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by Alice Fulton
W. W. Norton
224 pages, $24.95
On her 1999 essay collection Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry, Alice Fulton writes that "after years of circumlocution, perhaps it's time to admit that, yes, poems are about something." In the context of the essay, this statement challenges the conventional wisdom among many poets that the content of a poem is less important than its form. In practice, Fulton has created a poetic style that is remarkably "about things," in the sense that her poems explore their overt subject matter deeply and uphold their convictions with rigor. Cascade Experiment, a new selection of poems culled from her previous five books of poetry, amply demonstrates not only Fulton's broad range of interests but also her continual and evolving sense of how to use the most seemingly insignificant details to illuminate the nuances of difficult moral ideas.
The topics of Fulton's poems vary widely: stories from the poet's life share space with meditations on science, crafts, commerce, and an array of other matters. Musical, lucid, and inviting, her poems also confound complacent reading, often through such visual devices as unstable margins, invented punctuation, and even acrostics (the first letters of each line of one poem, read downward, spell out "BOWLING DEVELOPS THE RIGHT ARM"). All of this complexity, which critics often describe as "dazzling," is neither incidental nor auxiliary to the poems' intentions. Each poem cleverly recombines elements of the everyday world in ways that surprise us, delivering pleasurable yet exacting jolts of mindfulness.
In a recent poem called "Fair Use," for instance, a revelation about the interconnectedness of all things comes our way via "the turntable's liking for vinyl, / the eraser's yen for chalk, / the ink's attraction to the nib." Such personifications of inanimate objects in Fulton's poetry serve not only as attractive whimsy, but as illustrations of the poet's conviction that all entities, especially those usually ignored, have particular importance and stories worth telling.
Before Cascade Experiment, Alice Fulton's most recent books of poetry were Felt (2000) and Sensual Math (1994). She has received numerous awards, including Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, and currently teaches at Cornell University. We spoke by telephone.
What was it like making selections and deciding which poems to include in the book?
It was fun, because all the poems had been out there already, so I didn't worry about it in quite the same way as a new book. I also had fun looking back with some distance and perspective on my earlier work. Rather than send the book out to other people for their opinions, I just chose my own personal favorites and what I thought were the best poems. For a while I put off publishing the selected poems because a lot of people feel it's an endpoint or a big monument—almost a headstone. I found that I don't feel that way. I see it as sort of a hinge moment: it's a door closing, but then it frees me to go on and do whatever I want next. In a way it's nice to have one part of my career end and to be able to begin creating a whole new body of work.
What new writing are you working on now?
Well, I have titles. Right now I'm finishing a fiction collection, and then I'll begin working on my next poetry book in the fall, when I think my work may move in a new direction. I can't really control or predict it, but my plan is to write a book called Barely Composed. The title refers to a kind of disequilibrium or nervousness, a stress that I've felt for a long time and that I think is just part of life. My thought is to use that and to allow it to become part of the writing process. The interruptions, the loss of balance, even: it's a sense of things being out of one's control, but making something of it anyway.
Is that an aesthetic principle too?
I think it is more and more. As I get older, I'm less interested in control than I am in process, and accidents—things that lead to the process. Like many poets, I tend to be a perfectionist, so it's good for me to relax more and to give up some of the controlling part of my character. I think writing comes from character, deeply. As a teacher, I've noticed that no matter what we try to teach, people always bring what they have to offer.
My own teacher, A. R. Ammons, said something about that the day I met him. I was visiting Cornell as a prospective graduate student, and Archie said, in a very gentle, courteous, southern way, "Well, you can come here and hang around if you want, but I have to warn you we have nothing to teach you. Your poems are there already. At the time I thought that was just a polite way of telling me that he didn't want to be pestered. But over the years another meaning occurred to me, that my poems were there already, all curled up inside in a scroll or a spiral. All I needed was time and experience and they would unfurl. He would not be able to control that process, and neither would I. Now I see that with my own students and that's partly what I mean by "barely composed." Control is a losing game when so much of what you bring to the page is what you've lived, or what was there in your DNA when you were born. It's a combination of very complex factors, like a cascade experiment.
What exactly is a cascade experiment, and why did you choose the phrase as a title for the selected poems?
In science, a cascade experiment is a sort of domino effect, a trip wire, where one small catalyst causes an event and then that event causes the next event, and so forth. Each event changes the next one, so it becomes an avalanche of cause and effect. I called the book Cascade Experiment because when I looked back at the poems, I saw that I couldn't have predicted where each would lead, or the way one book would lead to another. "Cascade Experiment" was originally the title of one of the poems, now called "Shy One," and the idea comes up in another poem with the line "one touch and worlds take place." In general, I always look for a book title that I find inherently interesting. I like book titles that don't give everything away, that won't be understood down to the ground. That mystery is at the bottom of poetry: it's a recursive process that has no end.
Does the word "experiment" in the title refer to an affinity for experimentation in poetry?
Experiment is a word that can cut both ways. Because I mistrust it, I wanted to connect it to the actual science of cascade experiments. In terms of experimentation in poetry, I think I've always been interested in pushing my work, so my poems change more from book to book than those of some other poets. I try to see what language can do and to keep myself and, I hope, readers, interested. I'm interested in innovation, the new, but not just because it's new; I try to limit it to things that seem to have depth and to be worth it.