Prose Feature: “Full Trajectory: An Interview with Tom Sleigh” by Emilia Phillips

June 9, 2014

Tom Sleigh is the author of eight books of poetry, including Army Cats, winner of the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Space Walk which won the Kingsley Tufts Award. His new book, Station Zed, will be published by Graywolf in January 2015. He has also published a book of essays, Interview With a Ghost, and a translation of Euripides’ Herakles. Widely anthologized, his poems and prose appear in The New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Yale Review, Threepenny, The Village Voice, and other literary magazines, as well as The Best of the Best American Poetry, The Best American Poetry, Best American Travel Writing, and The Pushcart Anthology. He has received the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, a Fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin, an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an Individual Writer’s Award from the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund, a Guggenheim grant, and two National Endowment for the Arts grants, among many others. He teaches in the MFA Program at Hunter College and lives in Brooklyn.

Emilia Phillips: You often stress that poets should consider their own “fundamental orientation toward language,” that is their tendencies and habits in how they select or use language. Would you mind telling us a little bit about how you came to this idea and, also, how a poet goes about locating his or her own fundamental orientation toward language? Once located, how (if at all) should that self-knowledge influence the poet once he/she sits down to write?

Tom Sleigh: There’s a typically gnomic statement by the English child psychologist, D. W. Winnicott, in which he says, “In the artist of all kinds, one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the co-existence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.” So some poets have a need to make the world a little hard to see, as if language was a kind of protective camouflage in which to hide, while others insist on proclaiming “the near, the clear,” to quote Wallace Stevens. Of course, Stevens moves back and forth between an idiom that’s very plain and one that’s highly rhetorical, but who but Stevens could know, as he informs us in a letter, that “The damned hooblah hooblah how / Of an Arabian in his room” is meant to refer to the moon?

Donald Davie, the British poet and critic, is the other source I stole these ideas from. In an essay on Eliot and Pound, he says that certain poets suspect that language is out to trick them into saying things they don’t mean, so they regard language with a kind of baleful scrutiny—a scrutiny which may lead to the stripped down idiom of a poet like George Oppen, or to the massively orchestrated precision of David Jones. And conversely, other poets tend to put their trust in language, in the hope that the currents of language will reveal more to them than if they swim against those currents—Eliot in The Wasteland. Or early Auden, when he was interested in language as a way to hassle and provoke, to let language loose on its own space walk. Later on, Auden swings around to the other position when his poems become more discursive: “Poetry is not magic. Insofar as poetry, or any of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.” I’m not sure how seriously Auden took this pronouncement—he was contradictory in lots of ways… If you’ve never read “The Platonic Blow,” take a look at it. Whatever its merits as a poem, it’s leering and innocent, self-conscious and self-oblivious at the same time.

There’s a lot of work being done nowadays in the language-out-on-its-own-space-walk mode. You could almost say that it’s a period style. But the mode goes all the way back to the Metaphysicals, and even to someone like Sidney. A lot of it seems stuck in the present in the most limiting way—which is one way you can recognize a period style. There’s nothing more square, and more self-defeating, than to be locked inside your own generation.

As to how you recognize or apply these different linguistic orientations to your own work, I’d say that these formulations are only meant speculatively, as a kind of prayer wheel. You get a lot of ideas looking at a prayer wheel. Or if you’re not a religious person (and I’m not—you could call me a casual atheist who allows for the supernatural), then think of what happens when you stare for a long time at moving water, or a campfire, or smoke off a cigarette.

I wrote an essay that’s in Interview With a Ghost called “Some Measure of Insanity” that talks about these two temperaments, and the arguments that occur because of them. But look—these are only ideas. Other ideas will come along and replace them, just as they’ll be replaced ad infinitum. I love ideas, I take them seriously, but I don’t want to be beholden to them, or limited by them, when I sit down to write.

I suppose the real danger is when you yourself begin to think that you know all too consciously what you’re doing. It was fashionable a while ago for poets to talk about “the project” of their poems: “My project this, my project that…” All very knowing and self-confident. John Crowe Ransom, a truly oddball and brilliant and oblique writer, took to rewriting his own best poems when he was an older man. He then published the original next to the revision, explaining in great detail why the B poem is better than the A poem—and yet the sad truth is that the B poem is a stuffed owl. Thank God the A poem remained in print!

So ideas can be crippling—best not to know too much all about them when you’re in the actual process of writing. However you want to think of yourself—serialist, old school formalist, magpie eclectic—isn’t nearly so important as what the poems know about you and what they ask of you in order to get written. Besides, when poets explain what they do, self-delusion abounds. For fifty years, readers got bogged down in the footnotes to Eliot’s Wasteland, when the main reason he put them in was to pad out an otherwise too short book.

EP: Ah, self-delusion. If it were a drug, wouldn’t I, as an interviewer, be your enabler?

TS: I used to shoot dope when I was a surfer in California, so I have a special place in my heart for enablers! Anyway, didn’t Nietzsche suggest in Human All Too Human that the whole of human history is one long hangover of self-delusion? We have a positive will toward self-delusion, or how else could we stand the mess we’ve made of things? When I was a kid, my mother and father ran a drive-in movie theater, and we’d play third rate sci-fi flicks, what we called “the creature feature”: crabs as big as boxcars scrabbling around a desert island where all the flora and fauna were made gigantic by the fall-out from A-bomb radiation. A mad scientist marooned on the island would walk by the cave where the crab was hiding, the crab would scuttle out, eat the mad scientist, then go back inside the cave. Then another mad scientist would wander by, the same crab would dash out, but this time speaking in the voice of the mad scientist that it had just eaten: I think that’s the perfect image for cultural transmission, and how faulty and subject to human, and inhuman, fallibilty it is.

If there are aliens out there watching us, they probably regard us as the species whose motto is, “Do I delude myself? Very well, then I delude myself!” Anyway, it seems touchingly naive to me that anyone from anywhere in the universe would want to conquer us, let alone make contact.

I remember an interview with John Berryman in which he said something like “What doesn’t outright kill you is the absolute best thing for your work,” and then he put an asterisk beside it; and down at the bottom of the page he wrote *Delusion. That’s why I love the Berryman of the first 77 Dream Songs: he was a noble self-deprecator. The poet pals I love all specialize in self-deprecation: one-down-manship as opposed to one-up-manship. So if one of us says, I want my students to like me, one of us would say back, I’m just glad if they don’t hate me. Yeats had the Golden Dawn and Rhymers’ Club, Jonson had the Tribe of Ben. In our era, we have The Knights of Self-Delusion: we all sit at a square table and insist that it’s round.

EP: Today is April Fool’s and I can’t help but think about your poem “Fable” that has these two epigraphs:

A little village in Texas has lost its idiot.

—Caption on a protest sign

Let us deal justly.

—Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, from Shakespeare’s King Lear; act 3, scene 6

The Idiot, the Fool, in this poem is George W. Bush, the dangerous kind—one not backed by wits. How do you see Edgar, oft-disguised and misperceived?

Also, talk to me about Fools; who’s your favorite Shakespearean fool? Who’s missing that motley vestment now? How has the Fool evolved in literature? Is poetry missing an opportunity by not playing into this tradition?

TS: Edgar is a foil, really, for his bastard brother, Edmund, who in my opinion is the most interesting character in the play. He often tells the truth so directly that nobody understands him. When he says to his brother Edgar, “I am no honest man if there be any good meaning toward you,” Edgar completely misses the import of that “if,” not to mention the ambiguity of the negative construction. In essence, Edmund tells the truth about himself, but his brother is too blinded by his complacency as the elder, deserving brother, to realize what Edmund is actually saying.

As to Fools, my favorite Fool is Falstaff: he’s rooted in such a deep normality of bodily enjoyment, and so hostile to abstract morality, as well as seeing through his own bluster and blather, that he’s what you might call the conscienceless conscience of not only the Elizabethan age, but our age as well.

As to the Fool’s evolution in literature, probably the greatest expression is Dostoevsky’s Mousehole man in Notes from Underground—only the butt of his own satire is the Enlightenment nightmare from which he’s trying to awake. And if I were to say how contemporary Fools are depicted nowadays, the Fool and his Master are one—as if the self-ironic part of the psyche were subtly mocking the press agent part.

EP: Let’s return to the subject of being self-conscious about your own work. Do you think it changes one’s own poetry—not just readers’ perceptions of already published work but also work that will be written—when a poet tries to say “I’m doing this, I’m doing that…”?

Say, for instance, if I asked you if you considered your work as a means to hide or reveal yourself, your answer to that question might actually cause the poems you write tomorrow or next month or a year from now to swing one way or another?

TS: I think it does change the work, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I guess it depends, as it did in Ransom’s case, on how self-conscious you are of yourself as “a poet.” And if you think of Eliot’s private and public persona, he went from being the kind of oddball who wore green face powder to visit Virginia Woolf, or attend the ballet with the Sitwells, to the undisputed literary dictator of London. The magisterial persona of the prose collides head on with Eliot’s loonily over-the-top reading of “Fragment of an Agon,” a version of Sweeney Agonistes. It shows you just how bizarre, and how conflicted, a character Eliot really is. Now, was the green face powder a way to hide, or was it a declaration of domestic unhappiness?—which is what Woolf and Sacheverell Sitwell thought.

Yeats says that you both suffer, and connive at your own fate. If you translate that paradox into a principle of composition, there’s the voice you think you’re writing in, and then there’s the voice that doesn’t so much write you, as give you a voice for one particular poem—you don’t write Poetry, you don’t have a Signature Style, you write poems, one poem at a time, in the voice that’s been given to you to write that particular poem in. Of course that idiom comes to you through all the other poems you’ve written and read, through the quality of your experience, and what your genes and your environment do to you. I love Jack Spicer’s last words: “My vocabulary did this to me.” He’s only half joking, of course. So Eliot’s vocabulary did one thing to him in his early work, but I’m quite certain that Eliot’s practice of literary journalism—it’s hard to envision the author of “Tradition and the Individual Talent” wearing green face powder, though the powder itself is also a kind of disguise—had a profound effect not only on the rhythms and idiom of the “Four Quartets,” but on the poem’s almost posthumous detachment. And the abstract vocabulary that he used in that poem, the tail-chasing “Time past and Time present” hocus pocus, seems consistent with the persona of the prose. In a similar way, I feel pretty certain that Seamus Heaney’s prose opens up the way to the twelve liners in “Squarings”—those little back and forth crossings between the dead and the living, between modern Ireland and rural Ulster, between “pillars of radiant housedust” and “shites thinking they were the be-all and the end-all.”

So the interplay between the critical and the compositional are difficult to separate out, just as your intention to do one thing may well end up looking like its polar opposite. For candor, Milton is way more confessional than any of the so-called Confessionals. And there are passages in Lowell’s last book, Day by Day, that feel more genuinely—and troublingly—associative than anything that anyone is doing now.

I feel like fate is working itself out just above my head, so that I can sense it, but never quite see its full trajectory. No matter how hidden or exposed I might think I am, I could be exposed or hidden, or something of both, from some peephole that I myself can’t see.

EP: This idea that fate works itself just above your head reminds me of a seventeenth-century diagram by Robert Fludd in which the Mundus intellectualis (the world Fludd believed as known or understood, including angels and “Deus”) floats directly above the crown of one’s head. It’s bright, flaming like the sun. A notch down but still above us is the Mundus imaginabilis, the imaginable world, and still further down, just in front of our forehead, is the Mundus sensibilis, the world we sense, perceive.

Some of the nuance of this diagram may be lost on me, but I’ve often returned to this image when I have a moment in the middle of writing, not because I necessarily believe in this as the metaphysical depiction of our world, but rather because I’ve always been fascinated by how Fludd separates the categories from one another.

The poems I most admire often combine these three things: Mundus intellectualis (abstractions; concepts we can understand), Mundus imaginabilis (I see this as a kind of a landscape sweep, the ability to cross an ocean without leaving the room or to cross time into memory or the future), and the Mundus sensibilis (what we sense in front of us, the present). I see this in your poems. Just grabbing a bit from “Song That Can Only Be Sung Once”

And then there are days when we feel April,
the fields of April making us feel our bodies

longing to be held and fucked into oblivion,
bodies fertile as a field in April, swollen,

trembling to be touched: and under the influences
of rains pouring down as if pure spirit poured

into us like rain, that thing called “soul”
sprouts and branches and entangles us

in lush bowers and thickets of illusion.

I see all three of these things working here, but instead of being separate, they’re tangling together. The “soul” becomes an imagined tangible; we almost feel the “held” and “fucked” because of their hard consonants in the context of the undulating “longing” and “oblivion” and later: “trembling,” “influences,” “entangles,” and “illusion.”

So I’ve got this funny notion that you’re able to access all of these spheres because of the way in which you handle diction and sound, the way you modulate between them, and, in their combination, we peak at the ecstatic, something that’s unattainable if only the sense, the intellect, or the imagination is engaged.

Would you mind talking a little bit about how poems provide the perfect space in which all three types of perceiving can be engaged, how they arrive in a poem through language, how volatile they can become?

TS: A beautifully stated question, beautifully thought through. I was just talking to an older poet pal of mine (he’ll be 80 this fall), a writer of extraordinary distinction, a deeply self-ironic man whose been loaded down with so many honors and awards and accolades that if he took any of it seriously, he’d be buried up to the neck in all that praise and blather, crushed by all the laurel wreathes that have been heaped upon his head—honorary degrees, caps and gowns, citations, and the kind of gold-plated fountain pens you find in Las Vegas hock shops. He said to me, “You know, when I give a poetry reading nowadays, I feel almost ridiculous getting up in front of younger people and reading my poems. They’re really only interested in each other. I feel like a fossil come to life.” A lot of older artists must feel this—but he didn’t say it in self pity, but self mockery. He’s still the youngest guy in the room, and I think that however 20 year olds hear his poems, his brilliance and idiosyncrasy and authentic strangeness must speak in some way to them, despite his one-down-manship. Again, one-down-manship is an ethos that the poets I admire in any generation subscribe to: I do the mental equivalent of Check Please! when poets of whatever age begin shoving their resumes in my face—this used not to be a problem, since for my generation it was hugely uncool to blither on about your “career”—and if you sensed somebody standing in front of the mirror, and liking what they saw just a little too much, the rocks would start flying: I’ve been guilty of it myself, of course, but the times I indulged in it, my friends gave me a well-deserved, and completely salutary hazing.

But the reason I mention this is because my older friend’s joking is maybe a veiled way of talking about the nobility of poetry, the large spiritual ambitions that poetry can have—which is how I interpret your question: so yes, I want to write poems that combine all those qualities you describe. I know this sounds a little lofty, but I believe with Seamus Heaney that poetry is an independent form of human consciousness, not beholden to politics or any world view, liberal or conservative, though of course politics and world views obviously play a part.

When I was starting out, I loved the high aspirations of the Modernists, even if their political visions were often delusional, reactionary, and in some fundamental way, banal. But I loved the seriousness of purpose, even if I’m skeptical, and sometimes repulsed, by the purposes themselves. The stakes of poetry have to be high…not the theorizing and manifestoizing, but the actual poems themselves. Right now, there’s a form of of neo-Romanticism abroad that assumes that the stream of our collective mental flux is the same as the structures of art. It results in work that’s so embedded in the culture it comes out of that it can’t make distinctions, or say that this is more important than that, or establish hierarchies of meaning and feeling. It’s the equivalent of one of the big messy installations that you see every two years for the last decade at the Whitney Biennial—throw a lot of stuff in a room, and hope that something will stick. Of course, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that that’s all poetry needs to do. But for me, it’s where you start, not where you end. Mental flux does not a poem make. It’s as mechanical as a bad sonnet, just another convention to be used like any other convention.

As to how you synthesize sense, imagination, and intellect, for me and I suspect for you too, the basket that carries all the eggs is woven out of sound, rhythm, phrasing, and the way the word-hoard echoes and reechoes down in the emotional depths that are, of course, conditioned by how you understand a word’s history—in relation to you, the past, the world as you find it. I received two very deep pieces of advice in my life: one was that I needed to work on my phrasing. The other was that I needed to be both more traditional and less traditional at the same time. Now, every time I sit down to write a poem, I know that those two notions are always braiding together in every line I write.

I sometimes think that poetry is an act of preservation—self-preservation, maybe—I’ve had a chronic blood disease for a lot of my adult life, and it’s almost killed me several times. I suppose I’ve lived in a heightened state of expectation of death, and that’s definitely changed the way I think of poetry. I want poems to embody the world—not gesture at, or editorialize, or think around emotions—but embody them. And for me, that has to do with what Seamus Heaney once called “the primal reach of the physical.” You know, I remember when I almost died, that what I felt more than fear was grief: grief that I wouldn’t be be able to experience something as simple as watching light and shade playing over the face of an immense sunflower. As Wallace Stevens wrote, “The greatest poverty is not to live/in a physical world…”

So I guess you could say that poetry is a kind of linguistic care—and what it cares for, and attempts to preserve, are infinitely rich, but fragile moments of sensation and experience. But it doesn’t stop there: it’s not just a printout of the conditions you find yourself in. That gesture of preservation has to overleap what it preserves, and create an alternate reality in which vanishing sensations not only continue to resonate, but surpass and transform the original experience. So the language has to break free of the gravity of the moment and, to quote Heaney again, freshen “your outlook / beyond the range you thought you’d settled for.”

EP: You just got back from Libya. What took you there?

TS: After the fall of Gadaffi, who banned all forms of civil society, you suddenly see springing up in Libya this astonishing experiment in creating a society from whatever modes of political and cultural life Gadaffi hadn’t destroyed or coopted. The international poetry festival I was invited to is part of that experiment. It’s founder is Ashur Etwebbi, an immensely talented Libyan poet who is also a doctor. Ashur barely escaped being murdered by Gadaffi: after Gadaffi was killed, in the files of the secret police, Ashur’s name was included on a “kill list.”

As to the festival itself, I was there with three other poets: Juan Carlos Mestre from Spain, Luigi Ballerini from Italy, and Anastassis Vistonitis from Greece—all of them highly esteemed in their own countries. Essentially, we went on a poetic caravan, only using Landrovers and SUVs instead of camels. We read in 4 different cities, and spent hours crossing hardpan dirt tracks through what seemed like endless desert. At every place we read, we met local Libyan poets, some coming out of an oral tradition, who also recited their poems at the many readings we gave. We slept out under the stars under an open pavilion, on a huge carpet, that the Bedouin must have used some fifty years back. We also spent the night in an oasis city, Ghadames, which is surrounded by date palms. So we got some sense of traditional life in Libya.

But it wasn’t all like that, of course: we also traveled with a militia wherever we went, and were given safe conduct by the militia leader. The day we were supposed to fly in to Tripoli, an RPG blew a couple of holes in the runway, so we had to wait a day for things to return to normal (although some might say that such incidents are entirely normal). We went to the soukh one afternoon in downtown Tripoli, and rival militias were having a shoot out down by the waterfront next to Martyrs’ Square. Some people watched, but nobody ran away, and most people just went about their business. Gunfire goes on day and night in Tripoli: sometimes it’s rival militias, sometimes it’s for a wedding or a birthday, and sometimes it’s just for the kick of shooting off a machine gun. The country is awash in weaponry.

In a way, Libya is far less dangerous than Iraq, where I was in December, traveling with Chris Merrill as part of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. Around a thousand people a month are being killed by IEDs, car bombs, suicide bombers, and sectarian assassination. Everywhere you go, you’re slightly keyed up in a way that you aren’t in Libya. In Iraq, the daily reality of anyone who lives or visits there is the fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Libya, everything seems OK until it’s not OK, and then of course it’s too late. In Iraq, nobody jokes about the violence, at least not to me. But in Libya, the joke going around—and I suppose it’s only half a joke—is that there’s less gunfire nowadays because people are running out of bullets.

But the main thing is this: never have I been treated with such kindness and hospitality. Sometimes, in these situations, you meet people, like Ashur, who are such superior examples of humanity—funny, urbane, gentle, and courageous enough to risk their lives in a revolution. Their behavior offsets all the years of Gadaffi’s bizarre behavior—his crazy hats; his female bombshell bodyguard, “the Revolutionary Nuns,”; his moniker, “the Brother Leader,” in which he wasn’t a dictator since the People ruled (albeit with his advice); his sometimes random-seeming murders and assassinations of anyone suspected of being political opponents; his supplying of the IRA with thousands of tons of plastic explosive and heavy weaponry; and his unceasing oratory, spouting “the windiest militant trash,” to quote Auden, for hours on end.

As to what life under Gadaffi was like, I think this little story sums it up better, in all its idiosyncrasy and small bore humor, than the big journalistic/political/historical cymbal clash. A young Amazigh poet (Berber, but the name is frowned upon in Libya) told me that when he was a boy there were something like two or three TV stations that you could watch, all contolled by the Brother Leader. Over many months, he’d been watching the episodes of a cartoon show in which a baby bee goes in search of his missing mother, and at the climax of the entire series, just as it looks like the baby bee is about to reunited with mom, the program is interrupted by Gadaffi addressing some revolutionary congress or other. So he never got to see what happened to the baby bee. And when he was a little older, he was again watching the climactic episode of a cartoon about a boy who wanted to be a soccer player, and just as it seemed that the boy was going to make the team, again! THIS PROGRAM IS INTERRUPTED TO BRING YOU THE BROTHER LEADER gassing on about Pan-Africanism or some other hobby horse.

That’s why for me The Brother Leader’s murder on YouTube is as savagely ironic, as it is savage.

But then you have the current Libyan ambassador to Spain, Mohammed al-Faqeeh, a superb poet, a gentleman in the sense that Gerard Manley Hopkins meant it. He spent ten years in prison on nonsensical charges trumped up by Gadaffi’s security forces. He spoke of it in the mildest possible terms. His equanimity and generosity and sense of humor made me realize how Seamus Heaney’s love for a “world humanism” could be embodied so beautifully in men like Mohammed and Ashur.

EP: You’ve written in Army Cats and your forthcoming Station Zed about these places you’ve traveled on assignment—Lebanon, Iraq, etcetera. (I assume we’ll see some Libya poems as well.) What can you approach in poems that you can’t in long-form journalism?

TS: I feel that at some subterranean level, no matter what you write, your psyche is submitting itself to an emotional X-ray. Whatever the occasion of the poem, some private, deeply recondite part of the self is being exposed: you as the poet don’t have to totally fathom what it is, but if the poem doesn’t come from that wellspring, then the poem is going to wither.

And on a more practical level, I feel free to take more liberties with details. I try not to tamper with facts, but I don’t mind inventing details.

EP: As an outsider—an American especially—going into these places, do you ever question your agency, your ethos, in being able to write about the conflicts of others? I’ve only grazed this sort of thing with a poem addressed to my father, a forensics contractor who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. In doing so, I often fretted over the idea that I was—or readers would think I was—in some way taking advantage of the situation to write something “meaningful,” that I was situating empathy parallel to another’s experience. Of course, it isn’t. But, then again, it is an experience unto itself.

Unlike me, however, you’ve not simply written about these places from your desk at home—you’ve traveled there. Talk to me a little bit about your negotiations about what you can write about. Is there anything you feel is so sovereign to another’s experience that you would never touch it in a poem?

TS: Tough question. The most important thing to do is to acknowledge the limits of your own subjectivity. You’ve got to place the speaking voice in your poem in such a way that it acknowledges at crucial moments how limited a perspective you have. I don’t want to come off as a spokesman for anyone or anything. I have a real problem when people start gassing on about how they want to speak for those who can’t speak. I wonder how many of these spokesmen ever took the time to ask all those people they’re calling “voiceless” if they need a spokesman. It seems to me the height of arrogance to assume that people can’t express themselves in all kinds of ways that the writer might not have noticed—their taste in clothes, say, or even their favorite TV shows.

On the other hand, I’ve heard stuff about certain kinds of subject matter, usually racially coded, which is somehow supposed to be off limits. Nothing is off limits provided, as Robert Lowell once said, that you can place it right.

As to placing it, that’s why I like sequences: you can make the poem hospitable to many different voices, not just your voice. You can do that in all kinds of ways: changing up the diction, including recorded speech, incorporating other voices, embedding translations or adaptations into a sequence to provide another layer of historical and social texture. I have a poem in my new book, Station Zed, which takes up a suicide bombing that occurred in Mogadishu. It happened near a roundabout called KM4 just outside the Ministry of Education. I’d been at that particular place at the same time the bomb went off, only luckily it was the day before. But how to write about that experience without grandstanding, or losing sight of the actual victims. And so I wrote a ten part sequence, published by Blackbird, your alma mater’s excellent web magazine, which looks at that event from many different points of view—the poem is a mixture of reportage and the surreal, in which the reportage is often the more surreal element of the two. The complexity of the feel of the experience, as opposed to anything I might say about it, is the real subject of the poem. I think that’s what truly political poems do: they talk about political emotions, rather than political convictions. And political emotions are always complex, and deeply troubled. The accurate expression of mixed emotion seems to me to be at the core of the poetry I care about. Yeats said it in a somewhat more rhetorical way when he wrote that the purpose of art was to hold reality and justice in a single thought.

Of course the temptation in answering a question like this is to pretend to have some settled viewpoint, and lay down the law, as in my statement about Lowell and trying to place things right. But honestly, every poem makes its own set of demands: you try to be responsive to all positions at once, as Seamus Heaney once said. And you have to find the formal means to embody that responsiveness in the language itself, which is why so many of my poems are inhabited by different voices and tones and perspectives, as well as being in sequences.

Perhaps most importantly is the life you lead between poems. No matter where I am, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, New York, I try to take people one at a time.

Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013) and the prose editor of 32 Poems. For more information, visit her website:

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