Here are some poem titles from Aaron Anstett’s fourth book, Insofar as Heretofore: “Self-Portrait as Jackass on Dash Cam,” “Please List All Previous Addresses,” “If the TV Will Not Be Used at All During the Entire Diary Survey, Indicate Reason Below.” Such titles suggest, as one reviewer wrote, a poet who “is not afraid to be entertaining.” Entertaining but deeply invested in the world’s wonder, it’s beauty—and, in so many cases, its blithe savagery. Scoundrel Time asked Anstett to contribute poems that address public issues. The result is a portfolio of poems that borrows the title of his current and sixth manuscript: Please State the Nature of Your Emergency. Over the course of several weeks, Scoundrel Time asked Anstett via email about each of the poems he submitted. The following are the questions, and his responses.
1. Scoundrel Time: Scoundrel Time has embarked upon a search to publish poems that address, overtly or covertly, politics or political/societal predicaments and conundrums. Some have called this a “poetry of engagement.” Elsewhere it’s been called “civic poetry.” Let’s assume you’re working on a poem, and that you begin to see it turning into a “poem of engagement”—that larger public themes are beginning to emerge. What things to you think about in order to make such a poem feel satisfying for you, as an artist? What things to you strive to do—and what things do you try to avoid?
Aaron Anstett: Regardless of whether or not a poem of mine is tending toward becoming a “poem of engagement,” a delta always exists between what I strive to do and what I achieve. For example, I attempt to always have at least something of interest in every line (what Amichai likened to “a pot on every shelf”), but I do not always succeed. In poems engaging with political/societal predicaments and conundrums, I want to avoid oversimplifying matters and castigating/implicating solely outward, but I likely fail there, too.
2. ST: The poem “Final Animal” presents the reader with a vision of a post-apocalyptic world, sans humans, and it ends with an image of frogs emerging from “the coupling of land and water.” The poem makes us feel puny against the backdrop of apocalypse, on the one hand, and the immensity of time that might follow such an apocalypse—the evolutionary reset. I guess my question is really about tone. In this poem, you tackle a very big problem—but you also manage to include bar fights, for instance, between painters. There’s a dance, in other words, between different temporal perspectives—is that right? Can you talk about that dance, and why you do it?
A: Leaping between images/ideas is often a facet of my poems, and this includes shifts in various perspectives, including temporal. This particular poem includes a small catalog of and elegy for erased human efforts (spiritual, scientific, artistic, domestic, mythological). The shifts you note, seemed necessary as a means of highlighting not just the loss of what might have existed but also any memory or record of its existence. With the lines about the fighting painters, I thought I had struck upon something implication-rich (the Cedar Tavern, itself defunct, and the painters representing both our heights and depths), but maybe not.
3. ST: “The Beginning of Sorrows” is one of the poems in this Portfolio that more closely tracks a recognizable climate of folly in the world today—a lowering of standards to a banana republic meagerness whereby “menu consistency” becomes an almost comic/tragic topographical feature on an already thin list of things a country might choose to celebrate about itself. The dark joke seems to be that this is what we’ve come to—“menu consistency.” This is now what passes for the heroic. So I guess this is another question about tone: the dance within your poems between laconic joke—and what that seems to imply, a kind of resignation—and a sense of action, or resolve, or remedy. Not that every emotional predicament that gets presented in a poem necessarily needs a “solution,” but can you talk about how this poem seeks a remedy? I’m thinking of the line “the stick’s best trick,” which is to mark the spot where “the sprung culprit returns to at long last.”
A: Quick, even whiplash, shifts in tone and mood from line to line are another characteristic of my poems. I like it when poems refuse to sit still, and I am at times at least suspicious of if not allergic to resolution in art (if not in life). I try to employ humor, even if laconic or even bitter, as both lure to and respite from the darker elements in the work/the world. I am unsure that the final move of the poem offers a satisfactory solution/remedy, but I do find some hope in the implication of stubborn persistence.
4. ST: “Against All Evidence” is another poem that more overtly addresses a “public audience,” even with its opening lines:
Because we cannot believe in God
the Monster entirely but believe in God
the Monster a little, we’ll never get elected.
Talk about this opening salvo—and about how you go about writing a “poem of engagement.” We have the darkly comic meditation on God (as shorthand, perhaps, for our deepest nature, as Hobbes would have it); we have a meditation on our deepest yearning for someone to come and fix everything (Hobbes, again); we have a reference to Caravaggio; we have rising flood waters and a cautionary (and, again, darkly comic) reminder that lions can swim across the moats that guard the castle. How do the elements in this poem work to avoid the pitfalls of poems that seek to address topical subjects?
A: Likely it’s an imitative fallacy on my part to talk here about the strangeness I’ve felt about my times and my country and my fellow citizens of late, going back to before the election, and then to liken that inchoate and despairing fog to the drifting, discursive moves in this poem. The opening stanza had its impetus around the time I first heard “2 Corinthians” and was talking with a coworker about faith among American presidential candidates. I like very much the reading of the lions as guarding a castle, though that image arose from a news story about flooding.
5. ST: In “Things We Say,” we have a more overt call to action—but the poem begins with a plunge into the unconscious or the surreal. Perhaps you could talk about the relationship between the life of the imagination, which so often has its own agenda and priorities, and the life that, now, especially, demands directed, persistent political action.
A: I would suggest that directed, persistent political action is itself an imaginative act in its attempt to move the world as-is to the world as it might be.
6. ST: “Next Election,” perhaps the most overtly political poem of those featured, contains a series of “instructions,” as it were—all couched with the word “” Maybe you could walk us through the effect that this repeated word begins to accrue in that poem, and discuss the relationship between that qualifying term—“maybe”—and the directives to action that are given.
A: With my last couple of books I have exploited anaphora, that hinge of repetition that removes the question of how to start each line and adds a redolence of Whitman and the Bible. “Maybe,” with its hesitance, seems the proper way to begin a series of directives that likely would result in little lasting effect. For me it also captures the “What now?” and “What next?” of our recent and current times.
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