INTERVIEW | The Third Degree: Alan Soldofsky
On September 30, Alan Soldofsky visited the NMSU campus to read from his full length collection In The Buddha Factory. In addition to his poetic output, Soldofsky also regularly engages in criticism, reviews and public activism. This generous devotion to the work of others was evident at the reading from the heartfelt introduction given by MFA faculty member and accomplished poet herself, Carmen Gimenez-Smith. Many of the poems from In The Buddha Factory practice this same spirit of generosity in the form of dedications and tributes, not only to people, but to places as well. I am incredibly grateful for having had the opportunity to meet Soldofsky and pick his brain for information about being a poet in contemporary America.
This interview took place over a few months with the 2016 presidential election taking place in the interim. In our discussion (some of which is not included in this interview) it became apparent that Soldofsky is currently engaged in responding to a turbulent political environment with the written word. Some of this interview, rightfully so, addresses this issue.
Nate Wilkerson: Why do you write poetry? Why is poetry important?
Alan Soldofsky: For me, writing poems is a biological function. I try to read or think about and hopefully work on poems for at least a few minutes almost every day. I’ve been writing poetry to lately to sort out my feelings of dread and anxiety leading up to and after the election of Donald J. Trump. Since election night, I’ve been sleeping fitfully, waking up in the night with “fear and loathing.” I have always navigated through my public life by navigating my inner life first. Writing poems seems to be my way of mapping the ongoing conversation I’m having with myself as well as the world. I think poets, artists, and thinkers of consciousness need to respond to the election publically in any way we can, including with poems, prose, satiric videos (a la Alec Baldwin), or in some other medium. I’ve written involuntarily about the election since mid-November. One of the poems I’ve written has appeared already in an anthology Only Light Can Do That: 100 Post Election Poems, Stories, & Essays, published by PEN Center USA, and edited by Michelle Franke, editor-in-chief of The Rattling Wall. It’s very important in the present moment to be proactive as artists to use our words, images, music, etc. to wake up the nation to what it’s done to itself. The time has begun to feel Shakespearean, even the climate wants melodrama to let us know that human beings are responsible for whatever self-inflicted catastrophe might lie ahead for us. Maybe for me poetry as always been prophetic, and also can be a prophylactic against the damage that might be ahead. I’m writing my poems now as much for a public audience as I am myself. Maybe it simply makes me feel like I’m doing something to resist the darkness. And that what so much great poetry does, it bears witness and resists the darkness. Think of Lorca, Neruda, Mandelstam, Akkmatova, and Czelsaw Milsoz. That’s the kind of work I believe it’s more important for us to do in the era of Donald Trump.
NW: In the days immediately following the election, there seemed to have been a great energy geared towards resistance and speaking out. But writing towards a specific purpose can be a difficult thing to keep up (for me at least). As time moves on and some of that immediacy fades, how do you maintain focus as these urgencies begin to draw themselves out? How can others make sure to keep up their responses over a four-year period?
AS: Trump’s election, because it changes history, changes to an extent the context in which our poems are written and received. In that sense, just like after 9/11 and at the start of World War II, our poems take on a patina of the outside events, even if we did not intend to write about those events directly. Think of how we read Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” through the context of having lived through 9/11. Or how we have think about Wallace Stevens’ poems written in the 1940s during our current “War On Terror.” Stevens understood how contemporary realities affect our imaginations. That cannot be helped. In his great 1941 essay, “The Nobel Rider and the Sound of Words” Stevens wrote about what he called “The pressure of reality”: “the pressure of reality is, I think, the determining factor in the artistic character of an era, and, as well, the determining factor in the artistic character of an individual.”
For me, the “pressure of reality” most urgent in my consciousness is Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency. He’ll be in office, probably for at least four years. His Twitter feed plus the press coverage as well as his own PR will saturate my consciousness, along with everyone else who hasn’t been lulled to sleep by his propaganda machine, or who has just become demoralized and tuned out. Our era is once again becoming filled with psychic violence as well as the threat real violence, as Trump’s policies move forward. So I feel compelled almost against my will to write in certain ways–I’m the sort of poet who wants to write poems that are compelled almost involuntary, not planned. In fact, I’ve written a few new poems that just appeared in the last few weeks, responding to the nagging pressure of the election. Writing poems like these seem to relieve the pressure of reality for me a little bit. That’s why I find myself continuing to write them. I’m trying to relieve the pressure I feel inside my imagination. I don’t know that the pressure I feel now will be as urgent in the next four years. The world changes so dynamically, and who knows what else will occur that will alter our consciousness in the future. But as I think about my response to your question, I keep returning to what Stevens said. He described how a poet’s role is “to help people live their lives” and that means for the poet that “he has to do with whatever the imagination and the senses have made of the world.” The poem’s I’m writing part of my process, of how my imagination presses back in Stevens’ terms “against the pressure of reality.” As Stevens says it has something to do with self-preservation.
NW: In addition to your creative work, you’ve written a number of critical essays on contemporary poetics. How does the study of poetry inform your writing and vice versa? Do you see the two as being separate? Can a poet write poetry without writing about poetry? Should they?
AS: For me writing poems and writing about (and thinking about) poems is not a separate process. They may seem two different functions but for me they stem from the same impulse. I tell my students that they should be doing “creative reading” and well as “creative writing.” My imagination is always fueled by reading (and rereading) poems. I read work by many different poets, living and dead. Some by poets whose work I know well. Some by poets I’ve just found out about. And I try to always stretch myself to encounter different kinds of poems than the ones I write. I will often read work that I am not sure I like because I want to open up myself up to new tastes, not flavors of language, form, and ideas. When I start to become engaged reading a poet whose work I don’t know, I sometimes find myself jotting down her/his lines in my pocket journal. And when I start going back to those lines and passages, I feel a compelled to write something about the poem or poet, sometimes making accidental connections to other poems or poets that are better known to me. I’m looking to find a way in to unpack the poem, which further fuels my imagination while I’m reading. I carry around with me (for better or worse) a genetic model of poetry. That is, I’m always thinking about what poems and what poets come from which poetic family trees. I try not to be reductionist in my thinking, but it helps me to read poets whose work I don’t know (living or dead) when I encounter them to think about what critical lens (or lenses) I can best read them through. That is to say when I read John Berryman, I read The Dream Songs through a different critical vantage point than I would say a collection of long works by John Ashbery such as Three Poems or A Wave. For me, starting to write about a poem or a poet grows out of my trying to see where that poem or poet’s “DNA” seems to most align.
Writing about poetry, however, isn’t an essential function for a poet. Many poets simply don’t because they’re not inclined to respond to poetry way. Or they want to maintain something of their own sui generis. To write poetry well and to write about poetry well takes a kind of effort that might be akin to playing in the orchestra and conducting the orchestra. Not all musicians should try to be conductors. But great conductors almost always have played an instrument at some level in an orchestra or ensemble. My point is that, more often than not, when a poet writes about poetry, she or he can call on literary experience that enables her or him to write with a passion, knowledge, and understanding that the average academic critic cannot. There are a few critics who can also write with power and an uncanny knowledge of the craft. But there seem to be fewer of them in my experience than those great poet critics whose writing—whether it be poetry or critical prose—is always convincing. And has stayed with me lifelong.
NW: In The Buddha Factory has a number of poems that are written to others. Some are explicitly stated, like the opening poem “Beyond Where I Have Ever Traveled (for Pamela)” and “Sympathy for the Devil (for Charles Simic)” in the third section. Other poems are operating more subtly but seem to have very defined “yous” (as opposed to ambiguous/universal/author replacement “yous”). What does it mean to write a poem to someone? Or for someone. How do poems change when family members, like your sons, begin to appear in them? (Let me know if this question makes no sense; I might be thinking too hard about it.)
AS: That’s a good question. I don’t give myself as much liberty to play around with different kinds of “truth” when an actual person enters the poem. I dedicated “Sympathy for the Devil” for Charles Simic because the poem riffs on his stanza, “Only brooms / Know the devil / Still exists. In my poem, I try to invoke the dark tone of Simic’s poem. But in some way I think I’m expressing sympathy for Simic’s vision, a point-of-view I in some ways share, particularly its amusing pessimism and ironic sense of history’s inevitable brutalities.
In poems that are less allusive or less personal, I can allow the “you” to be an ambiguous figure, or perhaps some sort of composite. When the “you” is less defined, I feel it’s possible to stretch the poem’s sense of truth. Then the poem doesn’t seem to require that it have a reference that can be corroborated in the outside world in order for the poem to work. Such a poem to me seems more self-contained; it’s like what has been said of Wallace Stevens’ work, that he creates a separate “world of the image.”
When the poem’s points to a less referential “you,” the poem is also likely not to hurt someone’s feelings or seem in some way a faulty or unfair representation of its subject. I’m aware that if a poem I’ve written makes too transparent a reference, or is too allegorically clear so that it can be unpacked by someone who knows me well enough, then that the poem might unintentionally hurt someone who is close to me. When a person I know intimately, such as a spouse or family member enters the poem, I feel more constrained by knowing if they read the poem, even if it contains potentially something hurtful, that it also contains some recognizable bit of a truth (or some level of reality) I share with them. For me, a strong poem is usually one where the reader—no matter how close or distant from me—experiences a sense of recognition. The more sudden that recognition might be, or the more facets involved in that recognition, then for me the stronger the poem is. For the reason that recognition can sometimes come too easily, I worry about making familiar references. Getting pleasure and illumination from reading a poem, shouldn’t require the reader to also know who the dramatis personae are. That’s the problem with reading a poet like Robert Lowell or even Frank O’Hara too narrowly. We know who the principal players in the drama are. In Lowell, I sometimes wince thinking about how the poem affects those close to Lowell. With O’Hara it’s a bit different, since the references made, even when names are named, still seem a bit elusive, more indeterminate in relationship to O’Hara’s authorial speaker. I don’t want to bore the reader mentioning names that mean nothing to them. Or who they have to look up. So I when I do refer to a family member in a poem, it’s usually to get a little more edge from the poem, or at least try to, while at the same time making a reference or an “in-joke” that will speak only to the person(s) who know exactly what the reference is to.
NW: Time and place seem to play very important roles in your writing. You even have a poem titled “Sense of Place.” The title itself is from a trip you took to an actual Buddha producing factory in China and there are lots of references to California. There’s also an attention to the movement of time, in reference to seasons, to the changing of weather, to historical decades, and so forth. I wonder how you’re thinking about time and place as you’re writing. And then, how does writing poetry impact your relationship to time and place? Especially places that seem to be very important to you, on a persona level?
AS: I notice this too about my work. I think I write poems in a way to mark time, and to leave myself a record of where I’ve been. A poem for me is always in some mysterious way the poet’s internal conversation made manifest to a reader. A poet also, like anyone else, moves through a landscape. Sometimes the landscape is so familiar, you have to look at it cross-eyed to see something that you didn’t see in it the first couple of hundred times, say you crossed the bridge over that little urban creek. When I write about California, I’m trying to see something in the landscape that only the poem’s consciousness lets me see. That I’m not seeing with my ordinary eyes, or not experiencing with my physical senses outside the poem. For me the poem’s language works like a kind of sixth sense. The language is what transforms the familiar into that which is unfamiliar, something that seems new or strange.
I did have an opportunity to travel for more than three weeks through the Zhejiang Province in eastern China, south of Shanghai. That landscape strongly affected me, tapping my memory of innumerable reproductions I’ve seen of classical Chinese painting and scrolls of calligraphy. The landscape triggered poems in my head almost as fast as I could write them. The fog-bound rainy mountains of Yandang Shan near the city of Wenzhou were dream-like to experience. The landscape also had much of the rain-drenched familiarity of the coastal mountains of Washington and Oregon. Yet the landscape was so charged for me with the poetry of the Tang dynasty, taking a night hike to view the moon through the mist in the Yangdang Shan park felt like walking inside a Du Fu poem.
NW: In addition to The Buddha Factory, you’ve published three chapbooks, numerous critical essays and poems in magazines. What changes when you publish a book? How do you approach such a big project, both in terms of creating it and finding a way to share it with the world? Was it easier to write with this book in mind?
AS: I find that when I’m getting ready to publish a book (as I am now), my sense of the poems as individual pieces changes, and I begin to see the book as whole collection. With my new manuscript Charts (For the End of Days), I find that I have been making small changes in individual poems each time I read manuscript. I’ve read the book carefully from beginning to end about 30 times, and have made adjustments in the order of the poems, as well as small changes within individual poems, seeing ways in which the poems fit together, and which the poems respond to one another, which alters how I read them. The new book started with its centerpiece, its long serial title poem, “Charts (For the End of Days).” I wrote this 11-part sequence in serial poem form—borrowing strategies from Robinson Jeffers and Jack Spicer. (Read an excerpt of "Charts" published in Puerto here.)
I was teaching a Graduate Poetic Form and Theory seminar on the modern Bardic poem, and I knew I wanted to write a poem that would be positioned within that tradition. The poem I started writing is built from reportage of daily events that occurred in May 2011. As an ironic exercise, I had been following Christian radio broadcaster Rev. Harold Camping’s morbid pronouncement that the end of days was coming, predicting the Rapture would occur May 21, 2011. But shortly after I finished a draft of it, I realized that the serial poem form enabled me to narrativize my impending personal health emergency—that I didn’t see coming—by “reporting” on an unfolding series of apocalyptic-seeming social, historical, geopolitical, and environmental catastrophes. As I wrote the poem, I sensed the wider world as well of local events around me sliding metaphorically toward some kind of apocalypse. Although the world didn’t end as predicted, ironically on May 21, 2011 I had the Kierkegaardian experience of nearly dying from a septic, ruptured appendix. As I write in the final section, the “May 24” segment of sequence: “It was a typo, / those predictions of the ‘rapture.’ The prophecy / should have read r-u-p-t-u-r-e…” Though I didn’t know it at the time, when I wrote the final “May 21 and “May 24” sections, the sequence was chronicling my own physical crisis. Like the physical environment, my body had experienced the degradations of aging and was in need of repair and recovery.
Having worked on the sequence for nearly two years, I discovered the book’s larger structure. I would preface the first section with a poem titled “Flood” as a kind of preamble. Then move into the book’s first section (my version of Genesis) that I call “After the Deluge,” which includs a few more lyric narratives about being hospitalized as well as other poems, slightly altering and dramatizing my personal experience as the poem’s authorial speaker. And following the “Charts (For the end of Days)” sequence, I grouped poems that invoked a various figures of California culture, some historical and some fictional. The title “California Stars” comes from a Woody Guthrie song lyric, unrecorded until Jeff Tweedy and Wilco wrote music for it and produced it. Some of the speakers in this last section were figures I know from literature or from TV. But some are new types of speakers, individuals who seem to connect with the national Zeitgeist that had been infusing the daily news and our public lives since 9/11. It is with this last section of poems that I began to find voices within me (that are not me) that could speak in the poems. And toward the end of the section I discovered a kind of kind of 70s nostalgia, a longing for simpler times when I might struggle to play a video game like “Frogger,” the title of what is the collection’s last poem. I wasn’t sure of how the book would end for quite a long time, and then started hearing from poet friends whose opinions I trusted, to whom I had sent the book. “Frogger” then moved from being in the middle of the last section to become the final poem in the collection. I guess I need to have some distance from my work after I’ve completed a draft of a collection. And getting that distance from the book, where I’m not overly invested in one way of structuring the book as opposed to another is to get responses from other poets.
NW: What are you reading these days and what are your all-time favorite, stranded-on-a-desert-island books?
AS: I’m getting my classes ready for the Spring semester, so I’ve been reading poems by poets I’m planning to teach in my graduate poetry workshop this spring. The workshop is on the theme of environmental poetry and eco-poetics. So I’ve been going back to re-reading William Merwin’s poems from the early book, up through the seventies. And I’ve been re-reading some Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder. Also some selections from classical Chinese poets like Han Shan, Du Fu and Po Chu-i from the Tang Dynasty. And I’m rereading Elizabeth Bishop’s great poems from Geography III. I’ve also been reading some of the California poems from Brenda Hillman’s book Cascadia. And re-visiting a few of A. R. Ammons’ poems.
To rev myself up to write my own poems, I’ve been reading Mary Ruefle’s last few books. And also her lectures from Madness, Rack, and Honey. There’s something compelling in the loose associativeness in her work. Her poetic imagination seems so terrifically limber and it’s appealing to me. She’s a smart reader of other poets’ work. I keep returning to some of her poems in Trances of the Blast, whose style attracts me. And because I’m dreading the regime change after this last awful election, I find her poems oddly prescient. I also find Brenda Hillman’s elemental poems strangely prescient and am buoyed a little bit by their social and environmental vision. And by their freshness of structure and language.
To respond to the last part of the question, I always go back to books I think I always go back to, and would take to a desert island would be William Merwin’s The Lice and The Carrier of Ladders. His poems from that period strike me as ciphers for the era where about to enter now. His poetry’s oracular voice points to how language in strong poetry seems malleable to history, and changes as outside events and tastes change. That period in Merwin’s work seems timeless to me. I also need some levity to balance me, especially when I’m brooding through a Merwin poem, and feeling pessimistic about the collective future. So I reach for Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems or Meditations in an Emergency—whose very title seems germane to the time after Trump’s election. And because I take great pleasure reading the jaundiced, socially conscious poems, I’d take work by Tony Hoagland with me. I’ve been reading his poems and returning to them regularly since he published Donkey Gospel. There are a number of other poets whose language rattles around inside my head some of the time, but on a desert island you’d want to be selective. I’d take poems by Elizabeth Bishop like “At the Fishhoues” and “Crusoe in England, and “In the Waiting Room.” I’d say there are a few of Gerald Stern’s earlier poems from Lucky Life that I’d take with me. And there’s always a few James Tate poems that I can’t do without from The Lost Pilot, and his later books. Poems from his second book The Oblivion Ha-Ha keep coming back to me. I take delight in his sinister sense of the future. And also delight in the absurdity of the narratives in later collections, selected in his Eternal Ones of the Dream. And lastly there are a few Denis Johnson poems I’d keep with my on that island from his great book, The Incognito Lounge.
NW: What advice do you have for young writers?
AS: Don’t be afraid. Learn to trust your own words, and when you’re unsure of a word, it’s probably too conventional. Also, take risks with your writing. Don’t be too reverential. But do learn from the poetry of the past. Read as much poetry as you can. Immerse yourself in poets with whom falling in love. And read the poems you learned and have begun to like over and over and over again until the poems work their way into the fabric of your consciousness. And then they’re part of you, and they become a part of the imagination that inspires your writing. The more great poems you find you can learn by heart and love, the deeper immersed in the art you’ll become.
Also, learn your craft and “tune” your ear. Poetry originates as an oral art. You have to deepen your hearing, so that poetry’s music becomes more and more nuanced for you. There’s so much you can hear when you concentrate and listen to the beat of the poem. Learn to hear poems in form as well as in free verse. Free verse poetry must have music as much as formal verse must have music. The music in verse must never become mechanical or formulaic. Learning to hear the music in a poem isn’t about taking quizzes and always being the first one to raise your hand with the right answer. Often, great poems fool us, become contradictory or work to misdirect us as reader. A great poem will often set us up to expect one thing but what we really get is something we didn’t expect.
NW: Is there anything else we should know?
AS: I encourage myself and my students to relish the surprise poetry can offer. Realize that when you think you understand a poem, you’re probably only reading it in one way. Look for other ways to read the poem because a great poem can be read in more than one way. That helps you when you’re writing. Remember what makes a poem feel “timeless” is that it’s ambiguities and indeterminacies make the poem feel “outside of time” and at the same time like what Czeslaw Milosz called “an eternal moment.” Great poetry lasts because its meanings change with our changing history, and its language and images are able to transmogrify on the page. A great poem’s language ties into something in the cultural zeitgeist, something in the unconsciousness you may not realize is there. But then you tie into it. If you’re lucky enough to have written such a poem, you may feel that it’s not yours. Or you may not at first recognize what you’ve done, because the poem doesn’t seem like it was written. Sometimes it feels you you’re happening upon a poem that was pre-existing.
The kind of poems I’ve always wanted to write are the kind that feel discovered, not written. That’s what I mean by surprise. The poems I want to write, and the poems I want to read are those that continually surprise me. Those are the sort of poems that last, and that don’t need elaborate explications to remain potent. William Carlos Williams told an audience at Harvard that “if it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem.” From my point of view that couldn’t be more true. A poem is about the freshness and precision of its linguistic energy. And as William Blake tells us “energy is eternal delight.” Blake also tell us “Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason…” Which for me represent poetry’s other two great sources besides the unconscious—the mind and the body. The poems I want to write have a little of both, and in some essential way resist paraphrase, which as Robert Frost instructs us, “the fun is in the way you say a thing.” So I’m trying to write poems that are not paraphraseable, because they’re already presenting the best way to say what they mean. The best language is right there on the page in front of you.
Alan Soldofsky is the author of In the Buddha Factory (Truman State University Press) and three chapbooks: Kenora Station, Staying Home, and Holding Adam/My Father’s Books which includes selection of poems by his son Adam Soldofsky. He has poems in a number of magazines and academic journals including: The Antioch Review, The Georgia Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The North American Review, and Poetry East to name only a few. Soldofsky also has essays and articles in Narrative, Poetry Flash, and The Writer’s Chronicle among others. He is currently a professor of English and Creative Writing at San Jose State University and director of the MFA program in Creative Writing.
Photo Credit: Geoffrey Smith II