To and From
G.E. Patterson’s work carries echoes of the New York School’s intimacy and immediacy as it careens through recognizable scenes and diverse emotional situations, references pared from their specifics and time blurred by the ambiguous tenses of verbs.
“The intention of these fine poems is to be found in the title To and From. Each poem is surrounded by an arcana of words (mostly commonplace) gleaned from other poets’ poems, words that when strung together slide into the poem by Patterson himself. His poems are addressed to a mercurial, form-changing You. The result is paradoxically impersonal, transcending individual and place. One line captures the whole process: ‘That loss you know might become anyone.’ ”—Fanny Howe
“Here and there . . . .”
“ . . . for a particular point of view—”
It May Happen
as though it doesn’t matter what is real
“ . . . something almost . . . with asking.”
According to their signs we’re in the country
Far off things are being put on the record
Where it may not matter to anyone
If the shadows hide themselves behind rain
The canal opening below the sky
Daytime moving in swirls the painted colors
Or the idea wind sometimes stops and starts
What we might more properly call nostalgia
If we wanted to we could follow later
Without giving up his place in the world
A color postcard folded in our pockets
The light informing us it’s afternoon
When what we feel is we remember feeling
Not long ago it was the time before
© 2008 by G.E. Patterson
“In this wonderful book, perception’s ecstatic transit is lovingly engaged, and the distance between to and from opens into endless possibility. Companioned by the speech of the Western tradition old and new, these poems negotiate ‘how . . . we long to think in terms of wholes’ and foreground what Ann Lauterbach has called 'the whole fragment’ available in an instant/instance. Aggression can't live in the world G.E. Patterson envisions in this book. We are lucky to have a poet of such tenderness among us.” —Claudia Keelan
“To and From is a colloquy that finds the ‘I’ in conversation with other selves: with the beloved, the landscape, and the language. In particular, each discrete and sinuous fourteen-line composition bears—in the supra-title space that might be taken as the back of the poem's mind, or the tip of its tongue—the traces of other writers. These words and names are incantations of friendship. G.E. Patterson’s poetry flows back and forth through these citation/salutations, giving meaning to the fragments as it receives meaning from them, touching into realms of humor, melancholy, sardonic observation, and dreamy embodiment. His perfect lines drift at the speed of breath. They undo the self and realign it with a vast, pulsatile ‘we . . . pleased / To think our thoughts might be taken as music.’” —Frances Richard
For most of my life, each year has been spent in three or four places, in three or four states. Living by water is one constant in a life marked by continual movement. A childhood by a Southern pond, the Atlantic ocean, an iconic river and a great lake led to adult years near the Pacific ocean, a sound, and another iconic river. What I carried with me from place to place were books and shoes and an urge to plant and dig.
I went to Princeton and Stanford universities and studied modern languages, literature, and translation, but I’d been schooled in those subjects before then. My traveling library bridged the hemispheres. The shifting vernaculars of north and south and east and west were familiar. The code-shifting of a nomadic life was more natural than the sustained conversation in one idiom. So, perhaps it was predictable that my earlier book, Tug (Graywolf Press), presented a number of voices.
The poems in the new collection, To and From, are also the product of a nomadic life. Most were written while I was living in, and traveling to, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and Washington states. A handful were written on fellowships in those five states and Vermont. In To and From, though, the focus is less on gathering the voices and rhythms of various places and more on recording moment-to-moment experience.
Focus on the present moment. That’s the refrain from years studying meditation and practicing yoga. That’s also hard work for someone raised on the notion of elsewhere, with place and language and time as changeable as moving water.
When I first began reading this work in public—at colleges and bookstores and a jazz/spoken-word festival—I would tell people to think of the poems as ambient music, not to worry if they lost the train of thought or narrative; if their minds wandered as I read, that was okay, they could come back to the poem after that wandering.
I suspect that may be the story of my life: wandering and return. I think that’s okay.
Isn’t that the foundational trope of so much literature? Either someone goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Who says the pilgrim and the stranger aren’t the same?
My work life hasn’t been more settled than my residence. I’ve worked as a dog trainer, a landscaper, a caterer, an artist’s assistant, a researcher and a teacher, as well as a freelance writer and editor. Now, I’m trying to make a garden in St. Paul, Minnesota, but most of the names that I have for plants are not the common names here. Like so many others, I find that my intentions are shaped by an empire. I am required to speak Latin.
Your work is especially concerned with intimacy. I have the sense, reading your recent poems in particular, of being intensely present in the atmosphere of relationship. The poems offer the reader an opportunity to bear witness to the emotional landscape of intimate connection. Could you talk about the role of intimacy in your poetry?
Well, intimacy is something I think about, though I haven’t attempted to define it or analyze its place in my work. Intimacy is a statement of scale, it seems to me, and therefore part of perception.
The newer poems are attentive, I hope, to small shifts in perception. In fact the earliest of the newer poems were made out of (small?) shifts in perception, thinking, feeling. It may be that . . . .
There’s a wonderful book—The World Through Blunted Sight—that considers the works of several artists in relation to their myopia. The short-sighted require greater closeness—physical intimacy —to secure accurate perception. Certainly, I often have to come quite close to a thing to feel sure that I’m seeing it clearly. Perhaps this need for physical closeness plays a part in creating the emotional qualities you find in the work.
Your poem sequences entitled “New York Suite,” “Give or Take” and others are made up of pieces written in sonnet form. Do you see each fourteen-line piece as an individual poem or are they sections of longer poems?
So far, I’ve written four sequences that I think of as longish poems. (The third is “Mulberry Street.” The fourth is “Cape Cod.”) The pages do have fourteen lines, but I hesitate to call them sonnets.
I’m happy to think of them as little songs—one translation of “sonnet”—and I have felt an impulse to honor and subvert traditional sonnet stanzaic arrangements, but I’m very aware of the liberties the poems take with the sonnet tradition.
You know, once upon a time there were other types of poems that had fourteen lines. The sonnet seems to have overtaken the others in the minds of many readers and writers.
The pieces employ fragments of quotation, some attributed and some not, both before and after the title of each piece. In many cases, the quote contains only one word, such as “still,” “streets” or “crossing.” In one piece, “I love you!” is attributed to Rimbaud. As far as I know, this device is uniquely yours. Could you tell me more about it?
The poems are marked by fragments—some are quotations; some are not. All of the quoted fragments have attributions.
A few years ago, I began to write down what I was thinking while I was trying to write a poem. I wanted to include some “process”—or the mark of process—in the “finished” work, what I hoped would be finished work.
Quickly, it occurred to me that the process of quoting (sampling, intermingling) raised issues of property: Who owns language? Who has phrased a thought or a feeling in a way that might be seen as proprietary? Also, who has so stamped a word or expression with a personal flavor (nuance, connotation) that we (poetry readers) recognize it as a brand, like Kleenex. Some writers have so marked language that we might more precisely communicate _____ with an author’s name as a modifier. These are and are not issues of voice.
The non-quotes don’t raise these exact issues of property, but they do mark my process and raise other issues.
The idea of reader response (involvement, engagement) is part of this too. I hope each reader works to create the meaning in the poem. The floaty words, perhaps, are an obvious invitation to participate in the making of the poem. The experience of reading is not passive.
Three English poets—Martin Corless-Smith, Alan Halsey and Geraldine Monk—spoke at the Poetry Center in March. Among other things, they spoke about a sense of saturation they felt. The English language has a deep history, and poetry written in English has a deep history. In part, I think, the floaty bits are kin to that, a recognition of that.
Recognition and homage. Can you cut out all the other stuff and say the floaty stuff is connected to issues of recognition and homage?
Oh, I want to say that I don’t think it’s necessary for every reader to recognize the source context of every quote—or to piece the quoted and non-quoted bits together in a particular way. The animating impulse is more hypertexty than that.
The quotations exhibit a wide range of literary interests, from the “unwritten words” of John Milton to Lyn Hejinian. Who have been some of your major influences? Who are you reading now?
Current reading? A few books of, and on, philosophy—Aristotle and Socrates; Alexander Nehamas and Martha Nussbaum. I’m reading a bunch of Bay Area writers whose works are new to me —Tisa Bryant is one. I like to think that I’m always in the middle of reading a bunch of poets (old favorites) because I pick up their books several times each season. Many of my contemporaries have new books out, first or second books; I’m reading around in those books. Like many people, a good portion of my reading time is spent reading magazines.
I spent much of last winter reading Thomas Campion and John Clare (prose and poetry), reading Charles Darwin’s letters—and with work by Tan Lin and Yoko Ono.
I read a fair amount of fiction and nonfiction because I’m paid to review books in those genres.
As far as major influences, others might best judge that. I’m sure my teachers have influenced me—that’s a long and wild list. My friends and family —with their language styles as well as in other ways—have surely influenced me.
If you press me to name influential writers, it may be more of a wish list than a guide to my own work. I think it may be a wish list even if I try to name influential visual artists or musicians or dancers. And there is a danger of not acknowledging the quotidian influences—e.g the wallpaper(s) (or wall color(s)) in your childhood home, someone from grammar school.
It may be difficult to discern who (and what) has influenced someone because the greatest influences inspire one to do something that is not imitative. Several people have done things in writing that I hadn’t imagined. I’m glad to have had my ideas of what’s possible expanded.
You have moved away from the more narrative style of the poems in your book Tug, and your syntax has become more disjunctive. I’m very interested in this direction in your work.
Your distinction (style/syntax) seems useful to me.
The newer work—initially—is more paratactic, perhaps more marked by interruption and elision. In the newer poems, the syntax may be less standard, but it may also be closer to regular patterns of thought and speech.
You said earlier that there is an emotional aspect to the newer poems. I’ve been quite interested in (and working for) precision of feeling—and complexity of feeling. The work toward that has sometimes taken place in syntax. What did Brenda Hillman write? “Even if your preferred mode is the fragment, you still need syntax to feel.” “. . . to love”?
Like genres, writing styles may be more mixed than we’re accustomed to thinking.You’re not alone in suggesting that I’ve changed direction. The movement that you see away from a more narrative style, isn’t as clear to me. The term narrative is pretty stretchy; it may be that we recognize different things as narrative. Sometimes I believe my work is becoming more discursive. How does discursiveness fit into your idea of narrative?
Many of the poems in Tug speak directly to the experience of a black man, while in your newer work the speaker is more indeterminate. Could you say something about the place of cultural and sexual identity in your work?
Stephen Spender wrote that there are two ways of being Jewish: the way you see yourself and the ways others see you. I think we know racial and sexual identity in contrast and in solidarity. That’s part of what Tug addresses. Identity—notions of performance, the performance of racial and sexual identity—performance and fluidity—can be addressed in various ways.
The newer work is not performative in the same ways. It may be, as you say, because of an indeterminacy in the poems. The subject position—and subject/object relations are shifty—may be less stable.
Could you tell me something about your writing process? How does a poem happen for you? What about revision?
Well, a poem rarely happens for me all at once. I have written a first draft in one sitting, and I have written only a phrase or two that gestates for years before taking shape as a full draft.
I like the idea of having a routine—a regular time and place—and I like not abiding by that.
I move around a bit. So physical motion and changes in landscape and weather may be among the constants in my process. Changes in language, shifts in diction and pronunciation, may be part of the process too.
What sort of things are you working on now? What interests are shaping your poems lately?
I’m working on poems. I’m working on a mixed-media piece—text and sound.I’m thinking a lot about ethics, ethical philosophy. That may be shaping some poems. As I said, some of my poems have had a long gestation. It may be years before any poem comes from what I’m consciously pondering this spring. I just saw the Eva Hesse show at SF MoMA. Maybe something will come of that.
You were a translator before you were a poet. Would you say your poetry is informed somehow by your work as a translator? Has any of your work been translated or have you tried your hand at writing poems in other languages?
Have I misled you? I translate and have for years, but I wrote poems before I translated. I translated—only—for a long while. Now, I do both.
It seems certain that translation informs my poetry because translation is part of my intellectual and sensual life. Certainly visual art and music and movement are part of my intellectual and sensual life. The effect may not be obvious, but they must have an effect, no?
I know that someone was trying to translate a few of my poems, a while ago.Yes, sometimes I write poems in other languages. I think I live in another language sometimes. Of course there’s more than one English language—and more than one American English. In answering your question, I was thinking about non-English languages.
Your poem “Autobiographia” was selected by the U. S. poet laureate Billy Collins to be included in his Poetry 180 project for high school students. A friend of mine recently read that poem to a group of her 6th-grade poetry writing students, and she said they loved it. As your work becomes more experimental, to what extent do you grapple with the possibility that your poems may be becoming less accessible to young people or others who have less familiarity with poetry?
It’s a funny question. When you pose it that way, I’m not sure what I want.
I’m happy that Billy Collins’ project made the poem available to people and happy that it was “loved.” I’m less happy at the idea that what gets called experimental poetry may not be part of the project. I think it would be great for teachers and students to engage with some of that work.
Am I naïve to think that young people—and the less poetry-steeped portions of the population—might take pleasure in the newer poems? Are they difficult to appreciate?
Is it easier or harder to love Eva Hesse’s fiberglass sculptures if you’re used to Renaissance marble sculptures? Is it easier or harder to love Eva Hesse’s fiberglass work if you’re more familiar with pre-twentieth century, sub-Saharan African sculpture?
How does familiarity affect one’s response to art—or other aspects of life?
Really, I don’t think that experimental or “fresh” poetry is necessarily inaccessible. Tan Lin is doing something now that seems to me both fresh and beautifully accessible. He is not alone in that. His work is one example.
Accessibility is so often an issue of education—of being educated to believe that you don’t have what it takes to experience or appreciate a work of art. Or of being educated to believe that someone else will be unable to experience or appreciate a work of art.
Perhaps the whole issue is turned around. Perhaps we should be asking if people are open to the work of art, if the reader (listener, viewer) is accessible.
Being open is not effortless.