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Interview with Bruce Beasley

Bellingham, WA on June 20, 2014 | Interviewer: Devin Becker

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Devin Becker: All right. I've basically got a few little sections to this. The first section is kind of like where you are at now with more digital work and the sort of technical processes that you use. The second session will kind of go through your compositional practices and how they've changed over the course of your career. So, the first one is almost like short answer, which I'm sure we'll go through it fairly quickly. If you would, for the camera, please state your name, your date of birth and the location where we are right now?
Bruce Beasley: Bruce Beasley. Date of birth January 20, 1958, and we are in my writing cottage in my studio in the back of my house in Bellingham, Washington.
DB: What genres do you work in?
BB: Poetry only.
DB: What kinds of devices do you own or have access to for writing?
BB: Devices?
DB: Yeah.
BB: You mean like computers?
DB: Sure.
BB: I have a laptop, a Toshiba Satellite laptop computer, and that's mainly it.
DB: Is that it? Do you work on a tablet or a phone or anything like that?
BB: No.
DB: Or pretty primarily on that device?
BB: That and my office computer, which is a desktop.
DB: The operating system on which you work, is that a Windows?
BB: Windows 7—or that's Windows 8, now.
DB: Do you work on that office computer very often or is that—?
BB: I do. In the summer, like now, I work almost exclusively here on that computer. When I'm at work, when I'm teaching, I am often working a couple of hours a day during the day, and I work mostly on the office computer when I'm doing that. So, I'm always sending files back and forth.
DB: How do you do that? Do you email them to yourself?
BB: I have Carbonite on this computer.
DB: Okay.
BB: So, you can call up these files there easily, but not vice versa. Things that I put in my office computer, I have to email to myself if I want to work on them here.
DB: Okay, so you don't have the folder on your office computer, you just have the kind of shared folder here?
BB: Yeah.
DB: Do you use computers exclusively or do you also work —physically?
BB: I use computers mostly. What I do a lot is—I've brought some examples of this, if you want to see them—I write a lot when I'm walking. I take long walks and scribble in a notebook like this one. Just usually individual lines—let's see if I can find some examples. And then often I will transcribe them onto note cards. Just—this says: "Your omissive offspring deviled what you've got in there," which is lines that I was working toward a poem called "Offspring Insprung," which is a response to a sculptor named Bruce Beasley—he has the same name as me.
We've been doing this kind of collaboration. I have been writing sort of my self-portrait through the lens of his sculptures. So he sent me a sculpture called "Offspring," which is in the house if you want to see it—one of his sculptures. And I wrote a poem called "Offspring Insprung" responding to his sculpture. So when I was writing that, I was taking long walks and just scribbling down random lines.
I can write individual lines by hand. When it comes to a whole poem, I do it almost exclusively on the computer. This one says, "Even the evenings are odd, even the odds are even/ offspring, autumnal, equinox, off quilter," which are not lines I ended up using but often, when I'm doing this kind of walking, I'll end up with a stack this big of note cards, and then when I'm at the computer, I shift them around and type them up, and rearrange them and shuffle them and move them into different places.
DB: So, you'll have them, like, kind of spread out in a grid on your desk essentially?
BB: Yes.
DB: And then move them around. How does that help you—are you sort of picturing them on a page, then?
DB: Or are you still kind of picturing them in the air? How is that?
BB: In the air—very much in the air. And I'll do a thing where I'll start by dealing out a card, so like I'll just randomly deal a card—"coverts of the cube"—and start writing from that on the computer. I'm a big fan of craps and gambling, and I like to think of words as, like, "rolls of the dice," in a way. So often when I'm beginning a poem, I'll start with the straight lines and images, or phrases, quotations—like this—and then when I'm sitting down with a computer, I'll deal them out with something like—"You're in geometry."
My teenage son was in geometry, taking geometry, but I was thinking about Bruce Beasley the sculptor, and how geometrical his abstract sculptures are. So, I write like, "You're in geometry," which is also not something I ended up using—though I kind of like it now. So yeah, I do a lot of handwriting work like that, especially when I'm walking.
DB: Okay. And where do you walk?
BB: The bay is about half a mile from here, Bellingham Bay. The beach is about one mile exactly. There is a beach called Little Squalicum Beach. I usually walk from here down to there and sit on the rocks by the water, by the beach.
DB: Will you write while you are walking?
BB: Yeah. I carry either note cards or a notebook with me and scribble things down as I'm walking.
DB: Do you have specific notebooks that you use? I mean, that seems like a very unique notebook.
BB: It's got a Byzantine cross on it. It's kind of appropriate for me.
DB: Yeah! No, it's great. Do you have many of those?
BB: I do. And I'll write—often when I'm writing, I'll just write tittles off and I'll start with just tittles. So, just yesterday, I wrote "False Negatives," "Team Lullaby with Abraham and Dedalus," "Isaac and Icarus," "Be All and End All," "Study for Happiness." Often I'll start with a title like that and start mulling it—and scribbling down lines for it in a journal like this one, and then when I get enough lines, either put them on note cards or just sit down with a computer and a notebook and start transcribing and moving around things that I've written in the notebook.
I can't remember the last time, and I may never have done it—written an entire poem by hand without a typewriter or a computer. I just don't work that way.
DB: Yeah, but you do write by hand a lot of the pieces of the poem.
BB: I generate—yeah, I generate fragments of the poem, but the act of consolidating and moving them, and making a poem out of them—for me it's always been done on a computer, or a typewriter before that.
DB: So, what do you do to kind of save—like when you are finished with the project or finished with these cards, do you save them somewhere?
BB: Yeah. I was trying to find the rest of these. I have them, but I can't put my finger on them—but they're somewhere.
DB: Somewhere like in a box or in a file, cabinet?
BB: Yeah.
DB: And how many notebooks do you have at this point?
BB: I have a lot. I have a box of them this big, in no particular order. The other thing I do—you might be interested in—is once a year I print out all the notes, all the computer writing I've done. I keep them in a bound journal that is by year. So this one, for example, is 1999—and you'll see that a lot of times, when I work on the computer, I'll write a kind of journal, just sort of what's going on and what I'm thinking about, and working with stray pieces of poems that I've written down by hand.
And then—I don't know, somehow it's important to me to have it all printed out. Because when I'm writing and in between poems, I'll often skim through the printouts of previous years, looking for pieces of poems I've started but never finished, or just stray lines that didn't go anywhere but now they do.
DB: So does this serve almost like—so would you search for things on your computer, too? Or you would rather come search your own archive, your own index?
BB: I don't like reading on the computer, I never have.
DB: Okay.
BB: I like to write on a computer but not read on it. And what this also does is it gives me all the drafts of every poem I have ever written.
DB: And you do this once a year? You print out everything once a year?
BB: Yes.
DB: Are there dates on the poems themselves?
BB: Yeah.
DB: So you date—and do you put a time? Or do you just—?
BB: I do. Like this one says, "December 10, 1999, Dickinson's birthday and Don is a friend of mine, come to think of it, Friday morning 9:15," and then I'll start talking about what's going on and then start working on lines from a poem, thinking about etymologies—Latin penetralis, inner. penetrari—"to penetrate"—from which comes penetralia. "Penetrate is to enter or force the way into, to grasp the inner meaning of"—you know, that sort of associative thinking. But I do it in writing on the computer, often, and when I'm not doing that I'm walking and doing it in my mind and jotting down notes in a notebook.
DB: Do you have like a schedule to which you try to keep, or is this just kind of a continual work?
BB: Continual. When I'm—in the summer, or on sabbatical (because I was on sabbatical most of year before last), then I'll write every day, all day, as much as I can. I mean, I'm here at my desk, right there or right here, or walking. Often I'll walk for two hours and come back and write for two hours, or something like that.
DB: So, mostly it's here.
BB: I'm a really obsessive writer, so when I'm writing I do it kind of nonstop. But I go long periods where I don't write—that's my kind of schedule.
DB: And usually those correspond to your teaching?
BB: Yeah.
DB: And you teach—is Western on a quarter system?
BB: Mm-hmm.
DB: So, you teach from September to mid June every year?
BB: Late September to early June, yeah.
DB: Alright. So let me kind of backup for a second. We've talked some about your practices now; I'd like to kind of think about different eras in your own career, and your writing practices then, too—and we can kind of relate them a little bit, hopefully. But before that, could you say how long you have been writing? This isn't scare quotes, but—professionally?
BB: My first book was published in 1988, so '98, 2008—twenty-five, twenty-six years.
DB: Could you give kind of a—describe, kind of give a broad arc of your career, just to kind of ground the interview a little?
BB: In terms of what I have written and published?
DB: Yeah. Where you've been, what the projects have been, etc.
BB: Okay. So, I grew up in Macon, Georgia. I started writing poems when I was about twelve, and—really awful, awful poems when I was twelve. But I kept writing all through high school, and went Oberlin College where I took a lot of creative writing classes, majored in English. Then I went to Columbia University MFA program after that, immediately after that. I graduated from there in '82 and I did a series of editorial jobs during the first half of the '80s, writing for alumni magazines and things like that, and other magazines. I worked for a magazine called Good Life, which was a magazine designed to be marketed to the richest people in the country, things like that—1% top, 1% maybe—and ironically it went bankrupt shortly after I started working there.
And then in '86, Wesleyan University Press accepted my first book, Spirituals, and that gave me the kind of jolt I needed, I think, because I just felt this increasingly grotesque disjunction between what I was doing for a living and what I cared about. So I went back and got a PhD at the University of Virginia in American Literature. I did a dissertation in Emily Dickinson, and then while I was in the PhD program I wrote most of my second book, The Creation, which won the Ohio State University Prize and was published in '94.
DB: Who chose that? Was that Charles Wright? Or was that the next one was Charles Wright?
BB: No, that was—I think David Citino who was the judge of that. And I came here to Western in '92, moved out to Bellingham in the fall of '92. In '96, Charles Wright picked my third book, Summer Mystagogia for the Colorado Prize, and then Wesleyan published Signs and Abominations in 2000. Five years later, Lord Brain—a book about cosmology and the mind and the brain and looking at metaphysics through the physicality of the brain and the structures of the cosmos—won the University of Georgia Press competition, was published by them. And then The Corpse Flower, my New And Selected Poems, was published by the University of Washington Press in 2007, I guess. The most recent was Theophobia, which BOA published in 2012.
DB: And from 1992 to now, you've been professor at Western Washington, teaching?
BB: Yeah.
DB: So, I have this kind of broken apart into, like: "composition," "writing," "prewriting," "generatives," "structure," "revising/revision," and then "organizational/archival"—which is more like putting books together, etc.—and I'd like to talk about it in different stages. So if those don't work for your writing process, let me know. We can talk about it differently. But we probably won't even—we'll probably just talk.
So when you first—like, right out of college up until your first book—what was your writing process like then? How were you writing then?
BB: I was working on, as I said, a series of editorial jobs, and I did a lot of writing at work, which was nice because I had jobs working for PR offices at colleges and universities, but they were jobs where there was a huge amount of spare time where there was really nothing to do. I wasn't expected to do anything; there was nothing to be done.
You know that old ad—the Maytag Repair ad? There was an old, famous ad campaign for Maytag washing machines, and the joke of it was that the washing machine never broke down; so they had Maytag Repairs, and the Maytag Repairs people were just really bored, they had nothing to do. So, I had a sign on my desk that said Maytag Repairs. But I had a lot of spare time, so I would write a lot at work on my typewriter—this was before computers. So, I wrote a lot of my first book in those jobs.
DB: So, we can talk about the pre-writing, generative—were you taking notes like you do now? How did you get to the poems, I guess, at that point?
BB: I was typing.
DB: You were just typing?
BB: Yeah, typing. I probably had one of these notebooks here, if you want to look at it. Here is one, and I was printing it out—oh, this was a little bit later, this is '92—but it was printed out on these long rolls of printer paper, you know? Those old-style printer rolls?
DB: With like serrated edges? Yeah.
BB: Yeah. So just doing essentially what I do now—large chunks of prose that would lead to ideas and sort of mull through ideas—but I was typing it on a Selectric typewriter.
DB: Okay. And then printing it out that way. So when you started, you were writing on a typewriter and had a similar mode of kind of generative—did you do walks or anything like that in the early—?
BB: No, I had to be at my desk, so I couldn't.
DB: You had to be at your desk. Would you write lines and then rearrange them at that point? Or were you kind of composing more closely full poems?
BB: Exactly the same way I do it now.
DB: Okay. This could change.
BB: Doesn't change at all, no. I'd write stray lines and then start pulling them together and rearranging. The difference was, it was much more cumbersome to retype it all than it is now—but essentially the same process.
DB: As you progressed in your career, when did you move to a computer?
BB: I think my first computer was probably—did I have a computer in graduate school? I think probably at the end of—no, because I wrote my dissertation on a typewriter. No, I didn't,
BB: I had a computer when I was writing my dissertation in Virginia in the early '90s.
DB: Early '90s?
BB: 1990-1991.
DB: When you were getting your PhD what was your writing style like? Were you writing at home mostly?
BB: Yeah. And I was writing—I was doing long walks then, too.
DB: Okay. Through Charlottesville somewhere? And then was that when you started writing down on the note cards?
BB: No. That's a pretty recent thing.
DB: That's a more recent thing?
BB: Yeah.
DB: So that sort of early—that sort of note taking, walking, was established pretty early. Did anything change, like as you moved to Bellingham? Or was the process fairly similar for prewriting, etc.?
BB: It's been pretty constant.
DB: Pretty constant?
BB: Yeah.
DB: Has it changed by location at all? I guess one big event probably in your writing life is this thing [the small, separate space in which the interview is taking place]. What was it like? When this came into your life—when was this built, this cottage?
BB: I think about seven years ago.
DB: Did your writing practice change very much for it, or was it just made much more useful?
BB: It's easier. This is my flipper. This thing is crucial to my writing. This is the window crank for an old-fashioned window that I had growing up in Macon, Georgia. As a child I started a process of flipping this thing, or doing like this. I call it my "flipper." It's crucial to my writing and I have had it ever since I was a little kid, but as a kid I would throw it when I was thinking—and even as a teenager, I would write mostly by flipping this thing.
There is something about the action, repetitive action of throwing and catching, that's always been really important to generating ideas. It's similar to the kind of rhythm I have when I'm walking, I think—that kind of rhythmic catch and release. So often when I'm writing, all through my life, I have kept this thing with me and I flip it while I'm thinking. Often, I can't think unless I'm doing that. It's a kind of kinetic thing, I think, and when I'm walking, often I have a stick, a stick that I'm flipping or throwing around, too.
DB: Something with the hands almost always, too?
BB: Yeah. So, I lost this thing for a couple of years. Somehow it got lost, and it drove me crazy. Then I found it I was like, "My flipper! It's back!"
DB: That's funny. Within the writing process, do you have certain times when you pick it up? Are you more likely to use it when you are generating work or when you are revising, or does it—?
BB: Every—all times.
DB: All times?
BB: Especially when I'm revising. When I'm revising, I say the poems aloud over and over, always—and often when I'm walking. I can always tell a poem is almost finished because I've come to the point where I've memorized it without trying to—just from saying it aloud so many times. Often when I'm walking, I get to a point where I've got to draft in my mind and mumbling it to myself aloud, while I'm walking, to hear the rhythm of it and the sound of it and the words of it.
When I'm revising or when I'm generating new ideas, I often use this thing. I remember my roommate in college told me, when Suzanne and I were first dating, I would leave her house and come back to my own room in the house where I was renting a room, and I would lie in bed and flip this thing, and he came in and said, "You know, you tell Suzanne you're writing, but really you're just flipping your flipper." I said, "But flipping my flipper's how I write! That's what I'm doing, I'm writing!"
DB: That's fascinating. I guess I'm sort of trying to get—so you will use your flipper in somewhat pensive moments when you are kind of considering what you've written or what you are about to write, but also maybe—I mean, do you do it at your desk ever?
BB: It's kind of hard to do it in a desk, so maybe when I'm sitting or lying down in bed. So, in here, I'll pull the Murphy bed down, sometimes I might look out the skylight, do this and think, and jot down lines.
DB: Yeah. So you were saying earlier, like once you have these lines jotted down, you have the notebooks kind of composed and you also have big chunks of prose in the computer that you've written, too—
DB: —so, how does this jumble become a poem, exactly? Where do you get to the point where you start to rehearse it in your head and start to revise it?
BB: Oh, okay. So, the prose that I write is—I'll find something more recent—is designed to get me, it's just sort of a thinking aloud, and I encourage my students to try this, too. It works really well, for me anyway. So I'll start with just a kind of diary—not like a diary, but just sort of "this is what's happening right now," and then go from that to general ideas and images, fragments. Sometimes I'll make list of words that will take up a page or two. Sometimes I'll—this is my unabridged dictionary that I use—
DB: That you roll the dice—
BB: Obsessively. Yeah. Sometimes I'll roll dice to pick a page in the dictionary and open to that page, and just read that page until something in the words or the etymologies or the definitions trigger something.
DB: What's the edition? What dictionary is that?
BB: This is Webster's Unabridged New Universal. So I'll turn to a particular page—"clean lead," "clean sweep," "clean shaven," and "cleanser," "clean room," "cleaning woman,"" clean energy," "clean cut," "clean bill of health"—I'll read around it until something starts triggering something that's going on emotionally or intellectually right at that moment in my life.
Thinking about cleanliness and I might just start typing and thinking about associating with cleanness and dirt and pollution, and what it means for something to be "clean cut." So, I'll start writing some lines, and then often what I will do is—once I've got some lines or some ideas going, I'll go for a walk, and I will just fill up a whole page with words that sound good with the word "clean."
DB: Okay. How do you determine what sounds good with the word "clean"?
BB: Just associatively. "Clean machine," for example, sounds good to me. I would write on a note card or notebook "clean machine," even though that doesn't mean anything to me. What's a "clean machine'? And walking, I'll start thinking about a "clean machine," just as an example.
So, yes: how do you get from that prose to lines? I'll just read you an example:
Reading Celan: ‘it is time it were time'—which is a line, one of my favorite lines of Celan—"Amen to that. I want to write a ‘Damaged Self-Portrait'"—that's a poem that ended up being in Signs and Abominations—the principle of being to write about myself is I am now through suggested images rather than through narrative or logical progression."
So oftentimes I'll start with that kind of abstract, "this is what I want to do, how I'm going to do it," series of images for myself, for selfhood in general; disconnected images. And then I'll start writing lines:
Rent twin—and there, it's just that "rent" and "twin" sound good together—"Rent twin, gash in the oak trunk, mud sucked on boots/ What comes back comes halve, to crucifix, the awkward joining together of two broken sticks"—just sort of free-associating images and lines and ideas and words that draw each other—for me. And after awhile I will take some of those lines and start walking and thinking about it: what's "mud sucked on boots?" What am I talking about? I'll start building on that.
DB: How do you determine what comes first, what comes later? I guess—how do you build the progression of the poem?
BB: At first I don't worry about that at all. I just let lines accumulate, images accumulate, phrases—until I have a whole series of pages of drafts. Then I'll start worrying about it. I try not to make myself—I know poets who write from the first line on: begin with the first line and then write the second one. Linda Bierds once told me she writes that way, which astonished me because it's so utterly unlike anything I do. But I really try, especially when I write long poems—which a lot of my poems are—not to impose any order on it
BB: until I've got pages and pages of lines. Then I'll print them out. I think I can find an example of—okay; so here I have, like, just pages of lines separated by just asterisks or marks with no attempt at coherence. And at that point, I'll start moving them around: what if I start here? What if I put this here? Sometimes I'll have them all written down on note cards and rearrange the note cards, because I'll have one section, then I'll go through the note cards and say, "what would be interesting after this?" and I'll move that card to the second position and then type it all up together in that order and read it aloud until it starts to sound right.
DB: When you type it up on a computer like that, what do you—I guess I'm wondering where this all resides on your computer. Do you have a folder for notes and lines, and then a folder for, like, poems that are starting to come to fruition?
BB: Would you like to see an example?
DB: Sure.
BB: What I do typically is, within that file where I have all the ruminations and free associations and that kind of stuff—
DB: What do you call that file?
BB: You see—well, I'll show you. Sometimes I'll just call it by the name of the month to make it easier, like "June 2014." But often, I'll give it a title less thematic instead. Like I might call—the thing I was just working on, I might call it "Damaged Self," something like that. I like doing that, except that it's hard then to go back and figure out when that was written. So, I've started just calling them just, "June 2014." So when I got back to print them all out then I—
DB: You know what order to put in there—
BB: I know where, what's what, and I started organizing them by year on my computer. So under "My Documents," I have a file called "Poems." Within it I'll have—I don't know if you can see this—"2011," "2012," "2013," drafts of my book manuscript, All Soul Parts Returned, various other things. Within "2013," I have "Early summer 2013," "Ecclesiastes," "January 2013," "Late Summer 2013," things like that.
DB: Those are the files—those are the folders that will hold the individual poem?
BB: Yeah. So then I have drafts of a poem I was working on called "Speech for a Speed Date." This is a poem I wrote partly by taking the first poem I ever wrote when I was 12 years old and running it through Google Translate, through just about every language that they offer, until it came back completely deformed and defaced—and still, it was a really corny poem called "Light A Single Candle." It became speech—kind of a surrealistic speech for a speed date: "Do you enjoy the hiss of candle wax and cigarette ash? Do your hobbies include a love of what cannot die?" Some of which came out of those translations.
Then I'll have this kind of list of what's going on, and drafts of a poem called "Reading Jesus Again With a New Prescription." You'll see I have a whole bunch of lines that I'm working on, and what I often do is just copy those, and write some prose about them—sort of identifying what I like about it and what's bugging me about it, what I don't like about it—and then paste it back again, move things around. Often, I'll put bold face when this is a revision process, when I get to a place that I don't like or feels clunky, I'll bold face it so that I can come back to it and just say, "What am I going to do to fix that?" Then the next draft I'll cut it or change it or—here's a whole section, it's all in bold face. I think I ended up cutting it. This is a fairly long poem so there are a lot of drafts of it. Then I'll copy it over and over until I get it the way I want it.
DB: So, all drafts are in one file?
BB: Yeah.
DB: And you just keep copying and replacing and bolding parts that you have problems with?
BB: Yeah.
DB: And then as it gets towards the end of the file, it's getting towards its final form.
BB: So, like here I'll have the draft of that "Speech for Speed Date," and then I'll say: "The cling of cigarette ash to candle wax feels a little bland, intensify it"—I'll sort of give myself instructions like that. "Tallow" might be a better word than "candle wax." "Do you enjoy the cling of cigarette ash to tallow?" and various versions of it. You'll see I've got, like: draft, draft, draft—probably ten or more drafts of it in here.
DB: So, I'm interested in the Google Translate stuff. Have you done that before, or it's just the first time?
BB: This is the first time I did that. Well, no, actually I did that partly with one of the poems in Theophobia. It's a poem about the Gospels and a meditation on the gospels. I'm forgetting the title of it right now. I've got it right here somewhere. Yes, a poem called "The Kingdom of God is Not Ushered In With Pump and Exclamations."
What I did with that is I took some of the passages of the Gospels and ran it through Google Translate to see what would happen to it. So they would be partly recognizable from the Gospels, but partly different and estranged. I didn't use exactly the phrasings that came out of Google Translate, but allowed it to shake up the familiar, biblical, canonical sayings in such a way that it became stranger, and gave me ideas for rephrasing things.
DB: Before that have you ever done any similar practices?
BB: Not that I can think of.
DB: Have there been any other computer kind of enhanced ways of composing poems?
BB: Not computer enhanced. A lot of aleatory practices, like the dice I mentioned in sense—in The Corpse Flower called "The Craps Hymnal," where I rolled dice everyday for a period of several months and went to a page in the dictionary, and worked that way.
DB: In The Corpse Flower they have the dice as the—so how did you do that? Did you work with the publisher to do that—to have the dice appear above the title?
BB: I had it in my manuscript.
DB: You did have it in the original?
BB: Somebody who read the manuscript said, "No publisher is ever going to do this. They are not going to reproduce dice on every—" I said, "Yes, they are. They have to. It's part of the poem." University of Washington Press, they were great about it, they agreed to do that.
DB: Good. And you also—is it in that poem, or it's another poem where you have like bolded but shadowed—?
BB: In "The Rotbox."
DB: Yeah. Where did that come from, I guess?
BB: That came from a good friend of mine who is a geologist, and he collects animal bones as part of his research. He's very interested in the physiology of animal skeletons but he had on his property up in the country, this thing he called the rotbox where he would take animal carcasses and allow them to rot over winter, and then have a day in the fall where he would harvest, he called "harvesting a rotbox."
I went with him, and it actually happened to be the day that the war in Afghanistan started. So, I spent the whole morning helping him harvest this rotbox, which is a matter of taking these skeletons out of this big decomposing pit, and cleaning them with bleach and other stuff. It was, I don't remember—cow skulls, I don't know. I'm not sure what it was. So, I spent the whole morning with him doing that and then, as I was driving home, I was just still stinking of decomposition—
DB: Did you volunteer for this job?
BB: He called me up and said, "I'm harvesting the rotbox, you want to come?" I went, "Yeah. Hell yeah." So, our friendship began really because we hardly knew each other at that time. But all the way home from the county, I was listening to the radio and the bombing had started—"Shock and Awe" had started in Afghanistan. I was thinking about things that did decompose, and words and phrases that decompose into other words and phrases.
DB: How were you able to do that on your computer? Were you sort of experimenting with the fonts, and—?
BB: Yeah. I think what I did is used a larger outline font.
DB: Okay.
BB: So that the letters would look hollowed out.
DB: Before the computer, did you ever have inclinations to use, sort of, fonts like that? Or do any sort of things—?
BB: No, I didn't. I'm very interested in some of the visual poets, poets like Ronald Johnson. His early work which is all typewriter-based, but he does some amazing things with the shape of the words and the appearance of the words using the typewriter.
DB: A lot of your poems, especially Signs and Abominations, where you use a lot of punctuation to kind of indicate either definitions coming or stuff like that—some of that is rote, but some of it, it seems, that you made up yourself. Is that—how did that come about, I guess is the question?
BB: I'm using a lot of punctuation in this new manuscript. Let me show you. Punctuation is a kind of separation of sections, but also is a kind of an element of meaning in the poem. So, this poem has a single asterisk for the first section, two for the second, three for the third, and so on. Others have crosses, dividing sections—which mean to suggest that Christian cross, of course, but also the sign of addition, each section being an addition to the previous one.
Let's see what else. One of my readers for this manuscript said they found it distracting, another said they found it exciting. I'm hoping for the exciting. Here I have a kind of version of—this is the one the Bruce Beasley poems. It's kind of a version of the "does not equal" sign, because I'm writing about this geometrical shape, I'm working with the geometrical shapes of punctuation and typography. And that, I suppose—well, you can do that on a typewriter. That's an imported symbol from my computer, a mediated text; so in that way I think...here I'm talking about the Korean letter, which has no sound. You have to put it—I'm learning Korean with my son, who is Korean—it's a letter you have to put in front of a vowel sound, because vowels can't come first in a word in Korean. So, if you begin with a vowel like an "A," you have to put this null of a consonant in front of it. But it also resembles an egg, or a zero. So, I'm working visually with the sound of that. There is a consonant shaped like an egg balanced on its end that stands for nothing, makes no sound, and I'm connecting that to certain hollow geometrical structures and Bruce Beasley sculptures. Does that answer your question?
DB: Yeah, yeah.
BB: This is a poem that's based on Empedocles, the ancient philosopher who believed that in primordial times, there were body parts scattered all over the world, disconnected—hearts and lungs and livers—and that they gradually morphed together and created monstrous, grotesque amalgamation of body parts, until eventually they came to a point where the body parts worked together and formed human beings and animals. So, here I have stray syllables scattered all over the page. That, coming together and trying to form words—like "formal," "chasmal," "malform," "fictile," "fickle," "cavern," "us," "Venus," "knee," "halo"—stray syllables sort of groping together to form words, and by the end of the poem, it goes on—you are left with shape, the omega, and this is also meant to indicate the womb—so a lot of visual shape. By the time the poem gets to the end, this makes perfect sense. The words—the syllables have come together into words, and the words have come together into sentences, and the sentences are coherent units of meaning.
DB: Do you write out the sentences in a more like prose style to make sure that they are working like that? How do you get from the notes, the line notes or the notes in your computer to something that's shaped, I guess is a newer thing?
BB: You'd be terrified with the drafts of that poem, because I have several hundred syllables and in the drafts—the rule of the poem is that once a syllable is introduced, it has to be repeated elsewhere in the poem. It has to keep repeating and recombining with other syllables. So I have pages and pages of syllables in alphabetical order and when they repeat, I would scratch some out. So I have "ac" and it formed "accident" and then it would come back as "accumulate." But any syllable that was introduced that didn't echo somewhere else in the poem, I would have to keep revising until it came back. So, in the beginning it was just a list of syllables—not even words, just syllables.
DB: I guess I'm interested, then—like, your early work is less disjunctively broken. So, when did that come in, and why did that come in?
BB: It started in late '90s, I guess. Signs and Abominations was a big break, I think, in poetics for me. I became much more interested in fragmentation and disruption, and imitating disruptive states of mind and disruptive states of knowledge with disruptions in the poems themselves. Whereas before that, I had been very interested in a kind of well-made poem that was coherent and imagistic and lyrical. I got bored with that mode and wanted to allow the poems to become stranger and more broken, and more intuitive and less logical, less linear.
DB: And it seems like you've kind of gone—you went down that path, and now you've gone down that path further into, oddly, a more kind of ordered shape—a visual shape—but, so how does sound work in that sense, then? You say when you are revising you are reading them out loud—how do you read aloud a poem shaped like an omega?
BB: I have a very particular way of reading it where I try to space out the sounds of the letters that are on either side of the omega, so that that central absence is there, and it's formed by sounds rather than a visual shape on the page.
DB: I guess I'm thinking to some of your Cage references right away when you say that. Is he a figure that came in later to kind of push forward some of those poetics as well or—?
BB: Yeah, Cage did. A lot of his ideas were important, especially when I was doing the aleatory sequence with the dice and things like that. Reading Paul Celan was hugely important. I think I first read Celan in the '90s and he's become a giant, really important figure for me, and largely that his work speaks to me so intensely without me knowing what it's saying on any rational level.
DB: Does that mean you are reading it in the German?
BB: No, but even in translation—it's magnificent to me, but I would be very hard put to say what it means.
DB: I'm sorry, I misunderstood.
BB: Yeah. A version I have been reading that—"Streak in the eyes so that a sign be preserved to drag through darkness, restored to life by sand or ice"—that is magnificently suggestive to me, but I would not be able to paraphrase it. I have been working toward a kind of poetics that's much less paraphraseable.
DB: In the notes and what not, do you think you could trace like a—a poetics, like the progression of your poetics? Like in these notes and in these prose things that you write while you are writing the poems?
BB: Yes.
DB: So, you start to kind of reason with yourself or something like that?
BB: I talk to myself, yeah, which is a way of thinking, but it's a different way of thinking than at least I normally think. You don't talk to yourself—at least I don't talk to myself most of the time when I'm thinking. But when I'm writing these sort of meditations on the computer, I'm literally talking to myself. I'm saying, "I want to do this. Why do I want to do this?" I'm asking myself questions.
DB: So, you are sort of interrogating your own practice while you are practicing?
BB: Yeah, exactly.
DB: And you've been doing that the whole time, pretty much?
BB: Yeah.
DB: Were you taught—were you taught this? I guess it's an interesting practice and I'm wondering where it comes from.
BB: Was I taught it? No. I remember doing it in college a lot. I thought of it then as automatic writing.
DB: Yeah.
BB: And I guess I was introduced to the idea of automatic writing where you just write whatever comes in your mind as a generative practice. For me, automatic writing sort of became a "talking my through" a poem, or into a poem, and it's a practice I have kept. I don't think of it as automatic writing anymore. I think of it as just writing—just the way I write.
DB: One question that I kind of have from a little earlier is when you are doing this writing in prose and then you have the collections of notebooks that were written on the typewriter—so they weren't saved in files like they are now?
BB: That's right.
DB: So, you couldn't go back at the end of the year and print them out. So, how would you print those out?
BB: Daily.
DB: Daily?
BB: Yeah.
DB: Okay. And you collect them daily, too? So, you've been using—
BB: No, it's literary typing. So, on a typewriter I'll just save the pages and bind them into a notebook.
DB: Would you do the same thing—kind of a ritualistic, year-end thing—where you gather them all together, or were they just are coming together?
BB: I would just keep them in a box, I think, until the end of the year, and then bind them up into a notebook.
DB: Yeah. Is this something you do like every New Year's Day?
BB: No. Not in any particular time.
DB: Just at the end of the year sometime you like go, "I should—?"
BB: Usually around the beginning of summer, because I'm sort of looking back on what I've written the year before and have time to focus on things like that.
DB: So, like now would be a time?
BB: Now—I'll probably do the last six months of the last year sometime soon this summer.
DB: Okay. So, we've talked a lot about the kind of composition. We've talked some about the revision. Has the revision changed much over your career? When you introduced this more disjunctive line break, essentially, and got more fragmentary, did the revising process change?
BB: It did in that it used to be much more into clarity, clarity would be a big thing I would revise toward, in terms of driving out of the poem anything that didn't obviously belong to it thematically or imagistically. That's no longer really a concern because there are all kinds of things happening in my poems now that don't obviously belong together. So, it's much more intuitive than that, I guess. But I have a general sense of what I want a poem to be doing—what is in it, what isn't in it, and why—but clarity is not the thing that determines that anymore.
DB: Right. Would you say that you—are you driven by a certain—are they driven by sound, by meaning? What's the driving force of the revision, and has that changed? You've kind of said this—you were moving more towards clarity—but now, is there a sense that the sound is more prominent now, or that you—?
BB: The sound is definitely more prominent now, but also I'm paying much more attention to the shape of words on the page, the visual appearance of the words, and to the—let me show you an example from this.
DB: To be clear, you do work in Microsoft Word predominantly?
BB: Yes. Okay, so this is a poem that was published in The Gettysburg Review that's in the manuscript, and it's a poem about jellyfish, moon jellies in particular. It's called "Such and Such and Such and Such," where I play with the expression "such and such," but also the Buddhist concept of "suchness," which is a term that means "emptiness" in Buddhism, but it also means particularity, radical particularity. The "suchness" of a thing is its particularity, but it's also the awareness that it's empty. That it has no ultimate reality, and that it's changeable.
So I started this poem out eventually by moving the lines around. I can't stop watching the YouTube of these moon jellies, yanking their translucence inside out, over and over, and getting nowhere. So this is a poem that is in four sections because I'm playing with quaternity—"fourness." I have many drafts here, and part of the revision process was condensation—I felt it's too long—so there I wrote, there, "It's not bad,
BB: condense a bit down to thirty-two lines rather than forty." So typing it up is part of whatever else you are doing—
DB: Making a note as to what that revision did in the revision?
BB: Yeah.
DB: Is that something you do?
BB: Always. Then I went through each section, cutting things out, adding things—"some of the lineation feels clunky, I need to read through and adjust, pretty happy with that now"—so, that kind of thing. Revising more for condensation and surprise, I guess—disruption and surprise rather than clarity and consistency.
DB: But still—you said you were working with the four-parts theme.
BB: Yeah.
DB: So, you do impose a certain order on it as well, right? That seems something you do quite a bit.
BB: Yeah.
DB: In terms of different things you do, and then also quotations, etc.
So: we've gone through revision, we've gone through composition a little bit—well, not a little bit, a lot bit. How do these become a book, then, I guess, is the question there?
BB: I've been working on exactly that. This book is called All Soul Parts Returned. I'm still pointing to the title here—I have All Soul Parts. It started—the concept of the book started with a friend who gave me a pamphlet. I was going through some difficult time emotionally about something, I don't remember what it was—but he had somebody hand him a pamphlet that a New Age shaman gave him, and it was a pamphlet that said, "Come to this workshop for $375. You can consult with a shaman who will travel into non-ordinary reality and find your missing soul parts and bring them back to you." It said that the cause of all emotional turmoil, upset, unhappiness was that parts of your soul had broken off and gone away, and they had to be returned and they could only be returned by a professional. The professional travels into a mystical state and finds your soul parts, and the pamphlet had this statement on it: "All soul parts returned for a fee." I found that hilarious.
I said, "That's the problem, my soul parts are gone." But as I started thinking about this poems in conjunction with each other, I realized it made a really, I think, rich metaphor for loss, for grief, for emotional pain, and that it pulled together a lot of the things I was dealing with in this manuscript. Also tonally, this manuscript is much lighter in tone, a lot more humor in it than in my other books.
So the revision process has been one of moving things around and structuring poems in relation to each other. So, I've got three big parts of it. One part is a long poem called "The Mass of the Ordinary," which is a kind of contemporary mass with all the traditional sections of the Catholic mass—the kyrie, the gloria, and agnus dei, and all these parts of the mass—I really have that as one big chunk. It's about ten poems, fairly long poems. I had that all together in the beginning. Then I have a long series called "Praise Song for Schopenhauer," about philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. It's kind of an argument with Schopenhauer's pessimism.
And like the mass, it's pulling toward orthodoxy and traditional Catholic faith. I'm a converted Catholic, and the Schopenhauer poems that are pulling towards pessimism and nihilism and philosophical despair. Originally, I had started with the mass and ended with the Schopenhauer poem; that wasn't working, because it ended with the book being very despairing in a way I didn't want it to be. So the way I'm doing now is I have broken the mass poems and the Schopenhauer poems up, and they are interspersed all the way through the manuscript as a kind of two tugging, contrasting motifs that are arguing with each other all the way through.
DB: So does the composition of a book like this feel a lot like the composition
DB: of an individual poem? I mean, is it fractal-like, in that sense?
BB: It does, exactly like that.
DB: Has that been the case in your entire career?
BB: Yeah. It feels exactly like a large poem, in that now the individual poems are the stanzas—do to the book what the stanzas do to a poem—which means you can move them around and the poem changes meaning drastically according to where you start and where you end.
DB: Do you change the poems, too, once they are in this order? So you're still working on the poems and you're working on the book at the same time?
BB: I revise my poems to help them illustrate the structure of the book. I have a poem that I wrote—when I was on sabbatical, I wrote a poem—I had to write a report to the provost where you tell them what you did on your sabbatical. And I got the idea that I would write that as a poem. So the poem is called "Report To The Provost On The Progress Of My Leave."
So I decided at one point that this is a poem about losing your soul parts and losing parts of yourself. So I thought what if—and I was talking to a friend of mine, and I said, "Wait, what if I put the leave poem first, because then it begins with the leaving?" And the first line of that, when I revised it, I realized I could move this to the beginning of the poem and thus the beginning of the book was "I've gone missing, the way someone else might go drinking or caroling."
So now the book is called All Soul Parts Returned, and it starts with losing myself, losing control of myself—emotionally, psychologically, spiritually—it starts with sort of losing connection with yourself, and then ends now with coming back of the self. So the way I've got an ending now—and this is still in process, but I think it's going to go this way—it's ending now with a section that says, "I'm here with most of my soul parts. None of us just wishing we were here." So it goes from losing soul parts to regaining them, because I wanted the title All Soul Parts Returned to be ironic, but also to be what happens in the process of the book—so the book being the act of personal shamanism that brings back the missing parts of yourself and reintegrates the self.
DB: So you become the professional, in some way.
BB: Yeah, on returning my own soul parts!
DB: Yeah, that's it.
BB: But I've showed the manuscript to several friends and other poets, and I haven't felt like the overall metaphor I'm working toward is coming through clearly enough. And I think it is partly because this idea of soul part retrieval is so alien to people who aren't in that subculture. So what I'm planning to do now, and I'm planning to start on it next week, even, is a brief lyrical introduction that describes what "soul retrieval" is, and describes, the shamanist's belief—that every time you endure any kind of trauma, a part of your soul leaves you and that your soul diminished because you've lost parts of your soul that are no longer accessible, and if they can be restored, then you'll be restored the wholeness.
But one of the epigraphs I have here—this is an epigraph—it's from a New Age website and it's a "Frequently Asked Questions." One of the questions is, "My soul parts don't like me," and this is from somebody who got their soul parts back, but now find that their soul parts are unhappy to be there. The answer is, "Of course they don't like you, but it's good that you know how they feel. First you betrayed them by sending them away, then you forgot them and left them there. Now that they are back, they discover that you are boring."
DB: That's good.
BB: What I'm trying to get at there is that even if you can get your soul parts back, they may not be happy to be there, because the soul is not a unit but a series of bickering parts.
DB: Yeah. I think it's in Theophobia where you mentioned—was there a website of "Seldomly Asked Questions"?
BB: I did write that out, yeah.
DB: Okay, I thought that was the funniest thing I'd heard in quite a while. I was like—because I'm building a website now for the library, and that would be really good—I've got an FAQ, but what about "Seldomly Asked Questions"—that would be a really funny page. So you seem to use the internet as content and as fodder for poems—starting, obviously, sometime around the early 2000's. Where does the internet lie in kind of your practice? I mean, I've seen printouts in here,
DB: and I see—you definitely used a lot etymology and stuff. Do you go to the internet for that?
BB: I do. I go to the Oxford English OED Online frequently, and I have poems in here that came out of OED definitions that are on the internet. There's a poem, I have in here. It was in The Kenyon Review called "Mean, Mean It," and it came out of—I was teaching a class on "Dreams and Poetry" and we were trying to define what dreams mean and what poems mean. I got the idea in class, "Let's pull up the OED online," and looked at what the word "mean" means. I did that—so I had it up on screen in the classroom, and one of the definitions of "mean" was an archaic definition that it used to mean "to lament or to mourn." So we were talking about even the word "mean" has multiple meanings that it didn't mean to mean, and how dreams are multiple and poems are multiple—but the word "mean," it could be words—even words are so multiple that you can't delimit their flux.
So I kept thinking about that and I was writing a poem called "Mean, Mean It," which is about the idea that meaning has lamentation or mourning lumped into it, because meaning can't be controlled. It can't be packaged, it can't be narrowed down. There is something wonderful about that, but there is something mournful about it, too.
DB: Before the internet became something that you were able to use more easily, what would you turn to to kind of do this sort of work? I mean, were you doing this sort of work? Where you—?
BB: I was, much more in the library than I am now.
DB: Okay. The internet meant leaving the library in some ways?
BB: Yeah. I still spend a lot of time in libraries, but yeah. It allows me to do things right here that I used to have to go to a library for.
DB: How much does research inform the poems? Obviously a huge amount and how does that work in relationship?
BB: I'm usually researching while I'm writing those paragraphs of sort of thinking and then stray lines. I'm often wondering things like—one of my poems I have in this manuscript has the line, "I keep wondering if mass and massacre have some common root." Then I'll go to the internet and search "mass" and "massacre" and copy from the OED—the definitions and the etymologies—and paste them into the document I'm working on, that kind of thing.
Or I'll start thinking about soul retrieval, and I'll go to a whole bunch of soul retrieval websites and see what kind of promises they're making. I find it hilarious that a lot of them don't even do it in person. You send them $350 through PayPal and they claim that they—from their own home in Virginia, or whatever it is—a journey into non-ordinary reality and retrieve your soul parts. And one of the questions is, "Don't you need to be with me in order to bring back my soul parts?" "Oh no! Your soul parts can be brought back to you spiritually;" and, "Is there a difference between soul retrievals that you do in person and ones that you do from a distance?" "Oh no. There is no difference at all." People are actually paying people hundreds of dollars to claim their—return their soul parts, but they have never even met them.
At least if you do it in person, they blow it—they will supposedly blow it into your mouth. They get the soul parts and they kinda blow the soul parts into your lungs.
DB: Did you, as research, get your soul parts returned to you? I guess is my—?
BB: I thought about it, but no I haven't. I don't want to spend that much money.
DB: Maybe you can get a grant?
BB: There is somebody who lives here and teaches at Western who is an academic expert on soul retrieval.
DB: Really?
BB: Right now I'm thinking of going to talk to her, but I'm not sure if I could keep a straight face doing it, because she takes it very serious.
DB: She doesn't offer the internet virtual soul retrieval?
BB: She doesn't do them herself, I don't think. She does train people on how to do it.
DB: Oh wow.
So, I guess one thing you've mentioned in passing a couple of times are other people in the relationship to your process. Where do other people fit in? I know your wife is a poet and a writer, and you have—I'm sure—many poet friends. Are they part of the revision process, or are they more like kind of general book-level process? Where do they come in? Are you corresponding with them?
BB: We read all of each other's work. We tend to read each other's work when we reach the point we call, "exhausting our resources," which means that you've revised enough that there is nothing in the draft that makes you—that you know you could improve. You've reached the point where you've done everything you can to it, and it's time to get somebody else's feedback. Suzanne will read my work, and she's a really great reader, and give me really honest feedback on what's working well and what needs work. And then I have, I don't know, four or five friends that I tend to share my work with. Usually after Suzanne has read it and I've revised it further, I'll send to them.
With the book manuscript, too—this is a stack of different versions of it that three different friends have read, and that Suzanne has read. One of the things I'm doing this week is going through the manuscript with all three or four versions—with marginal comments from three different friends and from Suzanne—and I'm going to compare page by page and see where there are commonalities that they all agreed that something needs more work, where there are contradictions, and think through the contradictions.
DB: Are these people that you work with, are they all poets themselves mostly or—?
BB: Yeah.
DB: Are they the same people who have been there the whole time, or has that changed throughout the course—?
BB: Mostly. Some of them—two or three of them are people I went to graduate school with at Virginia. We had a writing group where we all met once a week while we were at grad school, and we've sort of continued over the years through the internet. One is a new friend, a poet I met who has just read my manuscript for me and I read his manuscript for him and it's been great—but this is new. I have never shared work with him before.
DB: The ways that you've corresponded, I guess, earlier were by mail. Are you still mostly doing—I mean, those were physical objects—that you mostly send the manuscript to them or email the manuscript and then they send you back—?
BB: Email the manuscript and they send me back—
DB: —notes and all that? You can have that through for that. That's nice.
BB: Yeah.
DB: I think that's going to be—
BB: I have over here in my file cabinet a file called "Poems: Feedback from Readers," where I keep all the physical copies of all the poems that have come back from the people I've shown them to, which I use a lot in revising.
DB: I think we are pretty close. I would like to ask, kind of, the blunt question of this research, which is—I don't know, I mean, it's always all over the place—but: do you think anything fundamentally changed when you started to use computers more for your writing, or do you think those practices that you had before are just somehow metaphorically the same in a different kind of context?
BB: I would say it has influenced the content of my poems more than the composition process. It has influenced the context. Computers and internet have influenced the content of my poems a lot, doing a lot with websites, with that kind of radical interconnectivity of associative thinking that the internet suggests. I think that the dawn of the internet probably has changed the way I compose my poetics in certain way, and that it has given permission for more associative, mimetic thinking process that I associate with internet links.
I have a poem called "Hyperlinks" in Signs and Abominations that is a poem about thinking the way the internet thinks, in a way—in that everything reminds you of something else, it takes you to another place, so each line of the poem leaps from one idea to another that's only tangentially related to it. There are certain obsessive themes in that poem having to do with the birth of my son and adoption, and purification and rituals of sort of preparing for fatherhood—but they are oblique and they're associative.
And that, I think, was one of the first poems where I consciously wrote a poem whose thinking was related to the way I think the internet thinks—if we can call the internet a "thinker."
In some ways it is, you know what I mean?
DB: Yeah.
BB: But it hasn't really changed my composition process a whole lot, because I was doing on typewriters what I'm now doing on computers. It's made it easier to cut and paste, and to move things around.
BB: But I often do that on notecards and writing anyway, rather than on the computer—because there is something about writing out the sections of a poem on a card and then moving them around that I find more satisfying even than doing it on the computer. I'm using—especially in my newest poems—a lot of material that's based on the physicality of icons and things that are possible from a computer.
Let me show you some other example. Here's some more shapes that I am using in that poem: there is an X and a Y and then an omega. I'm using here reproductions of the Bruce Beasley's sculptures, which of course, would be possible without the internet, but I'm doing more visual collisions between text and image that is suggested by the internet.
DB: Yeah. Well, that's it.
BB: Okay.
DB: Thank you very much.
BB: Thank you.
DB: That was great.