Jack Christian talks to Mark Leidner about growing up reading and thinking in terms of B-52’s, not birds.
Some notes about reading Mark Leidner’s Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me:
The cover features a wrap-around collage of a basketball player dunking on the Twin Towers. When I opened my book for the first time, out fell a postcard that shows the same image. So, the irreverence is doubled and for-serious.
A page in, there’s the dedication, FOR ALICE. Even the font it’s written in, its seraph corners and its thickness, its printing in all caps, says something about this book’s boldness, and something about the ways in which these poems mean.
If you think about Berryman’s Dream Songs, or, really, just the line where Henry says, “I have a sing to shay,” then that might be a piece of the equation.
The poems in Beauty Was the Case are long, but the words are never difficult.
For a moment in my first read of the poem “Blackouts” I thought Mark had found a way to write a poem that never ends.
This is Big Idea poetry in the entertaining, hilarious way Big Ideas should prove very hard to talk about.
As in, in all seriousness, in the interview below, I asked him about the relationship between Quantum Physics and Cognitive Dissonance. Because, in a real way, that’s kinda what I thought one of the poems was about.
These poems remind me most of writers like Alexander Pope and John Dryden of the Post Enlightenment; writers for whom logic is rationalization, a performance rather than treatise, a mind’s persistent twisting.
The purest form of this is the list. For instance, the poem “Things to Call Water.”
What feels really generous is how Mark’s poems align dimensionally: the list, the line, the tale.
The suggestion is: 1) poetry equals pleasure in thought, plus huge discipline, 2) you can do it, too; it’s likely you already do.
When I finished the book, I thought, these poems find the exact right stuff to be obsessed with.
I first got to know Mark’s work two years ago. We were both in a group of writers who took turns discussing each other’s first poetry manuscripts. When Beauty Was the Case came out, I was immediately interested in the distance this work has traveled between then and now. Mark was nice enough to let me ask him about all this in emails we sent over the course of a few weeks.
Jack Christian Your title makes a Snoop Dogg reference. What does it matter if I get it or not?
Mark Leidner Murder Was the Case is a single and a short film that chronicles Snoop’s death and resurrection after making a deal with the devil. The Faustian conceit felt right to me. That we gain poetic power by losing moral innocence is a motif in the book. But the reference is maybe 15% of the title’s intended meaning, so you miss it and still feel 85% of the point.
JC When I first read the manuscript that became Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me, you were calling it Romantic Comedies. How did the new title take hold?
ML Two kinds of titles make sense to me. One is descriptive like Ghostbusters or The Old Man and the Sea. Their job is to be a translucent container, like a window, so people can see what’s inside. It’s like back in the day, churches just used to be hay-roofed shacks with a hand-painted sign outside that said “Church.” But eventually they became stained-glassed and rotunda-ed and friezed and named things like St. Peter’s Basilica. Over time the outer layer that used to be clear got barnacled with decoration, art, and meaning. The more time I spent with the manuscript, the more I wanted the title to be like this, more complicated and meaningful in itself, less a passive conveyor for what came inside.
JC How did your thinking about this manuscript change over that time-span?
In the two years spanning Romantic Comedies and Beauty Was the Case . . . on the inside . . . the book went from a large number of short poems with a similar form to a small number of large poems showing greater range. When it was called Romantic Comedies, the eponymous piece was the best poem and poetic climax of the manuscript. In the current published form, “Romantic Comedies” the poem holds that throne no longer. So the bubble had to change to reflect the new contours of the air within. In this way the evolution of the title was a response to inner changes, as well as the aesthetic ambitions stated above. Just like I presume a bubble’s membrane is defined by what happens both inside it and outside it.
JC Do you remember taking to heart anything particular from those meetings? Did anything we talked about there move you toward Beauty was the Case?
ML I used to have a 20-25 page long poem sequence “Snow” that was my most ambitious poem, but it was not good enough to justify the amount of space it took up in the book. I also used to have a very short and “in your face” piece as the first poem. At the beginning of that course, having an “ambitious” manuscript was important to me. Apparently this meant my most anti-poetic and formally bombastic ideas needed to be represented in force. By the end of the course I learned that one’s ambitions for a book could be opposed to the book’s ideal form. In the beginning of any formal procedure, I always feel like I’m trying to wrestle a bull by the horns, and guide it where I want to go. But by the end I have learned the same lesson, that the bull is smarter than me. The goal is not to steer it so much as ride it without falling off, and see where it takes you. The ambition comes in the selection of the meanest, gnarliest bull. It took a while for this to sink in. The course taught me to dis-include work whose main value lay in their expression of my pet aesthetic statements, commentary on contemporary poetry, or perception of the zeitgeist—and sub-in poems that functioned complexly within the constraints of their forms.
JC It’s interesting that you mentioned “moral innocence” earlier. For all their humor and juxtaposition, there’s a moral voice that moves in these poems, maybe most notably in “Yellow Rose” where the poem turns suddenly from listing all the things that give the speaker a boner, to a description of war that includes: “the level of tranquility / a Jeep of body bags achieves / jostling along a twisting gravel / path…”
Do these poems capture a way in which you feel you’ve lost your moral innocence? Have your ideas about the responsibility of a poet grown or changed in the last however long?
ML I hope they capture that loss. I don’t know what responsibility a poet in general has. The notion of my own responsibility has changed so many times I prefer not to worry about it anymore because I’m exhausted. I had a responsibility only to entertain once. Then I had a responsibility to preach the Gospel of literature, that it might not die. Then I had a responsibility to speak the truth, to deflate the puff of the bourgeoisie, to critique corrupt, self-congratulating systems. I had the responsibility to connect myself to God, to turn poetry into prayer. At various times I felt a vain but real responsibility to get published, to get recognition, to get people to like me. But it turned out that no matter what I felt responsible toward, the poems’ methods hardly changed. The different ends didn’t transform the means. Where is your responsibility once you realize that? That poetry keeps the asshole in line with the saint, synthesizes oppressor and oppressed, knits self-immolation to self-expression, binds profane and divine. Maybe in form there is an omni-responsibility to the world beyond poetry.
JC Could you talk about the dedication: “FOR ALICE.” I noticed it and thought more about it than I do most dedications. Its effect is that it gives me permission to read these as love poems. If you don’t mind talking about it, how’s the dedication function for you? Thinking about the whole book, what’s love got to do with it?
ML I was in love with Alice when I was writing the book. Most of the little I know of love was learned from her. Love and desire, where they meet and diverge, are central to the book. So to me the dedication seems honest. The way it is presented font-wise was all the designer (Pam Glaven of Impress, Inc in Northampton MA)—sort of naked, sort of big, but sort of blunt, and somehow unadorned. A love letter that fits the character of the poetry. I wish the 20th Century Fox fanfare could play every time someone opened to that page.
JC But then, these aren’t quite what one thinks of when one thinks “love poems.” They’re more layered than that. For instance, in the poem “Charismatic Ambulance Driver” a love affair takes place, which itself is mostly a discussion between lovers, inside a scene that seems almost comprised of stock-footage, recalling Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, probably among other popular narratives and images . . . Which leads me to wonder, if these are love poems, then how? It seems like a lot of the poems feature love as love, and love as conceit, and love as performance, composition, or craft, sometimes all at once.
ML Most love poetry is layered with passive-aggression, performance, entertainment, cruelty, confession, and self-sacrifice, playing with and obsessing over the conceits of poetry as much as the body of the beloved. John Donne was formative in that. In the throes of desire you’re amoral, you don’t care what images you steal or what atrocities you water-ski through, your sole concern is that the beloved pay attention to you, and become as powerless before your wonder as you are before theirs. It’s kind of a histrionic, hyperbolized, hyper-romanticized lust. Moments of humility and sacrifice are rare, but they happen. Mostly it’s a dance. You want someone to need you; you fling your arms out in every direction for anything that could be a tool on that quest. You debase yourself, you elevate yourself, you make dark predictions and bring them to fruition, you flay yourself on the altar of impossible expression, you try to spin them around until they give up and are exhausted and give over to you, then when you have them, hopefully you treat them lovingly.
JC You think Donne does all that?
ML If I read him today, the answer might change, because I have changed. But that’s what I remember feeling when I read him a few years ago.
JC What we’re talking about makes me remember his poem, “The Sunne Rising,” where, from his bed and beside the lover he doesn’t want to leave, Donne chides the sun for being so responsible. He tells it: “Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we.” The poem ends: “Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; / This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.”
Could you talk about this or another Donne poem?
ML Donne gives the Sun human emotions, which is untrue, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s fun to wonder how happy or sad the Sun is. This is a performance for his lover, bringing speeches with absurd premises to beautiful conclusions by tracking the logical consequences of the initial absurdity. That something as cosmic and eternal as a star could be subjugated to the bodies of lovers is the ultimate compliment to the beloved. It demonstrates that meaning is scopeless, which is true, but the methods by which Donne arrives at his point are scientifically corrupt. Yet in context of a lover performing a silly speech to enthrall the beloved, it is perfectly pure. Donne seems to say in his conceits that, if you grant me one absurdity, I will give you so much beauty, torment, splendor, and satisfaction, that the initial absurdity will pale in comparison; that that barter can be struck between he and his beloved, or he and his reader, is to me a fine model for art. Maybe it mirrors the absurdity of consciousness. We are born—what could be more unlikely, unnecessary, unquestionable—and from that Big Bang, the universe.
JC So, there are a ton of things for a poem to do. I wonder if that helps explain your poems being mostly longer ones? As a reader, their length allows me to enjoy moving through them and to consider them as they’re happening. What’s time, space, and length as far as these poems are concerned? How do you conceptualize their dimensions / their travel?
ML I’ve always been more interested in the pace of conversational speech—since it is the pace at which I speak, and think—than the pace of song, lyric, or fragment. Those shorter idioms are more foreign to my experience, so it’s harder for me to write them convincingly. I prefer longer lines, sentences, and narrative structures; the things for which the idiom of conversation has evolved to handle. Larger narrative or logical structures become the things that move, that have surprising rhythms, that end up singing.
But they take longer to get off the ground. A bird can leap off a branch and take to the air in an instant. But a B-52 weighs 180 tons and needs 11,000 feet of runway to fly. I grew up reading and thinking in terms of B-52’s, not birds. So I have to build bigger runways. The challenge is to get that huge, ugly, artificial, (even destructive) machine on a mission so harrowing, so impossible, so twisty, its flight starts to feel like that of a bird.
JC For a while, I know you were very interested in the joke and then one thing that sings about these poems is their complicated humor. How were you thinking about jokes with regard to these poems, and, what do you see as the joke’s relation to poetry?
ML Jokes are logical and linguistic. So are Hollywood movies, sonnets, mathematical proofs, or abstract paintings. For each there are expectations met or subverted, and formal logic is the calculus of that. Because the logic of jokes hinges on misdirection, maybe jokes are inherently insincere, and therefore counter to poetry. You get the audience thinking one thing, then flip them. But poetry, it seems to me, is language stripped of misdirection. If the thought flips, it is because the thought has flipped the thinker. Joke-tellers know where their punchlines are going to land. Joke-tellers know, poet’s don’t. When we see a mind like Dickinson flipping back and forth between hope and despair in real time as each line deploys, finding some unexpected resolution in language, in sound, in the rhythm and hum of a perfect expression, where an impossible opposites are sound-locked in implacable paradox, our senses experience disorientation, an unknown knowledge. That’s what I feel like when I read pure poetry. So the challenge of bringing the knowing aspect of joke-telling into the unknowing aspect of poetry is what I am interested in. I want to mix opposites, forms that do not belong together. Jokes ought not to fly. That is what birds are for. There is the B-52 mentality. Instead of birds, finding metal that belongs in the ground—cold, soulless, logical, and insincere—mechanizing and contorting it into a shape that flies—is insane. That makes writing feel transcendent.
JC I like that you say “mix opposites.” While some of your more narrative poems seem to “mix opposites” slowly over the course of the whole poem, the poem “Blackouts” I found striking for how it did this almost line by line. I could begin to explain each line as a bending of joke-logic. What did you tell yourself a “blackout” was as you were writing?
ML The original title of “Blackouts” was “Variations on a Theme by Minnis.” I consciously tried to mimic the short and striking images in Poemland, images like:
This is a cut-down chandelier . . .
And it is like coughing at the piano before you start playing a terrible
waltz . . .
The past should go away but it never does . . .
And it is like a swimming pool at the foot of the stairs . . .
—from Poemland by Chelsey Minnis
The title became “Blackouts” because the final form didn’t really succeed in that mimicry, and ended up more interesting if posed not as part of a conversation, but merely itself; also I wanted to avoid the impression of claiming a lineage, almost like riding on coattails. Let influence be self-evident, was my thought. I remember struggling to come up with a title that was true for the poem but not simply a placeholder. The decision to settle on “Blackouts” had to do with the erasive properties of a sealed image. If it is striking, cinematic, and discrete, it kind of shuts down interpretive possibility as it opens our eyes. I was interested in image as a machine that delivers spectacle, then spurs our eyes onto the next image. This feels dark to me. If each image serves to speed us on to the next, the image is essentially blacking itself out.
JC When you say “the erasive properties of a sealed image,” it almost sounds like you’re talking about a linguistic atom bomb, an image-splitting . . .
ML I know what you mean. It think words like erasive and sealed feel horrific, even though I think of image-making more like atom creation than destruction. More like fusion than fission. What is sealed off and “erased” is the energy of infinite possibility, which feels like a bad thing to lose, but what is gained is matter. Less open, but more marvelous in itself, since you can see it and feel it. I’d rather have an image deliver a small number of possibilities with maximum impact than an infinity of possibility spread across little impact. I wanted the imagery in “Blackouts” to feel like hard particles that could not be questioned, maybe like Skittles of steel. But that were ambiguous in their arrangement.
JC That poem, in particular, and some of the other poems, “Biographies of Einstein” for instance, made me wonder about a sort-of skewed relationship between Cognitive Dissonance and Quantum Physics that you come back to a few times. To your mind, how do these things go together? Are you conscious of having this relationship play out in words and syntax?
ML It seems poetry specializes in creating initially alien syntaxes, things that create dissonance alone, but that experienced over time, through the surrounding syntax of the poem, of the book, of the career, of literary history, cohere into pleasurable melody. My experience of “experimental” writers like Ashbery or Coolidge, whose syntaxes veer far from conversation or so-called tradition, was something like, “What is this bullshit?!” to “Oh . . . sure. Yeah. I can see this . . . ” to “I kind of dig it, now . . . ” to “Nothing else makes more sense!” It happened gradually. I got more familiar with the logic and the grammar and the context that at first was strange. Nowadays we read Ashbery without batting an eye. Its grammar is so familiar it washes over us like air and we breathe it without even thinking about it. What once seemed insane is smooth and invisible. In this way prolonged exposure to “cognitively dissonant” art reminds us that our normal sense of reality is just as constructed, and can crumble away and be replaced new ones.
I know nothing about quantum theory, but “the nothing that is” there, this mirrors. The patterns of molecules we see all the time and take for granted: that trees grow upward, or that water runs downhill, that human beings are individuals, that life is linear, death is final, and physical existence is objective—are for all we know illusions that have smoothed over time into the real. Tomorrow someone could convince us that death is false, and that would be disorienting, but we would get used to it, and before long deathlessness would seem as banal and logical as our deathly existence is now. Poetry teaches that meaning is malleable and therefore so is reality. It is our unfortunate condition to know this yet never be able to behave as if we know it.
I feel like Eli Cash, “Maybe quantum physics does the same?”
JC I guess this paradox of knowing-but-not-behaving is a spark for irreverence, or reverence, or both at once. For John Donne, it seems irreverence nearly amounts to the greatest reverence, that it becomes a path toward the sacred. For you, is irreverence always tipping toward a greater reverence? If you transform the reverent into the irreverent, is it then important that it transform again?
ML I think, why not transform the concept as many times as you can without losing the concept to incoherence? Why not make the last word of the poem feel like it has become both a bird, a machine, an idea, and a word?
Re: irreverence: sometimes the statue is so beautiful, we start to worship the barnacles that attach themselves to its feet. Before long we are sinking cinder blocks into the sea so that barnacles will grow on them and we can point and say that we did the same thing as the sculptor, whom we now despise. By this point barnacle-farming has become the central enterprise of our culture, so when someone comes along and starts to scrape barnacles off our cinder blocks, statue feet, piers, and jetties (killing the barnacles) it suddenly seems sacrilegious. Barnacles are beautiful! Did they destroy them solely to outrage us? That’s not art! Etc. But due to this barnacle-hater’s irreverence maybe some of us are surprised to find we aren’t angry at all. Hah, we never gave a shit about barnacles, we were pretending. A minute later, it’s in the news that that irreverent person has nailed those dead barnacles to other objects, like toilet seats and kitchen tables, and has hot glued them to children’s clothing, in one sense completely irreverent to the natural harmony of underwater barnacles! But, in another, even more reverent to the reverie of having barnacles on anything. To me this parable is stupid, but says what I can say about the purpose of purposeful irreverence. To re-contexualize what has gotten staid until it pisses off the shallow people so that they make fools of themselves with their tantrums and releases the deep people from their unrealized bondage to the superficial.
Higher irreverence is difficult to achieve, since it always risks being lumped in with the irreverence of ignorance and cruelty, and it is conscience-wise difficult to do dwell within this perspective forever. You have to enjoy destroying barnacles. You have to get a kick out of deflating others’ balloons. That greater reverence you’re trying hard to tip toward has no meaning if the irreverence from which you demonstrate its emergence is insincere. It reminds me of Sheriff Bullock in Deadwood. Bullock is full of violent rage, but as another character tells him, everyone is. His guilt about it is what makes him stand out, and that is why he has to be Sheriff. For a transformation of hatred into humility to be vivid, a powerful destructive impulse must be overcome by an even more powerful conscience. But the longer you dwell in the darkness, the risk of never emerging from it increases.
JC Are there any writers besides Donne you admire for succeeding in this irreverence?
ML Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, maybe John Barth? and certainly Minnis, off the top of my head. Also Tarantino. These are writers whose relationship to reverence and irreverence gave me courage. Each seems to be content embodying points of view vividly out of line with good sense. I think that’s brave.
JC For these poems, and even for talking about them, the work of thought, its back-and-forth, seems so important. Is there a particular kind of thought that helps you make a poem? Is there a kind of thought you find strangely sings?
ML Movies, wit, fantasy, argument. I guess only lyric actually sings, so I suppose I like combining lyric with these other, non-lyric things. Narratives, jokes, dreams, aphorisms, lists. I’ve never been that good at strict lyric. The ear follows the thought and the eye for me. There are too many other genres holding me hostage, keeping me deaf. So I feel like a poetry that can infect and manipulate all the other genres that have their grips around my thoughts, can reach through me and grab me by the whole being.