Regency Ballroom, Omni Shoreham Hotel | February 3, 2011

Episode 21: A Reading and Conversation with Rae Armantrout

(Rae Armantrout, Craig Morgan Teicher) Sponsored by Wesleyan University Press. Ron Silliman said, "trying to read a book by Rae Armantrout in a single sitting is like trying to drink a bowl of diamonds. What's inside is all so shiny & clear & even tiny that it appears perfectly do-able. But the stones are so hard & their edges so chiseled that the instant you begin they'll start to rip your insides apart." Join us as Rae reads from Money Shot, her follow up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Versed, also recipient of the NBCC Award, followed by a conversation with poet and critic, Craig Teicher.

Published Date: July 6, 2011



Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series. This event originally occurred at the AWP Conference in Washington DC on February 3, 2011. The recording features Rae Armantrout and Craig Teicher.

Craig Teicher:

Hi, everybody. I'm Craig Teicher. I'm the Poetry Reviews Editor for Publishers Weekly and I'm also a Vice President of the Board of the National Book Critic Circle, and I'm a very big fan of Rae Armantrout's poetry, which makes it especially exciting for me to be here to introduce her and hear her read and then talk with her about her work.

Over the last several years, we've gotten to watch something very exciting happen in Poetry through Armantrout's sudden rise to prominence. Last year, her book, Versed, won the NBCC Award, as well as the Pulitzer, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Armantrout began decades ago publishing in little-known magazines as part of a close-knit community of poets that came to be identified as a language poets, which is a subculture within the subculture of poetry, and now, her poems appear regularly in poetry's most mainstream venues like Poetry Magazine and the New Yorker.

The best thing is though Armantrout isn't really doing anything terribly different from what she's always done. Of course, her art has developed across her books. Her poems of the late '70s were small, tightly coiled, sometimes overtly figurative, sometimes slightly obscure, like "Generation," which reads in its entirety, "We know the story. She turns back to find her trail devoured by birds. The years; the undergrowth."

Now, almost 30 years later, in Versed, her poems are still wound tight, now compressing myths, pop culture, barely recognizable snippets of biography, and a hell of a lot of dark humor into poems that are always about to burst. So tensely are Armantrout's little numbered sections set up, sort of like haikus stacked Jenga-style, but she's the same poet she always was. What seems to have happened is we've caught up with her. Now that we're all aware that we live in a world where the whole body of Western knowledge constantly explodes and then settles into odd new contexts right before our eyes, suddenly the poet Armantrout always was is the best one equipped to describe this moment.

In Versed, she described vampire wannabes and other detritus of American culture, but also, and perhaps this is why the book struck such a chord, her own struggle with cancer. Though, of course, she described it in a typically oblique manner in which, "A crowd (scene) of cells, growing wildly, by random access to stock types."

The stakes in these poems are higher than ever. In fact, when I interviewed Rae Armantrout when Versed was a National Book Award finalist, she told me the book was largely written under the assumption she wouldn't live to finish it. Thankfully, she did and went on to have a triumphal year in the literary spotlight, and now we get to help her launch her next book, Money Shot, in which Armantrout takes as her muse, the Great Recession and everything it got us gabbing about, such as where Ponzi schemes meet rhyme schemes.

This is a book of current events. It's also her most intimate, though again, Armantrout's brand of intimacy comes at a remove. "Quick before you die," she says, "describe the exact shade of this hotel carpet." Money Shot is, without a doubt, a major literary event, so it's my great pleasure to introduce Rae Armantrout who will read to you for Money Shot as well as from newer work.

Rae Armantrout:

Thank you, Craig, for that great introduction, and thanks for coming.

Money Shot is just out. It's not actually all about money nor is it about porn, despite the title, although maybe both come in a bit. It starts out on a possibly more optimistic note.


"Everything will be made new. The precision coupling and uncoupling. The studied blocking and folding have already begun. Stillness of gauzy curtains and the sound of distant vacuums, prolonged sigh of traffic and the downward curve of fronds. The spray of all possible paths define possible."


"As if the space around each particle were filled with countless virtual particles. And the Lord said, 'I am aware of weighing options of dither,' but the moment of decision has always remained obscure. Which one of these do you most closely resemble? Green stucco bungalow, four brown gargoyles on its flat roof, beehive diva, rehab idle? Semi-transparent, each stinging jelly is a colony.

And this is the one called "Money Shot." It's in two parts. Many of my poems, as Craig said, come in parts, but I don't usually read the numbers or whatever divides them. The first part of this just takes off with the name of one of the first banks that failed and then just starts breaking up and recombining syllables. The second part is entirely different because it's a dream narrative.

"Money Shot."

"IndyMac: able to exploit pre-existing. Tain. Per. In. Con. Cyst. I'm on a crowded ship and I've been served the wrong breakfast. This small mound of soggy dough is not what I ordered. "Why don't you just say what you mean?" Why don't I?


"We pray and the resurrection happens. Here are the young again, sniping and giggling, tingly as ringing phones. All we ask is that our thinking sustained momentum, identify targets. The pressure in my lower back rising to be recognized as pain. The blue triangles on the rug repeating. Coming up, a discussion on the uses of torture, the fear that all this will end, the fear that it won't."

"Working Models."

"A diversity noir hit in which a shapeshifter and a vampire run rival drinking establishments. Demons handle routine tasks. Once we're in the zone, tagged and released into the workforce. Chicks are forced to find food. Grains scattered among pebbles while monitoring for the appearance of a model predator. Apes can mind read, studies show. What makes us human is our tendency to point."

I actually read that in Scientific American. What makes us human, the definition of that, keeps getting smaller and smaller. It used to be that we could make tools and then they found the ravens can do that, but they don't point.


"The sun on my back, like your hand at night in bed. And then again, your hand on my back at night, like the sun has burned through two-thirds of its fuel. That you adorn the fallen, that your heads and shafts are smooth, cool, a spongy marble that you are stuck still and spontaneous at once, that you are one as we always thought we knew."

This next one, they're kind of a pair. This next one sort of refers back to that one in a way.

"The Gift."

"You confuse the image of a fungus with the image of a dick in my poem, understandably. And three days later, a strange toadstool, white shaft, black cap, five inches-tall appears between the flagstones in our path. We note the invisible web between fence posts in which dry leaves are gently rocked."

And then this one was mostly written during the week, I guess it was the week, maybe January of 2009, that week that the stock market lost about 40% of its value and it was interesting to listen to television then.

"Bubble Wrap."

"Want to turn on CNN? See if there've been any disasters? In the dream, you slip inside me. Ponzi scheme, rhyme scheme. The child wants his mother to put her head where his is. See what he sees. In the dream, inside the dream, our new roommates are arguing. These are not AstroTurf calls and we're all populists now. Now an engine's single in-drawn breath, the black hole at the heart of it is taking it all back. An immigrant sells scorpions of twisted electrical wire in front of the Rite Aid."


"A moment of stillness demanding an answer. When does a moment end? Starbucks prayer. Make morning good again. Leaf shadows on pavement. Word meaning to slide carelessly, repeatedly to absentmindedly caress. For I so love the world that I set up my only son to be arrested."

That's kind of a paraphrase of the Bible. I didn't really set up my own son to be arrested.


"Custom content feed. Let me tell you something personal. As a child, I worried about quicksand. I don't know why I mentioned this. I feel no connection to the child who had that fear, instilled as it was by '50s films about explorers, hokey and tainted now. I hold out my hand. Brownie in motion. Primal shudder. The way it's hotter to go to bed with someone while imagining yourself to be another person."

This one kind of has to do with sex too, "Soft Money." Well, not really. You decide.

"Soft Money."

"They're sexy because they're needy, which degrades them. They're sexy because they don't need you. They're sexy because they pretend not to need you, but they're lying, which degrades them. They're beneath you and it's hot. They're across the border, rhymes with dancer. They don't need to understand. They're content to be not mean, which degrades them and is sweet. They want to be the thing in itself and the thing for you, miss thing, but can't. They want to be you, but can't, which is so hot."


"It's well that things should stir inconsequentially around me like this patina of shadow, flicker, whisper so that I can be still. I write things down to show others later or to show myself that I am not alone with my experience. With is the word that comes to mind, but it's not the right word here."


"We like to think that the mind controls the body. We send the body on a mission. We don't feel the body, but we receive conflicting reports. The body is catching flack or flies, the body is sprouting grapefruit. The body is underperforming in heavy trading. Reception is spotty. Someone just like me is born in the future and I don't feel a thing? Like only goes so far."

This one's loosely based on a fairytale that you'll probably recognize in a minute.


"The old to and fro is newly cloaked in purpose. There's a jumble of hair and teeth under the bedclothes in the forest. 'The better to eat you with,' it says, and nibbles us until we laugh. An axeman comes to help. 'Too too,' birds cheap to greet whatever has come up. 'Too too.'"

And this is one of the ones that Craig read a section of.


"Quick, before you die, describe the exact shade of this hotel carpet. What is the meaning of the irregular yellow spheres? Some hollow gathered in patches on this bedspread. If you love me, worship the objects I have caused to represent me in my absence. Over and over, tears of houses spill pleasantly down that hillside. It might be possible to count occurrences."


"Caught up in the leaf, entranced, the carbon atom gets a life. But whose life is it? A slender whirlpool. Momentary poppy sways over a drain. Forget her, she doesn't love you. You will never have such grace."

"Money Talks."

"Money is talking to itself again in this season's bondage-and-safari look, its closeout camouflage. Hit the refresh button and this is what you get: money pretending that its hands are tied. On a billboard by the 880, money admonishes, 'Shut up and play.'"

I think that was an ad for a casino.


"Card in the mail: win a free cremation. On the tabletop, a scatter, grains of salt, sugar, a glow. It works for me. Gracious wood grain supplying what I like best: an illusion of passage."

If you ever inquire, if you should ever want or need to inquire about funeral arrangements, you will start getting all sorts of ads. "Win a free cremation" really came through my mailbox.

Okay, and that's all I'm going to read from Money Shot, but I am going to read some from a new manuscript that I'm working on. I think this is probably going to be called Just Saying, the manuscript that is. So the first book is called Scripture, and once again, as it goes on, it would be helpful to try to recall maybe a little bit of the Sermon on the Mount. I was raised with this stuff, so it comes to me. I mean, not that it all is from that, but that that becomes kind of a base.

Anyway, "Scripture."

"Your violins pursue the downhill course of streams even to their wild curls and cowlicks. To repeat is not to catch. Consider the hummingbirds, how they're gussied up and monomaniacal as the worst or best of you. Consider the bright streamlined emergency they manifest. My leaves form bells, top knots, small cups of sex, overweaning, unstoppered. Not one of you with all your practice is so extravagantly coiffed."

"Old School."

"Pull strings taut and something like points reappear in the model. Take place. Momentum is conserved. Carry elementary clone world punctuation, hostile, fetus. Cancer is old school. Impersonal. Carry imperial aspirations. To aspirate is to breathe in and choke. Nobody wants this. 'Nobody did this to me,' screams now-blind cyclops. Nobody's listening is conserved."

As you might've been able to tell, there's a little bit of physics, I guess, talk mixed into that one just a little bit. But there's more in this. Sometimes I like to read popular Scientific American or books by Brian Greene or whatever and the things that kind of bogle my mind and just seem peculiar will turn up in my poems from time to time. So the next couple are going to fall into that category.

"Dress Up."

"To be dressed is to emit virtual particles. The spirit of renormalization is that an electron, all by itself, can have infinite mass and charge, but when it's dressed, a toddler stares at us till we look up. Flirtatious, we call it. She waits until we get the joke about being here, being there."

And this next one, I actually did have lunch with an astrophysicist because I was trying to understand something and I felt like I was getting it wrong, and so I wanted to check it with him. And he said I was getting it wrong, but I just went on from there. I guess I kind of gave up, but I still wrote the poem.


"Light was on its way from nothing to nowhere. Light was all business. Light was full speed when it got interrupted. Interrupted by what? When it got tangled up and broke into opposite, broke into brand-new things. What kinds of things? Drinking cup, thinking of you, convenience valet. How could speed take shape? Hush. Do you want me to start over? The fading laser pulse (information describing the fading laser pulse) is stored, is encoded in the spin states of atoms. God is balancing his checkbook. God is encrypting his account. This is taking forever."

And this next one actually is one of the few poems that came out of the experience of teaching, although that might be hard to see, but I was starting to think about how the possible meanings of words shrink down to a single meaning. And most people only know one possible context, or not most people, but a lot of my students only know one possible context for a word. So I started to do this as a kind of exercise based on that.


"Suffer, as in allow. List, as in want. Listless, as in transcending desire or not rising to greet it. To list is to lean dangerously to one side. Have you forgotten? Spent, as in exhausted. The soul leaves the body. The soul competes. Has spirit babies, spirit soldiers, spirit cars. Remember this? Soapbox, as in EarthSat's podium derby."

"Just Saying."

"What might be said to disport itself along the cinder block in leaves. What I write, I write instead of ivy. Green snouts in evidence, or more to the point, insolent and tense. What might be said to ride professionally as the days nod and wink?"


"'I define terror,' the shooter says, and types out the dictionary. The government controls us through grammar and new currency. Red car at the center of the circle maze formed by an illegible white sentence on the black wall of the Hyundai building. Block letters shout, 'Snap out of it!' But I can't see what they're driving at."

I actually wrote that poem at the MLA. That was the view out of my room in LA, the Hyundai building with a maze and the words, "Snap out of it." Still don't know what they were talking about.

"Breaking News."

"If there are rain puddles in heaven, if consciousness remains intact, dry, vigilant, we scan the scene prepared to lunge, prepared to describe it if the witness can be separated from what is seen and we are making progress on this. Looking around, we saw that we were naked. We named ourselves for the place we had just been."


"In my youth, I craved the small picture, the autistic strung-out hearts of ivy, star jasmine, the on and on without budging. I liked Russian icons, circles within circles in the virgin's halo, the way her cloak matched the sky, which was not the sky at all. Now I see that the outsized personalities of our day, the Brad and Angie's, have the blurred, grainy texture indicative of stretching. We get a faint pinging back when we focus on these objects. An electron is an excitation in an electron field, a permanent tizzy in the presence of what? Like thought, it creates the ground it covers. Like thought, it can't stop."

I think I'm just doing three more now.

"Mother's Day."

"I ring the last sweetness from syllables and consume it before you. I make sense like a scorpion and the sun will be smitten. If I appear to address you while quoting an old text, I am indistinguishable from nature, and therefore sublime. If I reveal myself mercilessly, what will I not transcend? Like God, I will leave an arc of implication."


"Some say the soul hangs from the ceiling when the doctor pronounces the body dead, and afterwards perhaps watches crises in the lives of strangers bored as we are here. Let volume speak volumes. One claims he can recreate the sound of a family argument using bankrupt fishermen and oil execs to represent dead relatives. One uses leathery maroon tongues writhing, laced up both sides with gray, shark tooth spines. I've been telling someone, a cipher, emphatically how unfair it is that so-and-so, a killer, is angry at his boyfriend, girlfriend, unclear, for being a truck stop whore when..."

This will be the last one. A short one.

"Stop and Go."

"Long burst of tweets. We wait to see if it picks up again from the same place, the place we came from. Stop. I know this one. It goes, everything's a metaphor for sensation."

Okay, thank you. Thank you.

Craig Teicher:

Those new poems are wonderful.

Rae Armantrout:

Thank you.

Craig Teicher:

I love "Spent."

So I feel like one of the great pleasures of reading your work is to try and figure out how the poems are put together and is to try and figure out how the sections relate because there's always the sense that they fit exactly somehow, that they click, but one is never quite sure how. And I'm wondering if you can talk a bit about how a poem comes together for you, how it... Maybe take a specific example, like "Money Shot" where you said that it starts with IndyMac and then the dream, or maybe pick one and...

Rae Armantrout:

Okay. Well, first of all, I'll just talk about my process a little bit.

I usually use a notebook, a blank book, carry it with me to conferences and such. And things that I hear or see or read or think that are interesting to me, I write down, and most of that doesn't make it into a poem. But after a while, I start to see correspondences between various things I have written down or maybe I'm hallucinating. I think I see correspondences. And so I start to put them in proximity and see what kind of sparks will fly when these various parts, these various ideas or images from different situations are placed close to each other. And I guess I just have an instinct for what can be in conversation with what. Sometimes it works better than other times, of course, I think.

But what interests me is being able to make new units, draw a new circle around things that didn't have a circle around them before. Apples and oranges is the cliche example.

So with "Money Shot," which are two very different sections so you picked a hard one, it started as many of my poems start, just with something that fascinates me. Even before the bank failed, IndyMac was a California bank, and when I first heard the name IndyMac, I thought, "Huh, that's so like a contradiction in terms." Indy, like independent, Mac, like Big Mac conglomerate. So I went, "Hm. Those don't fit together too well."

And then so I started taking syllables apart that could have been in various words, like tain, per, in, con, cyst. You can put those together in different ways. They can conglomerate or break up. But it starts with that name of a bank.

And then in the second section, there's a dream, which was actually a dream. I mean, I do sometimes use dream material that I wrote down. And I guess one reason that I put it there is because of the small amount of soggy dough and because of the two things that dough can mean.

And so there's this kind of, in the dream, there's a sort of resentment that what you've been given isn't quite what you want. You wanted, I guess, a scone or something and you got a mound of soggy dough. And then the challenge that the dream figure threw out to me was, why don't you just... I guess the waiter, the offended waiter said, "Why don't you just say what you mean?" And I kind of woke up with that in my mind, "Why don't I?" But then what would it be if I did? How do you encompass what you mean? How do you so simply encompass what you mean?

I guess that's how I would talk about those two parts.

Craig Teicher:

And how long does a poem like that incubate before it kind of freezes into the poem?

Rae Armantrout:

Well, it really varies. Probably not more than three weeks, but once in a while, I write down a poem just in one sitting. Like "Soft Money," I just sat down and wrote that out. And that's maybe why it doesn't have breaks in it. "Scumble" from Versed was like that too. But more often, I guess typically, it would take maybe a week.

Craig Teicher:

And it seems too that you do, that maybe the books come together in a similar way, that then you start seeing these relationships between. Do you end up... Where in the process do you end up thinking, "Oh, I have a book. That is a book"?

Rae Armantrout:

Well, I'm going to confess something first, and that is that Wesleyan sort of forced that on me to some extent because they make you say what your book's about, and then if you won't do it, they do it for you. So then I had to start thinking, what is my book about?

And I think sometimes that's sort of artificial, but in the case of Versed, especially in the second half of Versed where I knew I was ill, the poems kept coming back to mortality and cancer and that was only natural. That was not something I planned to do. That was just what was going on.

I think if you write a book fairly rapidly, a lot of what's going on either in your life or in the world is going to come into that book and give it some kind of organic unity and that's what happened pretty much with Money Shot. So I didn't say, "Let me write a book about the financial crisis," it's just that that was in the air and I never ignore what's in the air.

But once you see that that's happening, you can kind of, at that point, encourage it to happen more and start going with it. And I started to name various, of the poems, with the word money in them and to just give it a little extra focus in that direction.

Craig Teicher:

One of the things that I think struck a chord so much with Versed was that it does have this autobiographical kind of bracing without it being overtly autobiographical. But was it, and I know that you've talked about the circumstances of writing that being sort of different in a lot of ways, but was it very different to write that way where you were drawing more on things that were very dire?

Rae Armantrout:

Well, I really always have, if you look all the way back, because I wrote, not that motherhood is dire, but sometimes it is, but in my earlier books, the experience of being a mother, which isn't, as most of you know, isn't all just peaches and cream. There's a lot of that in there. In fact, I've been through several scary medical situations that have turned out, knock wood, all right.

When my son was born, there was a knot in the placenta and he was born in shock and he had to be in the ICU and they didn't know if he was going to be all right neurologically. And now he's a scientist, so I guess he is, but it was... Although you never know. Maybe he would've been a poet. But anyway, but they said, "We'll just have to watch and wait and see if he's okay." And that way, you can imagine how stressful that was. Will your son be disabled to some extent or not? And so that came into some of the early poems.

And then once that was passed, just the experience of having to be the bearer of our culture and enculturate someone when you're so ambivalent about our culture, all of that came into my books too. So I don't think it's true that my life just started to come in with Versed. I think it's just that my life got sort of more dramatic at that point.

I also, this might sound macabre, but when I started finding things out about cancer, I actually found cancer to be kind of fascinating.

Craig Teicher:

Yeah. Well, it's powerful stuff.

Well, so then you talked, obviously the autobiography is one source, and then you talked about reading science books, and also you draw really heavily on popular culture, and even on slang that comes from a lot of different generations too, which is something I find really interesting.

Rae Armantrout:

Because I have students, so that keeps me young, as they say, to use a cliche.

Craig Teicher:

How do you find sources or how do you know when you found something that ends up finding its way into a poem?

Rae Armantrout:

Okay. Well, I think that this isn't going to explain everything, but in terms of using popular culture such as film or TV or songs, what gets me going is... Well, I think in a way, that popular culture is almost like the unconscious of the culture. Not that film directors don't know what they're doing, but sometimes they appeal to people or they become popular for reasons that people may not express to themselves.

And so when I see that, it kind of intrigues me. I wrote a poem that's in Versed, even though it's not about cancer, called "Previews" that summarizes the plot of the movie Iron Man because it seemed to me that really what Iron Man was about was imagining the United States as a kind of lone actor, acting alone in the world, and yet being innocent somehow in a fantasy, a fantasy of innocent rogue action, which is a common fantasy the United States has, right? And the movie was very, very popular. And so what need did that movie fulfill in its audience? I just wanted to talk about that.

So that's an example of when... Or "Working Models," which partly draws on True Blood. I know there's some True Blood fans out there because a few people laughed when I read that part. But that, as far as what interested me about that, is that True Blood, and I think consciously, is a sort of noir tale about diversity because it's a very diverse community, a little town in Louisiana, but it's diverse in that it has all these monsters in it, very different kinds of... Everybody's a monster of some kind, and you keep finding out, "Oh, you are one too."

Craig Teicher:

Well, so related to that pop culture stuff, we also think, when we talk about poetry, about this idea of permanence and of the Keats and it lasts forever. And I was thinking as you were reading, there are so many references in your poems that I think are going to be... There's the moment where you talk about the Amazon Marketplace, the people who are stuffing envelopes with the stuff that they're selling.

Rae Armantrout:

Yeah, that's my husband.

Craig Teicher:

It's my dad also, but so people might not know what that is in a few decades. What do you think about that?

Rae Armantrout:


Craig Teicher:


Rae Armantrout:

No, I don't know. I mean, I said footnotes, but who knows? Who knows if they'll even be... Who knows what's going to happen in a few decades, really? I think things are looking dire myself.

But just to assume that everybody will have the leisure to read and there'll be books in a few decades, I don't think you can predict the future. For me, I have to pay attention to what's around me. And maybe, I suppose, Keats lived in a more quiet world and maybe that was an advantage for him, but I can't really ignore what's around me. I get provoked by things. And sometimes those things... There are actually poems that began in my garden in this book, but I don't tend to read the quieter ones I guess maybe.

Craig Teicher:

I feel like too, probably Amazon is like roaches. It'll be there when we're all gone.

Rae Armantrout:

They might be or something like that.

Craig Teicher:

Fulfilling orders into the void somehow.

Well, something else, as I said in my introduction, that has been really fun to watch, is to watch you suddenly come to the forefront in this way. And I'm just very interested in, I don't know how that has felt, whether or not that's affected... To write, you need to have some kind of interiority and you need to be able to push all of those things away and I always imagine something like where you won two of the major wards and were nominated for the third, that might interrupt your privacy a little. And how has that affected you and what do you think of it?

Rae Armantrout:

Well, I try to keep it from affecting me, but it is distracting. And I didn't realize... It didn't happen so much with the National Book Critic Circle Award, much as I really respect that award. But I didn't anticipate, well, first of all, of course I didn't anticipate getting the Pulitzer, but then once I did, I had no idea how much media attention that award gets. And so there were all kinds of newspapers, radio stations. Somebody from my university called and I didn't even know because I don't follow things on Twitter, so I didn't know that I had won this. And so someone from my university's communications office called and said, "The press are going to want to talk to you," and I had no idea what she was talking about really. I went, "Really? Is my office on fire? I didn't do anything. I wanted to, but I didn't."

So anyway, and it was true, the press wanted to talk to me. And they came over to my house and they made me pose and all kinds of, "Here, she's holding a book." And some of them, especially on the radio, knew something about poetry. Some of them, the local TV stations, knew nothing. One of them didn't even know what the Pulitzer was or that you could get it for poetry, but yet there he was at my house with a microphone. I only found that out as the interview progressed that he had no idea what we were talking about.

It has been peculiar. And I've been invited to do some strange things, for instance, to address the local chamber of commerce, which I declined to do because I don't support very many of their policies, but things that just would've never happened to me before. And it seems like a lot of what has happened is good, like this, or like I've been invited to go to China, but when it's just all the time every week, you do kind of... I have written in, I didn't read too many of these, but in my new manuscript, there are... Well, I read the one that I said I wrote, started writing in a hotel room in the MLA. Well, there are a number of poems that were begun either in hotel rooms or airports. So that's one kind of strand that goes through it.

Craig Teicher:

Did you get these questions, like how does poetry help people and change things and save stuff?

Rae Armantrout:

Yeah. Well, the worst thing I got is, "Why do you want to make life difficult?" And I went, "No, that's not me. That's Citibank. I'm not making life difficult."

Craig Teicher:

And so then related to that is this notion of being an experimental poet or something. And I feel like so many poets that get labeled as experimental have actually come more into the mainstream in the past decade. And I'm just wondering what you think of that term, whether or not you identify as an experimental writer, whether it's a useful term at all.

Rae Armantrout:

Well, I don't think anyone likes that word, so I don't like that word. Probably most people don't. But I understand what it's getting at. I understand that there are... Maybe it's a matter of temperaments. There are two different temperaments that might come into a person who's writing, and I think it sort of indicates how you feel about uncertainty. If you enjoy uncertainty, if you like puzzles and riddles, you might be an experimental writer. If, on the other hand, you think that something that is uncertain just needs to be filled in with more backstory and exposition, then you're probably not an experimental writer. I think that's probably what it's getting at.

One thing that interests me, and this is maybe just something I'm thinking about right now, but is the border between signal and noise and when that is ambiguous. I'm not especially interested in having sage advice in my poems, and I'm not terribly interested in nonsense, although I'm not putting down sound poetry, I'm really not. I enjoy it. But for myself, I'm not much interested in nonsense and I'm also not much interested in sage advice, but I get interested at the intersection when sage advice begins to sound like nonsense, which is a little scary. So I think if you're attracted to what scares you, you might be experimental.

Craig Teicher:

And again, related to that would seem to be community in a way. And it seems to me that your career has had a lot to do with that, and even just recently, you were part of that communal memoir project. So what about that and the community that has been your community for a long time? And I don't know.

Rae Armantrout:

Well, first, let me just say that that's one of the great things about being a poet, maybe more than being a fiction writer, is that poets really, since they don't make much money and they don't usually get much in the way of reward, what they have is each other, and that it can be nourishing, it can be backbiting, but we've got each other anyway. Especially when you're young and you know if you go to a city, you can stay at someone's house, sleep on their floor, their couch, whatever. So there is that sense of the poetry community still means something, I think.

And then in terms of my particular community, if you mean the people who were called language poets, I think that, like experimental, is an unfortunate name, but it really came from Language Magazine, which was a magazine that Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews edited that published some essays and criticism by members of that group. So we didn't decide just one day, "Let's call ourselves the language poets."

But anyway, yeah, I think that I certainly wouldn't attribute all of the changes in poetry in the last 40 years to that group. But I think that what that group of people did did start to kind of break things up, break up a kind of log-jam that had developed. And for instance, the infamous divide between intellectuals and emotional intuitive people like poets, for instance, that started to get questioned. You mean what, we can't think critically? Yes, we can.

And then also, I think that there had become, well, any habit can be a bad habit, but the kind of post-confessional, everybody's heard this story, short lyric poem where the first person narrator and an epiphany at the end had become so standard that there needed to be some kind of rude shock to it. And I think that the language poets, who were widely reviled really at the time, kind of provided that shock.

And then I think that some of them have gone on, some of us, I should say, have gone on to be continuing good writers. And I still respect all, most of the... I should say all, all of those people tremendously.

Craig Teicher:

Yeah, so many of the people who were there at the beginning are now really major figures. Is there still a sense of community?

Rae Armantrout:

Yeah. I mean, we don't always get along, but I think there's a sense of community.

Craig Teicher:

Yeah, that is one of the nice things about poetry that you feel that that stays. Should we see if there are questions in the room?

Rae Armantrout:


Craig Teicher:

Does anyone have questions? We have a few minutes. Yeah?

Rae Armantrout:



Out of my own ignorance, I'm not aware of who some of the other language poets are.

Rae Armantrout:

Lyn Hejinian is one of the really well-known ones. She's a chancellor now, speaking of getting established the Academy of American Poets. Ron Silliman, who has a blog that's very well-known is one of them. Charles Bernstein. Those are some of the best-known.

Craig Teicher:

Other questions. Yeah?


Can you talk a little about what cancer [inaudible 00:49:56]?

Rae Armantrout:

Well, people think, I mean, I'm no expert you understand, but people think, and I thought before that cancer is just a mistake that then keeps reproducing itself kind of blindly, but it's actually smarter than that. It has ways of concealing its identity from the immune system. It can trick the immune system, for instance when it metastasizes, into sending immune cells along with it as escorts to protect it. Really, it is like a little separate creature that is you and not you, and really acts on its own.

And then you can also think of it as being like a rebel army that's kind of, I don't want to think of it this way, but you could think of it in a metaphor as a kind of rebel army that's rebelling against the hegemony of the entire system and the brain and everything, and going off on its own, back to the days of the unicellular autonomy. I don't know. There are just ways to think about it and read things to learn about it that are interesting.

Craig Teicher:



Hi, Rae. I noticed when you read this time that you pause your line breaks. Can you talk about what it means to break down the lines? Could you talk about why you make the choices for the line breaks [inaudible 00:51:37]?

Craig Teicher:

Line breaks.

Rae Armantrout:

Yeah. Well, I guess I try and I think I don't always succeed 100%, but I try to break lines where you can't maybe tell what's coming next, where there might be a little bit of surprise, or where I wonder about something, or where I think it's worth taking a second look, doing a double take. I try to mark that or score that with a line break.

And when I read, I don't want to do the Creeley thing and stop for just a really, really, really long time, but I don't want to read right past it either. It's tricky.

Craig Teicher:

Well, it seems too to me that there are a bunch of different strategies at work that it depends on because some of the material in your poems is out of your imagination, some of it is out of things you've seen, and just those different kinds of material necessitate different packagings in terms of lines.

Rae Armantrout:

Yeah, that's true. Anybody else?

Craig Teicher:

Anybody else? Yeah.


I have a question in terms of your process and you saying a poem you write, you work through it in a week?

Rae Armantrout:

More often, I take things out and put them in, but it goes through. I'll put things in, take them out, put them in again, take them out. I do show poems to a couple of people and see how they react, see how they read them, see if I like the way they read them. And sometimes, just sitting with it for a while and you go back and look at it, you put it aside. You've probably all done this if you're poets and you come back and look at it five days later and it looks... What's wrong with it jumps out at you then maybe.

Craig Teicher:



Have your poems ever been translated?

Rae Armantrout:



And what sense do you have of them when they do get translated?

Rae Armantrout:

I was speaking to someone just outside the room who said he was translating my poems into Spanish, and I have a book translated into German called Narrativ, and they've been translated into French, and there's a book called Couverture in French.

I was at the translation panel in France at Royaumont and so I was talking to the translators and I became aware of some of the difficulties. One of the difficulties obviously, I think, is that in my work, maybe in all poetry, but in my work, very definitely double meanings are important. Well, like "Money Shot." But you have to be able to see different contexts and get the different contexts into the word because uniting different contexts is one thing I'm really interested in. And sometimes doing it in one word, and it's really hard to take that across into another language. That's one problem.

But the specific problem with the French is that, of course in English, you don't have to gender a noun and you can use it without... So you can kind of start over again with it. But in French, and I suppose in Spanish too, you would want to know, okay, is that it male or female? And which noun before? Because the noun that it referred to would be either male or female and so everything after that would follow.

Well, what if you want to get a sense of starting over and you don't want to be relentlessly referring back? Then you don't know what gender it is. And I would just say, "I don't know." And they'd go, "That doesn't work. It has to be. Make up a gender."

Craig Teicher:

Also, I would think there are so many expressions and figures of speech, there just probably aren't enough versions of it.

Rae Armantrout:

Oh, yeah. Like that poem that I read, "Sway," that says, "The carbon atom gets a life, but whose life is it?" Well, right now, "Get a life" is an expression that has a certain currency, and that's something that can disappear with time, but also it disappears between languages.

And so I guess the most extreme example in the French translation was. At that time in that book, I think it's in my book, Necromance, I did a poem that was a sort of homophonic translation of the Pledge of Allegiance that kind of turned it into nonsense, although I just said I wasn't that interested in nonsense. But I did that. And obviously, you could not translate that literally into French, but they picked some kind of patriotic speech of France and did the same kind of thing to it. And then we read it to an audience like this, and the audience laughed so it must have worked in French, even though all the words were completely different. So it was just the idea that came across.

I don't know. I have never tried translating myself, but it seems like it must be incredibly challenging and it must make you think deeply about language.

Craig Teicher:

We have time for one more. Yeah?


Just going back to the question on what is taken out or put back in in revision, but also the first question, I believe, that you asked or talked about, how the different images are juxtaposed against each other, and I'm wondering, within those images, how do you balance your abstract pieces, your abstract images?

Craig Teicher:

I wonder too, how concerned are you with the reader having something to see and grab onto and having-

Rae Armantrout:

I think you have to... Well, I go through this with my students. I think you can't be too abstract for too long. I think I wouldn't be Pound and say, "Avoid abstraction," but I think you have to... Well, you have to be cautious around it. I guess he said that too. You have to bounce abstractions sort of off against the concrete, at least that's the way I do it.

And the poem that we keep talking about, the poem called "Money Shot," is actually an unusual poem for me in that the first part of it, it's not so much that it's abstract, it's that it just takes words apart so it's linguistic. That's a little bit unusual for me, but in general, I will, I think of it as bouncing abstractions off images. I like to get that kind of oscillation going.

Craig Teicher:

We have one more question.


You talked about [inaudible 00:58:12] and I'm wondering if you would ever open a Twitter account?

Rae Armantrout:

Oh, a Twitter account.

Craig Teicher:

And it does seem to me that Twitter is really waiting for you.

Rae Armantrout:

It'd be me and Sarah Palin.

Craig Teicher:

I mean, that it's... Well.

Rae Armantrout:

I think that I've got enough technology in my life. Don't we all?

The other day, one day it was a particularly bad day, I realized that I'd spent two-thirds of my day answering emails. And I do have a Facebook account, but I almost never use it because whenever I call up my wall, it's like now I have, I don't know, 800 friends whom I don't know, and they're saying what they had for dinner, and I don't care. And sorry if you are one of my friends on Facebook, but I kind of go, "Uh..."

I think I want to use the poetry for that. And I don't know. What is Twitter good for? It's good for telling you who won the certain award before you would find out any other way, I guess.

Craig Teicher:

Right. You might find out what the book you haven't written yet, it's going to-

Rae Armantrout:

I guess some people are writing poetry on Twitter because it's very... It's like haiku or something. It's super compressed, which could be interesting. I just don't want to get any more into the technology world than I already am because it seems like I spend too much time fooling with it.

Craig Teicher:

It is, however, rife with slang and lingo I bet you would find totally fascinating.

Rae Armantrout:

Uh-huh, yeah.

Craig Teicher:

There's all this shorthand on Twitter that is totally annoying, but really interesting.

Rae Armantrout:

Sounds dangerous. Well, thanks for coming.

Craig Teicher:

Thank you, Rae.


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