Contributing editor Theodore Worozbyt’s books are The Dauber Wings (Dream Horse Press, 2006); Letters of Transit, winner of the Juniper Prize (The University of Massachusetts Press, 2008); and Smaller Than Death (Knut House Press, 2015). The City of Leaving and Forgetting, his most recent chapbook, appears in Country Music.
Migration issue contributor Sara Jean Lane is a musician and composer and currently attends Judson College, where she studies English, music, and mathematics. Her work has recently appeared in Otoliths, Blinders, Prime Number, and Manchester Review.
TW: In addition to being a poet, you are also a musician and a composer. How do those pursuits intertwine in your mind?
SJL: It was music that first made poetry interesting to me. As a child I would take the words to songs I heard and move them around in the melody, changing the inflection and wondering what made the new shapes sound strange. Writing is no different. I shuffle words and crickets and sunrises until they sound unusual enough to force my mind to question what I’ve written. Music cannot happen without tension, because without a question no one listens for an answer. Poetry cannot happen without music. It seems that the difference lies in the resolution. In music, it’s all I think about. Every week I’m told again that every note of Bach keeps the last chord in mind. In language, I don’t believe complete resolution is possible. Poems often remind me more of Muczynski’s six preludes, which I’m polishing for my junior recital. They have decisive conclusions, but each one ends with a twinge of dissonance still ringing in the air. Maybe that is the resolution: that there can be none. I don’t claim to know.
TW: Wordsworth distinguishes poetry not from prose but science; there seems to be a mathematics at work in your thinking.
SJL: Russian mathematician and writer Sofia Kovalevskaya once said that “it is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in soul.” A year ago I did not believe her. Mathematics, though, continues to demand of me its own sort of music, and her words are more believable every week. While I was finishing the calculus sequence at Judson College I took a course called “Foundations of Mathematics,” where I began to learn the language of mathematical proof. That language mirrors the language of some literary masters so exactly that I often confuse the two, if they are to be called separate. If a proof uses an unnecessary word, it is not finished. If it does not seek a clean and simple way of achieving some small part of a beautiful whole, then it is likely not worth writing. The goal of a proof is not evidence; the evidence is there for the taking or else we would have no subject. The goal is instead an eventual unification of the words, their definitions, and the images they denote, with as little litter as possible. If that isn’t poetry, I don’t know what is.
How important to you is mathematical form in composing poetry?
I love rhyme for the direction it adds to the words, and I love meter because it gives each pause a purpose. That being said, I cannot stand rhyme for the sake of rhyme, and I cannot stand meter for the sake of meter. If a poem does not mold to a rhyme scheme without force, then it should not be squeezed into a rhyme scheme. It’s useful for providing a sense of unity, but I think it ought to be seamless. The same goes for meter: the rhythm should mold over the words, and the words should not be forced uncomfortably into unyielding ridges. Actually, when it comes to meter, I’ve all but given up on any kind of sustained pattern. If I think about it, it becomes glaringly obvious, and suddenly it sounds as though I’m writing something for children to chant on a playground while jumping rope.
Many of your poems are inhabited by “nameless subjects.” Why are they nameless?
“Genesis” is one of perhaps two dozen poems focusing on an unnamed “she” and “he” who interpret the world entirely through the words we use to describe it. To them no definition is off-limits; they read every word first as the sum of its parts. I have said and will continue to say that I do not know who they are, and I do not want to. Perhaps the clarification of their thoughts is the end goal: I want to see each word as itself rather than a mirroring of my intentions.
The conversations between the unnamed characters hardly matter. What matters is that they write, or that they speak in written words, and that there are no endings between poems. The conversation is less between characters and more between individual characters and other versions of themselves; when someone reads a word as itself and not as the intended definition, no two thoughts about that word will be completely consistent. Clearly, then, the unnamed “she,” who began the conversation, cannot be the same twice. When Shakespeare says that a character can be false within the text of a script but honest to an observer at the theatre, this “she” thinks that perhaps she ought to hold up a clock as evidence that time is built in pieces. When Hugo asks how any narrator can tell a true story, she realizes that she can turn things around in a mirror and she reads poetry as lines-of-sight. When Larkin hides the young lady behind the gaps from eye to page and from page to photographed eye, I wonder if she exists.
Is a poem, then, or any text, to properly be understood as a character performing in its own unfolding drama?
If it is, then Poe is perhaps our best example. He creates characters out of text, who, in turn, as characters, make up and direct a secondary or internal text about themselves, so that the text births the characters and the characters drive the text. If the unnamed characters in my writing are constantly questioning the words in which they appear, interpreting their own descriptions as the things their components might have been before captivity and in so doing creating their own purpose and nature, then I suppose that they too are directing a secondary text, which only exists because they have read it.
And if that can be true of my poems, then I think it must be true of any piece of writing. The writer considers his or her subject and selects definitions for words, perhaps intentionally, perhaps thoughtlessly, but never inconstantly. The whole then becomes directed by its ingredients, and the ingredients in return are shaped by their sum; the interpreted meaning of the text exists as the end product of the plans for each word, and yet we read each word according to the final result. That is the engine of linguistic sense. Without it, Derrida sits back and laughs at us all.
Is the same true of thoughtless language?
Perhaps there is such a thing as a piece of writing that does not create a secondary text, a piece of writing in which the meaning is clear in each word. If there is, then I have not yet found or imagined it. If the words and ideas themselves are clear, then the symbols which characterize the individual words provide the gaps. We could take any word on this page and build a new idea from it, be it a shape from the sound or a new word or a word somewhere in its etymology. The difference then provides a new context for that word alone, separate from its companions, and there is suddenly room for question. This is a large part of what draws me to literature: it is as though the language itself is sentient, possessing a consciousness built of our collective past and its teachings. The writers play only a small part, and can only shape so much.
And then, always for you, Larkin.
I find that I return without fail to Larkin’s poems, no matter where my mind strays, and his work is never the same twice. Some days I return and find proof that symbols of permanence do not create permanence, that the five light syllables of a surname disappear as easily as camouflaged pentameter, that the photograph steals the young girl and transforms her into her own creation, no longer existing outside of the album. Some days he points out, elegantly, that elegance does not draw attention to itself. Other days I return simply to be reminded that beauty without complexity is not a crime. I have not finished reading his collected works, and I am afraid to. I dread the day I have no more to discover.