Wednesday, October 06, 2004
Noah's the author of The Frequencies (Tougher Disguises), notes toward the spectacle (Duration Press), Jaywalking the Is (Margin to Margin), and What Ever Belongs in the Circle (Anchorite). A new collection, The Area of Sound Called the Subtone, is forthcoming from Ahsahta Press this December. Recent work of his is forthcoming from 26, Hambone, Web Conjunctions, 88, The Tiny, and Magazine Cypress. His book reviews have appeared in many journals, including Boston Review, Rain Taxi, The Poetry Project Newsletter, The Poker, and Jacket. He publishes the Braincase chapbook series from his home in Northampton, Massachusetts, where his current writing project is a manuscript called "The Year Of The Rooster & Other Alarming Poems."
I interviewed Noah via email over the last few months, and here’s the fruits of our labor. I hope you enjoy, and I hope to see you at the reading, too. – Chris McC
CM: Your last email to me includes the great line, "it was around the time I quit playing music...and turned into a poetry geek..." Can you talk a bit about getting turned on to poetry? Whose work was crucial to that process?
NEG: The first poet that really got under my skin and showed me that poems could be made by anyone was Charles Simic. I remember taking a trip to Boston to see him read. I had just written a 20-page paper on his work, tracing the shifts in subject matter and tying everything to his then four volumes of essays and talks. After the reading I remember being really nervous but wanting to somehow approach him, to let him know how much his work had meant to me. What I ended up saying to him is pretty hilarious. I told him, "You're my favorite contemporary poet." Ha! It was around then that I quit playing music, bought the collected Stevens and got down to work. I had just graduated college with a BA in English and took a job at a local dollar-type store, where I’d hide in the back room and read when the boss wasn't around. I wanted to know everything there was to know about poetry. I must have read hundreds of books during my first summer out of school. My reading habits were still pretty singular though. I just didn't know what was out there. As a graduation present my mother got me a gift certificate to a local used bookstore. I went in and pulled anything off the shelf that looked interesting, stuff that I would never bother with now, Robert Bly, Lucille Clifton, James Dickey. They were the folks with whom I had some sort of familiarity, some sense of how to read their work. There were two books among the many that I'd gotten which changed me in a huge way. Michael Palmer's First Figure and Ann Lauterbach's And For Example. Every other book I'd purchased that day had had an exhaustive element to it, a way of unfolding that never really redeemed itself, or that could never be refolded. They were to me like that snake-in-a-jar trick, only I could never get the snake back in. What I'm trying to say is that the work was just so entirely on the surface that there was no pay back in returning to the books after one had thoroughly absorbed them. The Palmer and Lauterbach were different. At first I was pretty turned off by the stuff--it just didn't make any kind of sense, well, it didn't make the kind of sense I felt in someone like Bly. I even went so far as to sell the Lauterbach book back to the used book store, only to buy it again a few weeks later, once I realized that it, like the collected Stevens I owned, was in some way calling to me. Funny, this is starting to sound like some kind of conversion narrative, which, in a way, I guess it is. When I started to ease my expectations with the Palmer and Lauterbach books, I came to see that not only were they infinitely more compelling than the work I was starting to become pretty familiar with, but they also were more respectful of my intelligence as a reader. Although they asked more of me, they paid off in numerous ways.
Their influence isn't really all that present in my first book, The Frequencies, because it's not really my "first book". In fact, it's not all that much there in The Area of Sound Called the Subtone, my next book, which'll be out in December. But I have a manuscript I've been circulating in one form or another for a while now. It's called A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow, and it's really my "first book". It owes something to the Palmer/Lauterbach side of things.
CM: How did The Frequencies come about, then, once A Fiddle was written? Did you write the sections quickly, or was it a project that you picked at over time? Did you conceive it as a whole from the get-go, or did it grow organically as you went along?
NEG: The projects weren’t exactly linear in terms of their progression. I was consistently dipping into one and out of the other, not to mention many other modes of writing. I sometimes struggle with the shape a thing has to take in relation to its viability as an eventual object, as a “book” rather than a notebook or computer file. There is a definite standard out there, say the 60 to 80 page poetry book, which, I think, must have an impact, possibly a huge impact, on the writing projects of many poets. Of course, this isn’t true across the board, although the death of Black Sparrow did leave a big hole in the poetry world’s more bulky output, but I’m really excited by presses like Atelos, and Salt seems to cater to the longer work. Those are more the exceptions. I sometimes wonder if the standard length of poetry books, which seems to be decreasing, is indicative of any sort of correlation to our current era of the internet-inspired lack of attention span.
But to return to your question, The Frequencies was conceived of, for the most part, before any actual writing occurred. I recently saw the poet Mark Wallace read in Boston, and he said something about the serial poem that I pretty much agree with. He said once he writes something, he needs to write something else in the same vein to figure out what he’s doing, and that that figuring out doesn’t come until he’s accumulated a series of those somethings. Well, he put it more eloquently than that, but that’s the gist. I work in a similar way, although I tend to have a superstructure in mind before beginning the writing process. With The Frequencies, it was pretty simple, and it came out of me feeling, at the time, that titles for individual poems were somehow oppressive little things. I wanted to get around them, while simultaneously figuring out a system that would allow for the sense of duration titles can bring to a book of poems. Additionally, there’s something of an homage to my reading practice in there. The first bit of text I wrote that found its way into the book was done before I had the project in mind. It’s “107.1”, on page 19 of the book. I wrote it after reading Albert Mobilio’s The Geographics. There’s this story I’ve always loved about the band The Ramones. When they first got together they wanted to start a band along the lines of Black Sabbath, but just didn’t have the instrumental proficiency that it required. What happened is we got a new sound out of folks who were essentially paying tribute to one of the older sounds. I like to think of The Frequencies in that way. Outside of the Mobilio book, which inspired the form of the project as a whole, I was writing under and into the influence of John Godfrey’s Push the Mule, Michael Friedman’s Species and Rosmarie Waldrop’s triptych of prose texts, The Reproduction of Profiles, Lawn of Excluded Middle and Reluctant Gravities. I hope, in the end, my sound is something different, but that it still carries a bit of where it came from.
As far as the writing process, I did about 50 of them in under two months, from February to March of 2002, sometimes writing two or three a day, then sort of abandoned the project, thinking it was no good, and that I was ready to move onto other things. I wasted a few months that summer on what turned out to be an aborted attempt to turn a different manuscript into a single long poem. Once I returned to The Frequencies, I finished the actual writing in another few months. It was a rapid-fire process. Much of the book’s movement is based on an alterative rhythm hooked into a system of faux-hypotactic syntax. I was trying to explore the logic gaps between the “ands” and “buts”, to see what happens when they don’t necessarily relate to one another, especially given that the prose which houses them carries an expected sense, at least initially, of relationship and liner progression. So I had a little over one hundred of these things, one for every station on the FM dial. I pulled out the ones which I didn’t feel were as strong, culling as much as I could from them to beef up the remaining 70 that became the final book. I’m forever in debt to James Meetze, the publisher, since I’m sure I must have been a headache to deal with. I kept revising the thing with every set of proofs he sent me. For me there’s always this generative process of accumulating text, a process that is done pretty quickly. And then there’s the endless headache of revision. My friend Eric Baus makes fun of me, calling the move “going lateral”, as I’ll read him something one day, which on the next, will be the same poem in a completely different mode. I wish I had the guts to pull off the variation on a theme book, like some of John Taggart’s stuff, but instead I just seem to make a mess of things.
CM: One of the things that I keep coming back to in The Frequencies is the idea of the "you" - do you see the poems as addressing a single, relatively coherent person in a sense, or does the "you" shift?
NEG: The “I” and the “You” are meant to be pretty consistent, and hopefully function as pathos pollinators throughout the book. There are two exceptions, both of which are elegiac in tone, one more cloaked than the other. The “you” in 105.9 (on page 29) is addressed to John Wieners; it written a few days after his passing, & ends by morphing a passage from his poem “What Happened?”, which reads, “better than a hatchet/ in Massachusetts,” into, “I wonder what the light’s like in your new city. Better than a hammer in Maine I hope.” What’s was interesting to me in incorporating this section is that although ostensibly addressed to Wieners, the “you” here also holds with the narrative underpinning of the book, as the “you” did in fact move to a new city at some point. The “you” in 95.1, written the day after Kenneth Koch died, is simultaneously self-reflexive & aimed at the reader, although I don’t think it jumps all that strongly outside of the rest of the book. It’s a really vague narrative I’ve got going on. The “you” is some kind of ornithologist, the “I” a DJ. One question kept irking me as I was putting the manuscript together: if I wrote in prose, with a consistent set of characters, often engaging in dialogue, was I writing a novel? At one point I wanted to call the book The Frequencies: an American Radio Novel. Thankfully my friends & publisher talked me out of it; still, regardless of Stevens’ notions of poetry as the supreme fiction, if the “I” is always the same other, then I can’t help but think of it as more straight-up fiction.