Questions I Ask Myself
This self interview was conducted on October 30, 2014
Q: Your new book Trickster, arrives exactly 20 years after your first book Collision Center; why did it take you so long to write your second book?
A: After Collision Center was published, I stopped writing or even reading poetry for six years. I gave up teaching and went to work in the emerging Internet market. Then, when I began writing and teaching again around 2002, a number of life events intervened that made it difficult to write. For example, I moved seven times during the ten years it took to write the book. But, I like to write slowly and I had the luxury of being left undisturbed.
Q: What made you return to writing?
A: I don’t feel that I ever really left the process of writing. I stopped writing intentionally. I invoked silence to clear my head and that was part of the process of beginning to write again. The immediate impulse that got me started writing was desire—the desire to make something with words, really the hunger for that experience. But I didn’t want to pick up where I had left off and just continue, so I began writing again very slowly. First I began reading haiku, which during my time in Iowa, Jorie Graham had used as a starting point for thinking about image, line and gesture. Simultaneously, I began reading the diaries and papers of artist Joseph Cornell. Suddenly, I had the realization that I could “extend” Joseph Cornell’s fragmentary writing into complete poems—this concept of extension came from Cornell’s own writings. I sensed he had underestimated himself as a writer and had managed to snag some very interesting moments of being, but was not confident enough to fully develop them—instead, he used a visual shorthand, for example, a star to represent a particular kind of exultation.
Q: Besides Cornell, what other writing influenced your new work?
A: I reread the so-called confessional poets, especially Lowell, Berryman, Roethke, Plath and later Larkin. And I studied Nijinsky’s diaries, which were truly unnerving. I also began reading about the natural world and ethnographic records published by the Smithsonian in the early 20th century documenting Native American and First People’s oral traditions.
Q: You titled this book Trickster, so what does that word mean to you?
A: The Trickster character spans many cultures, but in my own work it has a dual meaning, as an untrustworthy servant of the creators who is both the instigator and victim of his own desires as expressed in Native American oral traditions; and as Mercury, the alchemical agent of transformation, as described in alchemical texts and the writings of C.G. Jung.
Q: How is Trickster activity expressed in your poems?
A: I use Trickster strategies formally and in the content of the poems. Some poems like “Fable” are themselves tricks; in “Fable” the character of Cold is actually an attribute of death—the death spread by human activity, but it’s not explicit, it’s a sleight of hand. Other times the content of the poem, such as the title poem, snags readers and makes them unwitting participants in the poem. Sometimes, the speaker of the poem, in “Balance,” “Him” or “Undoing” is caught in a classic Trickster double-bind struggling to find a way out. I owe a debt of gratitude to John Beebe for his pioneering work on the Trickster and double-binds in his Jungian essays.
Q: In drawing upon so many intellectual and theoretical influences, do you worry you’ve over burdened your poems with ideas?
A: I’ve tried to distill the intellectual activity into the epigraphs (which I consider to be an integral part of the book) and the endnotes. I’ve made the poems themselves as clear and straightforward as possible. It’s much more difficult to write simply and, paradoxically, keeping things simple lets more of the world come into the poems.
Q: Continuing on the psychological thread, in “Eclogue” you seem to take a very harsh view of the feminine; you might even say the poem is misogynistic—was that your intention?
A: No. The “She” in the poem is not a woman. The epigraph by Robert Bringhurst “Darkness is/The everlasting verb” is meant to convey to the reader the larger stakes in the poem. I also capitalized the “She” as opposed to the “you” that is probably, but not necessarily feminine. My objective as the poem emerged over a long period of time, beginning as a series of shorter independent lyric pieces, was to clearly address the Dark, and I would say female generative nature from which we emanate and to which we return.
Q: Your address to this force seems adversarial; do you feel angry at this generative darkness?
A: I feel trapped. I feel that the actions of western men over at least two millennia have placed me in an uncomfortable, bad-faith relation to this generative darkness. I also feel a certain hostility emanating from that darkness in response to human destruction. I see it in the Earth’s autoimmune response, by way of climate change, to the disease and death carried by humans.
Q: So it is an adversarial relationship?
A: Regardless of what I might like to believe personally, at the point “Eclogue” appears in the book, I would have to agree with you, yes, it is adversarial—that is the tragedy of the poem. But that is only the starting point of the relationship, or it can be, and that is the larger project or narrative of the book.
Q: So this notion of narrative, of the book as a single unit, raises the question, is this a traditional collection of poems? On the cover it says, “Poems by Randall Potts.”
A: I wouldn’t take that statement too literally. It’s not a collection of poems in the conventional sense, no. It is a series of poems arranged to be read in a specific order to create a single poem. The phrase “Poems by” is confusing, but also accurate in the sense that there are a number of traditional standalone poems amidst other more fragmentary unorthodox poems.
Q: Did you write this book in a similar way, using a similar process, to your earlier collection “Collision Center?”
A: No. One poem “Utopia Parkway” which was the first poem I wrote in the new manuscript uses a process of collage and sampling similar but not identical to that used in “Testimonie Skinne” in Collision Center; but in “Utopia Parkway” I didn’t use collage as a generative technique.
Q: What do you mean by collage as a generative technique?
A: It’s very difficult not to use collage as a technique in writing, taking lines or phrases and putting them together as you compose a poem or prose piece. In that sense, collage is used to supply detail or adjust the scale of something already identified as a subject. When I talk about collage as a generative technique, I mean that I collage words, phrases or lines together without any preconceived idea of the subject of the poem I’m composing. In that case, the poem and the subject of the poem emerge at the moment of collage. In “Utopia Parkway,” I used collage as a compositional technique, but I tried to honor Cornell’s subjects in the quotations I “extended” from his work, so it was not used generatively.
Q: Why did you choose to change your process?
A: I found the results of my particular collage-based process to be limiting. I wanted to write about different states of being that required a different kind of process to access and represent. The state of being in my collage technique existed at the moment of composition. I wanted to be able to capture experience as something active in my life, not just in my head at one specific moment. In other words, I wanted to write poems with subjects.
Q: Isn’t that rather egotistical? Is your subjective experience so interesting that it should matter to others?
A: Yes, exactly right. To make art is an enormously egotistical impulse and yet beyond subjective experience, especially what I would call “feeling,” there really isn’t very much else that can carry meaning—
Q: So you believe your subjective experience is useful to everyone?
A: If I intend to carry meaning, to write about subjects, to enter into a conversation with the poetic tradition and human history, I feel I must risk being misunderstood or even wrong. I think a question of integrity underlies any question of subjectivity. If I embrace sincerity and integrity, then my subjectivity is hopefully rendered clearly in concrete experiences that are significant and available to others.
Q: Many of the experiences in your book are dreams or feel like dreams and they seem to embrace a very odd kind of storytelling. What is the subject you are trying to reveal?
A: This returns to the earlier question about the adversarial relationship to the female generative darkness, to which I replied that I thought another more positive relationship was possible—the construction of that relationship is the subject of the book. It begins with acknowledgement of the predatory and destructive nature of our human selves and our current suicidal cultural trajectory and then reaches back to try to establish a direct, unmediated, archaic relationship to the world of which we are a part.
Q: You reference a number of visual artists, Cornell, Beuys, Tarkovsky, Rauschenberg, Traugot and Powell; is art another subject of your book?
A: Yes, it’s the second narrative strand running through the book; specifically I question how art might mediate a truce with the World. Can art, in the work of someone like Joseph Beuys, create a new positive relation to the World? It’s not enough to be an artist anymore. You must be a healer.
Q: Do you reject modernity?
A: I can’t reject it. It supports me, at least in terms of my physical needs. But intellectually, yes, I reject the concept of human progress that underpins any term like modernity. I do not believe we have progressed as a species, or more accurately, we in the West have undermined the opportunities that non-western cultures were capable of making at our current evolutionary stage and we have instead enforced a suicidal concept of progress and endless expansion.
Q: How would you define the relationship with the World that you’re pursuing?
A: I do not believe it can be defined. It can be enacted. I feel a huge debt of gratitude to both Joseph Beuys and the Native American shaman/storytellers for their work in enacting this relationship. As much as possible, I honor their example in my effort to let the real be real. I admit that I do not believe this relationship can be healed in language alone—I believe there must be another element.
Q: What is that extra element?
A: [No reply].