Enworlded Words / Enworded Worlds: The Uses of Poetry —An Interview with Dan Albergotti

by DANIEL CROSS TURNER

DANIEL CROSS TURNER: Many of your poems show a heightened attention to the nonhuman surround. Your commitment seems to run deeper than a “landscape” or “nature” poet: your descriptions of the natural environs are more densely detailed, more clear-sighted and painstaking—at times even to the level of an excruciating “primitivism” in the mode of Robinson Jeffers, James Dickey, or Robert Penn Warren. If there’s something sacred in nature, it is often born of sacrifice, summoning the shared etymological roots of those terms (e.g., “Affirmation of Faith”). But—perhaps in contrast to those previous poets—your poems pointedly, poignantly note bloodloss without reveling in bloodlust.

DAN ALBERGOTTI: That’s true—I have absolutely no interest in blood for blood’s sake. But the blood flows. The blood flows every day, in the human world and in what you’ve called “the nonhuman surround.” Most people simply turn away, but I think it’s the poet’s job to show what’s at stake in this life—everything, all the time.

I’m also very interested in the natural world as it exists in the absence of the human. We tend to be entirely anthrocentric in our thought, placing ourselves at the heart of everything. But I’m obsessed with the fact that we’ve been here for four seconds on Carl Sagan’s “Cosmic Calendar.” The rough estimates suggest that the first hominids date to about 7 million years ago, with homo sapiens evolving around 100,000 years ago. Meanwhile, the crocodile seems to have been around in its current form for about 55 million years. I’m interested in those “human-less” crocodile years.

DCT: Your poetic treatment of animals, in particular, is astonishing. Your poetic creatures often embody what I call, borrowing a great phrase from “Affirmation of Faith,” a spirited carcassness—an animated or vibrant materialism. The speaker notes some providence (though not necessarily a very special one) in the fall of a sparrow, whose corpse leaks out “an expanding halo of clear fluid” that might well “continue growing even / if a neighborhood cat were to spirit the carcass away.” What draws you to animals in your poems? How do you conceive of connections—and divergences—between human and nonhuman animals? What overlaps or distinctions do you see between human and nonhuman forms of consciousness?

DA: Based on what I said above, I guess it’s surprising that I would speak of animals in terms of human mythologies or ideas of spiritualism, but you’re right—I do it all the time. Maybe it’s my sense of the purity of animal existence, a purity that comes from the lack of self-consciousness. When Keats wishes to “fade away” with the nightingale, he wants to “quite forget” what the bird “hast never known.” And what the bird has never known, of course, is the fact of its own mortality, that heavy weight that we humans always carry. To be able to shed that burden, to return to an evolutionary past uncorrupted by that thought . . . well, it’s an attractive impossibility. Maybe I’m trying to commune imaginatively with the animals I write about. They seem at once more primitive and more advanced than humankind. And at times, yes, their purity seems god-like.

But while there is a remove of the animal from the human, there’s also an undeniable sense of kinship. I think the Human Genome Project’s mapping of human DNA found that our genetic code is over 96% identical to that of chimpanzees. Identical. It’s not that we’re over 96% “like” chimpanzees; it’s that we’re over 96% chimpanzee. Some people might think such a fact is denigrating to humanity, but I actually see it as uplifting, even ennobling. “I’m an animal. You’re an animal too,” sings Neko Case. Indeed. And that’s a good thing.

DCT: Continuing along this line, your poems feature a number of birds of prey . . . often at prey (e.g., “The Osprey and the Late Afternoon”; “The Mystery of the Great Blue Heron”; “The Egret and the Dawn”). This motif in your work is perhaps something like poetic ornithology, or ornithology set to poetry. What is it about birds or birdlife that impels your creativity? Is it some combination of grace and terror, beauty and force? Or something else? What part, if any, do poetic precursors or influences play in your avian poems—for instance, the aforementioned modern “primitive” poets (Warren or Jeffers or Dickey)? And/or Romantic forebears who famously made birds into poetic things of song, like Keats or Shelley? Or, going way back, the classical poets, like Homer or Ovid?

DA: Well, my reference to Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” above already gives me away a little bit. For my money, it’s the best poem in the language, and its lines are always in my head. I’m also a big fan of Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush.” And there are many more I could think of. I think you hit on an important point with that combination of “grace and terror, beauty and force.” Birds can make beautiful music and fly with uncanny grace. They can also pluck the eyes out of a hanged man’s corpse or, en masse, take down an airplane. And they’re supposedly the closest living relatives of the dinosaurs. So yes, there’s something sublimely beautiful and something sublimely terrifying in birds, and I do think that enigmatic combination plays a role in my fascination.

DCT: Although most of your poetic birds seem rather untamed, nobly intact and aloof from human presence, you also describe domesticated animals in your poems, though these sometimes seem to worry the very lines between “domesticity” and “wildness” (e.g., “All the Birds in Unison”; “Lost Birds”; “Notes for a Poem in which God Does Not Appear”; “Poem in which God Does Not Appear”).

DA: The incident described in “Notes for a Poem in which God Does Not Appear” is autobiographical. I was twelve years old. One moment I was standing there with my 16-month-old Chihuahua and my great-uncle’s Collie. The next I was slamming my fists into the larger dog, trying to make him loosen his jaws from the torso of mine. It was the most formative moment of my youth, the event that showed me we’re never more than a second away from domestication’s dissolution into savagery. That understanding has been with me, has been in the forefront of my thought, ever since.

DCT: Most of your accounts of that nonhuman surround figure both the land/terrain and animal life in meticulous detail and depth—there’s a realness present in your poems, a heft or materiality. Yet you also offer mythic scapes and creatures (e.g., “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale”; “When the World Was Only Ocean”). What draws you to these mythic beasts? Do you think there’s any important difference between “real” and “mythical” animals in your poems? Sometimes even when describing the mythic creatures, you give them full material presence, like the pair of unicorn suicides who give into despair and launch themselves off the side of Noah’s Ark into the briny blue: “The heavy splash they made filled the day . . . / their large bodies spiraling, / heavy haunches first, their faces staring back up at us.”

DA: I like the idea of mythologizing the real and making real the mythical. The power of any myth is in its human center, not its supernatural decoration. So it’s essential for me to find the real, the material, in the myth. I think too often people get distracted by the magical elements of mythic stories and miss what’s most important. An example from the Judeo-Christian mythology: The feeding of the four thousand. I think most people focus on the supernatural part—the part of the story that says that four thousand people were fed with only seven loaves of bread and a few fish and that seven basketsful of leftover bread were collected after all had eaten. But to me, the miracle of that story is not in the “magic” of the small amount of food feeding the large crowd. The miracle is the act of human compassion, that someone with limited resources didn’t hoard them, but shared them freely, with no thought of self-interest, with others in need. The miracle of Jesus is the example of selfless human kindness, not raising the dead, walking on water, or turning water into wine. That other stuff is specious fluff that distracts from what’s really important.

My study of literature and art was always like this too. When I understood that my literary lions were real people who needed to eat and drink and empty their bowels, that made them greater to me. Their grandness shines most through their human limitations and frailty.

DCT: Your poetry contains a range of Biblical imagery and allusions. In an interview with Charles Wright, I asked him if, following Flannery O’Connor’s lead, he considered his poetry to be “Christ-haunted”; he replied “God-haunted,” not “Christ-haunted,” shifting his spiritual ruminations away from a clearly Christian context. Would you say that your poems are “God-haunted”? Is there space in your work for sincere faith? If so, in what?

DA: It’s funny. I am extremely skeptical of the supernatural, but God shows up in my poems again and again. Yes, “God-haunted” might be a good term for it. When I wrote “Notes for a Poem in which God Does Not Appear,” I thought of the title as something of a joke. As in “this guy would have to go out of his way to strategize not including God in a poem.” And of course, God makes an appearance in that poem. It seems I can’t escape God, however much I might want to.

Is there space in the work for sincere faith? I don’t know about space in the work itself. But I would hope that a reader of sincere, traditional religious faith wouldn’t feel unwelcome at the table, alienated from the work. Alan Shapiro once told me that my poems “emotionally yearn for what their author intellectually disbelieves.” Maybe that’s where belief is in my poems—always just beyond a grasp.

DCT: Attentiveness to locale/detailed location as well as religious references/Biblical allusions are often linked to traditional notions of a “Southern” writer. I know you’ve discussed this issue during your video interview conducted by Natasha Trethewey for Southern Spaces, but I suppose I’ll ask for any updates: Do you consider yourself a “Southern” writer? And if so, in what ways might you connect with—or diverge from—that field?

DA: The answer is still pretty much the same as the one I gave Natasha in that earlier interview. I think the only Southern “landscape” to be found in my poems is the inner world of Southern “denial,” the South’s refusal to deal emotionally or intellectually with its troubled past, with its sins, even with the modern world. That’s why silence is such a prominent theme in my work.

Also, I don’t think I had much encounter with the genuine landscape of the South often associated with the region’s writers. I grew up in a generic, faceless neighborhood of a generic, faceless town. For that reason, I’ve often felt apart from the “Southern tradition,” whatever that might be.

DCT: Family issues recur in your poems (e.g., “Stones and Shadows”). In The Words, Jean-Paul Sartre noted of his childhood, “I hated my childhood, and all that remains of it,” and sometimes we seem to get a Sartrean sense of Hell as other people (“l’enfer, c’est les autres”) in your verse, particularly in the fraught ties that bind the family structure. Any value to family?

DA: For others, sure. But for me, family has almost always been troubling, perplexing, frustrating—a virtual wellspring of emotional pain. You’ve pointed to the recurrence of this theme in my previous work. In newer poems (those of the chapbook The Use of the World and the forthcoming collection Millennial Teeth), I’ve explored it more frankly and fully. But I feel a little self-conscious even talking about it here. The assumption that family is an unassailable virtue is so strong in our culture that most people don’t even want to hear it questioned. I think beneath the veil of cultural platitudes, though, in the realm of real experience, we might find that domestic dysfunction is the rule, not the exception. Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” is always on the tip of my tongue. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad . . .”

DCT: John Hawkes famously said in the 1960s that the “enemies” of the novel were “plot, character, setting, and theme,” touting instead the crucial value of “structure—verbal and psychological coherence,” even if that structure is one that relates chaos. He was talking about what we used to talk about as experimental “postmodern” writing, so his sentiment might strike you as far afield from your far-more-grounded poetry. But that quote came to mind while working through your poems. Although your subjects range widely and you adopt and adapt varied poetic forms, would you agree that there is a tonal coherence in your work that holds together and accumulates force? If yes, would it be fair to describe this verbal and psychological structure as something akin to “darkness visible”? Or is this too grim a reading?

DA: I’m not sure it’s possible to make a “too-grim” reading of my work. I feel like my literary forebears are Hardy and Larkin. A lot of grimness there, to be sure. And if it’s possible, the work is getting darker. One of my close friends recently read the forthcoming book, Millennial Teeth, in manuscript. He told me that he loved the new work, thought it was my best, but then said that it was hard for him to articulate his response. This is what he said next: “There’s just something about these new poems. They’re sublime. It’s like you’re looking straight into the abyss. Like you’re standing right on the edge . . . and hopping on one foot.” I love that description.

But to answer your question more directly: Yes, I think—at least I hope—that there is a tonal coherence to my work, and I think you’re right to call it a version of “darkness visible.”

DCT: How do you find the form for a poem? Does the content condition the form, most of the time? Or do you think the form conditions the content?

DA: I would hope, following the Romantic ideal of organic form, that the structure of any of my poems is always in harmony with its content. I never sit down with the idea “I will write a sonnet today.” Ideas and sounds come first and then they find their structural vehicle later.

DCT: For instance, you’ve invented a new sonnet form, nicknamed the “Albergonnet,” a tightly controlled and structured mode. How do you tread the thin edge between an explicitly artful form like this, while giving the serious subject matter its rightful due?

DA: When I first thought of that strange little sonnet form in the abstract, I thought it would never work. The requirement of couplet rhyme in such close proximity at the beginning and end of it, as well as its overly visible syllabic structure expanding then contracting . . . well, it just seemed doomed from the start. But when I actually wrote the first one, I was surprised by how natural it felt. Between the difficulty of getting started and the challenge of wrapping it up, the form allows for a lot of relaxed exploration in the middle, while still provoking imaginative discovery with the continued demands on rhyme. Frost says that if there’s no surprise for the writer, then there will be no surprise for the reader. I’ve found the Albergonnet to be a useful little machine for surprising myself.

DCT: What connections in terms of images, ideas, or forms do you see between your books? What differences between your first volume The Boatloads, the chapbook The Use of the World, and the forthcoming Millennial Teeth? Would you describe a “progression” between these, an “elaboration,” or something else?

DA: In terms of ideas, I continue to “honor my obsessions,” as Natasha Trethewey recommends. The “darkness visible” you note above is definitely continuing, perhaps even “darkening” across the books. But I hope that there is enough tonal variety to avoid monotony. Formally, the chapbook and the forthcoming full-length volume have seen me returning to formal verse a good bit. The poems of The Boatloads are entirely free verse, but about two-thirds of The Use of the World and Millennial Teeth are in some sense formal. I studied formal verse early on, then focused almost exclusively on free verse, and now I’m happily dwelling in both worlds.

DCT: Perhaps connected to that “spirited carcassness” dynamic, there is a tension throughout your poetry of a world of things as against a world of language, the tactile realness of a world chock full of things (e.g., “Among the Things He Does Not Deserve”; “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale”) limning up against the relative abstraction of language, always in some measure symbolic, including poems about language itself (e.g., “Bad Language”; “Rhetoric”). Between the two, what gives?

DA: Language always loses. And the fact that it does gives rise to poetry. Poetry tries to articulate what can never be articulated, understanding its failure and stubbornly pushing the rock back up the hill nevertheless.

DCT: And finally, to complete our “sonnet” of questions and answers, I’ll ask you my mainstay question for poets: What is the future(s) of poetry?

DA: More poetry. A series of heartbreaking disappointments and frustrating failures. Charlatans rewarded and geniuses dying unknown, their work forever lost. Despair, tears, syllables silent in the void. And the salvation of the human race.

DAN ALBERGOTTI is the author of The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008), selected by Edward Hirsch as the winner of the 2007 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, and The Use of the World (Unicorn Press, 2013). A new collection, Millennial Teeth, was selected by Rodney Jones as a winner of the Crab Orchard Series Open Competition in 2013 and will be published by Southern Illinois University Press in September 2014. Albergotti’s poems have appeared in Blackbird, The Cincinnati Review, Five Points, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Pushcart Prize XXXIII, as well as other journals and anthologies. A graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro and former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review, he is a professor of English at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina.
DANIEL CROSS TURNER is the author of Southern Crossings: Poetry, Memory, and the Transcultural South (University of Tennessee Press, 2012). His essays have appeared in edited collections as well as in journals such as Mosaic, Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture, Mississippi Quarterly, The Southern Literary Journal, Southern Quarterly, and The South Carolina Review. He has also published many interviews with writers, including Natasha Trethewey in Waccamaw, Charles Wright in storySouth, Yusef Komunyakaa in Mississippi Quarterly, and Daniel Wallace in storySouth. He is co-editing a collection of essays on southern deathways and undeadness, titled The Undead South: The Gothic and Beyond, for Louisiana State University Press. He is co-editor of the southern literature listserv on H-Net (H-Southern-Lit) and an associate professor of English at Coastal Carolina University.