Rae Armantrout: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 12.10.2010

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
>> Rae Armantrout teaches writing and literature at the University
of California, San Diego.
Her most recent book, Burst, merited the unusual trifecta
of wining the Pulitzer Prize in 2010,
the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as being a finalist
for the National Book Award.
This comes at a point in a prolific career boasting 10 volumes
of poetry, here's Burst.
She is only the third poet to have won these two awards in one year.
And to quote a recent New Yorker article,
the most genuinely experimental poet to get the Pulitzer
since John Ashbury won the triple crown in 1976.
On the surface, these poems appear modest and contained
and resemble those of William Carlos Williams.
Perhaps unassumingly simple,
her poems are what the Pulitzer Prize committee characterized
as little thought bombs.
They tick in your brain, you see the word play and virtuosity
and sophistication there, showing off what the art of poetry can do.
They pulse with intelligence.
She is a high practitioner of the art.
These poems do not sit, they do not settle, they do not behave.
They sparkle with hard, brilliant surfaces, reflecting our lives.
These poems address matter and time, existence, metaphysics with wit --
when I'm metaphorical, I'm happy, she quips -- and make us realize --
these poems make us realize these big questions exist
in every waking moment.
Why is sleep's border guarded, or, how the feeling
of emptiness is a preexisting condition,
or been aware of the bitter symbiosis of couples.
It is provocative work about the exhausting
and exhilarating moments of our lives.
Her poems are very quotable, but I will stop there,
although it's tempting, because we have the privilege
of having her with us today.
Welcome, Rae Armantrout.
[ Applause ]
>> Rae Armantrout: Thank you.
Those introductions are always so daunting.
And I was also very daunted when I was told that I was expected to talk
and not just read, because poets are accustomed to giving readings and,
you know, maybe interspersing the poems with a few remarks,
but not actually talking.
Now, I need to put this down.
But, so -- I'm prepared to talk a little bit,
and then I'm going to read some poems.
And I wanted to start by saying that there's a real sense
in which I shouldn't be here, in which it's amazing that I'm here.
Well, two reasons, actually.
First, I grew up in a world
where literature was a very distant reality.
People sometimes say I came from nothing,
but it's never quite like that.
My parents were from Missouri,
rural southern Missouri in my mother's case.
My father was a chief petty officer in the Navy.
I think it's a bit unfortunate
when you have the word petty in your title.
Like -- I don't know why the Navy does that.
So, I was raised in San Diego, where I live now.
I mean, how boring is that?
And first in Navy housing, and then
in a housing tract called Allied Gardens, which was,
as the name implies, essentially a tract built
to house veterans returning from the Second World War.
It was a white, working-class suburb, deliberately invented
for these returning veterans.
I only recently read, really, in Mike Davis's book on San Diego,
Under a Perfect Sun, that those loans way back in the day,
were available to white veterans only.

Allied Gardens was pretty much on the eastern edge of San Diego
at that time, so, far from the beach,
no beach boys, no surfer culture.
I didn't meet anyone who was an artist while I was growing up.
Once, a teacher tried to introduce me to a woman
who wrote greeting cards.
That was it.
That was about as close as I came to seeing a poet.
But, nonetheless, my mother did actually, I think,
begin my interest in poetry.
She had a children -- she bought a children's encyclopedia called Child
Craft that -- I mean, encyclopedias now are
such a distant artifact already.
They don't exist anymore, you know?
Now you just have the internet.
You look things up on Google.
Google's the encyclopedia, right?
But, so this couldn't happen now.
But then, there was this anthology, this encyclopedia for children,
and two of the volumes were devoted to poetry.
And somehow I was captivated by that, partly by the illustrations,
I have to admit, but partly by the cadences and the images.
There was Lewis Carroll, of course,
but somehow the editors had also seen fit
to include some Emily Dickinson.
You know, little bits, the ones that seemed tamer.
I remember one that started: The morns are a meeker now.
And ended up, you know: I'll put a trinket on.
She was trying to match --
she was ironically trying to match the grandeur of nature
by putting on a little trinket.
My mother's favorite was called When the Frost is on the Punkin,
which reminded her of Missouri, I guess.
When I went to school, then I was lucky again,
because I had a first grade teacher who loved poetry
and she got us to make up little poems.
And she bound them in a mimeographed book.
And then my seventh grade teacher is the one I really have to thank,
if indeed thanking is appropriate to people who turn you into a poet
because some people would think that's exactly
where you want to end up.
But, this teacher gave me the Louis Untermeyer Anthology
of Modern American Poetry.
And it was there that I discovered T. S. Elliot
and William Carlos Williams.
Like all young teenagers, I read The Hollow Men -- maybe not all --
but I read The Hollow Men and went: Yeah, they're all hollow.
So, you know, now I think it's not that simple.
But then that was my teenage response and I loved that.
And then when I was 18, I went to the local college,
which was San Diego State, and met my husband.
That was about 1966, say.
And I bet you can imagine what comes next?
What comes next is we started hearing more and more
about a country about Viet Nam.
The boy who grew up across the street from me went there and died.
And I certainly didn't want that to happen to my new boyfriend,
to whom I'm still married.
So, we began to listen to the justifications that were being made
for that war, which are a lot like the justifications
that are still made for wars.
And we got our first taste of spin, what we now call spin,
that is concentrations camps were captured,
Vietnamese were called freedom hamlets.
And people spoke about having
to destroy a village in order to save it.
And that sense that words can be manipulated and can be used
to mislead has stuck with me since.
I think that one good thing
that poetry can do is it almost forces you
to pay close attention to words.
I mean, that's what you're doing when you read a poem.
There's not many other ways to read a poem.
It forces you to kind of slow down and look at the words.
And I think that's useful, especially in this age of spin.
I think another thing that is interesting
about poetry is it takes us back to that time when we were very young
and we were learning language,
because we were all code breakers then, right?
We were listening for repetition, we were listening for patterns,
we were listening for inflections, and we were trying
to make sense in that way.
And I think we still approach poetry that way.
And then as we got the feeling that we were getting the hang
of language, we began to play with it.
Maybe we started by babbling.
We enjoyed it a lot, we made language our game.
And I think poets get to still do that, which is pretty cool.
Not that I'm going to babble, although you may consider it babble,
but you know, the pure pleasure of words.
And then as far as my poems, my particular poems,
I think the introduction mentioned this, but I often start a poem
when I feel puzzled, when I have a question I can't answer,
which is what I call a real question.
Then I try to write my way into it, and not necessarily to settle it.
I don't -- I like, for myself I like poetry that leaves unsettled,
that just points where the problem is, poems that are as much a mystery
as existence is a mystery, because it is.
So, that's, for me, where maybe all good literature,
but certainly poems come in.
And then -- so now I'm getting close to talking about the book
that -- my most recent book.
And that book was partly written
after a very strange thing happened to me.
I mean, I was writing it, I had launched into it.
And then I was diagnosed with a strange kind of cancer
that I had never heard of before, adrenocortical cancer.
It's extremely rare, so rare that I've been now asked
to address two medical schools.
So I'm like, you know, I present my case as -- I'm an exhibit now.
So, you know, I went, what?
But, and then I found out by looking it up on the internet that it has
like a 5 to 15 percent survival rate.
And they're talking about five years.
Well, it's been over four years now and I don't seem
to be sick, so that also is strange.
[ Applause ]
Thank you.
Thank you for clapping for survival, yay!

But being diagnosed with a deadly disease puts you
in unfamiliar territory, right?
In a very strange state of mind, which is, oddly,
especially if it stretches out and you don't die right away
and you're not in terrible pain -- I was lucky that I wasn't --
you're left with this sense of the strangeness of your situation,
your estrangement from the world as you knew it.
And that's not a bad place from which to write.
So, now I'm -- if I have time left, and I guess I do,
I'm going to read a few poems.
And I'll start with one that was written before the diagnosis,
but one which I think talks about playing with language,
and just the pure pleasure of words for themselves, in themselves.
And that one is called Scumble.
What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words
such as scumble, pinkie, or extrapolate.
What if I maneuvered conversation in the hope
that others would pronounce these words?
Perhaps the excitement would come
from the way the other person touched them, lightly
and carelessly with his tongue.
What if 'of' were such a hot button?
Scumble of bushes.
What if there were a hidden pleasure
in calling one thing by another's name.
And there is, I think, for some reason.
That's what metaphor does.
Okay, then I'm going to skip to a couple of prose poems
that I wrote shortly after receiving the diagnosis.
This first one takes most of its imagery from the Egyptian Book
of the Dead, but it's not quoting it literally.
On Your Way.
On your way to the sea of reeds, you will meet the soul devouring demon.
You've heard it all before, and you believe it.
Why not? Why would they lie?
You must wear the beetle amulet to avoid being consumed.
But it's also true that you can't really know
until it's actually happening.
So you have a sort of knowledge which, even if later confirmed
in each detail, is still not real knowledge.
He will weigh your heart, and if it's too heavy,
you will be swallowed up.
What is this extra element that is mingled
in when you arrive at the ordained spot?
And this next one is also a prose poem.
And it was -- I didn't really write it in a doctor's office,
but I got the idea for it while I was waiting for the doctor
to come back and tell me whether my cancer had remerged,
because they were reading a scan and they were going
to come back and tell me.
Together. Now I am always perched on a metal examination table.
Two people, a doctor and a nurse, come at intervals
to tell me whether I will live or die.
They do this with practiced solemnity.
They're smug or snug in their habits,
their relative safety, of course.
But that is to be expected.
And I wait expectantly, even eagerly,
as if I might be of some help.
If the news is bad, I imagine,
they will direct our attention to an area of concern.
For a moment, we will lean together toward that place.
But it would be a short moment, right?
Then they would go away.
[ Applause ]
And I think that when you're in a situation like that,
especially as time goes on, you don't just cry and worry.
You laugh sometimes, too.
So, some of this next one might be a little funny.
Some of it's based on a dream I had.
Around. Time is pleased to draw itself out,
permit itself pendulous loops, to allow them meaning.
This meaning, as it goes along.
Chuck and I are pleased to have found a spot
where my ashes can be scattered.
It looks like a construction site now, but it's adjacent
to a breathtaking, rocky coast.
Chuck sees places where he might snorkel.
We're being shown through by a sort of realtor.
We're interested, but can't get her to fix the price.
The future is all around us.
It's a place, anyplace, where we don't exist.
[ Applause ]
Thank you.

Thank you.
The Racket.
It's as if the real thing, your own absence, can never be uncovered.
Each actor's face seems
to have survived the same brave battle to remain in character.
They're posed on the rubble used to indicate the past.
It turns out, this is heaven.
In the present, cancer sets up a free market in your gut.
The fog lifts, and the birds start in.
Each works to replace itself with a bit of racket.
I'm going to take a break from reading poems about illness.
How much time do I have left?
Okay. Lots of time.
Is that supposed to include the Q and A?
Okay, then I should probably stop soon.
I'm going to read one that doesn't have to do with illness,
it has to do with movies that you've probably seen.
So these are based on movie previews.
And the poem's called Previews.
And they are also prose poems, and each is subtitled.
So the first is subtitled, America.
The playboy scion of a weapons company repents.
His company, he sees now, is corrupt,
his weapons being sold behind his back to strong men.
Alone, he builds a super weapon in the shape of a man.
Now more powerful and more innocent than ever before, he attacks.
The train halts.
An engineer tells us we're stopped
because we've lost touch with the outside world.
Things are happening ahead, but we don't know what they are.
This could represent an act of war.
We stand in a field, no longer passengers.
All right, I'm just going to read one more.
I don't know which one it's going to be.
And then I'm going to take questions, I guess.
So, think of questions.
All right.
I'm going to read this one called Hoop, which gets back
to the illness theme, in away.
It's in two parts.
Hoop. God twirled across the face
of what cannot be named since it was not moving.
God was momentum then, that impatience with interruption,
stamping time's blanks with its own image.
Now her theme will be that she has escaped certain destruction,
that she is impossibly lucky.
This theme should be jaunty, but slightly discordant,
coming in as it does, so late.
The character associated with this theme should be dressed
in markedly old-fashioned clothing, a hoop skirt perhaps,
while everyone else is in cut offs, ready for the barbeque.
[ Applause ]
Okay, now does anyone have a -- could anyone have a question?
>> Hi. I enjoyed your comments very much.
In terms of the poetic act, you talked about some stimulus,
some irritant, some mystery.
Okay, that's percolating in your brain.
>> Rae Armantrout: Yeah.
>> What then happens?
Do you start a kind of stream of words?
Do you write a bit, erase, play with more words?
How does it come out and how do you shape it?
>> Rae Armantrout: Well, I carry a blank book around with me so that
when something does puzzle me, irritate me, inspire me, whatever,
when I see or hear something interesting, I make a note of it.
Or even if I read something interesting,
I make a little note of it.
So, I'm kind of a magpie.
And then in the mornings I'll sit and look over my notebook
and I'll see what has some resonance and also what might go with what,
because although -- some
of the poems I read today were actually in one piece.
It's more typical for my poems to be divided into sections.
And those sections might represent different moments,
different irritants or puzzles.
And so part of my process is to see what looks
like it would juxtapose well
with something else in an interesting way.
And then, yes, I do -- I do a lot of revision.
And often that amounts to cutting things out.
Sometimes it amounts to thinking of the right word,
but often it's cutting things out.
I have a couple of friends I will send poems to,
and sometimes they will say, no, or I don't get it.
And you know, I take that seriously.
But you do what you can with it [laughs].
One of them's here in the audience, so [laughs].

That's you.
>> You read to us, I think, at least one prose poem.
>> Rae Armantrout: Two, yeah.
>> Two, okay.
And I'm wondering if you could just comment on
or explain what your conception of a prose poem is?
>> Rae Armantrout: Okay.
>> Specifically perhaps differentiating a prose poem
from free verse?
>> Rae Armantrout: Okay.
Actually, now that I think of it, I read three.
Well, if the sent -- it's a matter of tone, for me.
If the sentences seem to be long and discursive, if I'm going to want
to use phrases that -- where there are a lot of words
that have an immediate punch, then I turn that into a prose poem.
My poems that are poems tend to have very short lines.
And I like each of those short lines to have an interesting word or,
you know, something punchy in it.
So if it looks like I'm not going to be able to do
that because it's just going to be too normally discursive,
then I'll write it as a prose poem.
>> Thank you.
>> [inaudible].
>> Rae Armantrout: Oh, okay.
I didn't see you.
>> Frank Clay, from Kansas.
Thank you for being here.
>> Rae Armantrout: Oh, thank you.
>> God bless you.
My question, as a poet myself, is who's your audience?
I mean, do you define the audience?
Do you care if it's us or are you really talking
about the people who are walking around?
How do you write for an audience, or is that important to you?
>> Rae Armantrout: Well, I think --
I don't know how this plays to a crowd, but I think that a poet,
or at least I, write first for myself.
And I mean that as I write as a way of figuring out what I feel,
and figuring out what I think if I can ever figure that out,
and writing into a problem.
And it's a way of talking myself into and through something first.
So that's my first audience.
And then secondly, you know, I write for people I know
who will read my poems, I know,
critically as well as sympathetically.
And then, you know, lately I've been reading to more people
who aren't poets and whom I don't know.
And, you know, that's nice.
I don't think you can really try to write in order
to please an unknown audience, though, because if you do,
you're turning yourself into an entertainer somehow, which --
I just don't think it works that way.
I think that's counterproductive somehow.
That's just my feeling.
>> Thank you.
>> Rae Armantrout: Okay.
>> Oh --
>> Rae Armantrout: You, I guess you're next.
>> [Laughs].
Yes, the -- one of the authors
that almost won the Pulitzer yielded the poetry author.
She also has a deadly disease.
>> Rae Armantrout: Oh, I did not know that.
>> Lucia Perillo, and --
>> Rae Armantrout: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.
>> -- multiple sclerosis.
My question is, do you have a -- do you have to write about --
she also writes about her disease.
And do you have to write about a deadly disease to --
>> Rae Armantrout: To win the Pulitzer?
>> -- to win the Pulitzer?
>> Rae Armantrout: Maybe [laughs].
>> And the second thing on that is actually, her poetry is very earthy,
very female, like yours on one level,
and also on the second level it's also very complex, like yours.
And I guess the two questions are,
is that what the academics are looking for and is
that what the masses are looking for?
>> Rae Armantrout: Well, once again, I don't claim to speak for either
of those groups specifically, but I think if you look at the history
of the Pulitzer, you'll see that it --
the person, the type of poet
who wins changes a lot from year to year.
I mean, you know, you're talking about two people who won
or were finalists in the same year,
which means they had the same jury of three jury people.
But, you know, if you look back two or three years,
you will see different patterns.
I mean, it changes all the time.
It depends on who the judges are.
Does it help to have a deadly disease?
It probably does, I'm afraid.
I, you know, sorry [laughs].
>> In one of the poems that you read to us today, you used the language
of economics to describe a deadly disease.
>> Rae Armantrout: Yeah.
>> And I'm just wondering, do you consider that lexicon of finance
to be comparable or intertwined
with the lexicon of, like, political spin?
And if so, could you talk a little bit about that?
>> Rae Armantrout: Well, my next book, which is coming
out in January, is called Money Shot.
And that's a term that actually comes from porn,
but there's not a whole lot of porn in the book.
It has more to do with -- well, the pornography of money
in the last couple of years.
So, yeah, I pick up language.
Like I said, I'm sort of a magpie, and I pick up language
from all sorts of sources, the language of medicine,
the language of science, the language of finance.
Whatever is, you know, coming to the fore and is
of concern to me at the moment.
And, you know, we've been --
I actually brought poems from Money Shot to read, but we're out of time.
So you would have seen more of that had I done that.
>> Thank you.
I can't wait for your new book.
>> Rae Armantrout: [Laughs].
>> You spoke about your illness, and you write poetry about your illness,
listen, do you think an element of truth in terms of a writer,
because you're writing about something that's personal
that really, really affects you that's physical,
do you think an element of truth exists there when you're writing
about that as opposed to other subjects?
>> Rae Armantrout: Well, my experience often comes into my work.
It doesn't always come in directly.
I mean, it's not always announced as my experience,
even when it's about illness.
My poems never begin and so I have cancer and so.
>> Mm-hmm.
>> Rae Armantrout: Or, you know, but I mean, other experiences of mine,
other than cancer, also, you know -- say a problem I had with my son
or something, it could enter into my work.
I just don't frame it as autobiographical.
It -- the autobiographical material enters on a par
with things I might notice, you know,
looking at a bird, or something.
And, I don't really think that one's view of oneself is any more accurate
than one's view of the rest of the world.
It can be less accurate.
A lot of novelists will tell you that.
Okay. One more?
Where are -- okay, one more.
>> Hi. I was wondering if you recall the first time you were introduced
as a poet or you introduced yourself as a poet?
And if you do recall, how did that feel?
>> Rae Armantrout: It feels icky [laughs].
I still try to avoid it, you know?
If I'm on an airplane and I'm going to give a reading,
and the person next to me says: What are you doing in Chicago?
I never say I'm giving a poetry reading.
I don't know.
I think that's just America.
I think in some other countries, you know -- I hear, I hear tell,
that in Mexico or Iran, that poets are celebrated.
But I think in the United States there are a lot
of sort hostile parodies of poetry out there in the media.
It's considered to be sentimental or something, you know?
So, it's a hard thing to do.
I mean, I have to do it sometimes, but it's not something you want
to usually come right out with and have as the first thing
that you tell a stranger.
>> Thank you.
Thank you very much.

[ Inaudible Audience Comment ]
>> Rae Armantrout: Yeah, well, of course I am proud.
But it's not something that -- I'm not proud of being proud [laughs].
But you should write poetry if you have to or if you feel like it,
because, you know, it is rewarding.
I think it's very rewarding.
For one thing, poets form a community.
I mean, even before I got any prizes or even before I was published
by a university press back when I was published by a small press,
I could go to most big cities and stay with someone
because they were a poet, or they'd go out to dinner with me, you know?
There is a kinship of poets.
And that's one of the good things about it.
I think I should stop now because I'm out of time.
[ Applause ]