Sarah Rosenthal: In [your book] Company of Moths, you're testing out some new ways of getting at the meeting ground between language's limits and its capacities.
Michael Palmer: After all, that has to be negotiated too. Poetry is a perverse thing in that it gestures both towards the world and toward a self which also, in a sense, is the world. At times it wants to bring the world impossibly close, and at other times it wants the world to go away so you can do some thinking.
SR: Isn't there also a way of recognizing distance that perversely makes one feel more connected?
MP: I think that's what Williams called "contact." Poetry, even if it is involved in a certain kind of dialectical negativity in relation to things as they are, still calls to people and things, even as it acknowledges the space in between. It's a critical and productive relationship, an endless traversal.
SR: I'd like to ask about all the appearances of the words "no" and "not" in your poetry. I thought about your coming up during the Vietnam War and feeling angry at what was being handed to you, and that circumstance generating a political "no" of resistance. But then there is something about the innate nature of languages that is a "not."
MP: With a k or with an n?
SR: Good point; it's both. I was thinking about the "not," as otherness, and the work of the poet being in part to open oneself to that other, which is a different, more invitational sense of negation.
MP: Of course, because it's not about solipsism, after all; it's about contact. And so the "no" is a positive refusal, a critical refusal and one that’s historically part of the role of much poetry. Not the poetry of sentimental assuagement, of course, with its adhesiveness to the mushy cultural center. In fact, such work represents the negation of the critical force of poetry; it’s a poetry in fealty to a debased expectation. And that's been true of a lot of writers since the beginning of industrial society. After all, the hatred for Shelley and Keats and those poets was monumental until a way was found—not so long after their deaths—to appropriate them into a harmless lyrical canon. In the summer of 1922, the Courier, a major Tory newspaper in London, ran an obituary that began: "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned: now he knows whether there is a God or no."
SR: So there's a refusal which is actually an invitation or a hope or a request to be read more complexly.
MP: Yes, and to read the world more complexly, or at least more skeptically. To counter the mendacious drivel. To be, in other words, as far as possible, what the current administration... and the cultural arbiters would consider a bad citizen. We work toward consciousness, after all, and conscience, against oblivion. Conscience: con-scientia: to know along with another.
SR: There's a continuum in your work between political resistance and investigation of language.
MP: I'm not a political poet, in the sense that let's say Amiri Baraka or Adrienne Rich are, or Allen Ginsberg was. Their poetry is instrumentalist by design; it's meant to incite direct action. I suppose I'm in the polis and in relation to the polis in a different, if often sympathetic, way. And that illustrates the necessary range of voices, as Wallace Stevens said, between inside and outside, between a poetry that incites to action and a poetry that incites to reflection. But that puts it far too simplistically, since reflection is necessary to responsible intervention. We're speaking of active reflection, naturally, a form of unmasking, of bringing to light, beyond the means readily at hand, beyond habits of speech and thought.
SR: You do a lot with repetition and variation, within and between poems, and within and between books. You seem to be teasing out all of the different ways that that can add to and support your project.
MP: Recurrence and variation have fascinated me since I first read Gertrude Stein as a very young person. Or perhaps I should say: since I first heard nursery rhymes and incantations as an even younger person. Likeness and difference and their dance—isn't that the ground of the poetic project and our signifying capacity? And metaphor: a thing in terms of another thing, a bearing across between a one and "an other," or self and other.
SR: Or between the self that I am in this moment and the self that I am in the next moment. ....At different times repetition and variation seem to operate in your work as translation, jazz, conversation, and a stutter.
MP: It's interesting that you bring up the stutter because my earlier work talks about the poet's and the philosopher's stutter: the stutter of the effort of articulation, which is part of the articulation. You hear it—the stutter or the hesitation, they're part pf the same thing—if you listen to a Gilles Deleuze or a Jacques Derrida speaking—improvising philosophy. You may also see it in the improvisational steps Wittgenstein takes in his work toward whatever goal is there, letting the fly out of the bottle, let's say.
SR: I'm glad you've raised the topic of improvisation. I know you don't just compose improvisationally and leave it at that; your work is very layered. But nonetheless you seem to be after an improvisational feel.
MP: I think in the layering—which has become more intense over the years—what you're trying to arrive at is not some proposition of the well-wrought turn, but rather, in fact, immediacy. But there are different ways of interpreting the word "immediacy." In Beat poetics, for example, immediacy is "first thought, best thought"; pure improvisation on the surface. For me, the improvisation is one that occurs at many, many levels, including the palimpsestic construction of the text and the listening—not just the speaking, but the listening. It's oddly enough a process of arriving at something that's more immediate than I'm gifted to give at the beginning. I think one of the problems of Beat poetics—whatever the virtues may be, such as spontaneity, etc., is that you are too prone, as with some aspects of free improvisation, to fall into certain habits of composition. So you get a sameness of composition which is not immediacy; it's habit in the guise of immediacy. For me, paradoxically, to arrive at the now, the immediate, I have to swim in these strange channels, shifting currents.
Excerpted from A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area, published by Dalkey Archive Press, www.dalkeyarchive.com, copyright © 2010 by Sarah Rosenthal.