Stop, Look, and Listen: An Interview with Rae Armantrout

by David Moscovich

There is much written on the life and work of poet Rae Armantrout, including her own memoir True (Atelos, 1998). It was through this book that I thirsted to ask about her Evangelical background, and how a such a meticulous poetics of what Gordon Lish would call “quiddity” could emerge from the fascinating world of fundamentalist Christianity. Regardless of how it comes about, though, there is surely an inquisitive nowness in her timeless poems, a willingness to engage with Guy Debord’s spectacle or to completely ignore it, and a thrilling ability to transport William Carlos Williams’s iconic red wheelbarrow into an uninhibited, semantic, seismic, motionless playground.

Segments of Armantrout’s latest book Finalists (Wesleyan University Press, $35) seem reminiscent of the Harper’s Magazine column “Findings,” a digest about recent scientific research; when placed side to side, its items have a peculiar strobing effect. Throughout Finalists, etymologies inflate and implode, contradict and contort, resisting motion as if they were two magnets connecting. Making new meaning of familiar references is part of this dance of contrast; pop culture grounds Armantrout’s work in the contemporary world, while physics, genetics, and botany enshrine it with her exquisite L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.

Armantrout’s other recent notable books include Wobble (Wesleyan University Press, 2018), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; Versed (Wesleyan University Press, 2009), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; and Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), a finalist for the PEN Center USA Award.

This interview was conducted at the end of 2022, with Armantrout’s punctual feedback, over email.

David Moscovich: You came of age among the West Coast “language poets” of the 1970s. What advice would you give young women writers today?

Rae Armantrout: I hesitate to give advice to young people who will be living in a much harsher world than I have. That said, the old advice to “Stop, look, and listen” travels well in poetry as well as life. Hone your curiosity. Read widely.

DM: How does family influence your work?

RA:  For the last five and a half years, I have been participating in the care of my twin granddaughters. There isn’t much that’s more interesting than the emergence of mind, personality, and language. They are adorable, but, especially since they’re twins, they also provide a front row seat on what you might call war and peace. There’s a lot of fighting, scheming, negotiating, making up, etc. (It’s possible I think this is fascinating because it’s the newest thing in my life.) In any case, their sayings and doings have gotten into my poems lately, just as my parents got into my earlier poems.

DM: Can you speak to your upbringing—how did Vallejo, San Diego, and Evangelical Christianity help form your current approaches to poetry? I think you’ve addressed at least part of this in an essay about your mother, but I wonder if you have anything to add now.

RA: You’re right, I have written about this before—in a memoir called True, published on Lyn Hejinian’s Atelos Press,and in interviews. I grew up in one of those housing developments built after World War II in which there were, say, five models of home repeated down the block. But, no surprise, it wasn’t exactly “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver.” My father was in the Navy, so he was away for long periods. My mother managed a candy store. My maternal grandmother took care of me, but she was a rather taciturn, distant presence.

Fortunately, I discovered reading early. My best friends were books. When my father wasn’t on deployment, things were worse. He was a drunk. I tried my best to avoid him. I got into some minor delinquency as a teenager but still managed to make it to adulthood relatively unscathed.  

My mother and grandmother were fundamentalist Christians, which meant I grew up reading the Bible and going to church. I started to have doubts by the time I was 11 or so. We had an encyclopedia, as families often did before the internet, and I remember reading about evolution. I showed my mother the pages and she said, “Don’t look at that!”  I think I got interested in science as a way to break out of the evangelical cage.

DM: Do you have any work that you have kept private which you are still working on or which you plan to de-privatize?

RA:  Although I wrote about my early years in True, at the start of the pandemic, I decided I would write a complete autobiography. Ha!  So far I’m only up to the age of twenty-six.  I have a long way to go. When I wrote about my childhood and teenage years this time, I decided to write the truer, unexpurgated version. Stanford bought this first installment when they bought my papers in 2021. I don’t intend to publish the thing. To see it, you need permission. I did it this way to protect my family and friends.

DM: Can you recall the very first time you wrote something down and thought of it as poetry (not for publication)?

RA: When I was in first or second grade my teacher had us make up poems. She must have read us some haiku. I wrote, “The little fisheys swim / around and around / and away.” I remember this poem was put into a mimeograph book of class work, but I certainly had no idea of publication.

DM: At which point in writing poems for Finalists did you know you had a cohesive book?

RA: The book is in two parts: “Threat Landscape” and “Finalists.” “Threat Landscape” was written first. I see the two parts as two different manuscripts so, to that extent, I don’t have one cohesive book—I have two that I chose to pair.  Most of “Threat Landscape” was written before the pandemic (with the exception of “Fashion”) and most of “Finalists” was written during it.  So they are bookends, I guess.  (Though I don’t mean to imply that the pandemic is over.) The two parts have some common themes, of course: the climate crisis, and raising children in a world we’re ruining. In “Threat Landscape,” I try breaking the manuscript into sub-sections divided by one or two-line phrases. Mini poems. I’ve never done anything like that before. In “Finalists,” I found myself writing longer poems, some prose poems, and I leaned into that as much as I could during the early pandemic solitude.

DM: It seems the first few poems are broken into sections of one, two, three. How did this form come about? Why threes? And perhaps related: In a poem entitled “System Processing,” you write:

To get an idea
is to place one thing

beside another,
see how they look,

whether they’re a good fit—
though I don’t want them

to fuse.

I know I will want
to move them again.

To what extent might this poem describe a part of your writing process?

RA: I do tend to break poems and sometimes even books into sections. I started to use internal divisions early on as a way to write longer poems. I found I could stretch poems out by juxtaposing different observations done at separate times. This seemed like a natural way to go about it.  After all, the brain bundles perceptions into packets— separate “nows”—each several seconds long.  Now is not continuous. But there are other reasons too. I always find myself interested in how two or more distinct things/perceptions/tones might fit together. What do they have in common? How can bits drawn from different sources or scenes inform one another? This juxtaposition is a way of making implicit metaphors.  But such metaphors will always be knobby. The parts will resist each other. And I think these resistances are at least as interesting as the harmonies. My poems look at what happens when very different things meet.

And, yes, the lines you quote from the end of “System Processing” do describe this process. They imply that an “idea” is always a way of seeing what happens when A meets B. I didn’t start out to write a poetics statement. The poem starts with a quote from something I read on systems theory and consciousness. The rest of the poem is a kind of thought experiment using concrete, down to earth examples to explore and question the heady initial concepts. Somewhere along the way, though, I do start to reflect back on my own writing process.

DM: I was raised with values that fall somewhere between atheist Marxism and secular Judaism, so I have a curiosity about all types of Fundamentalism. Read with an Evangelical lens, I wonder how the logic in “Recent Thinking” might assemble/disassemble a belief in the Christian higher being: What is the difference between simulationism (if that’s even a word) and creationism? They seem potentially related in your eyes:

Some say the fact that the world is computable
is evidence we’re living in a simulation.

And the fact that the simulations we create
are improving rapidly is further evidence of this.

It is reasonable to think that any simulation might
have been created by one more advanced than itself,

a potentially infinite regress in which
the word “simulation” becomes meaningless.

Experience suggests that simulations are games
with both player and non-player characters.

No character has explicitly stated
that we should destroy the biosphere
to test the limits of the game.

I’m interested in the question of when and how deep-seated beliefs, such as evangelism or atheism, might morph or flex over one’s lifetime, in your view.

RA: I think you’re absolutely right. “Simulationism” and creationism have the same structure and the same shortcomings. Both suggest that some humanoid intelligence created us and is watching us. They propose different versions of the Big Other. Both theists and people who believe in simulation theory, for instance, argue that the fact that math works in the world shows that “reality” was intelligently designed by a mind or minds somewhat like ours. That’s actually an interesting argument. I’m not saying that simulationists or (all) theists are stupid. Far from it. But both ideas fall into an infinite regress, which is not where you want to be. If everything must have a creator, then who created God? Or, if the fact that we make simulations implies that we are a simulation created by a more advanced civilization—then who created them? Where does it stop? And where does our responsibility begin? In simulation theory we really have no agency. Similarly, it could be argued (though it rarely is) that if God is truly omniscient, we have no agency. I think we should act as if the world is real and as if we can affect what happens. I also think both theories underestimate the dynamism and creativity of “nature.”

As for how my “deep-seated” beliefs have changed over time, I don’t think the evangelical Christianity I was raised with was really deep-seated.  I mean, I shed it quickly in my early teenage years and never looked back. I was too curious to stay there. I did a paper on comparative religion in seventh grade and that was the end of that.

I do think reading the Bible at a young age prepared me to understand metaphor and parable. Since it was the King James version, it even prepared me for reading Shakespeare. To be clear, I know sophisticated, intelligent Christians—but they aren’t fundamentalists. It’s the Jimmy Swaggart form of religion I’m allergic to. I’m an agnostic, really. I mean, it’s not impossible that we are living in a simulation!  But it’s a very depressing thought, and the argument for it is essentially circular. The poem is an exploration of the way plausible reasoning can go wrong.

DM:  What this brings up, in a way, is censorship, which according to a recent PEN America report on banned books is increasing in the U.S.—1,648 titles were affected between July 2021 to June 2022. Do you know of an anti-censorship argument that might speak effectively to religious-minded folks who hold faith-based objections to books—something that might actually move opinions?

RA: This seems to be the age of censorship. Who would have expected that? People on the left have tried to ban Huckleberry Finn from school libraries because the N word, used by characters in the book, is racist and potentially triggering. But the strongest censorship movement now is on the right, which apparently wants to keep young people from knowing that gay or trans people exist—even though some of these kids are inevitably already gay or trans. They’re also against teaching the true history of racism in this country.  I am against censorship—though I do think curriculum should be age appropriate. Do I know of a good argument against it?  Well, ignorance is seldom good. It’s certainly not what school is about. Kids will find out about all this stuff sooner rather than later on the internet anyway. Why not contextualize it.? You could use Huckleberry Finn in high school, for instance, to teach about racism and slavery, about character and humor, and about the dream of freedom as experienced by Huck and Jim. As for the right wing, I doubt those people are amenable to argument. They want to institute a theocracy. They are on a political crusade and they won’t let a little thing like an argument stand in their way. It’s very dangerous.

DM: I wanted to ask about the poem “Cathexis”:

When we say the world is haunted
we mean untranslated
                                             as yet.

A “cathexis”
is a catch basin
in English.

A result of draining
“here” off into “there.”

Starbucks’ billion plastic straws
are green.

I know the leaves are whispering.

Tell me what my mother meant!

Are the final lines of the poem autobiography?

RA:  Cathexis is a term usually used in psychology; it refers to a concentration of mental or libidinal energy on a particular person, object, or idea. An obsession, in other words. So it isn’t really “a catch-basin/ in English”—not literally.  I like making up faux definitions. This one isn’t so wacky though. Cathexis really does drain “‘here’ off into ‘there’” if we take “here” to mean the self and “there” to mean the fascinating object. As for the poem’s last lines, they are not primarily autobiographical; I see the demand as being spoken to the leaves, to nature. The whispering of the leaves perhaps reminds the speaker of the whispers of her parents when she was a child. 

Nature and the incomprehensible speech of parents are connected here. Adult speech amounts to a kind of “primal scene” for the child, to use a Freudian term. Freud said that walking in on one’s parents having sex is traumatic because the child can’t understand what’s going on and sees it as violent. I’m hypothesizing that the traumatic lack of comprehension extends way beyond that particular sight. So the whole poem exists in a somewhat playful argument with Freudian psychology. (Mother is one, the first, fascinating object of cathexis?)  Did I feel this way as a kid? Maybe. I don’t remember.

DM: You mentioned that you are writing a complete autobiography, but that you do not intend to publish it. Can you explain more about your motivation behind this? How does it feel in comparison with writing poetry, for publication, for example?

RA: It’s entirely different from writing poetry. I’m writing it in a fairly linear way in order to try to remember—and reconsider—the events of my life. It’s difficult both because I’m not used to writing like this and because my memory is pretty hazy. I started it as a project to work on during the pandemic and, I must say, I’ve ground to a halt since things have loosened up. I want to get back to it, though.

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