunting but the pleasure for me is part of the task. Somewhere you arrive at a point where it is or isnt a pleasure and have to put it down and move on. I love his earlier works, and think that he is actually one of the most capable writers around. So I dont drop him easily.
And then theres Geraldine Monk, and Peter Riley and Kelvin Corcoran, all three really wonderful, I think, and theres stuff going on in Ireland, Trevor Joyce I think is wonderful. They publish most often in little chapbooks or for small presses, and the work keeps coming and is terrific. Its a different approach. I think most of them would love to have a gig at one of the MFA programs over here, a nice salary, time to write, but then maybe not. That soon becomes a job of judging competitions, writing letters and writing those fucking awful blurbs which have become so much a part of selling, and showing the right people like you. Its a business. There are of course a younger generation of poets who use the Internet and email to keep the ocean seeming very small and inconsiderate. Keston Sutherland is a fire ball of energy here and in England. And I hear mention of Miles Champion, another young English poet, through many American enthusiasts.
RS: On a final note, what future plans do you have? Are you planning a return to the U.K.? Do you have any desire to return to painting?
MCS: Im off to England for the summer, and then have no plans. I have started painting again, there are a group of drawings in the new book, Complete Travels, out from West House Books very soon (available over here from SPD). So I may be painting again, though how to earn a living remains the project I am least able or willing to focus upon. One of the things that most attracts me to poetry, and art in general, is its unsatisfactory role in the market place. My delight is to continue putting together a life of such making. Wherever.
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