Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Interview with Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Ph.D., Columbia University, 1970) is known as a poet and essayist,and as a critic and scholar with a special interest in modern and contemporary poetry. From 1986 until 2012, DuPlessis has been engaged in a long poem project, collected in several book-length installments from Wesleyan University Press and Salt Publishing. The newest book, Surge: Drafts 96-114 (Salt 2013), brings this 26-year long poem to a temporary fold. Another key critical book by DuPlessis is Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. DuPlessis was a Distinguished Visitor in the English Department at the University of Auckland, has held an appointment to the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, and was awarded a residency for poetry at Bellagio, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. Our poetry editor Dorothy Chan talked with Rachel about her newest collection of poetry.

On October 23, DuPlessis will be reading for the MFA Reading Series on the Tempe campus of Arizona State University from 12-1 p.m. in SS109 and giving a lecture titled “Manifesting Literary Feminisms: A Conversation with Rachel Blau DuPlessis” at 4:30 p.m. in SS109.

Cynthia Hogue is hosting a masters class on DuPlessis on October 16. If you are interested, email Cynthia at Cynthia.Hogue@asu.edu.

Dorothy Chan: Surge: Drafts 96-114 is an interesting collection of poems. The poems are numbered and deemed as “drafts,” but a debate seems to exist: do you view this a grouping of 96-114 poems/drafts that becomes one collection yet still serve as individual poems or is it simply a long poem with 96-114 sections?

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: Surge is a book that joins several other books of my work into one long poem with 114/115 poems in it. An individual book is a unit (meaning, a grouping with a specific basis), but it is not a “long poem” all by itself. It is a collection of poems called Surge. The long poem called Drafts is something I have written over the past 26 years, with each book being part of that project. Drafts goes from poem 1 to poem 114, and there is one extra, an unnumbered poem that makes the total of poems be 115. Surge is the last book of that long poem under the title Drafts. (Obviously, the title has meaning. I talk about that meaning in the Preface to Surge and elsewhere). My ideal would have been to have groups of 19 poems in each book. Things didnt’t turn out that way for a variety of reasons, but it did work out pretty much. Books belonging to this project are Drafts 1-38, Toll (Wesleyan, 2001); DRAFTS. Drafts 39-57, Pledge with Draft, Unnumbered: PrĂ©cis (Salt Publishing, 2004); Torques: Drafts 58-76 (Salt Publishing, 2007); Pitch: Drafts 77-95 (Salt Publishing, 2010). The Collage Poems of Drafts appeared early in 2011 from Salt Publishing, containing only the two poems that needed to be in color as visual texts. Surge: Drafts 96-114, was published by Salt in 2013.

As I have said many times, each poem of the whole project can be read individually as a separate work. Poems can also be read in any order. But they are joined together by all being “drafts.”

Citing from the Preface to Surge:
“The work can be read numerically, in the order of writing, or even chronologically in order of writing (these two not always exactly the same). But that order is not emphasized as contributing to structure or findings. The work as a whole is not a sequence but a modular series. It is an anti-patriarchal maze with many threads. One can begin anywhere and read in any desired direction.”
How are they joined? They are organized on a periodicity of 19. This number is an interesting number—it is a prime number, for instance, and there are other associations. But I did not know any of this when I began to do the books as 19 poems. This happened by chance. The mechanism of folding allowed me to “layer” the poems in relation to each other. This is a version of Stein’s “beginning again.” To cite once more from the Preface to Surge:
“Between Draft 19 and Draft 20, about seven years into the project, it occurred to me that I did not have to go endlessly one to one to one, like one of those spool-yarn projects that children sometimes take on—leaving them with a long strand of knitted length and the question what to do with it. Instead, I could begin again. Thus I decided to repeat some version of these themes and materials in the same general order every nineteen poems, folding one group over another, making new works but works evoking motifs and themes in the former one—and also, of course, generating new images, materials and themes as I went. The realization that I could make a recurrent but free structure via a fold happened in a sudden flash (like most of my structural insights), and the thought delivered a fantastic if then unsorted set of formal and intellectual implications all at once, like an avalanche of scree rushing down a mountain. 
The interplay between sameness and difference constructs a profound structure of feeling about memory and loss, about recurrence and the unique instance, about fresh experience and iterated insistence, and also about changing relationships over time and to time. That is, by beginning again, by constructing a fold or crease or pleat across the work, I was making all the poems arranged vertically in a column somehow touch other parallel poems.”
DC: How do you view your work’s relationship to lyric poetry?

RBD: Lyric poetry is often short. My poems are not short. However, some have short sections that make up one serial work.

Lyric poetry is sometimes narrative. My poems incorporate narrative moments without being narrative work.

Lyric poetry is often based on imagery. My poetry works with imagery—how could it not? It also works with other ways of describing things.

Lyric poetry is aphoristic and succinct (sometimes); sometimes my poetry is aphoristic and succinct.

Lyric poetry is said to be musical. My poetry is musical.

Lyric poetry is filled with feelings. My poetry is filled with feelings.

So I would say that I envelop and surround lyric poetry with something larger.

If your question involves genre—there are many kinds of poetry that are not “lyric,” even if “lyric” is (as so often) being used as a synonym for poetry and poems in general. There are odes, elegies, haibun, haiku, satire, doggerel, cento, renga, dialogues, proverbs, ballad, epistle, etc.

In Drafts, I am very interested in the genres (plural) of poetry, and use a number of the ones I just listed.

DC: You have mentioned in interviews that you reflect a lot on the female poet’s role in writing. You have also mentioned the feminist perspective/struggle in other works. On a first read, Surge: Drafts 96-114 doesnt’t seem to show this agenda, but on a second read, this female perspective seems to be cleverly hidden. Would you agree with this? How do you maintain this balance in writing?

RBD: I don’t write intentionally or narrowly focused feminist poetry to argue a point or to announce a position. I have taught work from “the women’s poetry movement,” as Alicia Ostriker accurately calls it, but that’s not quite where I am with my poetry. I am a feminist, interested in gender analyses of culture, and I write poems. So my poems are work written by me—and that “me” is a lot of social and political things (“identities”) all mixed up together, including gender information, gender feelings (sometimes passionate ones) and observations.

I have a negative reaction to the words “cleverly hidden”—which is not your fault—you are just trying to figure something out. One of the key elements in my poetics derives from objectivist thinking (I mean Oppen, Williams, etc.). The applicable ethos is “sincerity.” Thus I am not trying to conceal or to trick with my poetry.

It seems reasonable to me that since I am a woman writer, I would try to understand the dimension of that subject position historically (through literary history) and now.

DC: How do you view Surge: Drafts 96-114 relationship to contemporary critical theory? Can poetry be reduced to theory in any way?

RBD: The easy answer to this is no. Poetry cannot be reduced to theory. Poetry and poetics (a kind of theorizing) are in a dialogic relationship in general and in specific poets’ works.

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