Daniel Tiffany is a poet and theorist who lives in Los Angeles and teaches at the University of Southern California. Stanzas from the manuscript discussed in this interview have been published, or will be appearing, in BOMB, Iowa Review, FENCE, Colorado Review, The Tiny, Journal of Poetics Research (Australia), Flash Cove (Australia), VOLT, Horsethief, Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, West Branch, Brooklyn Rail, and Bennington Review. Tiffany is the author of five full-length collections of poetry, from presses including Action Books, Parlor Press, Tinfish, and Omnidawn (along with a chapbook from Noemi Press). Poems from The Work-Shy (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)—his most recent collection, produced in collaboration with BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP—have appeared in museum exhibitions in the US and been adapted for theater. Tiffany’s poems have appeared in journals such as Paris Review, Poetry, Tin House, jubilat, Lana Turner, the Poetry Project Newsletter, Gulf Coast, Chicago Review, and many others. He is also the author five volumes of literary criticism, including Radio Corpse (Harvard University Press, 1998), Toy Medium (University of California Press, 2000), Infidel Poetics (University of Chicago Press, 2009), and My Silver Planet (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). In addition, he has published translations from French, Greek, and Italian. He is a recipient of the Chicago Review Poetry Prize and the Berlin Prize (awarded by the American Academy in Berlin).
Henk Rossouw: The excerpt of new work below is from your incredible book-length poem (not yet titled), composed in syllabics. I’ve read the whole thing now and am astounded both by the range of the poem’s voice and by the sense of play. I mean political, serious, fierce play. The work avoids the monumental–the overwhelming weightiness of the typical long poem–and through its rapid sonic shifts and remarkable diction the work also achieves a spaciousness, expanding and just out of reach, that I long to return to as a reader. If there’s anything monumental about the work, it’s my sense of delight as I read, a monumental delight. Rare for a long poem, it has a sense of spontaneity. At the same time, the amount of actual labor involved at the level of the sentence and the line–listening, rewriting, feeling it out–is no small thing. And so, I wonder if you could tell us how you began writing in this way, and how you kept it going? What I’m asking about here, really, is your strategies, even if temporary, for composing a long poem that still has the continual energy and lightness of the lyric.
Daniel Tiffany: The sense of lightness and play you find in the poem certainly stems in part, as you say, from the syllabic form–which I’ll say more about in a moment–and the feelings of the poem do indeed shift rapidly and unexpectedly. But the prevailing mood of the poem is often far from levity: the poem’s voice frequently finds itself in predicaments that involve powerful anxieties, sadness, and even despair (as one finds more consistently in the final third of the poem). The voice is often disconsolate, I guess you could say. But the raggedness of the “cinquain” stanza (five lines, with syllable counts of 2,4,6,8,2) does produce a restless movement–a function that was crucial to me in choosing to write in this form: being able to change the velocity of the poem–to speed it up, slow it down, turn it around–at the drop of a hat. Working at times with “readymade” materials in an extremely tight form allowed for combined effects of gravity and spontaneity that I couldn’t achieve with more conventional operations. Even though the poem runs over three hundred stanzas, I hope it feels improvised in certain ways.
HR: Yes, let’s talk about the form of the poem. From what I understand, Adelaide Crapsey—a poet only now being appreciated—invented the cinquain in the early 20th century. (A selection of her writings has recently appeared from Pleiades Press, edited by Christian Bancroft and Jenny Molberg.) Crapsey had in mind, I think, the brevity of the haiku, but with a syllabic count more organic to English than the 5-7-5 of Japanese. Yet her syllabic count also produced a ragged effect, as you say, perhaps stemming from the raggedness of modernism and historical upheaval. The cinquain stanza has been employed before, though only in short lyric poems. Your innovation—would this be accurate?—has been to create a long poem of interlocking cinquains, a serial poem of cinquains, where the meanings of each cinquain both contributes to and draws from the whole. Tell us more, then, about your work’s relation to the cinquain—and also to syllabic poetry.
DT: It’s true, the raggedness of the syllable counts (2,4,6,8,2) of the cinquain lines supports the dynamics and propulsive effects that I felt were needed to sustain a long lyric poem. And, to my knowledge, the cinquain has not been used before as the vehicle of a long poem. Historically, modern syllabic poetry in English divides into two basic forms: poems with lines of varying syllable counts, and poems with the same number of syllables per line. The latter mode can be found in the syllabic verse of Auden, Robert Bridges, John Hollander, and Dylan Thomas (among others)—and, more recently, in Harryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed, whose short poems are written in a modified form of the Japanese tanka stanza (with roughly 11 syllables per line). In addition, there is a book written in lines of regular syllable counts by the poet Stacy Doris, Fledge (2012)–one of the most beautiful books ever written in syllabics–in which short poems are composed in lines of six syllables (with varying stanza lengths).
The former model, by contrast–lines of varying syllable counts–is perhaps more familiar, since its most famous practitioner is Marianne Moore. And this is the model to be found as well in Crapsey’s cinquain, invented around the turn of the last century–and very likely known to Pound and H.D. (whose Imagist poems resemble cinquains). It is also probable that Crapsey’s cinquains came to the attention of William Carlos Williams, whose poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” is composed in syllabics: in fact, the poem has (as the scholar Meredith Martin notes) the same number of syllables as a cinquain (22) and can readily be re-composed in lines as an elegant cinquain. (The poem appeared originally as Section XXII in Williams’ 1923 collection, Spring and All.) One of the things attracting Marianne Moore to lines of irregular syllable counts was the ability of this form to serve as a dynamic vessel for fragments of nonfiction prose (about animals, for instance, in Moore’s case), which she liked to drop into her poems–a function that is important to the construction of the voice in my poem as well.
HR: That’s intriguing–the construction of “the voice” in your poem–the formality of that phrase seems to suggest both agency and impersonality, almost as if it had arisen from outside of you–in a Spicer-like transmission. I like that! What can you reveal to us—and not reveal—about its construction, especially with regard to the incredible range and mutability of “the voice”?
DT: Well, the syllabic stanza of the cinquain carries but also pressurizes the voice: it stretches, it eddies in place, it spills, it chokes. In addition, the forceful and erratic line breaks end up sometimes obscuring the tonal shifts in the poem, harmonizing them within the larger chamber of the voice. A variety of impulses and operations contributed to what I would call the fabrication of the voice in the poem. In contemplating how to sustain what was becoming an erratic and compulsive meditation, an extended rant, I found myself thinking about a range of examples, from the interminable voicings of Beckett’s “trilogy” of novels (Malone Dies, The Unnameable, and so on) to Eric Dolphy’s horn solos. And the mixed terrain of some of Brecht’s plays (The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Good Woman of Szechuan) offered models of iconic female characters. Crucially, though, at some point, I made the decision to build the voice, very loosely, around the persona recorded in The Book of Margery Kempe, the first autobiography in the English language, dictated by an illiterate, fourteenth-century female mystic.
Beyond these influences–some direct, some not–talking about the poem’s voice only serves to attenuate it’s weird presence. I don’t really want to say too much about specific operations–beyond the form of syllabics–involved in the fabrication of the voice, because that kind of explanation would scuttle the sense of surprise, and even disorientation, in store for the reader. What I can say is that the synthetic voice of this poem is not governed by the experience of speech–though it deliberately seeks to capture a certain verisimilitude, to achieve a sense of immediacy, thereby leaving the reader uncertain about the authenticity, or trustworthiness, of the voice. This uncertainty corresponds to one of the marvelous effects of Ashbery’s “voice”–noted by many of his fans–in which the reader is made to feel as if the accumulation of non-sequiturs and sudden swerves in tone and subject in his poems somehow makes perfect sense, as if it were governed inscrutably by “intelligence” that is coherent, even logical, yet also accidental. This delicious feeling of being captivated by an unreliable voice might perhaps be one of the effects of “speech” that is produced by writing. Although it may sound at moments like a spoken voice, the lyric voice of this poem arises (as is always the case in written texts) from practices that are available only through writing–operations that inevitably refract any stable, or intuitive, sense of subjectivity. In many respects, a written voice is nothing like a spoken voice–though it may, at times, sound otherwise.
HR: Earlier you spoke of the prevailing mood of the poem, of how “the poem’s voice frequently finds itself in predicaments that involve powerful anxieties, sadness, and even despair.” Given that the raggedness of the syllable counts in the cinquain form allows or furthers the rapid shifts in affect, in the sense of movement we spoke of, then how does the fabrication of the voice in the poem impact on or undergird these feelings of anxiety, sadness, and despair, or the predicaments from which these feelings arise? In other words, I’m interested in the relation between a fabricated voice, a persona, a character and the depth of feeling this fabrication allows, especially as a means of shaping the poem. At this point in history, these Weimar-like feelings of anxiety, sadness, and despair are those that many of your readers feel also, myself included, and yet I often find myself inarticulate, even mute, caught in the whirlpool these feelings stem from. In the sense of Bildung, did this fabricated voice educate you, the poet, and lead you not only to the depths of feeling the poem evinces as a whole, but also to ways in which these depths might be plumbed and become lyrically articulate?
DT: The ragged line breaks of the cinquain have a relentless and unpredictable effect on the coherence of phrases and sentences–a recurrent cutting action that stirs feelings and often interrupts them as well. The potency of these patterned breaks–a bit like waves breaking continually on a beach–allows the poet to shape and divert the movement of feelings awakened and wrenched by the syllabic form. And I made a decision to allow the development of the poem to be determined by the mobility of feeling—as a way of evoking Margery Kempe’s mystical experience, which was associated with hysterical bouts of crying that she experienced from time to time (which became the source of her notoriety). Feeling and affect thus determine most of the changes and associations that arise within the poem, beginning with the cascading feelings of the speaker–who frequently changes gender and age and identity.
But the poem also seeks to evoke particular “histories of feeling”–to borrow a phrase that Nobel-Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich applies to her documentarian projects. The “synthetic” nature of the poem’s voice pertains in part, then, to the possibility of evoking distant historical feelings in relation to our own period–to hear them, to empathize, to learn from them–by sampling voices from other times and places. One could describe the basic orientation of the poem as “expressionist,” but only if the term “expression” extends beyond the common understanding of expressing one’s own personal feelings. A poem or a work of art can express personal feeling, or collective feeling, or certain feelings embedded in a particular era (the Cold War of the 1950s, say, or the American South in the 19th century). In addition, it is crucial to remember that the concept of expression (one thing “expressing” another) does not originate as a theory of feelings, but as a way of explaining inscrutable relations between radically different phenomena—any phenomena. Furthermore, if the stanzas in this poem operate from an orientation of impersonal expression, one could say that they seek to explore the possibility that speaking (or manufacturing a “voice” in a poem) could become a way of listening (a premise that has been explored recently by BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP in their documentary project, The Work-Shy).
HR: I love how the speaker in the poem often shifts, as you say, “gender and age and identity.” It makes think of the multi-gendered narrator in Wilson Bueno’s Paraguayan Sea (translated by Erín Moure) and how this narrator could cross linguistic borders in the creation of a new language, a creole specific to the book. In a highly bordered world, whether those borders are between imposed nation-states or between historical periods (in the sense of our refusal to learn from history), do you think the fabrication of a labile narrator in a work of art has a new urgency? And does the voicing of such a narrator, such as the mutable “Margery Kempe,” bear its own responsibility, a responsibility to improvisation perhaps?
DT: The “labile” quality of the voice comprehends its shifting identity and the manifold textual sources from which it is constructed. In this sense, the voice embodies a kind of verbal “mongrelitude” (to borrow a term from Julian Brolaski), a charivari of voices in English, ranging from anachronism to porn—extending an experiment that began with earlier volumes of my poetry–the 2010 The Dandelion Clock, for example, where each “pocket rhapsody” mixes scraps of Middle English lyric and Huckleberry Finn, (an experiment akin to Caroline Bergvall’s 2011 volume, Meddle English).
Returning to your question about improvisation (and translation), I’m not sure I can respond in an informed way, except to say that, as I approached the problem of writing a long poem grounded in the movement of a voice, I was inspired by listening to African-American solo improvisation–especially Eric Dolphy’s work around “Green Dolphin Street.” A solo in jazz captures the singularity and rough coherence of a single voice, even as it pushes the singularity of that voice across boundaries which strip it, at moments, of aspects of its “identity” (as it is constructed through gender, class, race, age, locality, and so on)—an impersonal, though not neutral or disaffected, voice.
That movement of improvised and elaborated motifs leads to your final question about a transactional voice and, via the practice of translation, a voice that involves some kind of mimicry: parroting and piracy (to borrow terms from Eugene Ostashevsky’s recent poetry collection). Translation does of course, as your question brilliantly suggests, carry the possible identity of a voice across languages, by multiplying it, but in writing this particular poem, I was more concerned with a voice whose reliance on mimicry and fabrication produces a kind of uncertainty about the verisimilitude of the voice specifically within the contours of English. Does the voice sound plausible, or even real–but also trustworthy–to the ear of an English speaker? Do we trust the voice, even if it is somehow fabricated?
I was also interested in putting the voice in this poem through various predicaments–a quixotic ordeal–which shape its authenticity or veracity, frequently causing it to lose its coherence, but also to reassemble itself before the reader’s eyes (or ears). The volatility of the voice compels us to listen, to attend to its particular properties at any given moment—a kind of attentiveness that is also, of course, inherent in how we assess the unknown qualities of any person who is speaking to us, who uses their voice (in deliberate, but also unconscious, ways). I want to cultivate a heightened sensitivity not only to what a voice is saying, but to its intonation and the kinds of words that anchor it in place and time, its vocabularies–dimensions of language suspended between music and meaning.
HR: But why does it matter whether or not we trust the voice in a poem? What is at stake here in your experimentation with the written voice and your emphasis on fabrication?
DT: There is a great deal of important poetry being published and debated today which often depends on the creation of distinctive voices to offer testimony about experiences and identities which have remained in the shadows for too long. This proliferation of voices, sometimes in dialect, has re-invigorated American poetry—a development that also helps to explain a resurgent interest in documentary poetics. Yet some critics contrast the poetic reliance on voices to writing that is considered to be more experimental in its formal qualities, more rigorous—as if presenting, or constructing, a voice in a poem were somehow spontaneous and naturalistic. In fact, creating a voice in writing is an extreme form of artifice, regardless of the speaker’s identity, founded on numerous constraints and inscrutable inventions: an artifact that is continually evolving and serving new ends. In this framework, radical artifice would be equated not with individual speech, but with the occasion and methods of being possessed by voices. Following, or trying to follow, a voice that “carries on,” unpredictably, throughout an entire book, one comes away with impression that the operation of forging a written voice is not a process that should ever be taken for granted: it is highly contingent, irregular, combinatory, and always estranged by its construction from what it appears to be. Fabricating a voice can be a way of telling the truth but, as the old saying goes, telling it slant.
A Folio of New Work by Daniel Tiffany
Henk Rossouw’s book-length poem Xamissa, out from Fordham University Press in 2018, won the Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize. Excerpts are included in the chapbook boxset New-Generation African Poets: Tano (African Poetry Book Fund/Akashic Books) and Best American Experimental Writing 2018 (Wesleyan University Press). From South Africa, he received his PhD from the University of Houston. An assistant professor, Henk teaches creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.