You write across genres—poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—with a great sense of formal play in all three. What made you chose poems as the appropriate vessel for this collection? How does verse direct you as a writer?
All of my work—and the work I love to read—is powered by verse. With the exception of some of my nonfiction, I have a hard time not thinking about the way the words sound in my mouth, and how much breath I can hold in a sentence. All writers should train as poets because of what it does to your thinking about language and the microcosm of the line and the sentence.
Having said that, these poems were always poems, and the subject matter only really presented itself in this form. Revision is a process of trying to rethink and reshape and reconnect some of what’s going on, and given that a lot of this material has to do with the space between total noise and silence, this all presented as poem.
There’s a web element to the book too—otherelectricities.com. Many of the poems in the book are refigured and reinterpreted somewhat, and you can read them in a different (and partly user-selected) order along with a lot of other material. The website is set up to be clicked through based on recurring images and ideas in the poems, so you can click on “blood” and it’ll take you to another “blood” poem, or into some very different spaces than you see in the book. I hope it reads as its own experience independent of the book, but that it also expands the reading experience you get reading the book, too. Maybe that’s too dorky to try to explain, but I’m pretty excited about it.
The collection includes a number of “sermon” poems. What drew you to sermons, and how does calling a poem a sermon affect the reader’s experience of it?
I’m a longtime fan of the rhetoric of sermons, particularly the ability of the sermon to contain litany after litany, to build and cusp and connect, and then to subside into the rafters. A sermon is beautiful language. It’s persuasive language, but first it has to sing. I wasn’t interested in making a mockery of the form, and I hope they don’t read that way, but repurposing the form to use to get to some rather odd territory. Calling a poem a sermon situates the reader more clearly to the speaker, and allows me to go rather more strident and imperative with the voice than I am usually comfortable with. And since so many of my poems work as dramatic monologues, it seemed like an obvious (and weirdly freeing) decision to try to access the registers of sermons. Plus it is another form to work with, another way of summoning that pleasurable double experience in the reader: it is a poem, it is a sermon, and it is somewhere in the matrix connecting or overlaying these two things.
The poems in The Available World bounce with wordplay; my favorite is “randomness/radon gas.” How does the mouthfeel (to appropriate a cooking term) of a word influence the way you construct a poem? How does sound shape your writing?
Mouthfeel is a great way to think about it, actually. Doing some research on tortilla chips for my nonfiction book,Vanishing Point (2010, Graywolf Press), I found my way into a scientific subfield of sensory evaluation, which tries to quantify the way things taste, feel, smell, are crushed, how long they hold their crunch, and so on. Mouthfeel is very much of that world, and yet it’s also inherent in the way I write poems. Part of the process of these poems (particularly the title poems) involved entering the text of the original poem into translation software to translate to Spanish, or to French, or to whatever, then re-translating it back to English. This produced a level of arbitrariness that I found useful. Then I had to go back to the new poem, usually differing in significant ways from the original, and try to rebuild it so some of that awkwardness and randomness was squeezed out of it, leaving only what I thought was meaning-making. That arbitrary machine process also produced some interesting language that would have never occurred to me, which is particularly appropriate for these poems that try to engage aspects of the digital world.
One of the constants in your writing for me is the persistent interest in technology, and the impulse to use technology to make life understandable, habitable. Does writing provide a similar way of ordering experience?
Writing is of course a technology, the poem a technology, the story, the essay, the video game, the painting. And those technologies are designed to allow us to explore and understand and sing and represent the world in different ways, no less than what virtual spaces do for us, or superaccurate simulations of global positioning data, or the ways in which scientists poke and prod and describe the world. My interest in these technologies has a lot to do with obsolescence and that inherent tragedy, our own ruination, and awareness of our passing with regard to time and knowledge. But the way into the technologies for me is often through the surfaces of them, which I find beautiful and moving and which I try to apprehend and represent, for in doing that I feel like I can pause time—which is what the poem does, after all—and try to gather all these threads together for a moment. Everything for me is about order and disorder, and as you suggest, writing is absolutely just another way of knowing, and because I fail at so many of these other ways (writing programs in assembly language that might simulate a voice or a virus, for instance), this is the one that I can access the most satisfyingly and often.
Your poems are full of what you call “somnambulists”—how does the accumulation of detail and the obsessive action of the poems act as an ice jam, a building up that allows us to break free?
There is an unthinkingness to the ways in which data collects in the poems, in the ways it washes over you (as reader/ recipient of the poems). I think of these poems as trying to articulate a way in which to live in this world of availability, or at least to count what I can while I can as it all stacks up and towers over and spills, tsunami-style into the world. I don’t know if that makes sense or not. There’s definitely a systole and diastole, a gathering and release (or I think I have the order wrong, but the sound is better this way, so sometimes you have to leave it as is, errors and all), happening in the poems. The poems are obsessive because I’m obsessive, and the poems refract and magnify that and apply it to the world in ways that I can’t normally do because I’m either not smart enough to do it in the moment, or am afraid to unhinge myself like that. Form gives you that tension between paralysis and release, because left to its own devices, everything just decays, degrades, diffuses.
Inspired by the cult Japanese video game Katamari Damashii, these poems increase in size and momentum, rolling more and more into their orbits as they go. Formally inventive and fun, The Available World examines the beauty and terror of excess.