Interviewed by Gregory Calabro and Peter Vertacnik
Could we start by hearing a little bit about the importance of form in these poems—especially that of “Salomé” given how its shape deviates from a “typical” sonnet (though we’d love to hear about any of the other five as well).
“Salomé” is an odd one, isn’t it? I wanted to split the sonnet in half to mirror the two Salomés and the two Salomés. It’s hard to remember now why I chose that rhyme scheme [abcabcc defdeff]. Maybe I wanted to affect a miniaturized sonnet in each stanza? Regardless, the rhymes are a bit hidden at first and then suddenly gang up on you.
For me, finding the right form for a poem is a bit like archeology; a form typically arrives embedded within a poem’s idea and my job is to excavate it. “Marriage,” for instance, had to be in couplets, but somewhere along the way, I uncovered the need for rhymes that never quite line up. And “The Phoenicians” is a fake-out syllabic poem, organized only visually. It’s a step beyond the arch-fabrication of the syllabic nonce form—like a desert mirage.
While we’d like to allow you to maintain some distance between yourself and the speaker in “Black-Eyed Suzie’s,” we know that you spent time working as a professional jazz singer. In what ways does your jazz background inform your poetry, especially when it comes to rhythm?
Jazz stretches the ear. You learn to hear minute subtleties in chord voicings, to lay different rhythms on top of each other. Jazz improvisation’s lessons are formal ones, marked by both freedom and rigor—you can drift as far afield as the changes allow, but eventually you have to find your way back into the melody and the “pocket” of the rhythm. (I find that bee-bop is as close an approximation to poetry as there is: it’s all stanzas.) I’m sure syncopation has helped expand my sense of meter. And when I first started writing poems, my sole understanding of the poetic line was as a musical phrase.
But since so much of musical training—maybe especially vocal training—is meant to be absorbed into the bones and then half-forgotten, it’s difficult to speak about the ways jazz has influenced my work with any certainty or specificity. And it’s more than likely that my classical training has had as marked an effect on my poetry as jazz. (As suggested in “Black-Eyed Suzie’s,” I first studied to be an opera singer.) Sometimes I even wonder if a knack for vocal mimicry influenced my poetry the most. Before I ever sang “as myself,” I was a little parrot (my poor family!) and soaked up lots of lessons just by impersonating different voices. Imitation is, after all, a time-honored form of apprenticeship, like copying the paintings of the Old Masters.
While on the topic of music, you mention a few specific musical pieces and composers in these poems (works by Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Irving Berlin all make appearances). What connections do you see between your own art and that of music—both in these poems and in your life more generally?
Music is still the most important art form in my life, though I no longer perform regularly. I was lucky to have been steeped in music from very early in my childhood. On the weekends, my grandmother would play recordings of operas, Italian folk songs, classical music. (Her immigrant family had a stint in vaudeville as a troupe of mandolin players; both of her sons, my uncles, are musicians.) One of my happiest childhood memories is sitting in the pillow fort I’d made on her screened-in porch and hearing something sublime issuing from the kitchen stereo: Beverly Sills in Traviata—my first Violetta. As I got older, my grandmother would give me the librettos so I could follow along. She and my grandfather would take me to the opera and to Woolsey Hall in New Haven to hear the Yale Symphony Orchestra.
My grandfather and I loved car rides—we seemed always to be driving somewhere—and that’s when we would listen to his favorites: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, the soundtracks to just about every Golden-Age Broadway musical. These records, along with the old movie musicals we loved to watch, were my introduction to the Great American Songbook and my first inklings of jazz. (Then my uncle bought me my first Coltrane record when I was 12 or 13. The hard stuff!)
Any artistic exposure outside of poetry is infinitely useful to poetry—a cross pollination. But one particular lesson that no doubt carried over from my musical education is a sense of the sheer height and breadth of tradition. It wouldn’t have been uncommon, for instance, that I might have heard the same Chopin piece interpreted by Argerich one day and Rubenstein the next, or that my grandfather might have three different versions of “That Old Black Magic” on rotation in the same car ride, or that I might get into a debate about the relative merits of Beverly Sills and Anna Moffo’s Violettas. I think I came to understand something about the responsibility required of the artist to both art and audience—a stance, say, both ad orientem and versus populum. You owe fealty to the text, to history, to your forebears, to the chain of interpretations in which you’re just one link. Also, you owe the audience in front of you a good time. Both recognitions help stave off the solipsism to which poetry is sometimes prone.
We found the list at the start of “Gallery Gods” wonderfully ambitious, both in its length and imagery. Would you mind talking a little bit about the process of putting together those first four stanzas and how those images relate to the “you and I” that follow?
An interest in architecture runs through my work, and Chicago is one of the best cities in the world for great skyscrapers. When I sat down to write the poem, I began by making a list of all the towers I had seen during my first whirlwind trip. I was struck all over again by each one’s individuality and, at some point, had the idea to treat them as mammoth Rorschach blots. The combination of the overstuffed list and the wild, somewhat far-fetched similes hopefully generates the feeling of dynamism and exhilaration that the poem describes.
The “you and I” are on an architectural tour of the city, and a bit drunk on the constant axis shifts. One minute they’re at the base of a giant structure looking up, the next they’re atop it looking down, feeling the elation of being on top of the world. As they summit these skyscrapers, they themselves start to become embodiments of the spirit of possibility that built the city.
Reading your poem “Marriage,” we were astounded by your ability to marry (excuse us) allusions across different art forms—film, poetry, music—and to do so in such a seamless fashion. Do you find these connections first in the artworks themselves, or is it rather your experience with these works that bring them together? How did it come about in the writing process?
How kind! Thank you. I think it must be my experience with these works. The motley collection of allusions here is as faithful a self-portrait as anything I’ve written, encompassing lots of things I love: old movies, classic pop ballads, Marianne Moore poems. I wanted to illustrate the nature of this relationship in shorthand, through artworks that the couple might discuss or use as touchstones. But really they’re just works that I use as touchstones, straight out of my mental lexicon. So all I can say, without intending to be evasive or mysterious, is that each one simply arose in my mind as needed.
Finally, a softball: What are you reading right now? Or, if it’s a better fit, what are you rereading now and what brought you back to it?
I’m a PhD student, so this time of year, my reading choices are limited to those selected for me. Luckily, I’m taking wonderful classes; most recently, I’ve had the pleasure of rereading Wuthering Heights and Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary. I’m also the co-host of a classic literature and film podcast called (sub)Text, for which I just finished recording episodes on Donne’s Holy Sonnets 10 and 14.