Michael Lista - He takes Auschwitz in one hand And Japan in the other, The flash that gnarls out proposes to marry him
Michael Lista, Bloom (Anansi, 2010)
«On May 21, 1946, the day of a lunar eclipse, a Canadian physicist named Louis Slotin was training his replacement on the Manhattan Project, which prepared the bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Slotin decided to forego the standard safety procedures, and there was an accident: the plutonium went critical, a phenomenon scientists call a "bloom." Nine days later Slotin died.
Michael Lista, a thrilling and wildly engaging new voice in poetry, reimagines this fateful day in a long poem that draws upon the still-mysterious events of May 21, 1946; the connection to Slotin's ancient predecessor Odysseus, creator of the Trojan Horse, the first weapon of mass destruction; and the link to Slotin's literary mirror, the cuckolded Leopold Bloom in Joyces Ulysses. Bloom brilliantly draws these stories, themes, and images together, and moves us toward the untranslatable moment of human novelty and creativity, the eclipse - the moment of the "bloom."»
«Ezra Pound advises the poet to charge language with meaning “to the utmost possible degree.” Critic Harold Bloom posits that poets, inspired to write by reading other poets, produce, as a sorry result, work that is derivative, weak, soon forgotten. The influence of great predecessors is, he says, like influenza, “an astral disease,” an anxiety-causing barrier to originality, and hence immortality, against which strong poets must protect themselves.
Montreal-based Michael Lista, in Bloom, a first collection of poems, heeds Pound’s advice, outs Bloom’s anxiety, ambitiously appropriates James Joyces’s Ulysses and, according to your perspective, “misreads,” translates, covers, eclipses, parodies or fucks with a choir of contemporary poetic voices.
A day in the life of Canadian physicist Louis Slotin lends the book its narrative structure. May 21, 1946, a lunar eclipse and Slotin, a member of the Manhattan Project’s atomic bomb team, is training his replacement, Alvin Graves, to perform a test that involves placing two half-spheres of beryllium around a plutonium core. The goal is to bring the core and uranium as close together as possible without triggering a chain reaction. The core is the same that irradiated and killed a colleague, Harry Daghlian, only months prior. It’s a risky task, referred to as “tickling the dragon's tail.”
For some reason, Slotin makes it riskier. Ignoring safety limits, he separates the half-spheres using a screwdriver. It slips, the core goes “critical,” and Slotin receives a lethal dose of radiation. Seven other men in the room are over-exposed. They survive because Slotin’s body eclipses most of the so-called “bloom.” Some think his actions heroic, others irresponsible.
Bloom has placed Lista in similar danger. He has taken Joyce’s multi-voiced classic – the richest canonical plutonium of the 20th century – adopted its complexities and concern for simulacrum and metaphor, and cross-bred it with a body of his own double-written poems. Placed together, these influential elements collectively produce some beautiful new verse and an explosion of questions. Is writing poetry a team sport? Is Lista copying or creating? Does Bloom contain bona fide memorable poetry, or is it plagiarism, a weak counterfeit?
Here’s Ted Hughes:
She never once invited, never tempted./
And I never stirred a finger beyond sisterly comforting. I was like her sister./
It never seemed unnatural. I was focused/
So locked onto you, so brilliantly/
Everything that was not you was blind-spot./
I was never tempted/
To touch her except in brotherly comfort. Like siblings,/
We never let our wonder wander from interest/
Here’s Irving Layton:
he thinks happily of the neutron bomb,/
his face taking on again/
the proud and serene look/
that once brought women in their hundreds/
clamouring to his bed/
Happily he thinks of his atomic bomb,/
His happy Trojan horse,/
His lips now breaking/
Into the famous grin/
That still dispatches women by the bed-load
Into Bedlam, into bed.
These offspring are, I think, worthy of their parents.
Born out of a fascination with what motivated Louis Slotin – recognition perhaps on Lista’s part of something similar found in himself – Bloom reflects on fate, choice, immortality and the afterlife, and attends to the parallels that exist between inventive scientific and literary endeavour, and the re-organizing and re-arranging of set structures and elements. With it, Lista shimmies a screwdriver between left- and right-brain hemispheres, rendering this reader, at least for a time, paralyzed, caught in the friction of competing desires to understand logically and appreciate emotionally. From this, slowly, thoughts arise, gather, connect, multiply, form new patterns and explode with new life. The act of reading Bloom replicates the process of creation.
Lista has here brought together potent ingredients, at once harmonious and dissonant, in a container with metal enough to withstand blasts from poems being split apart and reincarnated.
There is much to take from this collection. Not only is its face beautiful, its body yields clues both to the genetic makeup of poetry – the process of parenting and birthing it – and the purpose of life.
Standing on the shoulders of giants, Lista has moved the great conversation forward. The pleasure and challenge of reading this book lies in trying to figure out how he does it.» - Nigel Beale
“Something that has bothered me enormously as a reader of poetry is the failure of poets—especially the so-called avant-garde—to pick up on the formal complexity of the world as revealed by the various scientific disciplines. Biologists have shown us the double-helix, the root not only of physiology but also of behaviour, cognition; chemistry gives us Bach and personality; and physicists are proving we’re more math than matter. And yet so many poets give us a world that looks profoundly out-dated; disordered, solipsistic, self-made, random, positively 20th century. I think a more honest book is one in which the spontaneity of personality is set within the strict—and ancient— clockwork of the world.” –Michael Lista, from “Not Every Gesture Is a Manifesto: An Interview…” by Jacob McArthur Mooney
"Say I’m making it
for making’s sake, as humans must
when put before an erector set
whose pieces spell out
Please for the love of Jesus
do not dare assemble us" -–from “Do. But Do.”
"how when an atom’s centre smashes and cracks
new light explodes from the matter’s collapse" –from “Lotus Eaters”
Michael Lista’s collection Bloom comes with a guide map as an appendix, which might suggest its a book that takes us into unventured territory. And while I’m not sure that Lista’s book is necessarily more “honest” than those of the “so many poets” he mentioned in his interview, this is a fascinating collection nonetheless, in its premise and its execution.
Los Alamos, New Mexico is the guide map, and Bloom tells the story of Louis Slotin, a Canadian physicist working on the Manhattan Project. Exactly nine months after Slotin’s predecessor, Harry Diaghlian, was killed in an accident while “bring[ing] a core of nuclear fissile material as close to criticality as possible”, Slotin himself has an accident, and though he manages to shield the other scientists in the lab from radiation, he dies nine days later. An essential twist in the story is that Slotin died training his replacement, Alvin Graves, who was having an affair with Slotin’s wife.
I don’t know what “close to criticality” means, and neither have I read Ulysses, but even still, I was able to be captivated by Bloom. Each poem in the collection takes another poem as its source material (by poets as various as Ted Hughes, the Pearl Poet, and the Velvet Underground, by poets as cotemporary as Karen Solie, Robyn Sarah and Nick Laird, and plenty of [undoubtedly famous] other poets to whom a reference might bely that I’ve actually heard of them), and Lista refers to his work with the original poems as “English to English translations”. By which he means that his source materials are building blocks, modified to suit Lista’s poetic purposes and the purposes of the story.
Not a thing is original here– just as Slotin’s experience is a copy of Diaghlian’s, and Graves’ was the stand-in in Slotin’s marriage, each poem is a variation on something that has been written before, each of these poems refers to allusions and other texts (as well as a pivotal part of a 1989 movie projected onto John Cusack’s shoulder). And while the product of such an experiment is a little confusing and overwhelming, it’s also navigable and pretty fabulous to contemplate as a whole– the cacophony, so many voices, and such variation is entirely readable.
I am not this book’s intended audience, presuming it was only ever meant to have just one. But I am pleased to now understand how literary remixing could be an art onto itself and not simply plagiarism ala Opal Mehta. The incredibly illuminating Torontoist interview I refer to above (and yes, I was unafraid of cutting and pasting for this review) notes that Bloom is controversial, that readers could resent Lista’s rearrangement of beloved or iconic works (and I wonder too, if his variations might look paltry in comparison?). Interestingly, however, because my knowlege of the source material was so incredibly minimal (indeed, the only poem I’d read was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight back in Major British Writers, and I’m not sure whether to blame the University of Toronto or myself for this) none of these problems existed.
Lista’s poems refer me not to something that’s old, but something that’s entirely new, which was the opposite of his intentions, but it’s a distinctly original result.» - picklemethis.com
"Michael, one of our connections has to do with the word “bloom.” Your first poetry collection is Bloom. The narrator of my new novel, Where We Have to Go, is named Lucy Bloom. What is it about the word “bloom”?
- There is a magic quality to the word, isn’t there? Long before I decided to write a book called Bloom, before I discovered Ulysses or its Leopold Bloom, I thought the word was the most outrageously beautiful in the language. There’s a Nabokovian, onomatopoetic quality to it, the b––no, who am I kidding, I’m not going to Lolita the goddamn word. But you could. It works so beautifully in a book like yours because Lucy’s surname is a synecdoche for what’s happening to her over the course of her bildungsroman; a similar thing is happening in my Bloom. Sometimes this really doesn’t work in literature––how many groaners have graphic novels and Harlequins given us like that?––but I think because the word is so gorgeous, and its meaning is at once specific and general, it can work. Like anything in literature, there are no rules to it; it just works if it works. Plus put it on a human story, and it’s such an elegant foil to the popular fallacy that our species is somehow at the end of natural history, so removed from the organic world that we’ve now sublimated its laws. More importantly I think we both just like the way it sounds.
How did the concept for Bloom first come to you?
- An unfortunate part of writing a book like Bloom is that it’s easy for people to paint you as some megalomaniac forcing the world into an arbitrary conceit. That wasn’t how it was with Bloom at all. It came very organically; I had been reading about Slotin on Wikipedia one day about three years ago; that got me thinking about him. I’ve always been interested in the Manhattan Project, and started trying to find mention of Slotin in the great non-fiction books written about the Project, but couldn’t find more than the same recycled blurb, never more than a paragraph or two about the day of his demise, his accident, his bogus heroism. So I wrote some really boring poems about that, but I was only ever telling the story, not showing it. I couldn’t find a form dangerous enough to do justice to the hubristic insanity of Slotin’s defining moment, what scientists called “tickling the dragon’s tail.” And then I found out that the accidental prompt-criticality of a nuclear core, which happened to Slotin’s experiment, was called a “bloom.” That got me thinking about Ulysses, and the fact that it was a sort of Joycean pun gave me the permission I felt I needed. Then things started falling into place. The little that people knew about Slotin’s life had a sort of narrative rhyme with the plot of Ulysses––the funeral service, the fact that Slotin was Jewish, his being a cuckold, his father-son archetypal relationship, his belaboured journey back to his estranged wife, etc… He even had a father in Homer’s Odysseus, who was the engineer of the first weapon of mass destruction, the Trojan Horse. And then I realized I was writing a book based on James Joyce’s uber-masterpiece, and I was panicked by it, so I started writing these English-to-English translations to avoid taking Ulysses head-on, and they just sort of made a lot of sense on a bunch of levels, so I kept at it. But it’s strange; I can’t remember what that click moment was like; one day I was just sort of fiddling around and then the next I was writing Bloom.
Bloom is many things, but first and foremost a meditation on the life Louis Slotin, a notable but sometimes overlooked figure from Canadian—and world—history. Who was Slotin?
- The interesting thing about Slotin is that we know very, very little about him. And that’s not a coincidence. First of all, he was a fantastic liar; he told various parties that when he was in England he flew for the RAF, and that when he was in Spain he fought for the resistance in the Spanish Civil War. All of that is utter bullshit. The other reason we know nothing about him is because he’s a victim of the Canadian imagination, which is repulsed by people like Slotin. He found his individuation abroad, which as we’re seeing happen to Michael Ignatief, is deeply mistrusted by the average Canadian. He was also exceptional; his reason for being remembered is tied up in the hubristic realization of his genius, during a moment of historic gravitas, and nothing gives Canucks the willies like rugged individualism. It’s too imprudent, too protean, too American for our palates. All our heroes are collectivists; even our literature works on this principle. CanLit (the fact it has such a corporate moniker should be evidence enough) since the 1960s has been propelled forward on the principle of collective motion; individual talent is soluble in the solvent genius of the group. To America’s Edison we offer Bell; whereas the former’s lightbulb was protean, promethean, the latter’s is moot without community. Slotin hasn’t been ignored; we’ve looked him over well. He’s been forgotten.
Louis Slotin was born in Winnipeg, schooled in Chicago, and died in Los Alamos, New Mexico. For me, one of the remarkable things about Bloom is the way it evokes place so powerfully. How do you imagine places you’ve never been?
- I really appreciate your saying that, Lauren, but I actually find place a really difficult thing to write about. So much of writing is so similar to seduction, and when it comes to place––and maybe this is my recovering-Catholic prudishness speaking––I find that a light touch goes a long way. I’m more interested in what people say than where they say it, and so my rule for Bloom was to get the way everyone spoke right, and let the locale be painted in by cadence. That being said, I had the constant imperative of Joyce’s meticulous geography bearing down, so there is a very deliberate mapping of Slotin’s movements which readers can follow, if they’re shamelessly nerdy enough, but whenever Slotin’s anywhere, his mind is usually elsewhere, which feels honest to me.
When I read the manuscript of Bloom, I was overwhelmed by the elegiac beauty, and the delicate construction of every poem. How did you go about researching Slotin’s life and then transforming that knowledge into poetry?
- Because so much of Slotin’s life on the day of May 21st 1946 was draped in fog or propaganda, I ended up just writing about myself at first. Bloom in many ways is an autobiography. The book isn’t nearly as historical or literary as it may at first glance appear to be; I don’t think it’s really about Slotin in the end, truth be told. There was only this one bit of information about Slotin to research, the way he preformed this experiment, and so that became the organizing principle of the whole book. It colours and informs everything he does, and the way I render it.
Each poem in the collection is written “after” a poet – Sexton, Babstock, Crowe, Frost, etc. Your Lou Reed reference slayed me, by the way. Do you consider each poem a homage?
- Most certainly not. That’s the last thing they are. The goal of a Bloom poem is usually to deride, undercut, revise, cheat, lie, steal, be generally shady. If any good comes from them, it’s usually at the expense of the original. The world we live in is eroding our conceptions of intellectual ownership, and I wanted the poems from Bloom to tap into that; I treat the originals like a formal conceit, like a sonnet or a villanelle, an aesthetic with rules I have to follow, often by bending them. And I wanted to home in on the reason the world was given for the atom bomb’s creation; to keep it out of Nazi hands, to end the war with Japan before having to invade the island; bombing for peace, killing for life. The English-to-English translation said something in that vein. But the main reason I chose the form I did, or had to chose it, isn’t because I have any sort of reverence for the poems I translate; I just wanted a form that looked as dangerous as the work that lead to Slotin’s demise. And nothing flirts with danger in literature like plagiarism. Plus there’s the sense of the translated poem as being a sort of irradiated mutant of the original, which spoke to the subject matter nicely, the shadow-flash of Slotin’s personality silhouetting the original. The form seemed taboo enough, insane and controversial enough, to be a faithful simulacrum.
When you were working on Bloom, what were you reading?
- I read Ulysses more or less all the time. But I feel like I never read it particularly faithfully. It took me the four years I worked on the book to finally read Ulysses half-successfully. It’s a hard book to end up loving. I actually have mixed feelings about it; I’m not sure how successful it is as a reading experience. It’s an exceptional work of genius, no doubt, one I’m deeply grateful for. But you have to keep in mind that Joyce’s central influence in Ulysses was Bruno, the medieval Italian philosopher, and Ulysses in many ways is more a work of philosophy than it is a work of fiction. Joyce’s favourite episode was “Ithaca,” the automaton catechism chapter, the one that sounds like two Deep Blues shooting the shit. In it Stephen Dedalus says that “literature is the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man” to which “Bloom dissents tacitly.” It is in many ways a deeply heartbreaking, gorgeous, profound poo-joke. Nora Joyce once said, “I suppose my husband is a genius, but he’s got a very dirty mind.” The funnier I realized Ulysses was, the easier it was to write in its shadow. It’s a comedy. I was reading a lot of poetry too, reading as much as I could really. I went out looking for Slotin in literature, because he was gone from history, and so the poems I chose for translation had a whiff of him that I was attracted to.» - Interview with Lauren Kirshner
"Michael Lista is a twenty-something Toronto poet who, with his first collection, has managed an incredible thing. He has written a book that, without straying far into the political, the religious, or any of the more traditional means of rendering an insult, has an opportunity to make a lot of people very angry. His book, Bloom has the power to piss people off on purely aesthetic grounds. Written as a series of poems that each take their structure, form, and often content or voice from a previously written piece (ranging back to 14th-century Pearl Poet and as close-at-hand as Karen Solie), Bloom tells the story of Louis Slotin. Slotin was a Canadian physicist who worked on The Manhattan Project and, amidst personal problems, died mysteriously during a routine procedure at his laboratory. Bloom is both dizzingly complex and completely readable. I loved it to bits.
The element of the book I want to talk the most about is your respect for art’s multiversal capabilities. We never really see Louis Slotin directly, as he’s either filtered through these surrogate fictions (Odysseus, Leopold Bloom) or his experiences are being reflected through your own decision to fill the book with re-writes and adaptations of other works. This creates a number of complementary worlds: the visible, invisible, unchronological, fictional, interpersonal, and they’re all sort of piled on each other in a really interesting way. Most of your alluded-to sources are poems but, as an example, you pull away from the narrative’s big climax to take your readers to a scene from the premiere of a Hollywood movie about the Manhattan Project, in which a character is loosely based on Louis Slotin. What inspired this reliance on the allusive and intertextual?
- In a good heist movie, in the scene where the master thief is busting into a safe—he’s got an ear to the safe door, listening—there’s a shot of the three lock rings revolving into place, the little “U”s of the combination lining up for the tongue to slide through. That’s what it was like the first time I read about the Slotin accident. There was this sort of triple occlusion happening in the lab that day; Slotin in front of the atomic bloom, shielding his colleagues from the radiation; the actual experimental apparatus, with the two half-spheres of Beryllium closed down around the core; and even at the atomic level, the neutrons coming loose and sliding through neighbouring nuclei, coming between the protons and neutrons, going critical. In that moment of alignment, which cast its harmonizing, mutative rays out across the decades, I saw where we were: in Polyphemus’s cave, the Cyclops blinded by “Nobody.”
At first, the English-to-English translation technique worked because it was a pretty faithful simulacrum of Slotin’s experimental technique that day; dangerous, reckless, taboo. It also had the happy coincidence of updating “the man of many ways.” And as I continued to write the book, and focus more on what was happening between the people in it, I realized that the key figures in Slotin’s life that led to his behaviour in the lab that day were Harry Daghlian, his predecessor who died after performing the exact same experiment on the exact same nuclear core nine months to the day earlier, and his replacement, Alvin Graves, who was having an affair with Slotin’s wife (weird: I had incorrectly written “life”). And what was happening between them all—ontogeny mirroring phylogony—looked just like what was happening at the atomic level, later in the lab. Therefore Slotin was in an exciting musical moment for me, where the present is ripe for improvisation, though it’s set in the key of the past. And that’s the poet’s position before the canon, the dragon.
But most of all—and this is something I hope my readers see—it was also the way I figure the world looks. Something that has bothered me enormously as a reader of poetry is the failure of poets—especially the so-called avant-garde—to pick up on the formal complexity of the world as revealed by the various scientific disciplines. Biologists have shown us the double-helix, the root not only of physiology but also of behaviour, cognition; chemistry gives us Bach and personality; and physicists are proving we’re more math than matter. And yet so many poets give us a world that looks profoundly out-dated; disordered, solipsistic, self-made, random, positively 20th century. I think a more honest book is one in which the spontaneity of personality is set within the strict—and ancient— clockwork of the world.
I’ve heard you use, in more casual settings, the “English-to-English translation” expression before. That shorthand definitely helped me understand the book in advance of reading it but, having spent time with it now, I’m not sure if the process suggested by that phrase “translates” (Cheesy Punner’s Remorse…) into my reading experience. Are you really “translating” these poems in the way an interlingual translator would conceive of the word? A translator reassembles a poem unit-of-meaning by unit-of-meaning, but I’d argue that when approaching Bloom as a functioning organism (or compound), the atomistic units are the source poems. When a reader needs to understand Slotin’s wife’s grief and guilt you have, say, Karen Solie’s “Determinism” there as a representation of that emotion, with the several-dozen little changes made to suit your taste and the demands of your characters and setting. My worry is in the intellectual marketing of the thing. Are “translations” really the most exciting way to think of these poems?
- I think you’re right; translation isn’t quite what’s happening. One of the purposes of a traditional translation is to make available poems to readers who otherwise wouldn’t have any access to them. So therefore, for many readers, the original poem exists only as its translation in their language. That’s not the case with my poems from Bloom though; and the pre-conceptions that readers bring to my technique are part of what supplies the aesthetic tension I wrote Bloom to explore. I think creative plagiarism is one of the finest untapped sources of aesthetic possibility available to us today, and it has obvious extra-poetic relevance. In the last century a poem was censured because it was immoral; now they’ll be censured because they’re proprietary. Meeka Walsh, the editor of Border Crossings magazine, which first published some Bloom poems in 2007, called the poems allotropes which I think is pretty good. Others have called them palimpsests, or pentimentos, both of which I also like. A friend called them my irradiated mutants. I don’t really know what to call them, but I know what they do. What would you call them?
How about “renovations”?
- That’d work, if you consider children renovations of their parents.
Oh boy. I can tell my head’s going to hurt by the end of this one. Speaking of parental feelings, I found that the poems I had the hardest time accepting into the flock were those whose source material was the most important to me. The Paterson poem (“The White Lie”) and Solie’s “Determinism” are a couple of my top-shelf, all-time favourites. My reaction to seeing them being reno-ed was a bit like the lifelong fan’s first reaction to seeing a trailer for the Hollywood adaptation of his, or her, favourite comic. This is perhaps a part of that reading tension you were describing earlier. Which also has something of a helix shape, if you think about it, as your readers grapple with their own approach-avoidance instincts with regard to the recreation of original material they hold dear. I imagine this is something you’ve thought a lot about, and I wonder where you stand on it, now that the book has gone critical, so to speak, and its blooming (C.P.R., again) is imminent?
- That feeling you had is the exact feeling I wrote Bloom for. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it in poetry yet, and it feels like as close an emotional and intellectual surrogate I could get for atomic power. And it will be different for everyone; the more one knows about the source poems, the more they know about Ulysses and The Odyssey or nuclear physics (though in my case it’s admittedly surface), the more variegated and deeply will those feelings flower. Einstein wrote that “nuclear weapons changed everything save man’s way of thinking.” I must have said that over to myself a thousand times over the last three years. To write the poems from the modernist/post-modernist paradigm of “making it new” wouldn’t do, because human thinking hasn’t changed as much as they thought, and that’s the problem; we’re running 21st-century software on million-year-old hardware. The poems had to be both creations and decreations, because that’s the condition of ingenuity in the nuclear age. And for readers of poetry, I found it the best way to instill in them the fear and wonder of all that human genius has in store for us to gain and lose, because they have something personal, beloved at stake.
Absolutely. I believed that the trepidation I was feeling while reading those pieces was a trepidation designed by the author. I felt like it was part of the ride. One of my favourite recent topics of conversations, both casually and on-the-record, has been this idea of the “Project Book”. I know you’ve engaged in discussions about it in the past. You’re only one book into your career right now but, speaking generally, do you see the book-length project, or the long poem, as becoming your preferred structure? And if so, why? Is it easier to arrange your thoughts? Is it a more reliable long-term source of inspiration than the “occasional” poem?
- It is an interesting argument, though it’s one that more often than not is all straw men, red herrings, and reductive, self-justifying thinking. Not every gesture is a manifesto. I wrote Bloom the way I did because it needed to be written like that. If a poet is writing a certain way because it’s “easier” then she’s probably doing her poems–and her readers–a disservice. Poems, long or short, fail because of the shortcomings of the people who write them, not because of the ontology of the form in which they are written. In tennis, you lose a point because you hit the ball too low, not because the net is too high or the ball’s too heavy.
I’m not interested in sloganeering; I’m not here to turn people off “individual poems” and onto “long poems.” Not at all. I write both, as the poems require themselves to be written. And we should all read both. Dante and Dickinson are cordial neighbours in my head. Speaking of Dante, one of the important things I take from The Divine Comedy is that poems, like souls, come to assume the forms of their predispositions. That being said, I wrote Bloom the way I did because the form it required allowed me to do things that other forms wouldn’t. As I’ve said before, the long poem done right can provide a poet with opportunities for meaning that cloistered poems can’t. It populates the absences. The trick is to be scrupulous about the rules of mutual cohesion; otherwise you end up with the uber-unfortunate flab that gives some long poems a bad name.
And that leads me to my next point. Now, I don’t have any authority over any other reader about what I’m going to say next, but I’m going to say it anyway because I think it’s true: Bloom isn’t only a long poem. In others, poems are written specifically for inclusion in the greater whole. But with Bloom, the poems’ predecessors have lives of their own outside of my book, and so their nativity therein is tempered by their alienness. And I made sure that the vast majority of the poems that I transposed for Bloom were not originally from long poems themselves. So there’s an anthologistic character to it that, set in counterpoint against the cohesive structure, allowed me to produce an effect that the book required: to be able to zoom in and out of focus at the phenotypical, chemical, and atomic levels. I hope.
You’ve quite coincidentally wandered into another question I’ve been meaning to ask. The phrase “anthologistic character” (well, specifically “anthology-like element”) is written in my notes for this interview. That character is something that Bloom shares with its press-mate, Kevin Connolly’s Revolver. The structure of the project, even more than in demands that you channel a great variety of forces, use numerous different form and styles, and generally fold your native aesthetics into those of your selected original authors. What results is a very surprising paradox because, superficially, Bloom is an audacious act of authorial tyranny, what with the gall and presumption of rewriting known and often beloved poems. But the reality is that the authorial voice is subsumed by those other poems, these poems lose a lot of their Michael Lista-ness to the greater good. I wonder if this is something you’ve thought or cared about, and if there’s any fear attached to it, as many critics and readers are keen to list “a strong and unique voice” high among their reasons to engage in the work of a young poet?
- That’s a great question. Bloom has left a lot for me to worry about. But this is the book I needed to write. First let me say that I find something disingenuous about the breakout contemporary voice that strives to achieve idiosyncrasy to the point of the autistic; it feels, as I said earlier, like a sort of vestige of 20th-century thought about poetics as some sort of utopian realm where language can be sequestered and hermetically sealed. One of the most profound and disturbing moments for me is when I hear myself, in the middle of what I think is a novel thought or sentence, channeling my father or my mother or my grandfather. To hear their ideas, bound up in their syntax, coming out of my mouth. And so when I discovered Slotin, who seemed to be feeling a similar anxiety because of Daghlian’s influence, I knew I’d have to find a way of representing that which I’d never seen before in poetry. And again, the risk to me was a boon to the book, because it spoke to riskiness of Slotin’s work.
Secondly, I don’t think what I’m doing is “folding (my) native aesthetics into those of (my) selected original authors.” That sort of thinking belies the prejudicial way we see free verse as being the most native and honest mode of poetic expression. What I’m doing is using the structure of the extant poem, and its author’s voice, as a formal conceit, like a sonnet. Personality isn’t inhibited by form; it’s given dimension. And the form–as I push against it and it pushes back–lets me play out Slotin’s struggle against influence and the momentum of history.
But most importantly I think it’s incumbent on us to recalibrate our definition of “voice”; it’s not just a sonic quality. “Voice” used to have the connotation of “vision” but for some reason we don’t expect that from our poets anymore. It’s come to mean something like timbre, which is part of voice, but not all of it.
Hmm. While I agree with your model of the interaction between voice and form, I’m not sure I buy your source poems as being simply “forms”. If you were only using the poems for their formal arrangement, and throwing away the rest, I’d agree, but what you’re doing (in most cases) is more holistic than that. In the poem we’ve reprinted here, you’re re-using Hughes’s structure, but also his subject (improvisation) and elements of the poem’s mood, vision, and voice. That’s what I meant by shared aesthetics. And it’s a good thing. Exciting. Almost new.
Anyway, it’s your book so you should have the last word. You can respond to what I’ve said above and/or answer this: Where does Bloom fit into what cultural observers have been broadly calling “Remix Culture”. Bloom can reasonably be placed alongside recent works in visual art, film, and especially popular music that aspire to make new art out of old art. Is this too much of a “fad word” for you? Or do you think there’s something legitimate in the comparison?
- I know the comparison is going to be made. I’m resigned to it. Though “remix” isn’t my favourite term in the whole world for Bloom, nor do I think it’s entirely fair (though if people are going to do it, let’s hope I’m more J-Dilla than Girltalk). I think the poems are metempsychoses: transmigrations of the soul. We see poems transmigrate like this through history: Ruiz’s Book of Good Love turned into Boccaccio’s Decameron which turned into Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales. Amleth from The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus turned into The Spanish Tragedy by Kyd which turned into Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The Book of J turned into Genesis. And so whereas I think “remix culture” is happening in other mediums like film and music for technological reasons–we have the equipment now to realize visions which we couldn’t 50 years ago—I think it’s happening in literature (or in Bloom at least) for more mysterious reasons. Ideas are cyclical and so is history (maybe history is remixing itself) and the mistake of the last hundred years was thinking we were at the end of it.
L o u i s S l o t i n I m p r o v i s e s
I’m beside Slotin
Who has the sun in one hand, a feather in the other––
The flash he tickles out giggles his name.
So he takes his zipper in one hand,
The Milky Way in the other––
The flash that fish-thumps out pronounces the alphabet,
In which every other letter is “I.”
He takes Auschwitz in one hand
And Japan in the other––
The flash that gnarls out proposes to marry him.
So he takes his stillborn daughter in one hand
And his sense of humour in the other––
The flash that claps out detaches him from history.
So he takes his grandfather’s skinned pelt in one hand,
And a smelted pickerel in the other––
The flash that cooks out spoils his ballot.
He grabs his wife’s lover with one hand
And his passed kidney stone in the other––
The flash that flirts out confuses the tenses.
And so he takes his sister’s fondness for hyperbole in one hand,
His sotto-voce in the other,
And the flash that booms out falls in love with him.
He holds his heart, pounding like an ache in one hand,
And with the other feels for a camera––
The flash that blooms out sings him an opera.
So he takes his birth-scream in one hand
And his death-please in the other
And lets the flash scorch him to dust.
And with a gesture any waiter would envy,
He pops the top on his creation,
Stands back, panting,
As if to say
After Ted Hughes» - Interview with Jacob McArthur Mooney:
Bloom (FULL TEXT) read by Michael Lista: