Thursday, July 23, 2009

An Interview with Dan Beachy-Quick (Spring 2007)

When I first encountered Dan Beachy-Quick’s book Mulberry, quite by chance at the local library, I was astonished by the density and quickness of its music; by the way it weaves its themes together so that a sequence of mostly short poems is made to constitute a structure of maximum lightness and coherence, reiterative and reechoing without any jangle of forced sounds or false connections; by the way energetic formal invention and polyvocal, collage-like techniques coexist in his work with a defenseless earnestness, an urgency that needn’t resort to irony. His ambidextrous syntax and musical ordering of visual detail reminded me of American modernists like Louis Zukofsky and Ronald Johnson, and also of British ecstatic lyrics from Henry Vaughan to Gerard Manley Hopkins; but the field of information he worked from was uniquely his own, grounded in a contemporary cityscape with No Trespassing signs and crowded buses and headache medications, but attentive to a range of histories from the textiles and pottery of ancient China to the painting of Titian to the violent conquest of North America. His earlier books— North True South Bright (the title is a quotation from Paul Celan) and Spell (a long poem dealing in all sorts of surprising ways with Melville’s Moby-Dick)—are similarly dense with reference and intricate of construction.

I contacted Beachy-Quick last year when he was teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago (he has since relocated to Colorado State University), and printed two of his poems in Peaches and Bats 1. I briefly met him in person at a reading he gave in New York last spring, and in the summer he kindly answered some questions I sent him via email about his poetry and about his prose work on Moby-Dick, entitled A Whaler’s Dictionary, which has since been published by Milkweed Editions.

 Sam Lohmann: What's your thinking about the book as a form in itself, rather than as a mere container for individual poems? 

Dan Beachy-Quick: For the past many years, now near a decade, I've been far more concerned with the book as a form, than the independence of a given single poem. Maybe what I mean to say is that I became curious with the idea that the book could take precedence over the poem, and rather than the book simply being an architecture in which the poems, like fine art, occupy a place of privilege, that the book itself could be more important than any single poem. Thinking of the book became I way to humble my own impulses toward the beauty of the poem itself as containing an ultimate meaning. For me, the book became a thinking that the poems contribute to, each an idea, but an idea doing work which no single poem could by itself conclude.

SL: You've been working on a book of essays on Moby-Dick, right? What are some of your findings?

DB: I have been working on Moby-Dick again—a set of interlinked meditations. The book is structured like a dictionary or encyclopedia, and rather than page numbers, a reader finds at the end of the entry a set of cross-references which connect, in one way or another, with the entry just read. My idea was that Moby-Dick is a book that forces a reader to consider his/her own need and means of making meaning out of text—both the desire and the impossibility of that desire. So, I set out to write a book that allowed every reader to begin to construct a meaning for his or herself. The book's not meant to be read from cover to cover, but wandered through, picked up, put down. As for what I found, it's hard to say. Because I wasn't looking for any one thing, but trying to write to greatest width of my interest, or tangent of possible connection, I feel like I didn't find anything at all. The wealth of the book is so much greater, it makes one bereft to put I down. I tried to think everywhere. 

SL: How has your work on these essays been informed by the writing of Spell, your earlier book-length poem dealing with Moby-Dick

DB: It did, though in a negative way. Negative, that is, in terms of space, not judgment. I felt increasingly haunted by the way Spell didn't manage to look at Moby-Dick in the way I had originally intended. As per your first question, at some point, I realized that Spell, as a book, was fundamentally about itself, and had to privilege its poetic necessity over my own failed hopes for it. So, coming back, I realized I needed to foreground the essays as essays, lest the strange and unique physics any poem enacts alter my trajectory again.

SL: When one thinks of American poets writing books on Melville, Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael immediately comes to mind. Is his work important to you?

DB: His work is important to me, though in ways I still have yet to reconcile with myself. I go back to his poetry occasionally, gaining more pleasure each time

I do, more thought. I think in 10 years he might be the poet I turn to in times of poetic need. I see him still on the horizon, I guess. I've read Call Me Ishmael 4 or 5 times, and do find it invaluable—the courage of his looking, the voice, the risk of assertion.  Most moving to me, and of most value, is his analysis of Melville's interest in Shakespeare.  But, too, illuminating the whaling industry of the time, and the recap of Melville's own journeys, the encountering of Mr. Coffin and Mr. Chase . . . lovely, haunted.

SL: What do you make of Olson's assertion at the beginning of that book that the central fact for American writing is (his caps) “SPACE”? (It seems to me that the meaning of space in America has changed a great deal in the 50+ years since he wrote that.)

DB: Your parenthetical point is a deep and good one. To be honest, I don't know if I understand exactly what Olson meant. He seems to be speaking of geographical fact—the width of the land that America swallowed. But Moby-Dick is as landless as Ishmael says Truth is. We never see land again after that Christmas day the Pequod shoves off—save for those odd, temporally displaced moments where Ishmael hints at his journeys post-catastrophe. I'm also not sure SPACE has changed so much in the last 50 years. In some sense, space has increased. The internet. Our daily interaction with a world inside a world.

What I end up trusting to, and where I'd agree with Olson, is that landscape forms the self in a landscape, and that geography turns inverse, grows internal, and becomes an aspect of the soul. Note the times that Ishmael sees the ocean as the Great Plains—the simile itself is beautiful, but far better, is to see Ishmael's vision as symptomatic of a deeper reality from which he cannot escape. That is to say, the overlap of grass and ocean, each without end in the eye, speaks toward the nature of his eye rather than the intelligence of his mind. Then space isn't limited by boundary. 

SL: What has been the influence of Ronald Johnson's poetry on your work?

DB: He connected my ear to my eye.

SL: How does the visual aspect of your writing (the way it looks on the page) interact with the sound of the words and the bodily experience of reading? To what extent is your use of spacing, of italics, and of graphic signs such as asterisks and slashes, a notation for speech?

DB: Ideally, in my mind, speech and thought are simultaneous, music articulates a thinking words alone can accomplish in a far more limited way. I try to be honest to the difficulty of connecting thought and speech. There is, in the end, something mimetic in the placing of words on a page.

SL: Religious language and themes are frequent in your work. Would you describe yourself as in any sense a “religious poet”?

DB: I would characterize myself as such, if by religious one can mean the exalted attention the world requires to be seen.

SL: What are your processes of revision like?

DB: It depends wholly on what I'm writing. The essays are a different kind of work than the poems. Revision requires the hard work of finding again the place/space from which the poem sprung. I don't tend to write unless I find in myself a poem to be written. That is, I wait until I hear a line. And then I think about that line until the next drops out from it, and I keep following the same process, thinking through it, listening to it, waiting.  

SL: What has been the influence of your teaching work on your writing?

DB: I sort of feel they're the same process, or at least come from the same place, require the same seriousness, the same attention, the same risk. If anything, teaching reminds me not only that clarity in complexity is vastly important, but that what we're trying to do is communicate something almost too difficult to utter, but we must utter it anyway, imperfectly, and get toward what we can as best we can.

SL: There is a rich sense of the past in your work and a lot of quotation from old texts. What, for you, are the special possibilities of poetry as a way of thinking about and representing the past, as an alternative to standard historiographic practices?

DB: I think Susan Howe points the way. Language can speak a history as living. I get the suspicion that everything ever spoken exists in the air still. We live this Echo life. I can't imagine a kind of speaking that isn't a re-speaking, and because of that, as Faulkner too would have it, the past is always ahead of us.

SL: Is there a personal significance to the “No Trespassing” sign that is a recurring motif in your book Mulberry?

DB: A sign I saw on the day much of that book recounts.

SL: What effect has living in Chicago, as a landscape and as a community, had on your writing?

DB: We've been happier here than anywhere else. We've had a child. There's a truly extraordinary group of poets in Chicago that I'm lucky enough to know: Suzanne Buffam, Srikanth Reddy, Robyn Schiff, Nick Twemlow, Leila Wilson, Peter O'Leary, Simone Muensch, John Tipton, Lisa Fishman, Joel Craig, Rick Meier . . . my amazing students . . . & the great lake sitting on top of my head.

SL: What five musical recordings would you want to take with you to a desert  island?

DB: I don't know. What could I listen to that much? Bach. Strauss' Last Songs. Elvis' Sunrise. Gillian Welch's Time the Revelator. & Hank Williams. (No doubt, I'll change my mind.)

(in Peaches and Bats 2)

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