2017 Poetry Month: An Interview with Robert Archambeau

2017 Poetry Month: An Interview with Robert Archambeau
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Robert Archambeau is a critic and poet whose books include the studies Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme, The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, and Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry. He has also written the poetry collections The Kafka Sutra and Home and Variations. His collaboration with poet John Matthias and artist Jean Dibble, Revolutions: A Collaboration works variations on the poetry of Mandelstam, and will appear from Dos Madres Press in 2017. He teaches at Lake Forest College.

You've recently published Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme. In it you cover a range of topics, including the future of poetry, the current scene of contemporary poetry, poetry criticism and much more. Could you tell us a little about this book and what inspired you to write it?

I wanted to do at least two impossible things in that book. Firstly, I wanted to stare into a crystal ball and see the future of poetry. I also— and this is just as preposterous— wanted to survey the vast breadth of American poetry in our own time. Maybe I, as a poetry critic, have developed the same disease so many poets suffer: wanting to do things that can’t be done. As Ben Lerner said, poets want to make raids on the eternal, and their poems are necessarily records of failure.

The interest in the future of poetry grew out of my examination of how poetry grows out of and feeds into its social and historical contexts (a concern of my last book of criticism, The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World). I wanted to project a little, looking at how poetry might continue to grow and evolve. In the end, I had to broaden the definition of what counts as poetry in order to even begin to grasp the scope of what might come. There’s the rhymed verse of popular music—especially rap—there’s the use of what are really Mallarmé’s symbolist techniques in advertising and product naming, there’s the blurring of what counts as poetry in Conceptualism, and there’s a kind of identity poetry that comes out of ethnic or religious or gender or even occupational identity (like cowboy poetry). In the final analysis, poetry looks to be pervasive, both now and in its imaginable futures—especially if we don’t limit ourselves to the institutions that we think of as constituting the poetry world.

More of the book has to do with taking a look at the range of poetries being produced in America. The book’s subtitle tries to hint at this: “Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme.” I wanted to cover aesthetic movements as disparate as the sort of experiment being conducted by Kenneth Goldsmith or Vanessa Place—books you don’t have to read, because it’s the idea or concept that matters. But I also wanted to look at something as traditional and deeply rooted as rhyme. I was emphatic that I didn’t want the subtitle to read “Poetry from Rhyme to Conceptualism,” because that would have implied a sense of progression, in which the traditional becomes outmoded and replaced by something better, or at least more relevant to contemporary conditions. That’s not a view of poetry, or of any art, I can get behind (although some of the Conceptualists sure seem to). In fact, Conceptualism’s first fifteen minutes of fame seem to have already passed, with the scandals about Conceptualism and race that broke out when Goldsmith used the obituary of Michael Brown as a poem. And rhyme seems stronger than ever: the book includes an essay on the varieties of rhyme and the ways it is used in contemporary poetry. There’s some truly exciting work being done, especially by Michael Robbins and Anthony Madrid.

There are other things in the book as well—including some reflections on what a critic can do in an era when crowd-sourced ratings and computer-generated algorithms can step in and take over the basic task of making a recommendation about a book.

Robert Archambeau

Robert Archambeau

Photographer: Valerie Lawfer

Do you give your own personal judgments on the range of poetries in America? Which poetries do you find that American poets do best?

I’ve always thought the most uninteresting thing a critic can do is say “thumbs up!” or “thumbs down!”—at least if its just a matter of holding a book up to one’s pre-existing set of critical standards and seeing if it conforms. I’m always most excited when I encounter a book that either leaves me baffled or seems entirely at odds with what my instincts tell me poetry ought to be. This can be avant-garde work, of course, but it can also be things that are the poetic equivalents of mammoths unfrozen from the polar ice—as if they’d dropped in from another time. I remember, for example, reading the poetry of Reesom Haile, an Eritrean writer, and thinking the rhetoric was just over the top—like Victor Hugo’s poems, or certain nationalist epics of the nineteenth century. But then I tried to dial into Haile’s frequency, and when I understood the function the poetry was serving, and the kind of audience it was trying to speak to, and speak for, I became much more sympathetic to it. He was part of a beleaguered national liberation movement, and it called for something quite different from the sort of neo-modernist poetry I’d been reading at the time. If I’d just said “this is bad poetry,” I really wouldn’t have been doing much but declaring that the taste I’d developed in my circumstances wasn’t compatible with the kind of poetry brought forth by completely different circumstances. I think it’s better to let the poetry interrogate your critical sensibilities as much as your sensibilities interrogate the poetry. Otherwise you become a kind of publicist for a certain brand of poetry. And I’m sad to say I know of some critics who are so predictable about the sort of poetry they’ll back, and the sort they’ll condemn, that they come close to being P.R. agents for a clique or a style.

None of this is to say I’m against critical judgment. I have a lot of sympathy for the critical program outlined by Fredric Jameson when he distinguished between taste (a personal sensibility), analysis (which links a work’s formal qualities to its historical moment), and evaluation (which examines the kind of life out of which an imaginative work comes, and tries to make a judgment about that whole system of life). The program comes out of Marx, broadly speaking, since it all depends on his observation that social being creates consciousness—that the way we imagine things depends on how we are living, and in what kind of society. But I don’t want to push the Marx angle too far: I’ve never seen a revolution play out other than badly. I’m no utopian, but a pluralist in every respect, aesthetic or otherwise.

The result of the 2016 election has devastated many poets that I know. What can poets do in the Age of Trump?

I don’t think poetry in the United States in 2017 can have a huge political impact, although there are times and places when it does. We’re not (yet) in such a desperate state that people who oppose the regime can’t find other, more prominent ways to articulate their resistance—I go into all this in an essay called “The Discursive Situation of Poetry” inThe Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, so I won’t belabor it here. Anyway: this is not to say that poetry has no value in times of bad or oppressive leadership. It has all the values it usually has—including helping articulate emerging forms of consciousness, which is a kind of long-range politics (think of how much the poetry of the Black Arts Movement contributed to identity politics, for example) In addition, it can, in times like ours, serve as a form in which people can articulate their despair or anger, or in which they can bear witness. An anthology recently appeared with a title drawn from a line of Walt Whitman’s, Resist Much/Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance, and itrepresents an enormous outpouring of support for those who would resist Trump and his agenda. I contributed a poem myself, and wouldn’t have done so if I didn’t believe there was a value to doing so.

As a prominent literary critic, you probably have to occasionally wrestle with the influence of Harold Bloom. In what ways do you deviate from him? Also, in general, what might set you apart from other contemporary critics as well?

I don’t know that there’s such a thing as a “prominent literary critic,” but thank you for giving me the title! Anyway: I like the Bloomian way you’ve framed the question, as something about a struggle against one’s influences, which is very much at the core of his theory of how poets relate to their heritage. In the early 1990s, I actually wrote a doctoral dissertation that was meant to be a kind of revision of Bloom, looking for ways that his theory of how poets develop would be different under different social and political conditions, particularly the conditions experienced by the colonial or post-colonial poet. But you have to understand that Bloom was already out of fashion in graduate schools at the time. He was considered ahistorical, and uninterested in all of the politicized forms of literary study that were on the rise: feminism, cultural materialism, queer studies, postcolonialism, and so on. Bloom was always hostile to these things, and quite dismissive. He called them “the school of resentment,” and never really managed to look at them with any kind of sympathetic understanding.

I wanted to do two things by reworking Bloom. I wanted to point out the ahistorical nature of his theory, and the falseness of any claims for it as universal. This was intended as a shot at Bloom. But I also wanted to annoy some of my professors, especially the younger ones who were as dismissive about Bloom as he was about them. They were very concerned with the latest and most fashionable things, and seemed to think that ideas had an expiration date—that if something had been written twenty years ago, it was somehow obsolete. I didn’t like this, and thought using Bloom’s theory in a new way would frustrate them. I was young enough to think this was a good idea.

Of course my first move, to revise Bloom by saying he was right up to a point turned out to be a completely Bloomian move, what he’d call “clinamen”—a situation in which an author “makes a swerve away from a precursor, alluding to the proposition that the original work was only precise and accurate up until a particular end; at which point, the successive author makes the corrective motion.” And my second move, to tweak the noses of some of my professors—I suppose it was simple Oedipal stuff.

I should probably add that two things fueled my resistance to the intellectual fads of the moment, and still do. One is Robert Duncan’s claim that we should revive all of the discarded modes of knowledge. For him this meant finding truths and values in things like alchemy, but for me it was more pedestrian: if people were dismissing the New Critics, I was going to read the New Critics and find something of value there. If no one was reading an obscure Surrealist, like Lucie Thésée or Gabriel Piqueray, I was going straight to that stuff to find out what we were all missing.

The other thing, which enabled me to follow up on Duncan’s injunction, was working in a used and antiquarian bookstore, Chicago’s Aspidistra Books (since gone, alas) while I was a graduate student. We bought the libraries of a lot of dead academics and intellectuals, so I was constantly running across books that were no longer seriously discussed; forgotten things by very intelligent and learned people. It showed me how blinkered we can be by presentism, by the belief that the way we’re thinking about things here and now is the way to think about them. So when I wrote a dissertation crossing Bloom with postcolonialism to get my digs in at both Bloom and the postcolonialist thinkers of the mid-90s, I was trying, in my puerile way, to work against what I felt were different kinds of orthodoxies. I’d be remiss not to mention that the dissertation wasn’t particularly good, and I never tried to publish it. But I think working on it set me on a particular path, and I’m glad it did.

Before we close, can you give our readers the names of at least three underrated contemporary poets worth reading?

Naming names, eh? I'm in! Anthony Madrid. No one plays with rhyme and weird, old forgotten forms like he does. Who else finds inspiration in Edward Lear? And then there's John Matthias, with whom I've recently had the privilege of collaborating on a book called Revolutions: A Collaboration. John works some amazing variations on Mandelstam's biography and poetry there—and Jean Dibble illustrates it beautifully. And Marcela Sulak—she's lived everywhere, from east Texas to Argentina to the Czech Republic, and now Israel, and her books (one is called "Immigrant") show a truly cosmopolitan range of influence, which I admire. But the thing about naming names is that one could go—Michael Anania! Pam Rehm! Fred Moten! Catherine Daly! Timothy Yu! The late, wonderful Reginald Shepherd! And I'm going to slip the name of a critic into the mix, while I'm at it: Sally Connolly, who has written a wonderful book on the elegies poets write for other poets. I could keep going naming poets and poetry critics all day—I love the stuff. I even love running across poems I hate, because I get to learn how to appreciate what's there, what I hadn't yet learned to love.

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