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The Expression of Not-Knowing: An Interview with Kevin Prufer

March 7, 2014 | by

prufer churches

Detail from the cover of Kevin Prufer’s Churches.

The Winter issue of The Paris Review includes Kevin Prufer’s poem “How He Loved Them.” Prufer is the author of six books of poetry and the editor of several anthologies. His latest collection, Churches, was published this week. He teaches at the University of Houston.

The poem stages a scene of terrible yet familiar violence—a car bomb explodes in front of a courthouse, killing a colonel and his two granddaughters. But the poem is less about the event than the aftermath. The explosion becomes a spectacle for bystanders, who record it on their smartphones. In what ways are poems like our devices—in thrall to spectacle, turning moments into eternities?

Turning moments into eternities was truly at the center of the poem for me—the idea of the afterlife, of divine translation. I imagined that the colonel, who acknowledges he has done terrible things, dies in a moment of inarticulable love for his granddaughters. Of course, he becomes spectacle for us, his death recorded and uploaded to the Internet, where we watch it over and over again. But, in another way, perhaps he has been redeemed, has been, himself, uploaded to a kind of heaven where his love is played out eternally. At least, that’s how I like to think about him and the poem—about the moral, spiritual, digital complexities that can be packed into a single moment … a moment we, unknowing, watch play out on our computer screens.

The way this bomb works as “a divine translation” reminds me of another poem of yours, “A Minor Politician,” from National Anthem. That poem is a posthumous monologue, delivered from the crypt. The speaker is an honorable pol, though he has served questionable goals. At the end of the poem, he sees God’s hand, “like a bomb,” reaching through the catacombs to “take my body from the tatters / and lift me through the shadows / to the trees.” Are these cases of redemption through violence?

I think the same question is at play, yes. But the poems have very different contexts. When I wrote National Anthem, I was caught in a vortex during which all I could think about was classical—mostly Roman—history. I read about that to the exclusion of most other things. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were new and I was living in a small Missouri town very near an Air Force base, and heard echoes of Roman history everywhere. That ancient politician thinks he has been redeemed by God, by God’s hand breaking through the ceiling. But really, it was time and forgetfulness that redeemed him—and one of our bombs breaking through his crypt two thousand years later, shedding light on him. Read More »

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Adrienne Rich

March 29, 2012 | by

Photo by Robert Giard.

Adrienne Rich’s first poem in The Paris Review was “The Snow Queen,” which appeared in the magazine’s second issue (Summer 1953). Her last, “Itinerary,” was published this spring in our two-hundredth. Rich was twenty-three when she wrote “The Snow Queen,” but she had already been discovered. Her first book, A Change of World, was chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1951. Rich’s early work is formally impeccable, its ideas and idioms rooted in the poetry of Yeats and Stevens (“The Snow Queen” can be read as a variation on Stevens’s “The Snow Man”). But Rich quickly moved beyond her early style. She found its virtuosity too prim, too imitative—“exercises in style,” as she once put it. In her early thirties, she was already looking back at her accomplishments and measuring their limitations. “Necessities of Life,” the title poem of her 1966 collection, was first published in The Paris Review as “Thirty-Three” (Winter-Spring, 1964), which was Rich’s age when she wrote it. It is a poem of retrospection and prophecy. It begins,

Piece by piece I seem
to re-enter the world: I first began

a small, fixed dot, still see
that old myself, a dark blue thumbtack

pushed into the scene,
a hard little head protruding

from the pointillist’s buzz and bloom.
after a time the dot

begins to ooze. Certain heats
melt it.

“The pointillist’s buzz and bloom” is still Stevensian, but the oozing and heat—here signaling the onset of adolescence—are heralds of Rich's mature poetry. Her great work of the sixties and seventies, the period in which she came out as a lesbian and a radical feminist, are poems of Eros. Not merely eroticism, though there is plenty of that—and it is important—but a poetry of passionate relation and reinvention. It is also a poetry that values plainspokenness over rhetorical expertise. “Now and again to name / over the bare necessities,” as she instructs herself in “Necessities of Life.” Read More »

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Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “Or,”

January 12, 2012 | by

Thomas Sayers Ellis.

Most of the poems stuck in my head are rap songs. Rap is the music I grew up listening to, and the lyrics from those days, the late eighties and early nineties, have stayed with me. I’ve forgotten most of the poems I had to memorize at school; of Keats’s “To Autumn,” I remember only the famous lines. On the other hand, Big Daddy Kane’s “Smooth Operator,” Rakim’s “Mahogany,” or Nas’s “N.Y. State of Mind”—these are poems I know by heart, from beginning to end, and will probably never forget.

Some people don’t believe raps are poems. They have a point. On the page, arranged into lines and stanzas, raps lose most of their appeal. I’m grateful to Bradley and DuBois’s enormous Anthology of Rap, if only because I now know what Raekwon is saying on “Triumph” (which doesn’t mean I understand it: “The swift chancellor, flex, the white-gold tarantula / Track truck diesel, play the weed, god, substantiala.” Can I get a footnote?). But when raps are spelled out like this they lose their fluidity, their life in three dimensions. Rap is not monotonous, though it is almost always composed in couplets and four-four lines. But the good songs always surprise you, leave you wrong-footed, put the emphasis or rhyme where you don’t expect it.

There is no doubt that Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “Or,” is a poem, but it is one of the few that feels to me like a rap—an especially good one. This is because of the way it establishes a pattern and then continually breaks away from it. The poem is based on the repetition of or, but as we read through it, what seemed like a formal constraint becomes a principle of transformation, a hinge that keeps flexing. The poem begins, as I read it, by riffing on the either/or logic of identity questionnaires (“You could get with this, or you could get with that,” as Black Sheep once put it, in a different context). But it quickly ramifies into geography, history, poetics. Read it out loud a few times and you might find you already have it memorized: Read More »

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Islamic Art at the Met

November 7, 2011 | by

Dagger with Zoomorphic Hilt, second half sixteenth century. India, Deccan, Bijapur, or Golconda. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 2011 (2011.236). Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Last week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its renovated and newly enlarged wing of Islamic art, now called Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. The new space, which is gorgeous, is entirely redesigned. The galleries are now organized by theme and material as well as period. There is more figurative art—paintings, illuminated manuscripts, glazed pottery—and greater geographical breadth. Many of the pieces displayed in the old galleries are also here, newly contextualized. Others, never displayed, have been taken out of the museum’s twelve-thousand-object collection. And some pieces were acquired over the past eight years, while the wing was closed to the public. Among the most seductive of these new objects is a zoomorphic dagger (pictured above) from sixteenth-century Deccan India. I recently took a tour of the galleries with curator Navina Haidar, who talked to me about some of its treasures, new and old. Read More »

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Chad Harbach on ‘The Art of Fielding’

September 20, 2011 | by

Chad Harbach. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach’s first novel, is a book about baseball in the way that Moby-Dick is a book about whaling—it is and it isn’t. The shortstop at the center of the novel is Henry Skrimshander, an idiot savant in the field, who is recruited to play for the Harpooners of Westish College, a small school on the shores of Lake Michigan. Harbach was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail from his home in Brooklyn.

What was your position?

Over the course of my twelve-year baseball career (which ended when I was seventeen), I played the middle infield—short and second both.

Did you have any hopes of playing in college?

Not really. I was Henry-like (though with hardly a shred of his talent) in the sense that I was a good athlete who was too small and slight. I blame my parents for starting me in school early and making me forever the youngest guy on the team. Read More »

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Cathy Park Hong on ‘Engine Empire’

August 23, 2011 | by

The summer issue of The Paris Review includes a series of poems by Cathy Park Hong. Hong has published two books of poetry, Translating Mo’um (2002) and Dance Dance Revolution (2007). She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

The poems published in this issue come from a longer work, entitled “Fort Ballads.” How does it fit into your forthcoming book, Engine Empire?

“Fort Ballads” is part of the first section in Engine Empire. The poems in the collection range from a trilogy, ranging from Western ballads to love poems set in present-day industrial China to poems set in a virtual future. “Fort Ballads” follows a band of outlaw fortune-seekers who travel to a California boomtown during the 1800s. The boomtown isn’t real; it’s full of strange, violent, sometimes surreal happenings. It’s my own way of mythologizing California, which is where I’m from. The main character is “Our Jim,” who’s half Comanche Indian. In creating him, I was thinking of the typical iconic Western guys, like Billy the Kid, but his story is also reminiscent of Huck Finn and maybe a little of Faulkner’s Joe Christmas. He’s an orphan, a cipher, a boy trapped between identities, both innocent and vengeful. But the section isn’t all narrative—there are sound poems in there as well, where I let myself wallow in kitschy Western vernacular. Read More »

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