The Colorado Poet, #23, Summer 2013

Interview: Chris Pusateri

Common Time (Steerage Press, 2012)

Bob King: Chris, the first thing that strikes me is your table of contents. It’s not aligned in the left-margin, appearing almost like a poem itself, the way, for example, I can read: “first is the story (63) you do not know (64) as it takes shape (65) through the shadow of all possibly (66)” as a single unit. And the “titles” aren’t printed at the head of the poem but are bold-faced phrases inside the poem. What this tells me is that you’re experimenting with traditional formats, that you’re putting more of an emphasis on discrete phrases than traditional poetry, and you’re working against the grain of conventional writing and, for that matter, of reading. What else should it tell me?

Chris PusateriChris Pusateri: In my view, innovative work tends to challenge received wisdom about literature more rigorously than its formalist variants. I’ve long thought that one of the virtues of avant-garde movements is that they tend to view the stuff of poetry as physical material, in much the same way that a carpenter might size up the wood, saws, hammer, and nails he’s using for a particular project. In the case of Common Time, I hope the book’s unconventional use of titles will get the reader to think about the role of a title: what it is, what it's good for, and perhaps most importantly, what it could do.

BK: This may be related. One of your epigraphs is from Glenn Gould: “I’ve always believed...that one should start by worrying about the action of the instrument, not the sound.” Gould, of course, challenged several conventional aspects of the concert piano including what he called “take two-ness” in the studio recording process. I can see how this relates to your aesthetic in this book, but can you expand on how you take those comments of his?

CP: Gould was extraordinarily sensitive to all the physical aspects of the piano: he required that the keys have a certain kind of resistance, that the notes possess a certain timbre; he had a particular piano bench that he liked to use because it positioned him very low over the keys and accommodated the flat-fingered style in which he played. His decades-long search for the perfect piano is legendary.

Just as with music, poetry presents us with a variety of access points, a number of ways into the piece.

As far as the epigraph goes, I take Gould to mean that there's more than one way to play a piano. Just as with music, poetry presents us with a variety of access points, a number of ways into the piece. As readers, we're taught about this mysterious thing called “meaning"—this essential quality that writers weave into the text based on what they intend, and if we read the poem "correctly," then the author's meaning can be unlocked, like a reward of sorts. All the time, you see readers who believe in correct and incorrect ways to read a particular piece of literature. Needless to say, I’m unconvinced by this argument, as it largely removes readers from the equation, making them passive consumers of text, and implies that all readers should arrive at a similar or identical reading of the text, depending, of course, on what the author intended. Rather than taking a more active role in aesthetic decision-making, this method of reading limits the reader to solving a Rubik’s Cube. It feels antithetical to what I understand literature to be.

Gould’s process of take two-ness, which you mention above, was central to the production of Common Time. When entering the studio, Gould would record the same track (let’s say The Well-Tempered Clavier, for the sake of discussion) twenty or thirty different times. He would then take what he felt to be the best passages from the various recordings and splice them together until he had a final master take, which would then appear on the album. 

With Common Time, I wrote each day for one calendar year, mostly at work (since that’s where I often find myself), for durations as brief as five seconds or for as long as ten or fifteen minutes. It was this body of writing that I used as source text for the project. I took this source text and extensively edited it over a series of months, and when I felt like I had a complete draft of the manuscript, I took it, put it in a desk drawer and did not look at it again. I then returned to the original, unimproved source text and began putting together a second, completely different version of the manuscript, without once consulting the first draft. When I had a complete draft of the second manuscript, I put it in the desk drawer along with the first and repeated the process. This went on for a couple of years. When I had three complete drafts, each of them a very different book, I used Gould’s take-two process and wove the best passages of each draft together, producing the version of Common Time that you hold in your hands from three manuscripts, each of which originated from a common body of source text. When one considers Gould’s comments about the action of an instrument being more important than its sound, I suppose that, from the standpoint of Common Time, it also could relate to the many ways in which the book could be read, the variety of “access points,” any one of which could be used to create meaning around the text.

BK: I’m trying to find a passage I find opaque, at least to my sensibility, but I want to contrast it with another, almost more predominant voice in your work. Here’s one passage that puzzles me as I try to assemble it: “There is rarely this kind of silence anymore. / Only during holidays or in the wake of a tornado, / when nothing exists as it did. / The green shirt gave weight to his slight frame. / But there’s a purring in the chest of the calendar, a promise…” This reminds me of some of the dislocations of Language Poetry.

And yet, this is the point I’m getting to, your work bristles with, let me call them, aphorisms, nuggets of peculiar wisdom: “We would like information that supports our / ignorance.” “If you think nature is innocent, then it’s never tried / to kill you.” “Most take it where they can get it. Human misery is / a product of not knowing what it is.” “Utopia: Everyone who wants one, has one. / Capitalism: Everyone who wants one, wants one.” “If you have to ask / ‘are you kidding me?’ / then, no, they’re in earnest / about whatever absurd thing / they want you to believe.” I could go on. What’s your take on how or why these very clear statements crystallize out of passages where the language is more in flux?

CP: Many years back, I read an interview with the poet Jennifer Moxley (can’t remember where I saw it now, it’s been too long ago) where she commented on a similar tendency in her own work. She said that this affinity for sprinkling linear passages within a larger non-linear narrative provided the reader with small islands (I think she likened them to a handrail leading down a dark, unfamiliar staircase) that would lead them along. I thought this was an interesting way to describe the kind of ballast that one sees in a poem when linear and non-linear elements are used alongside one another. Writing in this way really inverts the entire disjunctive model: when the poem you’re reading is taking certain liberties with cadence, syntax, grammar, word choice, and so forth, and all of a sudden, you run across this very plain and unassuming sentence, with no explanations but those suggested by your interpretive faculties, then this tiny passage, so ordinary and unassuming, is what creates the disjunction, the slippage within the piece.

Your question also reminds me of how many ways there are to create disjunction in a poem.

Your question also reminds me of how many ways there are to create disjunction in a poem. The earlier mention of Language writing makes me think of Ron Silliman’s notion of the New Sentence, where the sentence (rather than the syllable, word or phrase) operates as the primary linguistic unit in the poem.  In many of Silliman’s books, he uses fairly standard sentences to construct his poems: they are usually complete, possess a subject and predicate, and as often as not, make no significant departures from standard syntax. It’s the editing—that is, the arrangement of the sentences, the use of parataxis, as scholars of poetry would no doubt call it—that creates the disjunction. These very plain and declarative statements can sometimes direct the narrative in interesting ways.

BK: Common time, perhaps in keeping with the Glenn Gould epigraph is, musically, the 4/4 time, or four beats per measure. But of course the phrase used as a title of a book of poems, suggests the time we all have in common, which doesn’t include events or narratives or images in your case, but the way we think and the way language interacts or conflicts, a state we all have “in common.” Do you consider your poetry’s subject matter to be one of ideas, about thought and expression?

In my reading, the title Common Time speaks more to dailiness, to what some might call mundane time, that vast store of stimuli that we encounter in our lived lives and consign to oblivion almost as soon as we experience it.

CP: In my reading, the title Common Time speaks more to dailiness, to what some might call mundane time, that vast store of stimuli that we encounter in our lived lives and consign to oblivion almost as soon as we experience it. In Common Time, I take a line from a movie by David Mamet, in which one of his characters says that we only live a few moments per year. There’s something very true and, at the same time, very horrifying about that statement: the notion that in an overstimulated environment, which is the modern digital world we all live in, we refuse the vast bulk of our daily experience and retain only a few important, personally significant moments per year. As a practical matter, it’s simply not possible to make a comprehensive record of all experience, but I’d like to behave in a way that honors boredom, mundanity, those things pushed to the margins of our consciousness as much as the few moments per year when things are more patently memorable. 

BK: If you think about how or why or where or when you started writing poetry, what do you come up with? What were some first influences? Or middle or final influences?

CP: I was a reader from childhood, and I knew I wanted to do something with language from adolescence. My father is a trial attorney, and some of my respect for language comes from his extraordinary facility for oral argument. As a young person, I was always a voracious reader, sometimes to the point of rudeness, so literature was a part of my makeup from the beginning. Most of my other influences were non-textual: music, primarily jazz, but other genres as well; visual art, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, and performance-based work, like that of Schneemann, Calle, and Abramović. There were more everyday, typical influences, like nature (I grew up in the country, so you had to make your own fun, which is good training for being a poet), travel, politics, the usual stuff.  

Among poets, there were a lot of early influences: Ginsberg, Apollinaire, Blake – mostly work in the lyrical and romantic traditions. I also read (and continue to read) a lot of prose fiction: authors who were important early on included Ishmael Reed, Flannery O’Connor, William Burroughs, Philip K Dick and others. These days, I gravitate more towards the work of my contemporaries: Dana Ward, Evie Shockley, Ariana Reines, Sean Bonney, Catherine Wagner, Megan Kaminski. There are far too many to list here.

BK: The book’s final poem is a kind of postscript regarding “nearing the end of another year / faster than nostalgia’s ability to colonize it.” I want to quote the final passage: “When we reach the end, the song has concatenated / and gives forthwith / something to which we cling, / an expression, an anecdote, / nothing so sure as purchase / and nothing less than ‘home.’”

The handling of this closing, tentative at first and ending with a solid assuring punch (unless I’m missing some irony) strikes me as an exemplar of your use of language. You knew that had to be the last poem, right?

CP: That final piece (and particularly its ending) alludes to a poem by Robert Creeley, “Goodbye.” I didn’t know this would be the final piece until late in the process, but Creeley’s original ends “I want no sentimentality / I want no more than home.” Because I had been working
on the various drafts of Common Time for so long, Creeley’s piece gave the perfect resonance, closure without sentimentality. It seemed like the correct note to sound.