The Colorado Poet, #19, Summer 2012

Interview: Dan Beachy -Quick
Circle’s Apprentice (Tupelo Press, 2011). Colorado Book Award in Poetry.

Bob King: Dan, every book of yours has seemed to me to be a particular poetic project, a focused treatment of its subject and not just a series of poems. The books title, Circle’s Apprentice, comes from Emerson: “Our life is an  apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning…” Why, or how, did Emerson’s essay strike a chord with you, enough to devote thirty-five poems to working out a particular idea?

Dan Beachy -QuickDBQ: I do hope, and feel, that each book is its own peculiar inquiry—not a project or anything as potentially sterile as that, but a contained investigation. The poems that are in Circle’s Apprentice were written over the course of six or seven years, beginning really with the birth of my first daughter. I didn’t have any particular idea to explore Emerson in mind. I read and re-read his essays, and I had a realization one day that I’d come to think of the work of a poet as an apprenticeship to his circles. That idea of the circle, always rupturing its limit to find another, also spoke to other concerns that has been weaving in and out of my thinking and poems: mythic cycles, heroic cycles, rituals of initiation, and the “baffling hierarchies” of father and daughter (to steal from Oppen). The spiraling circle began to feel to me like a shape and a trajectory poetry cannot help but be devoted to exploring, to revealing as it explores. It seemed a fitting name—a circle’s apprentice—to what a poet is. 

BK: This book consists of seven parts titled “First,” “Second,” and so on. “Lullaby” is the title of four poems in the first section, six in the book are called “Poem,” and the final five poems are all called “Tomb Figurine.” So you’re holding back on supplying conventional pointers, if you will, to your subject and organization. I assume it’s on purpose—what is that purpose?

DBQ: My idea for the book’s organization was to chart time in an odd way—from nightfall to nightfall, but also from birth to death .  . . those circles of the earth around its axis, of the earth around the sun, and of a life across its own length, all marked by the circling of the earth which a year always measures. So the book begins with songs that lull us to sleep, songs sung to a child, each with the comfort that when the child awakes, the world sung of in the dark will be available again in the light. The last section is different version of the lullaby—those tomb figurines included in graves to either remind the deceased of the world in which he or she lived, or to carry over into the next world (that next circle). In between are poems that move initially from the dreams that sleep introduces us to. I think often of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and the mother singing the child to sleep as if to protect him, but in sleep the child confronts those dark fathers that live in the blood, and from whom there is no protection. And so the next poems involve themselves with mythic figures, symbols, allegories. As the book progresses toward the middle, it also moves toward a kind of noon—a waking up, a seeing in bright light, an inability to deny the political facts of the day. And so the matter of dream intermingles with the matter of news, detritus and war and images of heroes all vying for the same space of meaning. This comes to a culmination in the poem “Fragile Elegy,” which looks at Ezra Pound’s incarceration in Pisa, and from there, proceeds more and more fully in this world, this daily one, in which the vestiges of the mythic world, the original, feel more and more like shards, until the next and more final sleep emerges, and the tomb figurines replace the lullabies.

BK: Besides the notion of circularity, I find this work to be philosophical—meaning, in this case, that its subject is thinking, what it’s like to think, and speaking and seeing, both out of oneself and into others (or out of others and into oneself). I don’t think I’ve ever put those words together but your work seems to make me do it! I can’t put my finger on how your lines go back and forth from lyric to philosophic, or maybe it's the words that move both ways.

The last “Lullaby” poems puts the beginning this way: “When a child I thought myself / a thought-- / Then thought became my home.” A little later you repeat “I thought myself / a child. I named her little ghost. / I brought her / home into my thought…” These almost incantatory iambics fit the idea of a lullaby but they also twist and turn philosophically. I can’t find my question here. Let me try this--how do you see or call or identify this style, your poetics, if you will?

I suppose the poem is the place where thinking acts feelingly, and feeling acts thoughtfully.

DBQ: I’m not sure I have a poetics, not exactly anyway. I tend to think the poems have a tendency to take a poetics and make it tremble with their own questioning. But a poem does feel to me a very thinking activity, as much as I feel it is a feeling activity too. I suppose the poem is the place where thinking acts feelingly, and feeling acts thoughtfully, and these cause in us readers and writers of poetry necessary confusions. I do worry about the way language prescribes thinking, and through thinking, a mode of recognition that might disenfranchise our perceptive lives, that original root from which thinking emerges. I worry often that in thinking we do an activity that feels as if it is in response to the fact of the world, but is really only a reaction to its own stimulus, and we are secretly removed from the presence of what we most want to near. In this way, my poetry might tend toward the philosophical, but I think acts very differently then philosophy. I sometimes like to think the poem is a description of what it feels like to think—and not just a description, but a demonstration, an enactment. And I think song thinks—song thinks below the words it sings, a music or a melody that can be heard only by virtue of the words that reveal it, but the music isn’t the words.

How poetry makes accessible within it what cannot be expressed is one of the mysteries for which I love it most.

How poetry makes accessible within it what cannot be expressed is one of the mysteries for which I love it most. I also think the poem destabilizes the boundary between self and other. I like to think a poem perceives perception—so that, as Dickinson puts, it “sees that it sees.” The poem becomes a curious narrative, in part, of narrating the experience of its own consciousness—consciousness becoming conscious of itself as such. In this way, a poem offers us a needed mirror for a process we never can look at directly otherwise. It shows us in the process of our thinking, of our feeling. 

BK: What effect have the French theorists had on your work? The Language poets? What do you think are some other influences on your work?

DBQ: They all have their influence, certainly. I came to theory late, in graduate school. They presented to me language and its issues in a way that I recognized, and felt a kinship to. But it’s Wittgenstein, Frege, Heidegger, Blanchot, Buber, and Levinas that had an even larger impact. They helped me to see that thinking is also a real activity, that thinking involves reality, and that poetry is serious in part because its consequences are actual consequences in the world, shaping of how we perceive others. I take Wittgenstein’s notion of philosophy’s purpose as a poetic one, too: a poem must dismantle the edifice of our pride. That pride is often thinking we know how to think, know how to know. Taking words seriously is, I feel, an extraordinarily hard thing to do. This doesn’t mean that a poem can’t be funny (as many of the Language poets show). But a really funny poem is funny like a trickster is funny—a laughter results that undoes a kind of authority, even the authority of the author, even the authority of the poem (and the French theorists are present in that notion, too).

As for other influences, well—I think my work is only a work of influence. Almost all of it is in some fundamental way an opening to another work, a touchstone of influences. A poem sometimes feels to me like a way of putting on another’s experience to try it on as your own—Keats’s sense that a proverb must be proved upon the pulse. So, I guess, a poem for me is a form of devotion to another text that cannot help but taking the form of doubt—doubt, I suppose, because something in me cannot let the other text stand alone, by itself, secure in the meaning its already established. I need to learn to think it myself, and that requires the writing of a poem.

BK: I admit to having some difficulties with your work. I don’t know if you’ll like this comparison but I had difficulties reading Jorie Graham until I read someone saying “This is what it feels like to think” and that made it much easier for me to read her. Maybe that’s why I approach your work as poetic philosophy (or switch the adjective and noun)—that is, not abstraction, certainly, but a semiotic situation where a word denotes physicality (“stone,” for example) at the same time it is itself a word subject to the pressures of language in its own right. What am I talking about?

DBQ: I think you’re talking about it just right. Yes: a stone is a physical object, and I believe in that materiality. But I also know the ideality of the word cannot be denied. A word is and isn’t the thing that it names. It feels to me almost like a reflection of our own crisis, that old one in which body and soul, the tangible and intangible, both make a claim on the reality of the other. Poems seem to share this crisis so generously with us, and words make us less alone with the deepest ironies of the human condition. Jorie was my teacher many years ago, and I’m still grateful for how she read poems, how she conveyed the wonder of reading poems, and the endless effort to turn toward poems in ways both meaningful and that speak to the need to make meaning.

BK: There’s a sense of self questioning, or maybe the better term is world-questioning. I mean those times when you ask “Must I, in this question I am asking, include myself / Asking it? Must I include my face-- / My face that I cannot see through which I speak / This question about my eyes, about the field / Of vision.” This book returns several times to this question of the observer and the observed. Many poets simply accept one or another convention about the “I” and proceed. Are you tortured by this or amused or something else?

The writers I love most all seem tormented by what it is to say “I,” and that’s been a revelatory lesson to me.

DBQ: The writers I love most all seem tormented by what it is to say “I,” and that’s been a revelatory lesson to me. Keats’s denial of poetic identity resonates; so does his sense of the world as “the vale of soul-making,” where a soul is what gives a person identity, and does so only through the harm the world inscribes on the human heart. Melville’s Ishmael whose I leaks out into every other I and lends each the reality we would assume could only be his own. Proust’s sense of self as composed of many selves, a succession of selves, some of whom linger within the current version, more like a ghost than even a memory.

Celan’s sense, too, of a poem as always forwarding itself to another, to an other—yes, this feels right and ethical to me. The poem—and this is in Levinas, too—provides that ground that makes an “I” available to another, open to doubt, open to the worrisome ground where subject and object cannot maintain their opposition. A poem looks out in both directions, keeps the one who wrote it in its gaze, keeps the one who reads it in its gaze, and in the curious crucible the poem is, combines those gazes together, makes a bond in which I and other become an intricate knot.

BK: You’re quite prolific with your various projects and I almost hesitate to ask this--what do you see coming down the track for you in the immediate future?

DBQ: Well, I do have a new book of essays—exploring of many of these ideas—that just came out. It’s called Wonderful Investigations. As for what’s next, I’ve spent the last 15 months working on a book on Keats—a kind of biographical poetics, for lack of any better term. So, hopefully, I’ll be finishing that soon, and hopefully, it will make its way into the world.