Anthony Madrid is the author of two books of poetry: I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (Canarium, 2012) and Try Never (Canarium, 2017). Both books are built around the investigation of specific forms—I Am Your Slave explores the possibilities of the ghazal, a medieval Arabic form, and Try Never uses the linked engylnion, a form of early Welsh nature poetry. Madrid also enjoys the pleasures of rhyme, though he is never lazy or cheap in the utilization of this texture. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. He is also insistent as a critic of poetry—most notably at The Paris Review blog. We carried out this interview over a shared document on a popular online service. In the middle of it, my wife and I had a baby girl, and Anthony composed a rollicking poem in her honor.
Devin King: What does the research period between books look like for you? Or what’s the six degrees between the ghazal and Welsh nature poetry?
Anthony Madrid: The first book took eleven years to write, and I was proud of that. I turned over half a library. And I had beautiful Zen back then, was in absolutely no hurry. I was mainly teaching myself how to make a form work for me and not against me. It has to not be in handcuffs; it has to be a wave you’re riding. So I was learning how to surf.
Lots of good results. I learned how to follow a lead. What’s gonna lead to something, what’s gonna be a dead end. What’s real love, what’s false. The first lonely seed of the second book was planted during that time. Basically, I found a different form that I pretty much knew would work. But I didn’t try it even once during those eleven years.
Second book only took four years, and I feel like I have to make excuses. “Of course it was going to go quicker the second time, ’cuz now I knew how to do it.” “The second book is less than half as long as the first, so naturally it’s going to take less than half the time to write it.” “I was in grad school during the first and had to write a dissertation.”
Yet I’m uneasy. Whatever the merits of those arguments, I know too well that I had been infected with the desire to be talked about. Bye-bye, Zen. Gotta get that second book out, stat.
DK: Following a lead, following a good lead and learning to surf: is this something that happens for you in the act of composition or in the act of turning over the library? Do you work from matter or from idea?
AM: This is why surfing is a good metaphor for this. It’s not like you learn nothing by watching videos of other people doing it. But to stand on the water yourself, to cooperate with the particulars of the moment—to resist, risk, exploit, find, reject—that’s how you become a surfer. I’ll stop putting on airs now.
DK: Word. Fair’s fair though: I lead with the airy questions. So, OK, let’s find something for us to drill into. When you give readings from Try Never, you’re careful about introducing the form you’re working with to the audience. You say, each stanza’s form in the book is, essentially: “Repetitive fiddle-faddle / Nature Imagery / Deep wisdom pensée.”
Hole in the floor. I don’t say it’s a strategy.
Edges curled on a tectonic plate.
Better beaten than lucky and bragging.
Hole in the floor. And Senator Fragment.
Maggot done talking to cricket and louse.
Crooked stick, crooked shadow.
First: am I misremembering your categorization—would you add anything to it? And then, talk about surfing these sorts of stanzas. Maybe begin with: what’s the relation between the repetitive fiddle-faddle and the other stuff? ’Cause here’s my thing: OK, rhyme forces the brain into certain patterns of thought. When you were making these, how did the repetitive nuggets of each poem change your thought? Or maybe you composed in a different direction?
AM: First, the characterization. That’s more or less right. Like everything in prosody, it takes a half hour to explain it, and then the person looks at a specimen and goes “Oh, you just mean that?” But I don’t dare let “deep wisdom pensée” pass. It’s more like the last bit is supposed to be a solid crystal of cynical sodium. “Thieves and a long night suit each other.” “To warn the unlucky does not save them.” “I hope I’ll not live to a hundred.” That kind of thing.
Now to the rhyme. There are ways of setting things up that cause the rhymes to be propulsive. There are two ways I do it in Try Never, and I’m trying to think how to explain it without taking all day. In the longer stanzas, I’ll have the first word in the rhyme pair be at the end of a sentence. But then the other rhyme word occurs in the middle of the next sentence, which is itself being thrown forward by a galloping rhythm. What happens is it snaps you into the final phrase of the second sentence. Here:
Quinceañera. Imagine that!
Didgeridoo and your fate is sealed. [← the rhyme is set up]
But you still have to kick the ball down the field [← the rhyme is “returned,” midsentence]
And put it—foompf!—in the net.
They’re not all like that. The ones in tercets, there’s a different trick. But this is probably enough explanation. Except for one thing. The word “net” there, in the fourth line. The next stanza has to snatch that lob out of the air across the stanza break. So, the next line in the poem is: “Quinceañera. So let’s make a bet.” As soon as the reader sees that that’s happening, there’s a propulsive effect there too.
Now as to these rhythms and rhymes changing my thought: yes, they did, utterly. These are rhyme-driven poems. That’s what I like. I want the gymnastics routine at all costs. So, most of the time I had to devise the stanzas from the bottom, up. I would put the lines about the soccer ball on the page and then cook up what had to come before and after ’em. It was mainly gonna be nonsense anyway, so I could afford to diddle and diddle, write twenty different possibilities, and then just pick whichever one had the most “ring” to it.
DK: Just to be clear about bottom, up. You write the reprise for each poem, then you have the sodium crystal, and then the middle comes last with the rhyme pliés? Talk to me about the reprises. I get it, you’re grabbing them from the ocean—can you remember where specific ones came from?
AM: I pretty much made ’em all up. The rule was they had to have two strong beats. I’m checking the list right now to see if they’re all like this . . .
I wanted ’em all to be nature imagery, but what are ya gonna do. I got seduced by various sound effects. The rhythmic correspondence among these three words: Kiṣkindhākāṇḍa, quinceañera, siebenundvierzig—Sanskrit, Spanish, and German respectively. I was more disciplined, early on in the process: “Cold spring,” “Stepping crow,” “Mixed-up moon.” They should have all been like that.
You know the story of the title poem’s repetend. I might not have the details right, but . . . Vivian Gornick was quoting somebody talking about Philip Roth’s early fiction, and the person gets all gushy and says something like, “Oh when would he ever write with such tenderness again?” Vivian cuts in rudely: “Try never.”
DK: Both of your books have rude titles. At your recent reading in Chicago, Lynn Xu asked about the comedy in your poetry—how about the rudeness of it? This tone is in your criticism too, the way you ended that Kathy Acker bio review with the gossipy note about Silliman. This reminds me of Kleinzahler, but when I think of him I think more of, like, a Raymond Chandler–style snappiness. Your performance of it—sincere, no doubt—feels less, uh, macho than that. Was that a quality you built up over time in your writing? Did you find it somewhere? Part of the reason I ask is—to go back to the nature poetry—we, I, usually think of nature poetry as this, you know, misty mountain hop or aeolian harp thing. Or at its most macho, Bly and the boys around the campfire. I’m trying to ask about why you wanted to think about nature in the first place, or to use nature poetry in the first place. I get that you liked the formal requirements—were you at all attracted to, or interested in thinking through/undermining the ideological requirements?
AM: What shall I say about the rudeness. It runs very deep. At least three-fifths of the poetry I love and return to over and over is like that. Three-fifths of the literature in general. I do believe it’s all about one’s childhood. If the conditions are just right, you get this clash of meritless arrogance and perpetual humiliation—it gives one a weaponized personality, one part of which is a taste for satire. Also a taste for the rhetorical excesses of “evil warlords.”
(Nietzsche says somewhere that when you’re like this, you would rather scissor yourself to pieces than just sit there quietly. He doesn’t put it that way, but it’s his drift.)
So how does nature imagery fit in with this? I think the answer is neatly figured in the following—one of my favorite little poems in the world:
A slumber did my spirit seal:
I had no human fears.
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force.
She neither hears nor sees:
Rolled ’round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks and stones and trees.
That last line illustrates one of the advantages of the English language as a medium for poetry. We have this abundance of monosyllabic words that mean basic things (sun, moon, rock, tree, I, you, wheat, light, fear, head, hand), and yet the language also swarms with multisyllabic paisleys like diurnal. The upshot is that a word like crow has this blunt, elemental aura. Or the “rocks and stones and trees” in the Wordsworth. The deployment of such terms subliminally advances the sense that human wickedness plays out against a backdrop of eternal monosyllabic verities. Like here:
anyone lived in a pretty how town
with up so floating many bells down
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
I don’t care what anyone says. That’s good stuff. And that last line is what I’m talking about.
DK: Do you see your role in this book as squaring those two terms: human wickedness and eternal verities? Do you care about questions like this? ’Cause you’re doing an old thing—taking up the mirror rather than the lamp. But I also wouldn’t refer to you as a quivering reed or a scientist or anything. I don’t think you only see yourself as a solver of puzzles . . .
AM: I’ll say this. Anyone who desires a “cosmic” tone, desires a therapeutic art. Murder and deafening noises are quite acceptable as long as they’re couched in a cosmic tone. Take Babylonian wisdom poetry. That stuff is full of harsh lala—fine, but the tone reconciles you to the harshness. Euripides, same thing. The Book of Ecclesiastes. Beowulf.
In a sense, that’s what’s wrong with those books—and what’s wrong with Try Never. All these pieces of writing flatter their readers. They let you think your agony is the agony of a person who was facing down the entire cosmos, and so of course was defeated. People love that kind of defeat.
Or look at V.S. Naipaul: “The world is what it is. Men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” Sweet! The fact that I can face down those sentences means I’m one of the ones who do have a place in the world! (I had always suspected it.)
All I’m saying is: Yes, I’m hooking Vice to the Eternal, so that Vice will not despair of its own insignificance and patheticness. This is how I write poems that can potentially do people’s so-called hearts a world of good. Except I’m not gonna do it anymore.
DK: Without going too far into your ideas for your next book (we’ll get to that, I promise), can you talk about why you’re not going to do this anymore? Don’t just say: I don’t want to repeat myself. Or—was there something about the act of writing a second book in the mood you describe above that convinced you to stop writing in this way? I’m interested in the difference between what you learn from the craft(ing) side of the book and the finishing of the book.
AM: The main thing is I don’t want to produce what I call “therapeutic” art. I don’t wanna flatter; I don’t wanna seduce; I don’t wanna intoxicate. I want to leave the reader brooding over what I actually said.
I wrote those first two books under color of “write the books you yourself want to read.” That sounds like a good idea, right? But what I learned is: if you do that, the whole brooding thing doesn’t even have a chance. Everything gets sacrificed to exhilaration and play and curating your image. The closest you come to the brooding thing is when you strike the pose I find so objectionable in Czeslaw Milosz: parading your existential heroism. The world is what it is. Here are the women, up from the river with their baskets. Sun, moon, stars, rain. I hope I don’t live to a hundred.
DK: I’m glad you brought this up, as it’s part of what I’ve been trying to work through in thinking about nature poetry more broadly. How might the poem present an objective world that isn’t just the projection of heroism—or, really, the projection of whatever persona is being chosen in that moment. At first it seemed to me a kind of flat objectivism offers a possibility—Niedecker is probably the best example—but even that only works because of the image we have of her in this cabin. Or the cool-kids version of Niedecker: squishy anti-human sadism. Both of those, to me at least, still project a stable read of the world that, I think you’re right, acts therapeutically. But, OK, let’s get some brooding going. Aren’t we still in therapy—pointed in, not out? Exchanging Lear for Hamlet?
AM: Swap Lear for Hamlet—yes, it’s still therapy. Beckett’s Molloy is therapy. A lot of stuff is therapy.
Pepys isn’t. Renard’s journal isn’t. Sons and Lovers isn’t. Nadezhda Mandelhtam isn’t.
But I don’t want anybody to misunderstand. I’m not against therapeutic art. Most of what I love is that. I’m just saying I want to give the other thing a try. But a real try. I mean to stick with this plan for years, whether it works or not.
Now as for nontherapeutic nature poems, there are Japanese haiku that work that way. The ones that are crazy-precise observations, and the meaning is simply: “If you really look at the thing, this is what you see.” For most people, those ones are not big favorites. They don’t wanna listen to the gold-feathered bird singing in the tree, without human meaning, without human feeling. How’s that gonna do ’em any good?
I’m no different. I like Issa. I like it when the flies are people.
DK: No, no, I didn’t mean for this to turn into a bitching contest. I was more just trying to push you on this brooding angle, and why/how for you it comes out of these attempts at the objective. I haven’t read any of that list besides Sons and Lovers, and that was when I was younger, so who knows what I thought of it. Can you talk more about what you mean when you’re talking about brooding?
AM: OK, suppose you’re reading a truly great novel. What is that? First of all, it’s a novel where the characters do what people really would do, for the reasons they really would be prompted by. That right there is huge. If the book is like that, it repays study. I wanna say that, in a sense, such books are true. But truth isn’t enough. The next question is: What were these characters up against? Something real, for example, their own souls, or did they just have obstacles—problems that admit of practical solutions.
Narratives answering the above description (in short, realistic and deep) are the real thing. I just finished Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. Good example of what I’m talking about. And it left me brooding, because I identified with Lily Bart, the main character, who—sympathetic and lovable the whole time—destroys herself through vanity and devotion to shallow ideals.
I split in two. The doomed part of me was Lily; the part of me worth saving was Wharton, who was sadder and wiser and so on and so forth. I guess all I’m saying is: the book that leaves you brooding is one that has dislodged you from some complacency. As things go, it’s usually a complacency about yourself, but there are other possibilities.
DK: I got ya—I’ve been reading Trollope recently with the same feelings. Is brooding tied to narrative for you?
AM: Not necessarily. La Rochefoucauld can set you brooding; there’s no narrative there. He just goes ahead and hits you straight on.
Maybe it’s just anything where the material is actually challenging? Anything that’s trying to disenchant you with yourself. (It really better not require narrative, ’cuz I don’t think I can do narrative.)
DK: Can you talk about your own brooding yet? Are you planning on a new formal device? Will you leave rhyme behind? he asks.
AM: Brooding. You’re asking what, in particular, I brood about? That’s easy. My own meanness, elitism, vanity. My desire to punish. Other people’s desires to punish.
New formal device. Yes, but it’s a secret for the time being. Not trying to build suspense, rather I want to avoid a sin I’ve committed many times: splashing around a lot of big talk and then nothing comes of it.
Leaving rhyme behind. I’m not gonna leave it behind; I doubt I even could, at this point. But I’m going to demote it somewhat. No more Welsh nightmare. Simple stuff. Think Wyatt.
DK: Gotcha. Again, though, I think of your stuff, especially the new book, as quite direct. But that’s coming from someone who, I think, is a bit more comfy with a bit of opacity in their writing. Let’s zoom out a bit. What’s the difference between you writing in Victoria and you writing in Chicago? Do you find more of your meanness in either place?
AM: Victoria and Chicago are the same to me. The thing that’s different is fifty years old versus thirty or forty. Slave is the book of my thirties; Try Never is the book of my forties. In September, I’m fifty.
You know what Confucius said, right? “At fifteen I set my heart upon wisdom. At thirty I stood firm. At forty I was free from doubts. At fifty I understood the laws of Heaven.” There’s more, but ain’t no point in my worrying about what he did at sixty and seventy. The main thing is my next book has to be easy to read and deeply humane. I have to act my age. I have to show my Understanding.
Devin King is the poetry editor for The Green Lantern Press and the codirector of Sector 2337. His books and chapbooks include CLOPS and The Resonant Space are out; The Grand Complication is forthcoming. He teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.