An Interview with Rae Armantrout
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Rae Armantrout is the author of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection Versed, which was also nominated for a National Book Award. She is the author of more than ten books of poetry, the most recent being the National Book Award-nominated collection Wobble. One of the original Language poets, Armantrout studied under poet Denise Levertov at the University of California, Berkeley, and later went on to teach at the University of California campus in San Diego. She currently serves as a professor of Poetry and Poetics at UCSD.
TMR: You wrote much of Versed while undergoing treatment for rare adrenal cortical cancer. Can you touch on the importance of literature during times of struggle?
RA: I had the feeling that as long as I was still writing, I was still living. I even took my blank book into the hospital with me. It's also true that having a potentially fatal illness was a novel experience. And novelty tends to provoke me to write. Surprisingly, that didn't change. When you are in the midst of difficulty, writing helps clarify things. At least I begin with that impulse. When you write, you can turn sadness and distress into pleasure—briefly, anyway. It's like spinning straw into emotional gold. That's why it's so addictive.
TMR: You teach Poetry and Poetics at UCSD. What is your experience with being an educator in the arts, and why was this the field you were drawn to?
RA: I was drawn to poetry from a young age. Becoming an educator was almost an accident, to be honest. It turned out that teaching writing was the only work I was really qualified to do. I was originally hired as a lecturer and only eventually became "regularized" in academia.
I enjoy telling students about the poems I love. That's the best part of the job. I don't know whether you can teach people to write, but you can certainly point them towards the things they should read. I think it's important to get them to stop scanning or scrolling and look carefully at the words they are either reading or writing.
TMR: What is something that you learned during your years of schooling that you have made it a habit to impress upon your own students? Why?
RA: First, students have to learn that a poem or other piece of writing is an object with an existence outside and beyond their intentions. To be a writer is to learn to be in two places at once—in your head and also in the text. Then, if you are writing poetry, you have to learn that you can't ignore line breaks. You have to think about them. Ideally you want there to be something interesting in each line and something surprising about each line break. That's not a standard I can really meet—not all the time. But it's what I aim for.
TMR: You've said that you occasionally pull from dreams and phrases you overhear to utilize in your poetry. In an interview with The Believer, you mention hearing someone say "I want to explore the post-hope zeitgeist" and then include that in a poem. What other soundbites have you caught and included over the years? What about this process compels you?
Perhaps it's easier to listen like an alien when you've lived through quite a few decades. The language keeps changing.
RA: I will pull from anything. I'm quite a magpie. Dreams can be an interesting source because they come from within you, but you have no control over them. I'm even more interested in listening (and looking) at the outer world in a way that doesn't take things for granted. Perhaps it's easier to listen like an alien when you've lived through quite a few decades. The language keeps changing.
I know I want to use a snippet of overheard language when it causes me to do a double take. This happened a lot when the Iraq war began and we suddenly heard things said almost casually that would have been unthinkable just a year before. One example from my poem "Prayers" would be, "Coming up,/a discussion/on the uses/of torture." Or from "Canary" from Partly, "Some folks got tortured/by folks." It also happened when I was ill and was suddenly exposed to a lot of medical jargon. And it happened in the aftermath of the 2008 financial "crisis." (We've all learned to call it a "crisis" not, for instance, a crime.) As an outside observer or listener, you pick up different things than members of the intended audience probably would.
TMR: For too long a time, poetry was dubbed a "dying art", with increasingly low numbers of readers in America. In recent years, however, data shows that there has been a resurgence. As a creator, what are your thoughts on this?
RA: I know that poetry had more prestige when I was in college than it has now. It was widely reviewed in general interest magazines, for instance. Many things happened in the larger world to cause that to change. Mass entertainment became more various and more, well, entertaining. General literacy levels fell, I think, probably due to overcrowded, underfunded schools. Publishers consolidated and fewer of them wanted to take chances on books that weren't going to sell a million copies. (The market for serious literary fiction has also been shrinking, sadly.)
In recent years poetry has entered the mainstream again through a couple of side doors. The popularity of hip-hop music encouraged young people to perform "spoken word" poetry. That has been around for quite a while now. Then, in the last 10 years or so, poets posting on social media platforms like Instagram have gained large audiences and several have gone on to publish popular books. I don't know whether anything challenging can actually become popular. It does happen in the music world, though.
TMR: Elizabeth Lund calls Wobble "a collection of tight, chiseled poems that forces readers to consider how greed, excess and lack of critical thought have led to environmental destruction and a nation wobbling toward the edge of collapse." Your take on society fills the book; do you have thoughts on how we might step back from the edge of collapse? What can an individual do to keep the "wobble" from worsening?
I have two young granddaughters and the thought of the world they will grow up in is terrifying.
RA: You don't have to do anything special to be made aware of global warming and its effects. For instance, I've lived most of my life in San Diego (though I'm now living near Seattle). Recently it reached 110 degrees in my neighborhood there. I think that's at least 7 degrees hotter than any previously recorded temperature in the area. I've seen several devastating fires in San Diego county, and the backcountry vegetation around San Diego has visibly changed over time because of fire and drought. I'm often aware that I'm not making many personal sacrifices to help avert global warming. For instance, I continue to fly a lot, so there are poems in Wobble that deal with a sense of complicity and guilt.
On the other hand, I don't think individuals can solve this. Addressing it will take political change. In the United States, we need high speed trains so that people fly less—and that's just one example. Trump just defunded a program to begin developing high speed rail, by the way. I'm constantly afraid that this level of political change isn't possible. I have two young granddaughters and the thought of the world they will grow up in is terrifying.
TMR: While writing Wobble, what books were you reading?
RA: Like many people, I read Elizabeth Kolbert's wonderful book The Sixth Extinction. Other than that, I read what I always read: Scientific American, The New York Times.
TMR: Is there a poem from your career that you recall being more difficult than others to write?
RA: Poems can be hard to write for several reasons. My poems are often made of a conjunction or collision of separate perceptions. Sometimes I'll have several parts that I know go together but something's still missing. In that case, I just have to wait (not very patiently) until the missing bit somehow appears. But you are talking about poems being emotionally difficult, and there are a few that fall into that category for me.
From Versed, the poem "Own." From Wobble the poems "Flicker," "I and I," and "Asymmetries." Actually, I'm not sure they were difficult to write, especially, but they are difficult to have written. They involve painful realities.
TMR: You've survived a disease you were sure you would die from. How did this affect your outlook on life? Did it change how you approach fear?
there's always some part of a person that doesn't give up hope.
RA: I was pretty sure I would die from it. That's what my rational mind said. But there's always some part of a person that doesn't give up hope. And, no, I don't think it changed my outlook. I have been actively aware of mortality since I was about eight. It crosses my mind pretty often.
My cancer surgery was 12 years ago, so I don't think I will die of that particular cancer—but I certainly don't feel immortal. If I live an average life span, then I may live another 12 years. And twelve years ago feels like yesterday. There is actually one technique I practiced during my illness that helped. I began to focus on smaller periods of time. I avoided statements that began "Someday" or "next year." But I was able to think about next week and next month, so I trained my mind to that scale. I guess I need to do that again.
TMR: Instagram has increasingly become a platform for poets to promote their work. Claire Fallon, writing for Huffington Post, describes certain Instagram poets and their poetry as "perfectly calibrated to attract fans: bland, generic, aesthetically pleasing, and therefore the perfect projection screen for readers' desires," noting that "the poetry might be bad, but it is too inoffensive and nonspecific to alienate." However, she also defends this form, saying that on social media, "in place of the traditional gatekeeping system is a supportive, welcoming environment, particularly for marginalized voices." What are your thoughts on the rise of social media poetry?
RA: I've pretty much avoided it. I have an Instagram account, but I can't figure out how to get into it. I am aware of Rupi Kaur, for instance. Her poems are bland and not even aesthetically pleasing. But there's no reason it has to be that way. That platform could be used to post interesting short poems and maybe it has been or will be. Their audience won't be quite as large, probably, in that case, but it's worth thinking about.
TMR: What is the most astonishing book you've read in the last year? What about it most affects you?
RA: I'm going to choose a non-poetry book because I have too many poetry friends who might see this. I was blown away by the novel A Time for Everything by Karl Knausgård. I have never read anything remotely like it. It's a kind of thought experiment. It's a realist novel that involves taking various Bible stories and accounts of encounters with angels truly literally. The result is, let's say, nothing like any theology I'm aware of. It's chilling.
TMR: In one of my favorite poems, "A Resemblance," you ask "Would I like / a vicarious happiness?" and answer "Yes!"—can you define your experience of vicarious happiness for us? Is there a single moment from your life that best summarizes that feeling?
RA: What comes to mind for me is the relation between parents and children. Nothing makes a parent quite as happy as the good fortune and happiness of her child. But, of course, our children become aware of this and start pretending to be happy or feeling as if they should. And also sometimes we pretend that our partners have made us happy in order to make them happy. I don't remember a specific moment that triggered those lines in the poem, but that is where my mind went when you asked the question.