Interview with Jan Clausen – Part 1

 

Jan-ClausenJan Clausen’s Veiled Spill: A Sequence (GenPop Books) is one of the more important books of poetry published in the last few months, and Tarpaulin Sky is delighted to have the opportunity to interview its “hostile” author, recently praised and admonished in American Poetry Review and The Rumpus respectively (see below).

In addition to Veiled Spill, Clausen is the author of a dozen books in a range of genres. Other recent poetry collections are From a Glass House and If You Like Difficulty. Prose titles include the story collection Mother, Sister, Daughter, Lover; the novels Sinking, Stealing and The Prosperine Papers; and the memoir Apples and Oranges: My Journey Through Sexual Identity. Clausen’s poetry and creative prose are widely published in journals and anthologies; her book reviews and literary journalism have appeared in Boston Review, Ms., The Nation, Poets & Writers, and The Women’s Review of Books. A resident of Brooklyn since the 1970s, she maintains close ties to the Pacific Northwest, where she was born and raised. The recipient of writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, she taught for many years in the undergraduate creative writing program at Eugene Lang College, the New School. Currently she teaches in the Goddard College MFA in Writing Program and at New York University. She blogs at her revamped website, Ablationsite.

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veiled-cover-500wTS: Veiled Spill has just been reviewed in both American Poetry Review and The Rumpus, and the two pieces offer an interesting contrast. Writing in APR under the headline “What to Read Now: Some Vital Books from 2014,” Arielle Greenberg praises your book’s “grave emotional urgency conveyed through playful diction; innovative structures devised to relay the kinetic assimilation of multiple levels of political concern; and a dedication to real-life activism that goes beyond the page.” Kelly Morse, in The Rumpus, starts out by, in effect, placing scare quotes around the literary category she thinks your book belongs to: “Don’t laugh or cringe, dear reader – political poetry still exists….” In addition to misquoting the text (where you write, “Dead reader/you can kiss/my veiled ass/,” she substitutes” “Dear reader”), Morse admonishes you for adopting what she considers a “hostile” stance towards both readers and yourself in the opening pages; she clearly prefers passages that she describes as “meditating inwardly on a subject” rather than “projecting [your] views outward.” For Morse, it seems the latter mode exemplifies why readers might “laugh or cringe” in the face of poems that display some urgency around “political” topics. Clearly, these two reviewers are picking up on common threads in Veiled Spill, but reading them very differently. How do you respond?

JC: I appreciate Arielle Greenberg’s approach: acknowledging that the work is “politically charged” while crediting its emotional urgency along with looking at how the text operates. That’s so much more useful than simply slapping on a label like “political.” Of course different poems, and poets, have recognizably different levels of investment in current events or social questions, but creating a monolithic category of “political poetry” seems as odd to me as it would to talk about “personal poetry” as a genre. I prefer to think of my own work as being obsessed with the fact that we live in history. Given that our choices as historical beings have now brought us to the point of radically diminishing our planet’s ability to support our own existence, I actually have trouble understanding how anyone can fail to be similarly obsessed!

In fact, the suspicious attitude towards so-called political writing—the sense that if you can identify an artist’s critical concern with existing social arrangements, the art must be inferior—is extremely familiar to me. I’ve been getting those kinds of reviews since the 1980s, when my work began to be read outside of the lesbian-feminist context of my first publications. Either the reviewer resorts to the kinds of patronizing stock epithets that Morse falls back on (“heavy-handed,” “earnest”), or he pays me the backhanded compliment of expressing surprise that my “political” text is actually rather artful. I think it’s important to recognize that this bizarre notion of art flourishing in a politics-free realm is peculiarly American—literary communities in the rest of the world just don’t think this way! I view this attitude as a symptom of the arrogance of empire; its roots lie in the cultural politics of the Cold War period, when values like “freedom” and “individualism” and a focus on formal innovation at the expense of radical content became watchwords of a U.S. cultural establishment that was in many cases actually being underwritten by powerful government institutions. (Frances Stoner Saunders wrote about this in her influential The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, and there’s a brand new book by Greg Barnhisel, Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy, that delves further into the topic.) The arguments are long buried, but the assumptions linger, further marginalizing many U.S. writers whose critical perspectives already greatly restrict their “marketability,” and hence the reach and resonance of their work.

TS: Say a little bit more about your poetic obsession with the “fact that we live in history.”

JC: Our situation is the most extreme and tragic conceivable: that of a species on the brink of consciously causing its own demise, along with the extinction of untold numbers of other species. In other words, in the process of “making” our history, we have projected it far beyond our own affairs as a species, such that it has begun radically to alter the geology of our planet and hence the conditions for all of the biosphere. We know very well what we are doing, in both technical and ethical terms; yet, though we’re smart enough to have figured out both the danger we’re in and the harm reduction strategies needed to address it, we show no signs of developing the collective will necessary to effective action. (Just to be clear, I’m talking primarily about social reorganization, not techno-fixes.) How can this predicament not be the ultimate impetus for poetry in our time? And not only in “our” time; it was in the mid-1960’s that George Oppen wrote:

Strange to be here, strange for them also, insane and criminal,
who hasn’t noticed that, strange to be man, we have come
rather far

We are at the beginning of a radical depopulation of the earth

With these lines from “Route,” Oppen was presumably thinking primarily of the threat of nuclear war, but there are signs in his work that he clearly understood the more generalized danger confronting a species whose technical capacities have far outstripped its capacity for constructive self-reflection.

Of course I’m not suggesting that every individual poet can or should take on this subject matter, yet as a group I feel we poets have our work cut out for us. Every poetry tradition in the world today draws on frames of reference that imagine Earth as a stable container for human experience, yet that stability is now under radical threat. While we already know quite a lot about how to depict vast and terrible forces beyond our ken (drawing on traditions of the sacred and the sublime), we now have to invent imaginative forms geared to the realization that vast and terrible disaster is unfolding precisely on account of our own group behavior.

TS: Arielle Greenberg, citing your work’s “anger and humor and passion,” admires the way you “create forms by which to contain and decant the enormous scope of [your] questions.” Can you talk a little more about the play of forms in Veiled Spill?

JC: I’m so grateful for the verb “decant”! It points to the way the questions always overflow–from one “piece” to another, as well as within pieces. What’s most obvious, even in a quick visual survey of the book, is the range from prose blocks to tight or loose stanzaic forms to language that spills all over the pages. I didn’t set out with any intent to explode conventional assumptions about aesthetic unity; rather, once I decided to keep setting the tropes of “veil” and “spill” next to each other, it just became more satisfying to push the possibilities of form in very different directions. There’s an element of rebelliousness involved–because I’ve always been drawn to a range of forms (both in poetry and prose), but have frequently gotten the message that you’re supposed to pick one or two modes and stick with them. There was a sense of liberation in doing exactly what I wanted, this time around. The piece I initially felt most tentative about, “Veiled Spill #14,” the one that finally breaks language wide open over a dozen plus pages, began for me as a meditation sparked by both my fears for life on the planet and my grief at the recent death of my father. I’ve been surprised by the positive audience reactions to that piece, given its rejection of any narrative thread. I’d thought it might come across as too esoteric or self-indulgent; instead, it’s been warmly welcomed.

The other thing I want to say about the “play of forms” in Veiled Spill is that it’s necessarily complemented by a play of perspectives. It’s in the nature of the recognition of how “far” and to what edge we’ve come as a species that one lives in a storm of contradictory emotions and judgments: grief and anger and shame at being part of a human collective that’s capable of vast cruelty and destruction; a wish to distance the self (sort of a “beam me up, Scotty” sentiment that surfaces in images of “lifting,” and finally gets rejected once and for all in the line “Praise Earth below, no lifting now.”); excitement (yes, excitement!–perverse as that seems) at the unfolding high-stakes drama; senses of helpless intimacy with and eerie estrangement from the pain of others. (But are there really any “others”?) There’s even a decided Christian theological strand, because although I indignantly reject any form of theology as an excuse or explanation for cruelty and suffering, the ideas of Christianity about such things as Adam’s Fall, sin, and redemption happen to be the forms I’ve inherited in which that order of questions traditionally gets decanted. So the very fact that those religious forms come back to me becomes its own question.

I can say with some confidence that every use of the pronoun “I” in the book is both a manifestation of persona and a sort of confession. But other pronouns are important, too, most of all the invented pronoun “theywe/wethey” that points to the paradox of total responsibility and helplessness experienced on hearing news of preventable cataclysms.

Finally, I see the play of forms in Veiled Spill as an objective correlative for my experience of living-in-history. Fearing the demise of all meaning and companionship, I am drawn to honor what I love by drawing inspiration from the ceaselessly morphing patterns of nature and culture: “I can do what I want with form because the world did it first,” as the coda to “Veiled Spill #3” says. Poetry becomes a way of simply being with the world, at a time when familiar ways of trying to mold its contours may have reached a dead end.

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Read Part 2