2011 National Book Award Finalist,
Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010
W.W. Norton & Company
Interview by Cat Richardson
Cat Richardson: You include the definition of the word "serve" at the beginning of the book, implying that the title means that poetry will not do your bidding rather than that, or possibly in addition to the fact that, it is wholly inadequate. There's also the idea in "Waiting for Rain, for Music" of the "the war / poetry wages against itself," suggesting that poetry refuses to serve even its own ends. Can you talk a little bit about poetry refusing versus poetry failing? How did this idea of serving become central to the collection?
Adrienne Rich: The epigraph from Webster’s—definitions of “to serve”—occurred to me after many of the poems in the book were written. I’d like to make a plea for poetry not as “marginal” or “alternative” in human culture but as one of the oldest modes of cultural production, pre-literary, certainly not a matter of “ideas” in the modern western sense. We’re accustomed to instant impact, immediate effect; poetry works more like historical process.
That title poem begins in an erotic moment, watching the beloved walking and later asleep, but almost immediately and sharply turns to “the unslept, unsleeping, elsewhere”—the knowledge of crimes committed in our names by aggressive authority. How can poetry, in its fullest sense, coexist with or even affect things like rendition and torture? Is it in service to them, how does it refuse service, how in fact resist? The trope of the poem is grammatical, the parts of language blown apart. Yet (I think!) the poem coheres, exists to show—not tell—something.
“The war / poetry wages against itself” (in “Waiting for Rain, for Music”): Poetry is as much in struggle as any part of society. I’m not talking about competition for prizes, fame, careers. I mean the deep wrestling and tensions “at the roots of the mind” that Raymond Williams alludes to in his Marxism and Literature—essential, fertile, painful.
CR: What are the things that you keep coming back to in this book? Do you think you've written through any of them, or is that impossible?
AR: “Scenes of Negotiation” and “Powers of Recuperation” are both poems in which collective resistance is conceived as clandestine, working under an oppressor’s eye but still working—action however small and underground. Written of course before the “Arab Spring” and the “Occupy Wall Street” movements, but in the light of long history.
“Ballade of the Poverties” revives an old French form. In it I try to turn the term “poverty” around in the light to catch some of its distinctive and various experiences. I liked working with the tension between formality and anger.
CR: You have a section of poems about Axel Avákar, who is described as a "fictive poet, counter-muse, brother." The first poem of that section includes the lines "The I you know isn't me, you said, truthtelling liar / My roots are not my chains." Are these ideas important to your work and your writing process?
AR: “Axel Avákar” involves another kind of struggle: One poet addressing another. They’ve been in some sense twinned, then distanced, the struggle is to understand, be understood, know the other in the self. Like many of my poems it’s cast in a series of peopled, sensuous scenes each with its own music. But there’s no resolution finally—only questions.
Cat Richardson's poetry and prose has appeared in Tin House and Pleiades. She recently completed her term as the Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers and is working towards and MFA from NYU. Currently, she is the student coordinator for the Goldwater Hospital Writing Workshop and managing editor of Washington Square, washingtonsquarereview.com.