The How and the What: An Interview with Amit Majmudar by Cate Lycurgus

January 13, 2017

Amit Majmudar is a poet, novelist, essayist, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist. He is also the first Poet Laureate of Ohio. His latest collection is Dothead (Knopf, 2016).

Cate Lycurgus, Interviews Editor: I think in this case I’ll begin at the beginning, with the epigraph from your most recent collection, Dothead. In it you quote Dr. Seuss’ warning: “It is fun to have fun/ But you have to know how.” So many of your pieces incorporate fun and wit, but actually flirt with what is dire. What does it mean to ‘know how’ to have fun? How do you approach the page with responsible play?

Amit Majmudar: I think knowing how to have fun in poetry means knowing how to set up structures (and strictures) for yourself that force spontaneity and suppleness. Your tongue has to take on the chains and padlocks of its own will, and then writhe (and write) its way out, Houdini-like. Pure effusive unregulated “self-expression,” so commonly mistaken for the rush of poetic composition, I experience as a lessening of tension, a lessening of intensity, a lessening of exhilaration; that is why I write everything but diary entries. In the end, we poets must always justify our separateness from prose—as someone who writes a great deal of prose, I regard this poetic separateness as a litmus test for true poetry.

Dr. Seuss knew this very well. You can look at his texts, the way he sequenced words, and there is no mistaking it for prose or versified prose. Every linebreak justifies itself. You could reprint it as prose, and even a child would know where to restore the linebreaks. That’s not true of a lot of the work of our contemporaries, where the linebreak is purely typographical or visual. (It’s not always true, I confess, of my own work, either; the longest poem in Dothead is a prose poem.) The Seuss epigraph signals I mean to emphasize verbal whimsy and invention and delight—“There’s a wocket in my pocket”—but that I also mean to do it in a way that is serious—“You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds. / And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.” And that, I suppose, is where the “knowhow” comes in.

CL: Yes, I think of my own poems as scores on the page for their reading—eyes to breath to spirit—were they unlineated and spaced, they wouldn’t sing at all. Someone could lineate much of your work, diverse as it is. What comes first for you—form or content?

AM: This “form or content” dichotomy is, to my mind, part of the problem. It leads poets to think of poetry as having a content that can be packed into a form, like putty into a container. In this model of composition, there is some pre-extant pure poetry-matter that is, inevitably, deformed by being put in the “box” of a sonnet, or triolet, or meter, or whatever. Hence the American association of poetic form with shackles, restraints, etc.

The other possibility, where form comes first, implies that there is a form that is conceived of, and then poetic material is conjured and poured into the form. In this model, the “formalist” decides on a certain poetic form, usually European and usually very antique, or else exotically Asian or Near Eastern and transplanted into English, or else nonce (in both of the latter cases, a kind of conscious departure from the expected “traditional” forms, signaling cultural difference or unconventionality)—and then passionlessly backfills the lines.

Both of these approaches are possible, and I may have indulged in them over the course of my long and continuing poetic adolescence; but I do not think of form and content as being separate from one another. In fact I do not think of poetic forms as forms at all, and certainly not as restrictions (though I concede I used the word “strictures” above, it was really just to pair it with “structures”). “Structures” is the word I meant; I think of poetic language in terms of patterns, of repetition and periodicity and variation. The repetition of stressed syllables at certain periodic intervals, or the repetition of certain sounds that are registered as rhyme. The meaning or nonmusical “content” is coeval with the execution of a musical theme and variations, which is not the same thing as saying the form comes first. In practice, for me at least, the poem proceeds by tumbling-out, or tumbling into place. The words are the tumblers in a combination lock, and I go on to the next line with that satisfying click-give-drop of the opened combination lock. Nearly all of the poems in Dothead were written first line to last, exactly as they were originally published and are now collected; they were almost all written in one sitting, except for “Abecedarian,” which runs to several pages.

There is this mystical saying: “The Sufi is the son of the moment.” I think the poet is, also. I often pursue a crystalline quality to the verse line, but somewhat oddly, I am best capable of attaining it in a sort of no-mind extemporization. This is why I am more prolific than the average poet; I excluded 80 pages of previously published poems from Dothead, all of those discards previously published in decent places.

This unitary, spontaneous nature of my poetry is why my poetry has gotten more structurally complicated from my first collection (2009) to the present one (2015). This development is the reverse of poets like Merwin and Rich and Hughes, who began as poets of pattern and then broke with it and went rather loosey-goosey.

CL: Wow! That’s a lot of poems. But yes—I’m of the Creeley mentality that the form is an extension of content, that the two are inextricable—in the context of Merwin, and Rich, and Hughes, I think that they were able to, later in life, tap into a bare ingenuity that required more loose structures, or that they as trusted voices turned to unadorned verse. Merwin’s latest book reads prophetically, in addition to poetically. But I guess what I pick up on in your work, is more precisely the irony of the form, or the implicit argument your poems make in that their forms often work against their content, as a sort of third argument. For example, in “The Interrogation” you use mainly heroic couplets, and the speaker utilizes this mode to describe surmounting pain inflicted by the very civilization that employs this particular type of prosody. The speaker says:

In his memoir of those years, he sketches
the tricks he used, one of what was ‘vision:
Maybe it’s better we present his version:
‘I imagined my arm as a slope I had to scale,
shaft of the humerus as smooth as shale
but white like bone and giving way like sand
Wherever I set foot. I couldn’t stand…
I crested my shoulder, rested on its knoll.
I looked down then and saw the pain as men
charging uphill to where I hid my sense
of pain….

How does irony work in your poetry? If the way in which something is said is as important as how, what does this say about your use of particular structures for the content you traverse—everything from TSA screenings to the western cannon to oral sex?

AM: There is a key assumption in your use of the word “unadorned” in relation to Merwin and Rich—the idea that their later verse, when we refer to its relative absence of pattern or looseness of it (excessive variation at some point destroys pattern), being without pattern is without adornment. This implies that the presence of such patterning is something added to the poetry itself. That is the idea I resist; you see it is ingrained in the ways we speak of poetry and how poetry structures its sound-meaning. This is no one’s fault; we have trouble speaking of poetry in this regard for the same reason that we have trouble speaking of music. The what is the how. The how is the what. The poet is a musician who plays the language.

Yet you bring up a good point about the disjunction between the how and the what in “The Interrogation” and similar poems like “T.S.A.,” which tells of an airport security patdown in lilting, comic meter. If the how contradicts the what, how are they all one thing? I can only plead that these were not conscious decisions. The poems just came out that way. At no point did I intentionally play off Western civilization’s most common Enlightenment-era verse form against a non-Western torture victim in “The Interrogation”—whose original title was “Lubyanka,” after the KGB prison, and had nothing to do with Abu Ghraib or black sites or the Bush era, in my own mind, at least.

I think the interesting thing here has to do with the pluripotentiality of language and structuring—how such musical structures can communicate and create ironies and internal commentaries and grace notes where none may have been intended. I still remember the time someone expressed delight at how the schoolboy Todd in “Dothead” has a name that spells “Dot” in reverse. This shocked me. I was merely after a name that rhymed. I am frequently surprised by the depth of critical interpretations of my work. It is something in which I have no training. I think poetry readers are wicked smart. I think they go to poetry in the first place because they were born with a sixth sense about matters linguistic. That is why poetry readers are so often also poetry writers. Novels have a huge audience of non-novelists because everybody likes a good story. You go to the world of novel-readers, and they are operating at a drastically lower sensitivity to linguistic touches from sentence to sentence (Joyce scholars are an exception). With poetry, there’s a striking overlap of practitioners and readers. They say that is a sign of its decline, but I think it’s a neurodiversity thing. Poetry people experience things in language other people don’t, the way some people can taste PTC and others can’t.

CL: Okay, perhaps I should have said ‘inconspicuously’ adorned. It is fully adorned with ghosts! At any rate, I like the analogy of poet as musician who play the language—though I might add that no musician picks up a trombone and assumes he will or can play the same song as he would sitting at a piano; even the same standard will take on an entirely different form, and he makes this decision as soon as he commits to the sax versus the harmonica. Which is why I find it fascinating you say so many elements of your poetry are unintended—each word in a poem must carry so much weight, as a reader I take the default position that the poet chose each for a reason. But the resonances of timing are certainly interesting—“The Interrogation” as pre-Abu Ghraib. How do you feel about the control one must relinquish as a writer, once the work is doing work in the world? And who is your intended audience when you write a poem?

AM: I exert so little control over my poems in the writing of them, frequently not knowing the pattern or development in advance, that I am more than happy to relinquish them to that pluripotential, subjective response. I know full well that the majority of people who can read (the overall pool of literate people) aren’t going to touch it anyway, and that certain segments of the poetry-reading population will be turned off because it seems rhymey or metery, or because it seems to have a paraphrasable meaning, or both. Once those kinds of readers weed themselves out, there is a small group of readers (like yourself, I suppose) that respond well to the kinds of things I do in poetry. (And that, I guess, is my intended audience—whoever out there has an ear-receiver set to the same frequency at which I am voice-transmitting.) Because while I do write a lot of different kinds and styles of poetry, I don’t do everything, I like to roam and switch it up, but I am not interested in being all things to all readers. I don’t write poetry that doesn’t “mean in the conventional sense” with gratuitous pronoun-switching a la Ashbery, for example, and I don’t do sentimental free verse nature meditations. In the same way, I don’t as a novelist write “experimental” pseudo autobiography featuring a writer-protagonist who may-or-may-not-be-me, or Westerns or bodice-rippers. I think the key is to establish a broad range while still maintaining your distinct character.

CL: How do poems start for you? And how did your long prose poem in Dothead, “Abecedarian,” begin?

AM: A new or familiar-but-forgotten word I have read might enchant me, and I will be seized with the wish to use it, as a painter might wish to use a newly discovered color. Other times, I have an inkling. This inkling is of a poem that does not yet exist; it exists only potentially, but it exists in its entirety; I don’t know the actual words, and have to find out. I botch that transition from potentiality to reality all too often! Sometimes the inkling is a fully formed idea, and I know exactly and very confidently how things must sound and feel, though I don’t know what any single line will be. Anguish can trigger me, or the news, or a stray image, or (to be wholly honest) the mere ambition to write something—which I have never suspected as an unpoetic impulse; Milton wrote Paradise Lost because he wanted to write something great, like Paradise Lost. Often, reading another poet’s work will push me to try and outdo myself. (Milton did that with my prose epic Azazil, which is a Sufi reimagining of Milton.) As for “Abecedarian,” I wrote that one beginning-to-end, without any forethought. I simply let it flow. As soon as I had the section on Adam, I had the tone, and the rest kind of wrote itself.

CL: I’m actually not surprised you mention tone as the through-thread, because over the course of the 26-section prose poem, you weave in many different lexicons and types of meditations, but do maintain a meditative, authoritative, and still playful air. As an oral-sex origin poem, the piece begins boldly: —“the only proof of intelligent design we have is that Adam could not connect his mouth and his penis” but moves well beyond the glib. Even after reading I recall rich physical descriptions like “at the moment you come, the spinal cord detaches from the brain and whips down, forward, and out, liquefying as it leaves. The dull pearl hue of come comes from mixing gray matter and white matter;” or the way the speaker breaks down even the language used to describe the body, as a psychological rumination.

The ‘Wood’ section, for example, questions “why not iron, why not marble, why not brass? Because desire, in all the old poems, is supposed to be flame, and fire swallows wood…because wood, back when it was the trunk of a tree, dribbled sticky white sap and coursed at its pith with water. Because the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge had scaffolds, at least, of a common material, and because they were both wood they, too, could burn, could blossom, could rot.” or further poetry becomes a physical act as Eve “played with what would become meters: dactylic, halfway, halfway, all the way down; iambic, halfway, then down to the base; or Adam’s favorite, the emphatic spondee.” And this myth-making ties into to a personal recount of the speaker’s first sexual experience “No means no, said the Sex Ed VHS on the television our teacher wheeled into the classroom. No one ever taught us what silence meant.”

Which leads me to my question—it is one thing to know a myth or story, one thing to tell an old story, and another to bring it up from the silence and re-cast an old story as new—it does some revitalizing and often re-cementing work. What do you attempt to recast in this piece?

AM: “Abecedarian” slips between/among the forms of the poem, the short story, the (faux) memoir, the essay, and the theological commentary. In such an omnium-gatherum multiform, I went naturally to some archetypal imagery and personae. Even the first person “I” of the memoir-ish passages is someone who flickers into and out of your field of view, and is unknown (he is not me, I can tell you that), or known only through a tone of voice. That is what allows the different narratives to pack into a small space (not that ten pages is a small space, but considering how much is in “Abecedarian,” it is): the Book of Genesis, the narrator’s loss of innocence, and the narrator’s reflections on both. The work is a triple braid: the mythic story, the realist parallel, and the nonfiction commentary.

CL: And these three threads do such a masterful job of re-casting the idea of sin—reframing it (in the context of art as well) not as a series of rules-broken, but of breaking the self away from others, hence needing atonement. At-one-ment, I often break it into, when thinking about sin or its remedy in both faith and environmental or societal contexts. And yet a key gender differential chafes in the poem. In the “Eyes” section, for example, we read:

Eve saw him looking down at her from his height and sensed a new hierarchy between them, in which he made demands, and she knelt and serviced him. Non serviam, she insisted, but her mouth was full as she said this, and Adam mistook it for a groan of pleasure.

And earlier she senses the “first adumbration of the female organism, courtesy of Lucifer.” How do these roles, however historical, re-cement that of women? What were your thoughts regarding gender as you crafted this piece?

AM: I think that I tried to hint, hopefully not too ham-handedly, at the hierarchy involved in the act. The act of kneeling is very eloquent there; I have a section, though, in which I invert the hierarchy of kneeling, I describe how the female was the one with all the power during that act. (Because she can always bite down.) Overall, though, I tend to experience and contemplate myths and pre-20th-century literature in historical context. I don’t respond well to attempts to judge ancient dead-white-male writers and thinkers by the standards of 21st-century campus liberalism, though from what I can see of literary criticism these days, that is basically the default in most places. I have a very low tolerance for post-colonial literary criticism, too, though I am of Indian Hindu descent. I have a weird allergic reaction to that kind of criticism leveled at Shakespeare and the Bible and such. I get very defensive!

CL: As such key texts and influences on our ways of thinking, writing, and being, that seems counter productive, I agree. I think maybe my question wasn’t entirely clear—yes, it seems unfair to take texts out of their historical contexts; at the same time, re-telling a myth does re-enforcing work—that’s how so much knowledge gets passed down. Maybe you could speak to the tension between the explicitly Adam and Eve sections and the first personal segments regarding a contemporary teenager’s first oral sex? I think, especially in a world where women’s agency is of increasing global importance, that past-present dialogue you create is interesting. And further, by what standards do you judge a particular poem? What do you demand both of poems you read and write?

AM: I think the hinge between the two groupings is the idea of innocence lost. But in the mythic one, the serpent is a third party. In the contemporary mirror-story, there are only two figures. The serpent, the corrupter, is part of the male character—in the most literal, anatomical sense.

I think myself a terrible judge of poems. I do not know how I would edit a journal; I would only hit up the same dozen or so poets for submissions and reject everyone else. I look for sound above all. It has to sound different than regular prose, even if it is prose. And I really like things to make some kind of instant sense. A through-line of some sort? I am not a fan of these contemporary American trendy poems where poets proliferate vague images, or put out these train-wreck poems full of pop references in free verse. I like poems to sound interesting and make sense! Music and meaning. I am insufferably old-fashioned and square, as you can see.

CL: And very much I’m struck by point of view—I guess along with Eve I “lurch” my “whole neck and torso rising in revolt” when I read some of the sections, especially as the young speaker knows his girlfriend’s thoughts and describes her desires re-representatively. And this may have some to do with the speaker’s multiplicity. Which proves a strength across poems, where we have moments as diverse as in “T.S.A.”:

How polite of the screeners to sham paranoia
               when what they really want
is to pick out the swarthiest, scruffiest of us
               and pat us top to toe
my fellow Ahmeds and my alien Alis,
               Mohammed alias Mo—
my buddies from med school, my doubles partners,
               my dark unshaven brothers
whose names overlap with the crazies and God fiends,
               ourselves the goateed other.

or the not dissimilar empathy demonstrated in “Killshot,” as the second person brings the reader and speaker both inside the mind of a secret service agent who wonders “whether [he] identified that first terrorist correctly; whether that first killshot prompted the descendants to become terrorists and necessitated all the subsequent killshots,” a man retired but with arms “frozen in position: one hand curled close” needing his jaw “massaged till it lowers.” There is a tenderness here, too, amidst critique. Not being a fiction writer, I’ll venture the point of view question—how do you think about speaker vantage point? How does humor, or maybe wordplay and music create or then alleviate tensions that arise?

AM: I think a multiplicity of points of view is crucial, and all too often de-emphasized in our poetry. Bewitching self-switchery is considered a mere genre—the “persona poem”—as if it’s just another technique. I attribute metaphysical/mystical significance to the act of entering and voicing another human being, or another sentient creature. In mystical traditions, of course, the self and the other are both God, in their fundamental nature. And poetry can enact that, just as fiction can. Shakespeare is all the polyphonic play of personae. And even confessional poetry is actually a mask of the “I.” I sometimes think there is no more deceptive mask than the first person! And wordplay, that supposedly distancing technique, can bring us closer to the truth of who the speaker is, and who the poet is, and who the “I,” so strategically, is not.

CL: Can you speak more about the difference between “persona” and metaphysical voicing of someone else? How do you begin to do that work, in either your poetry or your fiction?

AM: I think this has a theological basis for me. It will be made clearer in the Commentaries I’ve created for my new verse translation of the Bhagavad Gita, which Knopf will be publishing next year. (Yes, I just plugged my next book right there. It’s entitled Godsong.) Suffice it to say that all living beings are a kind of atomization of Brahman, or “God” for lack of an equivalent English-language term. (I keep the word “Brahman” untranslated in my Gita.) So for me to voice another being poetically and fully would require me to identify, that is, understand the sameness of, the self and the other. True voicing is an act of love. In this way, literary art becomes a spiritual exercise.

CL: And not just an individual spiritual exercise, as many people might imagine, but one that brings spirits together. What an endorsement for the power of literary arts! I have one final question for you—given someone who has had no previous experience of poetry, what piece would you share with him or her?

AM: Hmmm….Someone who has had no experience of poetry at all? I’ll assume we mean contemporary poetry, because most people get exposed to the old stuff in high school English class. I guess I would have to do a full personality assessment on that person. What are their passions, their tendencies, their beliefs, their politics, what are their favorite historical periods—would they prefer to read something about love or war, God or the world—serious or funny or kind of sort of both, difficult or easy or in between—in other words, what is he or she like as a person? I could probably find something that fit; because I believe that contemporary poetry, whatever else can be said about it positive or negative, is as multifarious as America itself.

CL: As are your poems, also. Thank you so much, Amit. A pleasure talking with you!

Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Cate currently lives and teaches south of San Francisco, California; for more information, visit catelycurgus.com.

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