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Language As Felt:
An Interview with Alice Fulton

by Eric Lorberer

Rain Taxi Review of Books,
Vol. 6, No. 2, summer 2001.
Reproduced by permission of
Rain Taxi Review of Books
and Eric Lorberer.

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Eric Lorberer, "Language As Felt: An Interview with Alice Fulton" Rain Taxi 6:2:16-19, summer 2001.

Works discussed: "Fractal Amplifications," "About Music For Bone And Membrane Instrument ==," "Point Of Purchase," "Close," "Silencer," Felt, Powers Of Congress, Feeling as a Foreign Language.

Topics discussed: Fractal poetics, plainstyle poetics, "cultural correctness," feminism, maximalism, cruelty, fetishism (sexual, religious, commodity), Emily Dickinson, A.R. Ammons, painting and poetry, abstraction, the == (bride) sign, the poem plane, handwriting in conjunction with type.


Eric Lorberer: You are widely regarded as a rigorous experimenter; key words that appear in reviews of your work are "electric," "postmodern," "weird," etc. Yet in your own writing on contemporary poetry you seem drawn to what you call "plain-style poems." Where, for you, is the avant-garde, and how would you constructyour relationship to it?

Alice Fulton: During the '80s and into the '90s, American poetry seemed to be dominated by low-key, prosaic poems that prized transparency rather than freshness or novation. I read a lot of this poetry because there was so much of it being written. So many books sounded the same: a flat, monochromatic drone of confession that was plainstyle at its worst. Yet I knew many important and powerful poets had been adherents of a plainstyle poetics. Anne Bradstreet, Margaret Cavendish, John Clare, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost could be read within that tradition, for instance. What had happened to the glorious possibilities, how had American plainstyle devolved to brand-X prose-with-wide-margins and confessional anecdotes? I wanted to say what the strengths of a plainstyle aesthetic could be, rather than just complain about what it had become. By looking at poets I enjoyed and admired who wrote plainly, I hoped to be able to say how this aesthetic works and how it fails to work. How do poems in plain language become poetry? When do such poems work and how do they work? How could poetry have simplicity without becoming simplistic? Linguistically, what was the difference between those two qualities?

American culture thinks "simple" is a synonym for "good." This probably stems from such American values as democracy and unpretentiousness — values upheld by Whitman, for instance. But his work isn't great because it's simple. It's great because of his feats of rhetoric and feeling: the amplitude, generosity, and encompassing force of his vision. He created a new language (idiosyncratic, robust, strangely vibrant) that perfectly expressed his world view. There's nothing simple about that, though his words are "plain."

I think a plainstyle aesthetic fails if it mistakes the banal for the profound. Instead of being deep, plain language can be facile, glib, portentous, heavy-handed, obvious. Then, to make things worse, poets italicize their wannabe oracular utterances. Italics are supposed to add instant mystery or weight. But if the line is trite, all they do is underscore its triteness. I'd advise poets to "go in fear of italics," to update Pound.

I also wanted to write about plainstyle poetry as a means of encountering otherness — an aesthetic that was not mine. You asked where the avant-garde was located for me, and how I construe my relationship to it. In truth, I don't think about the avant-garde per se. To fetishize experiment, to set it off in its own elite ghetto of cool, would foster self-consciousness and eliminate all sorts of discourses that might otherwise contribute to a wilder, truer "experiment." The notion of an "avant-garde" seems modernist rather than postmodern to me, in that it sets the practice of poetry apart by setting it ahead, "avant" of other ways with language. It narrows rather than broadens one's reach. Rather than being in conversation with some elite notion of the experimental, I'm in conversation with everything I read, including all the debased language that isn't formed as poetry or already constructed as experimental.

EL: Emily Dickinson has always been an important presence in your work, through quotation, homage, and even content, and it is no surprise that in your new book, Felt she remains so. What challenges or dangers do you experience by constantly interacting with so powerful a precursor?

AF: The implicit challenge offered by great poets is to write something — anything! — that to some degree approaches the power of their work. Of course, the danger is that one's own work can fall so far short of the mark. And there's also a moral danger: a suspicion that the acolyte is trying to boost her own appeal by hitching her wagon to a star: trying to shine by association. The danger of vanity, self-praise by association, is always there. But Dickinson, for instance, happened once. She'll never happen again. There is no American poet who can be her in any meaningful sense. The most we can do is assimilate fragments of influence. I've read and loved her work since grade school, and you have to write toward or in concert with those poets whose work means most to you. I think a poetry deeply engaged with the work of a powerful precursor becomes a new poetry (rather than a superficial imitation) because the beloved work is internalized, integrated. It merges with the ancestor poet and emerges in transfigured form, filtered and re-formed by a new mind and life. In genetic crossover, DNA strands recombine to create a wholly new person. Something similar happens in language when a poet absorbs the word of a precursor: language crosses over and becomes new. My essay "Fractal Amplifications," in Feeling as a Foreign Language, has more to say about these problems — of imitation and originality — which seem crucial to postmodern aesthetics.

EL: Another important poet for you is A.R. Ammons, who has sadly just passed away. Can you speak about what you drew from Ammons, and perhaps what you think his legacy might be — what readers should continue to look for in his body of work?

AF: It was one of the gifts and privileges of my life to have known him. He had a way of being in the world that I haven't found in other poets. Like Dickinson, Archie showed me the beauty and necessity of the marginal, the peripheral. Like her, he's a poet of circumference rather than of center. Ammons's reach is so generous: there's room in his work for the sublime and the bawdy, for scientific jargon and poeticisms. His aesthetic is inclusive rather than exclusive; he's a maximalist. What I draw from him is entirely bound up with my own deficiencies. Because I tend to be a perfectionist, he encourages me to loosen up and play, to have more trust in process. To recognize that errors, slips, mistakes, have value, too. Sometimes in order to be alive, a work has to retain some of its process — its firing cracks. Poetry that's too polished can seem dead on the page. To return to your earlier question about the avant-garde: poetry for Archie seemed less a thing set apart than an encompassing form of motion — and emotion. He once casually remarked to me that "experimental" was usually a synonym for failure, a polite way of consigning something to the edges, dismissing it. He said very few "experiments" actually worked; the word itself included the possibility of failure. Now to my mind, that possibility might add a subtext of thrill or drama that is desirable, valuable. But his point pertains, nonetheless.

I think we can marvel at the breadth and depth of his work, at the mind and heart and soul that fairly leaps from the pages. I also love his vocabulary, the words he alone favors, his signature words. Then there's his use of punctuation — those colons — and his unusual sense of the line. I'd advise people to read great swathes of his work rather than just a single book or poem. His work repays immersion. As he wrote in "Cut the Grass:" "less than total is a bucketful of radiant toys."

EL: Readers seem so enraptured by the verbal dazzle of your poetry and so intrigued by its borrowings from scientific discourse that they don't often discuss its moral stances — the feminist threads subtly woven throughout, for example. What is your opinion of this reception, and how do you regard your own work vis-à-vis more traditionally feminist poetries?

AF: "Dazzling" is often the adjective of choice for my work, and I can't say I like the implications. When reading reviews I've sometimes felt that a critic's response was based on a preexistent take on my work rather than on any deep engagement with the poems. Some critics seem to read reviews of my previous books and regurgitate cliches, a floating notion of my poetry, rather than read the work itself. So much for "dazzling." But if readers enjoy my poetry for its language or use of science, and those aspects are where pleasure is located for them, well-good. I think that's fine. Very few people will see everything that's there to be seen. As long as readers are getting something they value, I'm happy. Given all the distractions available today, I'm happy just to be read.

I guess by "traditional feminist poetry" you might mean poetry about areas of experience traditionally associated with women: what once was called "women's sphere." The home and children, for instance. You're completely right that the feminism in my work is embedded in other ways — in unsettlements of syntax and structure, in questioning of actions so culturally-correct they're invisible. The deepest attempt of my poetry — to subvert culturally-correct banalities and evils — appears obliquely because I dislike didactic writing. I think poetry has to retain mystery, to withhold, be oblique, in order to be poetry. And yet it also always has a worldview and a politics. All poetry is political, whether it means to be or not. All poetry is indentured to some version of the world, and that worldview is a vote of agreement or dissent. Poetry, more than prose, allows content to be suggested by semiotic means: by punctuation, visual placements of the line, typefaces or even handwriting. The linguistic surface becomes part of the subject to a higher degree than in prose, which usually wants the surface to disappear or be transparent.

I don't set out to focus on areas that are traditionally gendered as female. Instead, my poetry tries to infiltrate the everything, and in doing that it might colonize some traditionally male domains, such as science. The science in my work is entwined with feminism. Science appeals to me because it offers truly fresh metaphors, and it encourages foundational questioning. That revisionary thinking is an important part of feminism for me. I'm interested in bringing the background to light, flipping the ground and figure, so that what was central recedes and what was peripheral comes to the fore. It's a way of addressing — and possibly redressing — longstanding, entrenched inequities.

Some wonderfully insightful essays on my work have been written by feminists — by Cristanne Miller, Emily Grosholz, and Lynn Keller, for instance. On the other hand, I suspect some hostile reviews have been triggered by the feminist subtext, even when the f-word isn't mentioned in the review. And some critics have missed the latent feminism because, as you say, it isn't what people expect "feminist poetry" to be. But there are so many kinds of feminism! It isn't one agreed-upon, totalitarian belief. For me, feminism isn't a biological category: there are men feminists and women who are anything but. Feminism is a stand that tries to redress inequities, beginning with those endured by half the human race. It's a way of redistributing power and moving toward justice. It's a new way of making it new. Of course, we'll never have perfect fairness. But any movement in that direction is a good thing. And in poetry, all of the above has to take place without polemics or preaching.

More and more, my work has come to be about the problem of suffering. This is certainly true of Felt. How can we make the world less cruel? Cruelty, like charity, begins at home. I have to acknowledge my own involvements: my choices that somehow allow cruelty to exist or thrive. While writing Felt, whenever I found myself getting angry at others, I tried to notice my own shortcomings and take myself to task instead or also.

EL: Central to the cosmology of Felt is the long poem "About Music for Bone and Membrane Instrument ==," a difficult and delightful work in which "Fan" and "Star" dance a pas de deux of preordained attraction. What can you tell us about the genesis of this poem?

AF: It's a strangely erotic poem, I think. The bone and membrane instrument of the title is both the handheld, folding fan and the human fan, obsessed with a star. The poem conflates the folding fan — its opening and closing, concealing and revealing — with various parts of the body.

This sequence was written while I was teaching a graduate class in fractal poetics at University of Michigan. I was pressing to finish Felt and meet my deadline, while still doing all the work that teaching entails. Luckily for me, the class I was teaching, and the students in the class, nourished this odd poem exploring the good-strange or uncanny aspects of feeling.

One of the poem's tropes is fetishism: the overvaluation of a single small object. Most people think of sexual fetishes first, but there also are religious or commodity fetishes. Sexual fetishism seems a form of synecdoche, taking an eroticized part for the whole. I think of fans who want to literally tear the star into pieces, as the Maenads did Orpheus. Commodity fetishes, on the other hand, prize the sealed collectable in mint condition, which made me think of the hymen or maidenhead: things that lose their value once they've been opened. Then there are sacred fetishes, which imbue images or objects with supernatural powers.

Fans fascinate me because they can be so extreme in their adoration. And what is more private, more lonely, than a fan's unrequited love? Wayne Koestenbaum wrote that the most poignant fan clubs have only one member. I love that observation. The poem circles around all sorts of fans: those who fixate on popular stars; the composer who is paid to be a fan of her students; scholars who are obsessed with their subjects, and subjects who themselves are besotted with a beloved person — as Kafka was with Felice Bauer, for instance. Dickinson appears in the poem, too. I'm fascinated by the humility — and humiliation — of obsessive love, the private zeal that fuels untoward, eccentric passions. This poem considers — and to some degree reenacts — deeply private fixations that carry elements of shame and thrill. Closet passions. Emotions that must be kept sealed because they'd be damaged or disintegrate like ancient frescos if brought to light.

EL: Like the equally invigorating "Point Of Purchase" from Powers Of Congress, "About Music For Bone And Membrane Instrument ==" was not published prior to its appearance in the book. Do long poems have a hard time getting noticed in our lyric-heavy literary climate?

AF: It's harder to publish long poems than short ones. But my problem with this particular piece is that I wrote it so close to the book's publication date. As soon as I finished the poem, I started working on others. Between teaching and writing, I had no time to submit any of these last poems to magazines. For some reason, I always seem to write a lot toward the end of a book; it's as if the thing finally becomes real to me, some ulterior muse kicks in. Unfortunately, it's impossible to publish these latecomer poems since editors don't have time to get them in print before the book appears. It's slightly frustrating, but I don't think it matters much. The poems are in the book for people to read.

I do think it's a shame, though, that magazines are reluctant to publish long poems. They'll give 15 pages to a story. Why not to a poem?

EL: In "Close," a poem about Joan Mitchell's White Territory, you write "a painting is not an illustration / but a levitation dense / as mind." I wonder if you might draw some connections for us between painting and poetry.

AF: I was suggesting that painting isn't a replication or description of reality. Who needs more reality? There's enough of that around us everywhere. What I like, and what we need, are forms that go beyond or extrapolate reality. I enjoy abstract art because it does something other than mimic the world. It investigates light, space, color, and thought itself.

I hadn't considered the lines you cite in terms of poetry, but I do see a connection in that it isn't enough for a poem to be descriptive. Poems have to move beyond description or use description in the service of metaphor. Poems that are merely anecdotes, slices of life, fall flat. Who'd want to read them twice? Poets learn to "show, don't tell," or to "go in fear of abstraction," as Pound famously advised. And it is more difficult to write a poem that's pleasingly abstract than it is to write a poem that's pleasingly concrete. But some of the greatest poets have made beautiful use of abstraction: Dickinson, Ammons, Rilke, for instance. The abstract (and I say more about this in Feeling as a Foreign Language) can be a potent force. It's amazing that we have words for ineffable qualities — like circumference, experiment, amplitude — qualities that have no precise physical embodiment. The abstract allows us to move into spheres that are less literal and more intoxicating. Abstractions have no physical object, which allows them to exist everywhere potentially. And of course, with one linguistic gesture, an abstraction can speak to a complex state of being. What a mysterious power — to embody the ineffable in a word.

EL: Several of the poems in Felt use right-justified and/or internal margins, as if to suggest different registers of voice-though often these changes will occur in mid-sentence, so the speaker doesn't necessarily change. How did you come upon this dynamic approach to stanzaic form?

AF: I first used the flush-right stanza in 1989, in a poem called "Silencer," which appeared in Powers Of Congress. In that case, a poem about suicide, I wanted readers to slam up against a wall of white at the end of each line. I then began thinking of other ways that formal gesture — flush right rather than ragged right margins — might speak in a poem. One of the things I love about poetry is its ability to make meaning through a wordless, subtle, formal vocabulary of line, stanza, punctuation, and typography. Poetry has a great advantage over prose in this way, I think.

You're right that the placement of lines can indicate different registers of diction in my poems. Shifts in linguistic textures are a means of breaking the poem plane, enacting a fractal aesthetic, and I've sometimes signaled those shifts with indented lines. And as you say, the speaker doesn't necessarily change when lines are indented. It's more as if another part of the self, another subjectivity, breaks in. I'm glad the form seems dynamic because that was part of the intention. I've been working with these effects (visual placement of lines, interruption, disjunction, the == sign, handwriting in conjunction with type) since Powers Of Congress. It's been an aesthetic-in-progress.

EL: The more I understand and think about fractals, the more I seem to encounter them. Are you finding "fractal verse" in unexpected places these days?

AF: I think fractal poetics is still very much an incipient, cutting edge aesthetic that introduces fresh ways of thinking about the poem. The notion of the poem plane, for instance, of shifting depths of fields created by shifting densities of language, the use of disjunction within the lyric frame, the widening of lyric content — these aspects and others that I explore in Feeling as a Foreign Language — seem fertile grounds for poetry at the moment. Fractal poetry isn't too rigidly defined, and that's one of its strengths. I see fractal effects in poets as diverse as A.R. Ammons, C.D. Wright, and Frank Bidart, for instance. As an aesthetic, fractal poetics offers a fresh approach without being doctrinaire. Poets can find their own way in.

The world of poetry tends to be far too staid and self-protective: too territorial and ungenerous. Exclusionary cliques form as a means of self-promotion. I'm cool, you're not. Circle-the-wagons. All that paranoid nonsense. Fractal poetics, on the other hand, are an open book. It's an open membership: the only requirements are aesthetic ones, and the aesthetics have a lot of stretch and give. There are many adventurous, brilliant beginners today, and I think those poets might make the most of fractal poetics. I admire the intrepidness of my students who belong to no group or mafia. Beginners sometimes write freshly because they haven't learned not to. They make interesting mistakes, full of future possibilities. It's a lot to ask, but I hope to be a beginner all my life.


Eric Lorberer, "Language As Felt: An Interview with Alice Fulton," Rain Taxi Review of Books, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Summer 2001), pp. 16–19. Reproduced by permission of Rain Taxi Review of Books and Eric Lorberer. Copyright © 2001 by Eric Lorberer and Alice Fulton. All rights reserved.

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