Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 17-18th, 2015
DAVID RODERICK Let’s start by talking about the title poem in Standoff, mostly because the way it opens (“I like reality. I like Rome /especially, its diesel fuel /and roasted coffee beans / intact & on the feast day / of San Lorenzo di Perugia…”) sounds like vintage Rivard to me. And yet, when you’ve spoken of the poem, you sound wary or uncertain, as if it developed in an unusual way.
DAVID RIVARD The original draft of the poem was about twenty pages long, and I wrote all of it at Civitella Ranieri, the arts foundation in Umbria where I had a residency in 2012. I had never been to an arts colony. Anywhere. When I told Charlie Simic what I was going to do, he looked at me and said, “I’ve never been to one. I always thought I would lose my goddamn mind.” Me too. It’s not my idea of fun to spend six weeks in tight quarters with a bunch of writers and artists.
RODERICK A lot of humans probably feel that way.
RIVARD It turned out to be terrific – plenty of good company, a mix of talented artists, writers, and musicians, a beautiful, beautiful setting. I didn’t have anything to do except work and read. So I decided that I was going to try to write a long poem that swept up a huge number of details from vastly different periods in my life. And I think originally there was a page of wandering into the chronology of my life, and then it did proceed more or less linearly. And I had a model for this.
RODERICK I was just about to ask you about other models or influences.
RIVARD There’s a poem called “Memoir” by Kenneth Koch, from his last book, A Possible World. I really liked its form, which was a relatively unpunctuated, fragmented sequence of lines with alternating indentions, in which bits and pieces slid in and out really quickly without transition. It struck me as a great way to generate material. Also, on some rhythmic level, I was really interested in what he was doing—he’d gotten rid of the sentence, but as a result the line had a variability that I really liked. You can hear the phrasal weights shifting effortlessly as he moves from line to line.
RODERICK How did the original draft go?
RIVARD The first draft pretty much started the way the poem does now, with this phrase: “I like reality, I especially like Rome.” I just ran with it. I wrote every day for a couple of weeks and got twenty pages. But almost immediately I found that I couldn’t do what Koch does with syntax. Despite the lack of punctuation, I could feel myself moving toward units that were more elongated syntactically than his. I was working in larger, less fragmented chunks of language. Another issue had to do with how the tone kept shifting. After two weeks I pulled back because it felt so ungainly.
RODERICK What happened next?
RIVARD Over a year or so I boiled it down to four or five pages, and started to shape it on a rhythmic level. I started punctuating it and writing more conventional sentences. The middle part of the poem came together rather quickly, but I couldn’t quite get the beginning to work. The beginning is a series of illustrations of things I like. It’s heavy on particularized images and scenes.
But the middle part of the poem is more anecdotal… it generalizes.
RODERICK Do you mean the sentence that begins, “I like all of these things / coming & going in time…”?
RIVARD Right. The passage that follows, much of it takes the form of statement. It summarizes.
RODERICK And then a few lines after that there’s this inescapable turn, which feels like the deepest root of the book: “…but I still live more than / half my life in my head, / distracted by whatever crops up / in there. As adamant as a jayhawk, / I often feel as though I’ve entered / a standoff between what / happens around me & what’s / going on inside…”
RIVARD Yeah, that statement.
RODERICK In your work this confrontation between there and here, or reality and dream, recurs a lot. Some of the book titles speak to this dynamic, like Standoff and Otherwise Elsewhere. But I’d say these lines in “Standoff” are the boldest, clearest statement you’ve made about a split consciousness. And it’s a difficult statement to make in a poem, right? Maybe the kind of statement that requires a lot of architecture to hold it in place.
RIVARD I know. That was the central problem in revising the poem. That statement was in the original draft, exactly as it is now. It’s musically coherent, a recognition driven by music in the moment of writing that I wanted to address my life directly, something I don’t always feel.
Sometimes I wonder if I wrote the first draft so quickly and openly simply because I wasn’t hearing English spoken for big chunks of the day—that experience clarified my sense of language. This poem is so straightforward, insistently present to the experience of my thinking about my life, and not that associational or improvised. Elsewhere in the book, there are clouds of detail and a music that swirls all of it around. A line of direct, clear speech might shoot out of those clouds sometimes. But I tend to move away from it almost immediately.
Anyway, I felt intuitively how that statement needed to become the focal point. And after it was situated in the poem—when the architecture began to “pressurize” and give it resonance, so that it “popped”—then the problem became, “Okay, where do you go now?” One of the things I’ve been talking to my students about recently is that, when you write something like that in a poem, it’s then your job to react to it.
RODERICK Talk about what you mean by that word: react.
RIVARD You have to do something that incorporates the statement in some way, but also propels away from it. The statement is a kind of conscious knowledge, but that knowledge has implications that can’t always be explained—it knows more than you do as the writer, and it’s your job to move in the direction of that mystery.
RODERICK So this might explain the surprising transition at the end, where you write about a dream that takes place in an attic.
RIVARD That’s right. And this dream, which was not in the original versions of the poem, was a dream that I had had over twenty years ago when I started seeing a Jungian therapist. I had the dream over and over again, even after I stopped seeing this guy. Maybe for ten or fifteen years. The dream is so archetypal, it’s almost funny. In the dream, I discover that there’s another floor to the house I live in, a floor that’s been hidden to me. It’s usually an attic space, or definitely the top floor of the house. I go into it, and sometimes there are huge windows, or other times holes in the roof. These holes or windows look out on an ocean, and there’s a bridge over the water, a bridge that doesn’t seem to end. The bridge is a version—maybe a translation—of one that exists in Fall River, where I grew up. That bridge there, looming high above a very wide river, it’s a huge thing of girdered steel.
RODERICK The transition into the dream is one kind of reaction, but I notice that you also switch to the imperative mood. You address and guide us through the dream: “Think / of a room whose door / stands ajar in a dream—”
RIVARD I like poems whose shape is made out of movements between different kinds of language, shiftings across different sorts of image, statement, metaphor, tenses, idiom, narrative, tone, syntax. If you think about Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me,” it starts with an amazingly direct line: “They flee from me that sometime did me seek.” You can’t get any more direct than that. And then it goes into four or five lines, six lines, of very figurative, indirect writing, and then suddenly it spins out of that in the second stanza into a another really direct statement: “Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise / Twenty times better…” And then you have a narrative scene of him in bed with this woman, and then it changes again at the beginning of the third stanza, when it moves into a series of clipped, charged statements. Each piece of Wyatt’s poem does something different in language, and tonally they’re all in tension with each other. It’s very fresh, really alive. For me, in terms of process, part of my idea about “reaction” often means deploying a bit of language that I haven’t used yet in the poem.
RODERICK Does it feel like you’re sampling different kinds of speech and waiting for them to click together?
RIVARD Sure. It has something to do with the way that I compose, because almost every poem that I’ve written in the last fifteen to twenty years has been collaged initially out of notebook fragments. To a certain extent, many of these passages exist already. I don’t know what I’m going to do with them, and I don’t know that this one belongs with that one until I actually sit down and improvise. It’s a very intuitive method, but I’ve practiced and refined it for so long, and I know how to go about reinforcing and structuring the poem in revision so that it “tracks” without always having obvious transitions, even when it makes big jumps.
The longer you write, the more you become acquainted with your mind and its nature. And for me, I was always aware that I had a very associative mind. I just couldn’t figure out how to use it in the act of composition until I was almost forty and had published a couple of books. By the time I finished Wise Poison it was clear that I had an associative kind of gestural sensibility—it kept breaking through and disrupting things.
RODERICK That’s when I begin to detect something new in your work. Those are good words to describe your work: “associative” and “gestural.” Bewitched Playground is the beginning of a path you still seem to be traveling. I’m not sure how to describe the sensation I’m talking about here. Is it a feeling tone? An openness? A flirtation with silence? It’s an inspiring development that continues through Standoff.
RIVARD Well, I’ve never quite felt that I’d found a way in which my imagination, my consciousness, my soul, whatever you want to call it – maybe all three of those things – could work on the page. But I’m about as close as I’ve ever been. I feel like I’m in the middle of a process that has taken me a really long time to be comfortable with and to understand, and to just go get. Again, permission is a big part of this thing. And age. The permission that age brings? Because death becomes more real.
RODERICK Standoff is dedicated to your father, who passed away last year. And also to Steve Orlen, Steve Berg, and Tomaž Salamun, three important poet-friends of yours who also passed recently. There are plenty of Rivard modes on display in this book: wonder, praise, humor, anger, happiness, etc. But the elegiac quality feels stronger than it is in your earlier work.
RIVARD I’m skeptical of the elegy as a form though, because I don’t think that language can adequately memorialize anybody.
RODERICK Your elegies are smart and beautiful because of that knowledge. They register a feeling rather than memorialize in some monumental way.
RIVARD I want to do two things in an elegy. I want to acknowledge the person and the life of the person, whatever those circumstances were that constitute a life. But I want also to acknowledge that language isn’t going to… it’s not that it can’t be consoling, but that there’s a kind of falsity in a lot of elegies. It’s as if the poet believes in language the way a god might believe in his powers as a life-giver. But language is always limited, vulnerable to silence—that’s one of the powerful recognitions in Creeley and Oppen, Beckett… and it’s not always an instrument of clarity. It carries mystery and confusion too. Just like us.
RODERICK That’s clear in “Said,” one of my favorite poems in Standoff. I love the way it’s structured with that remarkable moment in the middle between the speaker and his father… I can’t tell if that moment is redacted or just lost to memory, or even both in a way. It’s a private poem with an even deeper private moment inside. That moment is so sacred you shield it from the reader.
RIVARD That’s a very moving way to hear you talk about it, because I didn’t understand… I still don’t understand that moment exactly.
RODERICK It’s filled with existential wonder and fear and love, really. But the inscrutability of language too. There’s no way to get that intimate moment between father and son into language, let alone a poem.
RIVARD That’s a poem that handles time in a rather intricate way. There are three movements, or passages, and I wrote each of those passages pretty much whole in the notebooks, in moments separated by months. The first passage, a scene when he’s in hospice, I wrote right after he died, in March of 2014. The passage that follows in the poem, a secondary scene that moves back to a slightly earlier time, I’d written a couple of months previous.
RODERICK The one with the joke about him dying while chasing his hat, which you suggest might be “a better death than most.”
RIVARD With the joke, yeah. Then there’s that third passage at the end, which is a sort of vision. It’s this image of a field burning, but it evolves somehow from the smell in the air when his body is being washed. It’s a highly ritualized moment, that washing—kind of literal and symbolic at once—but it erupts suddenly into a wall of fire burning down a field. I wrote that within a few days of his death, and I didn’t understand why, or how it might answer his dying.
RODERICK You end by describing the blood of the lamb as “the smell of /sweetgrass burning crosswise / the length of a dry plain / and sent by a wind whose / swiftness has in it the bright / voices of kindergarteners, children / born of a hardship town.” I take that to mean Fall River.
RIVARD Definitely. But again, all of that was just language scattered throughout the notebooks. I was down there again, in Fall River, and I was traveling back and forth to Boston. My parents didn’t live in Fall River anymore, but I was traveling through it every day to visit them and seeing…it’s impossible to describe it, but there’s something completely naked about the city now—all those great industrial mills built in the 19th century out of granite, they look almost abandoned—it’s as if all the city’s possibilities have been stripped away.
Anyway, I didn’t write the poem until six months later. I had all these pieces in my notebook I wanted to use, but I felt unready. Then I heard Alan Shapiro read. And I’ve always loved Alan’s work, I’m very moved by it, but I hadn’t heard him for 10-15 years, and it made me feel, for one thing, that I could write this poem. I understood what it was that I could do.
RODERICK Were these the poems he had written about his mother’s life and death?
RIVARD Yeah, exactly. There’s a kind of hallucinatory realism in them.
Anyway, I wrote the first few drafts, but that “he said/I said” thing was not in there yet. There’s a silence that follows in the wake of the joke I made about my father chasing his hat, and that silence really interested me—it felt like the transition out of it was too smooth, too mechanical. I sensed that the language simply filled in the space, when what really needed to happen was an amplification of the silence, like there was some way to increase the dramatic pressure with silence. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it.
Around October, I was having a conversation with Fred Marchant, when he mentioned how many poems there were in the manuscript where someone says something to someone else. I’m not sure I’d noticed, but it’s true. Obviously, “Said” is another one of those poems. Fred hadn’t seen the poem, and really he was cautioning me a bit, he felt the use of direct speech might have become a tic, for him it was problematic…but I had a counter-intuitive reaction the next time I looked at a draft of “Said.” I remembered Kenneth Koch suggesting that the solution to a problem in language might be to multiply it. To draw more attention to it. I almost immediately wrote that passage, the “he said”/”I said” part. But intuitively I knew it had to be a series of ellipses like that, these radical ellipses in which the thing is not rendered. It had to multiply the strategy in a tightly controlled space, but also alter it, make its use as different as possible from elsewhere in the poem and the book. But I’m not sure I really understood the implications of what I did until just now, or whether it really worked.
RODERICK I’m so glad you trusted that instinct. I didn’t think of this until now, but you’ve been talking about your father, which reminds me of the opening of another poem from the book, “Arriving from a Destination.” The poem begins, “Arriving from a destination / where nothing too / evil has filled my father – / do I know him at all?” And a bit later, “my mother – who is she?”
You write a lot of portraits of other people. In some cases they’re of family members or friends, but others depict the FedEx guy or someone observed in a café or on the street. I admire how much imaginative material you mine out of these encounters, your sense of humanity in those poems especially.
RIVARD I feel more and more curious about the world at large, much more open to people’s lives. But I also believe in what Chekhov said, that the soul of another lies in darkness, and that there’s some invisibility or secrecy to our beings.
RODERICK These portrait poems suggest we can never really know another person, which is a modern conceit. We’re doomed to loneliness, but we might take solace in the fact that we all experience that loneliness.
RIVARD I would like the poems to have both—this feeling that, yeah, you cannot actually ever know someone completely, and many people you won’t ever know very well at all, but also that you might approach them through curiosity and empathy, and reach out to their strangeness. I can learn to love that essential strangeness. Because it’s a thing we share.
Or maybe it’s not so much about love as it’s about simply seeing them. “It happens rarely/ that one of us really sees the other,” that’s what Transtromer says. The attempt seems utterly important to me. I came from a place that’s culturally cut off, “written off,” and it’s a community of working-class people who are somewhat skeptical and suspicious by nature. It’s bound up with their fatalism. I feel like I have a lot of that in me.
So there’s a kind of spiritual exercise in doing this. I often feel as if I’m writing towards some stranger. And those poems aren’t archetypal exactly, but they are about archetypal moments, an experience with solitude that everyone has. There’s a loneliness in that solitude, but there’s more than loneliness in it.
RODERICK I was hoping you would say something like that.
RIVARD There are certain moments, when I’m not distracted, and I feel closer to other people, but also intensely aware of myself as a being or creature. There’s something creaturely about it, it’s very physical this kind of attention. You live on this planet with others whose physical presence is just as vivid as your own, and each of us carries around inside us this dream life, the strangeness of consciousness, and it’s equally “real.”
It’s funny. When I saw my daughter Simone last week… she can be terribly funny at times, and she said, “Oh, I wanted to tell you. I’ve come up with a couple of things to add to the long list of tattoos that I’m never going to have.” And one of them involved a version of a famous quote from Bronisław Malinowski, who’s one of the fathers of modern anthropology, something like, “Make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” I like to think that’s one of the jobs of poetry too.