Alex Porco in Conversation with David O’Meara

Ottawa-david-omearaStitched Songs
(7 Sept 2013 – 6 Nov 2013)


Alex Porco (AP): David, in your new book, A Pretty Sight (Coach House, 2013), the classical rhapsode is a central, recurring figure. The rhapsode is a figure of transport: he has the expressive power to move— or “possess”— his audience; at the same time, the rhapsode is himself compelled by unknown forces (“he can momentarily lose his mind,” you write). Moreover, in “Close All Tabs,” you note that the skilled rhapsode transposes “local stories” into the universal metanarratives: thus, the rhapsode is both grounded yet mythic, time-bound yet timeless. Could you talk more about your interest in the rhapsode as well as how the form of the “rhapsody” is the dominant organizational conceit of the collection?

David O’Meara (DO): The rhapsode was an itinerant performer of recited poetry in Ancient Greece, often with a repertoire of myths, jokes and poetry, particularly the epics of Homer. There’s an appearance of one talking to Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Ion. The etymology of the word is of one who sews songs together, a “stitcher of songs.” He was basically reciting for his supper and would choose the most appropriate stuff to affect his audience. I could imagine he’d deliver a few poems by Hesiod, then something from the Iliad, but also something local, a tale or poem that the crowd would be familiar with.

I love the idea that they are “stitched” together, recent news and old stories, which seems natural to me. Acts of collective memory retold. This is one of the things a poetry collection does, though I wanted something more deliberate to surface, not only as an idea but as a way of arranging the content. But a very loose arrangement with those unknown forces at work a little.

So there are poems, like “Circa Now” and “Close All Tabs” that are several narratives braided together. Stitched songs. Then the whole book too has an element of that. Just as a few historical figures haunt the book, often an image from one poem reappears in another. The trick was not to force those echoes. They’re there but I tried to wear them very lightly.

AP: The idea of “echoes” or correspondences of images, figures, and themes carried across the collection is evident— for example, Socrates reappears throughout the collection (e.g., in a dialogue with Sid Vicious, titled “Vicious,” and also via a dramatic monologue, i.e., “Socrates at Delium”), and you have poems that repeatedly address the moon and space travel— though, from multiple perspectives and adopting divergent tonal registers (e.g., “Occasional” is a comic poem in which the “Poet Laureate of the Moon” delivers a speech to celebrate “the opening of the Armstrong Centre // for the Performing Arts”). Similarly, you seem to be turning and returning to subjects of interest, performing acts of revision: for example, you tell the story of Hans and Sophie Scholl twice, asking— provocatively— “did everything change or nothing?” At a philosophical level, I wonder if the constant turning over of images, figures, and themes is your way, or method, of testing the habits and limits of your thinking and perspective— a recursive act of self-interrogation. Second, at a more material level, could you talk about how you went about constructing the book, given that a poem like “Circa Now” seems to absorb parts of so many other poems?

DO: It is an interrogation but also a double-take. A haunting. It was often just a question of being open to the reoccurrence of a subject or figure. There’s a line in “Close All Tabs” that might be key here: “We think the news is over, / but it never is.” The book could be said to be enacting this. Revision recurs despite us; the past, what we call history, is still there waiting for our attention again. There’s a moment near the end of Virgil’s First Georgic, where he writes of a farmer plowing a field who “will turn up a spear, / Almost eaten away with rust, or his heavy hoe / Will bump against an empty helmet, and / He’ll wonder at the giant bones in that graveyard.” Two thousand years ago he was wondering that, and we will when we’re living on the moon. Everything that has happened is still happening, keeps turning up, literally. There was ancient history in Virgil’s time, and there was in Homer’s. We think Chernobyl is “history” because it’s no longer in the media. But it’s still there, decaying and mutating inside the concrete sarcophagus they built around it. At some future date it will become news in a terrible way again. So things turning up—bones, curses, waste—appear in a number of poems, like “Occasional,” “Memento Mori,” “Circa Now,” “Sing Song” and “Close All Tabs.”  Likewise, some names and images reappear in the poems. It was not a strategy though. I just allowed myself at some point to let them enter if it seemed natural, if it seemed there was a good reason for them to be there. Once I opened myself up to it, it’s amazing how often there is an overlap or dalliance. Sophie Scholl just sort of stepped into “Circa Now.” Socrates kept showing up, though I didn’t always let him stay. Resonances have grappling hooks. What I like is that these doublings are just here and there. You could miss them. And many of these poems were written years apart, so when Jeramy Dodds (the editor) and I started putting the poems in order for the book, it was a question to see what overall structure and cumulative effect this might have.

AP: Ok, I’d like discuss the idea of correspondences (or “resonances left over / from the beginning of the universe”) further, because it also speaks to the collection’s representation of travel, especially in the poem “Circa Now (Rhapsody)” which is, essentially, a travelogue— from section to section, the poem imagines intellectual, emotional, historical, and political connections between disparate places and times: Fort Kochi, Kerala; Trastevere; Furtwangen; Pamukkale; Warsaw; Sa Pa, Vietnam. Travel seems to function as a metaphor for, and conduit to, those unknown or unexpected resonances, as exemplified by the anecdote of the Italian snail in Cliveden, England—

stowaway in 1896
on a marble balustrade
imported from the Villa Borghese.
Structures of one empire humped
across shipping lanes to another,
the marvel of Rome raided for newer money,
while the snail
plods its slime trail
twenty-seven metres each century.

Travel also doubles as a simultaneous means of remembering and forgetting, arriving and departing. Could you talk about the importance of travel to your poetic imagination and language, then— especially since it also harkens back to your earlier collections, as well.

DO: The first thing I’d say is that I never travel to write a poem. I travel for the experience, the history, the culture, food etc., not for “material.” Travel is part of that process of getting away from yourself, stepping away from your ordinary constructs of routine. I just think it makes me a better person, more tolerant, more aware. The same is true of reading an article or a book that describes something outside of my own experience. But certain things stick in your mind over time, whether ideas, stories or experiences; they have a way of resurfacing and making connections.

You gain breadth.Those seemingly unlike things start to share themselves, connections are made and the Big Metaphor happens. Time/space occasionally overlap.

There are hypotheses in physics (quantum mechanics, multiverse theories) that support this. I read Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality to try to get my head around it. The only thing I really got was that if the universe is infinite, then the math says that conditions, every set of conditions, must repeat eventually. Hmm. On a more folktale level, I am also thinking of that crewman from Heaney’s “Lightenings” whose anchor gets hooked on the monks of Clonmacnoise’s altar-rails, and he must climb down and free the ship, climbing “back out of the marvellous as he had known it.” It’s a wonderful moment there, both parties thinking they have brushed up against this fantastic other world. These overlaps, the resonances that we speak of, are where the real action is, right? Where the sacred idea and the human intermingle. It’s there where the gods intervene in Homer. It’s the great tension of the Christ figure, or his appearance on the road to Emmaus. It’s at the heart of Don Domanski’s work, I think. That transformative moment, like the image of the Wolf-Ladder. I think it might be there with my snail too, and its doubled micro/macro experience of time/space. In the case of more secular or existential literature, that intersection is between the Self and the Other. So in its elementary way, travel allows that tension to occur. You are in a place you’re not used to, being exposed to customs, food, history and landscape that reshuffles your normal perceptions. Psychologically, you create a crisis of presence. You alienate yourself to open a possibility that the mundane will intersect with the marvellous.

AP: I have two follow-up questions. First, you make a point of saying you “never travel to write a poem”— and earlier, in reference to the “structure” of the book, you emphasized that the book’s “double-takes” are not indicative of a compositional “strategy.” In both instances, you seem to insist on a rhetoric of organic or incidental poetics. I’m curious about your desire to frame the book as such? Secondly, and on a slightly divergent tangent, could you discuss your interest in ekphrasis: I’m thinking in particular of the “Reclining Figures” sequence, “Impagliato,” and even “Loot.” In “Loot,” a poem about the black (art) market— or (black) art market— in the aftermath of the invasion of Baghdad, you’re forced to wonder, “no power, no water, no work. / So what good is art?” So, on the one hand, you recognize how “exhibits” or aesthetics are compromised, always, by mercenary interests. But, on the other hand, you still wish to engage with works of art, so that you “might / be astonished, do something real, feel…” How do you reconcile those two understandings of art and its experience?

DO: To answer the first, one can never control what experience or idea is going to affect or obsess you. You could travel to the other side of the planet to be “inspired” and then find you’re writing about a service alley in your hometown.

Travel or reading might be helpful for research, but I just don’t think you can engineer a reaction to something. That seems false to me, academic only, and a weird way to live, viewing future experience as potential “material.”

But the bottom line is whether the poem is interesting, that’s all. If it’s only there in a book because it satisfies thematic concepts but has no inner life, vivid diction, emotional drive, paradox or tensions, then it’s just filler. So I don’t think I’m framing the book as organic in approach. It’s just simply how it happened: I wrote a bunch of poems and hopefully kept the best ones in.

Where to start with the second half of this question? Art, whether visual, writing, dance, music etc., is the most authentic reaction we have to experience, the only way we have of interpreting our very strange, improbable existence. Once the basic requirements for survival have been met—shelter, food and water—then we start looking around and ask “Why? What is the most meaningful way I can engage in this?” It’s an extremely interesting moment. That’s what underlies “Occasional” and the other poems you mention. I take a few pot-shots at art because I believe it’s essential, which is why I need to tear it down.

I’m suspicious of reverence. I love Damien Hirst’s work, but I’m also conscious of being apprehensive toward it (and its bloated market value). Is it meaningful, or just impagliato, Italian for “stuffed with straw?” That Henry Moore quote, when discussing his own process, is relevant here: “You do things in which you eliminate something which is, perhaps, essential—but to learn how essential it is, you leave it out.”

And several of the poems, “Occasional,” “Loot,” and the “Reclining Figures” sequence are discourses on the indispensable, the whole question of basic survival vs. meaning. Ortega Y Gasset wrote that the only genuine ideas are the ideas of the shipwrecked. It’s at the heart of the line in “In Event of Moon Disaster” too: “…and everything a question of how / anyone would spend their last few hours,” the options being to mechanically fight for more time, or spend what’s left in contemplation. Indirectly a lot of the poems touch on this: “Silkworms,” “Talk,” “Dance,” “In Kosovo,” “The Tennis Courts in Winter,” or “How I Wrote” are all narratives of the essential. And art, whatever kind, keeps popping up because it encapsulates this paradox, being in that interstice between the necessary and a perceived frivolity.

AP: Like you, I’m “suspicious of reverence.” Like Moore, I tend to gravitate toward contempt as a precondition of “genuine” thought. And because I so revere your new collection, I am permitting myself to be somewhat unsatisfied with your comments regarding the book’s making. That is, you express a resistance to “engineered” experience or reactions; yet, poetry is neither indexically equivalent to experience nor emotional reaction(s). It’s a medium. “Inner life, vivid diction, emotional drive, paradox or tensions”— these require some engineering (to use your terms), don’t they? It just seems that you’re attempting to invest the book with a dangerous aura of realness (inner life, emotional drive, impagliato) that has, I think, more to do with imbricated notions of genre, power, and authenticity than anything else. (If your poems just “happened,” they’d display a far messier aesthetic than they do.)

On a different note, I’d like to discuss “Vicious (or, On Dissent),” a dialogue poem involving two characters: Socrates and Sid Vicious. The two figures represent a

counterweight to the comfortable
and approved. A fishbone in the throat of those
who never bothered asking
whether wealth and power were such
gasping pursuits.

Beyond the poem’s interest in the politics and aesthetics of dissent, though, I’m curious about the dialogue poem as a dramatic form and as a performance score— especially since, in the interim between A Pretty Sight and Noble Gas, Penny Black, you did write a play, Disaster.

DO: I realize the statement “I just don’t think you can engineer a reaction to something” is misleading. I meant an aversion to romanticising an experience. In Sarah Thornton’s book Seven Days in the Art World she describes the famous crit class at the California Institute of the Arts (or CalArts) that many artists who have attended describe as one of the most formative experiences of their arts education. Such is this reverence and lore “that incoming students are often desperate to have the once-in-a-lifetime-experience.” Thornton states that one student told her they “arrive with pre-nostalgia.” I am only saying I’m wary of pre-conditioning my response to an idea or an experience. I never meant to imply my poems just “happened;” I’m only speaking of the entry point. Once you get inside the door and the space looks interesting and the light is right, you say yes, I can rent this, then you start laying down floorboards, arranging the furniture, putting up pictures, and painting the walls. You work. The reason I said the above is because I’m suspicious of “inspiration,” that “pre-nostalgia.” So let me be clear on that point: once I am genuinely engaged in a poem, I engineer the hell out of it, of course. Larkin said that poetry is “emotional in nature and theatrical in operation.” It is a medium. I’m aware of the placing of every word and line-break in my poems. The point/counterpoint of free verse and stepped stanzas in “Circa Now” is there for a reason: to suggest ebb and flow, tension and rest. The alternating tabbed lines in “Loot” are suggestive of stonework. The poem “Charles ‘Old Hoss’ Radbourn, 1886” is written in dactylics (with a few trochaic endings) until I “break the measure” because it’s about the first known photograph of someone giving the finger (dactylos = finger in Greek). Etc, etc. Form follows subject matter, tone, and pace. You control the poem. You work it for the best possible effect. You are manipulating the reader in order to recreate in them the conditions that raised your own intellectual or emotional shock with something.

“Vicious” is a dialogue because it seemed the best form of presenting the idea. Not narrative, not lyric, not a sonnet or sequence. It was something different, and would add texture to the book. A sustained piece of inaction. Or what you say: a performance score.

I was first struck with the similarities between Socrates and Johnny Rotten: both obnoxious figures of dissent in a “democratic” society. Socrates was charged with corrupting youth and revering new gods, which is the punk movement in an essence.

But then I decided it really should be a Socratic dialogue, of course, and a better tension if it was Sid who eventually turns the tables on Socrates’s attempts to make him contradict himself. Plus they both died of drug overdoses, self-administered in albeit different circumstances. Though it was performed at a short play festival, it’s not much of a play. If I’d wanted to lengthen it, I’d have to have Nancy come in with a handgun or something. As advertised, it’s a dialogue. I love theatre, but just don’t know if I have the instinct for it. I love the pressure and strain that can arise from a situation on the stage. So it seemed like an opportunity to try a different approach in a book of poems while still keeping it lyrical.

AP: Thanks, David, for this discussion. I’d like to end with two final (and very different, admittedly) inquiries. First, I think A Pretty Sight further establishes you as a great “civic”-minded poet— or, what earlier would have been called a moral poet; and that moral register is, as you’ve said elsewhere, intimately connected to the practice of metaphor, which “usher[s] us toward a transitory immanence.” How do you, then, feel about poetry and the burden of civic and moral responsibility? Secondly, I’d like to conclude by discussing the politics of publishing— specifically, I’m curious, what prompted your move to Coach House? (Your two previous collections— The Vicinity and Noble Gas, Penny Black— are published by Brick)? The reality is, even a cursory survey of Coach House’s catalogue would reveal that your work is something of an outlier. I don’t mean that as a value judgement, for better or worse, but more a material and political observation connected to the history of poetry, poetics, and publishing in Canada. Does that matter to you?

DO: Well, I’d be wary of being called a “moral poet.” It sounds downright boring, doesn’t it? There’s an implied know-it-all association to the phrase, with a pinch of righteousness. There’s no denying that social, environmental and ethical issues arise in my writing. It scares the hell out of me what we do to each other and our world. Ideally, one should engage, observe and describe. I resist judgement and try to find room for humour too. In poems like “End Times,” “Loot,” “Sing Song” or “In Kosovo,” for example, I’m hoping to relate the subject matter in a way that the reader may participate in an atmosphere of thought, or vigilance, and then stew inside his/her own reflections. Like all art, poetry practices imagining. Maxims are poor shortcuts for this; they exist to be admired for their wit, but they rarely develop thought. Nuance is far more successful, which is art’s forte. I don’t think poetry has moral responsibilities, but it has obligations to nuance. It asks us to see in as many shades as possible. It tricks us into re-thinking using paradox and metaphor. I like what Octavio Paz said: that poetry is “the other voice” we hear, outside of received knowledge and imposed ideologies.

There’s no great reason why I changed presses. Publishing with Brick Books was a very positive experience. But I’d talked to Kevin Connolly (former editor at Coach House) about some poems and he suggested that CH would be interested in looking at the manuscript and a little later I sent it to them and they took it. I love what CH does; the look of their books, their promotion, their imagination, so I just switched from one great poetry press to another. I sent Kitty Lewis a note and she was very supportive. My poetry looks a little different than a lot of Coach House authors, yes, but the press, I think, has often refused to be buttonholed to one specific aesthetic. Yes, they have a great tradition of experimental writing, but they have published some excellent lyrical/narrative books as well. So to answer your question: it doesn’t matter to me. Each book is its own animal. Each is a response to the particular concerns—emotional, intellectual, political, spiritual or linguistic—that the author feels is essential. There’s room for more than one tradition, and it would be pretty boring if everyone wrote in the same way. Fundamentally, experimental and lyrical poetry are unsuccessful for the same reasons: lazy diction and clichéd thought, failure to create resonance or instill (or undermine) conviction, failure to surprise the reader. Failure to deliver on the poem’s intent. Or to deliver it too easily, too predictably. Failure of risk, whether of form or emotion. Though I lean toward the lyrical, I’m non-partisan. I’m a fan of Don Coles and Elizabeth Bishop, but I also admire Aisha Sasha John and Laura Kasischke’s elliptical work. Lise Downe and Don McKay. What do these poets share? A capacity for comparison, an aggression toward discovering the striking phrase, the evidence of a nimble mind working through uncertainties. They all carry left hooks. In that sense, everyone should be an outlier.

READ David O’Meara’s Vicious.

David O’Meara lives in Ottawa, Ontario. He is the author of four collections of poetry and a play, Disaster, nominated for four Rideau Awards. His poetry has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, the ReLit Prize, the Trillium Book Award, a National Magazine Award and he won the Archibald Lampman Award twice. His most recent book is A Pretty Sight (Coach House, 2013). He is director of the Plan 99 Reading Series and was the Canadian judge for the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize.

ALEX PORCO is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He specializes in twentieth-century poetry and poetics. He received his Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo.