An Extravagant Permission: A Micro-Interview with Chad Bennett – curated by Lisa Olstein

Chad Bennett is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his Ph.D. in English from Cornell University, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing (Poetry) from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a B.A. in English from Stanford University. He is the author of Word of Mouth: Gossip and American Poetry (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), and his essays have appeared in ELH, Twentieth-Century LiteratureModern Drama, Arizona QuarterlyASAP/Journal, and Cinema Journal. He is currently at work on a book-length study, tentatively titled Nice Poem, which presents a queer reimagining of “avant-garde” or “innovative” poetics in relation to the seemingly incompatible experiential and aesthetic phenomena of the nice, the quiet, the shy, and the awkward. His poetry has appeared in journals including Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Gulf Coast, jubilatThe Offing, and The Volta, and has been reprinted by Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. His first book of poems, Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era (Sarabande Books, 2020), was chosen by Ocean Vuong for the 2018 Kathryn A. Morton Prize.  

LO:  What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

CB:  I am always recalling the moment in “Poetry and Grammar” when Gertrude Stein discovers, as a child, her older brother’s love poems and their funny energy: “being in love,” she writes, “made him make poetry, and poetry made him feel the things and their names.” 

Being in love made me make the poems in Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era. And although the book is probably best described as a collection of love poems, it makes me a little uneasy to call it that. My sense has been—despite accounts like Stein’s, which claim poetry as a powerful form of knowing motivated by love and love’s desire to name itself and its world—that it’s somewhat unfashionable to write love poems, that the genre has been discredited on the one hand as too sentimental or frivolous or shut in, apolitical, and on the other as too coercive, too wrapped up in a masculinist project of poetic self-making through the objectification of a disempowered beloved. I reject the former charge, but I accept the latter as a significant problem. I suppose that problem was an obsession that kept revealing itself while I couldn’t stop writing these poems. How to sing about and assert the potential and grandeur of the self in love, the self at its most radically capacious, without effacing the beloved or delimiting the scope of one’s attention? How to understand and live within both the joy and the damage (to the self, to others) one’s love inevitably causes? I don’t know that I was consciously thinking through these questions as I wrote, but some experience of them kept compelling me to write poems.

LO:  “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

CB:  I believe her, too! “Start with the worship of form,” writes Oscar Wilde, “and there is no secret in art that will not be revealed to you.” Four of the poems in the book share an invented form—“Ten discrete lines: four repeated”—that I devoted myself to almost exclusively for a few years. I think of these fourteen-line poems as sonnets, although the impulse behind them is closer to the pleasures, and odd terrors, of the villanelle’s inevitable repetitions. Their lines are “discrete” in that, in the first poems I wrote using this form, at least, they were mostly culled from earlier, abandoned poems or adapted from stray bits of queer archive (an obituary for Wilde, a misremembered line from Emily Dickinson, a Joe Brainard collage, and so on). In the rush of writing the first few “ten discrete lines: four repeated” poems, I thought I might produce an entire manuscript of them, but eventually I realized that the conceptual work of the form—constructing song out of the pieces of personal and collective history that were available to me—was really an extension of the preoccupation of a lot of what I’d already been writing: the communal project of self-making. Once I got that, the folder of poems on my desktop that had seemed an unruly miscellany began instead to feel like they might be a book. 

LO:  What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself?

CB:  As a teacher and critic I’ve grown increasingly impatient with my attachment to the critical apparatus of the poetic “speaker,” a (more or less) New Critical invention usually meant to safeguard the poem from the messy contexts of the poet’s life and culture. I understand how useful, sometimes even needed, the concept of the speaker can be, that the “I” in a poem isn’t necessarily the poet, and that even the most confessional “I” is to some extent an invention. And, to be sure, I still use the notion of the “speaker” in classes and essays, under mild duress, I guess: how to describe who, or what, we find ourselves in the presence of when we read a poem is a real mystery! But often, when I hear myself or others asserting a distinction between poet and speaker, I think, who am I (or they) kidding? It can feel like a weird form of decorum to me, and I’m more interested lately in the awkwardness that the decorum of the speaker tries to paper over. 

All of which is to say that it felt important, as I was writing, to avow the poems in Your New Feeling as personal, if not exactly nonfictional, poems. For a long time the notion that my poems had a speaker who was not myself was an enabling one, and then, at some point, it became stifling. I consider the “I” in this book’s poems to be me, or, in certain poems, me speaking through a particular persona but pointing at my mask, or, in others, me as shaped by a chorus and its collective song. The world of the poems and what I experience there often demands a self who is stranger and more complicated and, ideally, more canny than me in my day to day world, but for better or worse I consider each a continuation—no more or less true—of the other. 

LO:  Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?

CB:  In “Trick,” I write, “Isn’t every poem / for someone?” In hindsight, I can see that this question of a necessary but precarious act of address—or what’s at stake in a poem’s being received, and in who receives it—is central to Your New Feeling. However consciously, “you” became a usefully overdetermined cynosure in this regard, allowing for an address that could oscillate among or encompass talking to a particular person, to the imagined reader, to myself, to the dead, to the weather . . . . I think poems are always burying their secrets with multiple audiences, across multiple temporalities, and there’s a lot of pleasure in how they manage (or even fail) to do so.

William Waters’s great study of second-person address, Poetry’s Touch: On Lyric Address, helped me to experiment with these problems and pleasures of address, alongside foundational thinking in queer theory about public forms of intimacy, intimacy among strangers. I’m suddenly thinking about lyrics from the 1961 Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein song “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star,” (memorably deployed in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive): “I’ve told every little star / Just how sweet I think you are / Why haven’t I told you?” There’s something liberating about saying in the space of a poem what you might not want to or be able to say to someone in direct, private conversation. As T. S. Eliot famously put it in a poem dedicated to his wife: “These are private words addressed to you in public.” That private doing on a public stage is also an erotics, I think, as much as a poetics. And so it’s no surprise to me that poetry—particularly understandings of the lyric as an utterance smudging the lines between private and public, knowing and unknowing, intimacy and strangeness—has been central to queer expression, and that the history of poetry is, to my mind, an inescapably queer history. From the title and on, I think I was trying to use the nuances of direct address to access that history in Your New Feeling.  

LO:  What felt riskiest to you about this work?

CB:  This book emerged from the transformational personal experience of ending a long-term relationship and coming out as a gay man at a relatively late age. In a satirical play written with Larry Rivers, Frank O’Hara has a character recall with mock anxiousness: “They called me ‘queer’ and I thought they meant I was a poet, so I became a poet. What if I’d understood them?” O’Hara, here, wryly suggests how the perception of the “queer” is culturally bound up with that of the “poet,” as if one identity might insinuate the other. Eileen Myles makes a similar gesture in “An American Poem”: “I thought / Well I’ll be a poet. / What could be more / foolish and obscure. / I became a lesbian.” Jokes aside, the ongoing projects of becoming a poet and becoming queer have been tangled up for me, as they have been for many of the poets I most love (Myles’s Inferno is an astonishing account of this process, as is James Merrill’s A Different Person). The poems in Your New Feeling in some sense chart the joys and difficulties of those twinned, never-ending projects. One of the book’s epigraphs is from Gertrude Stein: “It takes time to make queer people.” It took some time, but I really do think that poetry (thank god!) made me queer. 

I (over)share this, I guess, to explain how poetry has always seemed an extravagant permission to me, characterized less by risk than possibility. I don’t often feel that way outside of poems; I’m a shy person who usually wishes I could slow everything down and navigate the world with the relative confidence—or immediacy, or frankness—that writing makes available. I never assumed or worried that these poems would have readers, or that they would be published; instead what felt riskiest to me is that they might not exist, that I might diminish myself and the world as I experience it by somehow neglecting or losing faith in the foolishness and obscurity of poetry. 

LO:  What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?

CB:  The music within the poems takes direct inspiration from the music surrounding them. Formally, I wanted to write poems at once as open and as strange as a well-crafted pop song, something where the soundscape sucks you in and makes meanings that are only later inflected by the words in the lyrics. Poems aren’t songs, exactly, but I think readers of contemporary poetry have a lot to learn from the reception of pop music, and how most listeners are eager to play a co-creative role in a song’s meanings, to over- and mis-identify with a song in a way that’s nonetheless true to its emotional content. I wish we allowed ourselves that same kind of creative leeway with poems—a permission to read enthusiastically but maybe “badly,” with too much or too little of ourselves or of history, getting the words wrong sometimes but making use of, and honoring, the affective and intellectual occasion that a poem provides. Much of that sort of reading has to do, I think, with our relation to sound and the way it exceeds semantic meaning. The sonic dimensions of the poems almost always come first for me, and it’s that music, if anything, that has something to express.     

LO:  As a medium somewhere between time-based and static, poetry engages temporality in a fascinating range of ways. How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?

CB:  In the book’s central poem, “Silver Springs,” I try to think through the musical fade-out, a technique defined by a gradual decrease in volume but equally, I think, by a sense of ongoingness—songs that fade out don’t really end, or come to a firm conclusion, but instead seem to continue on somewhere indefinitely. This possibility that we could still access the continuing song if we only tuned in is illustrated by all those old songs that do fade back in (think of Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds” and its false fade-out). Listening to the fade-out in Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Springs” (the last audible lyrics are “Time cast a spell on you / but you won’t forget me”), I started to think of the fade-out as a tactic for contending with time as a rival, and as a possible alternative to existing models of poetic closure, which tends to be discussed in dualistic terms: closure or anti-closure. Closure allows us to forget, or allows us the fantasy of forgetting. The fade-out certainly elides closure, but it isn’t anti-closural, exactly: instead it carves out a time (and space) somehow adjacent to the song: we can’t necessarily inhabit it anymore, but we can’t forget it, either. That different temporality resonated with my efforts to write about relationships that end but don’t end, with histories that step in and out of present moments, with all of the artifacts of bygone eras that inform my and my culture’s seemingly new feelings. My own little fantasy was that the fade-out could provide a space in the present for queer history and its communal repertoire (forms, gestures, phrases, styles, tones, performances) of ways of desiring, loving, playing, surviving.

LO:  What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm?

CB:  The book ends with a section of “Annotations” that archives the many “voices, objects, and ephemera” that kept me company—Gertrude Stein, Roland Barthes, Francis Bacon, Joe Brainard, Emily Dickinson, Anohni, Frank Ocean, Frank O’Hara, Stevie Nicks, Andy Warhol, Arthur Russell, Bernadette Mayer, Cy Twombly (to name just some of the names that inform specific poems). I imagined my annotations would occupy a page or two, but the section ended up commandeering six pages, and could have been longer; several companion texts whose inspiration was less direct (Lucinda Williams, Perfume Genius, the Platters) didn’t make it into these annotations. I’m always into the notes in books of poetry, and it felt important to me to name the cultural objects that had provided sustenance for, and indeed produced these poems and their new feelings. I also like the queer project of assembling the transhistorical cohort you want to be in company with: James Merrill’s A-Z seating chart of ghosts summoned by the Ouija Board that appears near the end of The Changing Light at Sandover and Ray Johnson’s imaginary seating charts for his “New York Correspondence School” were in mind as I compiled my annotations. 

A more immediate cohort took shape when I first moved to Austin and my friend Lisa Moore invited me to join the poetry workshop that Hoa Nguyen held every Sunday afternoon in her home. It wasn’t really a “workshop,” at least not in the pejorative sense I’ve come to associate with that format: for about an hour we read aloud, one page per person, from a shared text, under Hoa’s gently brilliant guidance—one series of Sundays focused on Stein and Dickinson (with some Susan Howe), another several weeks focused on Ted Berrigan—and then scattered throughout Hoa’s home and spent a good chunk of time writing poems, based on prompts she derived from the day’s reading. We’d end by sharing what we wrote, if we liked, and then go on our way. It was simple, and magical! I met wonderful poets and friends, heard their work enter the world in real time, and produced drafts of a number of the poems that ended up in Your New Feeling. The folks in those workshops and their poems mattered to me in a way that reinvigorated my own poems and made this book possible.      

LO:  How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

CB:  I work slowly, and I’m old (43, as I write this) for a debut poet, and because three different but related manuscripts preceded Your New Feeling, with each new one holding on to a few poems or lines from the previous iterations, I feel like I’ve been living in the creative space of this book for over two decades now. It feels less like I’m shifting out of that space and more like (forgive me if this sounds a bit woo-woo) I’m moving deeper into it: like I’ve dreamed this architecture I love, and in the last instance of the dream I discovered a door somewhere that I hadn’t known existed and that only the dream could have made possible, and now—if I can only get back to that recurring dream—I know I’m about to step through that door and see what the next room holds. It’s thrilling, and more than a little terrifying!   

That’s where I’m at. What am I working on? A study of the poetics of queer awkwardness, at the same time that I’m trying to write a book of something (poetry, or essay, or memoir, or theory, or, like a lot of what’s exciting me most in poetry these days, some mix of these genres) that explores the difficult transformation of a long and intimate partnership into some other potential way of being in relation. Besides—or in concert with—awkwardness, these projects share an interest in the history and poetics of the vivifying, if often fraught, relationship between women and gay men. Our culture’s vocabulary for that relationship—“fag hag,” “gay accessory,” “beard”—is impossibly impoverished; I’m trying to do justice to the particular affective space I share with my friend and to situate that space within a broader history of relationships between women and gay men both like and unlike ours. So far, I’m mostly failing, but the failures have been interesting. We’ll see!