blackbirdonline journalSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
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back TOM SLEIGH

A Conversation with Tom Sleigh
Captured March 14, 2013

Doug Fuller: Tom Sleigh is the author of eight books of poetry including Army Cats and Space Walk, which won the 2008 Kingsley Tufts Award. He has also published a book of essays, “Interview with the Ghost,” and a translation of Euripides’ Herakles. He received the 2011 John Updike Award, the 2003 Arts and Letters Award and the 1999 Shelley Memorial Award. Thanks for being with us, Tom.

Tom Sleigh: Thank you.

DF: I wanted to talk to you about long poems. There are quite a few long poems with long lines in Army Cats, and last semester Stanley Plumly was here and he had said something about the page having a kind of gravity that wants to pull the poem to a premature ending and it’s the poet’s job to learn how to resist that gravity and give the poem space that it needs to develop. So I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about the process of writing long poems if that’s something you’ve had to consciously think about or if it’s more natural for you.

TS: It’s an interesting thing Stanley said about the gravity. When I write a poem, I didn’t mean any of the sequences in this book to be long poems. One of the things that happened in Army Cats is that because of the kind of material I was dealing with, so much of the book—at least in the first section—is meditating on kind of various aspects of war as I saw it firsthand in Lebanon spilling over the border into Syria, although not much in those days. So one of the things that’s difficult about writing a poem about those subjects is that everything needs qualification, partly because I’m an outsider, for one thing. How do you represent an experience that, culturally, you’re a stranger to? And the conflicts there have been going on for so much longer than, you know, my awareness of them that the real risk in writing this material is, you know, first of all, what right do you have to say anything about it? That’s one thing. The second thing is, if you do feel like you can say something about it, how do you place yourself so that you acknowledge what the limits are so that you don’t come off as somebody who is this jerk?

The whole problem with writing about poetry in subjects that are conventionally thought of as being public is that there’s a certain kind of received rhetoric. Everybody knows who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. When you’re in the situation, you yourself often feel like you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are as well. None of that is true. So the thing that’s difficult in writing a poem about these kinds of subjects is, first of all, you have to establish what your limits are as an observer. You have to figure out how to put yourself into a poem so it doesn’t seem as if you’re an authority on something that you’re not. And then in order not to sort of have the poem in its unconscious, ’cause poems do have unconsciouses, I think, to have the poem in its unconscious align itself with this side, or that side. You know, Seamus Heaney once said a really beautiful thing. He said, in writing about these subjects you want to be responsive to all sides at once. So in order to be responsive to all sides at once, you’ve got to have multiple viewpoints. In order to have multiple viewpoints, you’ve got to take whoever “I” am in the poem, and make that reflect a lot of different kinds of complexities, which, if you’re just writing a straightforward dramatic lyric, you wouldn’t worry about.

So for me, one of the ways to do it is, for example there’s a long poem in this book called “The Games.” And “The Games” is a poem in which I have basically two kinds of corresponding, but opposite characters in it. Both of those people were based on people I knew, and one of them died. And I sort of took those two characters and I put them in this kind of interesting conversation. And the conversation just had to do with one who was kind of an adroit—super adroit—public figure, in a diplomatic position. And the other was kind of, you know, my—I loved him deeply—he was a kind of roaring boy. (laughs) He was in part modeled on my friend Liam Rector, who was definitely a roaring boy and a wonderfully, actively political person. And then it also had to do with an incident of somebody who‘d been assassinated because of his political involvements in Lebanon. And, of course, assassination is the most common thing in the world in Lebanon. I mean, you’re watching television and they’ll have a commercial come on in which a guy in a very attractive, leather coat with a very expensive car is walking down a street. In America you would think, well, it’s either a fashion ad or a car ad, but in Lebanon it’s a bomb detector ad. (laughs) So you’re watching the guy walk to his car and then the guy has a little thing that looks like a key opener, and he turns it on, shines it, and that detects if there’s plastic underneath the car to blow it up. Yeah, Lebanon is just full of those kinds of hilarious contradictions. The fact that, you know, assassination would have entered into the world so you could have commercial competition about which brand—Well, I like the color of my detector, how ’bout your detector? (laughs) That’s the kind of loony, you know, sort of underside which I actually—that kind of surreal humor, I actually deeply respond to. And many of my poems are infused with that kind of surreal humor.

So for example, in “The Games” I’ve got these two characters sort of playing off each other, and then I suddenly have this moment in which I have—a voice comes out of the blue, which seems to be someone who is living during the time of, say, Augustus Caesar, the heyday of the games, the games in the Coliseum. And the guy is talking about these sorts of very intricate political alliances that we feel. And so he talks about how in the morning the most low-rent of the people who get killed in the gladiatorial games were always the Christians. I mean, they didn’t even bother to put them in the arena with humans; they just threw them in there with the animals and let the animals have their fun. The people who were much more high-rent were the criminals, who they would crucify during the noon-time break. And then at the end of the day, of course, there would be thousands and thousands of animals slain in some of these games. And then—this is a fact I never knew—then they would cut up the animals and distribute them so people could get, like, bear steaks and lion steaks and all kinds of stuff. And so I just thought, wow wouldn’t it be interesting, you know, to put yourself in the role of one of these provincials from outside Rome who comes into Rome? And before the provincial was a Roman, he was, of course, a barbarian waiting to be conquered by Rome. But now that he’s been incorporated into the Empire, he has all the privileges of the Empire: that is bread and circus, bear steaks, lion steaks. I thought, wow wouldn’t that be fun to be him? And what would he say about his historical circumstances?

Now, you know, that’s not what, in my experience, when people claim to be witnesses, that’s not what they’re doing. You know, I’m not interested in being the just man standing on the mountain, shaking my finger at people. I don’t think anybody that writes poems, at least consciously, is trying to do that. But I have no interest in being a spokesman, and I have no interest in simplifying my experience, and I don’t have any interest in pretending to know things that I don’t know. I think one of the real problems of writing poems of this kind is that, very often, the poet, the figure of the poet in the poem, looms very large in the landscape. And the political situation kind of vanishes so that you’ve got this heroic figure in front of history without casting a very, very big shadow. And I don’t really think that’s a viable way of talking about these subjects any longer. I don’t think that you’re going to have the lone witness speaking truth to power.

For one thing, power doesn’t give a shit if you speak truth to it. And truth is so often reduced in those circumstances. One of the things that people don’t really think about much, or at least in my experience they don’t, is when you read a play like King Lear, say, and you have Kent, and you’ve got the two sisters, and lots of people have said this before, it’s not original, but one thing that I think immediately becomes clear if you begin to have this kind of viewpoint is that the only difference between Lear and his daughters, or between Kent and Oswald, who serves Lear’s daughters, is that Kent’s side has their alibis in order, and Oswald and company don’t have their alibis in order. And so I’m interested in not having a poem in which I’m just reflecting one set of alibis or another. And I think the only way to do that is to have multiple viewpoints, and I think the other way to do it is a kind of self-irony, kind of self-mockery, a sort of undercutting of your authority, as opposed to an insistence on it. So humor—albeit a dark humor—and I realize when, you know, I talk about my interest in the consumer aspects of bomb detectors, lots of people aren’t going to find that funny, but I find that very funny and it’s probably because of a certain kind of piousness that surrounds talking about these things. And I’m very impatient with that kind of thing.

There’s a very good war reporter, writes for the New Yorker often, and the thing I often find about his writing is there’s a certain kind of convention that he’s bought into and the convention is he’s very tight-lipped, there’s a certain kind of unspoken self-importance, or there’s a certain just-the-facts-man kind of approach. We were talking about this in Emilia’s class the other day. And really, you know, who am I on the scene? I’m some fucking guy, dropped down in the middle of a situation which just scares the piss out of me, which I have absolutely no equipment to deal with, culturally or emotionally. I’m high as a kite on the weirdness of it all, the violence of it all, the intensity of it all. I’m ashamed for being high as a kite on the weirdness of it all, the violence of it all. And at the same time there’s this sort of utter absurdity that I feel at the same moment, like, what doesn’t fit in this picture? What doesn’t fit in this picture is you don’t fit in this picture.

Now that’s not the heroic stance of Anna Akhmatova standing in line—I’ve written about this—you know, in front of the Lubyanka prison and a woman comes up to her and says, you know, “Can you record this?” and she says, “I can.” You know, if someone came up to me and said can I record this I would say, I don’t know, I don’t have a tape recorder, I mean, I don’t speak the language. So one of the things I think that I can do in writing a long poem is when I sit down and try to write these poems, as soon as I finish one section it feels partial, it feels insufficient. So in order to get those multiple viewpoints, I can have this poem addresses this part of the subject, then there’s a kind of counter-argument that goes on in my mind saying, Oh, you’re really a pretentious ass in that part of the poem, why don’t you be less of a pretentious ass in this part of the poem and be kind of a smart ass about the pretentious ass? You know it’s that kind of way of undercutting a certain kind of authority in order to have a much more comprehensive understanding of what the experience really is, because the experience is, for people living through it, it’s immensely complex and it’s immensely ordinary. And that’s one kind of long poem. So there are a lot of sequences in this book because the sequences in a way are, at least as far as I’m concerned, are one way to address many different elements of an experience without having this kind of monumental “this is the frame.” I want to break the frame as much as I possibly can. And, you know, it’s not going to be—it’s not the kind of thing which—you know, I could be asked to do the inaugural poem and I could read that poem about the guy there at the games wondering if it’s the bear steaks or the lion steaks, he particularly likes the lion steaks. That would be my idea of an inaugural poem.

Long answer. But there are different kinds of long poems, you know. I mean I wrote a really long poem. Because I’ve written about it, I won’t be coy, I mean, I have a blood disease, I’ve had one for years. And, you know, it’s given me some serious trouble over the years, of the mortality kind. But that was a very different kind of poem to write. An arc of an experience, you know, kind of a narrative shape to it. Although the narrative wasn’t based on events. The narrative was more based on a kind of, you know, an emotional progression. And so that, those are the kinds of things, you know, obviously poems dictate their own shapes.

Audience: You may have started answering this on your previous question. But how did your work as a journalist kind of impact your work as a poet, if at all, especially in terms of process and form.

TS: Right. Well, okay. You know, full disclosure, I’m not a real journalist. I’m an amateur. And I want to, a part of me is very committed to remaining that. So, I don’t want to write against deadlines. I don’t want to do the standard kind of op-ed thing. I don’t want to have opinions. I don’t want to be viewy. For one thing I don’t know enough to be viewy. For another thing, I just think that language is utterly dead and is useless and accomplishes nothing. It doesn’t move the conversation any further, at one iota.

Robert Frost had a really beautiful thing to say. He said something like, poetry is the extravagance of grief, and politics is the extravagance of grievance. It’s an interesting thing, when Frost says that. Like all those statements, particularly when you attach a famous name to it, it’s like, “oh, a voice from the oracle.” So I had this in mind when I was in Lebanon. There was a certain point in which I was up in the Golan Heights. They took us up there. Now, you know, you hear the phrase Golan Heights and you think, Golan Heights can’t be that big. It’s a height, so. You get there, and the Golan Heights are some of the most prime real estate in the Middle East. Some of the best farm land. And then suddenly it becomes totally clear why everybody wants them.

So there’s a little town there called Quneitra. And during the, not their most recent Israeli-Lebanese war, but the previous one, when the war ended, Israel of course took the Golan Heights from Syria, and what the Israeli army did, is they stripped the town. When I say stripped the town, they stripped it right down to the doorknobs. And they put all that hardware on trucks and they shipped it back to Israel. So when you go to visit the town, now, of course it’s in Syrian territory, it’s a Syrian propaganda sight. And of course they have their version of the tale, and then the Israelis have their version of the tale, everyone’s version is like, you know the budget meetings. There’s no place for reality to intercede, you know, because everyone has their realities and they’re obviously separate. So in terms of this grief and grievance, when we were there, there was a big sign that said something like, “We must have peace, the peace that restores the Golan Heights to Syria.” “We must have peace, the peace that restores the Golan Heights to Syria.” Which is kind of like Orwellian double speak for: “if we ever get enough bombs we will bomb them back to the Stone Age and get the Golan Heights back.” That’s what it really means.

So, on the one hand, you know, you’re thinking, that’s grievance. That’s the kind of language of grievance. So, okay, you think sure, that’s an obvious thing. So later the same day, we go to a village. We happen to run into a guy who’s Palestinian, because we’re in a Palestinian town. And he brings us back to his house and he tells us the story about his life. And basically, I won’t go into the whole story, but, at one point in the story, during the war between, the initial war and the Nakba in 1948, what’s called the expulsion of Palestinians from their territories, or, what’s putatively their territories, I can just see poor Blackbird getting shut down over this interview, so I want to be very careful in how I phrase things here. Not simply because I’m trying to be coy, or trying to be politic, but also because it’s deeply complicated and I’m not the authority.

So, he told a story in which, because they, he was being expelled from his village, that one of the things that he saw was his mother shot dead in front of him. Extremely reasonable man, and then he’s talking about how the deeds were stained with blood. Now I heard that: “deeds stained with blood,” I thought, this is how that’s translated to English from Arabic, and I thought, my goodness that’s positively Shakespearean, “deeds stained with blood.” So I’m thinking, like, wow, that’s, that’s the extravagance of grief, the kind of poetry about it. But the thing I didn’t realize was he meant it literally. That the deed of the house was stained with blood. And then he said to me, “would you like to see the deeds?” And then you’re like, “uhh . . . huh. The dee—I mean, didn’t you? I’m thinking, like, I didn’t think they had Super 8 Cameras in those days. I’m mean, literally, I’m thinking, how is he going to show me the deeds? And I said “sure.” And he says “Just a second.” and he takes his cell phone out and he calls his nephew. And he says, “Can you bring the deed over, with the key?” And I didn’t know in those days that many Palestinians had the keys to their old homes still on them, and it’s passed down through, you know, a couple generations. So, you know, nephew drives up on the little motorcycle and comes in, and he says “here’s the deed.” And you look at it, and there’s a big brown stain on it.

Now, that’s the extravagance of grief. And that’s the extravagance of grievance. And unless people decide that both of those things are allowable in conversation at the same time, I can’t see any hope at all. And the thing about it is, is that, this old man is very eloquent, very reasonable person, and at a certain point, to be fair, in the conversation, it was clear to me that the conversation took a certain turn in which it began to talk about the European Jews that would come in as opposed to the Arabic Jews who were, in his words, their brothers, the Arabic Jews were. He very much wanted the European Jews to go back to—now, there was a lot of hate in the room at that moment, after—and the thing about it is, is that people want to oversimplify it. They just want him to be full of hate. They don’t want to think, this is a man who when he was a child, saw his mother shot dead, and he’s lived the life of an exile.

So, you witness these kinds of things, and, you know, it’s so complicated. They just go way beyond, and the only way to represent them is to find some kind of language which is oblique. Which has all the kind of odd resonances of the experience about it. It’s almost a certain kind, I’m not much interested in a conscious sort of surrealism, but there’s qualities to the experience that are so absurd. Biggest absurdity being me listening to this. And so, I want to incorporate all that into the, into the texture of it. The worst thing I think about writing about a certain kind, about these subjects—and then I’ll get back to your journalism—is the sort of, ponderous, serious, moral earnestness, which is so fucking boring. I hate that kind of writing. I can just see the self-importance of the writer ballooning in front of the material, until suddenly the only thing I can see is the heroic ego of the writer. I want everything undercut. I want many, many different plates of irony cutting through an experience. ‘Cause that seems to me the only truthful way that I can register.

You know, as an outsider. I’m an outsider, you know, inside my own world I can make different kinds of approaches to the subject. But just in terms of what journalism has done for me. Well you can see it’s changed me as a person. It’s meant a lot to me as a man. I’ve seen things, I mean, I know I sound like the ending of, you know, it’s one of my favorite movies, Blade Runner, remember at the very end, when Rutger Hauer’s there, you think he’s gonna kill Decker. And he’s there and he’s got the nail, and he just, he begins, on this—he says “I’ve seen things in the galaxies—” it’s one of my favorite moments of all the movies. It’s super fucking hokey, but it’s just really great, just the beautiful great moment of ludicrous over-acting, utterly convincing on some deep level for me. So, you know, “I’ve seen things.” You know, if you lowercase it, yeah, I’ve seen some things that really changed me. I’ve had some conversations and experiences that have really changed me. And I can’t write the same anymore.

I mean, it doesn’t mean that I know what that means in terms of sitting down and writing a poem, because I don’t. But it doesn’t have to be that kind of, in a public sense, a big experience that does that. Lots of things do that to you. But I have, you know, I’ve had a serious illness for many years. That changes you. I’ve had these experiences in the last six or seven years. Those things change you. And I think on a really deep level, that gets in your work.

You know, I was in Mogadishu doing a piece on Somali refugees. That was a long piece, it took me about three years to do that. And that’s the kind of problem with doing the kind of journalism I do. It’s long form, takes a long time to do it. Because it’s all about texture. I don’t have opinions. Except to undercut them, because my opinions don’t matter. But you know these, it’s not like I’m looking for it, but always in these situations, moments of great humor and hilarity arise. And you don’t ever see that in The New Yorker because, you know, “I’m here, I’m here in Mogadishu, the bombs are falling, it’s all terrible.” As opposed to a friend of mine who took the photographs of the article we did, who said “I’m here, I’m in Mogadishu shaving, and as I’m shaving there are bombs falling and I cut myself—damn!” You know what I mean? It’s that kind of thing, you know.

Getting in and flying in, I was talking a little bit about this with the media last night, you know, getting in, flying into Moga—“Air Mogadishu, have a nice day wherever your air travels take you in Mogadishu.” You know, your Visa form has all the standard things, and at the very bottom there’s a little thing “what weapons will you be importing? RPG?” (laughs) You check off all weapons you’re gonna be importing into Mogadishu. So, you get off the plane, you look at your armored vehicle you’ll be riding around in, with, you know, fifty caliber machine guns, twenty caliber machine guns mounted up there, and, you know, this is really weird, I mean, geez.

I met the guy who’s running the thing, this wonderful, Irish aid public affairs guy. Fabulously funny, you know, sense of humor. I’m such a doofus, you know, there’s like, pile of flack-jackets, pile of helmets, you know, another pile of flack-jackets. One’s baby blue, the other is light blue. And so I just say to Andy, “So Andy, we got two colors, huh?” And, Andy says, “Oi, oh, aye Tom, we’ve got all the colors you need.” And I said, “Well which one do you think I should choose, Andy?” and Andy just says “Oh, Tom, just choose the color that goes best with your eyes.” And so, I’m such an idiot. I don’t know that light blue is UN affiliated, and dark blue means unaffiliated. So I choose light blue, because I like the baby blue feel. But see, if you’re captured, being UN affiliated can be good, or it can be really bad. These are the kinds of decisions which you’re making in a moment of hilarity which can actually affect, you know, your life, you know.

So, yeah, driving around in Mogadishu in a Casspir, C-A-S-S-P-I-R, which were these old armored vehicles that they used to use in South Africa to terrorize the townships. And now the African Union soldiers use them when they’re trying to do a police action in the streets of Mogadishu.

So you’re driving around in the Casspir, the guy with the 50 caliber standing in the—very nice guy, from Burundi named Patrice, talking a little bit in French. So we’re driving around, and I’m looking into this guy’s butt the whole time, skinny little guy with his helmet on, and the quality of the surreal as you go by a market, a horrendous smell hits you in the face, the smell of camel meat, and these are things that you would never experience at home. And you’re sitting there listening to the—I can’t name names here—you’re sitting there listening to one of the guys tell about how they had a journalist come in for one of the big networks, and the only thing he could think about was how he looked, he was constantly saying “how’s my collar look? Did the helmet mess up my hair?” And the pastor’s thinking “did the helmet mess up his hair?” And they’re all there of course because it’s like BIG STORY: FAMINE IN EAST AFRICA, starving bodies of black people, or Arabics, lots of skinny-looking ribs, it’s a certain kind of vulturous obscenity about it. And all the fucking guy can think about is how his goddamn hair looks.

So at a certain moment, he’s combed his hair for the eighteen-thousandth time, and everybody’s sitting in the Casspir and the security officer is thinking, we’ve got a schedule to keep, and there’s a reason why you keep a schedule in a place like Mogadishu, at least a year ago. And finally he just turns to the guy, the guy’s like straightening his collar out, and he says “how’s my collar? What about the flak jacket?” And I say “yeah it’s fine”, and finally the security officer just turns to the guy, to the network dude, and he just says “Ok Ken Doll, are you ready to go?”, and the guy says “What? What do you mean Ken Doll?” And he says “you know what I mean, Ken and Barbie, are you ready to go?” Now that’s the kind of thing you want in your reporting, right? That’s the thing I want to read about. You know what I mean?

Or being among the kids, they have such spirit you know. And you’re cracking jokes right and left, I remember one time I was talking to a bunch of goat and camel sellers, me and this guy in the market, I had a translator, naturally, all these guys were gathering around me and doing the whole thing. A lot of men, Somali men, when they get to a certain age they put henna in their beards to cover up the gray. So I said to the guy “how come you’re putting henna in your beard” because I wasn’t aware of that, and he said “oh, well for beauty” and I said “oh, well you’re very beautiful”, big laugh. So I said “how many children do you have” eight children, four wives, and he looks at me and says “how many children and wives do you have?” And I’m thinking “oh man, I’m really gonna be at a disadvantage here.” So, I’m thinking, going through my Henny Youngman joke repertoire, you know the old Borscht Belt comic, and I’m thinking “I think I know how to answer this one—Only one wife, and that’s more than enough!” The thing’s very reliable, Henny Youngman jokes are universal. It brought down the house. Big laugh in the middle of this refugee camp, get a load of that guy, he’s got one wife. So suddenly these people are cartoons, you know they’re not just these sad, pathetic figures.

And that’s a thing I can’t stand about the way these folks are represented. And the reason why is that nobody takes the fucking time to talk to them. Or if they take the time to talk to them, and many do, it’s just the one-dimensionality of what they feel is proper to be represented. The fact that a Henny Youngman joke is universal, I think that’s a pretty rare discovery. “Take my wife, please.” I’m thinking to myself, “One for Sleigh. You really are a foreign correspondent.” It’s a long, long answer, but my journalism meant a lot to me as a person. And I certainly have met some wonderful, wonderful people in circumstances that I never would have ever seen any other time.

DF: We probably have time for one more question, maybe two short ones.

Audience: I’ll ask one. So throughout your books you have many different sorts of translations, or poems that are after other writers like Dante and Waking [his book] and Ovid, and then you did the translation of Euripides as well. Can you talk a little bit about how translation is a part of your process in writing a book project, or doing a book project, or if you see translation as a sort of ekphrastic move.

Sleigh: That’s interesting. I think you probably have a more interesting answer than I would about the ekphrastic, I’ve never thought about that, that’s quite interesting. You know one thing about translation is—I’ll just tell a brief story about it. Years ago, before the first Gulf War, I was in Paris, and I went to the antiquities section, I’ve written about this in an essay. Anyway, I found a little cuneiform tablet which had this thing about the destruction of the city of Ur, and of course the city of Ur was on an Iraqi air base. It still is there, there’s a big Ziggurat, and the rest is an Iraqi air base. And so I thought It was in French, it was in Akkadian, which is an ancient Babylonian language, more ancient than Babylonian. Anyway it was in Akkadian, and so I copied the French down, and I had the postcard, it looks Akkadian to me (laughs), I’m very fluent in ancient Akkadian. So I had the French, I took it home and it sat there on my desk, I copied it down on the back of a piece of paper or something, because they had it translated there, and I just took it home and it sat there. It’s one of those things where it’s like “oh I’ll translate this at a certain point.” And then I was reading David Ferry, great translator, his translation Odes of Horace, that shows you how long ago it was, a while ago. And I saw the shapes that David was making, I was comparing the shapes, the stanza shapes, at least the way they were printed in the (unintelligible) Ferry translation. So you have the Ferry here, and you’ve got your Horace here. And it suddenly dawned on me that from a French translation, I could take a kind of Horatian stanza shape, mediated to the English of David Ferry, and maybe do this in English. A lot of different steps, right? So, I did it.

And it seemed to me like a kind of generalized statement about the ineluctable decay and destruction of civilizations and their rebuilding because that’s really what it is. It sounds very lofty in those terms, but that’s kind of what it is. And then the First Gulf War came along, and then everybody was, “Hey, you got that little fragment,” and, “We can publish this in our anti-war book. And then suddenly everybody said, “Oh, my God, he’s translated this in response to the pressures of the moment.” (laughs) That’s not at all what happened.

I mean, I translated it, and then time caught up and now it’s political, whereas before it had been generally philosophical. So, that taught me a lot. So when I wrote a longer poem, a very oblique poem about 9/11, partly because, you know, it’s the site, having been close proximity to the site and all the rest of that . . . I came across in the, there’s the Egyptian book of ancient spells, and there’s this crazy rant by this guy who wants all power. He says, you know, and he’s doing this invocation to get power and reading along and it’s a little, it’s very disturbing and then suddenly I get to this little paragraph. And he says, “I am Thoth, I am this, I am that, I am going to get all power if the gods will help me, and if the gods don’t help me, then I will bring down the twin mountains.” And I said “Gotta use it!” (laughs) you know. And there it is. And then at the very end is an invocation about how if he’s given this power that he will speak the truth to everyone, and he has a long list of all his contemporaries.

Like, you know, back really in the beginning of writing; the Syrians, the this, the that, that he will speak truth to all of those people. And of course he’s a crazy lunatic ranting at the top of his voice, but then he’s going to speak truth at the end. I thought: I’ll just put this as part of the sequence. That’s going to be a different kind of texture; it’s outside of my time. You know, put that in there, nobody’s going to be able pin you down.

9/11—terrible tragedy. Yeah, but what does that mean, exactly? So, and when I work in translation, I’m often aware of the kind of historical double vision. You’re looking through the lens at a contemporary event through something that happened 2000 years ago. And, you know, one thing about Pound’s Cathay poems, the Chinese translations, he wrote those as a, he put those poems in a book, positioned them in such a way that they were direct commentary on the First World War. So, I think translation can be, it can have those kinds of subtle gestures of, you know, politics is too crude of a word, but like a political emotion. And they can be a let-down in ways that me speaking in my own voice couldn’t do because it’s got that kind of historical resonance, in which the echoes are so complicated nobody can pin you down to a certain, easy, resolvable position, which is why I love poetry. So, I thought that was a pretty good way to end it, didn’t you? (laughs)

DF: Thank you so much, Tom, for taking the time to answer our questions.

Sleigh: Yeah.  end 


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