Feature Poet Interview: Rachel Blau DuPlessis

By email exchange, December 2005-January 2006

Adam Fieled: Hand in hand with the intellectual rigor of your poems is a deep sense of suffering, an awareness of futility and fragility. One might see in your work a “poetics of suffering”. Just as the Buddha said “all life is suffering”, do you feel that, in some sense, all poetry must be “suffering” (or “a suffering”) too?

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: One of the fascinating things about having Drafts read is hearing about what they see in the poems. (Hearing what they see.) People’s responses construct a multi-faceted polyhedron for me. It is also fascinating to hear what words people choose to talk about their feelings for this poem and for poetry in general. You have chosen several very freighted words to open this exchange, including using the term of the Buddha. So I have taken a deep breath, and looked at your words(“deep”; “suffering”; “futility”; “fragility”; “the
Buddha”), and have re- engaged my sense of the poems. (By the way, don’t forget I am only the author of Drafts. I mean that with all the seriousness I can muster and no particular irony. What I say here to you is how best I feel at this moment and in relation to my history with the project and my agency in carrying it through. It doesn’t mean I know more about the work’s reception than you do. Readers are the ones receiving it and they can best speak to their engagement with Drafts. I am just simply the one writing it.)

I would say that suffering and fragility (your words) are close to
feelings I have about some of the themes of the work, but this is combined with a resilience, resistance, and even a rather inflected joy and awe. “Futility” is your word. I think there is a lot of futility in life, even, in some moods, in all of it, but I couldn’t myself get involved in the 20 year long construction of a poem thinking to communicate sheer futility. The tragic sense of life, the sense of
sublimity and rage, is different from futility, after all. Another of the words you use is “must be” what poetry “must be.” Poetry, to be worth something, evokes many, many feelings in readers: structural feelings of pleasure and dastardliness, feelings of being overwhelmed by the force of language, a sense of leaping forward into a world and being contained in relation to the large world by the smaller world made in and by the poem. There is a lot of pleasure in the artfulness of art, even if some of the feelings evoked by a work are overwhelmingly difficult and sad and hard to manage. Hence I don’t think that all poetry must be “suffering.” I can’t wrap myself around that generalization. With all due respect to your evocative terms, I think you are only apparently saying something about all poetry, but you’re really trying to say something about some of your feelings when faced with an art you admire for a variety of reasons. The work calls you forth.

AF: Your work shows a clear and ever-present awareness of post-structuralist theory and practice. Yet you also freely incorporate standard devices like rhyme and alliteration. Are you comfortable with the dynamic tension between “hallowed” tradition and new-fangled theory? Do you find it stimulating?

RBD: Another observation about being interviewed by email to join the first observation. Since I don’t know you particularly well, it’s not yet clear what you mean by the terms in which you are invested. If you were to say even a little about what you mean by post-structuralist theory and practice, we could make sure that we are the same page. When I went to college and graduate school, there was “no” theory; this means we were almost totally into an unquestioned paradigm formed by the New Criticism. I have by the way never given up my formal sense of the artwork learned under that rubric; it’s just not a pure formalist or purely aesthetic sense that’s ever at stake for me. Only as I exited
from my formal education did theory emerge as a set of discussable
positions, what I like to call theorizing practices. Or, say this another way: the political rupture of the late 1960s was also an intellectual rupture. This has meant, to me, that I am most engaged with the loop between theory and praxis coming out of feminism and gender thinking. It’s been, therefore, a thrilling time to
become self-educated in what people call theory, which I have always
taken as a thinking through. I could thereupon tell you what positions and works have been interesting to me, but they all would fall in the in-between formed by a kind of spiritual yearning and a materialist base. This would first be positions taken up by and in feminist thinking including the theorizing of Virginia Woolf, plus key works of French feminism (Irigaray, Cixous) and also Spivak and
Braidotti, all positions dealing with gender in culture; then
positions taken up by echt post-structuralists, most emphatically Barthes, but also Blanchot--these are hard for me to sum up except as being a gloss on spiritual investments and ideological analysis at the same time; and third, the positions of the Frankfurt School, particularly Benjamin and Adorno, plus one very important Marxist pragmatist: Raymond Williams. I have also been listening to and linked
to poet-critics from the U.S. and Canada particularly who were themselves intertwined with certain aspects of contemporary theorizing: Steve McCaffery, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, Barrett Watten, Erica Hunt, Ron Silliman. I understand that this is a list of names more than a list of positions. The feature of theory that fascinates me, and that I’ve tried to deal with a bit is that only some of that
evocative list of thinkers ever directly and assiduously treats the poem, poetry, the poetic text. (Obviously, the poet-critics are different in that!) However, I see no contradiction between this set of positions and any poetic tactics I might choose to use! Any rhetorics, formal tactics, choices I make, desires to sound inside language, tripping and torquing tradition are my informed choice. Of course it appears to some that using rhyme links you to tradition, but it could allow you to trump tradition, answer back, and so on. No formal “device” (or choice) has absolute content but situational, historically contingent meanings that get created and recreated inside a specific work. Therefore I will use any poetic tactics I want, without worrying about toeing any line, real or imagined. You got it right for sure when you point to dynamic tensions. Any choice of any poetic tactic (free verse; three-step line; procedural sonnets) creates that tension since you are always in some kind of dialogue with prior users. Plus you are trying to separate from them.

AF: At one point in Drafts, a speaker says, “If I am not who you say I am, you are not who you think you are.” This cuts to the core of the political element in Drafts— the construction of identity through various “namings”, of the self and others. How does the construction of identity (as woman, poet, “speaker”, etc.) play into your poetics? Is the poem, or does the poem become, part of the poet’s “identity-construct”?

RBD: I sincerely think and hope that speaker was Ralph Ellison; it’s one of the citations in Drafts unchecked (or one of the unchecked citations). I cited it for the magnificent dialectics. (It’s in “Draft 48: Being Astonished,” my poem concerning a whole generation of female experimental poets and all the different subject positions they might be imagined to have and to take up.) My identity? There are a lot of parameters to identity (class, race, gender, religious culture, job category, national location, social usefulness). I try to
forget them all when I write. That doesn’t mean I am not engaging them, or engaging with them. I just try to work into them and beyond them at the same time. I know this is a paradox. That’s the paradox of writing. Of course the poem, a task and struggle as large as Drafts, becomes part of who I am now.

AF: Sense of place in Drafts seems to me multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, “numerous”. Is the voyage “inside times and inside pronouns” one with destination other than “a speaking” or “a writing”? Can you carry elements of this voyage into “dailiness” or is there an evanescence to it?

RBD: If I understand the question, you are asking does the poem—with its ethics and sense of being-- affect my daily life. The answer is—sometimes. I think the poem comes from everything I am, and has also changed what I am.

AF: You devote a substantial amount of space in Drafts to a dialectical exploration of Adorno’s famed quote that (to paraphrase) to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Do you believe that statements of this sort, i.e. deliberately provocative statements, are a healthy part of cultural conversation, or merely a nuisance, or can they be both?

RBD: Your question refers to a poem called “Draft 52: Midrash” in the
most recent book of Drafts, Drafts 39-57, Pledge, with Draft,
unnumbered, Précis (Salt Publishing, 2004). The poems in this book are all dedicated to specific people, and constitute a personal pledge of engagement with the issues of historical tragedy and spiritual questioning that the poems as a whole set forth. However, “Draft 52: Midrash” is deliberately undedicated. This is a commentary on the Holocaust and on the genocidal, killing fields, and mass murder tasks that nazi-fascism has taken up, no matter where it is active.

One of the notable poems in that book, “Draft 52: Midrash,” makes
an endless, unresolved gloss on Adorno’s sententia, After Auschwitz
to write a poem is barbaric, taking his statement as an important ethical talisman. (His statement comes in an essay called “Cultural Criticism and Society”; it appeared in Prisms.) I truly thought his comment was beyond what would normally be seen as provocative in a cultural conversation (to use your words) and came from an emotional and political space far, far beyond anything that could be
called nuisance. There are always some people who mouth off
about poetry and what poetry should or should not do, and articulate orders for poets but Adorno is far beyond being one of those people. His statement comes from the most wrenching revulsion, grief and human anguish. Therefore, because it was so absolutist, I respected it as such. However, because it was so absolutist (plus annihilating, as morally wrong or uncivilized, my desire to write poetry), I felt it
had to be discussed. Not answered, discussed. Opened out. Exfoliated.
Looked at again and again from any number of angles or facets. That is what my serial poem does. Each time I approach the statement, in the 27 sections of this poem, I try to honor the level of ethical revulsion and grief from which it came. So each of the sections tries to invent an answer to the question why did he say this in the immediate post-war context. What was he getting at by singling out poetry.

It is very important to me that this poem is called midrash. This word evokes a textual strategy from Hebrew interpretive practices. Midrash originally meant a continuous and generations-long commentary on sacred texts by those--males, in Orthodox tradition--invested with appropriate spiritual authority and learning. In writing this particular midrash on Adorno, I am taking a secular text, in the post-Holocaust context, examining it as a woman untrained in any philosophical tradition of argument, but someone who is invested in the notion of thinking in poetry. The gesture is therefore filled with critique.

Actually, Drafts as a whole project alludes to--but secularizes--this
genre of serious commentary, spiritual investment, and continuous gloss. By the title Drafts, I am signaling that these poems are open to transformation, part of ongoing processes of construction, self-commentary, and reconstruction. This similar to the collective processes of midrash. And, while some in individual Drafts can be very funny and witty, the whole project has thematic and emotional investments centering on loss, struggle, and hope, on the unsayable and “anguage,” the language of anguish. You can see why I had to respond to Adorno; our interests coincide in many, many ways.