Interview with Brian Blanchfield on A Several World — October 2, 2014

Brian Blanchfield is the author of two books of poetry—Not Even Then (University of California Press, 2014) and A Several World (Nightboat Books, 2014), recipient of the 2014 James Laughlin Award and named a longlist finalist for the 2014 National Book Award—and a chapbook The History of Ideas, 1973-2012 (Spork Press, 2013). His collection of essays, Onesheets, is forthcoming from Nightboat. He is a poetry editor for Fence and has taught at the University of Montana, Otis College of Art and Design, and Pratt Institute of Art, among other schools and universities and community centers. He lives in Tucson.    

Christopher Nelson: Congratulations not only for the wonderful book but for receiving the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and for being a longlist finalist for the National Book Award. What honors! In your History of Ideas sequence, you quote Adam Kirsch, who says that because there is not enough recognition in the world people make art. How does that contrast with your experiences as an artist, before and during your acclaim?

Brian Blanchfield: Thanks. Yes, some sort of light has found me this last month. And, I’m not used to it; but it has been very moving, really, to have the book receive this recognition.

Kirsch’s aphorism is one of the twelve that end each of twelve poems in the suite, The History of Ideas, 1973-2012. His concludes the poem called “Authority.” To oppose the poems’ opening epigraphs, which are each from a single reference work published in 1973 (The Dictionary of The History of Ideas), mostly I chose platitudes from the last couple of years that may indicate how much ground has been lost in 39 years. The poems open onto a scene in “the landscape” of that span. Some of the ending quotes, more so than Kirsch’s, are recognizable. Attributable to Antonin Scalia, Thomas Friedman, Pastor Rick Warren, etcetera—influential 21st century thinkers. I disagree with the formulation in the Kirsch. It is a good bet that people (in almost any American workplace, for instance) most always feel insufficiently recognized or underappreciated; but in my experience, more recognition is not the motivation for making art, certainly not a part of the artmaking spark.

Nelson: And what are your sparks?

Blanchfield: By spark, I just mean, when the circuit connects, and suddenly there’s a kind of current pulling independent of the person who had been, moments before, assembling parts and working at locution and troubling over logic and trusting a run of music in the speech and finding impact. It’s the moment you work for, a charge—sometimes it’s recognizing the smallest sympathy among elements and aligning them differently. Making sure the book works as a book involves dozens more of these. 

Nelson: The cover image of A Several World—Dennis Oppenheim’s Wishing the Mountains Madness, in which four acres of Montana landscape are covered by fluorescent stars—why did you select this? How do you see it in relationship to the poems?

Blanchfield: I feel really lucky to have found an image that is in rich conversation with the title of the book and with the short Robert Herrick poem I borrow the title from. “Here we are all by day. By night we’re hurl’d / by dreams, each one, into a several world.”

Dennis Oppenheim covered the hillside in (or just outside) Missoula with four by four foot wooden stars he had constructed and painted, though not in fluorescent colors. The cover image is one of a few aerial photographs that documented this work. This installation was done in 1977. As an artist, he remade himself again and again, but this is one of the prominent images of his career. Later I found that it had been the cover of a retrospective catalog published in Quebec, when he was still rather young. I happened upon the work for the first time in a Tucson used bookstore that has years and years of old Artforums. This was the inside back cover, full-bleed, of a 1978 issue, and I found it completely magnetic. The saturating green, the steep vertiginous slope, the peculiar starfall. Concept as content, the appeal to fantasy. I find many affinities.

When I realized it was made in the town where I lived for three years, in the foundational landscape of the book, my attraction deepened. I have a friend who is convinced that in this work we’re looking at Water Works Hill, essentially the view from my little writing desk when I lived in Missoula, thirty years after Dennis Oppenheim would have been in residence. I am luckier still that the Oppenheim estate was so generous and interested in the project of the book. I can no longer imagine the book without Wishing the Mountains Madness.

Nelson: There is a fascinating cast of cameo appearances in A Several World—cultural figures, popular and obscure, present and past: Marino Marini, Eileen Myles, Thomas Jackson, Justice Scalia, William James, et al. Tell us how they have made their way into your speakers’ worlds.

Blanchfield: I’m not sure how to answer this in any illuminating way. I could add to the guest list you start here. Sergei Diaghilev and Guy Davenport and Tyra Banks and Christian Marclay and Eve Sedgwick and Capability Brown and Marianne Moore and Temple Grandin. If the book were a dinner party or, as you suggest, a kind of Cannonball Run, the very miscellany would be the joy. 

The truth is the figures that appear are suggested by the concerns of the poems. Their names become part of the poems’ materials, I suppose, in a way that sometimes exceeds the reference: a mission creep, if that makes sense. In the case of Thomas Jackson, for instance: I have no idea who he was apart from the usage sentence attributable to him in the dictionary definition for fend, which the speaker of “In Their Motions” reports looking up. “Fend is only short for defend, of course, / whereas I had expected a fennel frond / or a foil or something inner forest feeling. / Who meant it first as doing with others / who might have helped? Jackson, Thomas. / 1627, in his Treatise of the Divine Essence / and Attributes: they do not direct their brood / in their motions but leave them to fend / for themselves.” The inclusion of his name, and his apparently signature work, and the usage sentence itself—and putting none of it in quotes or itals—carries further the music and logic of the poem, eventually (in later drafts) giving it its title, even.

Nelson: When critics complained about the difficulty of his work, Umberto Eco said that “people are tired of simple things” and “want to be challenged.” I agree, and I find pleasure in difficult texts. That being acknowledged, I would like to hear your thoughts on difficulty and accessibility—in poetry in general (if there is such a thing) but primarily in your work. A pleasurable difficulty for me, for example, is an uncertainty of “aboutness” in some of these poems—what Reginald Shepherd might have called “semantic difficulty”—that seems to value the unpredictable journey of thought to clarity of circumstance and message.

 Blanchfield: Heather McHugh quotes Allen Grossman as having said, “A poem is about, the way a cat is about the room.” Curious. And, the adjustment in premise Grossman makes there—from topic to territory—feels truer to how composition works for me.

I love forthrightness, especially the authoritative remark or bracing assessment, in poetry. There is plenty of that sort of reset in this book. Plenty of candor even. I hope it’s a significant part of the experience. But that mode is only one of many at poetry’s disposal.

Not to deflect, rather in more direct answer to the last part of your question, I like the poet Karen Volkman’s quick formulation: a poem is a thinking thing.

Its value as instrument for thought and as a vessel in which thought isn’t finished or exclusively authorial demands some artful orchestration that involves and requires the reader. A word I like here is obliging. A poem should be obliging, I think, and that means good access, good grip for the good reader. Lots of “difficult” books satisfy this charge: from this year alone, I’m compelled by Harmony Holiday’s Go Find Your Father and Chris Nealon’s Heteronomy. Both of which, not incidentally, are poignant and searching, as well as complex in their methods.

Nelson: Of course, I don’t want to misrepresent your poems; there are frequent moments when lyric language and image (traditional hallmarks of poetry) harmonize magically, such as in these lines from “Alienation”: “In that bay beyond the bayside / bar—around whose cool brass rail a boy disunites his / heel and sandal—she runs again the rim of the rest of time.” Do you feel any anxiety from the tradition? Does Pound’s specter, whispering Make it new!, hover beside your muses?

Blanchfield: No. For poetry I prefer Viktor Shklovsky’s “Make it strange,” from about the same time. Ostranenie. Defamiliarize the commonplace, unseat the default habits of language, to better show the constructedness of those habits and expectations. I think no less a canonical writer than Emily Dickinson was an exemplary of this. In her and really her alone—maybe also Laura Riding—do I understand what poets and critics mean when they talk about the “materiality of language.” I was just writing about this in an essay. When “Detour” is stood as a noun in Dickinson, or “Pause” or “Treasure,” it’s as though she has sited a place where value gathers, where value gravitates. I have the sense of radiance around the word she puts into play. She’s a custodian of something in language buried long before.

Nelson: And congratulations are also in order for your forthcoming book of essays, called Onesheets (Nightboat Books, 2015—portions of which can be read here). Why prose? What terrain of mind or heart does this mode encourage you to explore that poetry doesn’t?

Blanchfield: A recurring dream I have—or a form of dream—is that I find another room in a house I live in, a room that had been there all along. There is mystery and euphoria in these dreams in which I discover a carpeted basement or an entire furnished apartment down some stairs I hadn’t known about, or a long corridor to a kind of hothouse garden or an unlit swimming pool at night, the sounds of showers in a locker room adjacent. This, for me, is the feeling of discovering essay nonfiction. Another room on the house, one that had been there all along. I am feeling my way to see what its outer contours are.

Onesheets is a collection of single-subject essays—part cultural semiotics and part dicey autobiography—in which I take no recourse in outside authoritative sources, and “think through” the subject at hand, reporting only what I know, estimate, remember, and misremember until I reveal some personally uneasy ground, and deliver from there. Because, on my own authority, I get a number of things wrong, the last twelve pages or so of the book are devoted to a rolling endnote, called “Correction.” The essay subjects themselves range from Confoundedness and the Locus Amoenus, to Foot Washing and Br'er Rabbit, to The Leave (in Billiards) and Peripersonal Space. Together they cover poetry and poetics, sex and sexuality, and subject positions in American labor and academia; and many retrieve something from my childhood in the working class, Primitive Baptist central Piedmont of North Carolina and Virginia.

You know, in both of my other books and elsewhere I think I’ve written poems that are bigger than me, or quicker, out ahead of me in some way or another. But, nearly finished now with the prose collection, I can say: these essays are braver than I am. I haven’t felt that way about poetry.