C. Dylan Bassett is a teaching fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of two collections of poems, The Unpainted Shore (Spark Wheel, 2015) and The Invention of Monsters / Plays for the Theater (Plays Inverse, 2015), and six additional chapbooks. His recent poems are published or forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Columbia Poetry Review, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, H_NGM_N, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Salt Hill, West Branch, and elsewhere.
INSCAPE: You seem to have a Wallace Stevens renaissance going on. What is it about him? And what is it about him recently?
C. DYLAN BASSETT: Wallace Stevens and I agree with each other. So for Wallace Stevens, God is dead, right? For a lot of people at this time, God is dead. So then, Wallace Stevens is now interested in this question: if God is dead, then what replaces him? In other words, if religion is outdated in the contemporary world, how do we replace it? And his answer, in part, is poetry. Another part of the answer is the imagination. The imagination is a dialectical genesis. So what is real is what we imagine to be real. In that way, he is breaking down the distinctions between the world and the consciousness which perceives it. You might call it poetic epistemology, which is to say his poems are concerned with the relationship between the mind and the world, or thoughts and things, and how much of our perception is based on anticipation. Do we see things a certain way because we expect to see them that way, and what if we tried to imagine them another way? Then would we see them another way? He and I agree with each other in that what is real is what is imagined to be real, and also that poetry becomes a kind of surrogate religion. But poetry functions as a devotional practice, which in turn creates community and allows us to see each other as human beings and not abstract entities. I think that’s enough to say.
I: So if, like Wallace Stevens, we believe what is real is what we imagine to be real, is poetry the highest order or function of imagining real things?
B: For Wallace Stevens, yes. Poetry is a way of meshing the exterior and the interior worlds—breaking down the cultural binaries between real/imaginary, object/subject, self/other, one/many, body/mind, emotion/thought, etc. So then, the epigraph, “the unpainted shore accepts the world as anything but sculpture,” is to say that the world is not permanent, and is therefore in need of constant reimagining—that’s what I mean by dialectical genesis.
I: Right. Where sculpture in that line is a sense of finality or structure that we reject. So did your collection come into being as a result of this new idea or this new order, this new way of looking at things, or is it more a culmination of your work and representative of it that way?
B: It’s more of the latter of those two things, I think. I wasn’t thinking of poetic epistemology when I was writing that book. Not overtly, anyway. I had it in the back of my mind. But I was mostly trying to enact the way in which spaces—mental, literal, physical, bodily, emotional, psychological, metaphorical—change in the aftermath of loss. So I was thinking of the relationship between the body or the mind and the exterior world, yes. That’s the primary concern of the book, I think. Maybe I’m wrong about that. As an elegy, it is concerned with the departed, but even before that it’s concerned with the relationship between the body and the space that the body occupies. The body-slash-mind.
I: One of the things we talked about was body as enclosure, and this idea of both captive but a whole space at the same time. So how does this idea relate to the collection at large?
B: I think the book oscillates between being an enclosure and a grandiose fission of the stars or something. The self is rooted in the world because of other selves and then when those other selves are gone, the self must reimagine its ontological position. The oscillation between enclosed, small, particular domestic spaces and broader landscapes or the cosmos, is the motion of a mind doing the work of finding its place, in an external reality independent of self. Does that answer your question?
I: Definitely. My follow-up to that would be this: what’s the prevailing effect of these poems, and what is it examining? To use Poe, what’s the unifying effect here? He’d say everything has one unifying effect. What we just talked about with Wallace Stevens and loss and grief and where people go and where we go when people leave feels like a huge part of what this collection’s exploring. What’s your take on that? Specifically in terms of grief and losing people in these permanent ways, like death, or semi-permanent ways, like a dissolved relationship?
B: Oh! So you’re asking whether it’s different to lose someone to death, as opposed to a failed relationship. On one hand the book is undoubtedly about the death of a father, no way around it. On the other hand the book—like I mentioned before—is about loss generally. When I first started writing poems I was thinking of the father as not just a literal father but also as a God figure. The book happens to take as its subject matter the death of a father. But it’s also about the loss of religion in one’s own life, or the absence of God. I hope that is applicable to all forms of loss or abandonment.
I: So let’s talk about the prose form for a minute. First talk about why you used it, and its place in your works, its place in the collection.
B: I have a simple answer: when I was writing those poems I was afraid of line breaks. It still surprises me that poets have the audacity to break lines. I think it’s rarely done well. When I tried to lineate my prose poems in the book they just didn’t work as well. Also, the prose form has a more clinical, formal, reserved quality, wouldn’t you say? The verse, by contrast, is more conventionally lyrical. It takes an almost journalistic form. Also, in the final elegy when the text vacillates between prose and verse, I wanted to enact the movement of the mind between introspection and attempted objectivity. The prose is a little more introspective, a little more subjective.
I: So if I were to map it, the lyric sections are more like the interior mind at work, like trying to name things or rename things or situations. And then as we move to the prose portions, it’s about this place and the body being outside itself, sometimes at many levels outside itself, and trying to move through space that way. I wonder, though—if there is no tension because of enjambment, where does the tension come from? The image? The strength of the image?
B: The tension comes from the brevity, the parataxis, the associative leaps, the irregularities in grammar and syntax, the disruptions to the protocols of semantic coherence, the unsettling of readerly expectations in prose…I could go on, but you get the idea.
I: So what do you say to detractors of prose poetry if they find those conventions inaccessible, like the lack of semantic cohesion or loose narrative? Because this is a major complaint of anyone who’s reading prose poems now. I really would love to hear you speak to that, because there’s folks who say that’s all surrealism is—just something to hide behind. so how would you respond to the detractors of prose poetry who attack it as “word salad,” random images, and hiding behind surrealism as a shield for the craft?
B: Wow, I have so much to say about this I don’t even know where to start. First of all, “word salad” is ridiculous. There is no such thing. The term is lazy. It’s a word people use when they’re confused and frustrated with a text, because they believe the text should have some kind of consumability—that they text should have an exchange value, that it should give them something tangible, in a capitalistic sense.
Also, you’re really asking me two questions here: 1) What do I say to the detractors of prose poetry? and 2) How would I defend surrealism?—because, of course, the prose poem isn’t inherently surreal, and surreal poetry isn’t necessarily prose. So, okay, here goes. The prose poem—and any hybrid text for that matter—is necessarily engaged with identity crisis. The mode is such that the speaker inhabits an in-between space. The prose poem therefore resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product; it resists reduction and commodification. It disrupts readerly demands and expectations and form, as it advocates for an essence over identity, becoming over being, fluidity over fixity. In other words, what do we expect from prose? What do we expect from poetry? In rejecting easy genre classification it subsumes genre—it is everything and yet nothing. Poem and prose, narrative and anti-narrative, organic and artificial, approachable and wholly unrecognizable all at the same time. Reliant upon literary tradition even as it rejects traditionalism. We find it in the middle of evolution and therefore unevolved.
Regarding surrealism, I’ll say this: it’s not random. Even “automatic writing,” which was a popular practice of early surrealist writers, is not really automatic. In fact, it’s painstakingly calculated. Surrealism is not representative. In other words, it’s not trying to depict or represent a physical location or tangible reality, the way realism does. Instead, it enacts and emotional state of being, so that the reader experiences that state—both mentally and physiologically.
There are two kinds of surrealism: capital S surrealism and lower-case s surrealism. Surrealism with a capital S is of course for Breton and Dali. Let me give you an example. I could say to you, “I pulled a chicken’s foot from behind the moon,” and that’s surreal, and that lacks an emotional quality. It’s just very surreal, and you don’t totally know what to do with it. It has a nice texture about it, but it doesn’t convey an emotion to you, whereas there’s a really great James Tate poem where he opens the poem by saying, “Dear Reader / I’m trying to pry open your coffin with a snowflake.” And you get that line. Emotionally, you understand what he’s saying. It’s surreal, it’s kind of cartoonish, but it’s also a little devastating. Or there’s this great line from Neruda where he says, “I cast my sad nets over your oceanic eyes,” It’s incredible and it’s surreal but it’s also emotionally accessible to you. So you understand what he’s saying even if it’s an image that you can’t actually imagine in your head. I tend to employ the lowercase surrealism. Do I think of myself as a surrealist? No, not at all. Am I upset if someone calls me one? No, I don’t care.
Finally, I would tell these “detractors” that poetry is not meant to be gotten, and it is not something to be possessed—it is a being possessed! It seizes us and immerses us in the present moment. A poem is to be understood intuitively. You don’t understand a poem in the same way that you understand a mathematical equation or an empirically derived, scientific hypothesis or theory.
I: Or even the way you’d understand a straightforward plot in a fiction piece.
B: Right. I’ll use the analogy I use with my students: you don’t “get” the Sistine Chapel. When you walk in and you look up at the ceiling, you don’t think, “What does it mean?” You don’t question its semantics. You just experience it, and it’s purely emotional. The same could be said about the statue of David. You turn the corner—and you see the statue! And you think, WOW! It seizes you! you don’t analyze its curves. you don’t ask why he’s standing in the position he is. You just feel it, and then, maybe, later on you’ll ask question of form, history, and medium. You could say similar things about music. I think poetry should be experienced in the same way. I mean, it’s not prose and it’s not philosophy in a can. It’s art. It’s not artifact. It’s not documentation. It’s not craft. It’s art. So if you don’t get it, that’s because you’re trying to understand it with the wrong brain.
I: I also feel that these poems are among the most accessible poems you’ve ever written. So let me ask you this: how do you workshop your kinds of poems? Because it’s also harder for folks to find endpoints in a prose poem like they can do in a lineated poem.
B: Closure is an illusion. The demand for a tidy, well-packaged, or memorable ending is archaic—and it disagrees with lived experience. Inevitably you’d have to talk about the prose form because no one should write prose poetry without good reason—although the same could be said of any form. I wrote in prose because I wanted both to perform an identity crisis and to create an in-between space—something neither this nor that. The consciousness of the book is neither wholly before nor totally after tragedy. It’s au milieu—right in the middle of loss, which is an in-between space. I couldn’t write an essay, which seems very much after the fact. I couldn’t write straight poetry either because I wanted something never fully grounded in a single vantage point. I tried to resist the urge to monumentalize experience. So, what would I say to people who want to find an end point? I don’t know. I’d probably ignore them.
I: Okay. So, we’ll wrap up here. Talk to me for just a minute about your success, about coming from BYU as an undergrad writing poems to publishing a book and being at Iowa. What was that like? What’s changed, in your poetry and in your mind?
B: I’ll tell you: poetry has become a way of life for me. Poetry has to be a way of life, if you want to be a poet, I mean. It can’t be a hobby. It can’t be something you do when you feel like it. It has to be something that you’re constantly doing. You have to cultivate a mind on which no detail is lost, so in that sense you’re always writing. Even right now I’m noticing that door slightly ajar and I’m thinking of Emily Dickinson. And these objects over here on the shelf, all very sad and very upright. So what I’m saying is, you have to train your mind so that it’s always paying attention to details, objects, people. In that regard, everything you read, everything you hear and overhear is material for writing. And then you just have to force yourself to write. If you’re not putting yourself in front of the computer every day then you’re losing time. You’re not gonna write something good everyday but you at least have to give yourself the chance to write something good. Even my last year at BYU I was very much aware of this: I woke up at five a.m. every morning to write. Because I knew I just wasn’t going to have time in the day with classes and soccer and everything else. So I wrote in the mornings.
I hate to think of poetry as a purely intellectual endeavor. Instead it’s an invitation to be more attentive in the world and to be more present and to be kinder and more compassionate. It’s really who you are, I think. you have to eat it for breakfast, and breathe it, and dream about it. And when you have five minutes of nothing to do, then you should be reading or writing down a line or something. That’s really how I live, which is kind of exhausting. In addition, I read eclectically, and a lot. I read philosophy, theory, religious texts, even science books.
I: Last thing. The flies in your book. Fly here, fly there. “A fly loosely banging into a—”
B: Yeah, I remember that one. Are there other flies? Oh, the fly in the sugar. So what do you wanna know about that? Was I thinking of Emily Dickinson? I was. I am always thinking about Dickinson. She might be the smartest poet of all time. I was also thinking of Michael Dickman who has a book called Flies. Flies are scary, and they’re also kind of grotesque. And there’s something about a consciousness that is willing to observe a fly and not attend to it. Not try to shoo it away or clean it up in the case of a dead fly. Someone who’s willing to note the fly but not do anything about it.
I: And what’s interesting about that is it’s like a parenthesis and there’s a lot of parenthetical moments in this collection.
B: There are. The whole book works as a giant parenthetical statement. That’s how I thought of it, honestly. I wanted to put the title in parentheses, actually, but they wouldn’t let me do it. I wanted to put it in parentheses because I was trying to make an enclosure. I actually wanted to call the book Enclosures but a book came out from Ahsahta Press this last year called Enclosures. So I decided against it.
I: I love The Unpainted Shore.
B: Yeah, The Unpainted Shore works nice. Thank you, Wallace Stevens.