Disrupting the Monologic of the Solitary Singer: An Interview with Poet/Publisher Paul Naylor, by Nathan Hauke
Book of Changes
Shearsman Press, 2012
Disrupting the Monologic of the Solitary Singer: An Interview with Poet/Publisher Paul Naylor
Poet and publisher Paul Naylor is the author of four full-length books of poetry, Book of Changes (Shearsman 2012), Jammed Transmission (Tinfish Press 2009), Arranging Nature (Chax Press 2006), and Playing Well With Others (Singing Horse Press 2004) as well as Poetic Investigations: Singing the Holes in History (Northwestern University Press 1999), a study of five contemporary poets: Susan Howe, Nathaniel Mackey, Lyn Hejinian, Kamau Brathwaite, and M. Nourbese Philip. He lives in San Diego where he directs Singing Horse Press. This interview grew organically through a series of email exchanges between Paul and myself that took place from July 22 to August 14, 2013 in which I asked him to talk about his most recent book, Book of Changes, and his ongoing work as a publisher.
Nathan Hauke: As your introductory note suggests, Book of Changes begins with the humble proposal of listening: “The models of the East, of which the I Ching is among the earliest, suggest we listen to, rather than beyond, nature.” Can you talk a little about listening as a process of externalization and, maybe, the way short forms lend themselves to listening?
Paul Naylor: I began writing the first section of Book of Changes, “Upper Canon,” after my mother died in 1996. I wanted to respond to that overwhelming event, but I had no desire to write a traditional elegy, which tends to elicit a style of subjectivity I don’t subscribe to. I wanted to listen to someone other than the “solitary singer,” someone other than the “I” who suffered loss. So I was definitely looking for a “process of externalization,” to use your phrase, to side-step that tradition of elegy. On the other hand, I had no desire to simply act as a conduit for some force or power completely outside myself either. I wanted a dialog.
From early on, my poetry has been influenced by the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian literary theorist. In one of his long essays, ”Epic and Novel,” Bakhtin takes poetry—lyric poetry, for the most part—to task for being overly monologic, for having a single speaker, and he contrasts that with the dialogic nature of the novel, which has multiple speakers. If I had to whittle my poetics down to one point, I’d say I’ve been pursuing a dialogic form of lyric poetry. In my first book, Playing Well With Others, the dialog was between myself and two philosophers—Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gilles Deleuze—and two poets—Michael Palmer and Michael Davidson. In Arranging Nature, the dialog is between myself and Lucretius. And in Jammed Transmission, it’s between myself and a 14th Century Japanese Zen Buddhist text, Transmission of the Light. So Book of Changes’ dialog with the I Ching is a continuation of that pursuit. Drawing on those other textual voices is definitely part of a process of externalization aimed at disrupting or interrupting that monologic solitary singer.
Given the personal events Book of Changes grows out of—the death of my mother, my father’s battle with Alzheimer’s, and the birth of my daughter—the need for that kind of disruption or interruption felt even more necessary. For me, those were clearly occasions when I should shut up and listen—in this case, listen to the spare yet evocative language the I Ching presents. What did I know about death and birth—other than that they are completely natural? But that was enough to know where I should direct my ear—to nature, rather than beyond it. And I did that directly, by listening to my surroundings, and indirectly, by listening to the I Ching, which is itself a book that listens primarily to nature.
As soon as you dip into the I Ching you notice immediately that it doesn’t “say” all that much directly; it’s notoriously vague and reticent—productively so, I’d argue. I see it as a book of hints, mostly, and I think the “book of nature” works the same way. So I’d listen to those two texts, and then I’d “translate” or “transpose” the hints they give into the terms of my own life. I do think this particular instance of listening does lend itself to the short forms of poetry. When I listen to nature and the I Ching, I hear a great deal of silence—fecund silence, no doubt, but silence nevertheless. I suspect my recourse to the short form—all the poems in Book of Changes are compose of six short lines—has a great deal to do with wanting to let that silence have its say, to not crowd it out with more words than the spare texts my partners in dialog offer.
NH: I think this movement towards a dialogical exchange of decentered perspective(s) is part of what makes Book of Changes so powerful because it allows for the register of experiences like loss and joy in a way that doesn't assume to own them. It also acknowledges the complexity of these occasions by activating linkages between melodies and the harmony they dissolve into: “sand/ stone rocks eroding/ I share their fate” (“Joy”).
As you suggested, part of this dialogic accomplishment of your lyric seems to be facilitated by interacting with “other textual voices” and I’m assuming that part of it comes from a perennial realization that the self is fundamentally destabilized by process. I’m thinking of Lucretius myself: “Fixed limits have been set/ to break-up, for we see things made anew,/ and see that, kind by kind, they reach the bloom of life” (The Nature of Things, Book I, 561-564).
What dissonances do you associate with the "solitary singer"/ "I"?
To what extent do chance operations (“thrown sticks broken by chance”) provide “nourishment” precisely because they draw us to limits that reveal the economy of essential forms and an expansion of attention that might make way for “another kind of music”? (“Nourishment” 1+2).
PN: I think it’s instructive to go back to the source of that phrase, “solitary singer.” It’s the title of Gay Wilson Allen’s biography of Whitman, and it’s an inversion of a phrase Whitman uses in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The poem’s persona has been listening to a mocking bird sing along the shore line, and the poet hears his call to become a poet in the bird’s song. Here are the key lines: “O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me, / O solitary me listening, never more shall I cease perpetuating you . . .” It’s a wonderfully equivocal moment: while the poet and the bird both are “solitary,” it’s that very solitariness that they share, so what catches my attention here is not dissonance but consonance: the bird is projecting the poet, and the poet is perpetuating the bird. Agreement, connection, and rapport mark this scene rather than the gaps, rifts, and dissonance that mark so much modern and postmodern poetry.
This point is important for me, because one of the things that I would say differentiates Book of Changes from a great deal of the poetry it grows out of and keeps company with is that it presents a highly conjunctive rather than disjunctive poetry. Maybe some biographical background about the origin of the form of the poems in Book of Changes will make this distinction sharper. About six months before I began to write “Upper Canon,” I began studying and practicing tai chi chuan, the Chinese martial art of moving meditation. I was struck then by the fact that the end of one move or stance in tai chi was also the beginning of the next move or stance. If you’re good at tai chi, there should be no gap—no punctuation, so to speak—between the end of one move and the beginning of the next. The poems in Book of Changes seek a linguistic equivalent to that dimension of tai chi—a form that foregrounds the consonance between the elements of the poem, particularly the way those elements flow into each other so that their ends and beginnings are fused rather than fragmented. Which is why there’s no punctuation in the poems. And it’s why so many of the poems turn on what I call “hinge words”—words that serve both what comes before and after them. Look back at the lines you quote above: “sand/ stone rocks eroding/ I share their fate.” Does “eroding” pertain to the “rocks” or the “I”? Both at once. They both share the fate of erosion just as they syntactically share the word “erosion.” I see that moment as a point of conjunction or consonance between the subject and object, the inner and outer, and all those other binary oppositions Western dualism thrives on.
When I speak about disrupting or interrupting that monologic “I,” then, I have a specific notion of the subject or self in mind. In my introductory note to Book of Changes, I write that “a person is not a piece of eternal private property, sealed off and saved from the impersonal forces of nature. A person is a part of, not apart from, nature.” In short, the book is an exploration, both formally and thematically, of the consonance—the dialog—between the self and nature. This isn’t to say there aren’t many moments of dissonance in the book. Given the subject matter, how could there not be? But I see that dissonance as occurring in a wider context of consonance. Once we step to the side of our habitual anthropocentric perspective—and I do think that’s possible, though only intermittently—that wider context shows itself.
And I do think recourse to chance operations in writing is one very good way to take that step to the side I just mentioned. The I Ching is, of course, a great source of chance operations. I drew the epigraph for Book of Changes from Martin Palmer’s introduction to one of the translations of the I Ching I used: “This is the heart of the I Ching: the breaking in of another view, over which we have no control, of which we understand little, but which asks us questions and puts us in a position of listening.” For me, chance operations have the potential to disrupt the monologic lyric voice and move me toward a state in which it’s possible to listen to what surrounds that anthropocentric perspective I want to break out of and hear “another kind of music.”
NH: I really like your discussion of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” especially as it underscores the fact that consonance must emerge through tremendous empathy, Whitman’s appreciation of difference and his consummate attempts to reach out across. I was also thinking of Virgil’s shepherds, alone together in their grief. Lycidas: “What was that song you were singing when you were alone?”
Our conversation continues to open at the “hinges,” as the possibility of “[listening] to someone other” slides apart: some one other. Dissonance is associated with the blindness of small perspective, consonance (“agreement, connection, and rapport”) with the harmonic rhyme. I’ve always loved Thoreau’s sense that “nature makes no noise” (Journals). It’s always both/ and rather than either/ or as “sense sequestered as reason/ tears at its own wounds” (“Encountering”). The dissonance of attachments inevitably melts into “the wider context” of natural process where distinctions between “subject and object, inner and outer” return to the compost.
I’m also interested in your discussion of tai chi and in your realization that “the end of one move or stance in tai chi was also the beginning of the next move or stance.” I like that you correlate being “good” with the wisdom of recognizing one’s actions as a part of a whole that’s underway: “If you’re good at tai chi, there should be no gap—no punctuation, so to speak—between the end of one move and the beginning of the next.” Speaking of Whitman, I hear this in his assertion, “I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-born babe” (Leaves of Grass.)
Many poems in Book of Changes reveal seeming oppositions, like ends and beginnings, to be suspensions: “between the two/ is one I understand” (“Unity”). Can you talk a little more about this by considering the ways in which the sections (occasions) of Book of Changes anticipate a widening of perspective that knows “no bounds but/ edges reined in/ by change”? (“Restraint”). It seems to me that an expansive attention must recognize change as the only constant as many poems, including “Peace” and “Great Developments,” appear to associate peace with an ability to embrace change: “all possibility settles/ in her changing shape” (“Great Developments”).
I really admire the way Book of Changes attends to fledgling details that arrest and puncture, awakening to change:
to watch deer
and pine each step
light as silence
Would you be willing to return to your sense that our ability to shed the dissonance of mean egotism is only intermittent and often dependent on disruptions, like those made possible by chance operations? In terms of “hinges,” “Modesty” is very evocative because it suggests that we “pine each step” and pivots immediately into “light” that comes in proximity to “silence.” It also ends “loses sight.”
PN: I do think you’re right to say that many of the sections of Book of Changes “anticipate a widening of perspective,” but I would go a step further and say that many of the sections attempt to create or perform that widening of perspective as well. Attempting to step to the side of what I called our “habitual anthropocentric perspective” requires some counterprograming, so to speak, and the only way I know of to enact that counterprograming is through adopting particular practices that go against the grain of “business as usual.” For me, tai chi, zazen, and, of course, writing poetry are particular practices I cultivate to widen my perspective. Most of the ideologies we’re confronted with every day ask us to think of our minds and bodies as separate realms, each with their own desires and rationales that, more often than not, set up a conflict between those two realms that—again, more often than not—render us less resistant to the seductions of those ideologies. I see tai chi, zazen, and poetry as practices that help me resist those demands; those practices invariably bring me back to the fact that my mind and body aren’t separate realms, which helps render the “divide and conquer” strategy of contemporary consumer culture somewhat less effective.
Those practices—and there are certainly others—are clearly an awkward fit with capitalism as we’re confronted with it daily. Just try getting the word career to fit coherently in a sentence with the words tai chi, zazen, or poetry—without using the word not. And it’s the fact that they don’t fit together that makes them so important for me. At first glance, it would be hard to find three practices that seem less political than tai chi, zazen, and poetry. And I’ll readily admit that it would be hard to find a book of poetry that seems less political than Book of Changes. But I’ll argue to the bitter end that those practices are highly political because they not only resist the homogenizing influence of contemporary capitalism, they can strengthen one against it. Think of it in Marx’s terms: tai chi, zazen, and poetry all have very little, if any, exchange value; but they do have a great deal of use value. Capitalists don’t like things with use value very much because they never figured out how to price those things to their best interests. So one of the dominant strategies of capitalism is to get us to put all our eggs in the exchange value basket and to forget about the use value basket. Deciding to put some of your eggs in the use value basket, then, is very much a political act. To circle back to where I started, taking up practices that have use value widens our perspective because we aren’t limited to seeing things only in terms of their exchange value, which means we aren’t limited to seeing things only in the terms capitalism wants us to. This all may just be my way of sharpening your question about “our ability to shed the dissonance of mean egotism” by getting at what I would see as the iteration of that egotism in the world we live in now.
NH: I definitely encounter Book of Changes as a political book dedicated to the “counterprogramming” of the deeper rhythms and harmonics of nature, tunings that transgress human agency. It seems particularly apt to discuss Book of Changes by talking about practices that you associate with “[stepping] to the side of” as activities like tai chi, zazen, and poetry provide lessons in relinquishment that put one in contact with those rhythms.
Poems like “Walk Cautiously” enact presence (wholeness) in a way that feels incredibly flexible and sensual:
on ice each step
across the lake
enlightened by care
only death creates
life we are told
leads us on
It’s radically political to awaken readers to the fact that real change begins at the most intense locality: the first institution is, of course, our imagination of ourselves and our place in the grand scheme of things. To return to your introductory note: “A person is a part of, not apart from, nature.” The sense that one is “sealed off and saved from the impersonal forces of nature,” isolated or worse, organizing the field that they are a part of is a terrible delusion that leads to grave consequences I would associate with the abstraction of capitalism and its emphasis on exchange value as well.
Practices that cultivate attention to the concrete natural processes at work beneath or behind the abstractions of contemporary consumer culture are vital and immensely useful because the widening of perspective jars and destabilizes the whole system, beginning with the first institution, making way for change and a re-imagination of priorities that acknowledge one is, in fact, already changing regardless. I especially like that “Innermost Sincerity” links sincerity with the yielding of “disguises” with which we attempt to guard an imagined interiority when our true “means of survival” comes from an exposure to what is outside bounds we imagine. “Taking Action”: “each breath/ turns inside out.”
Can you talk a little about the energies that have culminated in your work with River City and Facture, in your direction of Singing Horse Press?
How do your interests in rupture, “counterprogramming,” and dialogic lyrical forms extend to your dual roles as editor and publisher? What about your interest in texts like Lucretius’ The Nature of Things and the I Ching?
PN: My initial impulse is to talk about editing in the same political terms as writing, but I’d rather shift registers and talk about editing in terms of pleasure. Not that writing poetry isn’t pleasurable—it certainly is. Or that publishing isn’t political—it certainly is. But it’s easy to extrapolate from what I said about writing to publishing, so I’ll take an alternate route.
My first experience of editing was River City, which was the name of the literary journal published by the Department of English at the University of Memphis, where I was a professor. When I first took over the editorship of the journal, I was immediately struck by the real pleasure of getting writing—and writers—I admired into print. And a big part of that pleasure was purely material: twice a year, I could hold in my hands an issue of the journal. Academia involves a great deal of delayed gratification. You write an essay, and, if you’re lucky, it shows up in print a year and a half later. As an editor, I could accelerate that process if I went about it efficiently. And I did. I’m an irritatingly efficient person—just ask my wife—so editing in a way that got work out faster than usual was—and is—very gratifying to me.
I’d also say that the pleasures of editing were one of the reasons I left academia—certainly not the main reason, but a reason nonetheless. Once I got tenure at the University of Memphis, I found I didn’t really get much pleasure out of seeing my essays appear in academic journals. Even when my one academic book showed up on my doorstep, I found it very anticlimactic. Now, I’m as narcissistic as the next poet, and I love seeing my poetry in print, but I discovered that I enjoyed getting other writers’ work in print almost as much.
And that pleasure is even greater editing Singing Horse Press. First, there really aren’t any of the institutional strictures one has to negotiate when editing a journal within the confines of a university. Singing Horse Press is a one-man shop, so the only jerk I encounter is me. The limitations of that structure are obvious: it’s too small to think in terms of making a profit, so that means I can only publish a few books a year—two or three at the most—which means I have to say no to so many quality projects. Second, I’ve found I enjoy publishing books by a single author rather than issues of a journal comprised of numerous authors. Obviously, it’s easier to deal with one person than twenty, but it goes beyond that. Journals and magazines have an essentially fugitive quality—and that’s as necessary as it is wonderful—but books have a more enduring quality. It’s a pretty rare event when someone buys a back issue of a journal, but someone buying a book that’s four or five years old isn’t uncommon at all.
And there’s still the real pleasure delivery day when boxes of books show up on my doorstep. I still love the material pleasure of the work in my hands.
NH: Many of the pleasures you associate with your work as a publisher seem to be related to proximity and contact: the extension and preservation of company, immediacy, delight in the materiality of the medium itself, i.e. the issue of a journal or book as an artifact that can by taken in hand, entrusted to the hands of another.
Do you think that your experience of these pleasures speaks to the immediacy of poetry itself as a form of contact that out speeds the oft “delayed gratification” of scholarly work and the canon that seems to emerge in its wake? I imagine that running Singing Horse Press as a “one-man shop” that operates apart from “institutional strictures” speaks to this immediacy of publishing as an occasion by putting you in direct contact with the entirety of the publishing process.
I’m really interested in your sense that single author projects offer sustained—and, maybe, more sustaining—encounters with other writers and their writing. How do you generally choose projects? (How do your projects generally choose you?) It seems like chance and intuition must be very important. I’m assuming that echoes might also be in mind in light of our earlier conversation and as many poems in Book of Changes suggest that actions often resonate in unexpected ways: “scared a fox/ scaring a squirrel” (“Advance”).
Would you be willing to say a little more about the “enduring quality” of books? Are there particular qualities of books that matter most to you in relation to pleasure?
PN: As you probably know, Singing Horse Press was originally the creation of the late Gil Ott, so he had already established its reputation as an innovative press without a particular “house style.” Gil was very ill when I took over the press. In fact, the last conversation we had, he was in the Intensive Care Unit, fighting his final battle with kidney disease. He was fiercely protective of his press, and I’ll never forget him grilling me over the phone while he was in the ICU about which authors I would publish if he turned the press over to me. He asked me to email him a list of ten authors I wanted to publish and thought I’d be able to attract to Singing Horse Press. I’ve been very conscious—and I hope conscientious—about continuing Gil’s legacy while taking the press in my own direction. So your comment about preserving and extending a community is very appropriate in this case, as I’ve tried to do both since I took over the press in 2004.
And yes, the immediacy of the process is still a priority and a pleasure for me. The only vow I made to myself when I took over Singing Horse Press was that I wouldn’t accept any manuscript I couldn’t publish within a year. I’m proud to say that, after nine years, I’m still in 100% compliance. That policy means I have to say “no” way too often on the front end of the process, but it means I have happy authors on the back end.
You ask how I choose or am chosen by the projects I end up publishing. Well, for the first few years, those choices mostly came from that list I sent to Gil. A few are authors he had published—Norman Fischer, Karen Kelley, Ted Pearson—but most of the others are poets I’d admired for a number of years and knew would appreciate a publisher. I’ve felt a sense of loyalty to that initial group of poets I contacted, so I’ve published more than one book by most of those poets. I feel very fortunate in the contacts I’ve made, and many of those have evolved into very important friendships for me. So I do get a great deal of pleasure from the contact with the poets I work with. I haven’t experienced that high maintenance, “poet-from-hell” yet. I think most poets understand the marginalized position we’re in, so cooperation seems to be a given. A number of the poets I’ve worked with have designed their own books or had designers they know design them, which is more than fine with me. I want poets to have the book they want, not the one I want or think they want.
As for particular qualities I look for in books I might publish, I tend toward works that present themselves as “books” rather than “collections.” I’m sure that’s simply an extension of my own priorities as a poet, but writers working in longer series or sequences catch my attention most readily. I’ll also have to admit that, looking back on the books I’ve published, I have a tendency to favor works that privilege a “natural” rather than “urban” imagescape. That’s not always true, but it’s certainly a tendency I have. I think that tiny strip of land west of the Hudson River and east of the San Andreas Fault tends to get passed over by many presses, so I see that as a need I’m more than happy to help fill.
NH: The fact that you frame your work as a publisher in terms of friendship really speaks to the intimacy of the Singing Horse Press catalogue, challenging and disarmingly tender projects like Hank Lazer’s N18 (Complete), with which I’ve spent a lot of time recently, in particular.
I love the possibility of ending our talk with your mention of underrepresented territories. One last question (as company continues to be so important to my ability to light-out into parts unknown): Have any of the books you’ve written: Poetic Investigations: Singing the Holes in History (Northwestern University Press 1999), Playing Well With Others (Singing Horse Press 2004), Arranging Nature (Chax Press 2006), Jammed Transmission (Tinfish Press 2009), Book of Changes (Shearsman 2012) and/or had the pleasure of publishing through Singing Horse Press provided you with companionship that has sustained you in unexpected ways? Have any of the projects you've been involved with produced resonances that you feel particularly glad to be a part of?
Thank you so much for the conversation, Paul; it has been a real pleasure for me.
PN: Perhaps because it was composed over an eleven year period, and because it’s a more personal book than my others, Book of Changes still follows me around. Those poems provided companionship through those major life events—the death of my parents and the birth of my daughter. And now, they allow me to return to those events in a way I hadn’t foreseen.
Also, the second section of Book of Changes, “Lower Canon,” which I wrote while watching my father succumb to Alzheimer’s, perked my ears up to others who were dealing with and writing about Alzheimer’s. I’m not sure if I would have published Susan Schultz’s Dementia Blog and it’s follow-up, She’s Welcome to Her Disease, if I hadn’t gone through that experience with my father. Those are two of my favorite Singing Horse Press books.
I’d say that Jammed Transmission still keeps me company—probably because the “transmission,” the Zen Buddhist term for enlightenment, is still very much “jammed” for me. I’m still on the path that book explores. I also absolutely love the preface Norman Fischer wrote for that book. Let’s just say that Norman is more than a hop, skip, and a jump farther down that path than I am. I’m not sure I fully understood what I’d been up to in that book until I read Norman’s preface, so I’m very grateful that he so generously accompanied me in that book.
It may sound like boilerplate to say I’ve been glad to be a part of every Singing Horse Press book I’ve published, but it’s so true. All those books sit on the shelf next to my desk, so they’re an encouraging presence whenever I sit down to grapple with my own work. And I think of Gil Ott often when I look at those books. Our friendship was mostly conducted through email. I had lunch with Gil three times—other than that, it was all email. But I still think of him as a companion and an inspiration as the horse canters on.
This conversation’s been a real pleasure for me, too, Nathan. Thanks for taking the time to come up with such good questions.
Nathan Hauke is the author of one full-length collection of poems, In the Marble of Your Animal Eyes (Publication Studio 2013); four chapbooks, Pastoral (years later) (Shirt PocketPress 2013), Honeybabe, Don’t Leave Me Now (Horse Less Press 2013), S E W N (Horse Less Press 2011), In the Living Room (Lame House Press 2010); and a talk about getting a small press off the ground in a rural community, entitled Country Music, that was written in collaboration with his Ark Press co-editor Kirsten Jorgenson and published as a part of the DoubleCross Press Poetics of the Handmade series (2013). His poems, “Deerfield (1)” and “A Surface. A Shore or Semi-transparency of Glass,” were recently included in The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press 2012). He has a Ph.D. from the University of Utah and teaches literature, creative writing and film studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.