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


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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.

I hear echoes of classical history in the present poem, too. The colonel is blown up in front of a courthouse, as if to say that some sort of judgment—the tribunal of history?—is being enacted here. How did you get caught in that vortex, and does classical history still inform your view of the present?

I’ve been trying very hard to move beyond classical history. After six books, it’s easy to repeat myself, so I’m feeling pressure these days to change the subject. But, of course, I can’t move beyond history itself. That would be impossible. I love a version of the Eliotic idea that to write literature is to live both within and without history, to participate in an enormous conversation that is inextricably historical, that is happening simultaneously—all literature existing for us at once—and also moving forward in time. And I love to think about how history informs our sense of who we are, what we value. My father was an archaeologist and I spent my childhood weekends surrounded by the artifacts of his career or digging in the dirt for evidence of dead people. I really think that might have something to do with all this.

A moment ago you mentioned Missouri, and now you cite a version of Eliot. Do you think of yourself as a poet of Middle America?

Absolutely I do. I grew up in Ohio, then lived most of my adult life in Warrensburg, Missouri, a small town in the western part of the state surrounded by farms. It was impossible to go to the Wal-Mart—where most of the town’s business was done—without running into three or four people I knew. Most of my literary friends lived in New York City or San Francisco and at first I felt self-conscious about my small town, as if I were increasingly becoming a Midwestern hayseed. After a while, though, I realized that my engagement with world events was enriched by living far from our big cities. Every day, I interacted with military people, who were often more sophisticated about the nuances of our adventures in the Middle East, for instance, than my other friends. I had students who’d fought in our wars and students who left to fight. The Stealth Bomber flew over our house all the time, a very unstealthy reminder of what my taxes were funding. I could hear the train several times a day, mostly not stopping in Warrensburg, but shuttling coal and other cargo through. I live in Houston now—also a fine and undervalued place—but the years I learned how to write were mostly in Missouri. I often miss it.

I take it the present poem is set in the Middle East, home of the car bomb. What is your interest as a poet in political violence?

I’m writing an essay right now about politics and ambivalence in poetry—how having multiple political feelings or beliefs in various, conflicting directions might be a valuable position for a poet to take. Poems are adept at expressing interior conflict, at enacting complex thought, at feeling strongly through not-knowing—but somehow, when we enter the territory of politics, we expect our poems to shill for votes, to argue strongly for particular beliefs. Emily Dickinson does not know if there is a god or a void, an afterlife, a stasis, or a zero at the bone. But reading her theologically inflected poems allows us to wrestle with these unanswerable questions with her—and to come out not with answers, but with a deeper sense of the questions. Maybe this is something our current political dialogues lack … something poetry could bring to us. I think those ideas are at the center of my interest in political violence in this poem.

Several of your early books express strong feelings, though few certainties, about American politics, particularly the politics of empire. Many of these poems are cast in an elegiac mode, where you seem to hesitate between the attitudes of lament, forgiveness, and accusation. Is the elegy a good muse for you?

I like elegies when they are ambivalent instead of reverent. In one of the most frightening moments of my life, I had to interview W. S. Merwin on a stage in front of what felt like a thousand people. I had a few questions written down on note cards, but the conversation had run away from me and now he was talking about politics. I didn’t know what to do. “Do you think,” I asked him, “ambivalence is a valuable political position for a poem?” “No,” he said. “Not at all.” And then he continued with his other thought, his real point. Of course, he was trying to get to matters that were urgent for him, but his answer bothered me, and the more I thought about it, the more I decided that ambivalence might be a valuable position for a political poem to take. That is, asking for a vote or agitating for reform are important, but so is thinking in a way that acknowledges how complex these questions are. I feel that way about God and politics—and I believe that poetry, with its dependence on the line, on white space, on metaphor and image, is an art suited to the expression of not-knowing, to thinking and feeling in multiple, conflicting directions. The elegiac tradition, which is always looking back into a personal or even historical past and also living in an uncomfortable present, allows for that kind of contemplation.

What you say about thinking in multiple directions brings up for me the question of form. For a long time now you’ve been developing a particular kind of poem—“How He Loved Them” is an example—long lines with irregular breaks. To my mind, the break allows for qualification, revision, reversal. How did you arrive at this sort of line?

I love the idea that a poem might live on the page in something like the way a thinking mind lives in the world. I imagine that my lines, which scurry across the page, stop, drop down a bit, then return, might suggest the ways that mind thinks, where it pauses and reconsiders, hesitates or rushes on. I like the idea that white space at the ends of lines, between stanzas, might suggest places where unarticulated thought takes place—the kind of thinking that precedes words, but creates them. Some of this I learned from reading Denise Levertov’s wonderful essays. Some of it I worked out for myself, through trial and error.

Your new book, Churches—whose title poem, I’m pleased to note, was published in The Paris Review—is just out. Can you stand back from it yet and see how it relates to your earlier work?

I’ve got one copy and am still turning it over in my hands wondering how all that work can weigh just four ounces. With Churches, I’ve moved away from the historical material I treated in National Anthem and In a Beautiful Country. Instead, I’m working with characters—experimenting with longer, braided narrative, trying to enact thought with a sort of emotional complexity I’ve avoided in earlier poems. I love the idea that the stories we tell about ourselves—and the ways we tell them—inform our sense of who we are, where we belong in an enormous and intricate world.