Poet Jennifer Moxley’s full-length collections include: Clampdown, The Line, Often Capital, The Sense Record, and Imagination Verses. Her poem “Behind the Orbits” was chosen by Robert Creeley for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2002. In addition to the above collections she has published several chapbooks, most recently Coastal and Foyer States, a memoir, a volume of essays (There are Things We Live Among), and three books of translation from the French. Though a California native, she now lives in Maine with her husband, scholar Steve Evans, and her cat Odette. She teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Maine. For more information on Moxley, look here.
When I began to think about If You Want To, I immediately thought of Jennifer as someone who I hoped would be an early participant. I’d first learned about her poetry from Ange Mlinko’s 2009 review of Clampdown in The Nation, and in 2010 I contacted her about doing a blog interview for the literary journal Memorious. We initiated a correspondence after the interview concluded, and have been in touch via letters since then. When I was getting to know Jennifer and her poetry, I was feeling quite lost in the world of poetry: her generosity, fresh perspective, and, always, her writing, have been incredible gifts. This interview was conducted over email in two parts.
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MURRAY: Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams and dreaming—something that is central to your collection The Line, in which the speaker “In One Body and One Soul” notes: “The heartbreak of time is not that it passes but rather the language yoke. By grace of grammar alone the moment’s fleeting existence. The spatial dream-life of complex syntax hides the author’s erasure.” Is the author’s erasure the act of erasing, being erased, or both? Is the “spatial dream-life of complex syntax” the place where the reader’s dream mixes with, joins, or erases the author’s?
MOXLEY: The voice coming through “In One Body and One Soul” asserts the position that only through the “dream-life of complex syntax”—that is to say, in lyric poetry, or the lyric prose writers such as Proust—can we experience time as non-linear. I discussed this idea first in my essay “Lyric Poetry and the Inassimilable Life.” My thinking on this issue was inspired by chapter eleven of Augustine’s Confessions, in which he famously discusses the nature of time, using grammar and meter as two important indicators. Studying foreign languages with different moods and tenses than English (the dominance of the subjunctive in French and Latin, for example, or the passé simple) has also taught me how central language is to our experience of time: “by grace of grammar alone.” It is a “dream-life” in that circular syntax with multiple subordinate clauses can mimic dream logic, which is also built on temporal spirals. And of course the poem’s effects are not physically real any more than are those of dream—they cannot actually stop the effects of time on the material world, the decay of the body and mind.
While I like the idea of the reader’s dream mixing with the author’s, I fight shy of making claims about what happens to readers other than myself. Perhaps I’d rather say that the reader’s dream mixes with the poem’s dream, and that the poem’s dream is born of the author’s desire. The erasure referred to is indeed that of the author’s life, but the paradox is that it is the author who is responsible for it, by the very act of authorship. A little resistance to “That in black ink my love may still shine bright.”
MURRAY: In his Poetics of Space Gaston Bachelard recalls a passage of Baudelaire dreaming of de Quincey, who is dreaming in winter of Kant, and Bachelard writes that “well-determined centers of revery are means of communication between men who dream as surely as well-defined concepts are means of communication between men who think.” Where/who are your centers of revery?
MOXLEY: What a wonderful question. I blush at it, because I feel a little lacking in such centers at present. But in the past, I have found a center in those authors whose work reached across time to give me the revelation of a transformative artistic experience I didn’t know was possible—Hopkins, Crane, Proust, Hardy, Yeats, J. C. Powys, H.D., to name a few. This works best with the dead. Certain of them have shown up for me—very tangibly—during crucial moments of inspiration and growth as a poet, as well as in moments of despair about the meaningfulness of this work.
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MURRAY: Can you talk a little bit about your preface to Imagination Verses? You note: “When we hope for a future different from the present we uncover the injustice of our imagination. . . . Though we may dream the dream of equality, we dream it on a scale much larger than ourselves. If we try to make a poem of this dream, it will be smaller than its origins.”
MOXLEY: Interesting how all of these initial questions focus on the dream in one way or another. It has been a long time since I thought about that preface. Yet I still believe its basic claim, which is about poetry. The key phrase is that the poem offers “a history of and a future for the mind’s prerogative to exist as more than a memory of its milieus.” This is an anti-documentary, anti-experience based poetic. The poem is a portal beyond, it is “unjust,” like the imagination, because non democratic. There is a selfishness to the poem insofar as it allows us to indulge in our desire to extend the borders of the self down into the earth and out into the cosmos, backwards and forwards in time. Like the Somnium Scipionis, the poem creates vistas we may not be equal to or deserving of, yet desire nonetheless.
MURRAY: Much of your writing seems to be engaged with the limits of language, its failures, and our failure as artists and people to make it work, yet is to document such failures also an act of optimism? From the poem “After First Figure,” in Imagination Verses:
And as with imagination
there is no choice
being thought bound
the separate mind stands out, as matter
and maintains dreamily:
“I have been over to the words and they work.”
and the closing lines of the book, from “Wreath of a Similar Year”:
how strangely of untold direction
it sounds, blind as
the first letter on the first stone
as if a wreath to circle
the last sound spoken
on some distant, though similar
MOXLEY: Yes, that is a nice way of putting it, “optimism.” It is not a word I use much, yet I do feel optimistic when thinking about poetry. Not because I think it will be popular, or successful (quite the contrary), but rather because I believe it to be an art, among others, that is transcendent. We participate in it, as Robert Duncan notes, and it is a privilege.
In reading your question I realize that I have resisted the “failure of language” argument for a long time. “I have been over to the words” echoes a famous statement by Lincoln Steffens about visiting the new Soviet Russia, “I have seen the future and it works.” That statement represents a blind faith, so while I do want to affirm “the words,” I want also to represent the idealism of that gesture. I do not feel adequate to any language I’ve attempted to communicate in, including English. To imagine that I could pronounce any language a “failed system” seems the height of cheek.
The last stanza of “Wreath of a Similar Year” that you quote above is less about the failure of language, and more about the hope involved in any act of prayer. Are all poems apostrophic? Do none of us expect an answer? I like to believe that when we write from a position of honesty more often than not we are kneeling down before the Great Mystery, clasping our hands together, and saying: I am sending my sign into the darkness . . . I await yours in return!
MURRAY: When I first read your answer, I saw apostolic for apostrophic! If we never get an answer, do we ever get a sign?
MOXLEY: Yes, I think that we do. This relates back to your question about “centers.” The sign could be a visitation from a poet, the energy coming off a poem, or perhaps inspiration itself . . . the sudden “gift of the poem,” to bring Mallarmé into it.
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MURRAY: In the poem “Fixed Idea” from The Sense Record and Other Poems, the speaker says “I have no natural compassionate impulse and / therefore believe I have swallowed the key: poetry / pounds in the plank of smug memory and wills / no exit.” Is the speaker talking about the difference between making something and doing something, the problem of prefacing compassion before construction?
MOXLEY: I am tempted to ask you the same question! I can’t say with any certainty what the speaker is talking about. That poem was written in a breathless moment when I was destroyed by my own inadequacy in the face of such mundane everyday suffering as that of a creature unselved, as Hopkins puts in, in the midst of concrete landscape . . . well, it was the bird’s eye. To look into the eye of a dying thing, there are some private depths that don’t bear scrutiny. Any frightened animal will tell you.
I rescued and nursed a pigeon back to life when I was a girl. I fed him on the branch of our apricot tree. I know this is absurd. I know there is death, I eat animals and cut up plants. “Fixed Idea” is, I believe, trying to register the fact that ideologies do not solve the conundrum of these encounters. They do not assuage the spirit. At least I’ve never found them to do so, and I distrust people who feel righteous because of they’ve embraced “the right” ideology.
MURRAY: I think of you as a very prolific writer. Has your other writing—letters, essays, translations, memoir—informed your poems in any particular way?
MOXLEY: Yes, of course. I’ve already spoken elsewhere about how writing my memoir helped me to develop narrative strategies and a more agile relationship with complex syntax, which certainly went into the poems in The Sense Record. I love nonfiction literary forms such as letters and essays for the way they offer different modes of address. For example, in my correspondence—this won’t be news to you, who are a wonderful letter writer—there is a kind of freedom to write about the little failures of life, the mundane details and the everyday, as well as to say simply, “I’m reading this book, and I love it.” The poem may mine ideas from the book, but the letter just notes that it is important in your life, or that it fills you with inappropriate dreams. There are epistolary poets—Schuyler is one—but for many of us the poem is a formal occasion, or perhaps better said: an occasion for form.
MURRAY: I am glad you mentioned this idea of inappropriate dreams! I wonder whether you have any that you’d care to share for poetry?
MOXLEY: Sometimes I think of my literary ambition as inappropriate. By which I do not mean my “career.” I am ambitious for my poems. I wrote one titled “Not That, Disappointment” (which appeared in Public Space), which confesses to such. It opens as follows:
I am inappropriate I feel it
in every said thing in every
enthusiasm desire wish
but mostly in every
I just added those italics! I worry that we are more comfortable with the idea that someone wants a better job, or even fame, than with the idea that they want to write a truly amazing work (even if it goes nowhere, or isn’t recognized). It is an idealism born into me by the study of literary history.
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MURRAY: Your recent collections Clampdown and Coastal seem to experiment with a relaxation, if that’s the right word, of your examination of “complex syntax.” In Coastal, you write:
We are trying, the both of us,
to make work that matters. To remain true
to that initial commitment. Artifice, dialogue, beauty.
A letter to a friend. “This glamorless isolation is killing me.”
I cannot accompany you into the abstract,
but grow more narrative by the year,
saying things to get them said,
feeling no leisure to take old risks.
To write such lines seems like a risk, and I wonder how far new ventures can stray from the initial efforts and still seem related to the initial commitment.
MOXLEY: The “initial commitment” seems so contractual! I think of my poetry as an ongoing and changing set of formal responses to problems of content. “Form is never more than an extension” and so on. Even before Clampdown or Coastal, The Line was an attempt to write simply in the face of a complex existential cascade. I don’t see one solution, but many. The initial commitment, if there was one, was to be honest in my work. To not follow trends, nor accept any strictures about what a poem should or should not do. To listen. Risk is relative. To say “my heart leaps up” in a poem is expected in some circles, a great risk in others. Some follow, some react. Others perform great curlicues of ironic contortion so as to not be held accountable for anything except a critique of and superiority over those who deign to experience unedited, unselfconscious joy in the world and in others.
Nevertheless, when I think of “saying things to get them said” in light of poems such as “Ode to the Man in the Mire of Babylon” in Imagination Verses, I do not think I’ve strayed so very far. I’ve had a long time admiration for, for lack of a better term, the “Socialist Realist” impulse. Coupled with my love of syntactical geniuses such as Sir Thomas Browne I don’t know where that leaves me, except perhaps back at that Einstein quote beloved of Zukofsky: Things should be “as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
MURRAY: Thank you, Jennifer. I am so delighted you agreed to be my first interview here. Would you care to suggest 2-3 poets whose work you are interested in or who come to mind in light of our discussion? I hope to continue the conversation.
MOXLEY: Here are three poets I know it would be interesting to talk to: Christina Davis, Megan Kaminski, Julian Talamantez Brolaski. I confess, Christina and Julian just came through Orono to read, and Megan just sent me her new book Desiring Map. They are all on my mind at present. There are so many others I might have named!