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Your new book, Music for the Black Room, seems to issue from the same basic territory as your earlier releases from U of Tampa Press, Whore and The White Bride, in terms of theme, or terrain, yet some find it easier to enter. Does that reverse the trend we might expect?

The poems of Music for the Black Room emerged over the course of more than two decades, which made it somewhat frightening to re-approach them, or to try to imagine how they might cohere. A number of them were Whore-concurrent; a number had tried to find some home in my attempts at an earlier manuscript. I realized, when I was pulling Whore together, that I would not be able to return to this other manuscript until I knew what belonged in Whore. And then the poems of The White Bride began to emerge as a kind of chaser–I needed, at least initially, to abandon the “I,” to be triggered by things that were less immediately self-referent, even if they led back to issues or situations of self, and the rather dense prose poems of that book felt right to me, formally, as did the way several strands of direct statement and image and hints of story weave through them, so that there’s a constant disruption of absolute linearity, moment-to-moment, line to line. Many of the poems began as “assignments” that announced themselves to me. Some, I could do immediately. One took three years to find. Art–high and low, everything from Gorecki’s Third Symphony to a mannequin outside a pawnshop to the B-sides of old record covers–and the simultaneous use of multiple definitions for a single word–these were triggers that felt really refreshing to me.

And then, in going back to the poems that appear in Music . . . I finally found a center for them in the literal black room (black box theatre) at Beyond Baroque, where a number of them were read or workshopped in their early stages, and a way to orchestrate them. One long swath or even a three- or four-part ms. would not have worked, as the poems change enough, tonally, texturally, and even in density, from section to section, that they don’t all belong in the same section even though they now feel unified to me in the same book. Six relatively brief sections allowed more breathing room and also allowed for shifts that would have clashed (not in an interesting way) if they’d appeared closer together. The biggest change I made in the poems, after living with the orchestration for a while, occurred because some of the earlier work felt formally claustrophobic to me. I’d grown toward a more spacious, intuitive style that I realized could heighten some of the gestures that were more hidden in the older deployment on the page–so I had to aerate them, to let the lines loose on the field of the page, except where I felt that they actually needed a greater sense of compression and density and enacted a sort of entrapment that felt right for the emotional terrain of a moment.

 

New projects?

“She”–the braided collaboration of numbered poems I’m doing with my friend Holaday Mason. It’s nearly complete. We’re quite excited about the way doing this has stretched and spurred us. We suffer from constant envy of one another’s work, but this seems to have been good for the poems.

Also a very tiny chapbook of very tiny poems–one to eight lines or so–that seemed to want to be together.

 

What are you reading right now?

These Mountains: Selected Poems of Rivka Miriam (translated by Linda Stern Zisquit), Dan Beachy-Quick’s Circle’s Apprentice, Nikola Madzirov’s Remnants of Another Age, David Young’s translation of Celan’s 1955 Threshold to Threshold. Franz Wright’s new poem in The New Yorker.

 

Have you noticed any pattern in the reception of your poems?

I get asked to read a lot in the month of February. So I’ve realized that I’m often reading in what we can think of as the “Valentine’s Day slot.” This happens to me a lot because one aspect of my work is informed by the particular kind of love and torment this holiday specializes in, and celebrates–not the agape sort of love, or parental love, or fraternal love, but the erotic. I don’t think, as writers, that we choose our subjects–I think our subjects choose us. At least, that’s how I write–I’ve never been able to get more than a stillborn poem any other way. A few years back, after a festival reading I was invited to do with Terrance Hayes and Grace Cavalieri and Andrea Hollander Budy, a guy in the audience came over to me and asked me if I wasn’t worried about the way my identity as a writer seemed to be so tied to the erotic. And I thought–wow, this is happening over 100 years after Whitman, 50 years after Howl, how many years after, say, Neruda, or Sexton? Just to name a few. Are we really still that puritanical? Why is this territory so threatening?

Given that the erotic is so basic to–I think not just to human life–how can this not, also, be sung?

 

Is this informed by your own experience?

My own love life, I think, has been pretty peculiar. If authentic. Which I guess is what I’ve gone for. These Valentine’s Day readings are sometimes bittersweet for me because I’m usually in the midst of some long period of deprivation. Or if I’m not, my beloved is usually not in the audience. Or, more likely, there isn’t a beloved. Sometimes I wonder if I write “erotic poems”–or, let’s say, poems triggered by the experience of the erotic–to commemorate what is so rare–or to try to conjure more of it because it seems essentially valuable to me–among other things, as an entrance to the liminal, to that threshold place that eludes and evades the clamp of control. It is territory that is essentially beyond the control of law, of the state, of logic, of habit, of our own fabricated barriers, even of language. Thank god!

The erotic gets a thumbs-up, in some quarters, when it’s tied to procreation–sort of, I guess, as a necessary evil or a necessary good. What interests me is what happens before that, whether or not all the clothes even come off–let us say, for the sake of argument, in fact, that they don’t. It’s the erotic state that allows for not just procreation but all kinds of creation, contact and refreshed perception because of the way it tears down every kind of border and assumption, tears through all the litanies we carry up to the moment before. It allows an opening into–it thrusts us into a territory that is–I don’t know a better way to say this–psychotropic.

 

Can you clarify?

This place we go–this eros–can alter everything. Needs to, maybe. In my most intense experiences of it, I have felt as though I was transported to some ancient, primitive, time/space/state of consciousness–to something essentially human, some rite, some state of being, that connected me to “the ancestors” and also to the immediate new–I didn’t think of it in those words, but it’s as though the ancient chains of being, that go both forward and backward, were palpable there. Are. Not mentally, but actually, physically, without thought.

 

An example?

After entering this territory once a few years back, I found myself staring, for a long time, at the bark of the tree growing up from the porch, and felt, again, the way this connection we can have as humans–this place we encounter with one another–strips me, in the best possible way, of every preconception or habit that would pull me away from what is most essential. And so I felt even closer to that tree, that bark, than usual–and the way all of our roots converge.

I could see–almost feel–for instance, the new almost-necklace of pale mauve strands of seeds–maybe fifty, one hundred, more, strands springing (in a kind of birth) from the hand of a palm–the palm, let’s say, of a palm: this is how it looks, as though it can no longer remain inside its pouch, it’s so swollen with life–and soon it will hang from the tree like an exotic chandelier–

The taste of this: it would be like bark, or like kava. Something earthy, almost like dirt–not sweet, not bitter–something essentially nourishing, good to bond with.

But when people say that “sex” is “dirty,” this is not what they mean–it’s something else, I think, that minimizes the power of all of this. They don’t think of literal dirt–of the way dirt smells, for instance, after rain.

If I write about what we call the erotic–or am inspired by the erotic to write–it is not because I want to titillate myself or someone else. It is because I am slaughtered by it; because I am forced to move beyond whatever “I” I had thought I was in the moments before. It is because a new fault line has opened, and I have been put on alert.

It’s sacred territory, this, I think–true sacred territory, too true to be bound and labeled and codified and removed from what is really sacred–because it is wild, and because its moments must be experienced as they occur, not scripted. Maybe this is not the right word. Some definitions/etymologies of “sacred” point to something that’s already become far too conscripted by the uses of human will and constraint. Eros is not a business deal.

I think about Blake’s “London,”–how in that poem, in his view of that world, even the river, the Thames, was “chartered”–mapped out to be organized, netted, owned; the church, as he saw it in that place and time, also compromised–removed from the life force of what he could imagine instead as “the marriage of heaven and hell.”

This thing I’m talking about–let’s say it’s sacred–exists outside of all organized religion. And all other manufactured orders.

And so it must be returned to with wild reverence, without charter, without map.

Whatever I’ve written because of it is only an approximation of the place itself–an attempt to try to get a little closer to how it feels, or its fallout–the swirl of it, the mystery of it–and if I’m lucky, beyond the clichés that are already not erotic because of the way they prevent us from moving beyond the border of the known, or of what we think we know–because this is an exercise in moving, moment to moment, into the unknown–with radical openness.

 

Are there other ways to get to this?

To eros or to “radical openness”? If there’s a difference.

 

Let’s say the latter.

Yes–yes, maybe in different flavors, because I think there is something that happens when two people encounter one another, though, that creates its own sacred and immediate realm, and that influences and ripples out into everything else. But yoga, for instance, though it’s a different kind of experience–is very spacious, very valuable. Or something that happens at the end of a long walk. Say, with weights, or up a hill. Or a short run. I wonder sometimes if the way we live now prevents us from regularly experiencing something we are built to experience almost constantly, because even with something that simple, perception can shift, a sense of immediacy and relation can shift. Even here, the trees, to go back to that example, can become that more visible–meaning we can allow our attention to take them in to that greater degree. Much of this involves the necessary luxury of being present, of slowing down enough to see, to sense, of allowing the moment itself to become worth our actual attention and participation and even honoring of it. But it’s not only that. Let’s say, again, it’s these trees we’re looking at–it’s as though there’s something in them that we, in our momentarily more alive bodies, are resonating with, almost synaesthetically–something that allows us almost tofeel the gradations of color and form and succulence that are themselves expressions of life processes going on as we witness them, as we co-exist with them. Meaning, among other things, that what we are witnessing is not done, not over, not already-fully-formed. Is not a product. Is not, exactly, a thing, in the sense that it is instead more like a verb–a verb, say, with clothing–with enough clothing that we can see it, that it is concrete. What we are seeing is a process. Acontinual becoming.

 

Another analogy or vehicle? Another hint of this space?

Cinema. I’m realizing that maybe what I mean by “erotic” is not exactly what other people mean, though it’s part of a spectrum. Perhaps it’s not as much lit by specific desire as by specific openness–a being opened to a different quality of being, a slowing down, a different relationship to texture even if perceived, say, via sight–and there’s also something that can happen with montage, with juxtaposition, with boundaries, borders being shredded or blurred–the entrance to what seems more real is also the entrance to what seems more dreamlike. But this is because we get to depart from the robosphere of our thoughts, of our habits–we get let out of our cage. And so the occasion feels, on one hand, elevated, suspended–and on the other, more completely in tune with the earthy/earthly/tangible qualities that we tend to elide/glide over when we’re in the service of, say, the intellectually/will-driven mapping/scheduling we’ve slipped over unmediated perception. So we’re allowed, momentarily, to see differently, to feel robosphere give way to erosphere. Curiously, by being put back in touch with what Camus calls things and flesh, we’re put back in touch with their being, as opposed to their potential use–even, say, as scenery.

If we think, say, of Malick’s The New World or of Wings of Desire (Wenders) or Koyaanisqatsi (Reggio, Glass) or certain moments of Roeg (as in Walkabout) or Herzog or Lynch or Bergman or Tarkovsky or Leone–just for starters–there are places where this sort of thing happens. I’m thinking here of films that perhaps Deleuze would say have immediately identifiable auteurs, meaning that we can quickly identify sensibility by things like the way the camera sees what it sees, how it moves, by the way sound or music works, by the directorial and sensory film-making elements that go beyond, say, plot or other parts of the writing process that engage us primarily on the other side of the brain, though of course it’s important to say here, too, that this sense of vision, down to texture, is sometimes also encoded in the script itself, or other source material, and then enacted on film.

 

Another analogy?

Um, gardening? One of the great things about tending plants is how much more attentive our relationship with them can get, how visible changes are, day to day–how impossible it is to have a static perception of living being and how obvious it is that our interaction with them can make a difference in their health and growth, but also how little, beyond a certain point, we actually control. So there’s an interesting balance of tending and letting up. Maybe this is also more obvious in growing children than in adults. Perhaps that depends on the adults.

Obviously, there are many ways to get to this point or to get a sense of this position from which perception can shift–I think this is part of what Rimbaud was after with his “derangement of the senses” and his “Je suis un autre,” of what Baudelaire was getting at with his advice “to be always drunken,” which, importantly, he knew could be achieved without the use of fermentation. It’s interesting that “virtue” makes the list, as an option. And it’s clear that there’s a difference between “virtue” and, say, “being judgmental,” which does not make the list, is not one of Huxley’s “doors” any more than it’s one of the symbolists’. Probably because, aside from all the other unpleasant side effects that might occur while being in a “judgmental” state, it just tends to shut things down. This is the opposite, I think, of experiencing the open secret of the sacred.

 

Do you think of yourself as an erotic writer?

Half the time, I think of myself as a neurotic writer.

Just kidding. Well, sort of.

I suspect these days that “erotic” is just a door to the beginning of something that demands a skewing of all categories. I have no idea how to think of myself. I’d rather not. Think of myself.

I suspect that even the “erotic” is some subset of the existential, of something that opens us to transport, to the ineffable, though it has perhaps the advantage of doing this in a way that seems also tangible. Meanwhile, love comes from curious directions, in unexpected ways–most of which involve giving, and many of which have nothing to do with eros.

 

Is anything missing in your life?

Eros. Classically understood.

 

Is there anything you want?

Peace.

I’ve had more than enough drama, thank you very much. Luckily, increasingly, peace is not something I “want” in the sense of “lack.” More and more, it’s something I experience–almost viscerally, in fresh, sheer swaths. In waves.

In giving up.

Surrender, I’m beginning to know more clearly, happens even in the muscles–maybe first in the muscles, the tissue, the breath. What we are so sure of is lodged there, what we insist on–even what we insist on naming, or limiting to a name.

 

Anything else you’re interested in more of?

In “I-and-Thou-ing it.” In Bubering it up.

Imagine, say, everyone suddenly falling into this mode on the freeway.

 

Anything else?

Listening.

 

 

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Sarah Maclay SARAH MACLAY is the author of Music for the Black Room, The White Bride, and Whore, which won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry (all, U of Tampa Press), as well as three chapbooks and a short play, Fugue States Coming Down the Hall (anthologized in Scenarios: Scripts to Perform). Her poems and criticism appear widely, in spots such as APR, Ploughshares, FIELD, The Writer's Chronicle, VerseDaily, The Best American Erotic Poems: from 1800 to the Present, The Laurel Review, and Poetry International, where she serves as Book Review Editor. A Montana native with degrees from Oberlin College and Vermont College, she received a Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXI, was founding artistic director of The Third Area: Poetry at Pharmaka (later at Frank Pictures Gallery), and conducts periodic workshops at The Ruskin Art Club and Beyond Baroque.  She teaches creative writing and literature at Loyola Marymount University.

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