An Interview with George Albon

Albon Photo
by Andy Fitch

After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers.

This present talk focuses on George Albon’s Fire Break, winner of the NCIBA award for poetry. Albon’s books include Empire Life, Brief Capital of Disturbances (Small Press Traffic book of the year in 2004), Step, Momentary Songs, and Aspiration. He lives and works in San Francisco.

Andy Fitch: At least one reviewer has noted a Stevensian slant to Fire Break, with its reflective/observant vantage starting from the first line: “When they told the myth in the present tense / I looked around.” Stevens’ meditative idealism, his contemplations of the world contemplating itself, often through fugitive glimpses, producing subtly modulated sonic reverberations—all of that comes through in Fire Break’s direct references to “harmonium,” in your book’s crows perhaps substituting for blackbirds. But then also late in the book appears an appeal to “Example not symbol / in the sustaining hemispheres,” and there I sensed something like a William Carlos Williamsian “no ideas but in things” sensibility asserting itself. I don’t know if Williams offers the perfect fit here. Any number of precedents come to mind, definitely George Oppen, Larry Eigner, both mingling between these provisional polarities I’ve presented of ideated vision and concrete fact. But could a Stevens/Williams spectrum potential bookend Fire Break’s tones, rhythms, registers, impulses?

George Albon: Benjamin Landry wrote that review in The Rumpus, and Stevens is indeed an important poet for me. But that first poem is actually concerned with the paintings of Barnett Newman, especially those enormous monochromes with, however, a few thin and differently colored vertical stripes. The poem looks at these paintings where, against an undifferentiated background, a moment of genesis occurs. How did that happen? Why did that happen? The poem is concerned with that passage: from the undifferentiated not only to something, but to a moment of something. And how do we respond to that? Likewise, there is no Stevens connection with the crow. I was watching a crow one afternoon and thinking about it. As far as I can tell, there are no direct references to Stevens anywhere in the book.

On the other hand, there must be a strong semi-conscious presence, because you and Benjamin are completely right. Stevens has been with me since I was 12. Even the little formal things I encountered back then, for example, “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night,” with the tapering tercets, and the last line of each tercet four syllables long, or “Sea Surface Full of Clouds,” where he seems to be saying the same thing over and over but giving you new nouns each time—when you’re 12 and you think you read a lot of poetry and then you read this poetry, you almost wonder if you’ve read anything. But of course those few formal details give way to the larger importance, which was that he was the first poet who made me realize that a seemingly privatized meditative state could be tactile, that it could reach down from a high place and take you by the hand.

I agree that there’s a line that maybe starts with Stevens and ends somewhere else. For me, in this book at least, the endpoint is perhaps Oppen rather than Williams (though Williams is in that line). I’d say one of the trajectories in what I’ve done starts in Stevens and now lives more presently in Oppen. But you know, they’re brothers in so many ways. They are both minds confronted with ontic facts and each one’s inquiry proceeds from there.

When I’m talking about this curve, this line that maybe starts with Stevens and comes to Oppen, there are whole other lineages that I’m engaged in as well, and that have possibly inflected other books. There’s Pound, there’s Mandelstam, there’s Celan, Dickinson, Spicer—it just goes on and on. So it’s a very populated . . . it’s not an easy walk from A to Z. It’s a crowded subway car. I’ll never untangle the mesh produced by the poets who matter to me, and that particular line from Stevens to Oppen is certainly one of the threads.

firebreakAF: From what I remember, Barnett Newman called that series or at least one painting from it Concord, and for me Concord and Hartford stand close together, perhaps with Passaic on the other end. But definitely Oppen comes to mind quite early, with the serialized vignettes you offer—those almost coherent yet discrete vivid scenes, sometimes erotic instances. But returning briefly to Newman: Fire Break soon seemed to address a lot of paintings, pictures, photos, films. I began to think of Roland Barthes, and I won’t get this precisely right, but Barthes describes photographs providing a sense of spatial continuity (of objects lying beside each other), but also of temporal discontinuity. Photos bring back to us a different time, or juxtapose two temporalities in a way that can disorient us. So I think here less of poetic “images” in the conventional sense of that term, more of abstracted questions concerning visual representation. The immediacy of certain travel scenes within the book, for example, also carries this sense of temporal discontinuity. I’ll wonder who this “I” is. I’ll wonder how or why this “I” has arrived at its present location. Spans beyond the scope of a specific lyric’s temporal frame remain obscure. Then later this book offers moments in which time itself seems to get laid out before us in a less disorienting fashion or less discontinuous fashion. You’ll refer to “‘before’ / evening as / in / standing // before it.” Could we focus on Fire Break’s untitled, implicitly serialized lyrics, in order to approach this book’s representations of space and time, perhaps to some extent in distinction to the more constrictive scope of much late-twentieth-century epiphanic lyric poetry? Again I’d love to hear more about Oppen’s place.

GA: Let’s start with the fact of the “I.” With these poems I was interested in using “I” a lot, and especially in starting poems that way. It’s a little tricky as to what I wanted from that “I,” and whether it was a personal “I.” It both was and wasn’t. It was like when you keep going back to middle C. The “I” was middle C. It’s a place to start, but by the time you’re at the end of the poem, you’re not in middle C. You’re somewhere else. You’re in a tone cluster. But then turn the page and you’re back at C. I began to be drawn to this practice of seeming to start on a sure foot but not staying on it. If you say “I saw this,” or “I did this,” you sound like you’re on a sure footing. But by the end of the poem, though you’re still inside experience, the footing is perhaps less sure.

This happens in Celan where . . . well, with him, it starts right at the top. He omits the “I” and from the beginning you’re plunged into a situation in such a way that the experiential character is hard to determine. So in quite a few of the poems, I liked the idea of starting surely and then ending openly—not so much unclear as open. It might help though if I spend a moment on the way the book started, because each book that I’ve written is a different inquiry for me. This one didn’t begin that way but it joined these ranks pretty quickly. I had started going out with Dennis in June of 1996, and we were a little way into the following year and April was starting in a few weeks. So we were heading toward our first anniversary. I had this idea, right before April started, to do something I almost never do. I would just write a poem a day, expecting it to stay loose and casual and just be a lark. A little bouquet of poems to commemorate the place I was at. Not that they would focus on us, but I had a lot of “love energy,” if you know what I mean, and it stoked the project.

The poems did get written, one a day, throughout that whole month. But very soon into this month the project’s original purpose fell away and the poems were starting to talk a certain way and ask certain things. Each seemed to want to get to the bottom of something. I became preoccupied with what these poems were asking—asking of me and asking in general. And asking for sequence. They were untitled, and spare, and vulnerable. In other words, this project turned into another inquiry. This happens every time I try to keep things loose! It turns into questions. So, as an example, for one of the very few poems that actually stayed in the book after that month:

High blank
of just

“woke up”

a low
steady sound

—car engine

on—timbre not

going through

the yards

The poems from that first month are on that level. They’re not terribly involved. They were attended to, but they’re sketches. But that kind of poem started falling away, all the way up until Stephen took the manuscript. For 15 years it had been this intense laboratory. I would throw poems out and add new poems, and what is now the first poem was written years after. In fact, a couple of them got in there after Stephen had accepted the manuscript. The very last poem is the one where I’m talking to the guy on Market Street. He’s selling his CD and I’m asking about his beats. So it was a long trip, and I was almost sad to let the book go, because it meant that I couldn’t keep obsessing with it.

But you’d asked about space and time . . .

AF: Yeah, I think you already have started to address how space and time get constructed through this book.

GA: There is a sensation of slowly elapsing time in some of the poems. There’s a line in one of the poems about movement of honey down a wall, where I’m misremembering something Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote in Hope Abandoned—that Osip loved to watch things like honey dropping down a spoon, because it was actual movement of time. He loved real-life instances of slow time. But somehow I remembered that the honey was coming down a wall. I can’t imagine why I remembered it like that. But I did want to try and distend time. You’re also slipping away from the “I” when that happens. You’re becoming just that-which-notices or that-which-is-doing-the-perceiving. But by that point it’s not really the subject doing the perceiving. You’re part of the process, a factor, not the main player.

AF: Maybe we can focus more on that particular liminal “I.” Here I think specifically of the work-a day-persona that Fire Break constructs. And I don’t know the details of your professional life, so you could discuss your actual job if you want, or begin to address this “I” who writes “between folds and revs,” who “invents under duress.” I think the most exemplary related section might start “Clipboard on my bed when I wake up.” Here the “I” gets saturated in a specific space and time, yet progressing swiftly to the claim that “the noise and sprawl of willed commerce will / be mine as soon as I // leave for work.” Encountering pivots like that, I’ll sense some dream life or unconscious of capitalism, something sweeter than Fredric Jameson, more similar to Frank O’Hara’s lunch poems, though O’Hara soon will return to the museum, not precisely willed commerce—which seems different.

GA: “Will be mine” is ironic, of course—it’s the last thing I want. But yes, there’s always the reality of having finite time to work on things, and maybe the fact that I wanted to try to write a poem a day for a month was in response to this feeling of: I’ll just do it. I’ll just write a quick poem. You know, not a poem for the mantelpiece. Quickly, one a day for a month. We all have our day jobs and we all have our loved ones and the dance of life is in finding the measures. On the other hand, I’ve never wanted to exemplify time constraint in the work itself. I might write about time constraint, but I don’t want to necessarily fold that in structurally.

Still there is a lot of writing just before you go to work, or you carve out some time to do this or that. The poem you’re quoting, with the “clipboard on my bed,” is atypical, because I wrote that very quickly and it was about a workmate who had died, and I had had this dream the night before his memorial that I met him on the way to the library. But that poem came out as quickly as it took to write. It was journalism, though with a lot of stray thoughts. So that particular “I” is less filtered than some of the others. But yeah, you’re always working between occasions and responsibilities, between obligations.

AF: O’Hara offers one model in which work shapes the poet’s haste. But many moments with an opposite pacing also arrive in Fire Break. Your example of honey dripping down the wall points to a poetics of the present, fugitive, overlooked, ordinary moment, and to the forms of spare-time art that one can make from such moments. These scenes seem effortless in your book, the way that “The refrigerator kicks on to my left, dull traffic / off the parkway on my right.” Though even amid such immediate scenes, we often move towards the foregrounding of sonic play by a poem’s end. Sometimes such developments get thematized, as when one lyric asks “if I keep // listening what / will I start to hear— / if I keep // reading will / the frame take over.” Or a compressed, notational-seeming poem like this one below will echo for me Rimbaud’s “Voyelles,” Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, but also Larry Eigner:

Cirrus for stem
brushed up to
the stationary


clearing into
visible forma-

blip and roil
moving into
the area

Again I’ll sense an O’Haraesque attention to the (albeit less glamorized) moment, an attention that seems phonically or sonically to investigate itself by this poem’s end. Does that trajectory of a reading experience here make some sense to you?

GA: It does, and I adore Eigner along with you. He’ll provide a sequence and by the end there’s a new pathway you couldn’t have predicted. Or rather, it stops being a path and becomes something like a skywalk. I don’t know anyone else who can constellate nouns and make that effect. Or often with Eigner you’ve got the constellation of particular nouns, but then there will be a single time in the poem where he gives you a general noun.

AF: Just as here you end on “the area.

GA: Yes, the way that a weather forecaster says something is “moving into the area.” And as you say, some experiences move toward the sonic. I am very concerned about sonic life. I’m also a musician and a songwriter and a very, very active listener. Another poem that might support what you were saying would be the poem that ends with “The attack is not the note.” I’m in a park and then I think of Morton Feldman. He said he wanted his pianists, when they depressed the keys, to do it as “matter-of-fact” as possible. Then I’m in this park and people are relaxing and it’s “world-language in the not / so immaculately heard,” and the “I” thinking of the / large man his every day / suit and tie.” Because that’s how he dressed, right off the rack. Then that sentence: “The attack is not the note.”

What’s important here is the murmur, the rustling. Like in Hölderlin, the secrets don’t come down from the mountain, they don’t come from Zeus. The secrets are the rustling. With those two poems, there’s an appeal to listen to and honor the sounds that have not been converted into power tools. There’s a book by Gemma Corradi Fiumara called The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening, which I cited in the Oppen lecture I gave about 15 years ago. Her book is concerned with coercive sentence structures and sound structures used by, in her words, “the accredited managers of rationality.” Our job is to recognize power syntax when it happens and not take the bait.

AF: Just to return briefly to that particular line you quoted, “world-language in the not / so immaculately heard”: somehow it recalled for me a moment in “Of Being Numerous,” with Oppen perhaps walking across a bridge on a freezing cold night and sensing pure consciousness by himself, and he embraces the city, the mineral fact of the built city—but that still seems different than your less pristine “world-language in the not / so immaculately heard,” which you treat so affectionately, with such intimacy. Anyway, I sense myself approaching a question about you skirting any “us vs. them” rhetoric, unlike, say, Oppen’s “baseball’s their game / because baseball is not a game / but an argument” or “That the juices my flow in them / Tho the juices lie.” Even in Fire Break’s critique of strip-mining, for instance, you include the lines “Products say to do that. / The rock moved to get to here, it became us.” You seem to offer a sense of self-implication, whereas I’ll think of Oppen sometimes finding himself distanced from the social world he’s critiquing.

GA: If I can say it this way, I am preoccupied with what we could call the aesthetic experience. I’m not trying to define Oppen’s position here, but I know that in his letters, when he describes something as “aesthetic” (and I do too in certain contexts), he often means “merely” aesthetic: in other words, a beauty effect or a rhetoric effect. But a real aesthetic experience has nothing to do with beauty or rhetoric. I’m writing a book, or I’ve written it actually—it’s sections of a bigger book, four essays about the lyric. I’m trying to get at a certain lineage of thinking about the aesthetic experience, a kind in which aspects of the non-verbal are indispensable, as they often are in visual art. I mean, just walking down the street. You’re getting something that isn’t seeking verbalization. You’re still in nature as it were. But you’re also in your mind. The real aesthetic experience says: Now what? It’s your move.

With some of the poems in Fire Break, I’m trying to get at a feeling of vulnerability. If you write in short lines and you don’t use a lot of words, you can keep things in a state of exposure. It’s as if the poems had become weather-beaten, and this is what’s left. A lot of the visual art that has come to mean a great deal to me uses stuff that we don’t usually think of as lasting very long, like cardboard or plywood or house paint instead of artist’s oils. It’s a recognition of vulnerability, made with everyday materials. It allows a more intense feeling of life.

AF: In terms of exploring the aesthetic and vulnerability, I remember one sequence that I should contemplate having tattooed across my chest: “Activism, as of desire. / Relaxing, in the political.” What would it mean to relax into the political?

GA: Well, it would mean that you let certain of your hierarchies go. The fate of the planet is everyone’s fate, and that issue is number one in my own hierarchy. That fate is not separable from the fate of nations, the fates of the nationless, and so on. But it should be a constant nudge in everyone’s mind—the Western nations in particular, and the U.S. even more so, who pioneered and exploited the petroleum lifestyle and the creeping slow violence such a lifestyle has wrought in other parts of the world. And yet we still “can’t imagine” not owning a car. So by relaxing, I mean to relax one’s hold on these “unimaginable” phantoms and start imagining other alternatives. Get rid of the armor and let the skin touch the other skin. The planetary imperative, all our skins touching. Straining to align on this one issue, if no others. That’s what we need to do.

AF: I think of Joe Brainard’s “People of the World: Relax” to some extent in relation to what you just said. And as you raise global questions, I wonder if we also should discuss locality. The phrase “urban renewal” actually could mean something positive in Fire Break, amid lines like “left with the pave / of yourself,” in which a mode of attunement that seems specific to this precise location will arise, with which begins “the speckle.” So should we address the Bay Area, including of course leaving the city of San Francisco for a bit, but staying close by?

GA: I myself don’t see a Bay Area feeling here. Maybe it’s there and I don’t see it. My sense is that these kinds of observations could happen anywhere. I feel like I could have lived in my hometown in Illinois and found the same number of things to feed my preoccupations. The details might be different but I would find them.

AF: My eyes just fell on: “Light of the coast which is a bundling blue haze / above blue water // Arches of the bridge set down in the ravine / not seen from cars.” But I only have a few months’ familiarity with San Francisco, so maybe I’m projecting. I have another way to ask about locality here. You seem to have suggested that this book inquires into place as concept more than place as specific location. And Fire Break also offers occasional erotic glimpses, lovely portraits of one’s lover. And if we consider Freudian conceptions of ambient attunement: if I attune to the landscape in general, for Freud this often hints at a fixation on the maternal body. Or sometimes for Freud, in a therapy session, if I’m really admiring the wallpaper, that might reveal transference from my affections for the therapist. Then with your own attunements to immediate locality, whether or not a “you” gets mentioned, I’ll sense something like desire, sort of like erotic desire. You might not name a body, but does something like a body generate much of the affective experience that here gets documented through the description/transcription of physical place?

GA: Well, a good example of that would be the poem that starts “My garden / born from a scald,” because that is Dennis’ body. He went to boarding school in Hawaiʻi. There was some rowdiness in the shower room and they threw him in, so he has a scalded place on his back. That’s what I’m describing. So what I’m concerned with there is an eros of . . . you don’t necessarily have to know this is a human body, someone’s body, but an erotic atmosphere should still come through the words. Like I said, Fire Break was a valentine to the first couple of years of what has become a very long relationship. I certainly wanted the lover’s body in there. There is the lover’s body, and I hope it’s other things as well when the reader reads the poem. Recently, working on my prose book, I was “given” a new section to write, even though I thought the sections had been finalized. It’ll be a section on love and learning, and the dynamic between them.

In Brief Capital of Disturbances, another book of mine, I say, “Sex, to get to nudity.” There’s something about the naked body that is just so overwhelmingly . . . so much starts and ends with the other’s naked body. So how could we imagine desocializing until you really are in the midst of that first quality, that first appearance of nakedness: an entire universe?

AF: On this topic of eros, but perhaps more abstractedly, Fire Break presents many portraits or studies of vision itself. We’ve mentioned paintings, photographs and film, but certain scenes seem to foreground an epistemology of the subject’s place amid his/her environment, all traced through accounts of vision. I can give some brief examples with such quick entwinements of perception, relation, reflection. I think of: “merely optical— / of looking // at pines / some ways / from one // another— / though the / non-optical // jostles.” Or we encounter perspectival shifts in this study of the crow as transitory, aerial, animate, ultimately visual being: “The shadow doesn’t / fly, I change before / it does, then / I hear the caw / recede as it I imagine / changes to a scan.” Here these great inversions of inside and outside take place in relation to vision. The poem’s apparent observational subject only gets constituted by the vision perceived.

GA: We have to become guardians of vision against the telematic onslaughts being waged on our eyes. Guy Debord’s take on the image-commodity society of his day was exactly right, in my opinion, and that aspect of society, the spectacularization, has ballooned and accelerated to such an extent that I don’t know if Debord would even recognize it. We are living under a reaction regime that we seem to be all right with. There is some opposition to this, but even more acquiescence. I don’t want my thought patterns to have to conform to a succession of optic finger snaps. When I see kids and adults in thrall to their image-suppliers, I just think: Life is being taken away.

AF: I want to get back to image, but Fire Break also contains less contextual information than any other Nightboat book I’ve seen, with no back matter, no explanatory notes . . .

GA: Yeah, I don’t like notes . . .

AF: . . . and the briefest of acknowledgements. But also: Nightboat covers so often present an iconic cover portrait, often a figure, not necessarily the author. But instead, for front and back here, we get Clare Rojas’ patterns. How does this particular book’s design fit the aesthetic, the idiom, the ethos and eros that you have in mind for Fire Break?

GA: Well, I love her work. It evolves constantly, and the abstract area that she’s moved toward, the sharp color divisions she gets by masking, are pretty great. Seemingly simple, and then you look longer, and it’s not so simple. And the pattern-works . . . I’m not sure I’ve seen any except on a computer. I don’t know their presentation history. I was researching the newer abstract paintings when I found them. I love ornamental abstraction, in Islamic art for example, and these patterns of Clare Rojas had a similar pull. Also, I love her side career as a songwriter with a free website—something I want to do myself some day if I can ever find the time! She and Ed Gilbert from Gallery Paule Anglim were very helpful. (Ed had also helped greatly with a previous book, Momentary Songs, when I was eager to use Canan Tolon’s work on the cover.)

AF: In terms of how you’ve characterized a lot of Fire Break’s short poems operating, in terms of a seamlessness in which two patterns that don’t really match by any stretch get placed side-by-side, Rojas’ front and back cover blend so well within the overall codex of this book.

GA: As far as the experience of getting the book ready and making it, this was an extremely positive experience. Margaret Tedesco did a beautiful design job. She presented Clare’s art in such a way as to serve the simplicity, but, like the art itself, Margaret’s design goes to a place beyond simple. And Stephen gave me whatever trim size I wanted. The fact that this book is slightly wider than normal was just right, because while there aren’t a lot of long lines in here, there are some, and there is some prose and that extra bit of width respected all of these various text volumes. It’s a slight difference, and slight differences mean a lot.

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