Interviewed by Claire Eder and Ezra Stewart-Silver
Your poem appearing in Subtropics 15 is sort of an allegory about memory and experience. How do you start writing about such large philosophical questions? Where did this poem begin?
Well, I definitely never start by sitting down at the desk and saying to myself, Now I am going to write about X philosophical question. The poem’s first sentence just came: “Experience is a lamb.” I was excited to start there, to find out what could happen once the poem’s stakes were laid out immediately, explicitly—what might such directness allow for? I mean, not every poem should be elegant. And in particular, when it comes to poems that take on what you’re calling large philosophical questions—some people have this idea that the writer should go in from the side, approach quietly, and produce awe. It’s so polite. And allegiance to that politeness ends up killing so many poems! Don’t get me wrong; I like elegance, I like awe. Just not all the time. And definitely not when they’re employed as a way of circumventing risk. Anyway, as for this particular poem—after the first line, the rest was really a process of trying to figure out what the statement about the lamb might mean. That this farm animal appeared as the concrete representative of experience was initially a total surprise. Lambs and livestock in general are mysterious to me, since I didn’t grow up around them, and this mystery is what allowed me to be imaginatively looser in the poem. If I were put in charge of a lamb, I would absolutely not know what to do—I would have to wing it. I’m sure I would handle the lamb with the ignorance of a city person. It would be awkward, cumbersome. Risky! A kind of disaster, but maybe a useful one for the sake of a poem.
I’m curious about the different landscapes in your poem, from orchards and almond groves to a father/doctor’s sleek apartment. How did they become the sites of memory in this poem?
The mind goes where it can’t help going: I don’t want to think about this/I can’t stop thinking about this. In the poem, memory acts as an insistent, repeated tug on the present, an impetus to revisit certain locations, spatial and temporal and emotional ones. While the landscapes you mention have personal significance for me, in the context of the poem they’re intentionally archetypal. They represent animated versions of, on one hand, an agrarian old world and the past, and on the other, a modernized, sterile, cold present. And they’re highly aware of their status as performers: the sleek, flawless apartment “doesn’t feel anything,” the almond grove is a “prim chorus,” and the “olive trees continue/striking tragic poses in the Greek countryside.” They are at once caricatures, dualities, possibilities, and points on a trajectory. I wanted to use them to explore how the poem’s human characters have settled in, or settled for, or resisted their material and emotional locations in the world. I was thinking about where people feel called to, and what calls them. What people are tied to, or think they’re tied to. And that got me thinking about the role of stories, and how they’re perpetuated—and by stories I mean private, internal stories we have about ourselves, as well as bigger, familial or cultural ones like immigrant progress narratives, stories about material success being equivalent to happiness, etc.
Ancestors come up—tell us about yours?
The straightforward answer is that no documents exist—but I’m descended from a nomadic shepherding tribe called the Sarakatsani on my paternal side, who lived in Thessaly, a region in Northern Greece. And a bookselling family on my maternal side, who were from Samos, an Aegean island, and Kusadasi. I think each of my poems has its own ancestors. For this one, part Yannis Ritsos, part Frank O’Hara, and a mess of unidentified others.
You’ve lived in a lot of different places. How have urban and suburban spaces entered your work?
They’re definitely my detail/image pools much of the time. Sad weird half-ignored parking lot landscaping. Chicken bones fought over by pigeons. Cul de sacs. Things supposedly unworthy of attention. I just returned to Brooklyn after being away for a few months and looked out my window at the roofs and power lines and this bunch of deflated balloons that’s been caught in the branches of a tree across the street for maybe the past five years, and felt relief at returning to a home of my noticing. Considering the landscapes I’ve primarily lived in/near, I think regional distinctions are worth mentioning. What some of the more open spaces in the middle of the country and their horizontal repetitions of farmland or single-family homes or strip malls make happen, both socially and psychically, versus the vertical texture and density of tall buildings, or the press of bodies on a city street. Proximity to other people’s bodies, and how one moves through space, and how, in turn, that encourages people to think and act and feel, in relation to one another, depending on who a person is and what kind of (and how much) space one feels entitled to take up. The openness of the Midwest allows for breath and expansiveness, but it can also be highly exposing. Anomaly, deviance, strangeness is more visible on the body. A city of 8 million means increased proximity and involuntary intimacy in public and private spaces—but also more anonymity, more stimuli, many more frequencies, a ricocheting kind of attention and visual field and gaze. In the Midwest a greater part of my attention might be available because less is tied up; there’s not as much density and variety, or I just haven’t learned how to see it. A metropolis in turn is exhausting, asks me to notice everything, which is impossible, so I have to shut down a little in order to function. I’m sure that’s all informing the way and what I write, though it’s hard to say precisely how.
By the time I was six, I’d lived in Los Angeles, West Texas, and the suburban Midwest; as an adult I’ve lived on both the East and West Coasts and in the middle of the country. My experience of “home” has never been solid or located in a single place. Not only did my family move a lot within the States—there was also this idea of Greece as our past and future home, this idyllic semi-rural place where my parents were born and where we’d return. Greece held the promise, maybe more an imaginative than actual one, of an unexplored “true” home, which wasn’t just a promise about place but about self. It signified for me the possibility of being someone else, socially, physically, and linguistically. In my work, this extends to place in general, which often functions as an imaginative field where, in poems (in language), I can envision different selves, outcomes—pasts, even. And that relates, on a personal level, to gender and sexuality and ethnicity and tons of other things, too. The ability to imagine other selves and other lives is, I think, key to envisioning the possibility of different worlds, of creating alternatives to this very messed up one. At the same time, as someone who has lived primarily in urban/suburban spaces, I’m aware of my enormous inexperience and ignorance of the rural, and how tempting it is to romanticize rural landscapes and lives. Too often non-rural people turn those landscapes into blank screens we project our stuff onto, including desires for escape, utopian fantasies, fears—so that’s something I want to be thoughtful about in my representations of place.
Ari Banias’s poem “Your Wild Domesticated Inner Life” appears in Subtropics 15.