Edited by Blas Falconer | Amy Wright
Another Definition of Lyric Is Attention
An Interview with Rae Armantrout
Amy Wright for Zone 3: Have you ever seen a ghost?
Rae Armantrout: I’ve never seen a ghost, but I’ve been haunted by the memory of my mother who died a painful death about twelve years ago. That may have something to do with the references to ghosts in my poems. But then, too, I’ve been interested in the portrayal of the “afterlife” in the mass media. For instance, there was a medium who had a TV show a few years back. He would guess at the identities of the dead relatives of his audience members and then he would give the chosen audience members a message from their dead relatives. I was struck by how similar the messages all sounded.
AW: Fanny Howe writes, “One definition of lyric might be that it is a method of searching for something that can’t be found.” Did you find anything or conduct a particular search with Versed?
RA: Versed is in two sections, “Versed” and “Dark Matter.” The poems in “Dark Matter” and those at the end of “Versed” were written in the wake of a cancer diagnosis and surgery. That was almost three years ago, but, at the time, the prognosis was not good. I was searching (or I was forced to search) for ways to live with extreme uncertainty and for ways to imagine my own absence.
AW: Edmund Jabes says “misfortune is straighter than the date tree.” Do you feel straightened by that imagining, or do you see anything straighter because of it?
RA: The poem called “Own” I actually began while I was in the hospital and (sort of) hallucinating. So it’s pretty “wild.” After that, I think, the poems in “Dark Matter” are maybe a bit more austere in tone. Not that there’s no (gallows) humor. But I sense some change in tone in the later poems. It’s hard to put my finger on it. I’m waiting for some reviewer to do that. In more general terms, I don’t plan ahead as much as I used to. Even though I seem to be cancer free, I feel like I’ve seen the end and I know it’s there.
AW: I notice that you also reference the “Issues of the Day.” What kinds of issues tend to cycle through your days?
RA: I was thinking of the “issues” constructed for us by the mass media, the ever-changing phrases we’re presented with as a focus for our discomfort or fear, i.e. “the war on terror,” the “financial meltdown,” the “bail-out fatigue.” They might as well be the names of faddish new dances. If paid performers (pundits) are thinking such “things” over for us, does that relieve us from the need to think or feel? Is that the purpose of such “coverage?” I suspect it is.
AW: You write that the “nodding/ of the Chinese elm leaves/ redistributes/ ennui...” What does the ennui redistribute?
RA: Perhaps ennui redistributes attention. You’re tired of what you’re looking at so you look around. It could be a good thing.