I had the pleasure of interviewing Alan Shapiro for this month’s feature, and we talked about everything from the prose poem and syntax to the necessity of aimless wandering and how humor and grief often coexist in poetry, as they do in life. At this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, Shapiro will be honored for his distinguished body of work and for his dedication to mentorship.
— Amanda Newell
AN: In his recent essay for Plume on the prose poem and other hybrid forms, Chard deNiord observes that “[i]n the irrepressible, ever-evolving, experimental process of ‘making new’ many poets today are finding the traditional line inadequate for expressing and/or accommodating their urge for adopting liminal and hybrid forms that obviate the line. Which raises the question: how can a poet write poetry without lines?”
I have noticed that much of your recent work, including several selections for this feature, are prose poems—or at least what I would categorize as prose poems. And yet, you are someone who pays fastidious attention to the traditional poetic line as well, which we can see in “Ghost Story.”
Can you talk to me about your approach to the poetic line, and take a stab at answering that question—that is, how can a poet write poetry without lines?
AS: I don’t know if I have an “approach” to the line. The line is only “a line” in relation to a sentence or a phrase it either reinforces or interrupts. And the line itself will vary to the degree it either reinforces or interrupts that phrase or sentence. And the effect of those various interruptions and/or reinforcements will depend on the lines before and after them, on the larger patterns of relation they either depart from or approach. For me it all comes down to pattern and variation, variation that depends on pattern for its significance.
Same holds true of a prose poem. Even without the line, you still have to establish some kind of pattern that suggests its own completion, some expectation of recurrence you can upend, modify or adhere to in varying degrees at every point in order to vocalize or enact a felt change of consciousness. Every sentence is a form or pattern in and of itself—that arouses grammatical expectations, that promise certain directions and outcomes which are either realized or disappointed.
The long sentence makes the short sentence that succeeds it more conspicuous, a loose sentence which begins with a main clause and then tacks on list-like a series of dependent clauses in apposition creates an open-ended expectation that it could go on forever. Depending on context, it could enact a feeling of indeterminacy, or a feeling of excited or oppressive abundance, ecstatic noticing or crushing boredom; whereas the antithesis of a loose sentence, a periodic sentence whose dependent clauses come at the beginning, its main clause at the end, seems more conducive to increasing degrees of anticipation, to the build-up of tension, since the longer you defer or suspend a main clause the more we’ll long for it and the greater sense of fulfilment we’ll experience when it finally comes. Likewise, complete sentences potentially intensify the effect of sentence fragments; just as a passage comprised of fragments will make whatever full sentence that follows them that much more surprising or emphatic.
There are, what, six kinds of sentences one can write: loose, periodic, compound, complex, compound-complex, and simple (seven if you count the fragment). You can’t set up an effect without setting it off from something else. In a prose poem the sentence is the principal expressive resource for enacting or embodying. A prose poem (like all poetry, like all art I would argue) depends for its life blood on pattern and variation. In a prose poem that expressive tension arises primarily (not exclusively) from the interplay of sentences whereas in lineated poetry it arises primarily (not exclusively) from an interplay of sentences and lines.
AN: To your point about the effect of sentence structure, I love how the first section of “Letters” is comprised of only two sentences, both of which unwind across and down the page as the details of memory accumulate, keeping us bound to them, and to the sentence, like that “ball and chain”:
Morning and evening, I saw him there, bent over reading, reading, reading, chained by his own hand to the Yad that pulled the hand across and down page after page until to my unimportant unnoticeable comings and goings, who knows where or for what, too small to matter, never expected to matter, I must have thought he prayed to Ha Shem to release him from that ball and chain of reading, from every half sighed Ha Shem that told me he was sorry, he was truly sorry, for whatever bad thing he had done.
I’m curious—what does the process of composition look like for you? I have a hard time imagining that you sit down and immediately know that a poem is going to work better in prose, but maybe you do!
AS: I don’t think I have anything to say about the process of composition. It doesn’t look like anything. It doesn’t follow any procedure or protocol. There’s no method. No one way of navigating the terrain, because the terrain is always changing. And because the terrain is always changing, every footstep of necessity becomes its own new path. You go by hunch and intuition (whatever that is), you try this, you abandon that. You wander around until you stumble into the sensation of getting somewhere, you go from accident to accident and hope at the end it will all feel somehow necessary and inevitable. Inevitability is the wished for and seldom found effect; aimless wandering is the better part of the experience.
It’s no answer to say if the poem wants to be a prose poem it will be a prose poem. If it doesn’t it won’t but that’s how the process feels. The poem you cite, Letters, I had in mind for a long time. I wanted to write about what a traumatic experience it was for me to learn how to read, how it was a real watershed moment in my life, the first conscious experience of having to grow up, measure up, conform to some ideal of being human, of being seen as worthy of love and respect.
Thinking about that made me think about the old rabbi who lived on my street, who was always reading Torah, always, and the thought of him made me think of the children’s book about the five identical twin Chinese brothers, a story read to me in kindergarten and which I never forgot. So the poem is an attempt to juggle those three concerns and see what happens. I think I just sat down and started writing. I don’t think I ever attempted to put it into lines.
AN: Very reassuring, actually. It always feels to me like a muddle.
AS: I think what maybe distinguishes writers from those who merely want to write but never do, or who sit down to write and then grow frustrated and turn on Facebook, or check their Tinder notifications, is a tolerance for muddle, for keeping your head down and ploughing on even if you don’t know where you’re going, or, if you do, having no clue how to get there. Some of us actually find pleasure in the hopeless ploughing, in the not knowing, in the mucking about without any assurance that anything will come of it.
If you can lose yourself in that floundering, to the point where you lose all track of time, and hours pass as if in a moment, you’re doing the work even if nothing comes of it. You’ve had a good day even if you’ve got nothing to show for it. At the very least while you were following this hunch down that way path and then, when it dead ends, backtracking and finding some other path to follow, you’re not hurting yourself or anyone else. In my book, that’s a good day.
AN: I think that’s called self-forgetful perfectly useless concentration!
You know, one of things I’ve always admired about your work is how you so deftly incorporate humor into poems where humor might ordinarily or otherwise seem misplaced, or maybe even inappropriate.
In your latest book of poems, Against Translation, for example, there’s a poem called “Devotion” where the speaker has to deal with his aging father’s incontinence while the two are on their way to see the speaker’s mother at the nursing home. When he checks on his father in the Best Buy men’s room, he discovers his father hadn’t made it to the toilet in time and finds “an embarrassed and disoriented turd” on the floor. It’s horrible, of course, and yet, it’s hard not to laugh at the absurdity and irony of it all. These kinds of moments seem so necessary, especially at times of profound grief or sadness —can you speak to that, and how you view humor functioning in your own work?
AS: Well, humor is essential to my sense of life. Life doesn’t honor or acknowledge differences of genre. It’s always mixed, always mongrel. Often absurd and solemn, slapstick and tragic all at once. The funniest things often happen at the saddest times. Which is why I’m a happy pessimist. I set the bar of expectation so low that anything short of Bergen-Belsen is a stroke of great good luck.
Unfortunately, the women I’ve been drawn to have all been depressed optimists—they expect perfection and thus live perpetually in a state of extreme disappointment and betrayal. But that’s another story. Humor is as much an art as any poem or story. And like the best poems and stories, humor/jokes/what my family simply called “stories” confront the worst things imaginable, betrayal, humiliation, bodily degradation, death, old age—what it’s like to be alive and conscious, like that joke Woody Allen used to tell about the old Jewish couple in a restaurant: “The food is awful here!” the wife says. And the husbands replies, “Yeah, and such small portions!” Like all great art a good joke often converts despair and suffering into an occasion for pleasure; it turns a wrongness in the world into a rightness in the joke. So, there’s that.
But there’s also something in the structure of many jokes that resonates with the way in poems (all art I would argue, of any kind) meaning arises from the interplay between pattern/expectation and variation/surprise. A guy falls into a well and half way down the well shaft grabs onto a root to break his fall, but there he is hanging by a root over the abyss. He looks up at the small circle of sky over his head and calls out, “Anybody up there? Anybody up there?” A bright light shines down suddenly and out of the light a voice says, “I am the Lord thy God; let go of the root and I shall save you.” He looks down at the dark beneath him, and then up again into the light. Then he calls out, “Anybody Else up there?”
This joke works the way a pattern does – it sets us up to think we’re hearing a sacred story, a story in which a man chooses to trust in the Lord, in the unseen, in the spiritual in order to be saved. But the punch line flips the script. Instead of a triumph of spirit over body, we get a profane affirmation of the body itself, a refusal to believe in nonmaterial agency. The turn in the joke is the semantic equivalent of a sonic turn from iamb, say, in a metrical poem, to a trochee.
Beyond this, let me also say that I grew up in a family of mostly very funny people. My brother was a professional entertainer. Many in my mother’s family were amateur comics. On the other hand, while my parents loved to laugh, and were both in their own ways very funny, they also spent most of my childhood and most of their married life (63 years) at each other’s throat. They were both moody at best, and explosive at worst. My only defense against their anger was humor. Getting them to laugh was how I felt safe, since if they were laughing with me, they weren’t screaming at me. Humor was a way being noticed in a good way, of being loved, of being someone they might love, who deserved love, not a beating.
AN: Your book, Song and Dance (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) is a remarkable tribute to your late brother, to the absolute devastation of watching someone you love die. That’s terrain you explore in much of your work. Tell me: What project/s are you working on now? Could you talk about what keeps you intellectually and creatively energized?
AS: I just finished a new manuscript of poems. The title of it is Proceed to Check Out. That pretty much tells you where I’m at these days, biologically and spiritually.
AN: Let’s finish our conversation with the question I like to ask everyone I interview: What are you currently reading?
AS: I’ve been reading a lot of American history: Jill Lepore’s great book, These Truths, and America, Empire of Liberty by David Reynolds. I also read a wonderful short book called The Tyranny of Virtue by Robert Boyers, a nuanced and balanced critique of identity politics—Boyers, a dyed-in-the-wool 1960s lefty, critiques the left without aligning himself with the alt right’s bad faith contempt for political correctness and elitism. A totally illuminating book.
I never saw the rabbi’s face; only the dusty rumpled black suit in the ground floor open window, the skull-capped head bent over a massive tome of pages so thin you could see through them when a crooked finger turned one over, the print on both sides for a second visible, like a cloud of gnats in sunlight; always in the other hand a black pointer I didn’t know was called a Yad whose gold tip shaped like a pointing finger glided trembling right to left across the words he mumbled along to, chanting Ha Shem this and Ha Shem that. Morning and evening, I saw him there, bent over reading, reading, reading, chained by his own hand to the Yad that pulled the hand across and down page after page until to my unimportant unnoticeable comings and goings, who knows where or for what, too small to matter, never expected to matter, I must have thought he prayed to Ha Shem to release him from that ball and chain of reading, from every half sighed Ha Shem that told me he was sorry, he was truly sorry, for whatever bad thing he had done.
Then one day I was made to stand before the letters that spelled my name on the kindergarten wall, next to the names of kids standing in front of theirs. The letters were the sound of who I was when nobody was saying it. They would say it even if no one listened. Even when I was gone. It was like looking at a mirror that reflected my self back at me from some entirely unknown dimension. It was stranger than the mirror my parent’s bed backed up against, than seeing not just my body but what was behind and to either side of it, reversed and multiplied, the television on a low shelf to my right now to my left inside the mirror, where another smaller version of me stood inside another version of the room, looking out from what was looking in. My name, what made me me, became a jigsaw puzzle made of sound pieces you had to fit sight pieces to, but no sooner had you fitted this piece to that than they themselves would break apart into smaller pieces, and still smaller till there was no way to know if they were adding up to or subtracting from the big picture I was there to make out of the letters of my name.
Suddenly there were compacts, expectations, understandings I could not undo. I knew the sound of all the English letters but not all the shapes. And beyond the shapes I did and didn’t know, there were all these pages full of clumps of letters, screes of letters, deep dark forests, hilly country sides and continents of words I would have to cross to get to where everyone my age was going, where everybody older expected us to go. Suddenly it would be shameful not to. Whatever I had been before, whomever I thought I was, was now of no account; it wasn’t adorable or precious to misspeak. It wasn’t cute to make up the words I pretended to be reading. I had taken the wrong train or had stepped off at the wrong station full of people I knew but who now knew me as someone else, someone they insisted had to live here in this new land they called OR ELSE, because, if there were any privileges, favors and affections to be gotten, Mister, this was how you got them. OR ELSE.
And there were sheets of pages too, and each sheet was lined. The crayon, the pencil, the pen became a kind of Yad, a Yad that wrote down letters, that insisted that the letters stay between the lines, so big and no bigger, so small and no smaller: the ordinary letters were to capitals as we were to grown-ups. But even the small ones had to stand straight, look sharp, not wiggle. There had to be so much space no more no less between the letters that made the words, and a little more but not too much between the words that made the sentences. There was nothing you could do now that wouldn’t be corrected.
In a school house at the foot of a mountain in a faraway land: on the first day of school, the teacher leads the youngest children up the mountain, up a winding path through fields, meadows, forests, higher and higher past the shrinking trees, above the tree line to a stony wind swept summit—too far above the village for the rules to reach, beyond the reach of grown-ups, parents, even teachers, she tells the children to shout out into the wind whatever they want, whatever they’re not allowed to say or think below, their secret names, the words they dare not share with others, forbidden words, nonsense words, the baby talk they’re too big to speak now but too small not to want to, just this once and never again she has them shout it all out into the wind that carries it away across the unlined white paper of the clouds before she leads them back down the mountain to the schoolhouse where they must learn the local habitation and a name she has prepared for each and every one of them.
Each of the five identical Chinese brothers had a special power—one could drink up the sea, another had a neck of iron; fire couldn’t burn the third; the fourth could stretch his legs like taffy, and the fifth could hold his breath forever. Miss Cunningham paused after reading every page and held the book up for us to see the first brother, a fisherman (head swollen like a giant balloon), spit the sea out that drowns the child, that condemns the fisherman to death, first by hanging, then by drowning, then by burning and then by suffocation, but as each brother secretly takes the place of the brother before him, no one is hanged, drowned, burned or suffocated, and the fisherman is freed. But it’s the last brother I couldn’t for some reason stop thinking about long after story hour was over and we were lying on our mats for naptime in the now dark silent room: how they put him like a pizza or a loaf of bread on a wide flat wooden shovel called a peel and slid him into the low airless oven and slammed shut the door. When they released him next morning he rubbed his eyes a little, smiling, yawning, stretching, as from a good night’s sleep, but he couldn’t have slept inside that cramped black space in which eyes closed or open you saw the same unbroken unbreakable blackness; holding your breath all night you wouldn’t have even heard the breathing sounds that thickened around me as everybody napped, and after blackness such as that even the smallest bit of daylight would have stung the eyes, would have been a blinding in itself.
The universe inflated. Or, small as I was, I shrunk.
In a later page of the book of life, I’d learn the suit that hung down all the way to their ankles like a dress was called a Changshan; the skullcap that was so like the Rabbi’s was called a Baikal. And even later that the pigtail was a like the Yellow star the Rabbi as a young man had been forced to wear. I’d learn the oven was like an oven.
We were all in the book of life reading books while God read us. God held a holy Yad and read the words of what our every moment couldn’t help but be, from one end of the story to the other. And in the meantime if you know what’s good for you, Mister, you don’t gawk at the rabbi. After what he’s been through, you don’t point. You don’t laugh. Don’t talk about him. Don’t ask me about him. When you’re older, maybe. Just be a big boy. Pretend he isn’t there.
If you stood too close to the poster of the painting on the bulletin board beside the teacher’s desk you couldn’t see the picture; you saw what the TV looked like before the cartoons came on early Sunday morning; you had to step away, move back to where the desks were, before the paint would stir and ripple into windy grass, trees and water. You had to hold the book just so far from your eyes, too, no farther, for the words to be words and not squid and jelly fish adrift in underwater whiteness. You couldn’t forget it was the paint that made you think it wasn’t paint even while it reminded you it was. Terrible things went on almost happening in the books we read. To see what was in them we had to hold them from us. But the words didn’t care one way or the other; they weren’t alive even while the living almost died inside them. The bent grass and rippling water made visible the wind you couldn’t see. What infused life and went on living was not alive. Even now the brother is being slid into an oven. Is being guillotined. Drowned. Burned. Suffocated. Even now only the stupid kid is dead. Which serves him right because he didn’t come when called. If you don’t die you must be innocent. Too bad the rabbi doesn’t know that, doesn’t realize he’s nowhere to be found. That’s why I’ve brought him back and chained him to the Yad and book where he must beg Ha Shem for forgiveness from the very words it is his punishment to have to read.
I was my own ghost
I learned to depend
An almost shape
of chalk dust
at the mercy of a
where wire hangers
when I pass
ping so singly faint
the echoes echo
for the company.
Does it even matter
who got tired
and left this book
of me half
read face down
like spread wings
frozen in mid flight
on the bedside table?
This vapor of an I,
this camp tale
of a dry ice
mimicry of burning
steam is made
of marks that make
the words that shout
out all at once from all
the pages pressed
so deafeningly tight
together not a single
one of them is heard.
And you, whose touch
I needed only
to more keenly
feel just how
untouchable I am,
I’d like to think
later, if not then—
that I couldn’t
make sense of you,
of being with you
till you couldn’t
bear to turn
and left; that leaving
was the only song
I could hear and
could only hear it
when the long
fade out faded
too faint to be heard.
- An orangey LG dimness filled the cell like graded mist your body, as on a continuum of nothing to not quite something, was the densest bandwidth of,
- The padded walls of the cell were so absolutely sound proof you could feel pressing up behind them all the ambient noise they wouldn’t let you hear.
- We can neither confirm nor deny that you had never felt so safe. That was the problem. Behind the padded walls lab coated protocols patrolled the halls and stairwells. Embedded teams, encrypted units, viral packs and gangs surveilled preemptively from floor to floor like white cells in a paranoid immune system flushing out what wasn’t there so that it couldn’t be.
- We can neither confirm nor deny your childhood or that story in which daddy orders dentist not to give the boy you were a shot of lidocaine, or how the drill drills down through enamel to the very burning bottom of the nerve, for your own good, because it hurts him more than it hurts you: what we can say unequivocally is that it didn’t, and it wasn’t.
- While happily you drifted in the neural void of a condemned facility, in a synaptic gap made from dendritic dead ends, axonal cul-de-sacs, messages everywhere but where you were were being fired at the speed of light, from ward to ward, and out into the night via phone lines, satellite, and fiber optic cables buried under earth and ocean; determinations as to what to do with you went everywhere; each decision, though uncoerced, had no idea it had already been decided long before you were the object it decided on.
- And yet was anything you thought or did as insane as the hidden away bricked-in Babel storage vaults of data crammed full yet exponentially expanding to the size of cities stacked on cities everybody calls the cloud?
- On their own, in the LG nonlight, your thumbs typed on an absent keypad while you stared down into the empty screen space between them at the message they by habit sent to who by habit waited for the bubble’s flickering ellipsis to become the words that would become the words another bubble flickering in the empty screen space between your thumbs kept promising, in return, were on their way.
- You dreamed you were a selfie taken of yourself inside the cell. You posted it, and on the one hand it received a thousand likes,
- And on the other you were immediately notified by all your friends that they no longer wanted to be friends with anyone they didn’t know. With algorithmic certainty, you understood, your thumbs typed, “Totes!” in the reply box and hit send.
- The data records everything, prevents nothing.
- What the data fails to prevent justifies the collecting of more data.
- We can neither confirm nor deny that thinking nobody is watching you is just as paranoid as thinking everybody is.
- During the evacuation, while wild fires swept down from the hills, the cell pinged with notifications from the 24/7 home security system live streaming from the living room as camera flipped to camera from shining standing lamp arced over the recliner to the blue light of the aquarium where gold fish circling through it flickered greenly across the room reflected in the picture window full of thrashing branches wicked with flame that blackened on the glass before imploding and one by one the cameras room to room went black while the smoke alarm shrieked as it was meant to, loud at first, then soft and softer, intermittently, until it stopped.
We can neither confirm nor deny there is an inkling of an itch beginning on your shoulder blade just below where you can reach. At first, it asks politely to be scratched. But you ignore it. Because inside the cell there’s nothing else to do, you try to test your self-control. It asks again, this time a little louder, not so politely; but you don’t move, you pretend you’re waiting for another text in-coming on your nonexistent phone; the itch insists you pay attention, it commands attention, your skin burns with the attention you refuse to give it. Unbearable the itching, your fingers the skin of your entire body itchy with the urge to scratch it, but you don’t, you won’t, you think by now it’s not about you. It was never about you. What’s at stake (we can neither confirm nor deny) is the survival of a will, of an idea of freedom; your dignity as an independent person depends on you not putting down the protean screen which isn’t even there, of clinging to it while it shape shifts into images of balms, of soothing ointments, lotions which if you order now will come at no additional cost with a metal back scratcher that can scratch all the inaccessible places on your person that you on your own have never reached.