Between Waking and Dreaming:
Michael Bazzett & George David Clark

Michael Bazzett's poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Massachusetts Review, Pleiades, 32 Poems, The Sun and Best New Poets. He is the author of the chapbook The Imaginary City (Organic Weapon Arts, 2012) and his debut collection, You Must Remember This, (Milkweed Editions, 2014) won the Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry. His verse translation of the Mayan creation epic, The Popol Vuh, is forthcoming from Milkweed in 2017.
George David Clark is Assistant Professor of English and creative writing at Washington & Jefferson College. His first book, Reveille, won the 2015 Miller Williams Prize and his more recent work can be found in Agni, The Cincinnati Review, The Gettysburg Review, Image, The New Criterion, Third Coast, and elsewhere. He edits the journal 32 Poems and lives with his wife and their three young children in Washington, Pennsylvania.

George David Clark: It strikes me, Mike, that both our books play with the dramas of dreaming. Certainly both are framed by poems of surreal, even supernatural, waking: the speaker of your closing lyric, "The Last Time I Saw God", comes to consciousness beside the deity in an otherwise empty subway car and in my opening poem, "Reveille on a Silent Whistle", I've got God playing a little trumpet to rouse my beloved. Now that I think about it, your poems tend to employ a kind of dream-logic or dream-plotting, even when sleep isn't explicitly mentioned. I'm thinking here of poems like "Holder Strand", where your speaker discovers the body of a drowned adolescent and then recognizes that the corpse is his younger self, or "Memory", where a narrative about the speaker's brother dissolves into the realization that no such person has ever existed, or "The Crisis" where the sexual fantasy that your financier character so joyfully encounters turns suddenly horrific. There's even something "dreamy" about a poem like "A Woman Stands in a Field", which might be read as pure realism if it weren't for the strange and beautiful dilation of time in the fifth and sixth stanzas.

I find I'm almost always bored by the "real" outlandish dreams of others, but in the hands of great dream-poets (like Salamun and Transtromer, Strand and Simic-each of whom I overhear at various points in your work) the fantastic dream can seem so rich, so psychologically and metaphysically perceptive. I wonder if you'd talk a bit about how dreams operate in your poems. How do you discover something true in a dreamscape?
Michael Bazzett: My first impulse is to doctor that question by adding one little word — How do you [not] discover something true in a dreamscape? And I'm only being a little flip, given our human propensity to inhabit narrative and house our deepest truths in the framework of myth.

For me, the poem is the dream. I wake to find what's brought to the surface.

I like that you make a distinction between the banality of "'real' outlandish dreams" and the work of the dream-poets (three of the four poets you named are currently on my nightstand, by the way!), because ultimately for the poem to become the dream and the dream to become the poem, an act of translation needs to occur. A sort of de-abstraction. Honestly, I don't mine my own dreams very often - what I'm after is their residue. Which is why in that opening poem of yours, "Reveille on a Silent Whistle," these lines really work for me: "One conceives / a rope of braided sand, fabrics made wholly of water." The image is both impossible and concrete: there's a tactile granularity to that rope, and it helps tether the quiet double-entendre of "conceive" and the echo of a pun on "wholly," so that the moment feels both burnished and fresh. The opening line of the following poem deftly plays with the same current and currency, following the title Jellyfish with the simple declarative: "The dark sea dreams them." And suddenly the jellyfish arises as the inevitable product of the sea's subconscious, (which strikes me as a pretty kick-ass definition of evolution).

One thing that strikes me about your work is how deftly you marry the imagination & these dreamscapes with a music that seems to suit them perfectly. I love to read these poems aloud. As formally deft as many of them are, the music always serves the greater pulse and the dream remains unbroken. (No Nigel Tufnel guitar solos here.) I'm tempted to say there's a python in your piano. So, how much does the language itself drive your composition process? How do voice and vision speak to one another? [I'm thinking of not just "Python in a Grand Piano" here, but also "Interview Conducted Through the Man-eater's Throat" or "The Picture of Little G.C.." or "Prodigalia" or. .um, the entire book.]
GDC: I love that notion of de-abstraction you describe, this process that translates the residue of dreams into poetry where it can be dreamt again by a reader. That's it exactly. And maybe the merely recounted dream is like some poor, overly-literal translation, sapped of the aromas and textures of the original?

You ask about sound in my poems and I think my own attempts at de-abstraction are focused as much on sonic effect as they are on visual imagery. In the same way good images get burned in the mind's eye, the music of a well-sounded poem should fix itself in the ear.

Ultimately I think I am trying to attend to the particular sonic opportunities inherent in a given poem. There's a recording of Donald Hall reading his "Mt. Kearsage" and he prefaces the lyric by describing the effects he is after in the closing sentence ("Kearsarge, I close / my eyes and you rise inside me / blue ghost"). He wants the poem to dramatize the haunting presence of that foggy mountain in his childhood, so he highlights long i sounds and long o's, plays them off one another with lineation. The result really is a kind of ghostly moaning (eye-oh / eye-eye-oo-eye-eye-ee / oo-oh). The poem is less abstract-hell, even the ghost is less abstract-for the way those sounds take shape.

It's not always so easy to determine what sonic effects will aid a poem in this kind of deabstraction though. In early drafts I am usually just trying to let sound lead me into some surprise. To that end, I often find it productive to work against an arbitrary rule. This might be a fixed rhythm (iambic dimeter in the "Python" poem) or a system of end rhyme ("The Picture of Little G.C.."), but it's often something closer to the strategy Richard Hugo describes in The Triggering Town, the idea that when he made a strong sound, some effect he liked in the air of the poem, he would return to that sound (usually with some slant echo) in the next three to eight syllables. I say these are arbitrary rules, and of course there's nothing scientific about three to eight syllables, but that space is close enough to catch the echo in a single breath, and there's really nothing arbitrary about consciously applying some restrictive pressure on the poet's ear. I think it's the sense of sonic restriction rather than a specific rule that's really important to me. If I want to surprise myself, I benefit from working in some form that's a bit too tight for comfort. Doing so leads me to link and complicate a poem's sounds in ways that I wouldn't have if I had more room to move.

Of course once I've gone through the poem in a few drafts, I give myself the freedom to abandon any rigor that hasn't helped. I find that even when the poem shakes off a meter that originally governed it or musses up a fixed rhyme scheme, it retains a complexity of sound. Or to say that another way, the sounds in such a poem seem less abstract, more likely to find purchase in the ear in a way that proves the poem's sentiments "real" and really felt.

What about you, do you ever work with "rules", sonic or otherwise? There's a great deal of variety in your forms: both short and long lines, poems in prose. Maybe you favor shorter stanzas, couplets and tercets, but there are several poems written in a single, longer stanza also. I'm particularly interested in the sounds of the long-lined poems, pieces like "The Book of " whose text runs all the way to the right margin and yet is still clearly operating in lines, broken into regular stanzas. How do you keep those long lines taut? Do you begin your poems with a limiting sense of structure/form, or do you pare early drafts back until they find the right alignment? How do your poems achieve their shape on the page and in the ear?
MB: I love the Hall anecdote, and Hugo's little dictum designed "to catch the echo in a single breath." (I can't help noting that's a nice little pentameter line that landed there.) That idea of sonic restriction and working in a form that's a little too tight makes sense to me. As Terrance Hayes said recently in the New York Times: "If you can breakdance, that's cool. If you can breakdance in a straitjacket, that's even better." Whether it's an exoskeleton or an endoskeleton, there's a reason life has structure - and that "complexity of sound" you speak of is the thing that makes the little bones in our ears hum.

I do have a few rules, or little games, really. I'm constantly playing with line, sometimes measuring it by breath, sometimes by beat. Sometimes when I have a draft of a poem that I think might work, I copy and paste it back-to-back-to-back and rework each into a radically different form. (It separates the poem from the language, if that makes sense.) I feel like work on the level of line really begins in the body, and a good walk around the neighborhood can really aid it. But with a poem like "The Book of ___________," it was driven almost completely by voice. Its cadences and slightly antiquated syntax, the touch of over-refinement one sometimes hears in those who have been educated out of the circumstances into which they were born — I could hear the voice in my head, and I was quite taken with the idea of letting it emanate from this thing up in the attic.

I do sometimes work in a long line — which I read aloud obsessively as I compose, letting the syntax really roll at some points. There's a lot of consonance and assonance at play in many of the lines, and I like the way the bigger line can hold them. Caesura also becomes very important — when to break that momentum, or snug it up? And, while the lines transcend pentameter, I sometimes put in some iambic planks to sister up the joists.

I re-read a good share of your book as I was waiting for you to return serve. Its alertness to the acoustic pleasure of language — words like caryatids, bottegas, littoral, oblations, cincture, chatelaine and lacquered palanquin resonate in a very specific timbre — and they are handled with a deftness that lets me know I'm in good hands. Rhyming pinot noir with abattoir is delicious: the feast holds hands with the slaughter, and the spoken moment suddenly becomes eternal.

Yet I was also struck as I delved in again by how many of these poems meditate on the temporal nature of things, both waking us to time passing, and waking, in the elegiac sense, what has passed. The voice "jonahed" into the belly of the man-eater straddles this line marvelously, I think. I don't want to ask a big theme-y question (because I don't really want to grapple with one myself!), but I am wondering to what extent you conceived of this collection as a book? (i.e. From the outset?) Or did your preoccupations shape the book for you? Do you see it as an ordered sculpture, a road-trip mix-tape, or? Also, I'm very curious about the notion of influence, in the old sense of the word: in-flowing, including non-poetry ones, like dance, music, film, fiction: what were you and these poems marinated in?
GDC:My sense of Reveille's themes changed a bit even after the manuscript was accepted for publication, so I have spent quite a lot of time in the last year wrestling with this subject. Maybe I should note here that the book owes Enid Shomer, my editor at Arkansas, a deep debt. In the months leading up to the press's deadline we'd work together over the phone at least two or three times a week for a couple hours each session. Much of that time I was simply articulating my vision for the book and for individual poems, and when I failed to convince us, I'd go back to work. Then I would send Enid another draft and we'd talk through it again. I can't thank her enough. Of course I was already aware of my preoccupations-the problem of time is certainly a big one, the romantic imagination, the relationship of finite humans to a transcendent, infinite God-but the difficult and awkward work of describing strategy and intent helped me better appreciate the ways my various approaches to those subjects played off one another, intersected, overlapped, or, in some cases, profitably contradicted themselves.

In another sense, I conceived of this book's guiding conceit as early as 2008. About two weeks after my wife and I were married, Elisabeth underwent emergency surgery and in the aftermath of that procedure she was placed on a synthetic morphine called dilaudid. If you know this drug, you probably know it's significantly stronger than the organic opioid and the side effects include hallucinations and a very deep drowsiness. My bride slept constantly. For two months she was out for twenty hours a day-a strange way to begin a marriage. With her lost to the world in our bedroom, I found myself writing a series of reveilles that imagined a speaker calling a beloved back to wakefulness. I wrote dozens of these things even after Elisabeth healed, but over time I found I had less and less poetic interest in the event that originally triggered that series. The relationship between a woken speaker and a sleeping beloved still seemed to have some pull on me though, and in the best of those poems (the few that Reveille retained) I'm employing the conceit in order to host metaphysical content that is of more lasting resonance to me. On some level I think I'm always partially writing about spiritual faith.

My new favorite metaphor for a collection of poetry is that of hypothesis and experiments. The hypothesis in this scheme need not be terribly specific: a central image or relationship (for Reveille, the general idea of waking maybe) and the experiments need not all attempt to "prove" the same thing. In fact, they're probably most successful when they don't. To conduct each experiment the poet simply applies his or her preoccupations to a new linguistic situation and observes how things play out. The limits of the book are defined not when the poet has established a fact, but when all potentially revelatory experiments have been conducted.

I don't know that this metaphor really describes my book in any meaningful way-I wasn't thinking of it at the time-but when I look at the poems in retrospect I can see them as experiments connected by the fact that their tools and materials are shared. I think part of what made the book feel complete to me was a sense that I had tried approaching its content from as many different directions as I was capable of.

Variety is something I deeply admire in You Must Remember This. There's just so much diversity in your poems, in the voices of their speakers, in their conceits, in their styles and forms. And yet, I have the sense that even "blindfolded" it would be pretty easy for me to pick a Bazzett poem out of a lineup. How do you shift gears between poems and do you ever find yourself attempting to duplicate some strategy that's been successful before? Is that something you worry about? (I ask in part because I feel I'm often tempted to repeat elements from the last poem that worked.) On the other hand, when you build a collection over several years, do you have to compensate for the way your preoccupations and voice change during that time? In your book, "Atlas" and "The Orangutan" are separated by sixty pages, but the image of the ape ties them together in such an interesting way. Were they composed about the same time? If not, do you know what triggered the reinvention of that startling figure? How often do you compose new work in conscious response to earlier poems?
MB: One of the reasons I asked about forming a book is because it confounds me, from a compositional standpoint. I think I write poems. Not books. That might be an oversimplification, but not by much.

I know James Wright's work, which was very important to me, as a handful of stunning poems. The six or seven I carry around inside me are in there pretty deep, but I still don't own a book of his work. I only have the poems in anthologies. I'm just being honest here. I probably should own a book of his work. But the smallest viable unit of poetry, in my reading life, has always been the poem, not the book. And so I've happily moved from poem to poem in my own work. I have a restless aesthetic. Playful might be a kinder word for it.

In music, it's generally the opposite. I've always loved albums and have been generally drawn to bands that do what Frost talks about, where in an album of 11 songs the 12th song is the album itself, as is the case with Revolver or OK Computer or Black Messiah or Red Headed Stranger. That's changed somewhat in the digital age; the old mix-tape has blossomed into an entire aesthetic school, and the idea of "curating" a selection has become ubiquitous. [I'd like to find a visual way to track the use of the word curate over the last decade - I think its word-cloud would probably resemble a mushroom cloud, and that implication of taste merged with individual choice contains more than a little narcissism.]

But I think some of the variety you mention stems simply from an eclectic reading list. And the fact that teaching high school is a resolutely consuming day job, quite separate from the idea of poetry fellowships & careers & whatnot, and I've never been particularly tactical about how I approached my writing. [Which might have something to do with the fact that I'm "emerging" at 47.] I write to follow my bliss. To amuse myself. To work things out. Because it gives me joy. And so, generally speaking, I've almost never consciously composed work to fit in to a collection or enter into conversation with a body of poems. I just trust that my sensibility will hold them together.

The orangutan poems were composed with a few years between them — one is the lovechild of Philip K. Dick & Russell Edson and the other is in dialog with Treasure Island, believe it or not — but they both probably spring from the same memory of the time I was at the National Zoo sharing a moment with a young female orangutan through the plexiglass who indicated some interest in my wristwatch. You can't look into an orangutan's eyes and not see intelligence. The moment touched me. And it just happened to simmer up in three poems ("The Same Bones" is the other), and Leslie used them to structure the book so that my preoccupations resembled a project, after the fact.

One thing I've been wondering about is how editing 32 Poems has influenced or impacted your work. There are times when I step away from poetry, as a reader, and pour myself into fiction or non-fiction or even film and music. I kind of relish how easily I can quit being Poet Jones. I imagine you don't have that luxury and spend a great deal of time consciously engaged in aesthetic judgment. What's it like to read — what, thousands? — of poems in a year? Do you have a hard-time turning off your internal editor? Or is it inspiring to engage so many voices?

And, coming from a completely separate direction, what's it been like for you to have a book? What's changed, if anything?
GDC: You're right that I don't find many opportunities to step away from poetry to clear my head, clear my ears. I do get plenty of opportunities to meditate on the pleasures and limitations of our period style(s), and that experience has been helpful to me, but only to an extent. When I first started reading for the journal Meridian back in 2006 or so, I had some real epiphanies: those groundbreaking things I thought I was doing.well, it turns out, half the submissions I read made the same moves. Reading a wide variety of unpublished manuscripts can help a beginning writer save some time, but there also comes a point when the slush pile has less to teach you. Editorial work can help you see what you should avoid, but it's not nearly as useful in determining what you might pursue.

Surely the best thing about editing is that it keeps me plugged in to the truly inventive things that are happening in our poetry now. I met your work, Mike, first through 32 Poems and the same is true of many of the contemporary poets whose verse most influences my own. I probably wouldn't have read-I mean really, thoroughly read-Rebecca Morgan Frank, or Traci Brimhall, or Gregory Frasier, or Amit Majmudar, or Malachi Black, or Geoffrey Brock, or Hannah Sanghee Park, or Caki Wilkinson, etc, if I hadn't first gotten hooked on them through 32 Poems. Their poetry (and, in many cases now, their friendship) means a great deal to me. I can't imagine not having their voices in my head as I write.

On the other hand, when John Poch stepped down from 32 Poems, he said that part of his reason for leaving was that he wanted to spend less time studying the work of his peers and more time studying the masters: Dante, Eliot, etc. Of course John had given ten years to the journal and I've only been doing this for four, but I do feel jealous of those who can read more freely, or who can choose not to read some nights. Also, I am keenly aware that dedicated editors sacrifice some of their own poems in the interest of their writers, and I bet we can all think of editors whose own work has been completely subsumed. Still, there are poet/editors like Christian Wiman whose last two books (his best) were composed amidst his many duties at Poetry.

I guess all of this is to say that I do worry about what my editorial work does to my poems. I'm having a lot of fun with 32 Poems these days-we've enjoyed a lot of growth in the past few years and I've been able to work with so many excellent poets—but I don't think I'll do this forever.

As for what has changed now that I've published a book—well, not too much really. Reveille has opened some doors for me of course; I probably wouldn't have gotten the chance to even interview for my current job without the book on my CV. But, in terms of the writing itself, the most important change is simply that I can now put those poems behind me. The year or two before Reveille found a home (when I had a draft that seemed mostly there) the hurdle of publication dominated a lot of my poetic attention. Whenever I wrote a new poem I would always be asking myself if it might fit into that manuscript, if it might be the missing piece that would complete the book.

So I may feel more freedom to experiment in different directions now, but really the writing process is much the same as it was before. I'm going poem by poem, on any given morning just trying to find something interesting to hum and an interesting way of humming it.

What about you? What is next after You Must Remember This? Do you ever feel the urge to try something completely different?
MB: What you say about the hurdle of publication dominating your poetic attention rings true, particularly when it comes to the hope that the "next poem" will be the final Lego in your starcruiser. It was my resistance to that notion, to the book as "project," and even somewhat pig-headedly to the idea of needing to write any particular kind of poem that fueled a lot of my exploration & also no doubt slowed me down. I'm sure that freedom of going poem by poem is a fertile one.

The whole book-hunger puts me in mind of a little leaguer standing in the batter's box, and every adult in his or her world is saying to just relax. It's the right advice. But there's no way the kid can hear it. Until they can. Until they just realize it's all just a damn game and the point is simply to find out how good you might be — and you discover that the sweetest swing feels like it never touches the ball; it swings right through it. In that moment, skill and liberation become one.

As far as what's next, I don't know. I've got a long translation of the Mayan creation epic, the Popol Vuh coming out with Milkweed in the next year or so, and I'm interested in delving back into some of that energy. I love reading old stuff, myth, so what you said about John's desire to leave the editorial world to read Dante resonates with me, particularly the storytelling impulse embedded in such work. I'm also intrigued with the idea of putting together a collection that would somehow include only the poems I was unable to write. Work that refused to come into the light or threatens its own undoing. An impossible book. I have a folder called untitled & invisible, and I keep slipping ideas & drafts in there. I was mostly joking when I first came up with idea, seeing it as the photo-negative of the imperative of You Must Remember This. But now it's begun breathing.

I half-think we could go on forever, but sometimes it's good to put a drink down with half an inch left in the glass. It implies it's not your last. Let me close by saying I hope you enjoyed this exchange half as much as I did. It was an immense pleasure. I'm hugely grateful for both your thoughtful engagement and your marvelous poems. All best wishes!

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761