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The Writer as Discoverer
An interview with Dennis Barone
by Richard Deming
Richard Deming: In the introduction to The Art of Practice, which you edited with Peter Ganick, you describe the literary work as “a way of research for what will come next.” This echoes, and I’m not sure if this is conscious or not, Emerson’s claim in his essay “The Poet” that “Art is the path of the creator to his work.” I’m wondering if you would say more about your thinking on this because it might be taken as a claim for reading literary texts as procedural, yet that isn’t how I would characterize your work, generally speaking. Additionally, there’s an interesting tension to your use of “research,” which implies a belatedness, since research means going back over texts and archives, and yet you suggest this belatedness is the means of discovering rather than the more expected “uncovering” or “recovering” research usually implies. Do you mean this as revelation (for the reader and the writer) or as innovation, in terms of form and genre?
Dennis Barone: Although the initial idea for the anthology came from Peter, I wrote most of the introduction. I’m taking responsibility here for that sentence you quote partly because I don’t know if it was right of me to attach it to all the contributors in the anthology. I guess this is one of the dangers of an introduction. I think it has been and is still true for me. And I do believe it is true for contributors in the anthology, too. I just don’t like dictating rules for the group precisely because I do see the work as discovery. Growing up in northern New Jersey, I became interested in William Carlos Williams. As I read more of his work during college years, what attracted me was his urge to try to do something new with each new work. I did become aware of Stevens’s comment on Williams regarding “the sterility of constant new beginnings,” but recall that in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” the poet lists as one of his three principles: “It must change.” There is a sense, too, of the centrality of the art in one’s life (if one chooses this path) and therefore the Emerson quotation makes complete sense to me. How could it be otherwise?
I wouldn’t, however, make the same distinction between research and procedure that you do. Research is procedural and both research and procedure can lead—probably always do—to surprise. One enters into research with some sort of plan but the uncertainty of the task is always there and hence so too is discovery. Discovery is uncertainty’s outcome. Composition as procedural, too, tends ever toward the unexpected. One can’t be sure until completion and then that sureness is little better than an opinion. For example, my working procedure for “Biography,” the longest piece in Echoes, was to write as soon as I got up in the morning until I filled a page in a composition notebook, with the page size determining the unit of composition. Additional rules were to accentuate the negative and to write in the second person: “you.” I thought of so many poems in the American Poetry Review where some “you” does this and some “you” does that and I thought I would just push that as far as I could. As in other works that begin with such rules in rewriting, in revising I alter the general frame a little bit and particular lines, sentences, and words a lot. Some pages that I wrote at the end I moved to the front. Some pages I cut entirely and some I edited and then combined with others. On one or two occasions I added in an “I” and I ended it with two paragraphs that develop the same sub-narrative rather than continue with the abrupt juxtaposition that runs throughout the rest of the work.
RD: In your introduction to Beyond the Red Notebook, you cite Auster’s essay on Celan, where he writes: “The poem then is not a transcription of an already known world, but a process of discovery, and the act of writing for Celan is one that demands personal risks. Celan did not write solely in order to express himself, but to orient himself within his own life…” Because this is a way of thinking about writing that seems akin to what you say in The Art of Practice, I’m wondering if it might be how you characterize your own stance about writing and risk.
DB: Just this morning while reading a contemporary book of poetry I put it down for a moment and in reaction took up a pen, grabbed my notebook, and wrote: “What are the terms of its challenge, its risk?” In addition to an art of practice, of continuation and commitment, I also have been concerned with writing that takes on large terms—or tries to. I am reminded of the oft-cited Creeley quotation about writing from deep necessity. Now, one can’t take risks and go off in another direction at every moment. Perhaps the whirling dervish can, but I think I am trying for communication of some sort, too. So every couple of works maybe are different.
When I write, I think that I think first off of a central problem. Here is research of a sort again. So art is a problem solving activity. In considering the problem to be solved, any possible reader is not in my thoughts. Later on, though, I do think of readers; try to orient myself to a possible listener and think of what he or she might hear—and the emphasis is very much on ear, on sound. My writing, in its centrality to my life, does orient me to this life, but so does my reading. I think someone who read something of mine may have its words become as a directional signal, but I am not in charge of the direction or the volume.
RD: You also often blur together different modes within one book. For instance, Echoes has prose poems and flash fiction; Separate Objects combines verse and prose poems. Of course, others have done this, notably Elaine Equi’s most recent book The Cloud of Knowable Things, a book I know that you admire. Could you speak about the kinds of formal issues this blurring of modes and forms offers?
DB: Well, I think The Walls of Circumstance is a work, to use Robert Venturi’s phrase, of “messy vitality” rather than “easy unity.” In a sense, beginning with a problem to be solved provides an “easy unity” at least to start with—except that it’s never so easy to solve. For example, in the sequence of forty-nine sonnets that make up the bulk of Forms / Froms, I began with various rules outlined in the back of the book. My execution of those rules necessitated more thinking and a willingness to bend those rules in some way.
At first, I hesitated to include the rules for the sonnets and the other compositions, but Peter Ganick, my friend and the book’s publisher, thought it would be a good idea. I think part of the bending of rules or their change and growth comes out of friendship. I have an idea. I discuss it with someone. I change it a little bit. I originally wrote just seven, the first seven of those forty-nine sonnets. At that time, James Sherry was publishing chapbooks and I sent them to him. He said he liked them and suggested that I should write more. So, I had a question posed for me then. I do believe that art is like science in this way. As I mentioned before, I see art as a problem solving activity. In this case, how could I take this series of seven and make it a long series? I came up with my answer, but since I’m not a photocopier, the result had to wander and the revising and the reworking had to wander, too. Here’s where I can fit in a lesson from Charles Olson: “curious wandering animal.” That’s me.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005