In 2010, Ali Liebegott took a road trip by train. Destination: the Emily Dickinson house. Along the way, she interviewed poets—Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe, CAConrad, and many more. We’ll be reposting the series to celebrate the release of Liebegott’s fourth book, The Summer of Dead Birds.
I interviewed language poet Rae Armantrout in her home in San Diego, California shortly after she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Versed. We first met in 2003 when I was an adjunct at University of California San Diego in 2003 and was a professor there. Some of her other books include: Extremities, The Invention of Hunger, Precedence, Necromance, Veil: New and Selected Poems, Up to Speed, Next Life, Versed, and Money Shot.
THE BELIEVER: Can you remember the first time you ever read an Emily Dickinson poem?
RA: When I was a kid my mother got me an encyclopedia for children. It was called Childcraft and it had two volumes dedicated to poetry for children and for some bizarre reason it had an Emily Dickinson poem in it. Although her poetry is hardly for children. (laughs) It’s about autumn and it starts, “the morns are meeker now” and it ends with “I’ll put a trinket on.” The leaves are changing and the seasons are changing and she’s going to try and match nature. Obviously the word trinket implies all you can do to match nature is pathetic and ineffectual. Or at least that’s how I take it. So that’s the first time I read an Emily Dickinson poem. She still surprises me, which is what I like best in a poet, really. She puts words together that you’ve never seen together before and never will see together again.
BLVR: It’s interesting how many people I’ve visited have been able to automatically remember that first Emily Dickinson experience.
RA: I remember first reading, A narrow fellow in the grass. Well, you’ve probably never seen narrow fellow together before and never will again. Of course she’s talking about a snake. She defamiliarizes that so immediately and gives you a creepy feeling right from the beginning. She’s so bold in the attitudes that she takes toward God for instance. In that time of revival meetings and tents and evangelical religion all around her she remained skeptical, engaged with religious thought but skeptical and challenging. She sort of throws out questions that challenge God. The end of that one famous poem where she says The Brain is just the weight of God – you imagine God in one hand and the brain in the other, which is already a bizarre idea. And they will differ—if they do—As Syllable from Sound –. So is God in the brain? Is the brain God? That’s kind of a radical question to be asking if you’re a nineteenth-century woman. And then the difference between syllable and sound is so subtle. She doesn’t make it between word and sound. It’s syllable and sound. It’s the smallest unit. She’s a great thinker with a bold imagination and the most daring and unusual way with words I’ve ever encountered. Usually when I read a poet who is good, I kinda go, Damn I wish I’d done that or that’s good but I could do that. I get rivalrous. But with Emily Dickinson, I go, I give up. [Laughs.]
BLVR: Have you been to her home?
RA: Peter Gizzi took me to it but it was closed. I saw it from the outside.
BLVR: Her bed is behind ropes. I was dying to lie on her bed. The thing that really got me was her window that you knew she looked out. They have a replica of her dress and she was so tiny. It took the breath out of me to be in her space.
BLVR: Congratulations on all your awards, especially the Pulitzer. It’s really nice to see you be recognized on that level after all your books. I’ve been asking people about their biggest literary moments. I imagine winning the Pulitzer Prize is pretty big?
RA: that’s one of those difficult questions because it asks you to compare apples to oranges. Is being really happy with someone you love your biggest moment? That sounds sentimental. Or is winning a prize your biggest moment? Or is writing the poem that you really like and say, this is good, in your own mind – is that your biggest moment? Winning the Pulitzer was certainly a shock. I wasn’t looking for that at all. I’ve only recently become aware of awards because awards were not part of my poetry community. The Pulitzer was not on my radar. I was aware of the National Book Award. I was aware of the National Book Critic Circle Award but only because Mary Jo Bang had won it two or three years ago. I knew Harryette Mullen had been a finalist for the National Book Award. Those things were beginning to make awards seem possible to me. Before that I never even thought about them at all. It’s not like I was sitting around waiting to win the Pulitzer. I didn’t even know when it was awarded. Someone from UCSD [The University of California, San Diego, where she works] called from their communications office and she just assumed I knew because she had the reasonable expectation that someone from the Pulitzer Foundation would call you, but they don’t. They send you a snail mail letter.
BLVR: You’re kidding!
RA: But of course it goes out on Twitter and all the journalists are right on top of it so other people knew. Apparently, journalists had been calling UCSD to get my phone number. And so I get this call from Inga Christianson in the communications office and she says, “The press are going to want to talk to you.” And I had no idea what she was talking about. And I was like, about what? Is my office on fire? I didn’t do it, promise. [Laughs.] And then she says, “You don’t know, do you?” And I said, “No.” So that’s how I found out.
RA: I was standing on the porch at that point and Chuck was out gardening and I started yelling, “Chuck, Chuck! Come here.” The tone in my voice was such that he thought something was wrong like I’d seen a rattlesnake or something. And he came running. Even then, I didn’t realize the level of publicity it brings down on you. I had TV crews in my house. I had a TV crew following me across campus. I felt like an animal in National Geographic, because the TV crew would say, “Just act natural.” So I would be carrying my stuff to class and they’d be a few feet away running alongside with a big camera. It was silly. I was invited to address the Chamber of Commerce to which I said no because they’re such a pig organization. I guess they thought I was a local woman of some prominence and they were having “women’s week”.
I had a rare cancer which still has not recurred but it was a very rare cancer and usually a deadly one—and I’ve been invited to address two medical schools. It’s partly because it’s cancer but mostly because of the prize because that makes me someone whose story suddenly matters, as if it wouldn’t matter otherwise. The second medical school is in Ann Arbor and there they have a clinic that specializes in my cancer and I didn’t even hear about that until I won the prize. The doctor called me because he’d heard me on NPR, and I guess he’s the kind of guy that listens to NPR even if it’s about poetry. And I read a couple poems that had to do with my feelings right after I was diagnosed and dealing with the medical system, and he liked them and he wanted me to come and address his students, so I’m going to do that. There have also been autograph hounds. People who are not interested in me at all but just want me to sign something. I got an index card in the mail from someone in Florida who said, “Please write a line of poetry on the front side and sign your name on the back.”
BLVR: Did you do it?
RA: I found it obnoxious but I did it because it was easy because he sent me a stamped envelope. I’ve had some requests like that that I haven’t answered. Someone sent me a piece of lined paper with photographs of me pasted all over both sides of it and there was only a little room left and they wanted me to sign on the little room left.
BLVR: What city was that from?
RA: I can’t remember. But I did get a really crazy one from San Diego. This kind of scared me, actually, and was also very sad. This guy must’ve mistaken me for Mother Theresa and he said, “My mother has cancer and my sister has diabetes and we’re inviting you over for Mother’s Day,” and he was writing me like he was actually expecting me to show up there and if I did it would somehow have a good effect on his relatives.
BLVR: Oh my God.
RA: So I didn’t answer that one.
BLVR: It’s weird what people project onto others. But someone in Florida got an original line?
RA: Oh, I remember what was so obnoxious about that. His letter said, “I have not read your book because it’s not on my Kindle but would you please…?”
BLVR: Would you read poetry on a Kindle?
RA: I would rather not, but never say never. I guess if people are going to be reading on Kindle I would like my work to be available on Kindle, but I think it’s going to be a long time before experimental-type contemporary poetry ends up on Kindle. They do have Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
BLVR: I wonder if Emily Dickinson knew she would be on Kindle one day when she was sewing her little poems into books.
RA: I think she knew she was great, in a defensive way maybe. She has so many poems like My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—and being a volcano exploding. All of these images of having power. I think she knew she had some great power inside of her that was bursting out.
BLVR: One of the things that people say the most about her is that she did the kind of writing that never happened before her and won’t happen again.
RA: Well, there’s not going to be Shakespeare again either or Bach or Einstein probably. But there might be other great things. Who knows. I think our culture works against it by forcing us all to be so busy. I mean, she wasn’t busy except in her own work. Most of us have to work two jobs or we’re distracted by all the different media outlets that there are. People don’t have any time for quiet and I suppose that works against the development of genius.
BLVR: Would you talk a little bit about your process?
RA: I keep a blank book and I write down notes in it. The notes might be a sound bite, something I hear on TV or something I hear someone say at a café or school. A while ago I heard someone say, “I want to explore the post-hope zeitgeist,” and I put that in a poem. [Laughs] Some things cannot be allowed to pass on unremarked. I keep the notes all the time and I try to take the book with me in my purse just in case. Then in the morning I look over my notes. I try to get up fairly early, I’m not a monk or anything, around 7:15, before Chuck does, and have my coffee and sit here with my notebook and see what occurs. I try to get a poem started when it is quiet.
BLVR: And do you write by hand?
RA: Yeah, to begin with, and then when a poem starts to come together I’ll go to the computer and mess around with it and change it.
BLVR: When you’re compiling a manuscript, how do you know when the book is done?
RA: That is a hard one. The last two times my editor made that decision for me. With my book Money Shot, my editor just wrote me and said, “Do you have a book?” and I said, “I have a manuscript. I didn’t know it was finished but maybe I could think of it that way.” I think that actually was a good time to stop it because that book was written during the worst part of the financial crisis/ripoff. Not that every poem in it is about that situation, but that is a motif that runs through it. I wrote it over the course of two years, so the work from that two years has a certain type of consistency that reflects that period.
In terms of Versed, I initially thought that Versed was one manuscript and Dark Matter was another. But Dark Matter wasn’t long enough to be even a short book of poetry, so I felt like I had to keep writing it. I had my surgery in 2006, so by the time I was in 2008, I was still writing Dark Matter, but to stay in the headspace of Dark Matter I had to keep believing I was going to die and at a certain point that became a burden.
The poems in the Dark Matter part, even the ones that aren’t directly about illness have a shadow of mortality on them somehow so I felt like I had to keep in that headspace and that was becoming oppressive. Then my editor stepped in again and said, “Why don’t we combine the two manuscripts into a book—divide the sections and then you’re through with it?” I said, that’s a good idea. So my editor, Suzanna Tamminen, was instrumental in helping me in my last two books. I’m not someone who plans my books in advance like some people do. The poems in my books, if they cohere as books, it’s only because they were written over a certain period of time and they have a certain kind of consistency, either because of what’s happening in my life or because of what’s happening in the world.
BLVR: You were talking before about your literary community—who are the poets you consistently go back to?
RA: It’s partly still my old friends. Ron Silliman I go to because of the level of attention he pays to what might seem like detail, and the way that he can kind of re-frame the ordinary through observation and bring out what’s peculiar about it. So I find that inspiring. And I love the sound of Fanny Howe’s work and the scope of her imagination. And Lyn Hejinian always amazes me, the way that she can move between the philosophical and the picaresque and even comic narrative. Those three among my old friends particularly. And there are some younger poets who I admire. Claudia Rankine is one. My work is nothing like hers but I admire it. Lately I have liked a poet in the Bay Area named Graham Foust who’s kind of a minimalist, and Monica Youn who is a young writer in New York. You probably won’t meet her but would like her book Ignatz. She’s writing in the voice of a Krazy Kat but it’s only obliquely related to the comic strip characters. It’s addressed to the unattainable beloved in the kind of romantic lyric poet kind of way, except the unattainable beloved is this kind of indifferent hurtful violent Ignatz mouse who abuses Krazy Kat. And neither one of the characters in the comic strip is assigned a gender by the way. And who are what Ignatz is changes all the time—it could be God, a lover, some kind of certainty. But Krazy Kat is always pursuing Ignatz. So that has interested me lately.
BLVR: Do you know the moment that you really thought of yourself as a writer?
RA: That took awhile, coming from San Diego, as you can imagine. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I knew that I wrote, but I didn’t know that you could be a living writer and that that could mean anything in the world until I transferred from San Diego State to Berkeley. Once I got to Berkeley, I took a class from Denise Levertov and she was the first living, published poet whom I’d ever met, and I met Ron Silliman and other young people who wanted to be poets and were very serious about it and believed they would be and it turned out were right.
BLVR: How old were you?
RA: Twenty-one, I guess.
BLVR: I know you’ve written essays. Would you ever write a novel?
RA: I wrote a memoir of growing up called True. But no, I would never write a novel. I realize there are all kinds of novels, but I don’t have much of a knack for plot. Maybe this just shows a lack of imagination, but to be a novelist you have to imagine what’s going to happen next to your characters, and I always stop there because I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I’m kind of stuck in the present. I don’t romanticize the past and I’m not very good at imagining the future. I mean, I imagine the future enough to worry about it. Every time I imagine the future it’s pretty dire. I like to read fiction but the idea of writing it just doesn’t much interest me.
BLVR: What about teaching? You’ve been a professor for over twenty years, right?
BLVR: From the outside you seem like somebody who’s been able to manage the two lives really successfully. Do you have any thoughts on how teaching affects your life as a writer?
RA: This quarter I’m managing it less successfully. It seems to be eating me up more now that we have this MFA program. It’s only been about seven years that I’ve been a full professor. Before, I was just teaching in the way adjuncts do—sort of hopeless about ever having a good job, and that was okay in a way because Chuck was working and it gave me time to raise a kid right. Then I got a job and I’m very glad I did. But once you get the job you have to deal with the administrative parts. I think you just have to keep your identity focused on your writing and not become too engaged in becoming a player in the system. You have to carve out some space for yourself.
BLVR: I imagine when you were sick you were approaching a lot of things with a dire perspective. When you were compiling poems for Dark Matter, was the process any different, given that question of whether you were going to be alive or not?
RA: Partly. Before I went into surgery, I sent all the uncollected work I had to Wesleyan, just: if I die in surgery here it is. Because they told me there was some chance I could die in surgery because the tumor was very large and was near my heart and arteries. But I didn’t die. I did take time off. Even though I was having chemo there were some really sweet times in there. Chuck and I went to Costa Rica right after I finished the chemo, and while I was having it we went to Sedona. Not to be cured by crystals, but just because it’s a really beautiful place and I had never been. There was a sense of heightened experience or heightened reaction to the world, just because you don’t know how long you’re going to be in it.
Ironically, that doctor in Ann Arbor who got in touch with me – he said my tumor was not such a dangerous tumor, that it wasn’t a high grade tumor, as had been diagnosed originally. High grade means the cells are dividing and reproducing quickly. The first pathologist at UCSD had rated it a high grade tumor but this tumor board said it was quite a low-grade tumor. If I had known that to begin with I probably would not have felt as much like I was going to die, but then I might not have written Dark Matter. I don’t know, it’s a trade off.
BLVR: Do you have any advice for writers in general? Because hopefully life is long, and I’m always struck when people I know get recognized, because writing can be such a solitary thing, and sometimes things like that can help you keep going.
RA: I didn’t experience The Pulitzer as an encouragement to my writing, but more as frightening because I felt like, “My God, they’re telling me I’m really good; now everything I do has to be really good. This thing that I’m writing in my journal right now. This doesn’t seem really good!” I think it put more internal pressure on me, which I had to kind of persist through. Anyway, it’s easy to give advice to beginning writers. What I usually say is read a lot in the genre you’re interested in. If you want to talk about people in mid-career, I think this is obvious and corny, but I think you have to do it for the love of it, not because you think you’re going to get famous or make money. It has to be giving you pleasure at the time you do it. Writing has to give you pleasure. And also, you need to have a writing community, and I know some people have that over the internet, although I don’t quite understand that. Best to have it in person too. I think my most intense friendships are with other writers, and that is a reward in itself and something to be nourished and valued.
BLVR: Since we’ve played Scrabble together before I feel comfortable asking you this. You have a choice to make out with Emily Dickinson or Rilke. Who do you choose?
RA: Okay. Wow. Emily Dickinson is the most interesting person to me in the world. We have to assume the other person wants to make out with you and you’re not foisting yourself on them?
BLVR: And assume they’re alive.
RA: So a. they’re alive and b. they’re not repulsed by you. Assuming that Emily Dickinson is sexually attracted to me, I would be fascinated to know what turns her on.
BLVR: Between Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf?
RA: I’m still sticking with Emily Dickinson.
BLVR: You’re a good person, Rae.
RA: I’m loyal.
BLVR: [Laughs.] The last question is the most existential. Feel free to not answer.
RA: As someone who just said she would make out with Emily Dickinson.
BLVR: I know. But I feel like I blow into town and ask people all these questions.
RA: Just don’t ask what sex act I would like to do with Emily Dickinson.
BLVR: No, no. This is PG-13. Do you have a spiritual practice?
RA: I think writing is my spiritual practice because it’s kind of meditative and puts you in touch with big questions. So I think that is how I meditate—with writing. My views on God—well, I have contradictory views on God or feelings about God. My thoughts on God are that we’re flies. How are we supposed to understand the meaning of the universe? We have a finite consciousness. I guess I have to say I’m agnostic because I don’t see how people could possibly comprehend God, if there was a God as Creator of the Universe. And secondly, I don’t understand the immortality of the soul because I can’t picture what it would be like to be conscious forever. All I can think of is boredom when I have that thought. Then I don’t see why in the Judeo-Christian tradition human souls are supposedly immortal, but chimpanzees, no. Buddhists don’t make that distinction. I guess if I were going to have a religion it would be Buddhism but I’m too lazy to sit on the floor cross-legged. Despite the fact that I’m pretty skeptical about a personal God, and the immortality of the soul—have you ever seen that footage of a bunch of chimpanzees by a waterfall and they’re looking at the waterfall and jumping up and down and it’s as if they’re doing it in response to the waterfall?
RA: I feel that way about the world. There’s a kind of sense that existence is amazing and wondrous and unbelievable. A feeling of worship is an appropriate response to it. So I sometimes have a feeling of worshipfulness, but I don’t really have any entity to worship.
BLVR: Do I have to Google “chimpanzees, waterfall”?