Justice + Beauty = Sublime
The acclaimed poet Alice Fulton talks about Cascade Experiment, her new collection of poems, and why art must aim to be "fair"—in both senses of the word
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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.
Experiments also connote failure, another topic I'm interested in. There's a poem in the book called "Failure," and in it I was thinking about the way that failure is a large part of life for everyone, especially for every writer. We have to deny it in order to go on writing, but I wanted to dwell a little bit more on the way things can go wrong. Writers are always walking this tightrope; you don't know how your work is going to be received—whether it will mean anything to anyone.
Many of these poems use the typographical mark of a double equals sign, which you have called the "bride sign," and which has been described as an extension of Emily Dickinson's dash. How and why did you invent this sign?
I certainly do owe something to Emily Dickinson's dash. Her dashes allow us to reconstruct syntax that she leaves out: when she puts in a dash, we fill in what's missing. I love that so much about Dickinson. Another influence was Ammons's colon; his work is just littered with colons, and you really have to think about how to read them. I wanted to make a sign separate from language, a sign that would have an ambiguous meaning and that wouldn't be tied to words with all of their denotations. In making up the sign I thought about how other punctuation marks, like the period and question mark, become transparent. We don't see them; they're effaced completely. I wanted a punctuation mark that would be more present on the page—that we would notice and that would have a kind of resistance—and I tied it into a number of things.
One big influence was lace-making: for Sensual Math, my fourth book, I did a lot of research on the history of lace and fabric. There's a whole vocabulary for lace-making and it turns out to be this wonderful female province of craft and creativity. In lace, the little background lines that hold the foreground together are called the brides, and in the diagrams in lace-making books they look exactly like double equals signs: two little stitches with a gap.
Because the brides disappear into the background, I connected them, in part, with banished histories and banished voices. The sign could be thought of as gendered, because women's contributions over the course of human history have been so vast but, until recently, unspoken—reticent and silenced. In Sensual Math, the book where I first began to use the sign, I wrote a poem that had the sign as its title. It was in that poem that I really defined some of what I was trying to do with it—having to do with white space, with the space between the lines, and gender. The last line of that poem is "the wick that is the white between the ink." The wick is a candle wick, implying that it's the white space that lets meaning brighten and come into being.
I wanted the punctuation mark to be unspoken. When I read the poems out loud I don't say it, and I hope other readers say nothing when they see it either. In that sense it's reticent, but it's also very present, almost obnoxiously present. It's an annoying little thing, like a splinter, that's meant to call attention to the surface of language, the quality of language that is opaque. The things about language that are annoying are the very parts we have to go back to, that make us think and ask, "How do I interpret this?"
As you say, these typographical features are very striking on the page, but they're not supposed to be sounded when the poems are read out loud. What's your sense of the relationship between a poem as a spoken event and as a visual presence on the page?
I think they're very different, and can yield different things. On the page, for instance, some of these poems are right-justified, starting with a poem about suicide called "Silencer," from the late eighties. Right justification means that instead of trailing off, the lines hit this wall of white, and I used that effect carefully to reinforce content. For a reader it has an almost subliminal effect to see the right-justified lines and the neat wall of white that's pressing back on the text.
Many effects in poetry are like this; stanzas, lines, all of these elements we use don't necessarily come across in oral reading. What you get in a reading is a presence. The poet is actually there physically, with a physical voice, and that physical voice is the materiality of the lyric poem. At a public reading you're there with your body, your age, your gender, your accent, your class, so in a way you contextualize your own poem. You bring all that baggage without having to say a word about it directly. When readings are really going well, when the poet is reading at her best and the audience is prepared, as John Cage's prepared pianos might be, and are open to the experience, something can happen. It's almost like a transmission in Eastern spiritual practices, where the belief is that if you sit in the presence of the teacher something might be transmitted to you that wouldn't be if you'd read a book.
Because the poems are so intricate and referential, I was wondering how you would suggest that a reader new to your work approach this book?
The ideal thing would be to allow for time to read it straight through from the beginning to the end. That sounds linear and boring, but I did construct it that way, and I lived it that way, so I think there's a process there from the beginning to the end. In the beginning you get the easier, young poems that were written in the late seventies, so the book begins sort of quietly. There's not too much demanded, and then each poem itself instructs people about how to read the next poem. That's another reason that it's a cascade experiment. The first book, Dance Script with Electric Ballerina, is my easiest work, but it shows what's going to happen later. It does what fractals do; it shows things on a small scale that later become more complex and larger and longer. So reading from book to book would be a practice of unfolding, as in a handheld fan that slowly unfolds and shows the picture painted on it.
People also could read it in other ways; they could try reading the first poem in every one of the books. I do that myself sometimes. When I was looking at the book structurally after I had selected the poems, I noticed that each of the books begins with a love poem, not necessarily romantic love, but a love poem in the biggest sense.
There are elements in the poems that seem autobiographical, but they don't seem motivated by the impulse to tell personal stories. What is the relation between autobiography and the subject matter of your poems?
I've written a lot more poems about family than are included in the Selected Poems. I found myself taking out a lot of those poems, perhaps because I'm now directing that impulse into my fiction, and also because I've begun to have more qualms about revealing things about people who may not have given me permission to do so. Nobody has gotten angry, but I still feel that people's lives should be their own. With poetry, I'm also simply more interested in ideas, in language, art, and feelings. I'm interested in lyric poetry when it has conscience and engagement with cruelty and suffering and witness—history, ethics, religion. Autobiography ends up in there anyway, because I can only write what I've lived and know or believe, what I've internalized. In some sense, all poetry is autobiographical, because even poems that are about issues have been filtered through the poet's brain and through her life.
I don't know if you're aware that The Atlantic has a fact-checker look over all the poems that the magazine publishes, but I was wondering how important you think factual accuracy is in poetry.
I don't think a poem always has to be factually correct, but I do think that there are facts you want to be correct about. Poetry can take liberties with exact facts because we're sometimes trying to get to a truth that is beyond the literal. Still, I would never purposely use a fact that wasn't true, and I think being factually correct adds a sort of authenticity.
I happen to love technical books. I get hooked on certain technical dictions; for instance, a few years ago I bought a book that was about wood grains in trees. It talked about how deviant grains make some trees unable to be harvested, and how other sorts of diseases lead to beautiful things, like bird's-eye maple and other visually interesting aberrations. It was full of technical terms that I lifted and de-contextualized in Sensual Math, for poems like the sequence "Give," which is about the Greek myth of Daphne being turned into a tree. It helped me so much when I was thinking about Daphne to learn about how a tree is made, about the process of rings in trees, about how wood grain develops, and how it's used commercially.
For Felt, I began reading a lot about the process of felt-making, the way that in antiquity felt was discovered accidentally, probably when fibers from sheep and goats got matted in somebody's sandal. Then I began reading about the industrial uses for felt and the properties that felt has as a fabric. Felt turns out to be almost magical in that it can be pushed under tons of pressure and it won't be damaged. Other fabrics unravel—their threads fray—but felt doesn't, because it's actually a snarl of fabric, an entanglement, and you can't take it apart or isolate one thread. All this became metaphorical. But the metaphors are founded in fact. I don't quote information from books directly; I want it to become a part of my thinking, to become a trope. The fact itself is dead on the page unless we imbue it with our own mind and life and linguistic sense, and then it becomes poetry.
What's your sense of the ethical obligations of poems—the role that ethics and morality play in your writing process, and in your sense of poetics?
One of my early answers to that question was that I wanted to say things about women's lives that hadn't been articulated. I was in college during the second wave of feminism, and in my first two books the politics and ethics were feminist. I tried to keep it subversive; I didn't want to be didactic or polemical, so the feminism in those books was between the lines and under the surface. I thought carefully about pronouns: for example, a poem about Isaac Newton called "Between the Apple and the Stars" talks about a scientist wielding "a hand like a wand." I deliberately made it non-gendered: not his hand, or hers, but a hand, because I was thinking about the issue of power in science.
Feminism has never gone away for me, partially because I believe that you speak to and from what you've lived. I have a certain authority about what it's like to be a woman, so I can write about women's issues, whereas if I want to write about other groups of people, I have to worry very deeply about appropriating others' points of view. In Powers of Congress, for instance, there are some feminist lines. In a poem called "Shy One" a line about female lizards is part of the subversive subtext of the poem: "Because truths we don't suspect have a hard time / making themselves felt, as when thirteen species / of whiptail lizards composed entirely of females / stay undiscovered due to bias / against such things existing, / we have to meet the universe halfway." In that book, I took feminism as part of the ethics, but went beyond it into a sort of religious widening of the notion of looking at the background rather than at the figure. Looking at the silent, the dark space, the recessed, rather than the foreground.
In Sensual Math, and more in Felt, cruelty and suffering have become the central ethical problems. I feel very deeply for animals. So animal suffering was an issue I felt I could write about because it's one I worry about. I lived in the Midwest when I wrote some of those poems, and while I was there I saw big tractor-trailers full of animals on the way to the slaughterhouse. Learning about what actually happens to those animals, I was struck by the cruelty of it. I wanted to let something like that become part of lyric poetry, to say that cruelty and suffering don't have to be pushed to the side but can be part of the sublime.
If you were advising a poet who wanted to write about political and cultural matters, but wanted to avoid being didactic and polemical, what kinds of technical or specific advice would you give?
You can end up being didactic and polemical no matter what you're writing about. To avoid being stale and preachy or clichéd, the poet always needs to ask herself how to approach the world freshly and deeply. No matter what is holding your attention as a poet, you should always say to yourself, "How can I approach it so deeply that it becomes eccentric, idiosyncratic, and mine?"
Nothing is worse than a poem that's secondhand and cynical, a poem that was written to get into a certain magazine or for a certain market. But if one really engages with a subject, something quirky and strange—good strange—will come of it, whether you're writing about war or love. The other thing to think about is the language itself. When we worry about didacticism and the polemical, we mean that we don't want our writing to become simplistic or superficial like T-shirt slogans. A poem is inherently a layered text that has layer upon layer of meaning. You need to look for the language that is the most connotative and veiled and subversive
What are the highest ambitions for American poetry right now as you see it? What should it be aiming to do?
In 1999 I wrote an essay called "A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge," in which I talked about the importance of going against the culture. I think we have to make something of a conscious effort to write against the aspects of our culture that are greedy, violent, and negative. I also feel strongly that we shouldn't just be staring at our own navels; poetry needs to look at what's invisible and at what's barely visible, and bring it to light.
As for the American poetry world as a whole, I'm concerned about where the power is located. I believe it should be decentralized; the same five people shouldn't be calling all the shots. Those who have influence need to look at people who have not been talked about—whose names rarely come up. Maybe a struggling poet has published three books and then been forgotten because she or he didn't work the room or know all the right people. Maybe a poet got very discouraged. Maybe she sent her manuscript out, but she wasn't as resilient as other people who kept on sending theirs out to a hundred more contests. To bring up that obscure name, to talk about those who aren't getting attention—that should be part of the project of American poetry.
Years ago, I went to a course at a Zen temple. It was great, and I learned so much, but one thing troubled me about it. There was a big golden Buddha at the front of the room and we all had to kowtow to it. When we came in we actually had to get down on our knees and bow. I had no problem with most of that; I think it's quite healthy. Bowing to be reminded that I slither like a worm through the universe is fine. But I didn't like the fact that it was a male figure and that it was gold—that I was bowing down to this great big, gold male incarnation. I think we have to be careful what we pay homage to. My husband had a wonderful line about that once; he said "attention is a form of homage." We pay homage by allowing something to exist in our minds. That attention is a gift. So if I bow, I want to make sure that I'm bowing to the right things, to what has been invisible. And I want to try to make it become visible, to constantly look for what's been forgotten, whatever our culture has effaced or treated unjustly. And of course we need to pay homage to what's aesthetically good. I love good aesthetics.
How do you, personally, define good aesthetics?
Well, I think my whole book is about that. I spent twenty-five years writing a book, and every time I sat down to do it I tried to make it aesthetically good. There are two things that happen for me in poetry, the two deepest things in the arts in general: beauty and justice. For me, beauty has to do with qualities of eccentricity, idiosyncratic freshness, innovation, elegance—the famous scientific principle of elegance—and complexity. Justice means everything I was just talking about: trying to be attentive to those who have been pushed aside, to be fair.
Art should be fair in both senses of the word. Fair is the perfect word because it means both justice and beauty. There is no beauty without justice: if something is very beautiful but there is no rightness to it in the ethical sense, its beauty is at heart cold and selfish, narcissistic and empty. It's a debased aesthetic object. But something beautiful that's also fair—as in ethical and just—is something sublime.