An Interview with Jay Rogoff
JAY ROGOFF is the winner of The Third Annual Robert Watson Poetry Award for his chapbook Twenty Danses Macabre, a haunting and darkly humorous collection of sonnets that takes the reader on a journey with Death himself. Rogoff received an MA in creative writing and a DA (Doctor of Arts) at Syracuse University, working with distinguished writers such as W.D. Snodgrass, Philip Booth, Richard Murphy, and Raymond Carver. He has written three books of poetry with two forthcoming, and his first book, The Cutoff (1995) was the winner of the Washington Prize. The poems in this chapbook will appear as part of a longer sequence in The Art of Gravity (LSU, forthcoming, 2011). He teaches English part-time at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY.
S.S. Why did you choose the sonnet form for this series?
J.R. I began intending to write a single poem concerning the Dance of Death for a related sequence about dance and saw immediately that it would grow into a sequence of its own. I had recently finished a sonnet sequence called Venera, a set of love poems very different in their emotional terrain and trajectory from the DMs, so I was still in “sonnet mode,” if you like. Writing sonnets is a pleasure and it can become an obsession; just look at the extended sonnet sequences of the Elizabethans, of the 19th century, and even of today (a friend has just told me he has written 300 sonnets in the past year). Many things make the sonnet attractive as a form: you know many facts about it in advance—how long your poem will be, what much of its rhyme scheme will entail, and, if you’re following the Italian form, that it will consist of two major movements climaxing about 60% of the way through, with a turn at or around line 9 (or “volta,” as it has become fashionable to say). You can then start thinking as you write about how you want to handle those two major motions and what kind of torque you want to give your turn, and as you write your way into the sonnet, language and ideas will accumulate about how it needs to end. I often write in sequences of all kinds, not just sonnets, in which the poems talk to one another, allow you to deal with some thematic and technical obsessions extensively, and relieve you somewhat of having to reinvent a new micro-universe for each new poem. I also like having a sequence that lets me participate in a major literary tradition. No one is likely to better Shakespeare’s sonnets (and that’s just one reason why I almost always write Italian sonnets, others being that the English form’s quatrains seem too compressed to allow a fully developed movement, and that its concluding couplet can chime archaically), but it’s nice to get in the game. For a series of specific takes on a larger general theme, the Dance of Death in my case, the sonnet is hard to beat. It allows you to show off, too, in the best way of a poet’s showing off: attempting to achieve a satisfying integration of form and expressiveness.
S.S. I noticed that while the poems don’t necessarily have perfect rhyme, very clever sound patterns are used throughout. Can you talk a little about your process in writing these poems? Were you always paying particular attention to alliteration, assonance, and consonance, or were you more concerned about content first over form?
J.R. The poems actually do follow strict rhyme schemes, but those schemes might sometimes be disguised by the fact that I often slant-rhyme: I will change vowels and occasionally consonants, and sometimes match a masculine with a feminine rhyme. They are all Italian sonnets, with octaves rhyming abbaabba and sestets using any combination of 2 or 3 rhymes. As for the other sonic devices, I am a very aural poet, which is why rhyme (though usually slant) often enters my work, even many of my poems in free verse. Clusters of language come to me as much for their “music” as for their sense, and internal rhyme, assonance, consonance, alliteration all tend to contribute to my poems’ sonic texture. I put “music” in quotes because I’m leery of parallels with actual music; when Eliot says the problems of poetical composition are largely “quasi-musical,” the qualification “quasi” is significant, and we shouldn’t mistake one art for the other. But the frequency and intensity of sonic devices mark one important distinction between poetry and prose, which also means between poetry and speech. Wordsworth said poetry should use “a selection of the language really used by men,” but sometimes poets forget the importance of selecting. The appeal to my ear is one major criterion I use in selection, and often sound will help me discover either what my poem wants to express, or how to get my poem to embody what I intend it to express.
S.S. In the first half of the series, the speaker is very knowledgeable about Death, but is removed or distanced from the situations described. Later on, however, starting with “Death’s Love,” a distinct “I” comes out of the rest of the poems that was absent before—an “I” that seems more emotionally attached. Who did you imagine the speaker to be? Is the speaker the same throughout the series?
J.R. Good question and good observation. The earlier poems in the sequence do create the illusion of objectivity, describing what they see, though often with an attitude. Some of the poems are sarcastic, some of them elegiac, some hysterical, some a mixture of these and other tonalities. But by the end of the sequence—the last seven sonnets, say—the poems create a different kind of illusion, one of personal feeling, as they start to witness and suffer more, responding to someone ill with AIDS, talking about the death of a mother, a wife, a child, a lover. Is this all the same “I”? I think so—I think much of the grim comedy of the sequence starts taking on greater seriousness as Death begins to infect the life of the speaker who has been watching its operations with shocked but amused detachment, and he learns that when it comes to death you don’t know nothing, as Yogi Berra said. I hope the sequence accumulates greater poignancy and a touch of horror as it moves towards the end & the speaker understands, loss by loss, that no one is immune, that no one gets out alive.
S.S. In these poems, Death is sometimes sexual and lewd, sometimes funny, sometimes gruesome. Why did you want to present so many facets of Death?
J.R. Well, death does come to us in many forms, but that probably wasn’t my motivation. The traditional Dance of Death, dating from medieval times & represented in a series of 16th-century woodcuts by Holbein (and maybe most vividly for us in Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal) shows people from all walks of life being led away by Death in person, from kings and popes down through nobles, gentry, merchants, housewives, farmers, to peasants. I wanted to capture some of that sense of universality in a contemporary guise. Since we live in a democracy, I ignored the strict social stratification of the original models, but I tried to bring in all kinds of modern people who encounter death: little girls, dancers, soldiers, newspaper readers, stylish women, movie audiences, lovers straight and gay, and family members (the mother, bride, baby son)—how would Death make his appearance to each? How would he come for each of these people? That and the imagery of many of my visual sources led into the variety of roles Death plays in the sequence. And having him accompany Adam and Eve—who, after all, did bring death into the world—I hope helps universalize their predicament so we see it as ours as well.
S.S. In some poems, such as “Death Makes the Man” and “Death’s Love” Death seems to take on qualities of an all-powerful maker. “Death Makes the Man” has Death “creating” a Frankenstein-like character and in “Death’s Love,” the last line reads, “how Death loves us and molds us in his image,” which makes the reader think of God. Again, why did you choose to portray Death that way? What assumptions were you hoping to change about Death?
J.R. Death as creator—or “Creator,” as you suggest—certainly is ironic casting, since death is of course our destroyer. His creations in the poems—the monstrous “man,” his molded “image,” the (presumably poisonous) “fruit” he prepares at the end of “Death in the Woods,” the dances he makes for the ballet student and, in “Curtain Call,” the lover, are all intended to further his destructive purposes. They’re all weapons of mass destruction (in the sense that they will lay all of us low), so his role really is revealed to be that of an “unmaker,” not a “maker.” As to Death’s—or death’s—power, well, death really does intervene in every life in a way God does not. I realize some readers may disagree, but I say this as someone who believes God exists solely in the human imagination, a plausible theory that no one could believe about death.
S.S. “Death’s Sentence” describes how people “adored / his extremities’ probing, his profound love- / play stopping ears, mouths, throats, and orifices....” Does the Death you created love us or are we all fooled?
J.R. We are all time’s fools, and death’s as well, and I hope that comes through in the poems. Death’s “love” for us is like the lion’s “love” for the zebra, the pederast’s “love” for the child (as “Death’s Sentence” and especially “Death and the 7-Year-Old Pilot” suggest), and as alluded to a number of times in the sequence, the rapist’s “love” for his victim—in other words, cruelty disguised as love (and Death, as you noted, wears many disguises in the sequence). I happen to be teaching King Lear right now, and it occurs to me that Goneril, Regan, and Edmund all offer the same kind of masquerade: they’re like Death, dolled up hypocritically as loving daughters and a loving son.
S.S. Dancing is very important in these poems; dancing, of course, is supposed to be fun, lively, playful, possibly glamorous and sophisticated—everything death is not. What made you decide to present Death as a dead Fred Astaire? How did you come up with such a twist of logic?
J.R. Well he’s sometimes Dead Astaire, I suppose, though he takes on many roles in addition to ideal dance partner: comforter, lover, ballet master, guide, nurse, poet, inventor, salesman, inmate, adulterer, and so on. Some of these roles are sophisticated, some of them pretty mundane, and just about all of them ironic. I do intend him to be master of all situations—because our mortality does master us all, finally. But I also want readers to perceive his hypocrisy, the holes in his arguments, the ways in which his seductiveness is finally a betrayal of everything that makes us human. Like most modern people, I really have no conception of a personified Death, just as (possibly unlike most modern people) I have no belief in a personified God. But I wanted the sequence to entertain in a gallows humor way. I wanted the poems to be as much fun as possible, but still be about our mortality and still have a morbid creepiness about them. That’s why I use so many puns (a device I resort to in much of my poetry, humorous or serious), and also why Death is so lively—an antimatter bon vivant. The opening poem, in fact, in which “Death Goes to a Party,” takes its title from the old Life magazine, which used to talk about itself in third person. When a photo spread of some big social event appeared, it would carry the heading “Life Goes to a Party.”
S.S. Did your experience as dance critic influence your poems in Twenty Danses Macabre?
J.R. No, for the simple reason that I drafted most of the sonnets in the 1990s, before I started writing dance criticism. However, I was also working at the time on a long series of poems inspired by dance, and that certainly gave me the idea to extend that theme into the Dance of Death motif. At first, as I said, I was going to write a single sonnet on the Dance of Death, but writing sonnets is addictive, and I ended up drafting a sonnet a day for about a month during a stay at Yaddo.
For what it’s worth, I started writing dance criticism in 1999, when I did a piece for Kenyon Review about books and exhibitions about the New York City Ballet, which had just marked its 50th birthday. Over the next few years I wrote more review-essays on dance books (for Southern Review and Georgia Review), and in 2007 I became summer dance critic for my local paper, The Saratogian, reviewing the annual Saratoga season of NYCB, as well as occasional modern dance performances. Since 2009 I have also been writing about dance four times a year for The Hopkins Review, and I have recently begun contributing to Ballet Review. My own dancegoing dates back to my high school days, but I have never taken ballet or modern dance.
S.S. Humans also are very important to these poems: some of them seem to be fooled by Death, for they seem to think that Death can provide a better “life.” In “Death the Dietician,” for example, the “she” in the poem has put life on pause, “slamming the brakes” on growth because of anorexia. Did you intend to make some commentary about how humans take life for granted, or humans fear of mortality?
J.R. Certainly our fear of mortality is in there, but I don’t intend any commentary as much as an exploration of that fear as a human response that can range from the stoical & accepting to the hysterical & extreme. As with traditional Dance of Death imagery, parts of the sequence are satirical (when Death comes for the miser in a famous Bosch painting, he reaches not for his Bible but for his moneybags), and one thing I play with is the romanticizing of death, the sometimes seductive illusion that somehow death is better than living, that Death is beautiful, that Death is the only one who really cares about us, that Death brings the cure for illness, the solution for all the problems of our lives. As a living, more or less functioning person, I find that glamorous kind of despair thoroughly unseductive; as a poet, I find it useful and fascinating. This conflict, which I often find in myself as a poet (for example, I have often played with Christian imagery though I was not raised in Christianity and believe that religious faith is an imaginary delusion), I think accounts for the multiple ironies of Death’s many roles, which I mentioned earlier. He often appears eager to assist and comfort but it’s all a very well rehearsed act.
S.S. Poems like “Death’s Deal” takes a very informal tone (Death is described as a “shyster”), seemingly stripping away the formality of Death. Why did you choose to write some of these poems in an informal way?
J.R. For me one of the pleasures of writing poetry is playing with diction, & I love mixing levels of language within a series of poems, and even in the same poem. I’m not sure any single sonnet is wholly elevated or wholly casual in its diction: I think in almost every one you’ll find both something Poetic with a capital P alongside something demotic. You’re right in saying that “Death’s Deal” is mostly informal; it’s dominated by slang and a comic collection of clichés (some of which come, if I’m remembering correctly, from the dialogue of a telephoning skeleton in an old Betty Boop cartoon). Yet it also goes Elizabethan, pulling in “mazzard” from Hamlet, even though I use the word for comic effect (as does Hamlet). More typically in the sequence you’ll see a combination of high and low: “Death in Disguise” contains the word “ka-boing” but also “twining himself round any alphabet / as subtly as snaking through a tree”; “Death Sings Lieder” pulls in the Yiddish expression of dismay, “Oy vey iz mir,” alongside Death “Singing her delicate and beautiful.”
S.S. Who was your inspiration for these poems? Were you reading some specific poets at the time you were writing these poems?
J.R. Many factors inspired me, many of them visual. My wife is an art historian who works on late medieval and early Renaissance art, and some of the sonnets have specific visual sources—most obviously the opening sonnet, “Death Goes to a Party,” which imaginatively enters the 1493 woodcut of dancing skeletons that appears on the chapbook’s cover and frontispiece. A few sonnets are inspired by images of Death in the very strange paintings of the German artist Hans Baldung Grien. The Renaissance imagery felt appropriate for a sonnet sequence, but I also wanted to bring the material down through history into the present, and not to limit the sources to what we think of as “fine art” (though woodcuts were mass-produced images). “Death Sings Lieder” rings some changes on the lyrics of Schubert’s chilling song “Death and the Maiden,” translated for me by my musicologist friend Tom Denny; “Death at Midnight” brings together visual imagery from Daniel Chodowiecki’s Dance of Death prints (1792) with lines (mischievously altered) from Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” (1798), a poem that has long obsessed me; “Sweet Decorum” (a title that I hope will remind readers of Horace but especially Wilfred Owen) was inspired by a monograph another friend, the Romanticism scholar Sarah Goodwin, shared with me, on personifications of Death in World War I medals; two of the sonnets, “Death’s Deal” and especially “Death’s Animation,” use imagery and language from 1930s Betty Boop cartoons. “La Valse” takes off from the George Balanchine ballet of the same name. This is not to say that all my sources are other works of art. “Death’s Love” records an actual experience I had walking down a New York City street & initially mistaking a young man with AIDS for someone elderly; many lines in “Horoscope” came verbatim—or nearly verbatim—from one day’s set of horoscopes in The Saratogian, my local newspaper (“Paranormal abilities may surface”—you can’t improve on that!); the 7-year-old pilot’s death was a big news story in 1996; “Death’s Sentence” derives from my years of teaching and advising in Skidmore College’s now-defunct bachelor’s degree program for prison inmates—I witnessed both the guard whistling Für Elise and officers running their nightsticks along the bars to irritate inmates; some of the imagery in “Death in the Woods” came during a stay at Yaddo as I watched a woodchuck through a wavery old window; “Breathless” was inspired not by a dream of my own, but by one a friend related to me about a dead boyfriend.
As far as literary sources and other poets, I’ve already mentioned Coleridge and Owen with regard to particular sonnets; “Death’s Sympathy,” of course, is a rewriting of the ending of Paradise Lost, with Death taking the place of Providence leading Adam and Eve, and it plays with some of Milton’s language; “Death’s Sentence” uses a line from Donne’s “The Extasie”; ”Death in Disguise” alludes to Wallace Stevens. There was no one poet in particular behind the sequence, though in my 20s I was obsessed with Berryman, and something of his strange mixture of diction (though not his grammatical wackiness) has permanently become part of my style; that mixture is often highly allusive, and sometimes my poems will import phrases from Shakespeare (“mazzard” in “Death’s Deal” comes from Hamlet’s conversation with the gravedigger), Keats, Wordsworth, Lowell, & others, often wrenched woefully out of context & put to my own devices—whatever seems to work. At the time I was writing the DMs, Anthony Hecht was working on his Death poems, gathered in The Flight Among the Tombs, but I had not read any of them at the time so they weren’t an influence. I also love Christian Morgenstern’s Gallows Songs, but I wasn’t specifically looking at them, either. I have in the past consciously stolen things I found in other poets: at one time I was deliberately trying to emulate some of A. R. Ammons’s syntactic tricks (some of those poems will appear in my next book), and I have always loved the illusion of candor and rawness of feeling in Randall Jarrell’s late work. One sequence I have written tries to marry Auden and Stevie Smith, with rather strange results. But there’s no one poet or group of poets lurking behind the DMs.
Of course another inspiration was the fact that I had come midway through my life’s journey and entered my 40s. But as far as meditations on death, I think some of the poems in my book The Long Fault (LSU, 2008) come closer to my personal sense of my own mortality. The DMs, I hope, breathe a darkly jaunty carnival/Days of the Dead atmosphere, with dread underlying the whole.
S.S. How is the process of writing a chapbook different from writing an entire poetry book? Did you intend for these poems to become a chapbook? Are you hoping for the chapbook to become part of your next book?
J.R. You’ve actually guessed correctly: 20 DMs is a selection from a longer sequence, simply called Danses Macabre (or Macabres—my editor and I are trying to puzzle out whether or not there should be that terminal “s”; it’s actually a grammatical conundrum in French, depending on whether you consider “macabres” as a adjective modifying “danses,” or treat “danse macabre” as a two-word noun). The full sequence has 34 poems, giving it greater variety, including a few sonnets even nastier than those in the chapbook (a poem called “Matter of Death” ends with the sentence “Death’s shit is shit.”). It will be the second half of my next book, The Art of Gravity, which LSU Press will publish in fall 2011. As you can tell from the title, the book deals with dance. The first half (the title sequence) is a set of poems that use dance in a variety of ways. Some are near-ekphrastic poems that deal with specific ballets and modern dances, some take dance as an occasion for metaphysical meditation or romantic fantasy, some are homages to specific dancers, some reflect the personal experience of dancing, and some simply use dance as symbol or metaphor.
As far as assembling the chapbook, I made a selection from the complete 34 of 20 poems I thought would work together well and still give a sense of the full sequence’s emotional and thematic range as well as its affective trajectory. I always thought that some of the sonnets would make a strong chapbook, but since I had so many of them (the 34 were themselves selected from about 50 that I had drafted), making the chapbook became a matter of editing down. The poems in 20 DMs appear in more or less the same order as in the full sequence, though there are more poems interspersed among them. There’s also a final poem, “Come Away, Death,” that I append after the chapbook’s last sonnet, “Curtain Call,” as an Envoy. It’s a thirteen-line sonnet in first person—I liked the idea of the speaker having his work cut short. The book opens with a poem called “Invocation” and ends with that Envoy, giving it a kind of symmetry.
I hope the full sequence will appeal to those who like the chapbook and, equally important, that it balances The Art of Gravity’s opening section about dance, which so often aspires to the air, with the reminder that gravity insists on pulling us back down.