An Interview with Seth Abramson

sabramsonSeth Abramson is the author of The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009) and co-author of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008). He was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry in 2008, and his poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, AGNI, New York Quarterly, and elsewhere. His poem “Angolans Approach United Nations Camp at Dukwi” recently appeared in Issue 21.1 of Sycamore Review. A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is currently a doctoral student in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. — Mario Chard, Poetry Editor

SR: “Angolans Approach United Nations Camp at Dukwi” recently appeared in our Winter/Spring issue of 2009. What strikes me as peculiar about this poem, as opposed to much of your other work, is its focus on a particular event (whether real or imagined) that leads to a conclusion with significant political underpinnings. Would you mind telling us, then, a little more “about” the poem, maybe something of its genesis, but especially where it fits in your upcoming poetry collections. Is this poem part of a series that will address certain “political” issues? Or do you feel that all you work bears a certain social resonance?

Abramson: It’s true that little of my work is inspired by real-world events, a constant surprise to me given the series of (to me) both disturbing and comment-worthy situations I found myself in during my years as a public defender. And I’ve always been a close observer of American politics, which would make ongoing political concerns a natural point of emphasis for my poems, I suppose. But somehow it hasn’t turned out that way. Usually I find myself approaching charged topics thematically or conceptually rather than viscerally–that is, in an acontextual and atemporal fashion, rather than a literal or time-sensitive one.

While “Angolans” was precipitated (for me, unusually) by a single newspaper article, I think a more generative focal point for the writing of the poem was the image of a flag hung upside-down, which wasn’t a part of the original news story but for me has long been a sort of visual fetish for notions of rebellion, individualism, fracture, anarchy, and so on. I don’t like my poems to be overmuch burdened with the sometimes dead weight of referentiality; I don’t mean “dead weight” as some kind of aesthetic/political pronouncement, I just mean that my own creative processes tend to be stifled by the feeling I’m merely writing words to fill some pre-existing vessel, rather than trying to break an existing vessel or shaping words in a way no vessel could properly hold them. Hopefully the referential nature of “Angolans” acts as a jumping-off point, rather than an end-point, as it really has been my aim of late to write poems in which everything seems to be happening for the first time–in which one could suppose the sun is only just now rising on the world of language–rather than poems which “describe” (and therefore circumscribe) specific events, as though these were merely exemplary instances of a cyclical history’s recurring phenomena.

As to where this particular poem fits into future collections, I don’t think I’ll discover that until I sit down with my work from the past year or two and see what I’ve done. I like the form my collections ultimately take to be a surprise to me. My hope is that if a series of poems can surprise and delight me, especially as intimately as I know the poems–having lived with them for such a long time–perhaps it can have a similar effect on others. My first collection, The Suburban Ecstasies, was definitely an attempt to treat individual parts first as individual parts, and then to somehow visualize a sum greater than (and also a progression/divergence from) those parts.

SR: For many young poets, especially those in MFA programs throughout the country, the idea of completing and organizing their first collection of work seems rather daunting. Now that you’ve had your first collection published, with the suggestion on your blog and elsewhere that you have one or two other collections currently under consideration for publication, how do you determine where and when to end one collection and begin another? I suppose the heart of this question concerns your personal experience with revision. How do you know when a poem is finished, and especially, how do you know when a collection of poetry is finished? Are you ever tempted to return and revise?

Abramson: I think advice to younger writers is only as useful as its application–what seems natural and productive to me may not seem so to others, and so the most I could do is to offer one perspective for others to, if they like, “try on” and see if it fits.

My own inclination is to write poems, not collections. I think that’s a better way of honoring both the individual pieces and also the single impetus–fully understood by the writer or not–which will often be propelling all of them (say, over the course of a year or two). For me, it’s not possible, given my animistic writing process, to divorce my poems from whatever essentially-inarticulable psychic turmoil I’m pushing my way through at the moment. That can be a problem (if it lends itself to sameness in the work) or an asset (if it simultaneously brings rawness and cohesion to a series of poems written over a period of time).

As to when a poem is finished, I really do think that’s a matter of an individual poet’s writing process–of which I’m certain there are countless hundreds (or more) entirely valid and ingenious examples–and therefore almost entirely subjective. For me the calculus is this: a poem is complete when it is true, and not before. I don’t mean “true” in some slavishly realism-dependent sense, but true in the sense of being the natural endpoint of whatever a poem’s germination process happened to be. While I don’t like a poem to perfectly mirror or mimic its origin-point–poems aren’t “natural” in the sense roses are natural, inasmuch as we expect a particular type of seed to produce a particular variety of bloom–I’ve tried, over time, to determine whether or not I’ve corrupted a poem’s chosen path during the course of its development (usually through over-determination) or rather if I have been, as I hope to be, merely the alternately attentive and aloof gardener. I find a lot of poetry–oddly, both conceptual/experimental poetry and traditional lyric poetry–to be overworked, the evident product of a series of rules devised by the poet-as-craftsman or even poet-as-self-conscious-innovator. That feels like a sort of violence to me, somehow unnatural, and so while I do talk at great length about editing strategies with my students, at base I think whatever editing happens, the wildness of the work must be maintained. In my more recent poems, this sense of things is probably fairly evident.

SR: Now, perhaps a less convoluted question. What poets are you reading right now? What new poetry do you consider exciting or significant at the moment?

Abramson: The flurry of movements now pressing in on the American poetry community is bewildering, no doubt: flarf, conceptual poetry, Stephen Burt’s “The New Thing,” elliptical poetics, the notion of the American Hybrid put forward (coherently or not, depending upon whom you ask) in the recent anthology of that title, new attempts at minimalism and neo-imagism (closely aligned with The New Thing, in my mind), the ongoing efforts of neo-formalists, the gurlesque, visual poetics (Vispo), fourth-wave New York School, etcetera. I find myself drawn most toward a poetics of timelessness–in the most literal sense of that word, i.e. atemporality. A number of French poets (Rimbaud, Appollinaire, Follain) and German ones (Trakl, Arp, Brecht, Celan, Grass) have had special appeal to me lately, as have younger Americans who I see treading along somewhat similar ground with (paradoxically) a greater sense of intimacy and vulnerability: Joshua Beckman and Jesse Ball are two examples, though I continually read Catherine Wagner’s two books with much profit, as well as poems here and there from Sabrina Orah Mark, Julianna Spahr, Matthea Harvey, and many others roughly of my generation or a little older. And then there are the postwar “avant-garde” poets I keep returning to: Michael Palmer, Barbara Guest, Frank O’Hara, David Shapiro, Rae Armantrout, Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, Keith Waldrop. Of the more “mainstream” writers, I find myself spending the most time with James Wright, Franz Wright, Alan Dugan, W.S. Merwin, and Frederick Seidel. I’ve also been trying to tackle Charles Olson–his genius feels so evident and yet so elusive to me–and think I might be on the cusp of a basic understanding, but gathering in some semblance of the larger picture will surely take years and years. There are many others, I’m sure, but whenever someone asks what I’m reading I find myself stopped in my tracks; then, hours or days later, I think of all the poets who were intriguing me at the moment whose names I might have said. As a teenager I was the same way whenever anyone would ask me for driving directions, even in my own little neighborhood; somehow, for me, it was the sort of question which was both foreseeable and instantly unnerving.

SR: Finally, as you may have noticed, I’ve been able to glean some further information for this interview from your blog. Do you view the advent of the Internet, and in particular its capacity for the promotion and proliferation of one’s art, as something beneficial to poets today?

Abramson: I do think it’s beneficial. Finding the poems and poets by which we will be most inspired is a years-long task at best; at least, with the internet, we as regular readers of contemporary poetry have been given a fighting chance. Growing up in suburban Massachusetts in the 1980s–so, before the popularization of the internet–my exposure to poetry was entirely circumscribed by whatever poets and poems my high school teachers had deemed worthy of dissemination, and the consequence of that fact was that I didn’t become seriously involved with poetry until my mid-twenties (not having taken to the notion of Paul Simon and Bob Dylan as proper “poets,” or Romantics such as Wordsworth and Coleridge as being particularly relevant to my life at the time). Now the only limitation is my stomach for research; if I read a poem that intrigues me, I can read dozens more by that same author within minutes. If I come across a fellow writer with similar interests, or whose aesthetic inclinations I find new and exciting, it’s a sure bet he or she has a blog on which countless other poets as yet unknown to me are discussed. The possible sub-set of confrontations with poetry which a non-urban-dwelling boy might have is now exponentially greater than it was twenty years ago, which can’t help but bring repercussions for contemporary aesthetics, too. In other words, the internet has changed not merely what we read but also–necessarily–what influences our own writing. While my MFA experience at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was definitely a major factor in my “discovery” of some poets whose work I might not have come across otherwise, and who are now vital to me, I think the same could be said of writers I’ve learned about through the poet-blogger “blogosphere.”

All of the above effects of the internet are borne out, I think, by the vast scope and sharp intelligence of the discourse on poetics we find online, and the ingenuity and dynamicism of the poetry now being published virtually. Not to mention the possibility the internet offers for the creation of virtual artists’ colonies, something which has already happened many times over in the blogosphere–though that’s not to say that poets are, generally speaking, either by temperament or inclination, ideal community-builders. Again, the internet is simply giving a disparate and often contentious band of persons a fighting chance at finding one another and becoming fellow-travellers. What we do with that chance is entirely up to us.