Open Alphabet welcomes Jeffrey Schultz and What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask Of Each Other,
selected by Kevin Young for The National Poetry Series, published by The University of Georgia Press
(ISBN 978-0-8203-4721-9).

Jeffrey Schutltz

Jeffrey Schultz has published in numerous literary journals, including Poetry, Indiana Review, Boston Review, Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, and Miramar.

He earned his undergraduate degree from Cal State Fresno and an MFA from the University of Oregon. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Interim Director of Creative Writing for the Seaver College of Pepperdine University.

    I want to believe, I really do, that what in me and each one of us
Is good-for-nothing, because it cannot feed itself, because it cannot
    pay for food or, therefore, a phone small enough to embed
In its fingernail is not better off abandoned in the dumpster
    behind the vacant metaphysician's office among a few minor gods'
Withered husks and carbon copies of old invoices. Elegy
    is stupid, if you can avoid it. ...
-- from J. Listens to Line Static on the Last Pay Phone in the Continental U.S.

Open Alphabet: What initiated this project? How did these particular poems come together? What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask Of Each Other

Jeffrey Schultz: I never really conceived of the poems in this book as a “project” in any coherent way. The most simple and straightforward answer to this question is that these are the poems I wrote between 2004 and 2009. That’s really incredibly literal too: I’m pretty sure that every poem I actually finished during that time frame is in this book. There were a few others that I started during that time and either scrapped or didn’t finish until later or have yet to finish, but the book is essentially a record of my work during that roughly five year period. I took a year or so after that to arrange and edit the manuscript, and then I sent it out, without further changes, for the next three years before it got picked up for the National Poetry Series.

Process-wise, this points to my slowness. To some extent this is borne out of the work schedule I kept during much of that period. Like so many poets, I’ve put in a lot of time teaching as an adjunct. For most of those five years, I was teaching between six and eight classes at two to three, occasionally four different schools. And that includes summers, though I would usually be down to five classes then. So I’ve really had to work to find the time and energy to put towards the poems, and I could only find it in a way that really altered my composition process in some important ways. During semesters, I would mostly collect images and maybe write scattered lines, sometimes with and sometimes without a sense of what they might fit in to. During winter and spring breaks, and my slightly slower summers, I would work on figuring out how the larger things fit together. I still work this way, and in fact, I’m still teaching six classes this semester, but I think it does affect the poems in a lot of ways. In essence, the poems sort of accumulate very slowly during a long reflective period during which I’m not doing much actual writing but do find time to think during bus rides or commutes or dog walks, and then the poems are shaped and formed in much more intense fits of work when I can make the time for it. They bear the marks of their process too, I think.

I know it’s very much in vogue now to think of a book of poems as a specific project rather than as a more general collection, but I’ve never found a way into that thinking. It’s far more interesting to me to write the poems I’m going to write, write the poems that are somehow the expressions of what’s pressing in and on my experience, and then look for ways of arranging them that illuminate the throughlines that are necessarily there simply because they all have a base in a single, subjective experience. Everyone’s always hemming and hawing about negative capability and all that, yet very consciously designing book projects and their arcs? I guess I don’t get it. I’d argue that there are a couple of factors at the bottom of this, but one of the larger ones seems to me to be the full integration of creativity into the structure of the university. We’re essentially applying the “new and original research” criterion of dissertations to poems now, and so poems which used to be able to speak to experience broadly and deeply in ways that other writing couldn’t are now becoming much more confined and specialized. I worry that this is terribly limiting and creates a sense of separation and segregation from experience generally that may be a mechanism of making poetry harmless by indoctrinating it into the ways of institutions.

OA: The cover illustration is "Riot of the Madmen", by George Grosz. It depicts urban mayhem, shipwrecks, arson, looting, and various types of interpersonal violence, but it is drawn in very simple lines, not much more than stick figures. How did this come to be the cover of your book? How does it relate to the poems?

JS: I first saw this drawing at LACMA with my wife and good friend, the poet Joshua Robbins. There are a lot of things I love about it. I’ve spent a lot of hours looking at album covers and book covers over the years, and I really appreciate one you can continue looking at, continue noticing little details of. So that’s part of it, but what made it seem right to me for the book was exactly what you’re pointing to: we see all of these terrible things happening in the drawing, but because the drawing is so simple, so cartoonish, it gives the impression that none of it is really necessary at all, that none of it need be real. It’s that contrast, between the very real sorts of violence the drawing points to in the world and the form that says that everything that led to it was quite careless and could be easily wiped away if only we would put a little work and thought toward it that I really love. And I hope it resonates, then, first with the title of the book and then with the individual poems. I’ve tried, so much as I was able, to walk these poems up to those moments when we might start becoming able to ask the questions we would need to ask in order to begin to find some ways to start setting the world right, and the Grosz I hope sets the stage or mood or whatever for those attempts of mine.

I’ve got to say thank you here too to the wonderful folks at the University of Georgia Press for finding a way to get the rights to the Grosz and for then designing such a wonderful cover. I couldn’t be happier with it.

OA: Where do you see yourself in the family tree of poetics? Who are your ancestors? Who are your siblings?

JS: I would aspire to be connected to the whole thing. Of course, there are a lot of poets I don’t know at all or know barely, and there’s the problem for me of, say, the 18th century, which is in my imagination for the most part a vast blank. Surely something happened. But what I mean is that I hope to know, and know better and better as I go, the tradition. In the poetry workshop I’m teaching right now, we’re studying aesthetics from Aristotle to Eliot and Breton, with a few tentative forays into more modern modernisms, working to contextualize each in socio-political realities of its own time in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the relationship between art and culture on the one hand and the material conditions of the social structures from which they arise on the other.

The way I frame this in class is that we cannot make decisions or choices or really even have preferences about how we might address the problems we’re faced with in composition, the choices we make as we craft a poem, unless we really work to understand this relationship. Which means that, among other things, I don’t believe we can honestly say that we’re post-anything. Mostly, I’d argue, we’ve simply regressed from modernism, which, at its core, is an historical consciousness pulled into and through the present. There’s a phrase that occasionally gets thrown around in physics: “Not even wrong.” I don’t mean to invoke it as some sort of truth, just to borrow its structure: all of the various posts- are no such thing; they are simply not even modern, certainly not avant garde. There are a lot of reasons, things that are really interesting to me about the structure of the university and its importation and embrace of capital’s obsession over an “innovation” so divorced from the idea that it might have any end other than its own perpetuation that I’d argue we see this perennial obsession over so-called schools and movements and classifications, but I suppose I should just say that all I think we can aspire to be as poets or artists, or else that the only aspiration worth aspiring to is to be modern, and by that I mean that it is our job to struggle to find aesthetic approaches capable of capturing through mimesis the full reality of the moment we write from. I say “aspire to” because it’s perhaps just too much to ask, but it is also the only thing we could ask.

Dante was in many ways the first real modernist. What he understood was that the approaches outlined in Classical aesthetics could not, because the reality of social existence had changed, reflect the truth of his experience. That he was a modernist is one reason why he seems so much more distant to us now than, say, Homer, whose mythic time is just sort of statically distant from us, whenever we may be. The modern tends to age. And because change occurs ever faster in time, the modern tends to age now more and more quickly. Most of what doesn’t age is the clichéd, and in that way most of what purports to be timeless only is in the sense that it never was true at any time. The timeless in literature is mostly nothing but the collection of lies we tell ourselves to get through the day, and the persistence of those lies is what keeps us from coming together to figure out how to make the next day one that we don’t need to delude ourselves about just to endure. There is, I think, a point at which the modern and the timeless intersect, and aiming at that is, I suppose, the ultimate goal; you could call it something to the effect of the utopia of change. Whatever would be there, that’s what I want to write.

But to try to directly answer the question rather than all of this wandering around it, I really hope that I can find a way to fit my poems into the tradition of modernity, the tradition that sought to represent the truth of its moment, whenever and wherever that moment may have been.

OA: Your poems often shift point-of-view or hold voice in temporary suspension. When the voice emerges, it may come from piano keys, a suicide, an ashtray, the soul, the unidentified "J.". At what point in your creative process does voice make itself felt?

JS: Marquez has a wonderful line at the very beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Having introduced José Arcadio Buendía to the magnet, Melquíades explains its workings by saying, “Things have a life of their own. It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.”

There’s something about that that interests me as regards the various figures that range around personification. We can describe the non-human in human terms, sure, but we can also abstract the human and describe it in the terms of a thing or an idea. The idea at the bottom of this is that a thing can only be described in terms of its relationships, and that necessarily involves looking at things from perspectives other than what seem, initially, to be their own. I suppose I tend to think of this in subject-object terms. The voice or personality in the “J.” poems, for instance, sort of functions, from the point of view of the process, as conscious abstraction of the self, a conscious objectification of the subject. Writing these, I tried to see my perspective as merely a perspective and not the perspective, which is, of course, only what it actually is. The “J.” conceit helped me, hopefully, to maintain that distance and open up my own limited voice and perspective to critique so that it could be more truthfully realized in relation to the endless web of other perspectives it exists in objective relation to.

Though it sounds counterintuitive, I think there’s a way that this sort of objectification (whether of the non-human as human or the human as thought or idea or the self as other or whatever other combinations might be in there) actually makes room for the voice to emerge in the poems. What I hope is that the shifts in perspectives that this sort of figuration accomplishes allow a voice to build in the poems that is wider and more encompassing that any of the single perspectives represented therein, that, by objectifying in whatever way the set of perspectives that make up the poem a more all-encompassing and more objective voice can enter in to say what might need to be said, above and beyond, but still linked to or linking, the particulars of the poem.

The other thing I hope is that all of this perspective shifting or muddling is representative of our actual experience of the contemporary world and not just the imagination playing around for its own sake. If I imagine and then arrange figures to represent the members of the Chamber of Commerce as cannibalistically salivating over the remains of the body politic, it’s because I think there’s a fundamentally true moment in that figuration which would, were it not for the figure’s sort of revelation through hyperbole, continue to go unacknowledged. I may be old fashioned, or even–and I say this because it amuses me to no end to say it–conservative in that way: I still believe that the purpose of poems is to reveal truth.

OA: I'd like to ask you about your lines. Although the line length varies from poem to poem, within each poem the length feels consistent, which yields a formal feeling on the page. This effect is heightened by the indentation of every other line. At times the indentation feels like a continuation and an already long line feels yet longer. The effect is quite trance-like and prophetic. Are we seeing a reflection of how poems come to you? Do your poems arrive in long threads?

JS: There is a real sense in which the length of the lines, and, I’d say, the movement of the poems generally, is reflective of the process of their composition. Like I said above, I tend to work the lines up very slowly, and that alone I think gives them time to accrue the sort of weight they take on. It also gives me time to find what seems to be a given poem’s measure. I love that you said they tend towards the trance-like and prophetic. It’s maybe a little too egotistical to say I’d hoped that they’d work that way, but it is what I’d hoped. And I think that’s all related to what I was saying about voice too.

But back to process, the one place I hope the process doesn’t show is in the way the time I work on these things in is so fragmented. Though the complex of thought and feeling that might make up this poem or that poem doesn’t tend to become clear to me all at once, I do think those complexes are actual wholes and I want them to read fluidly as wholes. So perhaps that’s one of the reasons I work with the lines as I do. I work up short threads that are all pieces of the same long thread. By the time I’m done with them, I want the places where I’ve spliced this piece to that piece to more or less become invisible, or maybe rather to become the natural pauses or transitions in movement that they always were, pauses that disappear into the whole.

OA: Who are you reading? What is on your desk? Do you re-visit a particular poet or poem? desk

JS: Right now I’m towards the end of a semester, so I’m not reading much anything purely for pleasure. I have been rereading David Berlinski’s A Tour of the Calculus at night, but I tend to nod off pretty quickly at this point. I don’t really understand math at all either, which exacerbates the problem. Besides student poems and stories and papers, I’ve been teaching and so reading a lot of aesthetics and critical theory this semester: Longinus and Kant and Wordsworth and Keats and Adorno and Marcuse and Auerbach, to hit some of the highlights aside from what I’ve already mentioned.

I reread Berryman this summer and looked at most of Roethke too, two poets I hadn’t really read in depth since I finished school. I’ve become fascinated by Keats and am writing a paper about negative capability. After I recommended her to a student recently I just read a lot of Rae Armantrout. So that’s sort of all over the place.

For a class next semester I’m going to be pulling from all the major traditions’ and some of the minor ones’, e.g., Swedenborg, religious texts. Hegel will also figure into this, and Vico, Bachelard, and probably, among others, John Donne. So that’s all reading I’ll be doing shortly or that I’ve already been sneaking in bits of here and there where I can.

On my desk? Piles. Most likely some bills and things. Binder clips. Notes. Post-Its. Dust. Half-memories of things I forgot, at some point, to do. It’s a mess. I do a fair amount of school work at my desk, but not a ton of writing. I tend to, and I have no idea why this is, like to lie on the floor when I write. Maybe it’s a way of preparing to be crushed.

OA: Where is your current work leading you? What can we expect next?

JS: I have a second manuscript pretty much complete. I’m just letting it sit for a while so that I can think about it, make edits, etc. The poems have gotten longer and more densely packed, and I think the voice is becoming a more fully realized component of them. I’m really happy with them. Some of the sentences have grown absolutely enormous. I’ve got one that’s–and this thing is grammatically stable–nearly 1400 words long. The concerns in the manuscript are, I think, largely in line with those in the book, but I’ve been working to consider them more fully and to find the techniques that could more fully represent the truth of them in language. Mostly I’ve just started sending these poems out–I was concentrating most of my efforts on getting the book published for the last several years–, so hopefully they’ll start appearing here and there soon. Process-wise, this second manuscript is made up of the poems I wrote between the last bit of 2009 and the summer of 2014, so it’s another five year stretch for me.