Rick Barot: Can you tell us about how “Like a Wide River” came to be?
Paul Otremba: I had to go back and check early drafts of this poem, and it started from a writing exercise I’ve been using for the past five years or more. I choose a line or lines from someone else’s poem, and for each word, I try to come up with an amateur definition or select language from the context in which I may find the word. It’s really an exercise in metonymy, using contiguity and association to generate a draft, or at least some potentially interesting lines. This practice frees me up, so I don’t feel like I need to start with an idea or inspiration. I’m pretty loose with it, letting myself free write and extend off of a word, not worrying if I get to the next word of the instigating poem if I feel like I’m off chasing something.
A paradox of this practice is that while it originates in an arbitrary fashion, by the time I’m into it, I’m drawing on ideas and feelings that are present to me or deep within. I start by writing in a journal until I feel like I’ve exhausted the exercise, and then I type it up, revising as I go. When I first started doing this, I was performing this kind of “metonymic translation” for one single poem, in its entirety, over and over—William Carlos Williams’s “Poem, (‘As the cat…’).” The results were always wildly different.
What I can tell from the first draft is that I started with the self-conscious investigation of metaphor, or perhaps more precisely, conceptual metaphor, the kind that is born out of experience but then becomes its own way of framing how experience is understood or felt thereafter. I grew up along the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities, and it holds a powerful place within the source of images from which I have drawn to make poems. One must have the mind of a river, so to speak, etc.
RB: The poem seems to see place as something that’s richly layered with the present and the past. That is, place is informed by a kind of pastoral light as well as a dark understanding of its degraded state. Is this an accurate way of reading the poem?
PO: I think that is an accurate way to describe the poem. Although, I think I see “pastoral light” and “degraded state” as existing on a sticky continuum: for me, there is no idyllic “Nature” we have to get back to or some wholly human space threatening and mutually exclusive from nature. I was recently teaching Robinson Jeffers’s “The Purse-Seine,” and this is why I love and quarrel with it. In that poem, human civilizations are compared to fishermen using purse-seine nets to gather up phosphorescent sardines, while some slightly comical and definitely baffled sea lions look on. Jeffers’s poem works like a descriptive meditative lyric, where a present scene of watching the beautiful and “a little terrible” action of purse-seine fishing is layered over a past scene of looking out over a populated city at night. There is a framing that occurs, where how we see the world influences how we conceive of it.
In the middle of my poem, the association of having a consciousness layered with the present over the past (or perhaps the past layered over the present), and the past and the present projected into the future, led to the Walt Whitman allusion. The image of his head in a halo of sun in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” makes an appearance, before the boat ride takes a more archetypal turn. But as much as my poem is about figurative language, it is also about its limits. So after my cat, Musetta, wades into the poem, with Charon’s coins for eyes, the spell of metaphor is broken. The economic, political, and environmental realities of living near a major body of water insist their way into the poem. I draw on my experience of landscape to create figures for internal states, which might have some debt to the pastoral, where nature is a withdrawing of sorts. Yet, what living in industrial landscapes has taught me is that there is no nature to withdraw to, which is to say we have no position outside it, even here in Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S. I feel that as an ethical and ontological position, where nature is not this pristine, nonhuman mass over which we have stewardship. We are caught up in it, even as all the stuff of the world has autonomy. I think that is what I was going for with that final image in the poem.
RB: You have a third collection of poems forthcoming from Four Way Books. What are the subjects and themes you explore in the book?
PO: “Like a Wide River” comes from a group of poems dealing with ecology and the Anthropocene in my new book, Levee. Living in Houston for the past fourteen years, I have gone through three major hurricanes and two devastating floods. Here, the effects of global warming are experienced with the backdrop of a city built on the oil industry and the refining and exporting of oil for global markets. Those industrial institutions and the financial institutions that come along with them make much of the wealth that supports the arts in this city, a complication and irony that is not lost on me. I hope that comes across in the poems. I’m also thinking about contemporary ecopoetics with what Timothy Morton, my brilliant colleague at Rice University, calls hyperobjects, or things massively distributed in space and time that challenge our attempts to wholly grasp them, things such as global warming, Styrofoam, microbeads of plastic, fossil fuels.
For my last book, much of the political backdrop was the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic collapse, and the rise of the Tea Party. For Levee, three major political and social sources are behind many of the poems: the Black Lives Matter movement, the increase of mass shootings, and the election of Donald Trump. I’m thinking of “levee” as also “levy” with these poems—what is owed, what is gathered, what is a flood of indignation, anger, and grief.
I’ve also returned to more personal poems, or personal poems rendered in a more straightforward manner than in my second book. Memory has become a subject that I want to explore in its intersection with the ecological and the political. When I was starting to draft the book, I was diagnosed with gastric cancer. I spent my first couple of months on chemotherapy organizing the manuscript, editing, and drafting new poems. I didn’t initially imagine poems about cancer fitting with this book, but there are a handful that have made their way in. I’ve been thinking about the difference between urgency and importance, and I’ve found some conceptual connections for myself between cancer and the twenty-four-hour “breaking” news cycles, the Tweet storms of Trump, police violence, and the planetary violence of capitalism and global warming.
RB: Who are the writers and artists that you’re passionately engaging with these days?
A poet who is writing the kind of intersectional Anthropocene poetry I want to access in my own way is Dana Levin and her book Banana Palace. Another book in that vein is the searing, wonderful Holy Moly Carry Me, Erika Meitner’s newest book. From books published in the last year, I also keep coming back to the poems in Diane Seuss’s Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (which led me to the incredible sonnets of Wanda Coleman), and Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here. Two recent books that I think are important contributions to the discussions of sexual assault and violence are Michael Collier’s My Bishop and Joshua Mensch’s Because, which is really an accomplishment of sustaining narrative across a book-length lyric poem.
Since Trump got elected, I’ve been looking for joy in poetry, which feels like a deep physical and psychological need, and the poems of Ross Gay, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, and Constantine Cafavy have provided me with some of that. For Cavafy, it is the erotic poems, not the historical or mythic poems, that I keep returning to for joy. But it is a joy tinged with just a little bit of nostalgia’s melancholy, which suits my temperament. Because of cancer, I’ve also been looking to the poetry of Max Ritvo, Tony Hoagland (two poems of which appeared in NER, Vol. 38. 3), and C.K. Williams. I also read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, which has me thinking about the inadequacies and harms of the metaphors we use to frame cancer. I’ve never felt like a cancer warrior. I’ve felt more like someone in the witness protection program, trying to hide out in the crowd, hoping my past doesn’t catch up with me.
For artists, the photography of Edward Burtynsky and the work of Marina Zurkow have been influential on my thinking about being an artist in the Anthropocene, working with the sticky shadows of hyperobjects. In the new book, there is a long poem about a participatory performance of Zurkow’s that I attended in 2014, which she titled “Outside the Work: A Tasting of Hydrocarbons and Geological Time.” The performance was a dinner in which we ate things like algae and jellyfish.
Being ill for the past year has prevented me from visiting museums much, but during a pause in treatment between radiation and surgery, I did get to see a Mona Hatoum exhibit at The Menil Collection in Houston. I still think about the works in that show. I’m also kept company by books, like a collection of Caravaggio paintings I’ve been looking through again. I’m also reading Stanley Plumly’s new nonfiction book about John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, which has me hungry for landscape paintings. It’s hard to experience a dynamic landscape in Houston, except perhaps in the sky. I look to museums here for that, like sitting before Cy Twombly’s “Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor.”
Paul Otremba is the author of two poetry collections, Pax Americana (Four Way Books, 2015) and The Currency (Four Way Books, 2009). Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in West Branch, Kenyon Review, Bennington Review, and Copper Nickel. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Rice University and teaches in the low-residency MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.