On Teaching Clarity and Other Poems: A conversation between the teacher, Daniel Morris, and the poet, Tom Fink
About this conversation
This conversation took place online in late April, 2010 shortly after I taught Tom Fink’s Clarity and Other Poems (Marsh Hawk Press, 2009) in the final week of my upper division undergraduate course on modern and contemporary poetry at Purdue University, a large Midwestern state university located in West Lafayette, Indiana. In recent years, each time I teach this course I include on the syllabus one volume of contemporary poetry published by a small independent press. I do so for several reasons. I feel it is valuable to introduce students to poets, poems, and presses that are ignored by most of the available anthologies. By exposing students to very recent work by authors who publish with alternative presses, I believe I help sharpen my students’ sensibilities as readers because they cannot rely on pre-established frames of evaluation. Fink’s Clarity did not come before the students with labels such as “great” or “canonical” or “major” attached to it. Further, by assigning a book-length volume, students must find their own way into a poet’s aesthetics and social views without the filtering process that goes on when a small set of poems are selected as highlights for an anthology. Students are encouraged to think about the composition of the book as a whole, which is especially important with a poet such as Fink who creates works in series, such as his “Yinglish Strophes” or “Nonce Sonnets.”
Fink’s poetry is avant-garde, experimental, difficult to decipher. I take these unsettling elements of Fink to be a good thing for my students to confront. As unusual as are the poems in Clarity, by the time we read them in class, students had been exposed to strains of 20th century poetics (Cage, Stein, and Ashbery among them) that influenced Fink. Student readings in the assemblage/collage traditions, surrealist and Dadaist poetics, New York School writing as well as the multicultural dynamics that inform the “Yinglish Strophes” all served to allow students to get their bearings. We noticed how even a poet as seemingly eccentric as Fink has roots in work that has already entered the tradition I teach. To generate class discussion, I broke students up into groups of four or five. Each group was charged with developing five questions they wished to ask of a specific poem in Fink’s book. After each group generated their questions, we then spent the remaining class sessions responding to these prompts. What follows is my summary of the questions and issues that arose in those sessions, as well as Tom Fink’s responses.
Daniel Morris: My class was drawn to poems in the ironically titled Clarity and other poems where we could glean at least the residue or remnants of more conventional elements of narrative or lyric poetry. Your poems are often disjunctive, opaque, and difficult to comprehend (in terms of mimetic meaning). But after initial Steve Martinesque cries of “I’m So Confused!,” we calmed down. We realized your playful but forbidding texture foregrounded our awareness of our disposition as readers. As readers in search of conventional meanings, we struggled to create, co-create, intuit, or flat out imagine, your poems as reflections on a world anterior to the text. This was the case regardless of how resistant the poems might be to our desire to imagine that there indeed IS a world outside of text.
Tom Fink: Dan, no, my intention in writing was not to posit that there is not a world outside the text.
DM: Your poems caused us to acknowledge how conservative we are as readers, conservative in the sense that we wished to conserve status quo notions of “voice,” “lyric subjectivity,” “literary actors or agents within the space of the poem,” an implied authorial perspective that could be gleaned from the text if we only worked hard enough to decipher the words. We yearned to connect your texty text to “real” life scenarios, and biographical, historical, and autobiographical contexts.
TF: Having the text try on “real” life scenarios is probably a good idea, but forcing a fit is not. Perhaps getting one leg in a pants leg and not the other is an interesting readerly experience. One can hop around.
DM: As much as your poems self-consciously thematized a resistance to a transparent reading of the social text on political grounds, we resisted your resistance tooth and nail.
TF: Well, maybe I try to make my poems resist “transparent” reading but that still leaves a great deal for a reader to do. I’m not against close reading; I do a lot of it myself as a critic.
DM: And so we were drawn to poems such as “Pyramid Assembled” because we felt it had enough conjunctions of imagery and topic that we could go buzz like dutiful worker bees fantasizing about what Tom Fink was “trying to say.” (As much as your poems resist what the New Critics called “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” paraphrase we did!). We became involved with what W.J.T. Mitchell calls the “semantics [or meaning-bearing element] of form” as we analyzed the visual shape of “Pyramid Assembled.” Was it a scar? A sideways pyramid? Both? Neither? Neither and both? We noted that the poem described “The scar could/be masked by ascot, but it/seems contemptuous of anonymity.” This was the discursive link between form, content, and extra-textual meaning that we were waiting to pounce upon so we could start spinning interpretations that made sense (even as, to quote David Byrne, you wanted to “Stop Making Sense”). If indeed we were correct in reading the visual shape of the poem as a scar, then were you saying that language was itself the scarring agent or the victim of some scarring agent?
TF: To me, the shapes of “Pyramid Assembled” are abstract. But any abstract shape in any art work can be read as figurative, so why should I resist? I don’t see language as the “victim of some scarring agent” in the poem, yet it well could be: language is abused all the time. Maybe I’d say that people are the victims of manipulative uses of language, and wisecracks like “It’s new/ and I/ recall it/ from/// adolescence” are meant to counteract the verbal violence.
DM: Were you saying that conventional meanings, which confirm a normative social text -- the very meanings of your poems that we were attempting to tease out -- were the trace elements of psychic and/or physical pain in your poem, the meaningful scars that couldn’t be hidden from your disjunctive poetics? We teased out themes of wage labor, gendered work, and a narrative of exploitation in “Pyramid Assembled.” We were picking up on a story line that involved a waitress who lives on tips, but must spend a tipless hour closing up the café. (I learned from students that a waitress only earns $2.14 an hour without tips). This brought us to the association of the poem with the assemblage of the pyramid in your attractive title. Were you comparing the exploitation of wage laborers in an urban café to the enslaved Jews of the Exodus story? How did this association align with the sideways pyramid reading of the visual shape of the poem?
TF: $2.14 an hour is obscene! I wonder if there are differences between Indiana, California, and New York. I’m not worried about the negative impact of “conventional meanings,” just verbal distortions, bullshit, etc. I do believe that you’re right to perceive various thematic continuities: “psychic . . . pain” involved in “wage labor, gendered work, and a narrative of exploitation.” I wasn’t trying to hide these themes, but to develop them in ways that weren’t obvious. And your reading of the “pyramid” trope makes fine sense, though I didn’t consciously think about a “sideways pyramid reading of the visual shape.”
DM: Your poems are filled with self-referential, often self-mocking moments: “We impanel the ostensibly nonaligned”; “Through vaudeville veneer I speak”; “Drained pseudo-/defiant blubber patch”; “Bet you’re stumbling wanly through/another bland/ maze, vaguely blue”; “Don’t stop tinkering with the borrowed” – this last a mishearing of the Fleetwood Mac song. Given this self-referential quality of your poems, we wondered about the “assembled” part of the title of your first poem. How did a poem that thematized exploited work resonate with your own self-styled position of poet as assembly worker? Was your work with the materiality of language a form of undercompensated labor?
TF: A worker who assembles the “parts” of a “collage” isn’t an assembly-line worker who faces mind-numbing drudgery and job-related physical problems. I enjoy this work, and fretting about the degree of compensation would be a pointless distraction from this enjoyment.
DM: As stated, we gravitated toward poems that did not only provide us with the Barthesian pleasure of the text through your gift at punning, zany humor, and witty, often surrealistic juxtapositions of images such as “rubber scoreboard,” “pediatric perm center” and “Dildo/pasta” from “Your Preppie Blizzard.”
TF: Well, you know, speaking of “Your Preppie Blizzard” (35), pages 28 through 36 of Clarity and Other Poems pick up on sound-effects in conjunction with surreal “narratives” that I was working with in parts of my previous two books, After Taxes and No Appointment Necessary, and I’m not sure that my “experiments” with this mode continue to satisfy me as a reader. The narrative components seem too arbitrary. A few months ago—less than two years after the book came out—I tried to rewrite some of these poems, and the effort didn’t work. I don’t regret writing the poems in the first place, because, even when experiments aren’t successful, they can be the mulch for strong later developments. The question is: should I regret publishing them? As I finish up my next collection, I’m trying to be very careful not to include poems that I might find unsatisfactory a few years after publication. But then again, those readers who come at a poem like “Your Preppie Blizzard” from a very different perspective than either your students “in search of conventional meanings” or me (at this time) could convince me that it has virtues I haven’t noticed.
DM: We were very interested in the various ways history and politics did inform your poems, and so we focused on poems in which we could decipher the multiple levels on which you engage politically. Sensing your commitment to pacifism in the context of an increasingly militarized culture during the period of the Bush Wars in the Middle East, equitable labor practices, housing and social class issues, food and diet, cancer and smoking, “Homeland Security,” anti-consumerism, and sensitivity to environmental concerns, we did wonder why you didn’t treat these topics in a more direct, accessible fashion. On the back cover of your book, Joanna Fuhrman notes that your “brilliant constructions should help us in this struggle” for “Aspiring Democracy.” Given the difficult texture of your work, we wondered how. I told the class that I thought you wanted to activate a kind of readerly relationship to texts (both your own poems and the social text enforced by the mass media) that would foreground a vigorous reading as co-creation process while at the same time deconstructing the mind-numbing slogan, ads, billboard wisdom, and headline sound byte social text that your work often mimics in a parodic fashion. (I mentioned to the class how important humor, and especially humorous word play ala Groucho Marx, has been to diasporic Jews as a way of dealing with social absurdities and linguistic defamiliarization.) I told the class that I got the sense that you felt if you wrote about (rather than enacted in the strangeness of your text) your political commitments you would be merely integrating your oppositional perspective into a discursive system – the prison house of language spoken of by Wordsworth and Jameson – that has the power to absorb dissident subjectivities.
TF: Much of your explanation works very well. However, I wouldn’t argue that direct articulation of political commitments always results in the dilution of “oppositional perspective,” though clichéd expression almost invariably does. Carefully articulated, nuanced discursive formulations are one vital component of any significant social change, and these can occur in poetry. My poems are not intended to be proscriptive but to provide ways to read and just to explore (without definitive conclusions) culture and politics—while at the same time giving pleasurable attention to resources of language (and organization of those resources into new forms) that are not inherently “political”—and perhaps at times to hint at fruitful alternatives to typical operations, as in the eco-themed “When the Ad.”
DM: I told them that I felt you understood language itself as a political instrument. But your poems, we felt, were also conventionally political in topic and theme. For example, the poem “Ralph’s Mama” concerned the limitation of traditionally gendered work practices that, your poem argued, inhibit progressive relationships to work and possibly libratory feminist entrepreneurship. You describe how the mother has failed to “hush his ambient/macho and steer him to intricate,/intimate acquaintance with her household/cultivation moves, Alice could/have extended/her donut/powdering/career.”
TF: A lot of poems in the book are “conventionally political in topic and theme,” especially the “Nonce Sonnets,” but others, like the two poems from the “Dented Reprise” series, could be associated with not particularly politicized love or lust, and still others like “Dangerous Intersection” with family situations. And I hope that political themes are often “invaded” by topoi that aren’t obviously or primarily political. Though I’ve been a Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist for 36 years, I’ve been reluctant to develop religious themes in my work, because I didn’t want to distort the teachings. Yet in a review of After Taxes in Jacket, Shivaji Sengupta noted that a Buddhist sense of transience or impermanence was important to the work, and that probably continues to be so. Evocations of transience are not reducible to the political, though the thematization of consumer culture is a very good “place” to include them. Also, for a Buddhist, notions of compassion—which, I hope, governs some of my decisions while writing or editing a poem—are not always equivalent to social action on a broad scale.
Going back to “Ralph’s Mama,” I took Ralph and Alice to be specific figures in popular culture, and “donut/ powdering” is a highly particular allusion. Of course, they could also signify otherwise, and I’m not one to stop that.
DM: In “Introducing Wallpaper” we felt we were overhearing a critical discussion about the Gulf War and our national dependency on oil, the flow of which is protected or facilitated by militarism.
As an assimilated, hyper-educated, middle-class Jew with grandparents who came over from Russia and Latvia via the Ellis Island experience, I was particularly drawn to your “Yinglish Strophes,” which we spent a good deal of class time discussing in terms of contemporary multi-lingual-hybrid-diasporic poetics. As in the previous examples, we as a class tried to pull together a narrative, thematic elements, and characterizations of personae in these voice-driven strophes. We imagined the speaker (here I was projecting my own experience) as a living remnant of an increasingly moribund Eastern European Jewish Yiddish cultural experience. We spoke of the Shoah and Isaac B. Singer and how what is left of Yiddish, itself a hybridic mongrel language made up of German, Hebrew letters, and other elements of Jewish wanderings, is, in your Strophes, undergoing still more mongrelization/hybridization as the grandmother’s diction, tone, syntax, and grammar delightfully represents a collision of American English and Yiddish. As much as the grandmother/speaker’s lexicon and grammatical structures are transformed through her transplantation from Eastern Europe to New York City, we noted that your own poetics is delightfully impacted by the Yiddish grandmother’s speech patterns and word choices. American English in Fink becomes itself a porous, flexible hybridic lexicon that is absorbing international influences, be it the Yinglish of your poetry (“meshuge” is the first word in the first of the series of “Yinglish” strophes) or the Spanglish dimension of other multiculturalist poeticists. At first we thought of the grandmother and the son (hyper-educated, science oriented, and avant-garde poet) to whom we imagined her speaking (often in a scolding, “I know better than you” grandmotherly tone!) as belonging to two utterly distinct linguistic spheres and thus epistemological universes. In “Yinglish Strophes 15,” for example, we at first viewed the grandmother speaker and hyper-educated New World grandson in these binary terms: Grandma’s good greasy Jewish soul food including white flour versus enlightened whole wheat Health Food diet that doesn’t “agree” on a taste-test level with grandma’s culinary aesthetics; “tasty…maternity feeds” versus nutrition and child-rearing theories of “newspaper scientists”; Grandma’s cleaning habits (a broken broom not a vacuum please!) and critique of air conditioning versus contemporary critiques of pollution; the personal testimony of the grandmother concerning her husband’s smoking Camels and living to “almost 90” and the scientific data which would be surprised by his longevity, and “education science” versus the sassy intelligence “inside second smoke” that the grandmother’s wisdom represents. As different as are the world views, aesthetics, and linguistic dispositions of the grandmother speaker and the grandson, I ended up feeling that you were suggesting how each participant in the polylingual discourse was literally and figuratively feeding off of each other, learning from one another, expressing affection in a dialogic relation to one another as elements of each other’s discursive community seeped into the other.
TF: As I read “Yinglish 15,” the grandmother figure is not a spokesperson for pre-modern views but someone in transition who is attentive to uncertainties. She understands that whole wheat is good for most people but, given the strange specificity of each individual constitution, not her. She is impatient with “newspaper scientists” because the “wisdom” is always changing, not because she wants to defend “good greasy Jewish soul food.” She wants the scientists to get it right, and she’s frustrated with them, as well as with the makers of vacuum cleaners, who should make their products capable of extirpating residues of air pollution, which she sees as a menace. This speaker knows that smoking is bad for you, and she is probably puzzled that science can’t seem to account for her husband’s longevity. So, from a Bakhtinian sense, double-voiced discourse in this particular poem exists within her, and there isn’t necessarily any need—as there is in some other poems in the series, like 8—to posit the grandson or someone else of a different generation as listener, as dialogic partner.
DM: As much as the grandmother’s broken syntax and suggestive but not quite right word choices (“sugar we refine on”) reflect her position as a displaced person, we realized that your own poetics reflects a kind of dissociated sensibility at odds with mainstream ways of seeing and saying. Just like the grandmother, the poet uses humor, puns, mishearing, and criticism of the status quo to suggest his own uneasy relationship with mainstream discourse.
TF: Yes, and thank you.
Thomas Fink is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Clarity and Other Poems (Marsh Hawk Press, 2008) and two books of criticism. He is also co-editor of a 2007 collection of essays on David Shapiro. Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs published his chapbook, Generic Whistle-Stop, in 2009. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). Fink’s paintings hang in various collections.
Daniel Morris is Professor of English at Purdue University. He is the author of book-length studies on William Carlos Williams, Louise Gluck, the relationship of contemporary American writing to modern painting, and a forthcoming study of Jewish American photography. He is the author of two books of poetry, Bryce Passage and the forthcoming If Not for the Courage.