Anthony: The official occasion of this psychotic public conversation is our new book—Thing Music—so let’s begin this disarticulation of our so-called self with that book: what’s it been like having this one out in the world?
Anthony: As we’ve experienced now a number of times the release of a book primarily seems to amplify the need—it feels physical—to get going on another one—this despite the fact—and I think you would agree with me here—that we feel richly satisfied with Thing Music. I can actually read it for pleasure—all the way through. Maybe we’ve felt that way after every book? I can’t remember… This one feels different though—like it’s still a little out in front of us, still teaching us about itself, or better put, has just begun to do so. But that only complicates the problem of where to go next. What’s been your experience: have you been enjoying giving readings from the book?
Anthony: I always enjoy giving readings—and that’s certainly been the case this fall. What’s been especially thrilling is how often during the readings I’ve been able to really emigrate into the poems themselves, to feel surprised by them, despite all the time we’ve spent with them, and to play around inside them while reading. I’ve been able to stretch out certain moments, to come at others with more speed, to hit certain beats harder or more softly, and then to feel and hear the poems ring differently in different rooms in ways that feel totally true to the poems. It’s like they are getting to exhibit their different moods or selves in the different tone-shapes that are the different spaces one ends up reading poems in. Plus, reading from the book has provided the pretext for some really rich and joyous socializing with fellow poets—I’ve had some conversations that feel like they are going to be important to whatever the next book we make will be. But let’s talk a little more about the book itself. I know you just gave a lecture for our job in the UCR Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA program where you used the book—or one poem from the book—as a kind of scaffolding for a talk about perception, influence and inheritance. In that talk I believe you discussed some of the pre-writing practices that were important for us in writing Thing Music…and I think you ended the lecture talking about some of your more private experiences of the book as a finished, independent being—including something I think you referred to as a secret private mode of publishing…
Anthony: Well, Anthony, a number of our dear friends would question your use of the word “finished” there—along lines you are well familiar with. Is any book ever finished, etc. Doesn’t each reader further “complete” it, etc. But yes, I did talk about the book a bit in that lecture as a way of opening the doors to a conversation about a more embodied but impersonal understanding of influence. At one point I described how the book emerged out of a field of tension between the perseverating poetic movement of poets like Robert Creeley, Eileen Myles and Peter Gizzi, and the more diffused unfolding movement of the work of Larry Eigner—so that at times it felt like I was the meeting place of those different poets. But I think you are really asking me about the leaf-staring and about reading to plants in the desert.
Anthony: Indeed, I am.
Anthony: Right. Well, I stare at leaves. It’s something I got from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of painters who reported often feeling as if the things they painted regarded them. For Merleau-Ponty these moments of “emigration into the outside,” of allowing oneself to be “alienated by the phantom” are intimations of what he sees as the fundamental structure of being—which he names “flesh.” This “flesh” is an intertwining of the visible and the invisible, of matter and some kind of sense, whether it be the sense of vision that intertwines with the visibles to make the synergic dimension of vision, or the unparaphrasable “sense” of a piece of music which gathers or is gathered up by the sequence of notes, which are themselves material vibrations. Anyway, thinking of all this I stare at leaves until they stare back. It’s a real relief to briefly emigrate into the outside, and it’s something I think you and I were trained in by our parents—this kind of attention to light and leaf which was augmented from early on by the constant recitations of Emily Dickinson we were subject to….
Anthony: And still are….
Anthony: …by our beloved, incorrigible father. Anyway, this leaf staring mirrors something I want to do in poems—emigrate into language, into that intertwining of my own anonymous, embodied sentience with the field of language, that necrosocial substance, shaped by so many speaking bodies that have been here before us.
Anthony: Which is where it gets sexy and a little creepy maybe.
Anthony: Depending on what you mean by those words, I guess. But, if you’ll let me finish here I’ll get to the secret publishing you were talking about, which I also think of as the secret, private afterlife of some of the poems. What I do is this: I take the poems out—usually by memory, sometimes in our copy of the book—into the desert, the Mojave, where we spend a lot of time, and I recite them out there to those spiky-headed, light-drenched plants. Often we’ve been alone the whole time, gone days sometimes without speaking to anyone—and the sound of my voice…it’s wonderfully alienating. It just sounds like sound—and the poem—it sounds like what it is: a sound structure, more noise, to put back there with the land. Often in the middle of reciting the poem—because the desert is so changeable—the soundscape will change, a big wind will come up or die down, leaving an incredible sentient stillness. Sometimes when the wind comes up the plant I’m reading to begins to shake with such animate ferocity that the poem responds and moves faster through me. It gets wild and comic. Another strange thing that I’ve noticed about reciting poems to plants is that while I’m making noise with my mouth I feel like my visual attention to the plants gets sharper—I notice textures, shagginesses I had missed earlier. The poem “The Nouns” we’ve included here is one of the ones I recite the most. It’s totally of the desert—that’s one’s reason, but the other is that it ends with those lines “there was a brand new sound,” which allows the desert to continue the poem, opens up the poem to whatever crazy noise the desert is making at that time…even if it is the noise of the Marines at the base in Twenty Nine Palms blowing something else to hell.
Anthony: And you call this “publishing”—why?
Anthony: Because it’s a different kind of making the work public, of being with it alongside others. In this case those others are plants: Joshua Trees, various other yuccas, and the bobbly creosote bushes—and birds too: mourning doves, phainopeplas and the crows and ravens—who often make some rather mocking-sounding contributions…
Anthony: No doubt. Any mammals? Reptiles?
Anthony: I try not to bother the rattlesnakes—they have made their hatred of the human fairly clear to me. Fortunately they are often hibernating. Lizards are around, of course. I’ve recited a poem to a desert tortoise. When I see a bighorn sheep, I’m too stunned to speak at all. Coyotes I just try to talk to. I see them more often in LA anyway. And the jackrabbits are these sudden vanishments—no time for human speech there. On that note, maybe we should start bringing this public self-dismemberment to a close…
Anthony: Probably, but it certainly felt like a good time to be disarticulating ourself like this, right? After the last 10 days we spent teaching at the UCR Palm Desert MFA program residency, I mean. The experience you just described of hearing our own voice in the desert reminds me of what it was like to pass our image in the mirror during the later days of that residency. Do you know what I mean?
Anthony: I think I do. I believe you mean how all the talking and being with others can leave us confused about who and what we are by the end of the 10 days. So much so that our image in the mirror—and there are a lot of mirrors around in that cushy resort that the program has miraculously managed to appropriate as our campus!—concretizes Rimbaud’s “I is someone else” with real clarity and precision. I mean, in those moment I know exactly what Rimbaud means. I was also reminded of the Dickinson poem “Like eyes that looked on Wastes” that we discussed in that same lecture last week—where the I regards her specular self. The poems ends up saying: “Neither – would be absolved – / Neither would be a Queen / Without the Other – Therefore – / We perish – Tho’ We reign – ” …You know, sometimes I have felt, during this conversation, like there are actually three of us: I-Anthony, You-Anthony, and then that third person (who invited him?) in the mirror. I’ve also felt that this disarticulated trio was perhaps presided over in silence and abdication by Emily Dickinson. But that’s a whole other level of psychosis…
Anthony: Yeah, I won’t touch that—but I do want to connect our job at UCR Palm Desert back to the book before we finish. This distance from ourself is an interesting, and I think important effect of the residency and has something to do with the way writers tend to socialize, both in the real world and through the work. Poetic sociality is probably one of the main themes of Thing Music, especially of the longer poems in the third section of the book, and I’m fascinated by our job at Palm Desert for the way it provides a varied site for literary sociality to manifest. Most of the year students and faculty are apart—vanished, as we love to be, down the tunnel of our work—sharing long distant messages about assigned readings and student work, but then twice a year for 10 days we are all together, talking in small groups, in classes, in one-on-one meetings, sharing meals and so on. I think the program is especially attuned to the strange creature that a writer is and really accommodates the rhythmic longings of a writerly life—for distance and solitude, and for intense togetherness—all part of a longing for a more sustainably meaningful kind of communication than much of daily life out there in the so-called real world will allow.
Anthony: I am with you there. Glad we had this chance to talk.
Anthony: Ditto, Kiddo.