2010 National Book Award Finalist,
By the Numbers
Copper Canyon Press
Interview by Jean Hartig
Jean Hartig: What is the significance of By the Numbers being named a National Book Award finalist?
James Richardson: Being a poet is about the kinds of thinking and feeling, the drifting and reading and gazing that poets do. It’s far less about publishing poems, and maybe not even essentially about writing them. One learns pretty early to work just for the delight and discovery of working. But as you can imagine, it’s really pleasing to have distinguished colleagues say, “Hey, not bad!” Note that the longest poem in By the Numbers is called “Songs for Senility”—maybe now I can put off thinking about my Inevitable Decline for a couple of years!
JH: What impact did the state of the nation, the cultural moment, have on the writing of this book?
JR: Well, there are probably some easy and specific answers to that question, and some harder and vaguer ones.
For example, the slightly unbalanced speaker of “Emergency Measures”—maybe he’s actually more of a more a Mood than a Speaker or Character—is a post-9/11 type. The idea for the poem actually came to me on July 4, 2002, when I was sitting in Yankee Stadium wondering—pretty calmly, really—what I'd do if there were an anthrax release from the upper deck (“Wait till the crowd thins, take the D, get Cipro. . .”). “Shore Town, Winter” is clearly enough about materialism and zealotry and the way our addiction to sensational and apocalyptic thinking can in the end keep us from changing the things we’re scared of. It’d be easy enough to find stuff in “Vectors 3.0” that comes out of the last few elections, the last few wars, and you can’t read very far there without finding speculations on contemporary notions of work, self, value, truth, etc.
But the occasions and meditations of these poems stretch over twenty years, at least. It might be truer to say that I’m the kind of poet who likes to wait until the headlines, whether national or personal, settle into something more archetypal—or maybe I should say, until the large and the small connect. For example, the recurring figure of the “tyrant” in “Vectors” could be a religious zealot, a vice president, an everyday office tyrant, or my Inner Tyrant—yeah, I have one, though I hope I mostly keep him sedated—and is usually all of the above. I’m less interested in the particularities of the day’s debates than in the ways of thinking, the rigidities and myths and rationalizations, that underlie them, and I understand those best when I surprise them in myself.
But finally, the poems I love best come out of the lyric's “little room.” I want that room to have its window open to the world. But I don't want it to become secondary to the world, mere record or commentary.
JH: I’m curious about your process of writing aphorisms—little flags of truth—how did they unfurl?
JR: I'm sure no one has written a novel by accident, or even a sonnet, but a one-liner, an aphorism? Well, almost. Where does a pun, a wisecrack, a joke—I called my first bunch of aphorisms “cracks”—come from? They often come to me when I am reading someone else’s aphorisms, or, more generally, as a response to an idea. It feels like a rotation or flipping or twisting, a spatial skill not dissimilar from those involved in making metaphors, doing math and solving various small household problems. Actually I should have said “my responses,” plural, since often I end up with many slightly different versions of the same aphorism, all using pretty much the same words, but possibly expressing very different ideas, and certainly very different as sentences and experiences (“unfurlings,” to pick up your word). I sometimes think of them as “isomers”—chemical compounds that have the same formula but may differ utterly in their properties because they are different shapes. Sometimes it’s clear immediately which shape snaps or cracks or surprises best, or chimes most cleanly, but just as often I have to wait and decide later, and I tinker endlessly. What it doesn’t feel like, usually, is coming up with a clever idea and then working to find an even cleverer way of saying it. It’s more like a discovery, or at least like escaping from under a burdensome cliché, from the thing I was tempted to think first. Of course a lot of them end up sounding like things “I” could have said, but that strikes me as their limitation, not their origin. And if they sound too much like me, which they often do, I throw them away. Their infant mortality rate is high!
JH: What has compelled you to write about physics, physical phenomena, in verse?
JR: When I was a kid, before I really understood much about the daily work of science, before I figured out that my math was not really quite first rate, before I turned out to be awful and impatient in the lab, I thought I wanted to be a scientist. But I’m still interested in science, and my subscriptions to Discover, Science News, and Scientific American get read faster than, well, some other subscriptions. Partly I feel like science’s long view—that the Universe was here before us and will still be here when we’re gone—helps me keep in perspective who we are. Partly I’m just interested in what science is interested in—where matter came from, what life is, how the brain works. Partly it’s that science is always giving us perspectives and facts and metaphors that feel fresh, that help us re-see ourselves and the world.
A poet has to be a poet first. But a poet can secondarily be other things, some of which—moralist, literary critic, spiritual leader, rock star—I don't have the temperament for. But I like to think I might be some order of pseudo-scientist, at least, doing little experiments with words and feelings and thoughts, maybe discovering now and then a new compound. And in my own poetically licensed way I feel responsible to a kind of rigor I like to think of as something like scientific, to “getting it right,” whether “it” is a fact or a feeling, a speculation or a rhythm.
JH: How does teaching at a university, as you have for many years, inform your poetry?
JR: First off, I definitely don’t think people need to hang out at or graduate from universities to be poets. And certainly there are whole ranges of diction, moves, themes and meta-whatevers in contemporary poetry that make me think “academic” (my private term is “lit-critty”) and that I try to keep out of my own poems. But the value of a steady job—well, “steady" after fifteen years of teetering!—should not be underestimated, even considering the risks of overemployment (sometimes I think if I subtracted all the aphorisms about “work” from “Vectors” there wouldn’t be any left). Especially at a place where there’s a great community of poets and poetry-friendly people.
The greatest influence on my work is probably the teaching itself. I don’t exactly mean the study and prep involved—the kind of reading I do in order to teach is completely different from the aimless and unanalytical reading I do in order to write, and in fact they are always getting in each other’s way. I mean what is for me the sheer difficulty of teaching. I mean seeing every day how hard it is for both me and the students to write or say or even know exactly what’s on our minds. I think I’ve learned from teaching—and not without pain!—a little—and not enough—about clarity. I’m not at all saying that clarity is the ultimate poetic virtue—I believe deeply and unironically in the romantic notion that poems should always be chasing after what they can’t say. I’m just saying that whether freshmen or sexagenarians, whether in conversation or on the page, we’re seldom as clear as we want to be and think we are.
The other thing is that I’m almost always teaching beginners, because that’s the most fun. I’m always having to figure out how to say old truths to them in ways that they will personally get. And I’m pretty regularly figuring out “Wait, they’re right, this isn’t true, or true in this way, or true any more.” A teacher learns what parents learn, that it’s a new world out there. But that—wait—the heart is the same.
Jean Hartig is the author of a poetry chapbook, Ave, Materia, and the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.