Tom Beckett

An Interview with Joel Chace

Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

Joel Chace: My best guess is that an impulse for writing poetry originated in my love for music. My father, Ron Chace, was a jazz trombonist and vocalist who was on the road during the 1930’s and early 1940’s. He and my mother married in 1942; shortly after that he retired from the road but not from playing and listening to music. I heard music, especially jazz, all the time around our home. From four years old on, I played various instruments—drums, trombone, upright bass, and piano, which turned out to be my axe of choice. More and more, I became immersed in rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and timbres, without much interest in reading, no less writing, literary texts. That began to change during my sophomore year of high school, in rural Upstate New York . My English teacher that year was a young, dynamic fellow whose passion for the word was truly infectious. He gave his students opportunities to write creatively, particularly stories, and I discovered that I enjoyed the enterprise of putting words together. That teacher—Charles Napravnik—also introduced us to some pretty heady stuff: I remember writing a paper on Eliot’s “Gerontion,” for God’s sake.

After high school graduation, I started as a music major at Ithaca College. I was not a happy kid at that point. I was introverted, confused, and homesick. However, this was in 1967; the Vietnam War had heated up, so I didn’t want to drop out of school. I transferred to Colgate University, where I was equally unhappy at first. But I did have a girlfriend, and it was for her that I wrote my first unassigned, predictably awful poems, though—once again—I realized that making these verses was a genuinely pleasurable activity. During my junior year at Colgate, the Irish poet Richard Murphy came to do a year-long residency. I applied for the poetry workshop he offered, submitted a batch of what must have been truly undistinguished pieces, and was somehow accepted. It was during that semester of studying with Murphy that I was hooked for good. He was tough but also supportive. He brought to campus people like Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn, and he made me read people like Lowell, Plath, and Bishop. By the time that workshop ended, I wanted to switch my major from Philosophy and Religion to English, but since I didn’t want to spend any more time as an undergraduate, I put my English studies plans on hold for about two years, during which I was playing keyboard with a jazz quartet, writing poetry, and falling in love with the woman who has been my wife for 35 years, now.

When the band broke up, I enrolled in the Creative Writing MA Program at Syracuse University, where, from 1974-1976, I studied with W.D. Snodgrass and Philip Booth. For the next 15 years or so, I was writing a great deal of narrative and lyrical poetry and what must have been thousands of lines of blank verse. But even early on, I found that I occasionally departed from this pattern, to produce a kind of poem that was, at least in modest ways, more experimental. In her brilliant The Poethical Wager, Joan Retallack writes, “The mainstream is the one stream one can step in twice.” I reached a point, probably in the late ‘80’s or early 90’s, where I was struck by the sense that I had been stepping into that stream entirely too many times, that I had been writing the same kind of poem far too frequently. However, just as all along I had made attempts to break out of my own mold by playing with different language, strategies, and forms in my own writing, I also all along had been fascinated and challenged by reading poets whose work flowed in alternate streams—late Wallace Stevens, Olson, Creeley, O’Hara, Ashbery, and, most importantly, George Oppen. Once I leaped into the waters of experimental composition, I came back to those poets and an ever widening range of their compatriots, to read them all with more intentionality and determination to understand how and why they wrote as they did.

So, to return to music, and to the present tense option you offer in your question, a poem now begins most often with an internal rhythm or the melody of an initial phrase or a structural sketch like a lead sheet with basic chord changes, rather than as an image or a scene, which was almost always the case in earlier days when I thought that I was making verbal music but really was not.

TB: Your most recent book, Blake’s Tree, seems apposite to that last point. It’s a short book of—if I counted right—28 six-line stanzas (one stanza to a page). It’s a beautiful book, but it’s all about disconnects, all about (from this reader’s standpoint anyway) a kind of glorious “I don’t know what’s going to come next situation,” but very low key. It’s not a flashy book. But it’s memorable for the ways in which it creates a kind of alternative space for thought. I like it very much. Were there any special procedures involved in its creation?

JC: Blake’s Tree began as an unexpected (by me) spin-off of a slightly earlier chapbook—Sharpsburg—published by Mark Lamoreaux’s Cy Gist Press, in Brooklyn. Sharpsburg is a sequence of 40 prose paragraphs all focused on, in lieu of a more detailed explanation, the Civil War Battle of Antietam. Nate Pritts published a selection of this sequence in his H ng M n, and he asked me for an introductory statement to accompany the pieces he used. This is what I wrote:
Letters—words, sentences—from soldiers under fire, or about to be, or having been. When demons also come out of the light. Where each peripheral tree, Blake’s tree, demands notice, but slightly turning the head is peril. A voice that said, “My favorite battlefield is Antietam. Not like Gettysburg—you feel that you can do it in one day.”
In spring, 2010, my internal ear started to catch a few rhythms and phrases that felt as if they might be announcing a new poem. After I was haunted by these for awhile, I recognized that some of what I was hearing was an echo of what I had written for Nate. The first of the 28 stanzas in Blake’s Tree is this:
what if the sick language              and which reaper
after all successes lie at rest when demons
also come out of light where each peripheral tree
Blake’s tree but turning the head is peril
words left out of a sentence poison fruit
palatial bread and butter has that different taste
Once I had this stanza as I wanted it (though it did change considerably from its original version), I thought that I had a potential formal, musical template for what could become a sequence. It has been years, I believe , since I’ve written a stand-alone poem; instead, one stanza or section generates another and then another. Sentences and phrases and occasionally even single words arrive through something akin to Spicer’s “radio.” These units accumulate; the stanza grows. Eventually I developed and revised 30 of these six-line stanzas, with a range of ten to seventeen syllables and an expanded space in each line. I ended up conflating parts of two stanzas into one and dropping another altogether.

In the aftermath, I realized that those extended spaces create, themselves, a quite literal thread that runs throughout the sequence. If I could pile the stanzas up, vertically, that thread of silence would be visible. In retrospect, perhaps the 28 sections should have been published as a sort of literary centerfold.

TB: I’ve yet to read Sharpsburg and so would never have guessed it was the source text for Blake’s Tree, however obliquely. Regardless, Blake’s Tree feels to me like a palimpsest. It’s an eerie book. I thought Jack Foley was on to something when he wrote in his blurb: “The world is all that is the case,” Wittgenstein wrote memorably. But he also wrote, “Thought can be of what is not the case.”

What do you think poetry does? What do you want your poetry to do?

JC: Poetry can fulfill an array of purposes, occasionally even those that writers actually intend. Poetry can tell stories, illuminate moral truths, console, enrage, take political stances, protest, vividly reflect the everyday, so-called real world, image forth alternative worlds, create gorgeously strange music. Is there an exhaustive list? Given the great odds against writing even a good poem, it is miraculous that there are great poems that masterfully achieve such results and sometimes a combination of these all at once. Of course, your question begs a number of complements. Are any of these poetic accomplishments in the least bit honorable or important? For me, the answer is yes, and quite clearly so. Can poetry change anything? Yes, it can change individuals. I say with certainty that it has changed me at least in the sense that I know my life would not feel nearly as full, as rich, without its presence. Can poetry change a society, no less “the world”? That’s considerably tougher to figure out, isn’t it? But if poetry can genuinely enrich and enlighten enough individuals, that in itself has some significance. If poetry can make us—writers and readers—even a little less confused, ignorant, numb, vulnerable, or hopeless, that has to count for something, maybe for a great deal.

I say “less vulnerable” because we all are potential victims of those who use language against us, who attempt to manipulate us, arrogantly, cynically, avariciously. More and more, I am convinced that the best service, which is really a practical function, that poetry or any art can perform is to shake us into clarity, into a clear-sighted recognition that we are in this kind of peril, that our very own language is co-opted as a weapon, but also that there are ways to fight back, to forge language that casts a radiance on the terrible but magnificent complexity of ourselves and our world, not as we think we know it, not as we’re told/sold that it is, but as we have never truly realized before. Presently, my goal is this: to construct poems that employ forms, syntax, disruptions that contribute in any way to what has to be a determined, communal leap towards and into this world that is not at all the case we have yet thought or actively imagined it to be—this unknown that is nonetheless real and waiting to be explored with true attentiveness.

TB: What gets you going? What makes you want to write? Do you have routines which are important to your process?

JC: Once in my life I tried to establish a strict routine. William Stafford’s habit of waking very early each morning to write for several hours, with vestiges of his dream world still clinging to him, in a quiet, sleeping house, intrigued me. So I tried doing that. This was late-fall to early-winter, 1990-1991. I remember that because these were the months leading up to our youngest child’s birth. From maybe October to February during that stretch, I’d rise around five a.m., grab a pad of paper and a pen, go down to our living room couch, and jot down phrases, lines, or even rough drafts of entire poems before my family rose and I’d have to ready myself for a day of teaching. In retrospect, I have mixed feelings about how all of that worked for me. At times I thought I was being rather noble in following this regime. But by the middle of each week, I’d be so exhausted that for a night or two I’d have to hit the sack at about eight p.m. I dumped a lot of words onto pages, but there were really only a couple of poems I thought were good enough to bring to fruition. Then when our fourth child was born on February 21, 1991, my experiment in discipline came to an end, for good.

Of course, one of the blessings of the teaching life is that one is given wonderfully long breaks. If I have work in progress—almost always, these days, a sequence—then I seize times to keep developing it, even when school is in session. However, summers are what I really count on since I know that I can devote part, though not necessarily the same part, of nearly every day in June, July, and August to writing, which means that even if I’m between projects—those in between spells can be frustrating and occasionally frightening or depressing—I can almost always find the beginning of something new.

Anymore, snatches of words that I’ve read or overheard or heard with my mind’s ear serve as catalysts for poetry. From my earliest feeble attempts, what has given me pleasure is playing with language; this particular pleasure grows over time. Currently my most intense delight is the consequence of language-play striving to reach Zukofsky’s “upper limit of music.”

TB: Do you think poetry has social value? Is there for you a politics of the word?

JC: A former teaching colleague, someone who—for all of his whacky pronouncements—had read more literature than probably 95% of the country’s population, had a couple of ideas that he kept looping back to me over several years. I continue to be haunted by them. He said that he was not a producer but rather a “consumer” of literature. He clearly had a love for certain poems, but I truly believe that he was skeptical if not downright dismissive of living, breathing individuals who actually still wrote poetry. This fellow was a staunch defender of the academy and the canon, and he used to complain that I was annoyingly “political” in my assessments of literature. He also claimed that we live in a world where there is no longer a place for irony.

Let’s face it—our society values poetry not a whit, or nearly so. What would be the percentage of our populace that regularly reads poems with genuine passion and determination or that attends public readings with anything more than mild curiosity? Maybe 0.001 percent? Who knows, but I suspect that I’m being generous with that estimate. Poetry is not valued since it is deemed to have no material worth; I suppose that it has, in fact, blessedly, no material worth. I believe, however, that poetry has great social value precisely because it is not a commodity. The most important, deep, brilliant poems are those created in and sent out into a world that cares almost nothing for them, that is almost completely indifferent (which is worse than being hostile) towards them. So writing that kind of poem is by its nature a political act since it flies in the face of, calls into question, all that society does value, to society’s increasingly sad detriment and diminishment. I don’t know what term that old colleague would use to characterize this situation, but “ironic” comes to my mind.

TB: While I think you are right that society at large doesn’t particularly value poetry, I think it is also paradoxically the case that an enormous amount of really good innovative poetry writing is currently being produced here in the States and around the world. Who are the contemporary poets who most excite you? And who do you think of as your poetic forebears?

JC: What you refer to as a paradox I view as evidence (which may indeed be paradoxical) of a dedicated, expanding group of writers wielding radical language and forms. This aesthetic movement, if that is the best term, has to be supported and joined by an even larger community of adventurous, intelligent readers. Since this constituency is by definition political, a goal is to direct this force into practical, social, transformative action. All this is not impossible, and its improbability makes the continuing efforts so much more wonderfully worthwhile. How about the rise of a P(oetry)-Party?

Indispensable poets on the contemporary scene—Ron Silliman, Jena Osman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Jake Berry, Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen, Ron Padgett, Kamau Braithwaite, Sheila Murphy, John Taggart, Ted Enslin. If I name any more, I increase the risk of unpardonable omission.

I mention the last two poets, above, because they are both living, contemporary masters but are also personal friends who have been true mentors and have given me the kind of encouragement for which any sort of expression of gratitude would be sorely inadequate. So I consider them forebears in the fullest sense of the word. Others—Oppen, Zukofsky, Reznikoff, Spicer, Rukeyser, Scalapino (sadly, the most recent addition to the group of “forebears”).

TB: What’s at risk for you in a poem?

JC: Near the end of “Act I” of Macbeth, the title character tells his wife that he does not want to murder Duncan. The good Lady questions and humiliates her husband until he caves and is on the verge of agreeing to do the deed. Eventually he says, “If we should fail?” and she bluntly responds, “We fail.” As applied to certain pursuits other than regicide, the attitude that she voices strikes me as admirable, though I admit that it took me many years to adopt it. I really did used to believe that writing a poem that failed—and goodness knows I’ve very often managed to do so—was the greatest risk I could take. I now understand that risking failure is an absolute necessity if an artist is to advance. In fact, the biggest risk, failure, of all is not to take risks, not to throw caution and fear to the winds.

Much more devastating than failure is mediocrity, which results very frequently from prudence and timidity. A decade or so back, I published a small collection that one reviewer absolutely hated, without reservation or apology. Once the initial sting and anger subsided, I acknowledged to myself that a far more damning assessment would have been, “These poems are fine—not bad at all.”

Given the direction my recent poetry has taken, I also must confess to a concern over unintelligibility. Quite recently I had a conversation with a good friend. She congratulated me on the publication of Blake’s Tree, but then expressed regret that she didn’t understand my recent work. Louis Armstrong, if I recall correctly, when someone asked him, “What is Swing?” replied that if you had to ask that question, you’d never know the answer. That may or may not be true for Swing, but I’m convinced it isn’t true for poetry, especially the most experimental. Honestly, I appreciated my friend’s directness. She was genuine in her desire to come to grips with poetry that baffled her. And I sincerely wish to provide her and other potential readers with guidance, with at least an entryway through which to approach such language and forms. Jazz musicians shouldn’t have to play only for the appreciation of other jazz musicians, just as experimental poets are in danger of irrelevance or even extinction if they write and read only for like-minded artists. Is there an answer to “What is Swing?” I suspect not. But by absorbing—by listening, listening , listening with patience and determination—it is possible, over time, for someone to feel, to experience, Swing quite deeply. If a reader is open to taking on the challenges of experimental literature, then a similar process of patient determination can very well result in a true depth of engagement, of understanding—an understanding that involves the recognition that the question “What does this writing mean?” is likely to yield extremely unexpected, startling, brand new components.

By the way, I told my friend that I’d send her the link to this interview.

TB: Joel, take me through one of your poems (of your choice) and give me a sense of how it came to be.

JC: A few years ago, I began working on a poetic sequence that was triggered by a vivid, recurring dream. I grew up on my maternal grandfather’s farm outside a little town called Walton, in Upstate New York. My younger brother, my older cousins, and I did a lot of fooling around in the gigantic haymow of the main barn. I was about ten when my grandfather retired and sold the farm, so I was a pretty young kid all those times I spent in that high, dark, mysterious place. Unfortunately, my grandfather died only a few years after he quit working the farm. In early adulthood, I began to have dreams about the barn, the fields behind it, and my grandfather. I must have been in my 30’s when I first had this particular dream in which I was standing on the barn floor and looking up toward the rafters far above, where I could see this shape floating up there. It looked like a kind of large mobile or jungle-gym. I found myself flying up to this contraption, then swinging around on it, with the greatest sense of joy and freedom. I can’t remember how often this dream came to me, frequently enough so that it haunted me for probably a couple of decades. Finally, the dream and its most prominent elements announced themselves as material I must give attention to. So I wrote, in one sitting, an initial eight-line stanza that I don’t believe I ever revised at all.

This is that stanza:

is what                                                             more than like
what is                               (likely)                               at the end

raised before                                              climb and swoop
made             in             front             of             what             is             made

of                               more than on                though first
seen (as) up                                              building (itself)

in vaulted darkness                                    beams of light
spread           among           the           barn’s           own           highest           beams
I tried using formal elements—expanded spacing; couplets as double-rungs if you will—to give the effect of interlaced, hanging lines or metal piping. In addition, I employed italics, parentheses, repetitions in an attempt to create a sort of soundscape or musical score.

From this beginning, the sequence grew into 30 such stanzas, now under the title Scaffold.

To give you a sense of how structural and aural elements work throughout all of the sections, here is the final stanza of the sequence:

(in)specters                                           (a) life’s                                   simulacra          —
aerie                                 tangle                                 briar patch                         trellis

covered with collectible rain                                                                 grained
refusals                                                                                     with their lofty abacus

bone ladders                                              ribboned rags                                         of the heart
fluttering high-wire art                                                                                           laughter

in the (ending)                             rafters                             what is                               more
than like                                                         what is (likely)                               at the end

(Acknowledgement to Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” of course).

As I suggested earlier, in regard to Blake’s Tree, if Scaffold could be viewed as a vertical centerfold, it would be more obvious (perhaps too obvious) how the entire structure hangs together and how the whole sequence rhymes with itself.

TB: If I’m understanding you, the spacings in Scaffold are primarily about visual presentation, rather than scoring for voice. Is that typical of the way you think of space in the physical presentation of a poem?

JC: Thanks for the opportunity to clarify, Tom. In Scaffold, as in Blake’s Tree and other recent sequences, I do want the spacings—extended and “normal”—to guide the reader’s ear. At the same time, of course, those spacings are visible on the printed page. I consider poetic form to include all conceivable visual and aural elements. To put this another way, a poem on the printed page provides two structures—one for the eye; one for the ear. These two structures are virtually exact, matching overlays.

I don’t know how helpful this thought experiment will be, but imagine a person, 65 years old, who, for decades, has avidly , intelligently read eclectic, demanding poetry, including the most experimental sort. This excellent reader lost eyesight and hearing five years previously, and—among other determined pursuits—has become fluent in Braille and continues to seek out old and new poems. Encountering one of the stanzas I quoted from Scaffold, this reader would run fingers over the page, several times, and would literally feel what the poetry looks like and simultaneously how it is intended to sound (in this case to a still amazingly alert inner ear). A challenge for any of us readers who still retain eyesight and hearing is to experience, to feel, a poem just as vividly.

TB: I like your thought experiment, and think it is apt. I’m tempted though to counter with asking you to imagine an island populated only by ventriloquists. Instead I’m going to return to the beginnings of your life as a poet when you switched from studying Philosophy and Religion to studying English. How do philosophy and religion figure in the mix for you now?

JC: How about an island populated by equal numbers of ventriloquists and mimes?

O.K., philosophy and religion…I could probably make up a fairly detailed explanation of how my continued exploration of these two subjects plays an integral role in my own writing. But I know that you want me to be honest. As an undergraduate at Colgate, I grew tired of studying philosophy because the texts seemed very dry. I suspect that I wasn’t reading the right people or the right translations, and I know that I was extremely immature, intellectually and in almost every other way. I also think that even then I wanted philosophy to read like literature; but, for me, it didn’t. As I’ve aged, however, key philosophical issues engage me deeply, especially ideas, questions, concerning language and epistemology. Wittgenstein’s writing, which at its best is genuinely literary and musical, is important to me. In addition, I am increasingly drawn to poetry, to criticism, that strikes me as profoundly philosophical: Bromige, Harryman, Retallack, Scalapino, Silliman.

Isn’t there a rule against asking about religion? Two thoughts: I strive to create music, which I believe is the most immediately spiritual of all art forms; and I am moved by poets such as Ted Enslin and John Taggart, who address central religious topics via marvelously musical language.

TB: How about an island populated by equal numbers of ventriloquists and mimes, but with a handful of hypnotists thrown into the mix?

One final question. Was Plato right to ban poets from the Republic?

JC: In terms of Plato’s own ideas about poetry and poetic drama of his own culture, and in terms of the core, founding principles of his imagined republic, banning of poets makes perfect, supra-logical sense . That ban notwithstanding, real poets would have found their way into Plato’s imaginary gardens; like toads, they would have whispered terrible, miraculous language into the ears and dreams of the philosopher-oligarchs.

Tom Beckett lives and works in Kent, Ohio.
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