The After Party, Jana Prikryl’s debut collection of poems, is divided in two. In the first half, the reader is mainly in New York, swaying between the modern and the classical, easing between Internet aphorisms and well-dusted literary lives; in half a dozen gently mocking, moving lines in “Ars Poetica,” we find ourselves falling from an observation about Kelly Oxford’s tweets into Arthur Conan Doyle and the history of spiritualism. The collection’s second half switches modes, and we find ourselves engaged with a long, bold sequence of fragments that carry an air of nostalgia. These later poems explore the natural world, the interplay between femininity and masculinity, and a lingering sense of not belonging. Perhaps it’s an odd comparison, but the closing sequence, “Thirty Thousand Islands,” made me think of Matisse and his 1940s cutouts: the preeminent sense of environment, but also the way that techniques of balance and contrast seem to give the work its structure and much of its impact.
Ideas of in-betweenness seem to be at the heart of everything Prikryl writes, and maybe that’s unsurprising. When she was six, she and her parents and brother fled what was then Czechoslovakia. They settled in southern Ontario, and it is Canada—particularly the eastern side of Lake Huron—that provides the most memorable evocations of landscape: “An animal tone / to the granite / as it masses and hides in the water.” Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, The Paris Review, and The New York Review of Books, where she works as a senior editor. I asked Prikryl about how she balances writing and editing, her devotion to staying “true to the movements of one’s own mind,” and her idea that poetry might be “meant to resist a certain kind of good time”—a form better suited to the after-party than the crowded room.
Can you talk a little about the structure of The After Party and the move from individual poems into sequential fragments that are not afforded the autonomy of their own titles?
When I started writing “Thirty Thousand Islands,” the book’s second half, the sequential nature of it took me by surprise. I’d never written a very long poem before, and I didn’t start with that intention in mind, and in fact as it accumulated I tried to distract myself from questions of its potential scale or meaning or ending. I think a person like me, who can’t do narrative but needs to generate meaning through language, has to trick herself into productivity a lot of the time, especially when a longer project seems to beckon. And once the sequence was underway, it seemed the poems I’d written one by one, in the first half, were galvanized by the stylistic difference of the sequence, as if the whole collection needed not to proceed from my center of gravity alone. I like Wallace Stevens’s comment that the imagination is “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without.” It suggests something of how you have to surrender to your own maneuvers.
What kinds of maneuvers did you find yourself surrendering to?
There’s a line where a piece of writing goes from “surprising” the writer to being subject to her control. I think this border has to be crossed in both directions, all the time, for a poem or book to have any vitality. As I say, I’ve never had the capacity to invent fiction, but reconnoitering the possibilities of “Thirty Thousand Islands” through these discrete island poems was a new kind of formal experience for me. More than an individual lyric poem, a sequence invites time into it. And if narrative remains elusive, I think both writer and reader are forced to work to orient themselves, to stay alert, like a foreigner in a new city at night.
The tension between repetition and development in “Thirty Thousand Islands” is something I hoped to emulate from John Berryman’s Dream Songs and Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito poems, and even Eliot’s Four Quartets, where time itself keeps raking over various northern landscapes. And after many years of composing distinct separate poems, I found constructing this sequence was a bit like writing a play—it was a relief to feel that each utterance had to jostle against others, and that none had the last word.
You’ve said before that “A Place as Good as Any,” one of the poems in The After Party, is “a transcription of a dream.”
Lately I came across a line by Anne Carson, in an essay on sleep. “No other experience gives us so primary a sense of being governed by laws outside us.” Every night we enter this incredibly coercive state, and I think that sense of being harried by one’s own consciousness nicely suggests the difficulty of being a person, born into certain historical circumstances, and not being quite sure where one’s “I” resides within one’s perceptions, or which kernel of those perceptions is most “authentically” one’s own.
I think right now readers of all genres put a lot of faith in language and its capacity to reveal—possibly because we live in a time of unhinged political mendacity, so it’s very comforting to believe that literature can provide direct access to someone else’s uncomplicated truth? Even novels and poems are increasingly valued, I think, as repositories of information. I’ve always been skeptical about that. Basically I hate poetry that pretends it’s possible to say what you mean. Obviously you have to mean what you say! But in poetry just as in fiction, there can be a lot of truth in dishonesty. For me, the excitement of writing something like a poem usually resides in prodding and questioning the words that claim to represent what my brain claims to want to be saying.
A sense of place seems important in the collection, particularly in its second half—the shores of Lake Huron.
I think place tends to serve as a shorthand for history. The things people have done to one another pile up in distinct patterns in certain places, and we call these layers of sediment “the local custom” or “national character” or “tradition” or “religion” or “dialect.” Having had a fairly peripatetic childhood—between Czechoslovakia and Canada, and there was also a year spent in Austria—and having lived in New York for almost thirteen years, I don’t feel I can call any one place home, unless home is the odd-shaped constellation of writers I love.
I’ve always been puzzled by Elizabeth Hardwick’s criticism of Sylvia Plath—whom I admire but don’t feel especially close to—along the lines that the “brutal” quality of her work is owing to “a special lack of national and local roots” and “her foreign ancestors on both sides.” Aside from being strangely deterministic, the comment seems to imply that having national or local roots is the natural, inevitable way to be. Obviously that’s not been my experience. I think it’s increasingly rare for most people. One of the things Plath’s poems dramatize so forcefully is the blunt fact that a woman or any member of a historically exploited group is a kind of rootless cosmopolitan—almost by virtue of their exclusion or disadvantage, they can acquire an awareness of their society that’s unavailable to those who have power. When I’m writing, place usually acts as a metaphor for time and history, and for the ways a person’s freedom and selfhood are circumscribed or enlarged.
It’s interesting that you were drawn back to writing about Canada.
I grew up in southern Ontario from the age of six, after my parents and brother and I fled Czechoslovakia, so I owe a lot to the place and to its warm embrace of my family. I often feel I owe my entire identity to it, since I can’t imagine who I’d be if my parents hadn’t brought me where I’d eventually learn to speak English. Yet as soon as I could make literary distinctions I gravitated toward American and English and Irish and Central European literature. As soon as I could leave, I did, first working in a bookstore in England for six months before university, then living in Dublin for almost two years after graduating, and eventually my romance with American literature brought me to New York City in 2003. So “Thirty Thousand Islands” was also a way for me to reckon with my enormous, openly sentimental debt to a place whose actual literary tradition I happen to feel little affinity for. It’s about the fairly common experience of homelessness on planet Earth, in other words. And the place itself—this archipelago of pink rocky islands in a northern landscape, filled with pine trees and cottages—is a bit neither flesh nor fowl, neither land nor sea, so besides being very pretty it seems to ask what “place” is, just how much earth—or local culture—is required for a place to serve as home. I felt an urge to evoke that region and conjure its beauty, while humoring my own doubts (not total but persistent) about the uses of beauty in literature. Beauty is necessary in art, but I usually want it to go to the trouble of inventing new forms of itself—which can appear unbeautiful at first—and if I sense a writer is flashing too much beauty at me, I tend to question her motives.
What does your writing process tend to be—the when, where and how—and do you find yourself writing poetry even during busy periods of editing at the NYRB?
I wish I was more disciplined. I rarely stick to a poetry-writing routine around the perimeters of my job at the Review, especially as I often devote a lot of my free time to writing essays. It’s been satisfying and enriching to write the essays, and in an ideal groove the writing of critical prose tends to irritate me into spinning off odd lines of verse that can grow into poems, with luck and application. But often there isn’t enough time and the poems appear sporadically. I jot the odd line or note to myself in a notebook, and compose and revise the bulk of the poems on my laptop. It’s true there is a certain zen state that can come of sitting in my cubicle at work and not actually being able to devote my full attention to the poem that’s asserting itself. In these cases, I type quick e-mails to myself at work, and it’s surprisingly freeing to write while part of the mind—the self-censoring part?—is occupied elsewhere, or at least aware of the inappropriateness of the task. And that said—hello, colleagues!—this doesn’t happen more than about twice a year. One of the poems in the book, “A Motion in Action,” plays with this paradox of thwarted attention and enhanced intuition.
Is it important in your work to bring moments of popular culture into proximity with what still gets called high culture—Kelly Oxford’s tweets segueing, within a few lines, into Arthur Conan Doyle’s surrender to the disciples of Madame Blavatsky?
Mixing high and low isn’t important to me as such. I do think it’s crucial to be true to the movements of one’s own mind, if those movements are the premise of a given poem, as they are in “Ars Poetica,” the poem you mention. There it seemed important not to pretend that musings on Twitter don’t flow smoothly on to Madame Blavatsky—though really what I was getting at was the problem of woolly, abstract language in contemporary poetry. I try to approach each new poem as an experiment whose parameters and materials aren’t fully known to me until after the thing is written. When it comes to mixing high and low, T. S. Eliot is the usual suspect, and I love his poems and the freedom with which he moves between voices and sources, high and low—but most interesting to me is how brazenly he goes from superhuman eloquence to language, or rhetoric, that has clearly failed the speaker.
Is all writing about writing, all poetry about poetry?
All my favorite fiction and poetry in some sense is. I’m trying to think of a book written so transparently that it achieves escape velocity from its own medium. One of my favorite recent books was Rachel Cusk’s Outline, which gets very close to this—the language feels impersonal and almost antiseptic, yet it’s one of the most emotionally true and intimate depictions of female adulthood that I’ve read in a long time. But even Outline, in finding a language of glass-like clarity and lack of affect, takes a position on the novel’s form and seems to be proposing a new relation between prose and the experience it’s trying to convey. Possibly because English is my first language but was the third one I learned, after Czech and German, and I still speak Czech but that’s a kind of anti–lingua franca whose foreignness feels sealed in my mind, I often find myself writing about the problem of language, the ways it’s fortified against our attempts to claim it rather than the ways it’s available to us.
What about the idea of the occult, and of mortality and afterlives, in your work?
A good friend of mine paid me the highest compliment a few months ago when she read the book and said, It’s all about death! I pumped my fist.
I think any artist who makes things intended, however quixotically, to outlast them has to feel a little posthumous all the time. Afterlives and the occult I find pretty boring. The potency of death is to focus the mind on the particulars of life on this earth. I think this is also why poetry is such a visual art form. The simple act of looking is a good metaphor for gaining insight and for the speed-of-light connections of thought itself. And poets are people who look very closely … because death!
As a writer of novels I hear constantly that the novel is dying. I imagine there might be something liberating or purifying about working in a medium, a beautiful and intensely difficult one, that a lot of people think is already long dead—whatever they mean by that.
I think the reports of poetry’s death have been greatly exaggerated. But you’re asking if its perceived demise confers some advantage on poets, and I don’t think marginalizing an art form can liberate or purify it. Any art that recedes from a respected orbit in culture grows provincial—becomes a “craft”—because I think art needs an audience big enough for some portion of it to be really discerning.
That said, I’m not sure it’s been shown that a profound understanding of poetry has ever been less obscure relative to dominant culture than it is now. There was the satirical poetry of the eighteenth century, sure, and people always seem to look back fondly on the nineteenth century, when classical literature and the poetic canon were prerequisites for the upper classes. Ben Lerner’s new book, The Hatred of Poetry, is pretty persuasive in suggesting that people have always indulged a nostalgia for a golden age of poetic literacy that never really existed. I guess I wonder if much of the poetry that was joyfully, popularly read in the nineteenth century was read in a way we’d consider sophisticated now. What if poetry could actually be defined as that writing which defies mass appreciation, or penetration, and only ever attracts a minority of readers willing and able to sit alone with it and perceive the many formal and intuitive choices that went into its making? I’m not saying it will always defy “mass enjoyment,” but it seems interesting to ask if poetry is meant to resist a certain kind of good time, and if it always has, even in the days when undergrads were quoting Horace to one another at parties.
Jana Prikryl’s poems have appeared in The Paris Review no. 206, 211, 215, and 217.
Jonathan Lee’s latest novel is High Dive.
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