Poetry’s special way of folding: A conversation with Rodney Koeneke
Etruria stunned me with the way it was both disorienting and deeply grounding, illogical and rational. It approaches and examines the big questions of life with vulnerability, and without coming to clear conclusions. Reading it feels like witnessing the speaker hash thought out, which leaves the reader feeling more emotionally and intellectually connected than had he drawn arbitrary conclusions for us. Rodney Koeneke calls up objects for these poems but never forces them to hold weight that no object can fairly carry. He is instead content “just putting them there, in the poem / incomplete and beautiful like you.” It was my pleasure to talk with Rodney about history, process, the relationship of author to work, and other poets.
AMANDA MCCONNON: The first thing that really stood out to me while reading this book was the amount of traveling the poems do. In “Larry’s House of Brakes,” you write, “And while feelings can rarely be described or even discerned / with any real exactitude by anyone / the fact of their motion is constant and perceptible.” Is this an idea you feel you stand behind? How has the idea of a disparity of experience from person to person influenced your poetics?
RODNEY KOENEKE: What an intriguing question. I wouldn’t have thought of the poems in quite that way, but now that you say that, I realize how many of them are about what poetry can’t do—what gets lost in the translation from writer to reader, from one language to another, from the dead to the living, even (especially?) from poet to poem.
I’d like to think that’s a healthy acknowledgement of poetry’s limits, not a source of head-banging despair. A little wry, too—describing the feeling of not being able to describe a feeling.
AM: I enjoyed how the poems realize poetry’s shortcomings and in that way gain extra strength, how they sort of reinforce themselves by being hyper-aware of themselves. When sitting down to write these poems, did you have a sense or intention of where they were going before you started writing?
RK: Last week I saw Mary Ruefle read. At one point she stepped out from behind the podium holding a fitted sheet. With her hands under the corners, she started to pull, twirl, stretch, tuck, hoist, and twist. At times she seemed close to dropping it, then she’d twitch the ends up off the floor and return the process to some sort of intention the audience couldn’t yet see. At the end, which I didn’t recognize as the end until after it’d happened, she gave the sheet a final toss and there it was, folded in a neat square. “That was called Fitted Sheet,” she said.
That’s pretty much how poems happen for me. Except I’m not Mary, I’m the sheet.
AM: What ideas, or questions, or forces are your Mary? What kinds of things speak loudly enough to you to twist you in a way that results in a poem?
RK: Usually a phrase, sometimes a word—like “contrived” in the book’s title poem—that gets stuck in the head and glows gold. Sound first usually, then the idea. Is that poetry’s special way of folding?
Some of Etruria sprouted from facts I remembered that I put in the poems to puzzle out why. Like Napoleon scooping a kingdom out of Italy and handing it off to a Bourbon prince (“Etruria”), or Lönnrot stitching folktales into a faux Finnish epic (“Billet-don’t”), or fizzy Frank O’Hara praising earthy Boris Pasternak (“Toward a Theory of Translation”), or the poet Rod Smith telling me how Charlie Parker broke every glass in a bar that wouldn’t serve him (“rod smith”). But they’re more like yeast than dough; they don’t really come in till the mixture’s already underway.
AM: In “The Real Aeneid” we move from ships to office jobs to Pringles to Lazarus and back to ships. These poems are so varied; they don’t try to restrict themselves to a certain kind of world. Can you talk a little about how you decide what things can live together in a poem?
RK: That one started from the title, which answers my friend Brandon Brown’s poem, “The Real Iliad.” I liked the suggestion that Homer’s was fake, or too full of it, and Brandon’s is out there “keepin’ it real.” Virgil copied Homer to get epic over to Italy, so I thought I’d copy Brandon to get my Aeneas to Etruria.
What would a “real” Aeneid be like, though? Real-world, for one: office blocks replace Roman arches, Pringles displace sibyls, community college jobs trump years of adventure in ships. We’re at the other end of the imperial project Virgil gussied up for Rome, so I thought a “real” Aeneid should feel like an anti-Aeneid, the same film shot in reverse. Aeneas’s life is an errancy with the promise of home at the end; this version starts with home/Rome, dissolves to autumn instead of empire’s spring, wishes its victims raised Lazarus-like off the ground, and closes with Dido, the one who stayed instead of stoically chasing her fate, which is death for all of us anyway.
None of this was in the front of my mind when I wrote it, but it was the itch or hunch that drove the decisions about what to keep in. Which weren’t decisions so much as a buzzy sensation telling me things were right.
AM: I like the idea of “buzzy sensations” rather than cut and dry decisions guiding us to write poems. Besides this anti-Aeneid, what other ways did history, be it via literature or in another way, play a part in writing this book? The title itself keys us in that history will probably play a big role here.
RK: That’s a tough question to answer, since I don’t tend to think of history as a theme or topic distinct from other kinds of concerns. For me, history’s more a mode of perception that holds the dead in parallel to us: mirror, model, mannequin, measure. The present isn’t really visible to itself without a past—even an imagined past—for contrast.
The epigraph to Etruria comes from D.H. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places, the book he wrote while he was dying of TB. It’s about his tramp through the Etruscan ruins of Tuscany, where you find the last traces of the civilization Rome absorbed and erased in its long climb to empire. Lawrence badly wants to see the Etruscans as vital, instinctive, and uninhibited, in contrast to Stoic imperial Rome or stiff-lipped imperial England. Etruria, for him, is an alternative to the history he’s been given, an unrealized potential still available to the present.
One sign of Etruscan health and heartiness for Lawrence is their approach to the dead, who aren’t hidden away or pushed back along a timeline, but housed in tumuli in plain view of the cities. Looking back at Tarquinia on his hike to the necropolis, he writes, ‘“Far more probably, the city itself lay on that opposite hill there, which lies splendid and unsullied, running parallel to us.”
I like the idea of history as that opposite hill. His remark encouraged me to jostle the living and the dead against one another in Etruria—Virgil, Nichita Stănescu, or Marianne Moore on the one hand; Rod Smith, Sharon Mesmer, or Slavoj Žižek on the other. Polis, tumulus.
AM: Going along the lines of history and the modern, I think another notion that this book is invested in is cause and effect. I guess you could say that about a lot of poetry, but this book approached it from an angle that seems very new to me. One poem that comes to mind is “valerie bertinelli” in which you write “I upload the roar of children, chop cauliflower / because I want to see the ones I love / as loving me forever.” You take simple acts and give them weight that seems ridiculous at first glance but, with a second look, make a heartbreaking kind of sense. I realize this is a bit of an unfair question, but I’m going to ask it anyway: how do you feel your poetics came to develop this kind of awareness?
RK: I grew up in Los Angeles, where I spent a lot of time creating a rainy Cambridge of the mind where reading books would be okay. When I finally made it to Cambridge, I missed the way Americans talked, and got homesick for their easy, unselfconscious way with English. Kerouac opened up for me that year, Pound in his faux Yankee cracker barrel mode made a new kind of sense, and Stephen Rodefer dropped in live from Oakland to play visiting poète maudit. Through him, I eventually found Clark Coolidge, Michael Gizzi, and that whole section of the choir.
If you know that work, you know that any kind of sentiment has to pass through the squint-eyed, show-me bullshit detector of American English. Which can also be the most unaffected and sentimental English there is. Like Valerie Bertinelli bounding into her sound stage apartment, a human Southern California, sure there’s sun just around the corner even when there isn’t.
Does this get at the tension between your two readings of the poem? The kind of awareness you’re thinking of elsewhere in the book?
AM: Definitely. And I think there’s a playfulness in that contrast, too, that allows the poems to fly past that bullshit detector. Even though they say heavy things, they don’t say them in a way that feels as if they’re putting their foot down and insisting we take them seriously, which makes us as readers far more receptive to them than if they did. Does that make sense? Is that an effect you wanted to have?
RK: I think so. More ethos than effect, maybe: a way of putting one’s feet down in the world. Though a fish can’t really see its own water till it’s flopping on the shore. I’m glad to know you feel that way about the poems.
AM: There are a few poems in the book, including (but not limited to) “jack spicer” and “marianne moore,” which are named after poets. What drew you to choose the poets you did? Was there a certain set of rules or wishes for writing these poet poems?
RK: Yes—I wish I could write like all of them! I was curious too about the different ways to be a poet, how various writers inhabit that peculiar cultural role. Spicer’s got his famous “No one listens to poetry” in “Thing Language,” which Etruria’s remix tweaks line-by-line; Moore’s got her “I, too, dislike it” from “Poetry.” Paradoxically, the doubting ones became their best-known poems. Why is that?
And why did both poets end up occupying such distinctive places in American poetry–Spicer the out west outlaw-cum-rediscovered underground act, Moore the eccentric tossing baseballs in a tri-cornered hat? The poems you mention aren’t so much answers as contrails of the questions that set them in motion.
AM: In the book’s final and title poem, you write “we became precipitations of our speech acts, / extensions of form, Etrurian courtiers fanning the phenomenal / with the soul’s broad palms.” How would you define the relationship between a poet and his poems? Or even the relationship between the poems someone writes and the person he is outside of poetry?
RK: This is bound to sound like a dodge, but one virtue of poetry, I think, is that while you want it to be precise, tight, exact and all that, it doesn’t have to define. In fact, it tends to wither when it does. I couldn’t begin to answer those terrific questions except through the poems themselves. What sort of relationship did the title poem, or any other, suggest to you?
AM: I don’t think that the book sets out a strict set of rules for what that relationship is, but I think it circles it. The other poem that comes to mind is “ghazal” in which you write “I write for the people, my feelings were simple, / it’s readers make a complicated hell.” To me it feels as if the attitude towards a poem is that it is instinctual; as if writing a poem is one possible way to react when one has an urge to process something, just like eating is what one does when he is hungry. But that after that initial act, a poem comes to have intentions of its own that cannot be controlled by its author. Of course, true to these poems, every interpretation of this relationship will vary drastically. But are there any parts of that reading that ring true to you?
RK: “ghazal” was written as a kind of tribute to Ghalib, probably the best-known poet in Urdu, the most beautiful spoken language I’ve ever heard. I was less attracted to the formal features of the ghazal—with its single rhyme word linking otherwise unrelated couplets—than I was to Ghalib’s renown for packing multiple, often contradictory sentiments into his strongest lines. Like John Donne maybe for readers of English, except imagine Donne’s lines sung in pop songs like Ghalib’s are. (“I write for the people,” etc.)
In Urdu, each poet picks a takhallus, or pen name, which works a little like tags do for graffiti artists. The takhallus isn’t identical to you, the person writing the poem. It’s more like a collaboration between you, the poems written with your takhallus, and the audience who may come later to savor your lines. (Traditionally, the poet includes his takhallus in the last line of the ghazal, addressing himself in the second person.)
Google tells me that Prashant Keshavmurthy, a Persian Studies professor at McGill, writes about exactly this topic in his dissertation. “In the pre-colonial Persian world,” he says, “a poet’s life was conceived as an effect of his poetry, of the meanings he made, rather than preceding it as pre-poetic ‘experience’. Simultaneously mundane and metaphysical, a poet’s life replicated the logic of double meaning in his texts.”
On days I’m not writing other kinds of poems entirely, I’d like to live up to something like that. I’d like “Rodney Koeneke” to be a takhallus.
AM: I think one of the first questions that comes to mind when we first start reading poetry is what in a poet’s life has driven him to write the poetry that he writes. But in this case, I’d like to ask you this question backwards. How have the meanings you’ve created in your poems affected your life outside of poetry
RK: What a fun question! I guess it’s in looking at the threads of interest reflected in the poems over time that I start to see what that “life outside of poetry” even is. Or was, since it doesn’t really come into view until it’s passed.
Your question reminds me of an interview I read somewhere with John Ashbery, where he sort of mock-whined that everyone always asks him about the poems, but no one takes much interest in him. Poor John! Hiding in plain sight.
AM: How is Rodney Koeneke, takhallus or non-takhallus, a different person than he was pre-Etruria?
RK: All the vowels, twice the grey. Funny how that works.
Rodney Koeneke is author of the poetry collections Etruria (Wave Books), Musee Mechanique (BlazeVOX), and Rouge State (Pavement Saw), winner of the Transcontinental Poetry Award, along with several chapbooks. He’s also published a historical monograph, Empires of the Mind: I.A. Richards and Basic English in China, 1929-1979 (Stanford University Press, 2004).
Author photo by Anna Daedalus