David Rivard’s fourth book of poetry, Sugartown, has just been published by Graywolf Press. His second book, Wise Poison, won the James Laughlin Award. His work has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Howard Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center, as well as the Pushcart Prize. He teaches at Tufts University and the low-residency program at Vermont College.
Jennifer S. Flescher: You have just published your fourth book, Sugartown. Does poetry still hold the surprise and magic that it did when you first started out?
David Rivard: Yes and no.
The excitement happens in the language; it happens as a result of the music and the metaphor-making, bits and pieces of language coming together to make something that didn’t exist before. And my work has always depended somewhat on changes in form from book to book, so the fact that that continues makes me happy. For me, the experience of writing a poem is centered on the feeling of something happening which you have a hand in producing but which is also unwilled in some way. I know the poem comes out of me—it can’t possibly come from anywhere else—but it’s coming from a part of me I’m not always in contact with on a day-to-day basis, and I like being in contact with that part of myself. I think it’s some part of me that wants to be awake—and that I would like to have be as awake as possible—awake and moving. It’s what O’Hara is talking about when he says, “My force is in mobility.”
JSF: What is the “no” part of the answer?
DR: There are aspects of being a so-called professional poet that I’m not happy about or particularly good at. They dull you, and they leave you with less time for writing. I’ve been lucky to have the career I’ve had, but I try not to mistake my career for my life.
Also, I’ve found that as I have gotten older I’ve gotten more critical, and so I don’t hear or read as much new poetry I really love. When I find someone who is new, whose work is exciting, that’s a great moment for me. Sometimes it’s younger poets—lately, people like Peter Richards, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Josh Weiner, Adrian Blevins, Joshua Beckman, Cate Marvin, Joe Wenderoth—all of them variously passionate and formally inventive. Other times it’s simply people whose work I didn’t know or knew only slightly. Ted Berrigan and Jean Follain, Edwin Denby, Lorine Niedecker, all in the last five years.
JSF: Your first book, Torque, came out in 1988, almost twenty years ago. How do you feel looking back?
DR: Torque seems like a lot of first books of that time period: autobiographical and narrative. It was largely about growing up in Fall River, in this working-class community of Portuguese and Quebecois immigrants. And then about moving out into the wider world. Torque and Wise Poison both have that—that archetypal American story: innocents setting out into the unknown.
Looking back on it now, I see a couple of things. Though the work is more straightforward than my later work (and it’s very much a first book formally), there are aspects of it that still interest me—I can see how I’m using a line to parse out sentence rhythms as the line moves down the page. It’s not a book that depends on the line to articulate a rhythm; it depends on the sentence. The line makes you more aware of how phrasal units counterpoint the sentence, or how the complications of syntax are being released, how the syntax tracks.
But the attitudes and stances in Torque bother me—they’re the limitations of somebody who grew up in a particular working-class immigrant environment. There’s a certain kind of fatalism in those cultures, and so there is a certain kind of fatalism in that book. The emotional range feels constricted. Also, the character speaking the poems sounds “off,” a little false. There were kinds of language and attitudes that I wouldn’t allow myself to use, that didn’t fit with the way I wanted myself to sound. A lot less humor, less tenderness and vulnerability. I had an anxiety about the way I sounded, and about how I wanted my voice to be heard on the page.
JSF: Do you think there was a conscious not allowing of range?
DR: What I think I was trying to do—and this is a very psychological take on this—I think I was trying to create a voice that was close to my father’s, maybe as a way of reconnecting with him or returning to that place which I had left when I was eighteen.
I was also shaping a voice that was a reflection of the poetry that I had been most influenced by then, and that I was trying to write toward—Levine, Levis, Ryan, Frost, Wright, C. K. Williams. All of those people have a certain register of speech; there’s a kind of impassioned toughness—a sense of the fatalistic and the tragic. I wanted a voice that would reflect that and have a similar gravity. Their passions are in their gravity. Though of course I misread them according to my own needs, and I see now how different they are from what I thought they were. More complex—in tone and experience.
It seems pretty silly to say, but maybe I was worried about whether or not I had duende! It was about some kind of authenticity or authority. But the anxiety, the whole question, vanished some time around finishing my second book, which was also around the same time my daughter was born. Having a child altered everything in my life. And in a simpler, more clear-cut way, the poets I was becoming more interested in then changed my work—W. C. Williams, O’Hara, Schuyler, Oppen, Snyder. Cesar Vallejo was very important for me too. Tomas Transtromer. And writers from Central Europe like Tomaz Salamun and Adam Zagajewski, Milosz.
JSF: What is the relationship between your stories and your writing now?
DR: It’s a subterranean relationship. I don’t think that my story is in my poems in a very direct way anymore. My poems have become more and more indirect in relationship to my life. They’re saying plenty about my life—no one can convince me that even the most obscure, impenetrable poetic language doesn’t say something about someone’s life, either tonally or syntactically. But I felt as if I had exhausted my stories psychologically—the struggle between father and son, the journey into becoming a man, the gravitational pull of an American fate, strange towns on the violent highway. Some of them have faded for me. Others I’ve abandoned. Jung says somewhere that often the only way that a psychic conflict can be dealt with is by abandoning it—outgrowing it by moving on, so that a new consciousness can develop. I feel like in my life that has been an important thing to try to do.
But actually I don’t know what the exact subject of a poem is while I’m writing it, never mind how it relates to my “story.” Sometimes it makes itself clear in the later stages. But it’s more diffuse than ever—what’s it feel like to be immersed in this particular American moment. What I’ve always been interested in is moods—my own and the world’s—and, often, that is about as close to subject matter as I can get now. And anyway, our emotional lives are so complicated, rich, and full of illusions and blind spots. So the purpose of writing a poem in some ways is to be surprised by discovering this thing that you didn’t know about yourself or the world. In that case, the stories you tell yourself are the least interesting thing about you. And almost always untrue. Or not true enough. In my head, I’m still narrating my life as I live it. Everyone does that; I’m not sure it can be stopped. But I see that, too much of the time, these stories are a way of trying to control the real. It’s as if I’m trying to convince myself that I really do know that it all makes sense. When, in fact, a better attitude might be to say, as the Buddhists do, “only don’t know.”
JSF: Despite a strong pull toward the unattainable throughout the work, the last poem in Sugartown is very romantic. The closing lines of the book are: “It all depends on you, my whole life depends on you.” Could you talk about the power of love and romanticism in the book, and how did you decide to close with that poem?
DR: Do you know Bill Matthews’s comment about what you could reduce the subject matter of almost all poetry to? He said it could be summarized by using the plot line from one of those Bing Crosby–Dorothy Lamour–Bob Hope road comedies of the 1940s: “Amorous gorilla pursues Hope.” That gets at it pretty well, don’t you think?
But, really, I’m baffled by love. Desire baffles me. Its persistence and strength, its return. The power of whatever it is in us. And its failures, mistakes, illusions. How we fail it. And, thankfully, it all keeps going on. But you’d think that anybody who understood how temporary we are would be able to live inside their bafflement more easily. That hasn’t been the case for me. The best I can do—because maybe the unattainable makes love and desire endless—so it’s best I think for that endlessness to live itself out in the everyday world. So it doesn’t start to feel it’s something special, so it doesn’t insist on itself so much. I’d say that in Sugartown there’s some kind of skeptical-romanticism spirit presiding, and it’s in local, ordinary moments and characters. Like a young woman flirting on a cell phone; or someone shoplifting CDs, and later on getting religion; or those rich donors at a museum benefit oblivious to the prison they live near; somebody buying antioxidants at a grocery store while somebody else dreams of his dead son, or a high-school dropout kisses his girlfriend. And all of this has some harshness to it too, and it’s shadowed.
There are people like Robert Creeley and Jack Gilbert and Yehuda Amichai, Steve Berg, Tony Hoagland, who have written wonderfully about love and desire. They’re very direct, but they don’t try to resolve the contradictory feelings involved in it. Like I said, I’m not direct, and love as a subject is not something that I think of consciously while I’m writing the poems. Anyway, on another day I could have said something completely opposed to “You,” the poem that you’re referring to. It doesn’t all depend upon my wife or my daughter or my friends or the world—there is aloneness too—times when I feel absolutely cut off from affection and desire and all the rest of it, and it doesn’t feel good, but I recognize it is part of being alive.
In an earlier version of the manuscript, “You” was the first poem in the book. And it felt wrong. A first poem puts a spin on a book, or else it frames it; the spin that I wanted in Sugartown had more to do with the feel of the poems, their speed and simultaneity, how the images flew together and dissolved quickly. Also I wanted to make the reader aware of a social world that was overheard or glimpsed indirectly in the book. All of which “American Speaking” does. And it has that shadowed glow I talked about before, with harsh edges to it. “You” didn’t have that, and it’s too similar to the poem that starts Bewitched Playground. But it feels right at the end of Sugartown, the assertion of an illusion I try to believe in. Because some illusions need to be true enough.
JSF: After the publication of Bewitched Playground, you said, “I think each book I have published has reflected a specific formal development…also a specific period in my life, and those periods seem to have clearly marked boundaries.” How do you see the boundaries of Sugartown?
DR: I don’t know if I have ever written a book—after Torque—where I was sure of its subject. Of course the publisher has to put something on the back of these covers: “The images in Rivard’s Sugartown are glimpsed out of the corner of one’s eye, in a blur of motion.” I’m more and more interested in what that feels like—the sense of being in time, being awake and understanding the way time is vanishing. Things appear and disappear—that to me is what my work is about more and more. Being alive is kind of a blur, and I’m both amazed and troubled by that. And I wanted that to play out against the backdrop of the America of the moment: the vibrant, distorted life we’ve built around shopping and entertainment, the undertow of race and class and religion, our taste for the candy of power and wealth, the fears we keep trying to push to the edges of history. But I didn’t want to be didactic and judgmental about all this; I just wanted to be awake to it. I’m a part of it as much as anyone. And besides, the world isn’t simply terror and blind corruption. It’s also made of clarity and tenderness.
In any case, with this book, I wanted to change the formal means and mechanisms of my poems in order to get closer to that feeling. I wanted to strip away as much rhetorical gesturing as possible out of the language. So I could be in my life more. Grace Paley says that a writing problem is always a life problem. I’m not sure if there’s any other reason to write except to discover what you are and what the world is.
JSF: You talk about your method of writing from disparate journal entries, weaving them together as a way of improvisational connection. You’ve also said that the ending of a poem should “feel like an inevitable place pulled out of a hat.” How do you create that random yet inevitable appearance of detail?
DR: I don’t know or don’t want to know how that happens. My poems are composed now out of fragments that come together in a fairly intuitive way. The excitement of bringing disparate fragments together is tremendous—in a way, that’s the best part of writing. I do a lot of things to introduce material into poems that initially may seem arbitrary and random, though they turn out to connect on an unconscious level. And I’ve practiced this method for so long that it has become second nature. That’s what improvisation is—and I do a lot of practice in the notebooks so I can get there.
This doesn’t mean that the process works immediately, or that a poem always results from it. Some of the poems have been reworked quite a bit. A poem has to make a shape—if it doesn’t, all the energy leaks out, and it will collapse. If my endings seem inevitable, it’s mostly because I devise a structure that makes them feel that way. The structure creates that feeling of inevitability. If you look at O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” it initially seems rambling and anecdotal, the energy of happenstance—his “I do this, I do that” approach. But if you study it, you begin to notice its intricate architecture, the choreography of the stanzas, how its lack of punctuation determines pacing and pitch, and the turn in time and space the poem makes as it heads into that amazing last stanza, the way the Janus-faced phrase in the middle of the last line creates a dynamic closure. I love how elastic time becomes as he brings the poem down to this doubled moment of remembering Billy Holiday “while she whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.” I’d like my poems to have as much of that energy as they can.
JSF: Uncelebrated, unnoticed life is an overarching theme in your work. It is as if moments, strangers, and details come to visit you through your observation; then you give them prominence in your poems. You said, “Maybe I write because I want to make these invisible guests visible, even if only for a moment.” Where did this fascination start for you?
DR: Really, I don’t pay enough attention to what’s around me! And I am trying to change that. With almost all the poets that I love, I’m amazed by what they notice, and the ways in which that noticing finds its way into poetry is a really important thing for me—I like that feeling of attention. I wanted that feeling and the “thinginess” of the world in Sugartown. I seem to want it more and more as I get older. But, again, the trick increasingly is to get the structure to hold it all together without determining either its content or meaning.
When I was in second grade, the nuns at the Catholic school I attended told my parents I was never going to amount to anything because I just stared out the window all day. Who knows where I went at those moments—some place more stimulating I’m sure. When I won the Laughlin Prize, Heather McHugh wrote that in the poems in Wise Poison no usual sense of destination survives, that it’s been replaced by overlaid patterns of change. She had a figure for this sense of continual redirection—an image of a highway cloverleaf. It made me feel like I had redeemed myself and my childhood spaciness—I’d made it into a process.
JSF: The physical shape of the poems in Sugartown—stanza and poem size and composition—is more diverse than it was in the previous books. What role did the formal structure—and more, the space the poems take up—play in this collection of poems?
DR: I wanted to use a much shorter line in some of these poems, and stanza forms that I hadn’t used very much or at all. Triplet and quatrain stanzas. Some times the stanza forms are marking out movements. Other times the stanza is a way of retarding the forward movement and propulsion. Creeley was a big influence on some of this. But I think that some of these devices (shorter line, radical enjambment) are about the speed and the blur, that feeling I mentioned. They were a way to be inside it.
My reading seems to affect strongly how I work on a formal level. In Sugartown, there are longer-lined, unpunctuated poems I know were influenced by Follain and Oppen—they have a hovering, vibrational syntax. And some of the open-field compositions come out of rereading Snyder and Paul Blackburn. But I don’t worry much about these influences causing me to lose my “voice.” My sensibility is too strong for that. I always feel as if I’ve been given a gift, learning from others what I can do with a poem.
And my work is changing again. I’ve noticed in just the last few months that there’s a new form developing—and I am actually loath to talk about it. It’s a form in which the line doesn’t determine the rhythmic values—but it’s not a sentence-governed poem either, or it’s a very different kind of sentence from those I’ve written. There’s a little Rimbaud in it, tonally. I don’t know where it’s going, and of course that bothers me a bit—but I’m willing to let it go. I think I’ll probably end up writing some not very good poems in order to get where I’m going—that seems to be the process I go through.
JSF: You’ve talked a lot about the fragmentary style you work in. There seems to be a divide in the poetic community right now between a unified lyric and a more disjunctive sensibility. Are you aware of the schism, and how does it impact your writing?
DR: Well, the fragmentation of the community is true, and within the large split you mention there is even further division. On one level maybe it just reflects where American culture is at. It’s all about market fragmentation. It seems silly to think about poetry that way—but of course, it is an economy. It may not be a very lucrative economy—though in some ways it is a very wealthy economy. And people, in the larger society and in the poetic culture, seem to want to create self-identities out of belonging to a group with a shared set of values. There’s nothing new about that. What’s new is the fact of five hundred TV channels and high-speed Internet connections. I mean that metaphorically mostly—people seem increasingly insulated in their little demographic niche, their channel frequency. Maybe, given the history and place we’re living in, we have this need to feel bounded, to identify with a particular group. But it seems that people divide into camps and then those camps become more or less antagonistic.
I see this as a time that is very different from the early 1960s to the early 1970s. You had people like Merwin, Rich, Levine, Wright, Kinnell—all poets who were trained in classical meters—starting to make their experiments writing in free verse. There was a lot more dialogue going on. Donald Hall was friends with Robert Creeley. You saw how Kinnell picked up stuff from Ginsberg; a lot of people picked up stuff from Ginsberg. Thom Gunn wrote insightful essays about Gary Snyder and Lorine Niedecker. There was the influence of Williams on Lowell. Adrienne Rich was clearly reading Olson and injecting some of it into her work. Poetry that was being translated into English for the first time started to create cross-influences in various groups, especially in the New York School and the deep image movement. Maybe it was a smaller community then, and so, easier to hold a conversation.
It feels like people are afraid or disdainful of that now. As if you can’t like Jorie Graham’s work if you like Michael Ryan’s, and vice-versa. And God forbid that you should admire and learn from both James Tate and Tom Sleigh. It’s bullshit. I hope it all passes away soon.
For me, it’s vaguely problematic because I see myself existing between these aesthetic camps. I’ve pulled in stuff from all over. Sugartown was clearly influenced by various Black Mountain poets, but also by French surrealism and cubism. I don’t see why anybody would want to shut themselves off to anything. The people I identify most strongly with now as a poet—Ralph Angel, Mary Ruefle, Dean Young, Donald Revell, Stuart Dischell, James Galvin, Forrest Gander—seem to exist outside this supposed split between “autobiographical narrative” and “ellipticism.”
JSF: Don’t you think some of that is a natural art-historical transition?
DR: Maybe, but I think this is a particularly self-conscious and divided period. Of course, artists have often maintained purity by denying other aesthetics and finding an identity in a group that they’re part of. And it’s worked. But so has cross-fertilization and artistic theft. I’d argue that that’s been the more dominant impulse, however art history likes to neaten things up.
I just go on what appeals to me, and I try to learn something from the poets whose work I love. There is an amazing range of voice in poetry, and an astounding number of approaches that are available to you—why would you want to close out any of it?
I don’t know, I’m finished with worrying about whether I’m doing the right thing or not—you have to get to a point where you realize there is no correct thing—there is no right way to do this. It’s freeing in a way. I’m just going to go on writing my poems; they will be recognized or not recognized. And more than likely, most, if not all, will be forgotten. That’s not modesty talking; I’ve just never had immortality as a goal. It seems pretty obvious that it’s best to live as if the future doesn’t exist. We’re all just scratching our marks, leaving our prints, putting our thumbprints down—and maybe someone will see them once in a while. But the point is to make use of your thumb while you have it.
Jennifer S. Flescher is a journalist and poet with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. She has published nonfiction in The American City Business Journals, __The Concord Journal, The Boston Tab, The Boston Globe, and several other daily newspapers. She is currently completing an MFA in poetry at Lesley University and has published poetry in The Boston Globe and Frigid Ember. Other poems are forthcoming in Harvard Review and The New Hampshire Review. (4/2006)
Jennifer S. Flescher is a writer, poet, and educator. She is founding editor and publisher of Tuesday; An Art Project. Her poetry has appeared in Harvard Review, Lit, Fulcrum, the blog for The Best American Poetry, and The Boston Globe. Her nonfiction credits include AGNI, Jubilat, Poetry Daily, Perihelion, The Boston Globe, and Harvard Review. (updated 2/2012)