November 14–16, 1995
vol. 38, no. 4, winter 1997.
Reproduced by permission of University of Wisconsin Press and Cristanne Miller.
University of Wisconsin Press
email Contemporary Literature
An expanded and updated version of this interview appears in Elisabeth Frost and Cynthia Hogue's Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews (University of Iowa Press, 2006).
“Triptych For Topological Heart,”
Cristanne Miller, "An Interview with Alice Fulton," Contemporary Literature 38:4:585–615, winter 1997.
Poems discussed: "A Little Heart To Heart With The Horizon," "A New Release," "About Face," "Anchors Of Light," "Art Thou The Thing I Wanted," "Between The Apple And The Stars," "==," "By Her Own Hand." "Cascade Experiment," "Cusp," "Drills," "Echo Location," "Fables From The Random," "Fuzzy Feelings," "Give," "Immersion," "My Last TV Campaign," "My Second Marriage To My First Husband," "OVERLORD," "Point Of Purchase," "Some Cool," "Southbound In A Northbound Lane," "Supernal,""The Expense Of Spirit," "Undoing."
Topics discussed: The == (bride) sign, polyphonic writing, "blue notes" and non-binary "betweenness," the music of language, gender, feminist punctuation, lyric "voice," God, race, Daphne and Apollo, mythology, enjambment, line and stanza, transparency, grace, love poems, sentimentality, emotions, embarrassment, suicide, sadism, skepticism, science, bee orchids, originality, political subversion, the handmade, handwriting in printed poems, marginalia, MacArthur award, A.R. Ammons, and Emily Dickinson.
Winner of the prestigious MacArthur Award, Alice Fulton has published four books of poetry: Dance Script With Electric Ballerina (first published in 1983 and reissued by the University of Illinois Press in 1996), Palladium (University of Illinois Press, 1986), Powers Of Congress (David R. Godine, 1990), and Sensual Math (Norton, 1995). The manuscript for her first book won the Associated Writing Programs Award in Poetry in 1982, and her second manuscript was selected for publication by the National Poetry Series in 1985. In addition, Fulton has written short stories, song lyrics, and critical essays, including an experimental exegesis of her poetics, "To Organize a Waterfall" (Parnassus 1991 and reprinted in Feeling as a Foreign Language).
Briefly characterized, the most riveting element of Fulton's poetry is the controlled, complex exuberance of her language. Fulton's poems are dense, rich, often difficult, but with an immediacy of presence and spontaneity of wit that do not often occur in multiply layered verse; they satisfy both the ear and the mind. For example, in "Immersion" (in Sensual Math), Fulton moves from third- to first-person presentation, defining a new sign of punctuation that she calls the "bride" sign and writes ==. The poem begins with a Dickinsonian series of definitions:
It's sensual math
and untied railroad tracks ==
the ladder of gaps and lace
unlatched. It's staples
in the page and the swimmer's liquid lane.
Soon, however, this defining process acknowledges psychological process, hence the likelihood of idiosyncratic perspective (albeit "yours" rather than the speaker's own), as "one thought is occluded by another / no less celestial mention in your head ==." The poem ends with open first-person speech and an assertion of the speaker's closeness to the reader, yet with increasingly metaphorical analogies, and finally with the still elusive "double equal" sign itself as end-punctuation, or the final word. This speaker is, as it were, "immersed" in the ideas of the poem to the extent that he or she is unrecognizable except as a perspective as multiply definable and suggestive as "==":
I use it like a comb to unsnarl day
and sift the blank [.]
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Which is to say.
I'd be close to you as glass is to its double
glaze and music to its stellar disc,
I'd be all give. Let me put it like this ==
This "I" is as closely personal as "your" reflection or glass's "glaze" generously present but infinitely retreating in its punning "give."
At the other end of Fulton's range of speakers from this relatively abstract "I," one finds the quirkier and more loquacious retired ad designer of "My Last TV Campaign" (Sensual Math) or the multivocality of "Point Of Purchase" (Powers Of Congress), where the primary speaker is a pool-playing artist and religious philosopher, but several other voices comment literally on the margins of her text. This poem begins in three parts: with a formal epigraph on "unbelief" from Dickinson; with a handwritten, marginal quotation from Salman Rushdie on religious fundamentalists; and with the playful but disruptive juxtapositions and mid-line rhymes of the primary speaker: "How God and billiards originated / no one knows: cases of always was and will be, I suppose." This speaker's extended analogizing between billiards and religion (spurred on by the remarks and quotations of the marginal commentators) leads her to Polynesian culture, where
Nothing is adhesive. Theft is endemic,
thought a virtue rather than a crime.
Steal trading, it's called in anthro-slang,
but The Pascuense language has words:
hakamaroo (ha-ka-mahr-OH-oh) ... and
It's like the contango of hereafter
where God snakes the good away
with promises of reunion.
Strikingly flexible in their diction and manner, Fulton's poems include an extraordinary range of topics, perspectives, and voices.
While the diction of Fulton's poems often includes puns and slang, the topics are deeply serious. The poems are epistemological in their concerns: what is it possible to know? how does scientific knowledge affect the perceptions of common sense? how do the powers of language relate to media culture, scientific discovery, imperialism, gender, and the petty inhumanity or graciousness of everyday feelings and events? At the same time, the poems are generous, reminding us through the experimental complexity of their forms and language that (as Fulton writes in "Art Thou The Thing I Wanted") we are not just "towers / of blood and ignorance" (Powers Of Congress). But taking what she calls a "passional" stance "toward the universe" ("Cascade Experiment," Powers Of Congress), Fulton makes us see the pomposity, ridiculousness, and fragility of our beliefs, hopes, and attitudes, as well as the sometimes terrible wonder of human interaction and the universe beyond ourselves.
This interview was conducted at Pomona College in Claremont, California, during a three-day visit, November 14–16, 1995. During the visit, Fulton gave a reading, participated in a poetry seminar for first-year college students, and led a discussion with students, faculty, and staff in the Pomona College Women's Union. Much of the discussion focused on Sensual Math and on a published excerpt from her working notebooks (in The Poet's Notebook, edited by Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tall, David Weiss [Norton, 1995]); all mention of Fulton's notebooks in this interview refers to this publication.
Cristanne Miller: In the excerpt from your working notebook, I'm interested in what you call "betweenness." You list "the quality of betweenness: what comes between two quantities, objects, people" or "the nature of being between categories" as an organizational category important to Sensual Math, and later mention "Thirdness rather than binary thought." Do you see betweenness or nonduality as linked to voice in your poems?
Alice Fulton: When I began writing in the seventies, everybody was writing voice-based poetry, and young poets were concerned about "finding their voice." One of the tests for whether you were a true poet was whether you had discovered your authentic voice. Right from the beginning, I decided that wouldn't be it for me, that I wasn't interested in finding this thing that spoke through me, or finding a persona that would be mine and would be steady. I was much more interested in language and what could be built of it. I wouldn't have said it in these words, but I was using language as a construct. And that's still how I think of making a poem.
In the newer, polyphonic poems, the voices are multiple. I use various tones and registers of diction and vocabularies as a means of creating a texture of multiple voices within one poem. And these shifting voices, by refusing to build into one steady character or personality, might be said to exist between identities. As for nonduality and voice, my poems that create a speaker without giving any gender clues are trying to disrupt the man/woman binary and suggest a third, less categorical way of being.
CM: What about the distinctive voices in your dramatic monologues, like "My Last TV Campaign" in Sensual Math? Are they the voices of more unified speakers?
AF: Sometimes. In the earlier poems, definitely. I think of character more than voice. Voice comes out of character. But none of the voices in the monologues are mine. And I don't know that I've ever established a consistent lyric voice. I've certainly written lyric poems, and lately, poems that include lyric passage alongside dramatic, narrative writing. But the lyric persona changes, just as the personas of the monologues change.
CM: You and I have talked a lot about gender in your poems and the fact that for quite awhile, even in Dance Script With Electric Ballerina, you have consciously not gendered some of the characters who speak in your poems. For example, in a poem from that volume, "Between The Apple And The Stars," you wrote, "the scientist passes / a hand like a wand," rather than "her" or "his" hand. Could you say more about how this connects to the notion of betweenness?
AF: I'm interested in "betweenness" conceptually because it's not a binary. There have to be more than two options. Why should there be only two? Plurality is more inclusive.
At first, my decision not to have a male or female narrator or speaker or character in a poem was based on issues of power — not on a wish to be between categories but on a wish to question where power is located. So when I wrote the line you mentioned I obviously didn't want to say whether the God-like scientist was female or male. But through talking with you and thinking more, I've realized that if I use the article "a" rather than a gendered pronoun, the persona is inscribed as a man anyway. Today, if I were writing that poem, I would probably write "passes her hand." Otherwise, readers see a hand, and because of the prevalent image of scientists being men, they just inscribe "his" underneath the article "a." I thought I was making it ungendered, but I wasn't. In a way, I have to take affirmative action.
CM: But more recently, for example, in "Echo Location" [Sensual Math], you also don't gender your subjects; don't you switch from "you" to "it" there precisely in order not to use a gendered pronoun?
AF: I'm trying both strategies. Sensual Math, as you say, has several poems in which it's impossible to pin down the speaker's gender. I guess I'm hoping that some readers will imagine the speaker as one gender and realize suddenly that there's no evidence for that assumption. So the experience of being between genders will happen in the reader. The reader won't know which gender to turn to. And this effect is only possible if I leave the gender open. The difference now is that the gender remains open for long sequences rather than for a brief duration, as in "Between The Apple And The Stars."
I made "Echo Location" ungendered because I didn't want either sex or gender to be burdened with the sadistic power the speaker wields at the poem's beginning. I didn't want either sex to be blamed. I used "it" as the pronoun because "Echo Location" thinks about dominance — and reciprocity. The poem describes the dominance of one person over another, of artist over art object, and religion over the aspirant. "It" can sound cruel — it objectifies whatever it refers to. This is how most people hear "it" when the pronoun is applied to a human being. But personally, I feel the pronoun "it" can elicit compassion when it refers to someone who has been stripped of humanity. James Weldon Johnson uses "it" this way, tenderly, in one stanza of "O Black and Unknown Bards:" "what captive thing, / Could up toward God through all its darkness grope, / and find within its deadened heart to sing."
One of the things I like about the notion of betweenness or third space — actually, it doesn't have to be third; it can be fourth, or fifth, or thousandth — is that it stands outside polarity and dualism. That's why at times I try to say "it" rather than "he" or "she." Most people find the absence of gender or sex disturbing, but it can be liberating. The pronoun "it" can be freeing — even God can be "it." In "Echo Location," "it" refers to the human, the subject, the spirit, the blur. Rather than just avoiding the male/female binary, the pronoun takes on a spectrum of associations.
CM: When I read your work now I notice immediately whether your speakers are gendered or not because this is something we've talked about, but I find myself still sometimes thinking of particular characters as having a gender because it seems to fit. Do you do that, too? I'm thinking particularly of "My Last TV Campaign."
AF: Every detail was consciously ungendered, and in my own mind I never settled on a gender for the speaker. But because I worked briefly in advertising, where the people who were in a position of power like the speaker's were men, I probably tend to see a man in my mind when I'm visualizing the poem. Then I realize that I'm seeing a man, and I begin to see a woman. Some readers have seen the speaker as female because I am, and I wrote the poem. The problem is that the mind can't visualize two entities at once. So it makes choices. I'd like the poem to oscillate between those choices, becoming one then the other. The reader might visualize a man at one point, and a woman at another, though the speaker hasn't changed.
CM: In the class you visited this morning, students found it difficult to leave the gender of the speaker open in "Echo Location." It was interesting, too, that after a student finally said "can't we just choose and say — whatever gender it would be?" that student then immediately said "he" for the speaker.
AF: Of course. I noticed that, too.
CM: And it was right after you had talked explicitly about your reasons for choosing "it"! Do you think about other aspects of identity in the same way in your poems — that is to say, in attempting to avoid fixed notions of identity, like class or race? Not avoid them, but to avoid writing them deterministically?
AF: I began to think about class and race later than I did about gender because gender and feminism were my earliest interests. In Sensual Math, as I mentioned to you, Daphne could be read as a person of color. I'm aware of issues of appropriation, and that's one reason why race wasn't an issue in my earlier poems. I've thought about it a lot, but I'm suspicious of white writers who write novels or stories (more commonly than poetry) in the voice or about the experiences of, say, Native Americans. White writers often say freedom of speech is at stake: "I have the right to write about whatever I want." Well, you do constitutionally have that right; but the ethical question is still one that has to be dealt with. And the ethical question is the one that continues to bother me.
But I've begun to see that an un-raced poem by a white writer is going to be read as white — and that wasn't what I wanted either. It was too exclusive, or elitist. So in "Give," the Daphne sequence, I began to suggest in a reticent way that Daphne could be read as a black woman or a white woman. If a reader is attuned to phrases like "dark matter," the Daphne sequence can be racially inscribed. In "Supernal," for instance, Daphne is described as " ... graphite, / darkling, carbon as the crow...." I thought that people of color, especially, might read those words with race in mind. It seems to me that white readers in general are less attuned to the racial connotations of words such as "dark." "Dark" or "black" are, of course, often used as negative adjectives in English — as synonyms for sad or evil. But these connotations don't reflect upon the image of white people, and so they're less inclined to notice the insidious way in which these negative connotations might encourage prejudice .
In my work, I've tried not to use "dark" to mean anything unhappy. And I've used dark matter to imply the importance of the background — including people who have been consigned to the background. This includes white women, as well as people of color. Most of the universe is composed of dark matter, but attention until recently has centered on the foreground of the universe, the figure, if you will — which is luminous matter. If "dark matter" is inscribed racially, it makes the poem larger, I hope, by calling people of color to mind. By implying issues of power and culture, I hoped to write about disenfranchised people without essentializing, but I still feel tentative about it.
CM: To bring these two topics together, you write in your notebook excerpt about the "blue note" as an example of betweenness — for example, its being between the major and the minor. That's a term I wasn't familiar with, but I immediately linked it ot the blues and to Daphne's mother in "Give." did you have that in mind in making "Big Mama Thornton" the model for Daphne's mother?
AF: I didn't think about that, no. That's great.
CM: I thought it was wonderful as a kind of blurring effect in terms of this whole notion of dualities and who is placed where, especially since Daphne is such a between figure — nature/culture, human/not-human....
AF: Exactly. She is.
CM: Winner/loser also, or maybe it's loser/loser, I'm not sure.
AF: I'd like to think maybe some day a winner. I liked your reading of the last poem in the sequence, where you found hope in the lines " ... the record turns and turns into / the night." I saw that image as the last metamorphosis in this sequence of changes. The story or record was transformed at last into the dark matter of the night. Invisible. I see now that the lines can imply a shift of power. By turning into the night, the record becomes the story of those who have been silenced. And you pointed out that "the record," in the sense of an account, is still playing, the story is still being told.
CM: My students read it that way. In fact, one of the questions that they wanted answered was, Does that mean she gets free from the tree?
AF: It's the future. We don't know. I didn't want to write a utopian feminist vision. If I had wanted to write something heroic, I could have revised the myth. It might have been helpful to turn Daphne into a heroic figure, but presenting a blue-sky, consoling story, was not my intention. I worry that such stories are the opiate of the people, so to speak. Someone remarked that a myth is a cultural script. I like that because it reminds us that myths don't present essential or archetypal truths. Mythology is timebound and culturally determined. Myths reflect the largest beliefs and patterns of a given culture. So I was trying to write culture as it is, not as it should be. Misogyny and the subjugation of women are worldwide phenonema. In this sense, I was writing about world culture and not just American culture.
CM: Also I think that the dilemma seems more powerful when the poem concludes with it rather than pretends it no longer exists.
AF: Yes. I didn't want to pretend everything's OK. People use the word postfeminism sometimes, and I always object because the term implies something is over that hasn't even happened yet. To my mind, feminism had hardly caught its second breath when people began to talk about postfeminism; few battles had been won.
CM: And those were tenuous.
AF: Yes. I guess I didn't want to write something that seemed to give false comfort. That's why Daphne is left trapped in the tree, where we don't know what her fate is going to be, but "the record" is still "turning into the night." I wanted a pun on the record "turns" and "turns into" the night: it keeps on revolving, but it also is transformed into the night.
CM: But that space is also Daphne's world, right? The dark world —
AF: Yes, the record turns into Daphne's space, which is negative space.
CM: I'd like to stay with this notion of the between for just a while longer. Again, in your notebook excerpt, you describe your work as somewhere between highly experimental language poetry and more mainstream verse. Do you see your new poetry as moving more in one direction than another?
AF: I won't be moving in either of these directions, I hope. But it might be helpful for me to define what I mean by the mainstream a little bit, because it's amorphous. It includes the language poets in a certain way, because they're taught and they're talked about; in a sense, they're now part of the mainstream. They're not as marginal as they were twenty years ago.
When I say "mainstream," though, I mean a genre of lyric poetry that's very voice-based, where the poet is speaking. There's little mixing of registers of diction as a rule, and there's a limited range of emotion. It tends to be humorless — that's one emotion that's missing, humor. Authority is not questioned, I would say. Today's generic poem seems to be the lyric-narrative; it's an emotive poetry, as lyric poetry is, and its autobiographical anecdotes foster the traditional range of emotions allowed in lyric poetry — loss, desire, mourning, grief, love. I include those emotions, too; in fact, I love the lyric tradition. I think most poets love Keats and Dickinson — and many of the Romantics. I don't want to lose all I value in them, and that's what makes me say that while I'm not quite in the mainstream, I take some of it with me. I think what I have in common with the language poets is an interest in critical theory and philosophy — in ideas and linguistic issues, the powers of language, language as structure. Those become part of the subject, in my poems. And so I'm between two worlds. Neither-nor.
I don't think I'll go more toward the language poets because, while I'm interested in some of the same books they might read and maybe in some of the same theories, when I read their poetry I find it isn't what I want to write. At the same time, I'm not going toward the mainstream as I've described it because its range — of emotion, structure, and theme — is too circumscribed. It isn't what I want to write either. There are contemporary poets whose work I admire and feel a kinship with, though the people I name might feel no such kinship with my work.
CM: For me, the most interesting aspect of that in-between space is your great care with formal matters in the poems that doesn't lead to an overall sense of clear or fixed order. There's pattern and design, but there's not a simple coherent narrative center, or I suppose vocal center would be another way to put it.
AF: Thank you. That's a real compliment. I noticed that your class picked up on the lineation of the poems today.
CM: I wanted to ask you about it again.
AF: OK. At the moment, the line in American poetry has become very arbitrary. Poets are organizing their verse around units of thought or prose structures, such as the sentence or paragraph. The line has devolved into prose with wide margins. But the way I write the line — whether it's end-stopped or enjambed — there is supposed to be a slight rest at the end: a pause or caesura. The line, for me, is a little sculptural unit. I would say very few American poets are using it this way right now.
The usual way for poets in the English tradition to lineate is to end the line where there is a pause in the grammatical, syntactical structure of the sentence. In contemporary poetry, it's conventional to end a line on a noun or verb and begin the following line with a prepositional phrase, if the sentence lets you. Glancing down the flush left margin in poetry books, you'll see many lines beginning with "of" or other connectives. The beginning poets I teach, the students, also tend to lineate this way, which makes me suspect that it isn't a position arrived at after long thought.
I work against these tendencies sometimes, or not even against them, but between them. I try to think freshly about the why of every line. What is the effect of ending a line on an article or preposition? When is this a desired effect? Once I answer such questions, I might end the line on a function word or use syntactic doubling. (Of course, I learned those wonderfully useful terms from your book on Dickinson, A Poet's Grammar.) For instance, in "About Face" [Sensual Math], the lines
or were they — surrendering —
what a femme word — feeling
solicitous — glimpsing their fragility ...
contain syntactic doubling on the word "feeling." If you read the line "what a femme word — feeling" as an isolated syntactical unit, "feeling" is a noun described as a "femme word." But when you go and connect the line to what follows, "feeling" becomes a verb modified by the adverb "solicitous." The poem's content also considers doubleness, the turn that is an "about-face." The form of that poem isn't mimetic overall, though. The example I cited is probably the only instance of syntactic doubling in "About Face." In other lines, the meaning shifts at enjambments without the end word in the line changing its part of speech.
Function words, as you know, are the little abstract connectives — the articles, conjunctions, prepositions. In "A Little Heart To Heart With The Horizon" [Sensual Math], the announcer says "Talks on the fringes of / the summit could eclipse the summit itself." I guess I ended the "on the fringes" line with "of" because the content implies marginality, the edges blotting out the mountain, the lowly superseding the mighty. And "of" has this dangling, fringe effect at the end of the line. It is a syntactically invisible word, a nonentity of a word, placed in a position of weight.
Those are only two examples. There must be infinite ways of lineating, and it's a pity to see empty convention overruling such a rich structure.
CM: I would imagine from reading your poems that stanzas are also important to you. You have very clear stanzaic units that are sometimes echoed and then altered within a poem and so on.
AF: Yes. Sometimes there's friction between the stanzas. Sometimes strong enjambment carries you through and sometimes they'll be end-stopped. The stanza is another opportunity to do something with the form between the words. The words can only do so much. The space between them, the white space, which is what creates the line and stanza, can create meaning too.
CM: Do you think of your interest, or your conception of poetry, in terms of the line, as stemming from any particular earlier poet? I think about Pound saying that poets should compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, or Marianne Moore saying the stanza was her unit of composition. Williams strikes me more as a poet of the line.
AF: Although the music of language is very important to me, I don't think of the line as a musical phrase. That would place all the emphasis on sound and meter. I also like to consider the grammatical weight of the words and their meanings. So that ending a line on "of" gives a feathery quality to the right-hand side. Those little words give a deckle-edged effect when they appear at the end of a line. They're the stitching of language, anyway, and by placing them at the end of the line it's as if you're letting the seams show. Some poets think it's like a slip showing — messy, unmade. Those prepositions and articles tend to leave the line hanging in midair. They leave the reader suspended.
Some poems in "Give" alternate long lines with very short lines. This presented two separate problems. In the long lines, I was trying for coherence despite the length of the phrase. Trying to knit the length of the line together. The short lines, sometimes only one word long, were assuming an enormous weight — the pressure of the white space around them. So the short lines had to be strong; the meanings important. For example, just glancing at "A New Release," I see the short lines in the first stanza are "spun," "amplify," "diamond-tipped," "reticence," "again," "invasive," "dark."
I compose with the line and the stanza as units. My sense of the line was probably influenced by A. R. Ammons, my teacher at Cornell. And Williams probably influenced Archie [Ammons], so Williams might have come to me in a mediated way, through Ammons. Archie's sense of the line is structured and yet there's a jaggedness; he'll end on prepositions and small words. That's unusual. In fact, in workshops they'll say "Why are you ending on 'the' or 'and'?" — as if there could never be a reason for it. Among other things, such endings can be used to throw the reader off balance, to disrupt equilibrium. I think that's one reason to end on a function word — to tip the balance a bit, placing more weight at the front of the line. While workshops always question lines that end on function words, they never say "Why are you ending every line with a noun or verb and beginning every line with a conjunction or preposition?" Because that lineation is the norm. Incidentally, I think Archie Ammons has a terrifically original sense of the line, and I don't think I use it quite as he does. As far as I can tell, he doesn't think formally in the way that I do. And though there might be influence somewhere, neither Archie nor I uses the line as Williams did.
CM: In your essay "To Organize a Waterfall" you talk about "accident." In fact, you quote Ammons as having said " a mistake is obviously a point where originality can begin." And then you say that you have to be extremely alert as a writer to make sure that what you're dealing with is an oddity that will take you somewhere as opposed to sloppiness or carelessness. How do you measure those things.
AF: Well, mistakes are often made, and I'm not sure that I always do tell the difference; but one thing that's helped me has been that so many of my readers and critics have objected to even a small alteration that's a bit unconventional. Poets and critics in general are opposed to changes, and their displeasure acts as a check to balance me.
CM: There's a wonderfully vital element of surprise, or oddity, or impulsiveness in the diction you use. Do you find that some readers or critics are troubled by this aspect of your poetics, too? I imagine that some readers are more enthusiastic about the quieter, or more transparently single-voiced, poems you write and disturbed by what they might see as quirkiness, a kind of diction or formal structure that hasn't been introduced earlier and therefore might seem out of place in a traditional "well-crafted" poem.
AF: Oh, yes. I think the prevailing critical wish in U.S. poetry is for a quiet, transparent poetics. I don't know that I've ever written a poem that pleases people who really like that style, so even works that I think are lyrical — beautiful in the old sense, with a singing quality — even those don't please people who yearn for a very plain poem. What they object to, I think, in my work, is the mixing of tones, as you say, and dictions — which creates a mixture of emotions. They want a pure, filtered emotion, and in my work the emotion is more unfiltered, inclusive. I think my whole aesthetic tends to be inclusive; I want to embrace multiplicity and yet make the structure hold. I try for traces of collage and disjunction, along with enough synthesis to hold the poem together. For example, a poem that might displease people is "Fuzzy Feelings" [Sensual Math]. It's very strange — and that's why I like it, I have to admit.
CM: I like "Fuzzy Feelings" too.
AF: The odd tone begins in the title. "Fuzzy Feelings" are emotions associated with cuteness, with triteness.
CM: Isn't that the poem where the speaker's in the dentist's office?
CM: In that semipublic space where everything is so consumerist, so cute.
AF: Exactly. The decor is cute. The title points to the poem's interest in that kind of banal surrounding, and it brings to mind the fuzzy numbness of Novocain, which deadens feeling. The man in the waiting room asks, "Do women need fuzzy feelings?" He invokes stereotypes when he asks "Do women need texture and men need sex?" One good reader was disturbed by the man's question because he thought I was agreeing with the man, that women do need texture, and so on. But of course I was trying to call that kind of stereotype into question while praising the richness and complexity of texture.
All this in a poem called "Fuzzy Feelings" — which also mentions my niece's funeral, an occasion of real, rather than "fuzzy" feelings. For me, the poem is about veneer and imitation. And it considers authority — including the authority of type. When I wrote "Laura died last year" the words looked so final in type. I followed it with what I felt — that I hated the type's authority in that line. I hated to put it in writing because writing, especially typeset writing, makes things more real — more authoritative and official.
CM: And then to complicate things even more, the poem ends with the notion of grace.
AF: Yes — of grace and what it means. Is grace a blessing bestowed through no will of our own, or is it a veneer we create and assume? Does it come from outside the self like a blessing, or is it a quality, a polish, we contrive ourselves? You know, being gracious often means that one replaces actual feelings with imitation feelings in order to smooth a social situation. This imitation of feeling can be kind, altruistic in effect. Or it can be false, even self-serving. "Fuzzy Feelings" is about authenticity, in a way. Those are my issues: authenticity, authority, what we construct, what's from without, what's from within.
CM: That brings me to a question that has to do with love in your poetry. It seems to me that in many ways you write love poems — although not conventional ones, apart from the occasional poem like "Fables From The Random," dedicated to your husband Hank, in Palladium. That's openly a love poem. But many others that aren't also seem to me to be about love — for example, "A Little Heart To Heart With The Horizon."
AF: Yes, I've wondered why people didn't see it that way as much as I do. A lot of them are about different types of love. I'm thinking of "Cascade Experiment" [Powers Of Congress].
CM: That seems to me a wonderful love poem.
AF: Thanks. I think that's a real love poem, in a big sense. It's not erotic love.
CM: No. It's for the universe and friendship and —
AF: And it's not culturally bound. I don't believe in universals, but the love in "Cascade Experiment" isn't love as shaped by any particular culture. It's constrained instead, maybe, by the limitations of nature.
CM: "Scumbling," in Palladium, is another wonderful love poem. I've never seen anyone write about love as a concern of your poems, and to me it seems so importantly there.
AF: Yes. "Scumbling" seems to be about sex, but it's also about engagement in the widest sense. "I had to let myself be gone / through ..." Let the world permeate me, ruffle me, upset me, even. And the speaker is "tipping and flirting / with seldom-seen surfaces." The act of ripping one surface to find another, or unveiling and exposure, fascinates me. The last line of "Fuzzy Feelings" is "Right now I'm trying to open wide," and when I wrote that in 1993, it seemed like an ars poetica. "Fuzzy Feelings" is a love poem, too, in a way. I think maybe my love poems are a bit odd. They're not just saying to a particular man "I love you."
CM: Or to a woman. They're not about desire for a particular other, but they're certainly about relationship. Also, as you said in talking about mixed feelings, your love poems have mixed subjects. For example, "A Little Heart To Heart With The Horizon" includes somebody actually talking to the landscape, commentary on the Gulf War and more generally on international politics, and then questions of what it means to "stand up" for hope, thanks, love —
AF: I'm afraid that it's a corny ending, actually.
CM: It's a very powerful ending. Here's a poem that's about politics, but not only about politics; it's about love, but not only about love; it's about language — as it asks, why not hold "horizon" meetings, on the level, as it were, rather than "summits," if peace is really what nations want? It's all about ways that language constructs and is constructed by notions of power — how it reveals the kinds of power-brokering going on. The speaker says "Go figure!"
AF: Exactly. What "figures" and what doesn't, what's low profile — like the horizon, and what's upright — like a summit. I will "figure" for a while, and then I'll be part of the background. The end of the poem is probably as sentimental as I get. I talked to a friend recently about being sentimental, and he said "That's something you don't have to worry about." His tone wasn't exactly complimentary. I think I'm generally seen as being completely unsentimental. Part of the risk, for me, in Sensual Math, was to allow feeling without falling into gushiness. But talking about love and thanks and hope, raises, I think, some possibility of sentimentality.
CM: "Sentimental" has become such a pejorative word. It's been so tainted by earlier twentieth-century poets' notions of value, but you could certainly reaffirm sentiment without being sentimental, in that implied cloying way.
AF: Yes, but when you try to affirm sentiment — especially emotions like thanks, hope, love, loss — then you risk sentimentality. And the only thing that can save the poem is language. Language is a way of retrieving the poem from cliche. It seems to me that sentimentality comes from cliched rhetoric and dictions.
CM: And you do have a lovely balance at the end of the poem, with the line about "long division and love" — which brings people back to the title of the poem and of the volume. It's the first place where you hear a strong echo of Sensual Math, it seems to me, and it works to make the reader start thinking about "division" and the horizon as well as about love.
AF: Yes, exactly. The poem pulls back at that point with a pun. Whenever there's a double meaning you're pulled back from emotion. You've got to think of two things at once — think, rather than feel. The end of the poem considers the use of being human; what use is it to be here? It says we're here to stand for hope, thanks, and love. "I am here to figure / long division — love — / how it is made." It isn't just the "long division" of the horizon or mathematics, "figuring" in that sense; those lines also refer to the separation of lover and beloved. The syntactical deletions in those lines can be reconstructed to mean "I'm here to love how It — the big It, everything — is made or constructed." But the line also says "I'm here to figure how love is made — to understand how to love."
One of the things I was trying to do in Sensual Math was make room for emotions that are excluded from the lyric. But I've hardly touched the subject. "About Face," for instance, thinks about embarrassment. I find peripheral emotions interesting.
CM: "Intimacy for beginners," as you put it.
CM: And therefore not elevated enough to be a "lyric" subject.
AF: Yes. Intimacy for experts is bound up with desire — the great abstraction in American poetry, the lofty, beautiful one — and I think the great abstraction in critical theory, too. Embarrassment has a different sort of eroticism, a different sort of intimacy. Though it sounds odd, some emotions are more culturally constructed than others. What's embarrassing in our culture is not embarrassing in another and vice versa. All cultures seem to mourn the loss of a beloved, so grief seems less affected by cultural factors. Lately, I've been interested in emotions between names — states so nuanced or neglected they aren't named in English. And I'm thinking of emotions that seem to be frozen out of poetry.
CM: Are there other examples?
AF: Let me think. Newness. The experience of newness is an emotion in itself. Newness is exhilarating. And the uncanny — the prickling and shivering we feel in the presence of the unheimlich. Sadomasochism. To my surprise, I found I was writing about sadism toward the end of Sensual Math, in "Echo Location," for instance. And in "Some Cool" there are the awful images of slaughter and of the surgeon putting the hand inside the chest — that intrusion into the body, the pain, the looking away, the unfeelingness. Some of my poems are about the wish to avoid certain areas of knowledge as a means of avoiding feeling. People are unwilling, for instance, to know about the suffering of animals since that knowledge might make it harder to eat meat. Lately, my poems seem to specialize in inconvenient knowledge. In ethical terms, eating meat is a form of sadism practiced by people who never think of themselves as cruel. And I've done it, too, so I'm not exempting myself. In fact, it was important to me that the poet-speaker of "Some Cool" be implicated in the suffering the poem exposes. "Drills" is also about intrusion, but in that poem, a mother who's lost two daughters can't bear the intrusion of kindness. Kindness ignites emotion, and all emotions are painful under certain circumstances. All emotions feed the one anguish.
CM: You mention "loss," but that is one of the great lyric subjects.
AF: Yes, that poem, "Drills," is pure lyric. It's not one of these weird ones.
CM: Although you've mentioned loss before, it seems to me that you write about it more openly in Sensual Math than previously.
AF: That's interesting. I think each of my books contains some poems about loss, but you could be right that it's more openly expressed in Sensual Math.
Pain in the lyric tends to be beautiful or eroticized. In some of the Sensual Math poems, I've tried to avoid lyric pain, which often considers loss of love or loss through death, and write of the suffering imposed on an animal or on another. I've written about the infliction of pain in circumstances that are not romantic, and the emotions that pain evokes. In some poems, the speaker has agency and inflicts pain, and in others the speaker is in a more passive position. Embarrassment leads to this deeper, darker stuff. It's embarrassing, in a certain sense, to be a poet and write about going to the dentist, or about having veneers.
CM: Or having straws in your nose, in "Echo Location." What could be more undignified!
AF: Yes, there's a loss of face in the most literal ssense. One of the things I'm interested in, in poetry, is loss of face. Maybe we all have too much; or maybe this is a personal critique of my own poetry — maybe I felt it was getting too polished, too controlled. One way to counter that is to rip off parts of the mask and let yourself risk a little embarrassment. Of course, the poems would be unbearable if all they did was expose the poet. I don't much like poetry that exists to confess. I want a poem to be more evasive, more elusive, more oblique.
CM: I'd like to pursue the notions of exposure and fiction a bit more. You said that there are many distinct voices in your poems, none of which are yours. At the same time, there are experiences in the poems that could recognizably be identified as yours.
AF: They could be. My sense of poetry is that it's all a construct, even if some of it happens to be true. By the time I've constructed the poem, the experience has become a fiction. Parts of the poem are true, parts are fictionalized, so it would be wrong to take it as slice-of-life. I know you know this, but very often people read poems autobiographically.
CM: This topic is interesting in your work because it seems to involve contradictions. You use dedications in several poems, or explanatory introductory lines that relate your speakers or subjects to yourself — for example, you've written poems to Hank, your grandmother, your father, your mother — and there are references to your sister and nieces in Sensual Math. You place yourself there — although a reader might not know whether you had nieces, or whatever. Still, one might assume that your mention of relatives includes some factual basis. There's a coming in and going out of what is or isn't "you" as speaker or perspective.
AF: Yes, you're right. There are certain things I would never fictionalize in a poem. When I've read poems about my nieces who died, members of the audience have come up and asked if it was true, and I've said, "Yes, I'd never make that up." In that case, I rely on the reader's taste — that's an old-fashioned word — the reader's aesthetic sense to know that there are matters about which one doesn't lie. One of them would be the deaths of your sister's children. It would be completely gratuitous to make up such an event. But it isn't gratuitous to make up other things that may seem autobiographical and to write them in the first person.
CM: Like in "My Second Marriage To My First Husband" [Palladium].
AF: The perfect example. That's a poem people have read as autobiography when it's a complete fiction. I wrote that in 1982, and it's about marriage in America — not about my marriage.
CM: Well, it seems that being interested in language would lead you to think about ways that it constructs ideas. So you go naturally from notions of language to notions of what's culturally constructed in our views of ourselves, other people, marriage, and so on.
AF: Yes. I wanted to write something other than the lyric-narrative-confession — which can be written in different ways but is resolutely autobiographical. The pure lyric tends to avoid cultural artifacts in its wish to be universal. The language of lyric poetry today is full of hearts, desire, light, wings, angels. Not full of doughnuts, condoms, Elvis, photons, duct tape, electromagnetic fields, and greasepaint. Then, too, it seemed narcissistic to focus solely on my own experience. Lately, though, I have to admit I'm interested in writing about my life — but not in a confessional way. I'm trying to write a poetry of experience that is also a poetry of ideas.
CM: I want to go back to the flip side of your poetry, and ask you about faith. This is another issue that comes up in all of your volumes and in poem after poem. In Sensual Math, the particular turn that it seems to have is that you refer frequently to disbelief or to nonbelievers. The speaker of "Some Cool," for example, writes "for the born-again infidels / whose skepticism ... / ... climbs the body, / nerve by nerve," and in "Echo Location" you say "the tic of prayer persists in non-believers."
AF: Yes. A perfect skepticism questions disbelief.
CM: But it seems you're very interested in questions of faith.
AF: I am interested.
CM: Or maybe more in questions of order and principle than in a god in any particular sense.
AF: A faith can be the way you live your life from day to day; it can be your stand in the world. As I said in "Cascade Experiment," "You have to meet the universe halfway." Faith can be a belief that things aren't quite as nasty as they can seem: that people aren't inherently evil, that good and evil are maybe a fifty-fifty split. The great religious questions endure. I have notions of trying to believe, I move toward belief. There's a spirituality in human beings that, I think, is in me, and I try to call upon it. Maybe it's connected to human goodness, the better traits in people. Maybe it's the spark that's good within us that makes us see "it" as "us," "the other" as "me." And that seeing, which refuses division, dissolves binaries. I'd like to replace boundary with fusion. But as I've talked with scientists, they've pointed out — and they're absolutely right — that we need boundary and division. They're inherent in physicality. So the question becomes "how can we live and be spiritual and good knowing that there will always be otherness?"
CM: I would have thought that in science there is less boundary and division than there is in constructed notions of the world. One of the things you talk about, for example, in a poem like "Cusp," in Powers Of Congress, is the lack of physical boundary where we assume there is one. We think solid surfaces collide when we touch, but instead it's atoms, with space between them, that we dislodge when we touch something. Science would seem to me to be saying there is no boundary.
AF: In "Cusp" I'm talking about the deep interweaving at the quantum level. But so often science will say two things at once; it argues with itself. Even at the atomic level there is boundary, I think, because atoms are discrete units. Boundary exists and is necessary in the immune system, to use another example; it's deeply embedded in our physicality. Without a perception of boundary we wouldn't be able to fight off infection. When, say, we get a cut and bacteria enter the skin, antibodies rush to the site because the body is saying "I've been invaded; this is not me."
CM: You write about that in "My Last TV Campaign," when you write about allergies.
AF: That's right.
CM: I remember because I suffer from them! "Mistaking benign outsiders / for low-life viruses."
AF: Yes. That's all about otherness; it's embedded in us — the need to say "this is not me." And it actually allows us to survive. But it also has its awful side. When applied to culture, it leads to war and all sorts of territorial nastiness. As I thought about this I wondered whether there was a way I could write about the existence of boundary without being negative, without boundary being something that leads to war, and so on. That's partly what I was thinking when I wrote about the orchid in "My Last TV Campaign." The bee orchid incorporates aspects of the bee into its body and lives — and lives better! The bee orchid is the opposite of the body's allergic reaction — which tries to fight the outsider off. The bee orchid literally incorporates the Other into the self as a means of evolving. In human terms, it implies that we can reach out to all sorts of othernesses and, by incorporating them, become more successful entities in the largest spiritual sense.
CM: This brings us to science generally. We've talked before about your not having studied science when you were in college, but I'm curious as to when or how it is that you began turning to science as offering a kind of vocabulary or way of conceptualizing things that you're interested in. Is this also an influence of A. R. Ammons?
AF: Well, I had written a poem about science before I studied with him. I wrote "Between The Apple And The Stars" before I went to Cornell, at The MacDowell Colony. I remember I was reading about Newton at the time. Then, in the workshop at Cornell, people pointed out things in the poem that I didn't know were there, which amazed me. That doesn't happen very often. But in the poem I was talking about the Philosopher's Stone, which contains the idea of fusion — oneness, lead transformed into gold. I had written "one stone," and someone said "Einstein translates into one stone," and I thought, how uncanny. The poem showed Newtonian physics evolving into Einsteinian physics, which undid the Newtonian world-view.
An even earlier poem, "Anchors Of Light" [Dance Script With Electric Ballerina], thought about scale and perception in a way that showed a scientific cast of mind, maybe. It could have been a secret affinity for science that led to my liking for Archie's poetry rather than the other way round. I'm not sure. Archie revises the lyric by means of science. His poems retain the beauty of the lyric but imbue it with a fresh vocabulary and a sublime content that draws from the natural sciences. He helped me to broaden the vocabulary and content of my poems, among other things. I began writing longer poems while studying with him.
CM: Do you read scientific books for the fun of it — reading about Newtonian laws, or quantum mechanics — or do you see this as research for your poems?
AF: I guess the fun has always been interwoven with the work. But I don't always read with notebook in hand, though that's fun, too.
CM: Speaking of changes in your relation to your work, do you think your writing has been affected by the MacArthur Award you received after Powers Of Congress?
AF: The largest discernible effect has been the amount of time I've had for writing. The MacArthur allowed me to take time away from teaching. I was able to write and read for longer stretches of time than I would have had otherwise. This is such a luxury. I've had time to take my time — to think more deeply and develop poems at the pace that suited me. I think the award also encouraged me to follow my interests — even when I suspected those interests would be unpopular or might get me in trouble. It told me that somebody somewhere had liked my work, and it came at a time when I needed that enfranchisement. It was as if I were given a raft. It is a foundation, after all. It made me feel a little more grounded, although the ground of art is always shifting. As soon as I've finished a book or even a poem, I can see something I haven't said or done, and that's what leads to the next poem and book.
CM: In your most recent volume, or really the last two volumes, you've started experimenting with long poems: "OVERLORD" and "Point Of Purchase" in Powers Of Congress, or "My Last TV Campaign" and "Give" — the Daphne sequence — in Sensual Math. Would you say something about what has been leading you in this direction of the longer poem, or sequence?
AF: I think it's something that came from a world-view, in a certain sense. I have this wish to include, and that leads to longer poems. I didn't begin this way as a poet; I used to write sonnets and things. What's harder for me is to write a short poem, at this point. Writing the Daphne poem, I felt many things needed to be said in order to rewrite the myth, a myth being a big imagining. I began with Ovid; I did a close reading and dismantled his version — line by line. I would think, there's a whole poem I could write just from that one phrase or sentence. And, I wrote them all.
I was also researching the history of the Roman wedding. I read Mary E. Barnard's book The Myth of Apollo and Daphne — she's wonderful — and it got me thinking about how the myth had been reimagined by others. She points out that myths often had humor; they questioned authority by means of travesty.
CM: Have you ever thought about taking it longer, about writing a volume-length poem — an epic?
AF: Yes, I have thought about that, and it could be something I'll do in the future. If I wrote a book-length poem, I'd want it to be loose and baggy, so I'd be able to put everything I wanted in while still keeping one structure. I haven't done that yet. You know, you get distracted if you have to teach. A book like that would probably take years, and when I teach I'm just spun around; that might keep me from writing a book-length poem.
CM: So you find it difficult to write while you're teaching?
AF: Impossible. I don't write when I'm teaching. The energy that I give to the students is the energy I would have given to my own poems. Instead I give it entirely to their writing, to helping them make their work as good as it can be. I have nothing left for my own work after that.
CM: You mentioned to me recently that you are now thinking of turning to shorter forms. And today you also mentioned turning more to open expression of emotion — is that accurate to say?
AF: Maybe not open, I'm not sure I would ever be open, because I'm interested in the hinge moment that opens and closes, revealing and concealing. But I am drawn to emotion, wayward as well as lyric — uneasy mixes of emotion.
CM: And why the shorter poem?
AF: Because I like short poems, that's one reason.
CM: You like to read them, you mean?
AF: I like to read them. But maybe also because they're hard for me now, and as a poet I've always gone toward what was difficult for me to do. I just completed a forty-page sequence, and I know what that's like. Also I can't understand why writing short poems should be hard for me. If I write some, maybe I'll learn.
CM: So when in the double-equal-sign poem in Sensual Math you say that poetry "contests the natural," you also ensure that poetry contests the natural by going toward the thing that is more difficult for you to do at the moment.
AF: What a marvelous connection! Why should I want to make things harder for myself? Maybe because poets can become facile, too good at writing a particular type of poem, and difficulty can prevent this rote or habitual approach. It isn't just "the fascination of what's difficult," because there's something perverse about that, and I'm really not a punishing kind of person; I like work to be fun. There are things in my work that do come readily or naturally that I wouldn't want to change. But I don't want to lose the ability to write a short structure, because that matters to me in poetry. I'm almost curious about whether I can do it anymore. I wonder what possibilities exist within the short poem — for me, particularly. I've written more long poems lately, and so I'm more familiar with their possibilities.
CM: That makes sense. Do you ever think you'll go back to writing sonnets?
AF: I might write a fourteen-line poem, but I'm not sure it would be a sonnet. Actually, fourteen lines seems a little too short for my sensibility. I'm thinking more of the thirty-line poem. In Powers Of Congress, there's a double Shakespearean sonnet that is also an acrostic ["Cause Celebre," which is part two of "The Gilt Cymbal Behind Saints"]. I look back on that as a kind of madness, something I felt compelled to do. Now I'm much more interested in spontaneity and the rough edge; I'm interested in accident and in allowing things to show — maybe things that people don't want to see or wish they hadn't seen, things I never thought I would reveal. At the same time, I want a textured rather than transparent surface of language. I don't like poems that try to be transparent, though I am interested in creating a surface that combines areas of sheerness with more opaque areas. I want to write a many-textured poem, in which the language shifts, not just between flatness and richness, but between the almost infinite shades and tones available.
CM: Have you read the essay by Joan Retallack in Feminist Measures [Michigan, 1994]? It's called ":RE:THINKING:LITERARY:FEMINISM: (three essays onto shaky grounds)." Much of the essay is quite critical of the feminist trope, or strategy, of subversion in art or literature as being inadequate because it encourages one to continue working within given, patriarchal structures; writing "under" or "between" the lines, or in re-action, she argues, doesn't change the paradigm. It assumes a stance of powerlessness — that we can't really do anything but chip away from underneath, as opposed to assuming a sense of equal power and activity. Then she presents highly experimental writing as taking an active, not reactive, stance in terms of given structures.
AF: I haven't read that yet, but I've thought about the issue you're raising. The problem seems a chicken-and-egg structure, a recursive structure. It brings us back to notions of originality. What I mean is, it's impossible to make something — anything — up from whole cloth. In "My Last TV Campaign," I wrote that art, nature, name-it, are fresh recombinations. Even nature, the great originary force, builds its blossoms from single-celled existing things rather than working from protoplasmic scratch. Epistemologically speaking, poetry has to include elements of What-Is in order to be understandable. I think it's impossible to create entirely new paradigms without some borrowing from what already exists. And it seems to me that this is one of the tenets of postmodernism, as well.
I also think the assumption that women and men have equal power is a false one. I suppose women could pretend that they are as culturally powerful as men, but I don't see the value of creating work under false pretenses. When I refer to "power," I'm thinking of how women are regarded worldwide. Statistically, most political power rests in the hands of men, and terrible practices — like the intentional neglect of female babies, or clitorectomies, or female illiteracy — continue in some cultures. To assume men and women have equal agency, under the circumstances, seems a denial of some urgent realities.
If it is possible to create a language that's unrelated to existing power structures, there's a danger that such a utopian structure might exist side by side with the dominant structure, rather than undoing it. And the alternate structure is by definition peripheral. The dominant note would hold, and nothing would change. Subverting structures from within might be a more direct and effective approach.
It seems to me that women have had some involvement in the creation or sustaining of patriarchy, and when they revise or dismantle it, they question a structure that depends, in part, on their collusion in order to exist.
CM: In your essay "To Organize a Waterfall," you say that "linguistic structures are most powerful when least evident." I'm curious about your sense of strategy in experimentation, or play with language and formal structures.
AF: That quotation refers to my belief that the hidden persuasions of structure are the most difficult to undo or contest. Until very recently, for instance, the pronoun "he" stood for everyone, men and women. No one consciously saw the pronoun as male, but subconsciously everyone was given to understand that the universal was male. The subject, the One, was male — and the difference, the deviance, or Other was female. Using the male pronoun to mean everyone is a reticent yet pervasive assertion of a world-view. As a strategy, its power depends on its invisibility. It was so accepted a usage that no one saw it or questioned it for a long time.
The same could be said for the adjectives I mentioned earlier — "dark" and "black." Why should sad or bad things be called "dark?" I've found piercing, sunny days to be quite painful. Unremitting sun is a sad, really an unbearable thing. And as I've said somewhere, light is a nihilist. Light is corrosive. So the negative connotations of "dark" seem arbitrary. But how firmly entrenched they are! That "dark" can mean bad is taken as natural; it seems so self-evident that few people even think about it. This is the power I was referring to — the power of a belief so firmly held that it becomes unquestioned, an invisible assumption.
I like occasionally to say something feral, something that's outside the realm of the genteel or assumed. Embarrassment arises from heading, unintentionally, into that outside realm; it's what we feel when we break social laws we believe in. The feeling of embarrassment often seems disproportionate to the cause. That's why it seems such a silly emotion. There's a part of me that admires people who aren't constrained by certain embarrassments. I like the outlaw. When I use that term it sounds a little too flaunting or self-praising. I'd like to think of a word that means uncalled for, unexpected, and perhaps impolite. Maybe impolite isn't good; I want a word that isn't macho-sounding, but still has the quality of disruption.
AF: Indecorous. Embarrassment is right in there. There's usually very little at stake, but there's a strong proscription against a given act nonetheless. It's an ungainly emotion.
CM: I'll look forward to more poems on embarrassment.
AF: There might be more. There's no telling. The one I wrote but didn't publish is about the embarrassment of suicide, oddly enough. It's one of those culturally uncondoned actions that gives someone control over her life, and death, and body. The poem is called "By Her Own Hand."
CM: In Gayatri Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?" she interprets a young Indian woman's suicide as a "subaltern rewriting of the social text of sati-suicide." When questioned, family friends, however, routinized or normalized the act, saying that it was the result of "illicit love" — even though the fact that the woman was menstruating at the time of her suicide proves she wasn't pregnant. In effect, they belittled the act as not "saying" or meaning anything outside of formulaic story plots (like star-crossed romance); they were unwilling to see that suicide could be a deliberate act of political or cultural significance.
AF: Yes, that's fascinating. In my poem, the woman reaches up and closes her own eyes the moment before she dies. It's about autonomy and her own hand. I didn't put it in Sensual Math because the book was getting too long. I'm intrigued by the hand — by its terrible or beautiful power. As you know, I included handwriting in the margins of "Point Of Purchase," and I'd like to do more with script and text. In an age when "digital" means sound and thought reduced to a binary code of ones and zeros, the eccentricity of handmade things becomes more dear. The handmade exists outside the neat, clean either/or of the digital world. The handmade comes from the realm of the human, where things get messy.
CM: This is a wonderful preview of your next book. Thank you.
AF: Thank you for thinking about my work and for helping me to think about it.
Cristanne Miller, "An Interview with Alice Fulton," Contemporary Literature,Vol. 38, No. 4 (Winter 1997), pp. 585-615. Reproduced by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press and Cristanne Miller. Copyright © 1997 by Cristanne Miller and Alice Fulton. All rights reserved.
Contemporary Literature is available from the University of Wisconsin Press. Phone: 800-621-8476. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cristanne Miller, professor of English at Pomona College, is the author of Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority (Harvard, 1995) and Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Grammar (Harvard, 1987). She has co-edited The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore (Knopf, 1997), with Bonnie Costello and Celeste Goodridge; Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory (Michigan, 1994), with Lynn Keller; and The Women and Language Debate: A Sourcebook with Camille Roman and Suzanne Juhasz (Rutgers, 1993). During 1997–98 academic year, she has an Alexander von Humboldt fellowship at the Free University in Berlin.