Short Q&A: A Window to the Mind of Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout

Dear Rae
Why
the short
lines and
when did
it start
for you
and can you
imagine
writing long
narrative poems
without
being sick
to your
stomach?

M. Barrett — Baltimore, MD

This is a very interesting, if somewhat loaded, question. It interests me because I don’t really know the answer.

Let me say first off that I do occasionally write prose poems or poems with longish lines such as “Scumble” from Versed or “The Deal” from Money Shot. And I published a prose memoir called True in 1999. You’re right, though, that I can’t see myself writing long narrative poems – at least not poems with one continuous narrative – any time soon. I am too interested in edges, angles, intersections, and even collisions.  I want the poem to be open to whatever occurs next, to be able to swerve to accommodate it – or meet it anyway. And the breaks between lines and stanzas can be opportunities for such swerves.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy good fiction. But in the fiction I like best, say Proust or Melville, the story unfolds so slowly that the narrative is attenuated.  There’s all the time in world for a chapter called, for instance, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” The narrative burden is suspended in chapters like that and language moves more quickly and unpredictably as a result.

Remember how Archimedes, when speaking of the power of leverage, said “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the earth.” I imagine the fiction writer using such a lever.  The problem, of course, is finding a place to stand in outer space (or outside time) from which to wield such a device.  I guess I’m saying that, since I can’t find a place outside time to stand, I don’t feel comfortable writing narrative. But that’s just me.

Anyway, to come back down to earth, I can say a few things about how my short line developed. My mother read me poetry when I was a kid. In fact, she read me long, narrative poems like  “Hiawatha,” by Thomas Eakins, as well as children’s verse. In sixth grade I wrote a book report in the meter of “Hiawatha.” When I was in my teens, I discovered William Carlos Williams. I was very taken by Williams. (Why him? I couldn’t say.)  I was beginning to write then and I wanted to jettison the heavy handed meters I had learned as a child so I deliberately started to use a shorter, Williamsesque line. (I realize now, of course, that not all metric poetry is so heavy-handed!)  As I worked with this short line, I got increasingly interested in the effects line breaks could produce – suspense, double-meaning, etc.

In the interest of full disclosure, I might add that I write in a lined notebook and I have really big sloppy handwriting. That may also have something to do with what I see as a line. (?)

Do you see yourself as a poetry outsider? If you don’t now, did you ever?

R. Derby — Greensboro, NC

I answered this question pretty thoroughly in response to question 2 (from Ron). In my youth, my friends and I in the Bay Area made an inside of the outside, if you know what I mean. For most of my life, perhaps because I’ve always lived on the west coast and perhaps because I came from the working class (as we used to say back when there were jobs), I knew there was a “poetry establishment” somewhere but I didn’t know much about it and I really didn’t care. More recently, people have been suggesting to me that I am, in fact, part of that establishment. So – that’s weird.

From Wikipedia:

Rae Armantrout (born 13 April 1947) is an American poet generally associated with the Language poets. Armantrout was born in Vallejo, California but grew up in San Diego. She has published ten books of poetry and has also been featured in a number of major anthologies. Armantrout currently teaches at the University of California, San Diego, where she is Professor of Poetry and Poetics.

On March 11, 2010, Armantrout was awarded the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for her book of poetry Versed published by the Wesleyan University Press, which had also been nominated for the National Book Award.The book later earned the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Armantrout’s most recent collection, Money Shot, was published in February 2011. She is the recipient of numerous other awards for her poetry, including most recently an award in poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2007 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008.

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