Rappahannock Review Poetry Editor: We’re interested in the “fine white powder” in “Drought.” Can you give any insight on this–is the image meant to be ambiguous?
Joshua Allen: It was meant to be ambiguous in the sense that the image wasn’t intended to be or represent a single thing; rather, it was intended to have a broadly associative effect, with no single interpretation being definite or predominant. It evokes, in no particular order, cremated ashes, the dust of drought-stricken areas, and the sand of the Sinai Desert. These associations are then related to “diluvian” (referring to the Biblical flood and, hence, cleansing, rebirth, and a small measure of self-annihilation) and, less strongly, “this place… is it / overflowing [with milk and honey]?” The powder is the memory of the “him” made tangible; it’s banal, like the sand you get in your shoe at the beach, yet its ubiquity is vaguely menacing. It “clogs the filters / of the pond,” rendering it uninhabitable. The religious allusions, then, situate the private grief in a historical frame and also show implicitly how to keep on living—which is simply to keep on living.
RR: Near the end of the poem, the speaker alludes to the experience of grief, “six months into the ordeal / of outliving him.” Can you tell us about how you developed the poem–is it based on a real event you’ve experienced?
JA: It wasn’t based on a particular event, but it also wasn’t purely imaginary. I tend not to write about my own experiences because I find it nearly impossible to establish a coherent relationship between myself and the subject matter. To treat myself as a character requires a refined understanding of self that I’m either incapable of having or unwilling to develop. And I suspect that, even if I had this gift of self-perception, I would outsource my experience to a fictional voice regardless to avoid the pernicious nature of self-presentation—the conflict between the aesthetic demands of the work and the knowledge that you’re constructing your own public image.
But the grief is authentic in the sense that nearly everyone who has ever been and will ever be has and will outlive a person whose existence in the world they’ve come to rely upon.
RR: How do you approach form in your poetry? Would you say that you like to experiment, or do you find yourself sticking to similar styles and forms?
JA: As in most things, my approach to form in poetry is instinctive and nonsystematic—which is a polite way of saying ‘impulsive and half-baked’. In this way, everything is, by definition, experimental. I began as a fiction and dramatic writer, and most experimental poetry is simply beyond my capacity to write. For me to write that way would require, I think, a period of isolation in a sensory deprivation tank. My impressions of the world simply loom too large in my writing for me to move beyond a realism that is, at its extremes, exaggerated and absurd.
But, if I were to trace a pattern, I’d say that my poems tend to be firmly grounded in idiosyncratic voices and organized around central incidents/themes/images (e.g., “drought” – actual, emotional, physical, and so on) and the form of the poem is a natural outcome of the thematic development and my own unrefined sense of rhythm, which is rather more like an aspiring musician’s than a poet’s.
RR: How does your daily life influence your writing?
JA: It doesn’t. Or if it does, it’s an oppositional force. The daily experience of living tends to be rather formless and impressionistic, lacking the narrative energy necessary for stories. Even if I look across longer spans of my life, if a narrative seems to exist, it’s retrospectively constructed; it’s looking at history as preparation for what comes after. The only true continuity is that I happen to be the same person who is experiencing things that are fundamentally unrelated to past events.
The presumption of causality is really one of narrative’s greatest deceptions. Poetry, like history, coyly assembles order from an infinity of discontinuous moments and is, in that sense, a rebuttal to the notion that anything can be “daily.”
RR: On a different note, your biography was playful when compared to most that we received – what place do you feel absurdity has in poetry and culture at large?
JA: That’s certainly a big question. I can imagine that there’s probably a dozen overworked students at northeastern liberal arts colleges writing their dissertations on that right now.
Absurdity disrupts the typical (until, of course, the absurd becomes typical). Until then, it undermines, through unreality, paradox, exaggeration, etc. tidy notions of the world that are exchanged without reflection. This is not to say that these tidy notions are incorrect. You can think of Zeno’s paradox where Achilles races the turtle. The turtle has a lead on Achilles and, by the time Achilles has crossed half that distance, the turtle has advanced some distance. After Achilles crosses half that distance again, the turtle has advanced more, and so on and so on. According to this, the units get smaller and Achilles will never surpass the turtle, which is obviously untrue, and calculus has shown why. Yet not all tidy notions are such that they can be disproved by mathematics.
Creatively, absurdity is one mode of originality; philosophically, it demonstrates inconsistencies in thought; it’s also humorous, unexpected, and more interesting than my life summarized into 100 or so bland and professionalized words.
And, in a sense, it’s absolutely true; I might as well be the guy your friend’s cousin knows.
Joshua Allen’s work in Issue 6.1: