Interview with
David Rigsbee

by Ace Boggess
David Rigsbee
TAR: The Dissolving Island is everything traditional about poetry publishing: flat-spined, modestly-numbered paperback from a university press. It marks the newest step in a career that has seen your work in many of most prestigious literary magazines. At the same time, however, you have not resisted publishing your work on the web, including as I recall, work as far back as early issues of The Cortland Review. What is your take on internet magazines and web publishing in general? How do you decide which on-line magazines work for you as a writer? Has web publishing helped your career or introduced you to other readers? What about your favorite on-line magazines?

DR: I am a book person, and I like nothing better than to hold a new book of poems or a literary magazine in my hands. Like other poets, I resisted what seemed to me the ephemeral nature of publishing on the internet. In the first place, I don't really subscribe to the notion that poetry writing is for everyone. At the same time I've given a lot of thought both to the nature of the worldwide changeover from analog to digital paradigms and to the nature of poetry as a metaphysical, as opposed to a material, manifestation of language use. In the first instance, it seems to me that one of the key differences between analog and digital is the fact that digital, because it samples gaps — emptiness — stands in elegiac relationship to that which it represents. Ironically, its greater "realism" is bought at this price, whereas analog, which means — in this case, the typewritten or printed page — adheres to some notion of grounding and tracing. The fact of the matter is, as poets have insisted from Horace to Shakespeare to Mandelstam, poetry is metaphysical, in the sense that the means by the which poems are disseminated may vary enormously. Whether it lies on the cold bed of the printed page, as pixels on the internet, or as memorized niches in the human Theater of Memory makes little difference to the fact of poetry. The classical boasts on behalf of the poem as the preferred memorial for memorable deeds and persons still seem to have an enormous warrant — in spite of the fact that the spirit of these boasts has been occluded by the coming of other, more conspicuously representational means — photography, movies, video. It's an illusion to think that accuracy of representation has anything to do with the quality of memorialization through praise and elegy. That feat can best be accomplished with the wholesale trading out of the representational for the metaphorical, the analogous for the metonymous, the personal for the public. This is all a fancy and unnecessarily complicated way of saying that poetry sits as well on the website as it does with the books of Alfred A. Knopf. The cybernetic and the metaphysical are, after all, just two ways of expressing the same thing.

Once I was able to think through my own objections to poetry websites, I realized that I might as well embrace them. Which is not to say that I send lots of poems to on-line magazines. As a matter of fact, all of the poems I've published on-line have, with one exception, been as result of solicitations. Still, I hope to send more of my own poems to online journals. Poetry websites, including the personal websites of poets, seem to me to be of enormous literary value, quite apart from their ability to be instantly ready-to-hand.  In addition to the manifest literary (I want to say "printed," but of course they aren't printed) works, there is often the voice of the poet, and as broadband increases, we will also see an increase of images and video. On-line poetry readings. Add to this the fact that the readership is potentially global and you have the possibility of a renaissance (of course every other art and discipline is no doubt thinking the same thing!). True, it doesn't "last," but poetry gains in the ability of shape-shift too, and this ability the internet provides. I was drawn to The Cortland Review initially because it featured the voices of the poets reading, as well as useful links, and it's still my favorite on-line magazine. I think it's done a creditable job of reaching an international readership. I know, for example that my poems have been read in Europe and Australia — and I'm a small-press poet. Imagine that. The internet, then, explodes our native provincialism — a good thing for American poets and anybody else, don't you think? Having embraced this technology, I have to add that I am nonetheless concerned that too much time in front of the computer screen detracts from a commitment to reading and following arguments through their complexities and depths. In fact, computers seem to legislate on some level against depths in favor of "surfing," with the superficial implications of that. My fear is that we could wind up with generations of people incapable of understanding how arguments work, how cases are made and reality described. It's a fear that's not just political.

TAR:  In terms of your writing, your poems often fall into perfectly-carved, symmetrical stanzas and seemed to be evenly balanced as well between image and idea. Where do you begin a poem? With thought, scene, line? Do you often have some grander concept of what each poem should be, or is a piece more likely to develop as the story goes along? How do you know when a poem is finished? Are you an obsessive editor who keeps reworking until a poem is published, or beyond that? Or is there something that just tells you to leave it alone?

DR: I'm glad that you think these poems so lapidary. I rather see them as only approximately responsive to the demands of form -- or as lines impersonating rather than embodying the rigors of poetry. But I know that a lot of poets have anxieties about authenticity. It's the compliment the practitioner pays the art. The truth is that I rarely know what a poem is going to look like going in. It's only after the poem and I are well on our way that I begin to get an inkling of the kind of poem it's trying to be. I notice that my way of saying this implies that the poem has its own notions about coming into being and growth, and this is accurate. Language after all, as Brodsky always said, is greater than any of its practitioners and therefore reflects the lesser's relationship to the greater, whether we acknowledge it or not. Some philosophers tell us we have a "truth-tracking" mechanism; that is, we experience as intimations of rightness when we're onto something. I have a similar feeling about poetry. After all we don't write poems that are utterly bad through and through without intimations of caution -- well, most poets of my acquaintance don't! Therefore the opposite must be true:  we do know when we're onto something, and we try to capitalize on those moments and ramify their possibilities. The poem reveals to you where it needs to go, so to speak. In saying this, I am not saying the usual thing about language writing us, though that is true enough, rightly understood. Many poets, I believe, begin with pieces of a poem. I do, although I know there are other poets who begin with poems already finished in some important ways. I'm not one of them, although I sometimes dream whole poems. As for when a poem is finished, that's a serious matter because how we feel about the issue of "closure" tells us a lot, not only how our poems fit into our other discursive practices, but how we weigh in on matters of aesthetic sensibility. This, as I understand it, signifies something about the presence or absence of our ability to be home in time. I believe with Iris Murdoch that limited aesthetic wholes benefit the human psyche, contrasting the sense of satisfaction that comes with imaginative completion to the ragged ends of most lived experience. A poem ends for me when I sense its internal time signature -- its rhythm -- has been fully justified in actual time. It would be, of course, bad taste to overdo a poem.     

TAR: Are there any rituals that you as a writer go through in a day before/after writing? Do you prefer some sort of routine for your writing? Or, more randomness?

DR: Alas, I'm usually able to write only in summer because of my job as professor and lately department chair. But I do revise fitfully all during the year. I shouldn't complain too much, though, because in fact I can get quite a lot done in a short space. I have good powers of concentration when I have to rely on them. I have written complete collections in a few months. Last summer, for instance, I wrote a book-length sonnet sequence. I seem to be one of those people who can store up opportunities for poems and work on them subconsciously for months before ever committing anything to paper. When I do, the poems usually emerges quickly and whole -- which is not to say finished. I do have routines, however. When I move into the writing zone, I have favorite places I like to write -- actual spots, and I prefer writing outside. These habits do approach the levels of rituals, just as they do with athletes, but I think they are merely ways to cultivate a sense of receptivity, of attending to those issues and sounds trying to make their way to one's -- unfortunately very limited and crowded -- attention. Keats said that a change of clothes could affect one's output, and that's just a testimony to the power of auto-suggestion when a poem needs to be written. Because I usually write in stretches, I have to beware of anything that would compromise the scant time or any self-consciousness that would startle the Muse any more than she already is anyway. Hence these little rituals, which amount to time maintenance procedures. One other thing:  I prefer to sit in fields or on hills overlooking some unfolding landscape or to overlook water--not to seem Byronic, but because small spaces -- like that of a study, however bookish, confine the imagination, in some respect. That's just a fact about me; it doesn't apply to anybody else. To tell you the truth, I wish I could sit at my desk and write poetry like a normal poet, but I find that arrangement--writer, desk, lamp, paper -- cramping. I prefer to orient my page and myself to the elements -- with all the associations of that, even though it means being subject to the vicissitudes of weather and the often discordant and distracting flow of life.    

TAR: Writing about personal themes can straddle the line between greatness and the inane. Carol Muske-Dukes was nominated for Pulitzer recently for doing that in Sparrow. At the same time, we editors and eager readers of poetry know that it tends to be the starting point for much that is rotten in Denmark. Quite a bit of The Dissolving Island reflects on very personal themes, including the death of a brother. How do you decide when a story is appropriate to tell, and if you have done it justice in the telling? How does seeing this book in print help you deal with the past? Does it stir up things that had settled? Does it release you as a sort of secondhand confession?

DR: Number one, there is no such thing as closure -- only forgetting. Therefore, in one important sense, a poem flies in the face of reality. Poems may provide thematic closure, but that's a lyric phenomenon. I can settle scores in a novel or win a battle that real life would never let me do. It's important to distinguish between real and lyric accommodations, victories, and realizations. These model not life but our wishes and are thus necessary idealizations. I say necessary because they do an important job in accounting for the human resistance to the lives we must live, where contingency rules over order. We write about those things that are paramount in our lives -- love, the deaths of loved ones, the subversive nature of time. This applies to Carol's book, which addresses what is perhaps the greatest blow a person can receive: the death of the partner who not only represents the loss of a love object, but also of one who took on supreme significance by having agreed to make his own life coextensive with hers. Quite apart from the loss of love, discontinuity threatens to cancel our ability to make sense. Thus to the elegy is always added the self-elegy. No wonder the book was nominated for every major prize. But there's something else that's at work here which bears on your frighteningly exact question, which is about limits. As Carol knew when David suddenly died and as I understood when my brother committed suicide, the personal has no natural connection to the interpersonal. What I mean is that, regardless of the "need" to find expression for grief, as though to find means to put it from us (symbolically, if not actually), this is a private matter. The very exclusiveness of the feeling precisely excludes other people. To turn, then, and to desire to entail others at the highest pitch of grief is perfectly inappropriate and as doomed to failure as are -- at the other end of the spectrum -- white-hot expressions of desire in a love poem to someone not intended as the recipient of these ardors. What you have to do is to convert the private to the public, private feeling into public discourse--even, or especially, poetic discourse. This means that the original impetus -- the personal affront of death or the sudden surge of love must undergo transformation to a publicly held trust of meanings. In other words, private feelings must become public issues, and the only way for that to happen is for private feelings to exchange the emphasis on occasions -- which is what the private and existential being, the sufferer and celebrant, wants -- for thematic instances and limited wholes of expression -- which is what the reader understands. Happily, language encourages this, and that's one of the reasons we have generally given assent to what has now become a clichÈ, namely, that language writes us. If it is true that language does anything of the sort, it's because language is a social tool, not the private alphabet of an autistic person. I take the elegy to be paradigmatic of poetry's ability to create communities of access. I also take this paradigm to elucidate what Emerson meant when he said all men stand in need of justification. To be justified doesn't mean to be comforted in grief or congratulated in elation, but to have secured a certain intelligibility with respect to one's own set of realities as these are understood in the context of a community.         

TAR: Your wife, artist Jill Bullitt, did the art for covers of your last two books, including The Dissolving Island. Does being married to a fellow artist challenge you as a writer? Does it make for competition?

DR: Artists have the advantage of not using linguistic materials as their means of expression. Hence the nature of their work tends to avoid one of the common circularities implicit in writing, when the language of expression is also the language of criticism -- and, indeed, of most complex thought, for example. Artistsí work involves images that are tactile, not so abjectly grounded in abstraction. Having said this, I feel duty-bound to agree that painting is also a language -- and therefore grounded in its own abstraction. Certainly the framework for creating meaning in painting is less familiar to most people. But because words are also used all the time by everyday people, consensus helps to create a shared sense of what words mean.  From this standpoint, painting might be said to be even more abstract because the elements it uses -- brush strokes, etc. -- are at this point less familiar (i.e., separated from their everyday practice) to most people, than words. 

While it begins at what I think of as a different kind abstraction than with poetry, painting deals in issues similar to the poet's -- they are the issues common to the arts. Because painting allows you to concentrate on means, often self-consciousness is not the same kind of obstacle as it is with poetry -- the potentially debilitating one that drew Baudelaire's attention (perhaps because of his own reflections on painting) and that he raised into one of the arch-themes of modernity. Painting also (like music) invites resistance to paraphrase, and I think of this as a plus. Jill and I have had innumerable conversations touching on these subjects. I'm afraid that I rather got her back up shortly after we met by insisting that because painting was non-linguistic, it wasn't what I call a language. She set me straight on that, and now we see pretty much eye-to-eye on most matters of aesthetics. One of the key things we talk about -- and decry -- is the decentering of painting from art, of art from culture, of poetry from literature and of literature from democratic culture. Jill has a much more sophisticated political background from mine, having worked as a progressive activist, and her insights concerning the social role of art have helped me rethink some of my long-held prejudices on the subject. Where we diverge is in my belief that just working as an artist is ipso facto political. She disagrees, or rather, she feels that argument is a bit of a cop-out. Which it probably is, inasmuch as it basically feeds the narcissism that says, "leave me alone and let me do my work," as the world crumbles. Having a second art in the house is definitely a plus, as far as I'm concerned. It shows you the extent of your ability to create resonances, and it constantly reminds you of the other roads that lead to the temple -- a helpful reminder for a poet, who in his secret self too often scales what Shahid Ali called six-inch Himalayas. I feel no pressure to compete with her; nor am I sure on what grounds such a competition would be conducted. I have known of some friction between artistic spouses who share the same art -- but almost none between artists who practice different arts. When overlapping replaces coincidence, Cupid gets it right.         

TAR: Who would you describe as your major influences as writer? Brodsky, obviously, but who else? Do you prefer poetry to other forms of writing when you read?

DR: Joseph Brodsky was one of my mentors, yes. He taught me that poetry could, indeed it must, exist through agencies beyond its first appearances in print. I say must, because he knew in his exilic circumstance and felt the real possiblity -- which became a reality -- that his own life and the destiny of his poetry were likely to be very divergent, and that the poem's ability to survive was directly connected to the degree of its rootedness in metaphysics. Joseph's view was that all the facts we commonly group under the all-embracing rubric of "history" -- were united in their discontinuity. Ironically, he came to this view as one who had long championed the strict -- though ultimately impossible -- one-for-one correspondence of translation. At the same time, he knew that we encounter most poems in languages other than our own through this most expedient of devices. But good ironist that he was, he also recognized a compensatory gain in the midst of such a loss: the translated poem stood in elegiac relation to its origin. This is similar to what I was just talking about when I said that the private must undergo a transformation to the public in order to stand for anything at all -- most especially including standing for private or privileged utterance. Brodsky himself pointed this out in an essay on Cavafy, whose work is mostly read in translation. The key is to accept the virtual poem as one of the poem's destinies and so to collapse and old and bothersome distinction between the real and the virtual, the original and the copy -- a distinction that makes no sense to me anymore. You are probably asking yourself what this has to do with my relationship to Brodsky, well, I often imagine how Joseph would respond to things in my world now. I think I have internalized him to the point that I can send his arguments off into further emanations and adventures he would not have imagined or have had the foolishness to consider! Joseph was thus very important to the development of my views on poetry and language generally. He was also a complete poet, in the sense that his practice and his life were seamless, as everyone who met him realized. He was a role model for artistic responsibility minus sanctimony, and he was the embodiment, for me, of wit and grace and camaraderie and selflessness. And sheer intelligence sprinting after an idea, then finally hyperventilating on itself. 

I have had two other role models. My first poetry teacher was Carolyn Kizer, who remains a paradigm of literary professionalism. She stressed the need for a thorough grounding in basics and cultivated a love for the classical models, for international poetry, and for social and political astuteness. She taught us on the one hand about the sounds and tactile features of poetry and on the other about what she understood as the proper biases by which art and taste connect. She hated can't and was impatient with stupidity, but she connected something of the life of poetry with a backing of the underdog. Not surprisingly, she turned all of her students into feminists through her example. And she was -- and is -- justly famous for her example, which is that of a person living large and well. She inspired -- I should say armed -- her students against intimidations of all kinds -- especially institutional intimidations -- a valuable lesson for budding artists whose lives might otherwise be set on compliance. I had the pleasure of introducing her to Brodsky, by the way, and they took to each other's company instantly. She called him "Joe," when calling him "Joseph" seemed a guilty concession to American leveling. My last influence was the philosopher Richard Rorty. Dick brought me around to understanding language in a new way, and he challenged my understanding of Platonism as the only philosophy available to the poet by introducing me to Heidegger's concept of poetry as a model for an attendance on reality, rather than something that tries to accomplish an objective, linguistic or otherwise. Dick's American neo-pragmatic philosophy is directed against what he calls "power freaks," whom he identifies as Platonists, scientists, mind-body dualists, religionists, most political programs, and virtually all ideologies! To these he opposes a reverential (albeit vigorously secular) model of the poet attending to what Stevens called "the music of what happens." This model doesn't seek to know, to get, to use, or to "understand." Nor is it passive, in the conventional sense of that term. Examples from his arsenal include Whitman and Stevens, and his philosophy is as much a working out of the implications of Whitman's and Stevens' poetry as it is of Heidegger's and Dewey's philosophy. Dick Rorty shows how it is possible to find in art, ideas, politics, and psychology mutually supporting implications. He's also a wonderful prose stylist.

I read all kinds of things: books on philosophy and religion, science, general nonfiction, biographies, criticism, fiction, but I also read poetry every day. I can't imagine not doing it:  it puts you in mind of other minds and imaginations working at highest pitch. Other writers have other pleasures, but the presence of this pitch is peculiar to poetry -- with a few exceptions, like the novels of Philip Roth, for example.                

TAR: Talk a little about how you see things such as philosophy or science intersecting with poetry, as they seem to do so often in your work.

DR: Poetry and philosophy have much in common. However, in America the philosophical tradition has been largely academic and too technical for writers. In Europe--as indeed in South America--the tradition is different: writers and philosophers are on much better speaking terms. Emerson tried to move philosophy closer to the literary culture, inasmuch as his agenda included writing what would amount to a cultural declaration of independence to complete the political one of the previous century. Unfortunately, Emerson's wedding of philosophy and poetry, while congenial to Whitman, was anathema to the emerging  philosophers of the academy, who preferred to base their systems where the action was -- on science rather than poetry. We are still dealing with the consequences of that rejection. I have always favored the European premise of compatibility because it helps situate our disbelief next to our faith. It did strike me that there was something to be said for the fact that European poets have training in their thought-traditions, while ours have training in workshops devoted to technique. It seems to me that if poetry is ever to be the maker of myths and paradigms in this country it will need to take a hard look at the inclinations underlying its discourses. At any rate, doing so would be infinitely preferable to the continual lamentations of poets cursing the fate of poetry in America.

TAR: Finally, in 1994 I asked you how much of your own voice you put into translations of Nobel-Laureate Brodsky, and you said, "As much as the author would let me." So, as a closing curiosity, what language would your work be best suited for in translation, and in what way?

DR: In the 1920s there was an amusing gang of Soviet poets who maintained that the proper language for poetry ought to be math -- for what was perceived as its -- math's -- chiseling effect on ambiguity, ambivalence, vagueness, and the like. I don't know if this ever amounted to a school. However, it seems to me that these qualities -- ambiguity, vagueness, and so forth, more closely favor people in their messiness than do hypothetical, ideal languages. At the same time, people need such ideals so as not to be continually trapped by the grind and attractions of their messiness. I like to maintain what Brodsky called a "necessary ambivalence" in my poems because, as I told my friend the filmmaker Michael Roemer recently, what we say is often both the truth and bullshit -- at the same time! What language wears such bi-focals? We know of some languages that are, for example, mired between tradition and modernity in their ability to confer names -- Icelandic comes to mind. That's the kind of lanaguage I would like to be translated in. 

TAR: Thanks for your time, David. Much success with the book.

DAVID RIGSBEE was educated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Johns Hopkins University, Hollins College, and the University of Virginia. The most recent of his nine previous books is Invited Guest: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Southern Poetry (co-edited with Steven Ford Brown). His awards include fellowships and prizes from the National Endowment for the Arts, Virginia Commission on the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown, and the Academy of American Poets. His work has appeared in such places as The New Yorker, Poetry, and American Poetry Review.