Gary Sullivan

Ange Mlinko
Interview


Gary Sullivan:
Describe the typical day for you in Morocco.

Ange Mlinko: You really want me to expose my decadent lifestyle? I'm totally isolated, in the middle of nowhere. We travel around a couple times a month (Fes, Meknes, Rabat, Tangier, Marrakesh, Essouaira), but mostly I’m stuck in Ifrane counting the clouds that go by. As an obsessive sloth, the first thing I do when I get up — around 8 or 9 — is, after listening jealously to the endlessly inspired cuckoos, kestrels, and multiple unnamable Barbary birds, I turn on the computer we stole from Steve's office so I'd have something to write on — typewriters a la Naked Lunch are a) impossible to find or b) expensive and c) not in QWERTY but some other French system — and I look over recent efforts (poems) in a nervous attempt to find out if they're any good. I usually rip them up. I also may work on a prose thing or two, especially an ongoing journal of my "Morocco experience." Actually I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at poems. And ripping them up. In the afternoon for a change of scenery I go to the library. Before evening, I may work on French or take a walk downtown to the souq. In the evening I usually inebriate myself, watch International CNN and German MTV through the school's free satellite service, and wonder what I did to deserve all this wonderful free time …

GS: Has living in Morocco changed in any way how you think about aesthetics? Do you feel any appreciable influence from the music (structured so differently than Western music), landscape, people &/or culture? I would imagine that time is experienced so differently there & that this might have an enormous impact on your writing, your thinking about writing …

AM: Aesthetics dominate in Morocco. As opposed to functional boring America, whose "economical" design & architecture are no more interesting than any Communist-bloc country’s! Here, surfaces are traced with koranic inscription and hypnotic designs — ceilings, floors, walls, fabrics. I find it very amenable. I’ve always preferred poetry to be like this — semantically & rhythmically brimming over. I’m reading Proust right now and finding it complementary to Moorish art; the complex sentences, the endless paragraphs, the precision and mesmerization.

While I adore the music, I haven’t yet been able to incorporate that long droney sound into my work; my mind still thinks in short song structures. But that may come later. Incidentally, all too often restaurants play western pop rather than Arabic music, which makes me mental. Is there any corner of the planet where I can escape "Candle in the Wind"? Can any sane person conscion this?

GS: Have you thought about working in longer forms? I remember you once talking about that, maybe after reading Don Juan … and I wonder if now that you've got more free time if you're able to indulge that impulse, if you've considered (or have started?) working in a longer form?

AM: When you asked if the long drone of North African music had entered my work, I said it might yet. But I find the idea kind of tyrannical actually — the whole "long poem" measuring stick of whether a poet is ambitious or important. If you actually see a long poem from me anytime soon, it's only so I can say I did it. I like the concept that I'll have one book at the end of my life, the Collected Poems, and won't that be one long poem? It will.

GS: You’ve expressed elsewhere an interest in narrative poetry, or at least in the narrative potential of poetry. I thought of that, reading a recent interview with John Ashbery, who says "I mean is the avant-garde of 40 years ago still avant-garde, or has there been a turning back the clock toward narrative, and metered poetry? Well there has, but I don’t think much of it will last. But maybe that’s the new avant-garde …" What do you think of Ashbery’s statement — I don’t, for instance, know just what new work he’s referring to — and can you flesh out ideas you have regarding narrative in poetry? What role do you see it playing in the work in Matinées?

AM: Narrative is just getting from here to there. When I took an acting class in school I learned about improvisation: you’re trying to get from here to there. Of course, you want to do it in an interesting way. That’s as much as I can say about narrative without being dogmatic. (I feel like O’Hara in that interview saying a work doesn't have to be new, it just has to be not-boring.) But there’s one more thing I can think of: Philip Guston saying "I got tired of all that purity! Wanted to tell stories."

As far as what Ashbery says, I think I know what he’s talking about. When you live with as few outlets of information as I do, you start to notice what they’re saying about poetry in major magazines, the kind libraries subscribe to. The new guy everybody’s trumpeting is Glyn Maxwell, a British poet who’s apparently humorous and perfectly metrical. I haven’t read him, but I can see from what major glossy magazines choose to publicize, that Ashbery’s on to something (I just wouldn’t call it the avant-garde). Also this guy Sissman — rhyme and meter about getting cancer, I think. Can you imagine poetry without Whitman, Williams, Apollinaire? Apparently, some people can.

GS: Where do you see poetry headed these days? What are some of the specific trends or emphases being currently played out?

AM: Someone at the Chicago Review described younger experimental poets’ work as "aggressively minor," which I love. How many subtly grand value statements can one quietly slip under the door of "aggressively minor"! It’s very exciting! It reminds me of something I recently read about French music: that people have a hard time with it because it juxtaposes the comical with the spiritual. So, onward with that! I think the preoccupation with rhythm is important. It’s linked to too many of us wishing we were indie rock musicians instead of half-time corporate slaves and half-time artists. Rhythm is another form of intelligence different from sheer intellectuality. Imagination too. Poets are using their imaginations differently than the last generation did.

GS: Can you give me an example of this? A close reading—however lengthy or brief—of something of your own or another's work embodying a kind of new music? Or, barring that, maybe a list of writers/works where you see this emerging?

AM: Unfortunately, I have to beg this question of close reading because all of my books are in Brooklyn storage limbo; I would love to talk about the music of Jennifer Moxley, Brenda Iijima, Maggie Zurawski (who writes songs too). Cults exist, practically, around the books of Paul Beatty, Edwin Torres, Lee Ann Brown and Lisa Jarnot which has to do with their insistence on sound; they come as a surprise to kids who thought poetry had become something else, something less interesting than some rock lyrics. Ginsberg too had that (he was an expert even on ancient Greek meters). As for imagination, Beatty’s very imaginative, Jarnot is, Prageeta Sharma is. By imaginative I mean reality-bending rather than just language-bending. I hark back to Alice Notley’s Naropa lecture in Disembodied Poetics where she says we have to re-imagine reality. Hear, hear.

GS: Getting back to the narrative question, though I risk being reductive or dogmatic, the filmmaker Sydney Peterson once said that narrative — and I think he meant this in the sense you mean it (that which allows one to get from A to B) — is finally an excuse for any succession of images. Taking into account that Peterson had something of a surrealist's bent, how do you feel about this idea? I ask because, while it seems to counter what I've sometimes heard you say about narrative, it doesn't necessarily seem counter to my own experience of reading your work.

AM: Well, I'd be very disappointed if my work came off as purely surrealistic, and I don't believe it does anyway. I always strive for a guiding intelligence to the poem, while trying to keep it loose. To have an overall design, to say something interesting even if it sounds eccentric or off the cuff, to have things come to a head emotionally, which to me is inextricable from having things come to a head formally, that's all quite indispensable. What narrative comes down to is design. I can't write a poem without justifying it from the point of view of "interesting design."

GS: Oh, but I meant that Peterson, unlike yourself, seems to have something of a surrealist bent … I was describing something that, for me, felt like a similarity not of specific intention but of a certain sort of freedom, the way in which in some of your poems you can hop from here to there, where the connections between images or subjects might be surprising but ultimately the result of some attended-to design, yet something other than "narrative" or "story" in the (very) strict sense. More like, say, the way a philosopher might arrange or accumulate detail, as opposed to a story-teller. Which reminds me, you studied philosophy, and are married to someone who did … I wonder, how much western philosophy seeps into your writing, your thinking about writing? Was there any work in that vein (I seem to recall your mentioning Bachelard) that you've found useable, or that you've maybe later seen to have been at all crucial for you?

AM: What that training did was give me an understanding and respect for what is rigorous. But poetry and philosophy are separate activities; I really believe that, although my favorite philosophers (Gaston Bachelard and Nietzsche) might not really be considered philosophers by real philosophers. I love them as writers and as rigorous men who were open to the cosmic experience of poetry; and I think Bachelard has a lot to teach us about poetry and the imagination, blinded as we are right now by the technocracy of our times. The Poetics of Reverie and The Poetics of Space are two books I just read over and over.

GS: Can you talk about some of your influences, some of the poets, poems and books that have had significant impact on your own writing?

AM: I fell in love with Bernadette Mayer's work through Sonnets, The Formal Field of Kissing and The Golden Book of Words. All are books in which she's working through some formal thing — sonnets, epigrams, and in Golden Book, Milton's blank verse. All this imaginative fire channeled through a workmanlike severity toward the medium itself, but not arriving at anything ever seen before. You know, the confidence it takes to do that borders on divine madness! Anything by Michael Gizzi or Kenward Elmslie. Koch's One Train, Jackson Mac Low's 22 Light Poems, O'Hara's Odes, Kerouac's Mexico City Blues. Lately, Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses. There are some poets whom I haven't been able to "use" formally but whose work stands for sensibilities and methods that are other, that I can admire but not use. One is left with one's own personality at the end of it all. Although it would be nice to be simultaneously Sappho and Pindar, Pope and Blake, Keats and Byron, wouldn't it?

GS: I do often wonder what might determine the scope of one's poetics, what anyone might find they can use. Time? Ability? Sensibility? Besides the sonic properties you've spoken of, in what ways has the work of precursors or contemporaries informed, changed the direction of, added to, etc., your own? I'm gonna come right out and beg you this time, since (a) I'm fascinated by close readings and (b) I assume you've got at least some of your own writing there, could you maybe take a poem or two of yours and kind of point out maybe things picked up from various influences? Or, since that's potentially a hazy area, maybe talk about the various elements (historical or immediate) that are being woven into any particular poem of yours?

AM: Time, ability, and sensibility: three excellent categories. Everybody talks about the first one, nobody dares talk about the second one and nobody knows how to talk about the third one!

Sensibility is something I’ve always thought crucial, and it is used to judge poetry — to its detriment — time and time again. New York School poetry is a sensibility, as is dreary post-war British poetry. Surrealism is a sensibility, Chinese poetry is a sensibility, and all of this may not be so interesting except that it rules our categories. And the categories rule what’s published, reviewed, etc.

Sensibility guides my judgment just like anybody else. Because I’d overwhelmingly rather read poems by other aficionados of Beat & New York School than anything else. The fast pace, the urban bliss. When I read Michael Gizzi’s "Jacklight" I wanted to write 200 lines of equal brilliance; I ended up writing "Free Refill." (Not nearly so long and far from rivaling "Jacklight"!) I wanted to write a poem after Kerouac’s — I forget what it’s called, it’s about a Chinese store and ends "for the doves" — and ended up with "Matinées," something quite different. The work of Lori Lubeski heavily influenced my chapbook Immediate Orgy and Audit." I’d say she was the only person remotely close to my age that had a significant impact on me. (When I was in Boston, all my poet friends except her were older.)

Thinking about this question, I realized that music had as much an influence on my books as other poets. Indie rock. It had a big atmospheric effect on me, I’d say. I went to a lot of shows in Boston, Providence, and New York. It’s my only real connection to my generation, considering how little TV I’ve watched, and how few contemporary novels I read.

GS: I think it was the manuscript "Wet Book" that I saw when I noticed a kind of shift in your writing: from shorter to longer lines, the references becoming (for me) more immediately recognizable … and I wonder if this was a shift you noticed in yourself and what had happened, how you found yourself, suddenly, "here"?

AM: "I got tired of all that purity! Wanted to tell stories." It was just that suddenly I was able to write from my experience in interesting ways. I was not able to do so when I was reading, say, Susan Howe or Nate Mackey.

When I was 23, 24 I was engrossed in poets from the Olson/Duncan platform and it was not the right affinity. I don’t have a mystical temperament, I have an aversion to poetry as scholarship … "Wet Book" was what, 1997? I only circulated it to friends. It was meant to tip the balance toward earthiness and against the ethereality of "Nine Dreams" in my chapbook Immediate Orgy and Audit, which shows only too well the different influences I was struggling to reconcile. I didn’t want to be a part of the sort of wispy, feminine poetry (a friend once called it "waif poetry") women from Brown and Buffalo were producing in the early 90s — which was the apotheosis of "experimental poetry" as I understood it from magazines at the time. o.blek, Avec, etc.

GS: Let's take a specific poem, "Wet Book," that takes place — at least in part — in a library … I'm curious about the kinds of words here, I guess "latinate" to my ears, and wonder how you put this poem together, what sorts of thoughts were going on, what you were responding to internally & exteriorly …

Wet Book

Byways of late low-watt October, torrential, on a steep hill washing
Down a dead squirrel (tiny male genital) slowly through the afternoon.
Man with numerous plastic bags comes through the double
Doors of the library, puts them politely behind the desk,
(Girl there not even looking up) he goes takes a paper cup
Fills it twice with the gray tap water in the room temperature cooler,
Second time melts the cup. Bare light bulbs in each alcove model yellow shadows
On his face, on ends and spines of shelved-haphazard books
And iron railings ricketing up to a low-ceilinged second story
Grime stacks stuffed with folios, solicitous odors in the damp.
Stentorian hulk of darkstained oak with brass handles to tiny drawers
Holds the card catalogue, cards in it going back to penmanship,
Later manual type engraving the paper with force of the keystroke and recently
The mysterious removable ink of the electric typewriter,
Everywhere ramrod margins measured to uniform millimeters,
Precise dewey decimal numbers promising one-to-one correspondence with books
Back in the maze where none but librarians, custodians, go — stairways
Obstructed with boxes and mops of dry rag rope
Such as plaster the fronts of tugboats moored, off-duty, by the hurricane barrier's
Power plant's three blinking stacks, high lines and transformers a balletic grid
Hitting the plexus of an occasional heron zeroed in on en route to the bay.
Donated, hastily disposed of in taped bags of embarrassment, books no one wants,
Tatterdemalion paperbacks fetching lone dollars and quarters under the doric columns
Of concrete urns of withered autumn offertories, into the coffers of such a book sale,
Upkeep of the mausoleum, purchase of further volumes, pensions, rain loud in
The hollow lavatory in a recess of the north corner when
A well-heeled retiree returns a pre-1940s hardcover potboiler
Ruined from the walk over, man in the clammy reading room
Whose bags always left against the chipped radiator's fitted wire cover
From a.m. to closing sleeps in the amber elderly light gleams on armchair vinyl.

AM: This came directly out of reading — well, being mesmerized by — Kerouac’s Visions of Cody. I was indeed working in a library, though it spirals out from there into an aerial view of Providence. I was having a rough time, felt I was suffocated by campus life in a small gray tight city. "Fresh air!" as Koch says. And at Brown I felt rather persecuted. It was all in my imagination, but I felt I wasn’t part of the club.

Latinate? Torrential, solicitous, stentorian, precise, obstructed, mausoleum, lavatory. If I recall correctly, the Providence Athenaeum is the fourth oldest library in America. Old bluestockings would come there, bourgeois lawyers’ wives with their kids, it was a very stark building, often rained on. I would tell people I worked there and they’d say, "Oh, I’m frightened of that place!" Thus the stately tone of the poem, its stilted lilt.

I never liked prose poems too much — the sight of lines on a page provokes an involuntary jubilant physical reaction in me: "POETRY!" — but I was sick of the free verse line that looks like tetrameter or pentameter, so I experimented with really long ones. (And before this I had written "The Traveler" and "City Story" which do the same thing.)

Sad, sulky, closer to broke than I’d been since making the leap from bookstore clerk to temp — I wrote big awkward poems. And I didn’t rip them up.

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