UCSD Professor And Poet Rae Armantrout Nominated For National Book Award
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Sometimes people have funny ideas about poetry. They think that the people who write it must live in a kind of dream world, not the everyday world the rest of us inhabit. So what would a poet be doing watching “The Price Is Right” or talking about celebrity fan clubs? And yet things like that pop up in the poems of Rae Armantrout. Much of her poetry is about the plight of the individual trying to make sense of this world. Rae Armantrout is a professor of writing and literature at UCSD. She is the author of ten books of poetry and her latest book, “Versed,” was nominated for a National Book Award this year. And, Rae, welcome to These Days.
RAE ARMANTROUT (Professor of Writing and Literature, University of California at San Diego): Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Now, congratulations on your nomination. Where were you when you got the news about the National Book Club Award nomination?
ARMANTROUT: At work. I just opened my office door and saw that my message machine was blinking and so I pushed the button. And the message was hard to make out. It was hard to understand so I have, you know, a pen in my hand and I’m scribbling trying to get the number, trying to get the name and then the name of the organization. And somewhere in the midst of all of that scrambling it hits me what this means.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, this is pretty good.
CAVANAUGH: When did you start writing your book “Versed?” What was happening in your life when – over the course of writing these poems?
ARMANTROUT: I started writing it in about the summer of 2005 and my previous book before this, “Next Life,” I won’t say it was ‘about’ because I don’t really write deliberately about things, but was influenced by my mother’s death. She lived in town and I was an only child and so I was with her a lot and I was, to the extent that you can, going through that with her. And then I was living with the aftermath of that for a while but when I started writing “Versed,” I was kind of coming out of that period and I think the early poems in “Versed” are sort of exuberant in a way and engaging with the world even though the world is often problematic. But then, ironically, I guess could say, in mid-2006 I, myself, was diagnosed with cancer and so the later poems – the poems in the latter half of the book have a more kind of somber cast to some extent.
CAVANAUGH: Indeed, the book of poetry is in – basically in two sections. I want to know – I want to see if you’d agree with the assessment that a lot of your work has to do with trying to find a voice of – an authentic viewpoint in a world where so many people are play-acting and we get bombarded with so much information and images and so forth, to find your own subjective, authentic voice.
ARMANTROUT: Well, yes, I do agree that that’s – that the difficulty of doing that is a theme of mine. I mean, take the word ‘authentic,’ the word authentic, to me at least, feels like it should have quotation marks around it so that’s what we’ve come to. I mean, you know, jeans are authentic, right, especially if they’re pre-ripped. At least that’s what the Levi company wants you to think, right. So I think identity is a kind of balancing act and part collage, part balancing act. I mean, we have all of these voices in our heads, our parents’ voices, newscasters’ voices, pundits’ voices, you know, these voices on the radio, and so how much do we incorporate and how much do we reject? So it’s a balancing act but someone has to be doing that balancing and I guess that’s the self but it’s tricky to, you know, pick out what is self and what is other, I think, or if there’s – if that distinction even make sense.
CAVANAUGH: One poem you have, well, more than one poem but a poem that certainly highlights this – the way we see ourselves is a poem called “Outer.” And perhaps you can read that poem for us and then we can talk a little bit about it.
ARMANTROUT: Sure. Outer: Dolls as celebrities, Barbie; celebrities as dolls; I’m the one who can’t know if the scraggly old woman putting a gallon of vodka in her shopping cart feels guilty, defiant or even glamorous as she does so. She may imagine herself as an actress playing an alcoholic in a film. Removal activates glamour? To see yourself as if from the outside, though not as others see you, carried by light, imagines remain while sensation is so evanescent as to be always beyond belief. The outer world means State Farm, donuts, Tae Kwan Do, thoughts as spent fuel rods preceded and followed by statuesque shadows of cacti on a lawn. Today could be described as a retired man humming tunelessly to himself. When I ask what you’re thinking, you say about explaining to children the best way to build a Maypole.
CAVANAUGH: That’s the poem “Outer,” by Rae Armantrout. It’s from her latest book “Versed,” which has been nominated for a National Book Award. Rae, where does that image of the woman in the grocery store come from? Is – Did you see a – Yes?
ARMANTROUT: Umm-hmm. Yeah, almost everything I write or most things I write come from something I actually saw or heard. And so I saw this, you know, rather slovenly looking lady putting a gallon of vodka in her shopping cart at Von’s and I had an automatic sort of patronizing response to that in my head. And then, you know, I had a second thought that, of course, she is the center of her own world and there’s no way for me to see how she sees herself or what her version of the world is any more than I can know how people judge me when they glance at me, which is probably a good thing that I don’t know that.
CAVANAUGH: And tell us how that line of thought goes to the last quote. You ask the man about the – what he’s thinking and it’s about Maypoles.
ARMANTROUT: Yeah. Well, the man at the end is someone I know well, my husband, in fact, and so I asked him what he was thinking because he had a funny look on his face and I could have never imagined that what he was thinking was how to explain to children the best way to build a Maypole. So I still have no idea where that came from. It’s a bit scary when you realize that you have no idea what other people are thinking. On the other hand, the only way that we know the world is real is because it’s unpredictable.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly. I’m speaking with Rae Armantrout. We’re talking about her latest book, “Versed.” And, as you said, there are two sections in this book, one called “Versed,” and the other called “Dark Matter.” Let’s talk about the Dark Matter section, specifically, that is, a poem called “Around.” What was happening in your life at that point?
ARMANTROUT: Well, this was – I wrote this at about the end of 2006 as I finished having chemotherapy. And I was sort of coming off of the first shock of the diagnosis. I – First of all, I had a kind of cancer that I had never heard of: adrenocortical cancer, which I had to look up on the internet. And then it turns out that it’s usually very fatal. And you can imagine what it’s like to read that. That was…
ARMANTROUT: That was three and a half years ago and it hasn’t come back. But I was living under the assumption that it would. You know, I’m not one of those people who just puts the odds aside and says I can beat this thing. I went, okay, well, you know, how can I die a good death? And how can I keep thinking and keep writing up until that point? But here I am.
CAVANAUGH: Can you read the poem “Around” for us?
ARMANTROUT: Sure, if I can find it. I have it marked here somewhere. Okay, here it is. Around: Time is pleased to draw itself out, permit itself pendulous loops to allow them meaning, this meaning, as it goes along. Chuck and I are pleased to have found a spot where my ashes can be scattered. It looks like a construction site now but it’s adjacent to a breathtaking rocky coast. Chuck sees places where he might snorkel. We’re being shown through by a sort of realtor. We’re interested but can’t get her to fix the price. The future is all around us. It’s a place, any place, where we don’t exist.
CAVANAUGH: I was most struck by that line ‘the future is all around us.’ And that – when one has a diagnosis where you might not have much more of a future, that becomes very, very clear…
CAVANAUGH: …to you, doesn’t it?
ARMANTROUT: Oh, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, was writing poems like this healing or was it difficult to write at this time?
ARMANTROUT: Well, I had kind of a burst of writing interestingly. I think it’s because – partly because it was so sudden that it was all so surreal and new and strange and so – that made it interesting, kind of horrifically interesting. And whenever I’m feeling that something is new and strange and I’m puzzled by it, what I do is write and that’s just kind of the way I process experience. And as long as I’m doing that, I know I’m alive.
CAVANAUGH: Right. You have a lot of wit in your poems. I’d like, if you could, read to us your poem “Scumble” and maybe afterwards you can talk about your thinking…
CAVANAUGH: …behind this poem.
ARMANTROUT: All right. Scumble: What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as scumble, pinky or extrapolate. What if I maneuvered conversation in the hope that others would pronounce these words? Perhaps the excitement would come from the way the other person touched them lightly and carelessly with his tongue. What if ‘of’ were such a hot button, scumble of bushes, what if there were a hidden pleasure in calling one thing by another’s name?
CAVANAUGH: People – I’ve read critical analysis of your poems and they talk a great deal about the wit in your poetry. Do – Is that just simply – comes from the way you see the world?
ARMANTROUT: I guess so. I mean, I think language is never neutral. Every word is fraught somehow, and I was just playing with that in “Scumble.” I mean, “Scumble” just kind of takes that idea to the nth degree. What if ‘of’ were loaded and fraught and sexually charged?
ARMANTROUT: I mean, anything could be erotic, right, to someone. Shoes, for instance, infamously, can be erotic. But what if the word ‘of’ was erotic? I think people laugh at “Scumble” because it’s kind of – the things that it says are kind of outlandish but also because they’re sort of true. I mean, there is a hidden pleasure in calling one thing by another’s name. That’s metaphor, and we all like that or we all do that. And there is something erotic about, you know, any hidden pleasure, so I don’t know, I think when people are kind of surprised by the familiar, they laugh, and that’s what’s going on there maybe.
CAVANAUGH: I think you’re right about that. Now when will you learn about this nomination, whether or not, indeed “Versed” has won a National Book Award?
ARMANTROUT: November 18th. It’s like the Oscars in that you have to sit there with your little acceptance speech…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, my.
ARMANTROUT: …so, you know, imagine everyone with the acceptance speech in his or her pocket waiting to give it and then a name is called and then, you know, everyone claps and sits there going, damn. But, you know, they have a big party and, hopefully, a nice dinner.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I think we’ve just learned that whether or not you win, we’re going to hear a poem about it.
CAVANAUGH: Rae Armantrout, thank you so much for being with us.
ARMANTROUT: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Rae Armantrout is a professor of writing and literature at UCSD. And her latest book, “Versed,” is nominated for a National Book Award this year.