D.A. Powell is the author of four previous collections of poetry. His newest book, Useless Landscape or a Guide for Boys, will be released in February 2012. Cocktails (2004) and Chronic (2009) were both finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. Powell received the Kingsley Tufts Award, the California Book Award, a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation . This conversation was recorded over the course of several days in San Francisco and in California’s Central Valley. Powell currently lives and teaches in San Francisco.
Interviewer: After talking with you, it seems hard to say a poem can be wrong.
Powell: It’s very rare that there’s a correlation between how people value something in one age and how it lasts into another, or whether it lasts.
There are so many ways in which we perform ourselves to the world, and what writing really requires is a kind of authenticity that you have to work for years to achieve. And it has nothing to do with telling all your dirty secrets, because anyone can do that. It really has to do with getting in touch with your soul, your intuitive self, your ability to empathize with things, events, ideas in the world. It’s not hard to develop. I think that’s why people come to poetry, because they have an intense relationship with their feelings, but being able to adapt those feelings into some conversation in the world of value, not “some little thing hurt me.” Nobody cares about my life. They only care about my life performed by me. Otherwise it’s like… yawn.
Interviewer: How do you explain the genesis of the post-ironic and post-confessional labels that have been attributed to some of your work?
Powell: I think some of what people see in my work as “post-ironic” is probably just a case of reading too much Ashbery. Ashbery often ends on this heartbreaking moment, “And only in the light of lost words/ Can we imagine our rewards.” That’s sort of an Ashbery legacy.
And I guess that I am post-confessional in the sense that the confessional poets are all dead. I am living post-them. I’ll concede that. But I don’t see myself as entertaining the same concerns.
I see myself more as a metaphysical poet. Am I post-metaphysical maybe? Because rather than using the self as a way of talking about the world, I use the world as a way of talking about the self. But I don’t think of the self as myself. If I did I don’t think I would be able to write a word. It is “a self” constructed consciously in the work and I think that is really the influence of one of my first teachers, David Bromige. In his book Tiny Courts and What’s Around Them, he has a line “and I cannot mean me.” And elsewhere he said, “How you feel personally about that apple orchard will only embarrass us.” He taught me that the concerns of one person, in one time, are small.
Bromige would gently remind me through his writing, his instruction, through the poets he invited me to read, that “I” only matters if it’s capable of being inhabited by anybody, including your reader. You have to be willing in the poem to say the things that you don’t necessarily believe to be true. Shakespeare isn’t all of his characters. He can’t be Lear and Richard III and also Prospero. But I’m sure all those characters draw something from his psychology.
I really think of myself as a dramatist. That was my first passion, playwriting. And I’ve never stopped being a playwright. I write very short plays, in my own voice, to be performed by me, based on my life! But other than that there is no “I” in there.
I recently wrote a poem entitled “Chicken.” It’s a very old slang expression that started out in prisons. Chicken, being a young boy or young man who is incapable of defending himself, and has to rely on the patronage, the friendship, the love of other men who are stronger and who can protect him. That language passes into the general queer argot of the 1950s— right around the time people start translating Genet.
So I was playing on all those meanings, as well as the literal idea of chicken, the poultry. And I didn’t know where it was going to go, but certainly there were a lot of things that ended up in the poem that were things that I knew. But were they from first-hand experience, stories people told me, or things imagined and invented? I wish I could go through the poem image by image, line by line, and tell you where it is me, and where it is somebody else. But to tell the god’s honest truth, I don’t know if I know all of that one hundred percent, nor should I.
Interviewer: Then, if truth in a poem does not prescribe the validation of the self, then to what extent should there be truth and to what extent should you chip away at it?
Powell: The only truth that matters is what is true for the poem as it develops. But I think this other thing you’re talking about, that post-ironic. I think of that in two ways. First, it’s a kind of safety device that is prevalent in poetry now. Most people don’t want to be too revealing in workshops. As if you are going to be too revealing in workshops! And I think we’ve begun to reward too easily lack of true habitation of the work. We can pinpoint language, gestures, moves, and say “well, that is the poem.” That would be like sitting at a piano, and playing every note correctly and calling it the song. I think we’ve become craft people in American poetry. Poets should outgrow the concerns of craft! Learn your craft and then don’t think about it anymore because it gets in the way of making the poem.
The other way I think about post- ironic and I think this is an apt way of describing my work is that we’ve gone through an age of abject sincerity in poetry. It got maudlin and then there was another shift towards the ironic mode.
Surrealism, Dadaism, the New York School, the Beats. There was a lot of ways of shaking up the traditional tonalities of the poem in order to allow for a humorous shadow, or a humorous doppelganger that runs alongside every great poem of the last 50 years. But now I think people are growing tired of that. And I see increasingly – which complicates the matter more – poets, including myself, using schlock, using camp, using discardible phrases, pop-songs or the detritus of human culture, which is acknowledging that material as inauthentic and also reinvesting it with authenticity. And that was a long way around one question. Oh! my left-branching brain…
Interviewer: A poem like “A Guide for Boys” populates a lot of the interests involved with your upcoming book of poems. In one way, identifying the mushrooms, and trees, and rabbits gives those boy scouts a certain power.
Powell: I think the deep concerns of that poem are learning about your world and your surroundings and learning about yourself and your desires. Letting those things develop as natural paths rather than trying to hide them. There’s a whole section in that poem that deals with codes. And once upon my life I was a big believer in hiddenness. But now, you know I’m on Twitter: anything I think, anyone can go look at. I don’t mind people reading my thoughts, if they’re that bored. I feel like the age of privacy is past. In order for us to continue as a body, we have to learn how to read each other, how to interact, how to communicate; and we can’t communicate in hidden signals.
I don’t think we should continue supporting lies. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell? It’s the perfect model for what we need to get rid of. We need to get rid of those structures that force people to be secretive. We need to get rid of this intelligence community that fosters secrecy. Intelligence is only useful if it brings things to light, not if it buries things.
Interviewer: So I’ve been drinking a glass of the Anis Shivani juice, and—
Powell: His articles are so specious. He’s constantly currying favor from people. If you’re a critic, be a critic. His bio says, “Anis Shivani is currently seeking a publisher for his first manuscript.” There’s something really self-serving about that. It just goes to show how for-sale his opinion is, because he’s out there trying to please the people who might be in the position to publish his poetry…
His poetry is really sophomoric and that’s unfortunate. If you’re going to throw rocks through people’s windows, you don’t want to live in a glass house and you don’t want to live where the landscaping is full of rocks. He gives so much ammunition for people to lob at him.
In one of his recent pieces; he talked about which presses were publishing Great Work. How can you praise a press? You don’t know what they are publishing next year. And the fact that he talks specifically about presses, shows his focus is on production and publication. So it makes any of his criticism nugatory. It’s just sad that we all have to be witness.
Interviewer: Tacking back, when I hear the phrase “useless landscape,” it seems to wrap itself around the idea of eco-poetics. There’s a piece by James Englehardt that defines this as a movement. Does this book tie into the ethical boundaries of the utilization of land vs the over-use of landscape?
Powell: I think that any sentient being should be aware of the health of the planet and its various eco-systems. But saying “Useless Landscape” is about ecology is like saying “Howl” is about shock-value. It’s not about that. It employs it, as a device. The book has two titles, “Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys” either one on their own would not be interesting, but they have another conversation, behind my back. A guide for boys is a kind of useless landscape. Or – in the sense of what would be instructive for young men to learn, or what you should know about young men: they’re useless, and they just lie there.
Interviewer: I like the idea, of the language talking behind your back, can you elaborate on that kind of misdirection?
Powell: Often times you are trying to get at the subject underneath the poem, and you have a block of thinking. Most of what you put on the page in that first draft is garbage, but there’ll be a little nugget to pardon it.
And when I revise, I think I go through one color at a time, shades or nuances, and I’ll think about one thread or idea that needs to be developed, and then step away. And return to it to find another word working through that nuance and then go from there.
Robert Duncan said that we carry a certain predisposition for certain patterns, and where we confront the world’s reorganizing of our patterns, or complicating our patterns, or tripping, or anything that forces us to step a different way because nature has created a different path, that’s what he calls “significant form.” And what poets do, and should do unconsciously, is to work with their own internal pattern and allow it to shift based on the same pattern. A little bit of headstrongness, coupled with the ability to adapt.
(Heading to Yuba City)
Interviewer: When you say you come back here, to Yuba City to remind yourself of where you came from, do you consider yourself separated? Are you a city poet?
Powell: I considered myself a city poet years ago, with Tea especially. The funny thing is I wrote that book while I was in Iowa, maybe it was because I felt exiled from the city that I constantly wrote about. And now I feel like I’m exiled from the country.
There’s still farming at the heart of this town. But what’s interesting is, [there] used to be a Del Monte Cannery and now there’s no trace of it. That was the biggest industry in town. People came from all over the country to work in the cannery during the summer, but now you can’t tell where it was.
Another thing that keeps resurfacing in my work is this area between these two levees which is where the Yuba River and the Feather River come together by the train trestle, and there’s a park down here called River Front Park. It’s also called the river bottoms because when the river overflows, it covers the park and fills all the space between two levees.
Interviewer: Was it always a park?
Powell: It developed into park area in the late 70s, so when I was here. And the house I used to live in, in my early 20s was an Old Victorian on C Street. A mule trainer and a pimp lived downstairs.
There was a slaughterhouse here, and a woman that I lived with was a prostitute and she had a trick that would pay her in steaks from the slaughterhouse. . The mule trainer would take off in the summer and train mules and she would let her place to a couple of women that would come and work the cannery. One of my neighbors was amped up on meth and it was kind of awful.
Interviewer: Coming back here, do you think a poem like “Dying in the Development” still applies to the town?
Powell: This housing development, which was really modern at the time, was built on circles. Cul-de-sacs come up in my work a lot, and I’m usually thinking of houses that look like this.
I guess I was trying to write about the development as it was happening in my world. That poem sort of steps back 30 years, but this is not so different than what it was like. There used to be a cool little place that had bumper cars and pinball. It was probably a front, but it was a great place to get away.
Interviewer: So what eventually got you out of this town?
Powell: Self-preservation, and luck, and an auto-accident that allowed me to buy a car and get enrolled in a college. Otherwise who the hell knows? I’d be dead at The Budget Inn!
A part of me really loved this place, and still does. But lordy, what would I have done?
Interviewer: So is that the pivot point, the escapism, for a lot of these places you’re returning to?
Powell: Well you have to realize what age I was; so yes, everything was an escape. I don’t cherish the things that weren’t an escape.
Interviewer: All these towns and these orchards provide fruit, but it feels like such an unnatural thing with the levees and the plots and the structures built for produce.
Powell: In the midst of disappearing. It’s so funny to drive through the older part of Yuba City and see the orchard supply and the melon packing, while at the same time the big canneries are gone. Gone. In the midst of disappearing. It’s turning into a bedroom community. But there are still vestiges. In another hundred years, I don’t know what things will look like.
The funny thing is, Virgil thought, when people were moving into the city centers of Rome and Florence, “oh, an entire way of life is going to die in my generation!” But it’s always been that way.
Interviewer: We talked in Tennessee about how the artificial landscape there wasn’t native but it wasn’t necessarily artificial. Do these orchards (off the highway) make the land one or the other?
Powell: Well, orchards aren’t a very natural thing, with the exception of olives I guess. Olives pretty much take care of themselves. Other trees require endless maintenance and selection. Take almond trees for example. We have learned to cultivate them. But I worry about too much cultivation. I’d much rather have an apple with a worm in it. I find it reassuring to know that some other species could live inside that apple. I’d much rather have that, than have an apple that’s waxed and polished, bred to be red and to be hearty.
Powell included this poem to accompany the interview
landscape with combine
My father’s fields are far from here.
I shot my share of blackbirds there.
Drove a harvester in summer.
The tractor-trailer rigs would come.
The pickers, singularly or in vans.
And in summer the canneries began.
If I was asked to ride the John Deere then.
To reap, I’d reap; to thresh, I’d thresh. Men,
I’d winnow you. I’d winnow a few.
I’d take you, dear John, or whoever is you.
Love is easier to achieve than you might think. Sooner
or later the combine gives out. & sooner.