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2009 National Book Award Finalist,

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Photo credit: Diana Michener

Ann Lauterbach
Or to Begin Again
Penguin Book

Interview conducted by Craig Morgan Teicher.

Craig Morgan Teicher: How does it feel being nominated? Does it seem significant to you that you and most of the other finalists are usually associated with “experimental” poetry?

Ann Lauterbach: The simplest answer is that it’s an honor, and that it feels great. I think it’s a very exhilarating from the point of view of those of us who toil in obscure spaces of poetry. Maybe this list means there’s going to be a kind of shift in what the reading public might imagine poems to do or be in relation to how language is used. There have been so many remarkable poets in the last 25 or 30 years who have wanted to bring poetry into another conversation with history and with philosophy and with a much more muscular and inventive relation to language. And so I hope we can move to a place where a poem is not understood as a little short story in rhyme or something that is only about a kind of epiphany or empathy with the poet. There are a lot of us who’ve been trying to think about language as a kind of material that is exhilarating to use. It’s ironic that poetry has been so moved to the very margins of the way the culture thinks about itself. Though I think there’s a good reason for that: most of the poetry that gets most of the attention isn’t very interesting. I think there’s another reason, which isn’t as easy to talk about: the sense that the way America in particular feels about the world through language seems to be about entertainment or information, and I don’t think poetry is either entertainment or information. Then there’s the whole issue that has hung around in American culture forever, which is the idea of difficulty and complexity as part of a discourse. We can actually enter places that are not so easily resolved—it’s the pleasurable space of the difficult, and the exhilaration you can get from being there and not being thrown out with the feeling that you don’t understand.

CMT: You’re also very engaged, both as a poet and as a critic, with the world of visual art. Do you think that’s a space where people are more accepting of “the difficult”?

AL: I think that on the whole changes or efforts, or envelope-pushing is more accepted in the visual world, because there’s such a big support system, and when you have that support system, the whole space of the market, and people engaged in thinking about what’s really going on, you have a better chance. I also think that there’s at this point a real danger that artists in general, poets as well as visual artists, are too narrow in the way they think about their work, and if you just stay inside your own field, you begin to thin it out. It’s really important to me that people who want to be artists know more than about the last 20 years of their field.

CMT: This book contains a couple of longer poems that collage various elements. How did they come together?

AL: I think there’ something about trying to be as fully inside the habit of your mind as possible, or the habitat even. So the longer pieces begin for me in a more energetic setting of a relationship, where I can go further into how the world and language make something. Many of these poems are really dissonant and they’re not in any proper sense narrative, and that interests me: how to make something that has duration that doesn’t have narrative. I think I’ve been in a kind of quandary about the visual and about narrativity in general, and those kinds of poetics concerns somehow got iterated in this book.

CMT: “Alice in the Wasteland,” the centerpiece of the book, is particularly interesting. How did you find yourself thinking about both Alice In Wonderland and T.S. Eliot?

AL: I’m an anxious insomniac. I woke up in the middle of the night as I almost always do and the phrase “Alice in the Wasteland” came to me. And I’m quite conscious of the fact that Eliot, who when I was young was central, has been vilified in avant-garde circles, and the person who was brought forward was Pound, and I’m questioning why—why Eliot is so detested. Because he is seen as right–wing? The radical nature and beauty of his work is ignored in these circles. Part of me wants not to be a camp follower. And Alice for so many people even now is the figure of the curious girl. That figure in my work goes back long way so something about her willingness to be in an adventure and to discover herself through her journeys in language interests me. So she’s a kind of avatar obviously. And then there’s the kind of wit that Carroll had, which is something I’ve wanted in my work, in the old fashioned sense of wit. I thought if I could get inside of the spirit of that kind of wit, it would be great. Writing the poem, it was also wonderful to watch what happened to her, and to realize that she doesn’t have a home, that she’s just walking on this path. She’s both totally alone and in her imagined world.

Craig Morgan Teicher is a VP on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. His first book of poems is Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems. A collection of fiction and fables called Cradle Book will be published by BOA Editions in the Spring. One of his poems appears in The Best American Poetry 2009.


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