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“The Wick That Is the White between the Ink:” An Interview with Alice Fulton

by Linden Ontjes

November 20, 2004

Seattle Review,
vol. 27, no. 2, 2005.

Reproduced by permission of
Seattle Review

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The print version of this interview contains photos from 1952 to 1993. It also contains facsimile reproductions of manuscript drafts of Fulton's earliest use of the bride sign.

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Linden Ontjes, "The Wick That Is The White Between The Ink: Interview of Alice Fulton by Linden Ontjes at the Josephine Miles House, Berkeley, CA 11/20/04" The Seattle Review XXVII:2:24-44, 2005.

Works discussed: Sensual Math, "==," "Immersion," "The Lines Are Wound On Wooden Bobbins Formerly Bones," "Fuzzy Feelings," Felt, "Close," "Maidenhead," "Fair Use," "Of Formal, Free, and Fractal Verse: Singing the Body Eclectic," Feeling As a Foreign Language, Powers Of Congress, rough draft of "==," rough draft of "Immersion," rough draft of "Recessive," "Barely Composed."

Topics discussed: The bride sign (==, double equal), Emily Dickinson's dash, A.R. Ammons' colon, betweenness as a feminist space, power of negative space, lace and lacemaking, yin space, brides, the genuine and the imitation, empathy, artificiality of poetry, fractal poetry, chance processes, randomness, reciprocity, cluster and supercluster words, John. H. Holland, the poem plane, fracturing the surface, transparency vs. resistance, ethics of the self.


This interview took place at the Josephine Miles House, Berkeley, Cal., November 20, 2004.

Linden Ontjes: Starting with Sensual Math. In the poem titled “==” Does your use of punctuation, the == sign, have any relation to Dickinson’s use of the dash? Was she an influence? Or A.R. Ammons? Did you think about his use of the colon?

Alice Fulton: I think of that sign == as the double equal, the bride sign, or the sign of immersion. I usually call it the double equal because that makes it easier to visualize. Dickinson and Ammons influenced this sign in that their work has punctuation so evident you can’t ignore it.

We don’t notice commas or periods as we read; they’re meant to control the pace of reading without having any content in and of themselves. They vanish into transparency even as they brake the measure, making us pause, stop, or in the case of a question mark, give a rising inflection to the line. In contrast, Dickinson’s dashes and Ammon’s colons have to be interpreted or inscribed somehow. They have to be reckoned with.

LO: There aren’t many times that you can see a symbol start to change within a language.

AF: Or see a symbol that changes the way we read language, which is what those two poets do: Dickinson with the dash, Ammons with the colon.

LO: Do people ever wonder whether the == is meant to be spoken? When we read, are we supposed to hear the words “double equal” when the sign appears?

AF: No. Like a period or comma, it isn’t spoken. But unlike other punctuation marks, the double equal is noticeably present (some might say obnoxiously present) on the page. It’s a punctuation mark that points to the constructedness of a poem. It’s a seam made to show, as the poem “==” says. Instead of trying to hide the seams, I’d like to suggest the poem’s constructedness, suggest that it’s a thing built of words: it has joints, ribs, bones, struts, beams, trusses, pauses, stutters. The double equal draws attention to “the unconsidered // mortar between the silo’s bricks.” (“==” p. 56, Sensual Math)

LO: In your critical essays, I’ve read that you want to explore betweeness as a feminist space.

AF: While writing Sensual Math, I became interested in the notion of a punctuation mark that might signal a female space on the page. Women’s history or contribution has, of course, been vast but drastically under-acknowledged. The double equal is a highly visible sign of recessive space. In that way, it’s a paradox. Because it isn’t voiced or spoken, the sign enacts the historical reticence of women’s presence even as it makes that presence visible. Unignoreably visible. As if reticence itself were given, not voice, but oblique harvest.

As well as a punctuation mark, == is a glyph: a symbol that conveys information nonverbally. I was interested in a sign that might infuse the text with gendered connotations without resorting to, or being encumbered by, a specific denotation. That is, the double equal has no one meaning. It works between and with syntaxes, works with deletion, parallel construction, syntactic doubling. Its possibilities are created by the words on either side of it. It’s slippery.

LO: Why are there two equal signs rather than one? Why is it the double equal?

AF: A single equal sign keeps things separate but equal. And, as we know, separate but equal isn’t really equal. I wanted the double equal to suggest immersion or blurred boundaries, even transformation into the Other: “… more / than equal to == within.” (“Immersion,” p. 66, Sensual Math) The double equal stutters rather than utters. And it’s the sign of double entendre, implosion.

LO: I tried also to place it within a system of syntax. Two negatives mean a positive? Something about self-referentiality?

AF: I think in Sensual Math, == was primarily a graphic sign meant to change background into foreground and associate women with the power of negative space. It’s the blank between the ink that allows meaning. Without negative space, there’d be no figure, no alphabet.

I also call == the bride sign after the recessive threads in lace. As I researched lace patterns, I learned that the figure or pattern of lace is held together by tiny joining threads called brides. The word traces back to bridle and reins, forms of control and restraint. In one lacemaking book, a drawing of the background brides looked like this: ==. So == is the stuff of ground rather than figure, the yin space that has been occupied, across time, by women. It’s a net that holds the pattern together and allows the design to emerge.

LO: In addition to the poem “==” there are two other poems that obliquely define this sign: “Immersion” and “The Lines Are Wound on Wooden Bobbins Formerly Bones.”

AF: That last title is taken from lacemaking. It suggested the lines of patrilineage and, I suppose, the poem’s lines. The poem is part of a sequence about Daphne. The wooden bobbins reminded me of the tree she turned into, its rings that become her wedding ring.

Traditionally, brides have been the conduits, connectives, channels of patrilineage. They give up their own names and identity in order to confer male names on their children. Under patriarchy, a bride is a woman erased by a man. Bride also is a threshold word. She stands poised at loss. She stands to lose her autonomy and virginity in wedlock. But bride also can refer to a woman taking religious vows of chastity, losing herself in God. The word connotes inception, conception, the liminal. It evokes either the onset of an eternal chastity or the beginning of carnal knowledge.

Lace is a governing metaphor in Sensual Math. It was Colleen McElroy who got me thinking about it. Years ago, she casually said something about disliking a fussy, nostalgic style of decorating in which everything seemed to be covered in lace. I knew what she meant. In fact, I agreed with her to the extent that when I got home, I replaced all the lace curtains in our farmhouse with linen panels. The poem “Fuzzy Feeling” (p. 58, Sensual Math) contains the line “lace is a form of filth I hate.” My thinking about lace began with this present-day context of lace as ornament and retro-romantic dustcatcher.

But as I researched lace I found it had a long and wonderful history, and I began to appreciate lacemaking as an intricate female craft.

LO: I love the fact that lace patterns were named for their place of origin. That you could say “Nottingham Lace” and everyone would know what that meant.

AF: Yes! Like quilt patterns, lace patterns have evocative names. I developed a respect for traditional, handmade lace. And I wanted “Fuzzy Feelings” to be a poem of process, full of the mind’s revisions: “I didn’t mean what I said about lace…” (p. 61, Sensual Math) The tone of the second line, “Does lace add blush to any situation?” (p. 58) suggests, I hope, the manipulative language of advertising as well as the stereotypically feminine associations of lace, connotations that are revised as the poem progresses. The poems is set in a dentist’s office, where the décor resembles “a bodyshop / through which a boudoir’s wandered.” (p. 59) It’s a composite place, a portmanteau of home and auto repair business. The speaker is “having / new veneers” (p. 59), and that leads to thoughts of the genuine and the imitation. “What does beige == what does lace == / what does pain imitate?” (p. 60) In those lines, the sign links parallel phrases, giving the syntax an improvisatory, hesitant quality.

LO: How does the sign work in your latest book, Felt? Has it evolved since Sensual Math?

AF: In Felt, I think == began to enact itself more forcefully within the syntax. In the opening poem, “Close” (p. 5, Felt), the sign is a glyph of resistance. A nondogmatic, mystical resistance: “== The enigma is so diligent == / I miss it when I visit it ==” (p. 6). Here the function of == is similar to its function in Sensual Math — probably because “Close” is one of the older poems in Felt.

Felt begins with the poem “Close,” as in proximity, and ends with a poem called “Close,” as in the verb “to shut.” In that last poem, the sign appears in the line “she goes == he goes” which comes up twice (pp. 88-89). Syntactically, “goes” works in that annoying colloquial useage, meaning “said.” But the bride sign serves, I hope, to decontextualize the line, to lift it out of its embeddeness, and make us see the language as a singular gesture, as well as part of the ongoing sentence. When seen alone, “she goes == he goes” suggests transience. Endings. Mortality. Everything is closing. The book is closing. I thought the sign worked better in Felt than in Sensual Math. It became more active: revisonary, muscular.

LO: What about the visual aspects of the sign? In what sense is it pictorial?

AF: It can quite literally illustrate a phrase on either side of it. It can be mimetic, saying, that looks like this ==. For instance, in “Maidenhead” (p. 11, Felt), the speaker is being measured for an important dress. A white dress that evokes marriage, graduation, Dickinson. The poem ends with “the white lines vanishing / beneath us == the measure rolling on the floor ==”. (p. 16) Here == resembles the broken white lines painted on roads, though “lines” can also refer to language. Measure, of course, suggests the dressmaker’s tape, the meter of the poem, and scale or amplitude itself. By the end, the dress is out of control. Or should I say in control. The measure, the restraint, is rolling on the floor. This ending probably was influenced by a line from Dickinson: “I felt the Wilderness roll back / Along my Golden lines—” (poem 388, vol. I, Franklin).

LO: Does == also mimic the materiality of felt, the fibers or fabric itself?

AF: Felt is made by tangling and compressing fibers till they can’t be unraveled. In the poem “Fair Use” (p. 17, Felt) the sign appears first as a glyph of immersion: “everyone / meshed, a fabric of entanglement ==” As the poem goes on, the sign frames certain key words: “== nonself ==” “== immersion ==” (pp. 17-18). Here == suggests absence of boundary, an immersion of self in other, which is, I think, deeply religious. Here == stands for empathy. But as the poem says, “Synthesis is blistering” (p. 18). It’s painful to feel for others; it’s inconvenient. Compassion often means “You must change your life,” in Rilke’s famous words. The sign represents the inconvenient aspects of empathy:

I’ve often wanted to get rid of ==
it. I couldn’t get rid of it. It

resists wear and as it wears, it stays
unchanged….” (p. 18)

AF: That passage emphasizes the pronoun “it.” I wanted to objectify empathy, as if it were a pesty thing. Because empathy can be irritating to the one who feels it. Yet we don’t seem to have a choice about this. It comes unbidden. So the == is like a splinter in the page, a little irritation in the white surround. When it first appeared in Sensual Math, this sign annoyed some people. And that irritation was okay; that’s part of what my work does — it gets under people’s skin.

LO: Well, I’m also fascinated by the deliberate artificiality of poetry. The double equal is a way to play with that, I would say, very unobtrusively. You’re not asking readers to literally reassemble the words but you are saying “This is a made thing. And I want you to know this as you move through this lyrical chain of attached associations.”

AF: Right. Poetry is not “natural.” “The natural is what // poetry contests. Why else the line == why stanza == / why meter and the rest.” (“==,” p. 56, Sensual Math) For a long time, people wanted poetry to be transparent, a pipeline of emotion: instant feeling, like instant coffee.

LO: And that faux transparency passes for profound insight, as though it’s the distillation of complexity.

AF: Yes. In the U.S., simplicity is overvalued. Also, the simplistic is often mistaken for the simple.

LO: In these lines toward the end of “Fair Use,” I would say == is serving the typographical function of a place saver. It’s about holding the caesura.

I wanted to keep my distance, put a silence
cloth == ironic == lining == frigid == interfelt ==
between us. My
students == teachers == parents == sisters ==
get your hearts out of mine,

I wanted to say…. (p. 19)

AF: Yes, that’s part of what == is doing in those lines. The nouns are equated to each other, given equal weight. They’re leveled. Here the double equal works as a leveling device, imparting a flat finish to the syntax, planing the line.

LO: So you’ve created a punctuation that crosses from the writer’s mind into the reader’s mind, serving various functions. By this time, == doesn’t seem to me to be about absence. It seems muscular and packed full.

AF: I hope so.

LO: I’d like to explore your concept of fractal poetry. You’ve written about it, of course, in a couple of critical essays. I wanted to get a fuller explanation of points that confused me, since I’m here with you.

AF: Sure. If I can.

LO: The application of fractals to poetry as you describe it made sense to me when you were talking about geometric fractals: patterns within a chaos. But “random fractals” don’t seem to apply to your work. I don’t see your work as random. I see it as quite constructed. Are you using the terms interchangeably? Or can you talk about the difference between the two?

AF: I wrote about this back in 1986, almost 20 years ago, in an essay called “Of Formal, Free, and Fractal Verse: Singing the Body Eclectic.” (Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry) Random fractals introduce elements of chance. I’m very drawn to chance processes, the amazing things that might come from strictures that are randomly imposed rather than chosen.

LO: Can you give an example?

AF: The alphabet. I like the alphabet because it’s completely arbitrary yet completely ordered.

The conditions for good randomness are hard to come by. The chance elements in my work are not formal. you’re right that the words and forms are carefully chosen. But I am attracted to a randomness of method.

Years ago, I thought of drawing random names from the phone book and sending those people some lines I’d written, along with a request that they write the next lines and send them back to me. I would have worked with whatever they sent me. Somehow I never got around to this experiment, but I was serious about it.

Then, too, I’ve given my students maps in which they’re led to random destinations in the library: directions that send them to random floors, shelves, until they arrive at a book chosen entirely by chance yet in some sense meant for them. The imaginative challenge is to deeply engage with that book. The process of getting to the book, the ritualistic aspect of the journey, gives the book importance and authority. This stringently controlled exercise leads them to new intellectual terrain, a place, a book, that they never would have arrived at otherwise. It’s the opposite of an over-determined choice in that this chance book can take them into terrain they otherwise wouldn’t have entered. But they also bring their own sensibility, and everything they’ve lived, to bear upon the book. This exercise must be a sort of wish fulfillment for me; it’s just the kind of journey I love.

I feel there’s a reciprocity between objects that we can’t always see. A hidden reciprocity. The reason the chance book falls into my hands — well, there’s no real reason. But if I were to do something with that book, it would have ramifications I can’t foresee. Its potentials are hidden within it and within me. I find that somehow thrilling.

I have a mystical (for lack of a better word) relation to chance and to luck. I sense that luck isn’t purely random. Luck can take hold and roll over people’s lives. Maybe it’s in league with entropy or the second law of thermodynamics. (I know this is completely unscientific.) Luck has power. Randomness also has a power that we’re not aware of or in control of. It doesn’t mean anything in and of itself, but we could make something of it. I guess we have.

LO: It excludes nothing.

AF: Yes. A statement that could be heard two ways. You could mean it excludes nothingness, absence, in favor of somethingness, presence. Or you could mean it includes everything. There’s probably a name for such statements. “All generalities are false.” That’s another one.

LO: There must be a name for that kind of, that kind of ...

AF: Thinking.

LO: Thinking. Do you feel that on a macro level, your poetry follows geometric fractal poetry? How much of a blueprint is that for you now?

AF: When I wrote about this in 1986, I listed a few possibilities for free verse suggested by fractal form. I believe I’ve tried some of these ideas in my work over the years. For instance: “digression, interruption, fragmentation and lack of continuity will be regarded as formal functions rather than lapses into formlessness.” (“Of Formal, Free, and Fractal Verse: Singing the Body Eclectic,” p. 58). And my book, Powers of Congress (1990), contains a recurring vocabulary that I eventually described as cluster and supercluster words. Supercluster words were a large set containing a small set of cluster words. I suppose this notion might have been influenced by geometric fractals, which also depend upon a concept of scale.

LO: About eleven years after that first essay appeared, you wrote another one about fractal poetics. How had the aesthetic evolved?

AF: Around 1997, the poet and scholar Kathrine Varnes invited me to write something more about fractal poetics. At that point, I was tempted to drop the term “fractal.” Chaos theory had received a lot of attention over the years, and the word “fractal” had been cheapened. It seemed almost pseudo-scientific — maybe because popular interest focused on computer graphics and was often superficial.

But in the end, I decided to keep the term “fractal” because I wanted to build upon my first essay. I have a friend who’s a scientist, John Holland. His work on complexity helped me think more deeply about where to go in the second essay, “Fractal Amplifications: Writing in Three Dimensions.” (Feeling as a Foreign Language)

LO: This second essay suggests the poem as a plane of language, akin to the picture plane. Could you say something about that?

AF: The notion is: poets can fracture the surface of the poem by juxtaposing linguistic densities, placing a transparent line next to an opaque line, for instance. By shifting the materiality of language, we might cause the visual depth of field to shift.

A newspaper or a Hallmark card is easy to read, transparent; the language offers no resistance. It’s so clear we hardly realize we’re reading words. Finnegan’s Wake, on the other hand, or poems by Hopkins, seem linguistically dense, rich, heavy. Our eyes linger on top of the language, which refuses to yield or evaporate immediately into meaning. Opacity holds us off, forces us to grapple with it, and in the process we become more involved, in effect, co-authoring the text. Resistance is part of the pleasure, a different sort of pleasure than that offered by transparency. Of course, there are banal transparencies and boring opacities. But each sort of language, each texture, is potentially seductive.

LO: You made a point of distinguishing fractal poetry, in the second essay, from the sort of postmodernism where everything is relative. I feel there has to be some moral heart to a poem; there has to be a commitment on the part of the writer that reaches out to the reader.

AF: Yes. I wouldn’t like a poetry that just played self-referential games with language. It’s not that interesting to me finally, as a reader or as a writer. Language is a means of changing the world. It’s a location of power. That’s part of feminist postmodernism as I’ve understood it. For me, there has to be something at stake. Yet the challenge is to be conscientious without being preachy. The best way for me to do that, I find, is to look at my own actions. Autobiography then becomes a political force. Instead of pointing the finger at somebody else, you can look at your own shortcomings and reinvent the ethics of the self. That’s all you can change, after all: yourself. Of course, by changing yourself, you change the world.


Linden Ontjes, “‘The Wick That Is the White between the Ink’: An Interview with Alice Fulton,” Seattle Review, vol. 27, no. 2, 2005, pp. 24-44. Reproduced by permission of Seattle Review.

Copyright © 2007 by Linden Ontjes and Alice Fulton. All rights reserved.