Interview with Susan Scarlata for Denver Quarterly
SS: How do poems start for you? In general, and then specifically, how did the poems in Address begin?
EW: Do you mean literally how do they start? They might start with the convergence of rhythm and meaning when I’m walking down the street or they might begin with something I hear or what seems like a random thought that carries several meanings or turns in quick succession or some kind of pun.
Once I was looking for a parking place in Boston and there must have been some fancy event going on because the road was jammed with expensive cars and any open space was reserved for valet parking, and I thought it’s the “valet of the shadow of death.” It made me think of Orpheus in his cab to hell and also of the ways the settlement of the American colonies involved the conflation of religion and commerce. At the time I wrote the poem, we were hearing a lot about “enemy combatants.” The term seemed like a direct echo of earlier histories of violence and betrayal on more or less the same ground.
I like what you said earlier about motives and culpability and spatial awareness. How are things used, what has been traded?
A lot of these poems are thinking in a kind of mobile way about how we’re defined or identified by relation. Then, of course, metaphorical constructions are all about establishing relation—and all language in some sense functions through the making of relations or substitutions, agreeing that this means that—but that’s another sense of “trade” that’s operating.
SS: There are a few witch-related poems in Address, and I have been thinking much lately about were lines are drawn between spirituality and superstition. Your ‘Witch’ poems conjure these women in Hong Kong, where I am currently living, that sit under a highway overpass in the city with small altars on the ground. They are known as “Villain Hitters,” or “Devil Beaters.” Anyone can show up with a likeness of someone they want wronged and, for a fee, the women will smack the image with a shoe. As with voodoo, this is supposed to turn the tides, bring harm or act as retribution somehow. It’s involved with spirits and the altars and worship behind it make it religious, but it is also clearly superstitious. In thinking of all the witchery you discuss (and how you’ve tilted it toward political manifestations of the past century) where does poetry land in the continuum do you think? How are poems involved?
EW: That’s fascinating information—and a great question. I like the idea of a poem working like a “villain hitter” or “devil beater,” smacking back at a world that would do it violence.
It makes me think of Woody Guthrie’s guitar: “This machine kills fascists.” It seems contradictory—a “machine” in the service of the human, violence in the service of liberation. Again it makes me think of Williams—his sense of the poem as a machine of words and of “the war” as the predominant condition of his time. He’s talking about military world war abut also the war waged by art, by poems.
As for witchcraft, it’s certainly connected to poetry—formally in the sense that chants and spells and prayers are a kind of poetry, but also in its subversive, often overtly anti-institutional power. Isn’t that why Plato casts poets out of the Republic? We’re troublemakers and conjurers. Or we should be. We can make real something that would otherwise not exist.
I’m not a historian of or practitioner of witchcraft in its primary sense, but I’m interested in the ways poetry connects with magic—and also the ways that belief systems and social structures are built around language use. Not just law, constitution, scripture but all the assumptions that are made about where and when you can speak. There are so many manifestations of this. When Anne Hutchinson was cast out of Massachusetts, it wasn’t just because of what she was saying but there was the basic fact that when she spoke she had the attention of others, that she was attracting followers. If people were listening to her, they were not simply accepting the words coming from the pulpit. I think many kinds of institutional authority are connected with superstition as much as witchcraft is. I mean, it’s easy enough to be charmed by the performance of executive power—or spooked by it.
In the age of J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activity Committee, all kinds of non-conformity could make you an enemy—or potential enemy—of the state, and naming names was this terrible act of betrayal. I became interested in what could happen if the intention behind that act were reversed and it became a performance of inclusion and recognition. Recognition of what others have done and what they’ve risked and recognition of the contradictions within the military deployment of “democratic values.”
To read the complete interview, visit here.
“A Poem Argues for Its Own Existence” by Sean Patrick Hill, fromGulf Coast. click here to read