Always Presently There: Aaron Shurin in Conversation with Micah Ballard
I started to read Aaron Shurin’s poetry and essays when I moved to San Francisco in the late ’90s. When I found out he was the first graduate of the storied New College of California Poetics program, I wrote him a letter and sent him my privately printed MA thesis. I had to, not only because it was for the same program (and an easy way to introduce oneself) but because I used his thesis, Out of Me: Whitman and the Projective, as the main idea for mine, Negative Capability in the Verse of John Wieners. He wrote back instantly and we began to send one another letters until we actually started seeing each other at poetry readings and hanging out together. In the last few years I’ve almost finalized my collection of his work, (over fourteen books of poetry and prose, spanning five decades). His writing is rooted in social activism and collective participation, from Stonewall-era Gay Liberation theory of the ’70s to experimentation with gender and form during the ’80s to a thirty-year engagement with teaching in the Bay Area at City College, New College, San Francisco State and the University of San Francisco. Two recent books that I keep returning to (and which serve as a sort of guide to his history and presence) are The Skin of Meaning: Collected Literary Essays and Talks and Flowers & Sky: Two Talks. I recommend these to anyone curious about how to live a life in service of imagination and experience.
After the New Year I caught up with Aaron in regards to his new book of poetry, The Blue Absolute, just out from one of my favorite presses, Nightboat Books. I’ve been lucky enough to be a first reader of his poems for quite some time, in that I get the work fresh from him, either read over the phone or delivered in person (we live in the same neighborhood). I hear his voice very clearly; when I read his work I experience and live with the cadences, encryptions, and em dashes carried in his everyday speech. Often I see his words write themselves into the air, on a floating page, right between us. I feel that’s the way it’s supposed to be, when you know someone through their poetry. —MB
Micah Ballard: What I first noticed about you was that you’re able to capture “feelings” before words can describe them. I was intrigued, especially by how single poems could turn into novelettes, immediate memoirs, mini-essays, or even quick manifestos — not to mention how you bend gender and genre. To me, your poems are maps, prose cartographies of multiple voices, communal and cosmological. They don’t really want to contain meaning but rather discover it. And they seem to always remain open, which means that you don’t begin and you don’t end, you’re always presently there. Yet you continually return to prose, which has been a huge influence on me in that I can’t stop writing prose poems! Can we talk about how and why prose is your primary mode of composition?
Aaron Shurin: Thanks Micah. I know we’re entranced by many of the same things in poetry. I stumbled into prose poetry on the heels of Whitman’s long line. As you know, I entered the New College poetics program in 1980, in a period of intense poetic reformation, spearheaded by the Language poets, for whom San Francisco and New York were ground zeroes. I had studied with Denise Levertov at UC Berkeley in the late ’60s, and was saturated with the dogma of so-called Projective Verse, whose re-imagining of the verse line and line breaks was thorough, if not obsessive. At New College I fell into Whitman’s big lap, and though I had already devoured Baudelaire and Rimbaud’s prose poems, it was really when my Whitman imitations, my own long lines, started to hit the right margin that the line per se lost its distinction and I began to feel the prose poem might be a useful form for me.
Poetry needed to be refreshed; everyone, it seemed, was thinking about it, not just writing it. In new journals, in talk series. And in new venues: 80 Langton Street, The Grand Piano, Intersection housed in yet another building, and New College buzzing in the Mission. The previous generation had worked relentlessly on the line: enough of that! What would the anti-line be? The Language poets moved towards the prose poem, emphasizing paratactic flattening; the New Narrative writers bent the prose poems into stories in which their lives thrashed. I wanted both. “The line is dead,” I said to myself, “long live the sentence!” (“The New Sentence,” as Ron Silliman’s book named it.)
I set out to discover what the properties of prose poetry might be. Where verse depends on the line, prose poetry breaks in the direction of the sentence. Not that everything is a sentence, but sentences are the model against which the phrases are measured — maybe we could even say they are the measure, that prose poems are written in sentence measure. By their nature, via the parts of speech and the rules of syntax and grammar, they have direction and connection built in — though not necessarily linear; the logic of the sentence favors narrative. And my prose poems, for all their lushness and cosmic yearnings, most often inhabit the daily. They are centered almost entirely on “persons” — men and women in specific circumstances and surroundings. Yet I think of prose poems as capacious where verses are compressed; they live by elaboration and qualification instead of condensation.
We say “prose,” but they’re absolutely poems — they have poetry’s intensity and immediacy. If they have embellishments they’re also framed by margins. We know that verses live in the white space of the page in a dance with erasure and silence; prose poems fill in the space and flirt shamelessly with story. To my joy they can hold a lot of words, a lot of shades, and the tensions of their dual inheritance are generative: wild horses pulling in opposite directions that somehow get bridled and yoked to form a new beast. I love guiding these contending forces, a dramatic position perfectly suited for a maximalist.
MB: Besides the obvious connotations, it makes me feel that a maximalist can say, do, or be anything — anywhere and anytime. Total freedom with the endless ability to get something out of everything. I currently hold the very partial reins of your French collection: Cocteau, Colette, Flaubert, Genet, and Proust. With them, especially Genet, I can never get past a few pages without feeling overly satisfied, entranced, and almost seductively intimidated. Are they maximalists? If so or not, who are some maximalists that come to mind and what does it mean to be one?
AS: Well I think we could probably all agree that Proust was a maximalist. But beyond that we don’t need to get trapped in the terms. A great writer can go and be anything no matter what form or mode she uses. It’s really a matter of disposition, what kind of writing suits you, fits your hand. I came to the term sort of ass-backwards. I was applying for a residency or grant at an organization I felt pretty sure had a bias to another kind of stripped-down writing and I wrote at the end of my statement, “I am not now and never have been a minimalist.” After that I knew I had to embrace the oppositional term, and started using “maximalist” to describe my work.
In part I already had questions about the privileging of concision, à la Pound’s “economy of words.” The still-prominent idea that you should use fewer words is at best a personal choice and at worst modernist cant. Why should less be more? Don’t you love language? Why not revel in it? Cover yourself with it! Swim in it! The Williams/Pound era’s push towards sleekness in verse is a bleed-through of the future-is-now modernist tropes of speeding trains, streamlined buildings, unadorned clothing. (I’m talking here about “voluntary” esthetic choices, as distinct from poetry rising out of social silencing such as erasure by gender or race, or colonial eradication of language.) I’m not a flâneur but I like to saunter, I like to see small things over there, to veer off; I like contingencies, and subordinate clauses. I love changing light! I love repetition, and long strands of perceptual thought. And I came to see that prose poetry lined up with my “likes,” that the divagations available in sentence structure utilize as many or more weights and balances as do line breaks — i.e. verse — with a range of punctuation marks and grammatical features (syntax, tense, agreement) contributing as both sonic markers and thought delineators, so that meanings proliferate among or along circulations, interruptions and rests, asides, qualifiers, in a build-up played out against the grand fiction of a complete thought.
Of course this is just my take, how the forms pertain to me. Prose poetry gives me more time to wander, to wiggle, to get lost and found. The poems are most often short, in blocks, almost boxes, but ones in which particles collide, ricochet, re-form. Maximalism is impure, it admits mistakes, it values excess as abundance (sometimes) and it’s not afraid of the too’s: too wordy, too pretty, too difficult, too gay. Maximalism believes too-muchness may be better than too little. It wants to use everything! And, it does so from many angles, whether Lyn Hejinian’s ornate yet austere meditations, Tongo Eisen-Martin’s propulsive roars, or Ocean Vuong’s blood-lit arias. As Robert Duncan writes, “Our uses are our illuminations.”
But none of these are shoulds or don’ts. You’ve got to fit the glove to the hand. Dickinson, H.D., Williams, Celan, Tu Fu are all writers of great economy.
MB: Anything impure please sign me up! I’m so obsessive about everything; I don’t ever dabble, I really can’t. And who would ever want to be trapped by categories? That alone makes one want to be in opposition, just to remain free. Duncan, I believe in The HD Book says there’s “a responsibility to glory,” and I remember you reading that to me. It seems so over-the-top, but over time makes sense because it’s various while remaining particular to imagined experience. Your poems are given to me in that way, where the persuasion of language allows me to levitate between the real and unreal. I often think of them as single books or mansion-hotels connected to endless rooms, complete with undiscovered ballrooms. In your new book, The Blue Absolute, I’m curious about all the rooms, the key doors, trap doors, secret corridors, and especially the shrine to San Francisco, “Shiver.”
AS: “A responsibility to glory!” It’s not just over the top it’s the new top! I love the idea of mansion-hotels with many rooms (and “stanza” of course means “room”). When I was young, I used to have dreams about corridors and doors. And the prose blocks are like little rooms you are admitted into and exit not entirely sure of what you’ve experienced but sure (I hope) you’ve had an experience. I too enter the room through composition, not sure of where I am or am going, but feeling around to discover its parts — by eye, by ear or by hand, by tongue or by tail. By language, as you say, the levitating agent between the real and the unreal.
Then came “Shiver”! It arrived in my notebook — restlessly — as verse. Part one (of five) ran down the page in short lines — and then stopped, evidently finished. It ran for six pages so I already considered it a long poem; I didn’t know there would be more, nor did I particularly look for that. But more than any other poem I’ve written “Shiver” was in control of the situation. It wasn’t satisfied, and tried to find a better way to form itself. For a couple of weeks I tried, too, recasting it in run-on prose format, re-versifying it in couplets, in tercets, in quatrains, in organic intuitive stanzas, trying myself to unlock it, to let it rest, to no avail. This is my forty-seventh year living in San Francisco. I tell people I moved to the city to live my life as a poet and make the Gay Revolution… and I did! It’s hard not to get nostalgic about those days. Culture seemed to be exploding in our hands, as if the historical determinant of the Beats, the Diggers, the Summer of Love, “Howl” and the Great Human Be-in, the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis had united in one gasp, and the work of the imagination sprang forward from every corner in the form of poems, theater, dance and song, and sex. I’d seen the city flower and fruit, then slowly and surely start to sink under the weight of its towers and townhouses, the ravages of AIDS, the implacable galloping rents… “Shiver” had been forming inside unbeknownst to me and it needed to get out.
I finally saw a way that could gather the material into a pattern that would permit the dynamic movement in time the poem already clearly wanted, but provide a rudder. I didn’t yet know that the poem needed to keep going. I set the poem in rolling stanzas that were simultaneously prose and verse. Stanzas would give me the breathing spaces I needed to keep what was already a long poem in balance and line breaks would keep a longer poem on the versified edge of perception. I developed stanzas that began as prose, looping around the page like prose does, set with justified margins, crossing the page twice — but the third time the writing stopped before the end of the line. To close each stanza, the final word would indicate a line break, meaning you would go to the next stanza activated by verse. As set in The Blue Absolute, for example, each stanza has three lines of prose, and the fourth is cut as verse; the stanza ends not because you come to a grammatical or situational rest but because poetic measure wants a juncture there, verse wants a juncture there. That transformed paragraphs into stanzas (in earlier pieces I called it “stanzaic prose”) and then the gates were open.
The poem began in November 2015 and by the end of December it had rolled through second and third parts. Completed, so I thought. But just over a year later, in February of 2017, part four arrived on the ancient wings of a flying wedge of brown pelicans. And almost a year and a half after that the final part of the sequence quaked into view. Two and a half years. The poem, a lament or ode to San Francisco past, present, and future, needed to find its shape, and when it did it took off, flowing forwards and back in time as needed, nearly five thousand words set in four hundred and fifty lines over twenty pages. San Francisco! I have so many layers of attraction and despair, having been both honored for my work and evicted from my home; of course the poem had to dive down through stacked layers of experience, through bedrock and landfill, notwithstanding time. I can’t deny the city’s power; it saved my life and it made my life. I have both the city of wild imagination from the ’70s and ’80s and today’s city of homelessness and high-rises. But my love for the city is enduring, and I followed “Shiver” into its corridors and rooms to find my way home.
MB: I immediately think of your cover for A Door, which is like a secret entrance or VIP pass to a hidden underground city, what with an open chamber and inviting pillars. That book is a revolving door or window that ushers me in like a secret hinge, as all of your work does, from The Graces, Into Distances, Citizen, and now The Blue Absolute. I love that we are always invited into a grand embroidery where everything connects, regardless of time and its threading. The mantra being what the poem wants, not what we want. Of course we know that but it’s hard being a tailor outside of the dressing room, waiting to see what the poem is going to wear, hoping the new wardrobe it tries on is finally the one, etc. I was initially surprised to see “Shiver” walk out wearing quatrains. Can we briefly talk more about it or what living in SF means to you, from when you first arrived here, up until now?
AS: Ed Foster chose that cover for A Door, but it’s interesting you bring it up, ‘cause the title poem — the second longest I ever wrote — begins “Once — I move back in time — caught within a circle — I can be like some traveler after the vestiges…” and “Shiver” starts “Now what I saw was the same but my eyes were different […] Long gone now ago in some space historical…” I guess I could say both poems have overtures, and both of them begin by conjuring time travel — but written twenty years apart.
Your “everything connects” (only connect) is the principle, isn’t it? Isn’t it why we write? To make manifest the connections, those only dimly seen by our poor binocular vision, if at all. “Once — I move back in time” and “long gone now ago in some space historical” identically map the open doors available to the poem. “Shiver”’s task is to discover how a city endures cast between memory and vision, the past and the future. Are they separate or are they nested within each other? Is this still a place of permission and grace, do young poets live here anymore, is it still a haven for the LGBTQI and letters yet to be known? How does history listen?
The rolling stanzas lubricate the poem’s continual shifts between the first and third person, the present and the past, close-up and long shot. “Shiver” wings from Tank Hill to Corona Heights, from Buena Vista park where love-struck hummingbirds dive, to the cliffs at Land’s End, where at eye-level a passing line of flying pelicans reconfigures time and opens the portal.
I had so many conflicted feelings about San Francisco — the current city — everyone does — that I needed a new way to balance. “Shiver,” which announces “a song he thought was a dirge but may be a lullaby for the newborn,” gave me that. Its multiple vision — the city behind the city, the city beneath the city, within the city — doesn’t solve but sustains contradictions so that the situation remains active, leaving the solutions to us — since we are the city!
The golden hills in the distance, the cool, lucid air and palpable light are constants, the Westward tilt and leading edge of things. You have to love the city to want to participate in the solution, which we both do. You and I share the hallucination of a psychedelic freeform various immediate inquisitive unending gender-bending ecstatic place. And we caught a taste of it (“long gone now ago”) that remains on our lips. We both recognize that as a place of poetry, and our journey on the page brings us closer, ever closer, so we write another poem.