An Interview with Ann Lauterbach

By Trace Peterson

Originally published in the University of Arizona Poetry Center Newsletter 27.2, Spring 2002.

I feel a strange kinship with the poet Ann Lauterbach. When she came to read for the Poetry Center Series during the semester of spring 2002, I was struck by her personality—a mixture of flamboyancy and humility, reveling in the music of the reading while simultaneously showing concern for an audience's potential responses. In our interview, she was extremely easy to talk with. Her personality and her poetry have a kind of elegant wholeness to them—both articulate a way of being committed to the life of the mind while remaining concerned about others, a way of being concerned about others without being drawn into the maelstrom of cliques. She provides an example for many of us, as poets and people, on how to proceed with grace under pressure. 

Trace Peterson: I'm interested in the relation in your work between the elegiac and the moment of present arrival, and how there's a kind of interesting tension there, maybe? You've talked about the "whole fragment" before, and how this reflects experience in a more accurate and positive way than modernist elegies for a lost whole (Eliot, for example). Does elegy still apply in a poetics of the whole fragment, and if so how?

Ann Lauterbach: In order to endure the loss, and not to let it utterly overwhelm you and utterly take you away from the life, you have to find some way to let it be the thing that animates your attachment to things, and the animated attachment is the present. It's molecular—it's just a piece of the life. If I were to picture it, that whole fragment, it would be like a kind of circle that had all around it absence. In other words, you have to go right into that place in order for this surround not to completely abduct you or take your energy away. It's something like a sphere or a plateau or stair. The Emerson: "Where do we find ourselves? On a stair." I was so powerfully moved by that, because it's the pun on "stare," and it's also this idea of this precarious place. He understands that we are standing on this very small piece of it, and we don't know how many more stairs there are, and we're not quite even sure how many we've been on behind us. It's very moving to me, that picture. 

I'm embarrassed, in a way, to narrate directly the kind of drama of loss in my life. I don't want that to be directly pictured, or spoken about, even. And even the drama of a certain kind of chaotic quality, and maybe some of this idea of the whole fragment, comes from the fact that the place of the house was so precarious so early, and then became literally not there, and then almost just in motion all the time, from house to house. And if you do that as a very young person, if you don't really belong anywhere, in some sense, you begin to understand that you'd better figure out something for yourself in terms of your sense of being. And it's not going to be constructed by the usual things that make people feel comfortable or happy or, to use a word that I have no interest in, is secure. I mean, I have no interest in it only because I resent it. 

Trace: Why does Stevens still matter?

Ann: I could say “Just read Stevens,” and that's the answer to the question. Read "The Man on the Dump." "The Man on the Dump" is one of the most moving poems I've ever read, that poem that ends: "the the." And the way in which Stevens in that poem imagines the world without images, imagines what it's like to not have that—well, I keep using this word "imagine," I think that's the other reason why I love him. It's probably why he's despised, because there's so much fictive imagining that goes on, and that is one of the places that the more politically stringent poets—and I think of the Language poets as being politically stringent—they don't approve of that much indulgence of a kind, I mean they really think of it, almost in a moral sense, as indulgence. Stevens has a kind of indulgence. But for me, you know, being at least partly essentialist, I'm happy for it, and I need it in relation to a William Carlos Williams, I need it in relation to Marianne Moore, I need it in relation to a number of other poets that are around and in that space.

Trace: Regarding Adorno's infamous quote "It's barbaric to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz," you have said we have to include the barbarism now to write the poetry, that it's important to keep it in the forefront of our consciousness. Yet you manage to balance this idea with an interest in pleasure. How do you see the relationship between the barbarism and the pleasure in your poetry? Do you ever distrust lyricism?

Anne: I distrust lyricism just because I don't quite even know what it's referring to, and in the poetry camp it's gotten such a bad name that it distresses me to be stamped with the idea that I'm a lyric poet, because I'm not sure what it means. I think it means that I speak still from a place of the voice, and that I believe in the voice in some way. And I guess it refers to song, but to me the lyric is not just the song, and some of the songs are the darkest songs there are. And in fact, I'm very interested in the lament, and the Blues, and the hymn, and all the songs that come out of the workplace which I was raised on. Those are, I suppose, lyrics, but they're not lyrics in the Rogers & Hammerstein sense of the word. And the lyric as being something about a catch to an "I," which begins I guess with Sappho. I'm very ambivalent about the place of the "I" inside of the lyric. Okay, so that's my defensive thing to say. 

But the reality of the barbarism of the human is something that I find, over and over again, utterly astonishing and incomprehensible. I don't understand—I've never understood—war, and so the Adorno quote—in this I think I might have a problem, actually, because I know that there are things that you fight for and die for, but those things are very few in my life. And I probably can name them for myself, what's worth fighting for. So the idea that we live in this world where there's so much sorrow that leads to so much violence—I put them together in my mind, that it's because people are deprived, and not allowed to have their full self-freedom, that we have violence. I think they're very connected to each other. And also the fact that we're as incurious as we are about things that are not like ourselves, and that makes violence happen. It certainly makes prejudice happen. 

Whatever the pleasure space of my work, it has to—just like in music—it has to keep iterating the place of absolute barbarism. One of my favorite poems that I wrote is the poem called "Ashes, Ashes," which came off of these paintings by Susan Crile, who made these paintings of the Kuwaiti oil fields after the Gulf War. The poem has wounds in it, and the wounds kept opening, and I finally got in that poem to a place of absolute despair in the speaking character: at the very end she says "my category is broken I covet the extreme," but before that she says "I am in derelict garb," and before that she talks about the mouth in the sand that can't speak. That movement in there I find as close to my sense of this place where the possibility of understanding, comprehension, speaking to each other, is utterly lost, and in its place there are airplanes bombing whole landscapes. So I don't know, I guess I try to keep that grotesque disparity in mind. Actually I don't try to, it's in my mind. It doesn't go away. 

And yet I feel, unlike many people, that I cannot address these kinds of things frontally. Like many poets, I cannot become a polemical poet. And I'm not sure why that's true. It's just that I think the easy answer to that is that once you're a polemical poet, then all the people who listen to you are the ones that share your polemics, so what's the point? I mean, I think Ginsberg did a pretty good job of getting somewhere else in the culture, but I don't have that…I'm not a missionary in the way that he was; I have no real "message," I guess that's part of it. I have no solution. I don't have any wisdom about this stuff. I just have regret, of a kind, that I live in this world, and also I think a pretty profound despair that I don't know how to do anything about it, and I think I share I share that despair with many, many people.

Trace: It seems like in your work I hear a lot of yearning for a public political culture that's not commodified, that's against commodification.

Ann: There is. There's a huge desire for the life of the mind, as part of the discourse that's public. Many of the people I most admire and like to talk to are trying to keep that piece of our landscape going, you know, political scientists and people who are directly engaged in addressing these kinds of issues…

I don't know about artists, but I do feel that for poets to be poets, they need to constantly know something else than poetry. They have to really work to know as much else as they can, because otherwise poetry begins to be so—so much something that's talking to itself, or is talking to what's so-called public, but only on a kind of spurious sense of what the public can manage. This is true of almost all the medias: they all condescend to the public; they all make the public into people who can't understand very much, can't take in very much, can't interpret anything. The amazing way in which commerce has decided that in order for Americans to go on blindly buying things, they have to become stupid, which is probably true, [we] probably need to become even more stupid than we naturally as humans are.

Trace: How do you see the relationship between a poet such as yourself and the art world? Do you think of yourself as an artist? James Schuyler said in 1959 that "in New York the art world is a painter's world. Writers and musicians are in the boat but they don't steer." Do you see much collaboration or interaction between artists and poets today?

Ann: You know, it comes and goes. My generation in New York was very affected by my part of the puzzle or the park or the landscape—you know, New York, New York poetry and New York painting, O'Hara and Schuyler and Ashbery and Kenneth Koch and Barbara Guest and Kenward Elmslie—that older generation had a very big impact on us. A lot of poets in my generation wrote about art and looked at art and still do. And some following. I really regret the fact that writers in the academy are not integrated with the other arts, and the reason that I love this program at Bard is because there are six arts, and everybody on the faculty is an artist, and every artist on the faculty meets with all the students in all six disciplines. So I get to talk to painters and I get to talk to filmmakers and I get to talk to photographers and I get to talk to writers, and musicians, and they all talk to each other. It resists this idea that the writers are here and the painters are over here, and the musicians are somewhere there. If I had my druthers there would be even more complication than that, but just the fact that those six are together, and that they can then leave and go to New York or wherever they go, and be in touch with each other and think about each other's work, is not only crucial to my sense of how the life of poetry might survive itself, but it’s also very congruent with my sense of the urban, and how—my basic understanding of how art works—it introduces people to things that they don't know, maybe don't even comprehend, without fear. Art gives them something outside of themselves that steals them away from themselves and into something that they don't know but they don't have to fear. And that to me is how you learn to tolerate whatever person or persons you think are too different from you. It's one of the ways in which you can become somebody who can find a way to communicate with the other.

Trace: Do you see the artist's role as being to gently enlighten or to provoke? Do you see yourself as part of a poetic avant-garde, or part of "the new" in any way, or would you side more with people like David Shapiro and Peter Gizzi who talk about the notion of "lateness"?

Ann: Well, actually someone said to me yesterday that my generation is belated, you know, we have a strong sense of being belated. And I think that's true. I certainly have a sense of being belated in my life, well, because I come to everything late. The fact that I went in my early twenties to another country and stayed away for seven years and came back, and had to start again essentially when I was 30-31, waiting on tables in New York City, as if nothing had happened, put me out of sync, in some very significant way, with my peers. And so I'm always feeling like I'm—not so much playing catch-up as out of the mix. I think I'm always on the periphery. And I also have some kind of fundamental terror of groups or gangs. I mean, I am really bad—it's sort of tragic because I can't join anything really. So that makes me lonely and paranoid and scared.

It's hard, because commerce works so well, and the academy works so brilliantly off name brands, you know? If you're affiliated with something, then you're much more likely to have some kind of attention paid to you. All right, so the answer to your question is, I think art should be as subversive as it possibly can, without causing pain—or maybe if it does cause pain, it can be pain of a certain kind. If change is painful, then it should cause pain, because it should be the pain of having to give something up in order to make something else happen—that's a real ethical state, that it all just doesn't happen without something being given up, I believe that—that Emersonian thing of the relation between what you get to have and what you don't get to have. So avant-gardism in general and the newness of things I find, at this point in our history, to be—fables, maybe? I get very sad when people reject, out of hand, somebody's writing because it's not fashionable or it's not following certain rules. So I have a kind of flaw, in that I think I'm very catholic in my tastes. I actually am interested in certain meta-qualities. So, what it looks like doesn't really interest me, (i.e., the formal things, in the strict sense, the form). I can be very admiring of something that has pure transparency, if it's moving to me, or if it's done brilliantly. I think Marilyn Hacker is often just an astounding poet, and she's as far from my sets of concerns as she could be. So I don't know where I am in all this. I think I'm a transitional figure, and that's painful, you know? I'm a transitional figure between New York School poetics, maybe, and Language Poetry. I'm a transitional figure between a certain kind of feminism and a certain other kind of feminism. I do think that I'm "between" all the time. And there's another prepositional.

Trace: I feel like that's actually what I aspire to be, and it is kind of a lonely thing, because it's like you're fighting off people from all sides, in the sense of being sensitive to criticism.

Ann: Sensitive to criticism, and also rejected. I mean, for me it's about inclusion, always about inclusion. And it's about being taken seriously. And about jealousy. And envy of those people who are written about and written about and written about. And I think, “Well now, why is that person being written about, and why isn't my work being written about? What is it that marks it away from a habit of critical thinking?” And then of course, it's not just the egotistical whine, it's really: can this work not have a response? Will it not allow a response to happen? That's very anxious making, in a way. If you think the way you stay in history is because your peers, and possibly the next generation or so, takes you up. Because if you're not taken up, and then you're a woman, you're bound to be forgotten. I mean bound. I don't care how many victories we have, they're temporary. I mean, that's what Brenda Hillman and I were talking about yesterday—she said we have to be absolutely dedicated to teaching these women poets, because I think if they're not taught, and taught and taught, they'll vanish.