For this series we listen in on Seth Landman and Lewis Freedman, both from the highest order of gentleman scholars, have a conversation. This is Part 1.
Lewis, when we lived together, I remember your saying to me that poetry was (and correct me if I’m misquoting you here) a way for you to live. This has stuck with me quite a bit, and I have my own sense of what you meant by that, but what did you mean by that?
Seth, I don’t remember that conversation, so I won’t try and rewrite my intention in it, but I would like to write in whatever presence I now fail to inhabit, that writing and reading poems is really my only tool of intervention in the abstraction: “life.” My experience is that the interaction between the page and language creates a reflective circuit that allows language to be inscribed as action at the very question of causality. Or to say it in a less obtuse way, I feel that with poetry (and I would not make a distinction here between reading and writing which are for me pretty much the same thing to me) I can operate at the question of how one moment is transferred to the next, recognizing that there is no distance between that transfer and its conception that is not acted, or to quote Creeley “the mind is the plan of the mind.”
It became very clear to me when I was about 20, that my practice of writing (which had been going on basically daily since about 6 or 7) was essential for my perceptual and ethical survival. I was sleeping in a tent in the Sinai desert and everyone else had fallen asleep and I had become pretty scared and alone and was really feeling the vast distance and uselessness of sleeping people to a waking person, and I started writing in my notebook and recognized how I used the interaction of the surface of writing as a very basic way to create a relation with myself to the others around me and as a way of negotiating the vast forces of night (you could see 360 degrees of sky there) and history that made my existence so shaky to me.
Now, believe me, I’m a failing ethical being for real, but very often I feel I need to write in order to continue expanding the reminder of other people actually existing in a space beyond me and a space within me, a space beyond them and a space within them, that these distances between people are inextricably the same and unbridgeable, etc… etc…
In short, I try use with writing to keep on expanding the recognizing of what’s going on around me, most of which I don’t understand.
Seth, for me, your poetry resonates so much with the aura of your person: the deep kindness and sadness (which seem interrelated somehow) in your perception of how human relationships fit together, as well as a fierce and wondrous preservation of the innocence of perceiving yourself. These resonances make me unable to imagine that you don’t “live” your poetry deeply, but how do you feel you position poetry in your life? How do your moments in and around poetry relate to your moments outside of it?
I’ll address your question before I get sidetracked. I think (after much deliberation) that I do manage to “live” within whatever sort of poetics I aspire to, which is to say that for all of my laziness and focus on things that aren’t poetry, I am extremely conscious of the language swirling around me at all time. But if we’re talking about the actual poems I sit down and write, I think they end up being more related to my relationship with past relationships.
I think a lot, I guess, about regrets, and about having been mistaken, which I suppose, is why “Sign You Were Mistaken” has become this title that keeps following me around as a blanket for everything I write. Poetry, often, is where I get apologetic — though usually in a somewhat veiled kind of way — for the terrible things I’ve done; and I don’t mean that in the sense of having committed some sort of heinous, ethical violations, but rather in the sense of having fucked up my own contentedness in my own life. Although, now that I think of it, were I in front of some sort of jury, I’d have to admit that I can’t really say I would do much differently given the chance. Come to think of it, that’s probably what my poetry does for me; that is, express the weird melancholy about the impossibility of getting anything right.
I believe we are all extremely fucked up and flawed and awful, and I want my poetry to have empathy for that. I’ve realized recently, for example, that I’ve been asking a lot of rhetorical questions in my poems. Questions that glance back at the larger question of “What is wrong with me?” That seems like an important question, and a very poetic one, too, if we’re willing to really explore it.
Which brings up a question I have for you. I have some ideas about how you would answer this, but I want to ask it anyway. How does the fragmented sense of language that shows up in your poems serve you in writing as a form of ethical exploration?
Seth, I really relate strongly to your interest in the impossibility of correct action, and I realize that in the spelling poems that I wrote and performed last year I was partially producing something out of similar concerns. In those poems, as you know, I would attempt again and again to spell a phrase (say “plural possessive” or “sign of the times”) failing each time to spell it correctly but carried forward in the mistake by the energetic trajectory of that which I was trying to spell. It felt important to me to repeat the same action over and over again and fail at it each time, especially when that action (like spelling) has a standardized correctness that normally erases a sense of the process of performing it. I perceive there is a joy as well as an agony (and a melancholy) in the way in which we make mistakes driven by a swerve away from the right or correct. I suppose this is why I love (and can’t avoid) being involved in daily performances of interpersonal awkwardness.
I’m not sure that I have a sense today of the language of my poems as being fractured, rather it seems to me that language always seems to mean, to make sense, since it is apprehended by the senses, that it can never be broken down beyond signification. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a text that I can’t make a sense of. My favorite texts are texts whose construction seems to reject any previous experience of reading that I return to them with. For instance, I have an undying interest in Clark Coolidge’s Polaroid for the way in which it seems to conjure only the context making of language, allowing a slow reading that is reflectively dazzling, and exponentially expanding the action of sensing language mean. I really like to read that text as slowly as I can, and it never fails to reject what I bring to it (including this explanation, I imagine), and renew becoming at the site of interaction.
Instead of fracture I’d like to write to you about writing as an act of arranging language rather than producing it. If, as I was trying to write before, writing offers the possibility of creating action at the question place where the causal rules of the mind are determined, then it’s important for me to point out that the language actions that can be produced there are an assembly of past meanings and structures. Again, maybe less obtusely again, it seems to me that an attempt to manufacture presence is necessarily a rearrangement of the past. Language, of course, is sensed and understood because it already means something, and speaking or writing or thinking is a transfer of the past contexts of meaning arranged. For this reason, I find it productive to highlight the process of arrangement in my writing, and doing so feels ethically involved to me, since every act of arranging language is a social interaction with an infinitely multiple and divergent past that each of us as presences participate in.
Seth Landman lives in Denver, Colorado, and is a member of the Agnes Fox Press collective. He has published two chapbooks, Parker’s Band (Laminated Cats, Ltd.) and The Wild Hawk the Sea (Minutes Books), and recent poems have appeared in Jubilat, Boston Review, and VOLT.
Lewis Freedman grew up in and then he moved to and then he moved to and then he moved to and then moved to and then he moved to and then he moved to and then he moved to Madison where he now resides and co-runs the ___________-Shaped reading series with Andy Gricevich. He’s also co-edits the publication of poetry chapbooks with Agnes Fox Press and also secretly at other undisclosed locations. Three chapbooks have been published under his name: The Third Word (what to us press), Catfish Po’ Boys (Minutes Books), and SUFFERING EXCHANGE WALKS WITH AND (Minutes Books) which was released in a very limited edition this past February.