A Theory for Poetic Contagion:
Daniel Poppick on Dana Ward, Aaron Kunin, Ariana Reines, and CAConrad
You turn to the same poem, clicking off your bedside lamp for hundreds of nights, its final line echoing into your dreams and droning through you during the day like the refrain at the end of the pop song it is, while you walk about your life entertaining angels unawares—"And gathering swallows twitter in the skies." Suddenly you find that it is in fact autumn and the songbirds Keats wrote of on his deathbed have finally gone public, their stock vaulting seventy-three percent into the blue air the first day out of the nest; what mellow fruitfulness hath you wrought? And there you are, thinking you were just reading the recession.
You've been infected. The poem attaches and suddenly, against your better judgment, all sensory information leads you back to those lines; it's as if the poem made the laws of gravity and you're just starting to feel them as such. You try to write a poem yourself, but everything that comes out seems derivative of what you've been reading. The sky, your friends, a phone: derivative of reading.
You feel that you are an extension of the poem, and vice versa. The poem is an organism, not a metaphor for an organism, but an actual body that eats, shits, and breathes. You are twins, it just happens that one of you is made of the alphabet and another is made of an alphabet. You read the lines "Dangerous angel, // I will not lie down / with the lamb who is / contagious," but when you look up from what Robyn wrote and see your friends playing catch, you experience it as a stanza break. You have no idea that, looking out across the park, what you're reading isn't the poem.
On Feb 3, 2013, at 12:10 PM, Dan Poppick wrote:
In the future all of our letters will be addressed to postal workers. If you want to be the first to lay eyes on your mail then it's time to start training as a mailman, and if you want to correspond in a direct style then you better start loving one (one postal worker, many styles). Are you ready? Dana Ward is. His first book, This Can't Be Life, begins innocently enough with a block of prose that reads like it's addressed to people he knows: "I went to Buffalo to give a reading a week or two back. Michael, my host, drove me up to the falls, & Tisa came too." Ward presumes instant intimacy, and his readers are dropped into the warm flow of his conversation—a poetics of friendship—in medias res. This would be mundane stuff if not for what comes next.
"So there was this space," he writes of the small social machinery of that afternoon, "& it wouldn't be wrong to call it life. Nor would it be wrong to call it poetry. But these are the operations of a mind that can't tell the difference between music & anything." The admission is striking: on one level, as Ward states outright, the poem is happening first and foremost in the space of lived experience, populated by the people around him; but on another, the poem written down for this book needs to be read by someone who wasn't there. A whole sensory system briefly explicated does not suggest the quality of intimacy we thought he had just been granted, and at any rate this particular smear between music and anything is available only through Ward's writing to us about it. So every "lived poem" behind this collection serves as the germ for its written analog, but that germ is distinct, and Ward's readers play double roles in turn—the intimates who must remain at a critical distance, postal workers illegally opening the mail that was meant for them anyway. This is private speech for the public. Or is it the other way around? Could you strike a balance in your own reading, or all vertigo?
Whatever the case, what follows from that first block of prose isn't just another (romantic) exercise in throwing out the old romantic modes of expression, but a genuine attempt to expand what it means to relate to people and the world right now. And that's what makes it exciting to me: I want to figure out how to speak meaningfully (and listen) in the age of social media and, uh, publicized conversation. I'd like to discuss this in relation to the long elegy, "Typing 'Wild Speech,'" but first I'm curious about what you think of the moment when he writes "Things do not cathect they auto-respond we know this it's the principle of tragic." The eerie thing about the statement is that while Ward is clearly addressing us, his audience, there's no direct object. With what do things "not cathect"? To what do they then auto-respond? For whom is Ward writing his letters?
Dream from April 16, 2013 [read Aaron Kunin's Grace Period before sleep]:
I am holding some kind of meeting with all of my words, the words I speak, and they (or a few of them) are gathered together in a boardroom. I am unsure of the meeting's context or purpose, but I am making a speech to them and say "I couldn't have done this without you." One of them pulls his sleeves inside his sweatshirt and hugs his knees like a little boy.
Aaron Kunin's Grace Period is a collection of nineteen notebooks kept between 1998 and 2007. The notebook made public is a finishing school that let the cameras inside—there's little space for the hushed, sloppily hermetic auto-performance of the diary in this form, because the text is stretching to pirouette into the klieg lights of a poem one day, all muscle and seamless motion, if ever the need should arise. Before the age of social media perhaps it was just that, a Dancing with the Stars of the mind, only more humiliating. Now the notebook is the poem itself, curated fastidiously and perfected as such, just as the Facebook wall now may as well just be the face.
In Grace Period, Kunin assembles hundreds of short numbered entries into a document that is equal parts memoir, literary criticism, lyric poetry, essay, bathroom reading, public census and private screed, and yet of course it is none of these. Kunin invents his own form here, as is his wont; see his last book, 2007's The Sore Throat and Other Poems, in which he rewrites Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" using a private 170-word lexicon culled from his own personal "binary hand alphabet." Kunin's art lives and dies inside the I-beams of its own structures, but there's more space and natural light there than in most Brooklyn apartments.
Beyond being uncannily prescient of the status update almost a decade before it entered the popular bloodstream (unless you count Diogenes)—"Aaron: short for Erroneous"; "The notion that crap can't recognize itself. / Crap must be innocent"—the serial structure here, like blank verse or heroic couplets, ain't over 'til it's over; it can only end arbitrarily (when the notebook runs out of pages) or, heaven forbid, biographically. There is no single overarching narrative, and we never learn why Kunin stops abruptly in 2007, the style of the entries having remained almost totally consistent for 311 pages and nine years. Unlike blank verse or heroic couplets, however, Grace Period's journal entries don't have the steady motor of iambic pentameter or the open circuit of rhyme to keep us moving. How then does Grace Period remain so consistently and brilliantly captivating and, in accumulation, weirdly moving?
Kunin's mise en abyme is a recurring subcategory that he calls a "graphological portrait," entries that comically literalize and fuse the relations between writing (handwriting), the mind, and the body. They are scattered throughout the book. Early on, he writes "Graphological portrait. / A particularly ugly capital I." There's a sense in these entries that your writing can expose something about you over which you have no control, like facial features or unconscious thought. There's also a somatic element to many of them: "Graphological portrait. / Bizarre hapes of your letters—ratty, shaggy letters. / Your letters shedding their skins." These graphological portraits acknowledge the subjective quality of letters and words, perhaps of all writing. And by "subjective" I don't mean that words are fallible or constitute a "point of view" but that they are subjects in the corporeal sense; you deploy them (or charm them after they've shed their skins) but they live their own lives. When Kunin asks "Or is your book a pump for dispensing poison?" one feels tender for having been correctly indicted.
A graphological portrait, evidence of a living organism on the page, hot jar of nerves and circulation host to any other number of microorganisms that can spread to the reader or anywhere else there's a warm body to receive them; "Your notebook," says Kunin, "is unhygienic." When I sat down to write this I wanted to tell you something about poetic form, how a formal device builds and spreads within its structure, but we've arrived at a starker definition of that word. There's form and then there's form. "At a certain point the word 'between' disappears. / First the quotation marks disappear." Off with your skin.
On Mon, Feb 4, 2013 at 7:04 PM, David Gorin wrote:
You've been my muse for many a book review, and I take your invitation to this exchange as an extension of that time you offered to shave off your four-year beard if I could finish my Metropole review by midnight on a given Friday—the only kind of deadline I've ever been able to take seriously.
I should say that the phrase you pick out makes me think: things don't cathect; people cathect. The difference between cathexis and auto-response is the difference between what happens when the fleshy orifice typically used for consumption and speech makes contact with an analogous arrangement on another human or human-resembling object, and a kiss. When Leslie and I were breaking up last year, I remember talking with you about the phenomenon of the "fake hug," where one or both persons touch each other automatically, without the grace of presentness. Ward writes: "See why I'm nervous at the level of production? / Anything can be a convention // even (especially) love." It's hard for any production to be unconventional for very long. Poems on the page have this problem, too: they're silent objects trying really hard to pass as persons speaking, or indices of persons. Reading a poem can feel like there's a person or a few people on the other side of it, talking to you through it. Letters work this way too. But sometimes, with poems, that feeling isn't there; the poem feels dead, conventional, a fake hug given by a word-machine programmed to embrace the "you" whenever it collides with anyone who knows the meaning of its words.
Ward's poems constantly attend to the particular people around the poetry, as if the poems themselves were important chiefly as a means by which to be with and of and for friends—Tisa, Michael, David Larsen, etc.—whether in daily life or the dive bar of the archive. But without Ward's care, these people would ultimately just be names, and how far they and the descriptiveness embossing them in verse can make us feel from what is truly living.
I throw this discourse back to you, and I know you will receive it and give it back to me: that's the principle of comic. I want to know what you have to say about "Typing 'Wild Speech,'" and whether you think we'll ever get anyone to print this.
Dream from June 13, 2013 [read Ariana Reines's Thursday before sleep]:
"Tonight we splurge on luck."
"Dan, I forgot my glass in the other room. Could you speak it to me?"
If Jack Spicer is right in claiming that poetry comes from "the outside," to be received by the poet like a radio wave, then one way we might know that what we're reading is not from within our own walls is when we hear rhythm simply by looking at the page. Meter is strictly outside of a word's semantic definition, yet it is intrinsically involved in how the body receives that word's meaning. The rolling and tumbling cadence closely associated with any number of language variants occasioned by singing, praying, thinking, or fucking, to name a few—these are some of the most enduring ways of making the magic happen. The fact of recurring rhythm (recurring both within the poem and across centuries of language) is evidence that there is something out there speaking beyond our intentions. It infects between dimensions.
After three full-length books of poetry that get elbow-deep into the mind's relationship with the body's relationship with different clusters of an evolving everything (read this backwards and forwards), in her long poem Thursday, Ariana Reines has given us her most bluntly vatic work yet. Rather than speaking some received god's words, Reines speaks her own prophecy with her own voice, but with an urgency that seems channeled, half prayer and half revolt:
The lord commanded that I circumcise my mouth
I'm on all fours losing my baby
I'm on all fours in the universal hieroglyph of prayer
That's how we fucked in the days of Sumer
That's how we did it in the days of Sumer
That's how we make love in the days of today
Let's just say I want to be drenched in love
Sky man or gravity
Gravity and grace
We whose mouths are vases of god
Black god shines gold out of the red vase of mouth light
We are vases of god in universal night
I don't care if you think I don't know what I'm saying
I know what I'm saying
This universe is moral
Fighting against the command from elsewhere to clip (snip) her speech, Reines's heavily iambic cadences build and break regularly, usually about once per line. Every moment that she seems to be settling into regularized song, she shakes it off. This happens particularly forcefully in that first stanza break, in which the heartbeat iambs at the end of the line ("of god in universal night") slip into an anapest, effectively forcing us to stop and gulp the air to keep moving: "I don't care." Reines constantly refutes what she's just said, but the contradiction always sounds perfectly inevitable; "Of course it can be secular to be alive on a Thursday," she insists later in the poem, "And as a matter of fact / It cannot." When she slips back into metrical order, she sounds terribly measured and assured: "This universe is moral."
I can think of no other poet from my generation who so brilliantly performs the ecstatic clarity of erotic paradox, the erotic being the field on which all manner of transferences occur, Robert Duncan's place of first permission where D. W. Winnicott's "playing in time and space" happens, and not just the tingles you felt the first time you saw David Bowie dressed up as Ziggy Stardust, summer o'er-brimming your clammy cells. The frictive heat generated between the music that seems to be channeled from a god and the violent rebuke lovingly hurled back, the insistence on using the received command against that god to tear open a third realm between—these are not just pyrotechnics, they produce the temperature the poem needs to travel from one body to the next.
On Feb 24, 2013, at 5:47 PM, Dan Poppick wrote:
I've been trying my best to chase down the multiple fires you've lit these last couple of weeks but thus far haven't been fast enough to do the spiritually responsible thing and throw gasoline on all of them at once.
I think your comment about embrace—the fleeting sweetness in so much poetic exchange, even (especially) in real life and love, why being in love so often feels like being in a poem (and not just the other way around)—identifies a central elegiac concern running throughout This Can't Be Life, but especially in the long poem "Typing 'Wild Speech.'" Here, in an elegy for his friend Geoff, a suicide, cathexis and auto-response bloom out when Ward notices Geoff's eerie resemblance to the actor playing Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in the biopic Control. He quickly takes the resemblance to heart, allowing himself to imagine that Geoff had only died "in some inconsequential way," and for a brief time it was, according to Ward, "all I might say of my being." When music is anything and art allows us to keep living with some psychically reflexive, overflowed version of our loved ones who have passed on, where is straight grief qua grief even possible? Ward writes:
... the heretic's the person I'm thinking of here, she who lifts the sacred's veil with her negative care. There is ultimately an inadequacy to everything I think & this fills me with extraordinary hope. Despair would be lack re-designed with the absence of longing, & thinking is longing. Grief is adequate—its extremity fit to the break confirmed by loss. Adequate thought would destroy me.
In this sense—adequacy figured as stasis itself, and thus toxic to thought—maybe we can understand why it might be reasonable for Ward to later remind himself that "things don't cathect," which I read as a kind of precautionary ballast; he is always teetering toward this conclusion, especially in his next book, The Crisis of Infinite Worlds. Art is grief as celebration, and a magically affective grief appears very much to animate the inert. In this sense I read This Can't Be Life as a messily exuberant elegy for elegy itself. Ignorance that sees itself is more than elegy: it's life.
November 18, 2013 [read CAConrad's A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon before sleep]:
I finish peeing in a large toilet in a large facility somehow connected to a snowy bridge, and just as I'm done, Vic jumps up on the rim of the toilet, purrs, and dives into my urine, darting around in it like a goldfish, blurred, as if he were in a Gerhard Richter painting. This is more impressive than it is disgusting.
The frontispiece of CAConrad's A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics is the author's own handwriting, transmitted in fits and scraps directly from his notebook: "this is about being free by seeing how we are not free. The liver, the heart, kidneys, sciatic nerve in foot reflexology. Sex gland back by the heel." This followed by an annotated sketch of the foot. It's nearly pointless to "quote" this for you here, because the blood's in the font; the point here is handwriting, the graphological portrait of the artist, and we encounter that before anything else for good reason.
A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon is itself a workbook, a collection of exercises, spells, recipes, and physical meditations meant to occasion poems. Conrad flushes the body politic into the individual body as directly as possible. In a prefatory manifesto, he writes: "Experiences that are unorthodox steps in the writing process can shift the poet's perception of the quotidian, if only for a series of moments. This offers an opportunity to see the details clearer." When Conrad asks the reader to place a penny in his or her mouth with a swig of orange juice—oranges being the fruit of Aphrodite, "the goddess of Love, but not fidelity"—to think about Love's relationship to poverty, to write "line after line about starvation and deprivation from the voice of one who has been Loved in this world," he really means it. No passive performance, no passive audience—A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon asks the reader to work, literally; the book ends with five blank pages reserved explicitly for the reader's own notes. This text then is only half of a book—the reader occasions the other. Conrad's inclusion of his own poems after each corresponding exercise would seem like an afterthought if they did not themselves so clearly evince his urgent charge to irritate prevailing social norms that block or dilute critical strangeness and thus cleave the poem away from the body. The poem is what's on the page and decomposition itself, life after life:
one promise: when
I get to the bottom I'll
my small pile
everyone along the
"was there a
death" they ask
"a merger" I say
To begin a workbook with that workbook's workbook, then, is an act of insistent transubstantiation—Conrad passing his process (in this book, process being inextricable from the poems themselves) directly from his body to ours. Action begets action just as form begets form, sometimes (and always) all at once.
A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon turns on its head the oft-cited and misguided notion that poetry is useless (a criminally lazy, cynical misreading of Auden's claim that poetry "makes nothing happen"—one can agree with Auden while reading that "nothing" as an assertion of active value and resistance): this poetry is nothing without action, and not just on the part of the author. It is only "useless" if you refuse to work with it. It transforms commodity and public space (several of the exercises involve subtly acting out in public), recharging them and the poetry book itself, a commodity of course, with a spirit of performance.
Conrad's asking his readers to take part in these exercises brings to mind the scholar Sianne Ngai's notion of cuteness. Ngai defines cuteness as both an aesthetic quality and a typical automatic response to same. In her 2012 study Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Ngai writes "the cute/irrelevant object's charm is powerful enough to be 'infectious,' to a point at which in an act of automatic mimesis ... the admirer of the cute puppy or baby often ends up unconciously emulating that object's infantile qualities in the language of her aesthetic appraisal." Far from being infantile and never asking for emulation, A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon nevertheless similarly infects the reader, explicitly redefining the book's passive, "irrelevant" commodity as an active zone ripe for social or political resistance. The book is the window through which the author directly addresses the reader, and the world (or the resulting poetic response) is where the reader talks back. A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon is not unique or radical in this respect—if you are reading this, and even if you are not, chances are reading has moved you to do something in your life. It is unique, however, in how it asks us to rethink the question of what we might need to do for poetry to truly enter our lives. And it doesn't happen by aping Conrad's style, consciously or not—it happens by intentionally merging with his spirit. The act of aping someone's style is something different.
On Thu, Mar 14, 2013 at 6:44 PM, David Gorin wrote:
I love the way you describe grief as a magical agent of reanimation. You start off fumbling with your impossible desire to reanimate the dead and end up animating yourself and those around you: the living return to the dead with a song and the dead return as gift to the living. Adequate thought, thought that succeeded in being commensurate to the loss of what you love—if such were possible—would reduce the lost beloved to an object of mere adequation and exchange, cash money.
I also love the difference you and Dana call attention to between grief and despair. That difference is all the difference to me right now. Seeing Leslie in Boston last week and realizing that she might have been seeing someone else made it really hard for me to love myself. The jealousy metastasized into something I could only think of as despair. Dana's happy logic is secular medicine for this disease: he suggests that the very fact you are experiencing thoughts inadequate to their occasion is itself an argument for hope, because it shows that you long. And longing prolongs—it is the affect and index of having not yet given up. That's life.
I notice I keep getting confessional in the second paragraph. What is it about the second paragraph? The penultimate moment for beginners.
We should really start talking about The Crisis of Infinite Worlds, because it just came out and is the latest demonstration of the going on we have been going on about. But before we leave that magnificent elegy ("Yet once more, O ye Laurels…"), I want to visit the wedding scene at its end, where all Geoff's friends are gathered (parties are all we know on earth of heaven), and which ends by describing the "best man" giving an "inadequate" speech:
He was as drunk as the rest of us or maybe even more & his toast wasn't really making sense. Pat & I were a little far from this disaster & she shot me a puzzled look & I shook my head to confirm that I too had no clue what he was saying. By the laughter beyond us, heads buried in hands, I guess that he'd made some joke, a little blue, perhaps stupid enough to make me love him. He was doing this weird elfin giggle, sort of dancing, & squirming around & putting his mouth right on top of the mic so his voice distorted badly or his breath made an oceanic sound in the gazebo & this mumbling, drunken soliloquy seemed the perfect thing to put between the poverty of speech & our dreams of Geoff's reconstituted life.
Lower limit, poverty (speech); upper limit, dreams (music). Here, the thing between them is "this mumbling, drunken soliloquy," a version of speech perfect for its occasion precisely because of its inadequacy. I'm excited that I can't immediately say what it means to put this speech between those limits: does it mean to locate it as the truce-y middle ground between them, or to use it as a partition dividing them from each other, maybe to allow us to stay high a little while longer? Right now, I think it might be Dana's way of saying how the "best man" can stay true to both poverty and dream. Stakes is high.
Since you ended your last letter with a little Ben Lerner, I'll postpone the end of mine by pointing outward to a talk he gave at the University of Chicago wherein he considers a poetics of failure derived from Allen Grossman and very much resonant with what Ward is up to here. "I've always worried, always wondered," he says, "if a poem is not definitionally incapable of realizing the impulse out of which it arises, if there is not a principle of failure built into the practice." Mind that difference between worry and wonder—the poetry's between them.
Okay, friend. Has our exchange arrived at its moment of Crisis? There's a meditation on email behavior in the penultimate paragraph of "The Squeakquel," one of my favorite poems in Ward's new book, that can't help but pass between us. More soon, please.
Dream from March 26, 2013 [read Dana Ward's The Crisis of Infinite Worlds before sleep]:
Dribbling some kind of liquid on the concave face of what is either an animal-like plant or a plant-like animal. Whatever or whomever it is, it seems to enjoy or need this.
In A Century of Clouds, the poet Bruce Boone asks "how is it possible to make a truly human social life for the first time?" For me, this is the central question hovering over Dana's poems. Which one was receiving in that dream? The what or the whom? And where from?
On Sat, Mar 30, 2013 at 12:37 PM, Dan Poppick wrote:
"Soon" arrives to the bloodstream faster than "now" these days because in these last weeks of winter, when it's still cold but there's no snow on the ground to immobilize the car, one tends to breathe from the tank of pure potential more than one might a few months later, when the sun is directly overhead and the white noise issuing from the box fans at the windows of a scorching apartment sounds like living inside an engine of the present. Who knows what the fuck I'm talking about, but I do know that when we were in Boston together a few weeks ago and it snowed for three days straight, sharing a cigarette with you outside while we watched the neighborhood and cars disappear under those aerodynamic drifts made me feel like we were briefly moving at the exact same rate as everything else, though of course that spell was broken as soon as the snow stopped. This muddle is probably why poetry has always felt most potent to me during winter—cold weather and gray skies make the original heat of production radiating off objects more perceptible by contrast. I think your question about whether this kind of speech is common ground or barrier probably changes with exposure to sunlight, an expensive mood ring. But is that poem an object or a life? Is this email still traveling furiously toward you? You still haven't answered my original question about the postal system, which is totally fine, but the longer you keep me waiting the more sharply this is going to veer into song.
In the case of "The Squeakquel," the last poem in The Crisis of Infinite Worlds and a meditation on the talismanic qualities of technically cheap objects, Dana recognizes the implicit paradox of the inert as it relates specifically to poetry. Dana and his friends fashion a ceremony/experiment in which each person brings a cherished object to be situated in a small shrine while watching the eponymous kids movie. The movie itself is of course just high fructose corn syrup, ostensibly alluring for its title alone, but then this is a book about the life of the surface:
You put a few things in relation in time, & poetry (maybe it's terrible), is seduced by the vulnerability of some new constellation, & comes in to defect it, to appear. It's nothing special. Everyone does it everyday. These things that I think & I own & my love when I possess them become the very exploitation that the object serves to mask, my life.
An object can mean as much or more than a poem, but the crucial distinction here might be intentionality. Even if poetry does have an inbuilt mechanism of failure, as Lerner suggests, and cheap products are destined to fall apart, Dana's poetry is exciting to me because he uses the object and the poem to sustain each other. In his hands, both poetry and pop can afford to be larger than they otherwise might be because they are each other's flying buttresses. Pop (or commodity) is to poetry as body is to spirit. But given that, what is poetry to the body?
While I wait for your reply I also can't help but sift through the thick silence at the end of "The Squeakquel," that meditation on email correspondence you referred to above, "More soon." I wonder what it is about this work that is so infectious. Cathy Wagner's blurb on the back of Crisis speaks to this. She writes, "I can't help imitating Dana badly as I write this blurb and imagine myself invisible in his gin." Of course we fell into the exact same trap in this correspondence almost immediately. Why is this work intoxicating such that imitation feels like an appropriate form of critique? Reading that last sentence, I fear I've just answered my own question. But what is imitation that sees itself? We're not even writing criticism here, and we never have been—just writing into the white space at the end of the book. More now. As ever, and with
Daniel Poppick's poems appear widely. He co-publishes The Catenary Press with Rob Schlegel and curated The Antibody Series in Iowa City. He is the author of Vox Squad (Petri Press, 2014) and The Police (Omnidawn, 2017)