Donald Kuspit, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin
PC: The poems in both books [On the Gathering Emptiness, 2004; Apocalypse With Jewels in the Distance, 1999] and those that appear in this issue of Per Contra use the same form, which I see as somewhat related to open field verse, somewhat to responsive readings in prayers.
Did you begin with free verse or formal verse?
DK: I began with formal verse. I had a poem accepted by the Quarterly Review of Literature when I was at Columbia, and at Yale I used to show my poems to Cleanth Brooks during his office hours. He was very gracious, tolerant, and kindly, but also sharply critical about the use of particular words. But he never questioned my vision. He was a giving person and alert mind, and I am grateful to him for his serious attention. I soon realized I was wasting his time, but he encouraged me to visit, and seemed genuinely interested in reading my poems, and commenting on them. He suggested I send some to John Crowe Ransom, which I did. Ransom wrote a benignly dismissive letter back saying they were too romantic. Today I take this as a compliment.
Later I got to know Paul Celan, whose worked I admired, and who gave me some of his German translations of French poetry. He was very supportive. I knew several other German poets. One in particular, and a brilliant intellectual as well as first-rate poet, suggested that it was a mistake to enter the world of professional poetry, which he regarded as cruel and inconsiderate. I’ve had my share of pompous nastiness, most notably with Robert Bly and the hostile character who ran Sulphur. I have come to realize that their vitriolic rejection--no simple “no thank you”--was, like Ransom’s more genteel rejection, a species of compliment, since it meant they were taking the poems I sent them seriously, probably because they challenged the values and ideas of their own poetry.
PC: How did you find your current form?
DK: It just happened. The lines kept breaking into fragments. Each was a sort of petite perception which seemed to generate the next one. I also liked the wide open space of the page’s silence, and wanted to leave it as untouched as possible, and imagined I was zigzagging down it, sometimes fast, sometimes slowly, sometimes backtracking, sometimes not looking back--it depended on the daemonic voice, which I was doubting as it spoke--hopefully stopping before I broke my psychic neck. If I didn’t I could look back at the sight the way a skier looks back at the mountain he just came down and tries to find his tracks in the blinding snow, wondering how he found his way safely. It’s a good enough poem when one comes safely to rest after writing it.
I think the fragmentation also happened because language lost sense, or rather sense came to exist in individual words, sometimes even a few phrases. But I still wanted to be intelligible about the unintelligibility of language and to communicate the uncommunicability that surrounds it. I gag on language--use it too much--but I still think it can communicate, however clumsily, certain subjective states. The task is to objectify them, however imprecisely--the result never seems precise enough. I think this may be useful to a few others--I still have a sense of human community, if only in the vestigial form of elective affinities--so I found this bizarre way of articulating what I experience as emotional truth, even if it sounds false once communicated.
It’s also the case that I was influenced by the shaped poetry of Mallarmé and Apollinaire, but they seemed to have a sense of predetermined purpose, while I put all my trust in spontaneity and indeterminacy, even though I realized that so-called psychic determinism would give them a thematic shape.
PC: Do you remember the first time you used it…and what drew you to it so much so that you abandoned all other forms? I know this is a difficult question, maybe one answered best with reference to a specific poem you wrote; even though that wouldn’t logically answer the question, it would illustrate why you find it so useful/pleasing.
DK: I don’t remember the first time I used it, but I remember reading some of my old poems, and started chopping them up in disgust and anger, then deciding to re-use the bits and pieces in a sort of collage way, which is how many aging artists have worked when they experienced their earlier works. I experienced each fragment as a facet and trace of a forgotten feeling, uncannily coming together in an unexpected rhythm, a sort of verbal and visual fugue composed of incommensurate memes, experienced as irreducibly abstract and concrete at once.
PC: Among your poems are ekphrasitc works. Is it possible to make any generalizations about what calls you to write an ekphrastic poem? Would you give us some examples?
DK: I never set out to write ekphrastic poems. I think I was looking for limits and control, and they happened.
PC: Are the art works that inspire poetry also those about which you’ve written in your criticism?
DK: A few, but mostly not. I’ve written poems about Old Master works I’ve seen in museums, and continued to haunt me, so I tried to make conscious the feelings and fantasies I had unconsciously invested in them. They seemed so beautifully self-contained and intricately organized, and told the human story in a fresh and reflective way, that I couldn’t resist using them as models to organize, contain, and humanize myself. But I have also been moved by certain abstract paintings and sculptures, and tried to metabolize their transcendence in certain poems.
PC: What relationship do you see ekphrastic poetry as having to the works that inspired them? Do you see your ekphrastic poetry as an emotional response? What’s the balance between emotion and intellect in your ekphrastic poetry?
DK: Yes, it’s an emotional response tempered by self-critical consciousness. Less an oscillating balance between emotion and intellect than a struggle to integrate them, or rather let them integrate themselves in the course of consciousness. The issue is to reconcile mental patience and impatient passion--the tortoise and the hare--in a seamless self, which is what the poem optimally is.
PC: What poets do you read and return to?
DK: I read and return to Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Celan, Gongora, Lorca, Mallarmé, Montale, Quasimodo, Rilke, Ungaretti. I also keep re-reading Broch’s The Death of Virgil.
PC: A penultimate question—are you also a painter, photographer or musician?
DK: In my desperate youth I made some Sturm und Drang paintings, and studied piano briefly, but language quickly became my preferred medium, because it is so frustrating and interpersonal.
PC: And, finally, what question have we failed to ask that would illuminate your work and allow our readers to know you better?
DK: I’m not sure, but the reader always knows the writer better than he knows himself, because the writer becomes a self through the writing, which is never finished however finished some particular poem or article might be, while the reader unthinkingly accepts the givenness and authority of his self so he is likely to think the writer also has an authoritative and complete self. Reading is hopefully a matter of unconscious projection and conscious re-introjection, that is, creative criticality.