Bruce Bond is the author of nine published books of poetry, most recently Choir of the Wells: A Tetralogy (Etruscan, 2013), The Visible (LSU, 2012), Peal (Etruscan, 2009), and Blind Rain (LSU, 2008). In addition he has two books forthcoming: The Other Sky (poems in collaboration with the painter Aron Wiesenfeld, intro by Stephen Dunn, Etruscan Press) and For the Lost Cathedral (LSU Press). Presently, he is a Regents Professor of English at the University of North Texas and Poetry Editor for American Literary Review.
The following interview was conducted via e-mail in the summer of 2013.
Adam Tavel: What were the generative forces behind Choir of the Wells evolving into a tetralogy? At what point did you realize that it wasn’t merely several individual manuscripts, but rather four interconnected books conversing with each other, and how did this decision inform the book’s completion?
Bruce Bond: As with all my books, the generative force was actually many forces. The challenge with each book has been one of drawing the threads into one braid—something that begins to happen generally once I have written at least half a book of poems. Many poems in Choir grew out of particular tensions that followed me around over a long period of time. That said, there was a period of a couple of years when I wrote the lion’s share of the book. It came after two long-term nervous system infections, when I became deeply invested in the mind/body problem, which I see as related to the spirit/matter and form/content dichotomies and, in a fundamental way, the significance of creative will. So I found myself writing a lot, so much so that I had a backlog of unsubmitted books, four of them, each with its particular terrain, and I sent all four to my editor at Etruscan, Phil Brady, in hopes that he might pick one so I could then send the others elsewhere. To my surprise, he saw a unity there and wanted to publish all four in one large volume as—and this is worth emphasizing—parts of a singular vision.
The unity of the four parts as one book became central to the sense of sustained emotional and intellectual investment there. I suppose, since these books were evolving simultaneously or nearly so, they were bound to be haunted by related questions: the mind/body problem, yes, but also various personal struggles: the death of a close friend to alcoholism, for instance. Some of these struggles get explored by proxy via historical and philosophical poems. Also, the poems in all four books characteristically have a strangeness and intimacy that I hoped would test, validate, and challenge the more meditative hunger for ideas in them. So a certain mercurial sensibility—formal and intimate, philosophical and playful, historical and personal, scientific and surreal—unites the book as well. I ended up holding back the part that I thought fit least well (that book, For the Lost Cathedral, is now forthcoming from LSU), and I pulled together a fourth part of the newly dubbed tetralogy. I also wrote various poems for each section and radically changed the architecture and rewrote parts to make something wholly new—a kind of big house with a symmetry of chambers, wherein each poem would have a lyric strangeness, line-by-line resilience, and efficiency that resonated within a larger conversation.
AT: Choir of the Wells is bound by an elemental motif as well as by the elegiac tenor of its subject matter. To what degree do these two forces inform and sustain each other?
BB: I think the elemental motif—such as the invocation of water, earth, fire, and air in the section titles—articulates my desire to explore the primacies out of which consciousness evolves and through which it experiences difficulty as the mother of meaning. Elegy expresses something at the core of our difficulty—not just in terms of literal death, but also in terms of our falling away from being, which in turn makes language possible and so too an object of desire. The very title, Choir of the Wells, refers to the mystery of origins—the origin of song, of mind, of spirit, of new being, or whatever it is that rises out of matter. The book is thus driven by metaphysical hunger. Great loss inspires a similar hunger, a longing for connection, a wonder and bemusement in the face of the unknown. Beginnings and endings therefore beg questions of continuity and its absence. Paradox is everywhere in Choir—especially the paradox of being bound up in a social, cultural, material, and natural world and yet in some necessary measure not quite identical with that world. Our particular cultural moment has brought this paradox into sharp focus, and the Internet is a great metaphor of all of us wired into one another as we type away in separate rooms.
There is a great scene in the movie Tree of Life wherein the elemental forces that engender life in an evolutionary narrative eventually lead to the capacity for one dinosaur to put a foot on another, to contemplate the pulse in the throat of the weaker, and then to remove the foot and move on. In the terms of that movie, this moment marks the birth of grace, but also the emergence of a sense of differentiation and selfhood: me here, you there. In separateness, the terms of a new connection, the rudiments of love, are forged. When I saw that movie, I got very excited, because that was a time when I kept seeing daily life, with all its misreadings, losses, debts, desires, complexes, and connections, against the backdrop of some larger evolutionary story wherein the birth of new being renews some sense of life as creative in its essence and thus destabilizing in all the ways that make meaning possible.
AT: Choir of the Wells is, at times, resonant with palpable sorrow due to its many elegies, and yet it never sags or grows melodramatic. What role did sequencing and arc play in the book’s completion?
BB: Well, thanks for that. Sequencing was enormously important and not easily described as a single arc. Rather, it was a matter of countless adjustments of large and small structures. Melodrama would kill any book, but especially a long one. The longer the form, the more movement it needs. One of many parts of that movement is tonal, and tone is a function of more than the obvious elements of voice, such as rhetoric and diction. We might also include some elusive sense of “otherness” as essential to the invitational and attentive quality of a poem. I know that is a bit abstract, but it actually turns out to be a pragmatic notion. A lot of poems fail because there is not enough “other” in them. Melodrama is, however ostentatious with affection, a form of exploitation that plays upon ready-made pathos. It risks very little, controls too much.
It is important to me that a poem is in a large sense a “gift.” It must offer up something new, something enlarging. I know this might be a minority view, but I think of all good poems as didactic in the best sense—they illuminate. I am not much interested in poems that have nothing new to reveal to me, nor am I interested in poems that are without mystery. Poems ideally move with an elusiveness that in turn authenticates the sense of an encounter with the unknown. I like poems with a subtext that whispers, “Yes, but, but, but, but.” So poems of a dynamic nature do not content themselves with being personal or impersonal or even transpersonal. They hunger for meaning too much to be merely certain or uncertain, sententious or ironic. They are too curious for that, too alive, too honourific of what they do not say or have yet to say.
AT: Water Scripture, the second book in Choir of the Wells, is notable for its many ekphrastic poems, and your collaboration with painter Aron Wiesenfled, The Other Sky, is forthcoming with Etruscan Press. How has this ekphrastic relationship with painting evolved over multiple collections, and why do you suspect it has proven to be such an enduring presence in your poems?
BB: I suppose the simple answer is that I love painting. I also love what painting is not. A painting cannot speak progressively with the articulate range of differentiation and connection that the language arts possess. Likewise, poems do not have the speed and physical immediacy of paintings—an immediacy whose power is wedded to a certain silence, a certain sense of spaciousness in summoning the interpretive eye. So the ekphrastic poems offer a place for painting and poetry to enlarge themselves in one another without lapsing into mere imitation. This is key. A hunger for descriptive immediacy might authenticate and ground a poem, but the merely descriptive poem is dead—a third-rate painting—because it fails to recognize the power of its particular medium.
AT: Earth’s Apprentice, the third book in Choir of the Wells, is comprised of three long sequences. What challenges—whether formal or self-imposed—do you encounter in these sustained cycles, and how do you wrestle with the demands they make of both poet and reader alike?
BB: The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty once said that freedom is predicated upon limit, and without which we cannot “articulate the field of possibilities.” I love that notion. My personal experience when writing within sequential or formal demands is one of joy. I don’t really feel the force of limitation very strongly. Limit is less a centering or paralyzing force in the process than a force of momentum. Moreover, it makes for yet another form of otherness, another thing “out there” that I must engage. A lot of poetry that prides itself on a process orientation fails to recognize the role of deep and mysterious thematic and formal follow-through in giving the process its power to move and so to move us. The lazily considered desire to move, move, move to the ever surprising new thing can degenerate into a superficial skipping across the surface of experience. That is just the new face of stasis to me. I see zillions of poems in that genre, and they are just not for me. Since Olson, a familiar objection to the lyric implicates its ego-centrism and self-consciousness. I suppose that self-consciousness is possible. Most formal poems are slow and lack adventure. In truth, any aesthetic, even the most Dadaist, can become a self-conscious styling. For me, poems are most dynamic if they assert qualities of both a process and a structure. In fact the “thingness” of the poem, its sense of being well made, wedded to an efficiency of attention, energizes its movement.
I don’t really care, as a reader, if a poem was a product of years of revision or if it spilled out in one gush. What is key are the feelings of authenticity and, yes, beauty, which have always required a range of consciousness that is both wild and controlled, irrational and rational. A fashionable and yet oddly nostalgic resistance to beauty is, to me, reductive, soulless, disingenuous, and a little silly. Rather, we might enlarge what beauty means in ways that are credible to the deepest courts of unconscious appeal. Cold, rational scepticism cannot reach these depths. Nor can the weak imaginings of the merely exotic, pretty, or traditional. Beauty as one more mercurial element in our imaginings must have something of the ordinary and the fierce in it. To eliminate beauty is to surrender to very narrow notions of poems as merely mimetic, as opposed to forces of “poesis” or “making,” which body forth new intensities of experience. Poems create something unforeseen, both in conflict and yet related to their more obvious subject matter, and beauty becomes part of the power that persuades us that this subject indeed matters. Thus beauty cannot be dissociated from all other aspects of an artist’s medium, which, in the language arts, includes its scope of reference. The dynamic function of the beautiful, ever elusive and surprising in its formal properties, is its call to us, its claim on us, its forging of felt relations. Such a call would calm and arouse at the same time. It is both ethics’ adversary and ally. What we call formal writing is just one face of beauty, and it benefits from the vocal flexibility and rigors of free verse just as free verse benefits from the lyric resources of echo and pulse as engines of emotional energy.
AT: Much has been made of your former career as a professional guitarist and how this has influenced your writing. What tangible aspects of your musicianship do you see in your poems? As a reader, I can’t help but notice, say, the subtlety and nuance of your metres and slant rhyme. I’m also curious if your years of playing haven’t also influenced the manner in which you read your work publicly, particularly your inflection and pacing.
Music is huge to the emotion of a poem to me. A purely visual poem that cannot be spoken might be interesting to me but never very moving. I studied composition with David Diamond, who had me writing in baroque forms for a while to appreciate how music might be “about” something, not in a symbolic way but in terms of working a musical “idea” and deepening it. I was into Bach in particular, and he has that quality of being both highly emotional and intricately architectural. When I turned more seriously to poetry, John Donne became Bach’s correlative for me.
As for inflection and pacing, I am delighted that you feel that. I studied with Don Justice, who believed that syntax was primary—far more important than metre. So when I work in metre, I am aware that voice, pacing, silence, and the melody of rhetoric can never be compromised. Melody is something less theorized in poetics, but hugely important. Our intuitions for musical matters register the power of novelty in conversation with memory, how desire might suggest the terms of its simultaneous fulfillment and arousal.
I should add that my musical practice has also shaped my worldview as it relates to poetry. No doubt, music influences my views on the power of beauty in the great nervous system of the natural world. Also, music shapes my scepticism when it comes to the narrow reading of form as a cultural code. You might notice that it was in the musical world where integration first happened in this country. Music has always travelled rather rebelliously across certain cultural boundaries even as it bears the signature of culture. As a result, musicians are often less plagued by a desire to reify those boundaries than certain more language-oriented interpreters of music. Also, music makes obvious that all experience is not mediated through sign systems.
The mimetic function of music is, if postulated, extraordinarily complex and never the whole story. Music is the art most obviously about itself, about beauty. Sure, the inclusion of noise marked an important development in the history of music, but insofar as it has survived the middle 20th century, that movement is still invested in form and aesthetics. So music is, for me, part of the conscience of my work. It teases me out of thought. It returns me to a slippery otherness that is at the heart of the human condition. It reminds me that a poem is not simply a mirror held up to nature. It is a force of nature. It brings new being into being, out of the well whose silence it makes audible without ceasing to be silence.
Adam Tavel received the 2010 Robert Frost Award, and his chapbook Red Flag Up was recently published by Kattywompus Press. He is also the author of The Fawn Abyss (Salmon, forthcoming 2014), and his recent poems appear or will soon appear in Quarterly West, The Massachusetts Review, Passages North, Southern Indiana Review, West Branch, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. He is an associate professor of English at Wor-Wic Community College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.