The following conversation appears as part of an extensive portfolio on poet Sylvia Legris in Music & Literature no. 9. The exchange was conducted by email over the fall of 2018 for the occasion of the volume.
Will Alexander: What persists as your principle pattern of poetic ignition? Is it from reading other poets, current events, acute observation in your daily round, an inner welling up, or possibly a combination of all of the above?
Sylvia Legris: This is a great question, Will, however, as you know, it’s taken me an unreasonably long time to formulate a response to it. I thought I had an answer in the bag two months ago, but then I went through a bout of completely doubting what it is that does ignite my poetry—has the pilot light gone out? I’ve been depressed, circling this question, inching toward it and then pulling back, hoping that if I arrive at an answer it will shift my mood, afraid that it won’t. For me, being depressed doesn’t mean that I’m not writing, more that the flame, the music that sparks my poetry is muffled. I have to work that much harder to dredge it up, to hear it.
An audience member at a reading I gave a couple of years ago asked me which is more important in my poetry, meaning or sound. I answered that I don’t favor one over the other, meaning (or logic) and sound (or music) constantly play off each other. However, when I think now about what persists as my primary poetic ignition, I’d have to come down on the side of music. Or not…
I frequently write out of scientific language or, more quaintly, the language of natural history, and often, initially, the language holds more mystery to me than it does meaning. I have no background in science; I come to it as an amateur, as an explorer, on first blush swept away by the language as a beautiful and chewy tangle of syntax, sound, and evocation. The poems in my current manuscript, Garden Physic, are either informed directly by botany or by other writings or artworks that engage in some way with plants and gardens. When I’m reading through one of the books that serve as sources, often just flipping through pages, a word or phrase will catch my attention, for its oddness, for the beauty of how it looks and (how I think it) sounds, or perhaps because it reminds me of something else. What is its poetic possibility? If I look into its fuller context and etymology, where will that lead me? Sometimes I’ll know that such a phrase will be the title of a poem I have yet to write—is this instinct, some sort of intrinsic musicality, a function of thought or of ear?
“Flowers of Brass,” a poem I recently completed, ignited exactly as I just described. Flowers of Brass is an entry in the fifth and final book of Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica; this last volume focuses in part on the medicinal properties of soils, minerals, and metallic stones. I was scrolling through the pages of Book 5 in search of entries on soil. Each entry is in Greek with the English translation below it. How gorgeous are the words “Flowers of Brass”? As soon as I saw these words (bookended by entries for Burnt Brass and Brass Scales) I was certain that this would be the title of a poem. I jumped on those words naïvely, without preconception. I was in love, smitten, transfixed by this particular configuration of three ordinary words. Flowers of Brass: it’s a standalone small poem; a small song; an entry into a garden of shiny knobs and jazzy instruments. But this was before I took a step back, to do the research, to uncover the necessary background of these three words. This was before I learned that Flowers of Brass is the scum or crud that is “spit out” during the melting of brass. Too late—the words had cast their spell on me.
The final poem unfolded slowly, incrementally, a process of association leading to further association. Descriptors such as “burnt red earth” or “big-veined bituminous earth” are already imbued with music. In the following passage, meaning makes music and music reveals meaning:
Petals and leaves spit from earth.
Seeds of metallic scales.
Scales like glittering millet.
Brass in the pitch of thundering Zeus.
Brass in the scale of a Delphic hymn.
Obviously, I’m drawn to language that works on several levels at the same time. Maybe the poetic properties are there and I’m the one who unearths them. Or maybe I impose my own musical and poetic sensibilities onto unmusical material. I don’t know that it matters. When I was working on The Hideous Hidden, even other poets found it hard to imagine that one could find music in glands!
What about you? What first drew me to your work was its musicality, its acoustic audacity. I was recently flipping through your book Towards the Primeval Lightning Field and the phrase “I’m concerned with a vaporous cognition of traces” jumped off the page. I realize this is an older work, but this phrase seems to encapsulate both the ghostly or ephemeral elements of your work and the ones that are more engaged with thought or ideas, be that science or metaphysics, for example. What ignites your poetry?
Alexander: Sylvia, language for me is not unlike foliage, it accrues simultaneously like a magically lit vapor. Its music, its meaning, its psychic texture, happen all at once. When engaged in its spontaneous praxis there exists no cognitive separation between these states—it flows as both quantum wave and particle, and has the flexibility to absorb, say, pre-human light cascading from Andromeda, or commune with telepathic coherence when poetically weaving the realia of, say, Andean Glacier Finches. Once we are able to lingually weave such intervalic dissonance, it expands our capacity to create. Just a few months ago the first extragalactic planets were witnessed some three billion light-years away while all along strange realia continue to evince themselves on Earth. What comes to mind are things like the ancient bones of giant lemurs in caves within the region of Madagascar, as well as things such as lost continents newly revealed beneath Antarctica. There is so much enthralling energy for poets and writers to presently engage in that has transcended, say, the prior tropes of the Modernists and the lingering scaler of their acolytes. The very nature of reality has forced us to abscond the European mental caravan so that a more complex view can begin to interweave language as true experimentation. Not language via an ideological identity, but as lingual oxygen, spiraling beyond the original insight of Breton and the first Surrealists. Let us take as a recent example the space that Philip Lamantia and Bob Kaufman entered, say, between 1959 and 1978. I am thinking here of trans-personal, evolutionary language that can be shaped by terms from various knowledges of the Earth. It is in this tenor that I feel we need to blaze as verbal artists, not crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s, or expertly copying prior experience but enacting movement across revelatory terrain. But to paraphrase Goethe, one needs to “move beyond the tombs.” Language as an evolutionary exercise not just beholden to the literal history of literature. A shamanic language, if you will, that while flying to the unknown provides generic synthesis of the present and the past. The latter state now seems to condense as my present state of poetic flux. You made allusions in your earlier message, but what are the areas of experience through which you engage in order to fertilize poetic instinct?
Legris: Often I find that merely moving through the world fertilizes poetic instinct, walking around and being open to discovery or to seeing things in ways I haven’t previously. I’ve been a big walker for a lot of years and I’m always paying keen attention to everything—people, the natural world, stuff on the street.
The areas of study that inform my work are, at least in the early stages of a project, less deliberate than a reader of my poetry might assume. Every poem in Garden Physic refers to botany in some way; my reading for this collection is wide ranging and includes technical books about plants, as well as literary or visual art-related works that touch on plants, either directly or obliquely. Some of the anatomical poems in The Hideous Hidden sent out shoots and suckers into botany; so even when I was working on that book I was already doing some research about plants, if only tangentially. (It’s impossible to do in-depth reading about glands and not notice the places where glandular terminology parallels that of botany.) The realization that my collection following The Hideous Hidden would focus on botany happened not while I was reading or writing—or even thinking—but while my hands were deep in earth, wrestling with an impossible tangle of volunteer elm roots and daylily rhizomes. My first attempts at gardening, outdoors as opposed to indoors in pots, happened while I was finishing The Hideous Hidden and was still immersed in the history of anatomy and dissection. The formidable task of trying to eradicate a sorely neglected flower bed of roots so tenacious they were causing a driveway curb to buckle and crumble felt like something closer to surgery than to gardening. And I imagined I was doing surgery, my hands working their way through the muddy tendons and intestines of a huge body. My poem “Pedanius Dioscorides in His Backyard Plot” contains the line “The limb-sized roots.” In the section of the yard dedicated to vegetables, there was one area where nothing would grow. I thought I’d dug up this area thoroughly and removed all the crap, but apparently not. I dug deeper and hit something hard—what I first worried might be water pipes turned out to be the roots of a blue spruce that had been cut down years earlier. And limb-sized these roots were. I felt like I’d unearthed human remains, some of these roots the length and diameter of an adult’s legs and arms, their surfaces pulpy—flesh-like—from decay. The more I dug, the more I wanted to know about plants and gardens. As I roamed around in books about gardening and horticulture, I was amazed at how many plant names contain anatomical references: bladderwort, kidney vetch, boneset, liverweed, lung moss… this is just a sample. My long poem “The Garden Body,” which went through several incarnations over three years, was sparked by my thinking about how cool it would be if you could arrange a garden anatomically—bloodwort interspersed throughout, the “organ” plants occupying the central “torso,” lungwort and heart trefoil surrounded by ribwort, lady’s fingers at the extremities.
The finished poem is very different from how I first envisioned it, yet now I can’t imagine it being anything other than what it is. The poem that emerged from this lengthy germination, starting and stopping and restarting from scratch, is a concoction of instinct and association, sparks flying back and forth between garden and page, doing and pondering, plodding and plotting. Of course, there’s also an element of serendipity in the mix; what poems might have emerged if I’d started with a pristine patch of earth? What you say about language being “not unlike foliage, it accrues simultaneously like a magically lit vapor” seems apt to me. My poems seem to develop organically and unpredictably, music, meaning, and texture unfolding with what seems like synchronicity. Just as I always find it magical that a flower I’ve planted blooms or that my peas look like real peas, the process that results in a finished poem also seems magical and mysterious.
Alexander: I’m reminded of certain traditions of psychological study which understand the body and the universe as linked, with the body being the protracted inheritance of the cosmos. How does human physiology transmute as a paradigm of your poetic cosmos?
Legris: My interest in human physiology has always remained close to the ground—and to the page. Anatomy (in The Hideous Hidden and Pneumatic Antiphonal) and neurology (in Nerve Squall) have provided me an opening into language that has many parallels not only in other disciplines, but also in everyday life. The connection between my choice of subject matter and my own never-seeming-to-fucking-end struggle with my body is not lost on me. I suspect readers are shy to mention what might be all too obvious: the paradox that although I’ve dealt with recurring eating disorders for most of my life, that although, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been extremely self-conscious and painfully uncomfortable in my own skin, I write about the body. (Though Garden Physic is shifting away from this.) On some basic level, making poems about the body has been a way of transforming something that makes me uncomfortable into something that’s extraordinary and full of moments of beauty and music. Though to be honest, this is rather reductive. I’m always telling emerging writers to write about what obsesses them. Happily or not, this is the subject matter that’s followed me around. However, while figuratively digging into viscera has thematically been an ongoing preoccupation in my poetry, it’s ultimately language that I’m obsessed with—human anatomy is merely the delivery system. All that sinewy language served up on a platter of mucous membrane!
I’m curious about your influences and obsessions. Your books often include your own artwork, in the interior and on the cover, and you’re also a pianist. I’m wondering how these different disciplines influence you as a writer. Where do the visual and linguistic intersect? What role does music play when you’re composing a poem? You write in several genres and I’m wondering if these other art forms enter or engage with your writing of prose—both the act of composition itself and in a finished piece—differently than they do with your poetry.
Alexander: For me, all the genres collapse into a singularity. I do not ignite via cognitive fragmentation. It seems my marrow burns with poetry. For instance, when I first began composing aphorisms they seemed to come to me fully formed without hesitation. I attribute this to the tremendous exercise I initially put into poetry. The mind was supple at that point and when I laid eyes on a compilation of Cioran’s entitled Drawn and Quartered, my language ignited via the aphorism and what has resulted are perhaps as many as two hundred of them. In fact, I once thought of committing solely to the form. But lingual fire cannot be confined and persists across genres in the form of plays, poems, drawings, or when I engage the piano. For me, it is none other than a supra-interconnection that arises from the volcano that is poetry. At this inner-plane, language seems to stoke itself to such a degree that I feel consumed by the ferocity of primal alienation. As though I floated in one of Bosch’s transparent supra-spheroids capable of moving in any direction at once. When I engage the soundboard of the piano my fingers instantaneously move as do the lines and flourishes of my drawings so that my original vibration persists across each genre as though each were a sub-condition of themselves and not imposed by the external definition of what we’ve been conditioned to believe a genre is supposed to mean. Of course, one recognizes distinctions when moving from an aphorism to a play. For me, these psychic instincts are not unlike those of a cheetah or mongoose as they hunt with speed and precision. (By the way, amongst the big cats, cheetahs are my favorite, as they exhibit agility, grace, and ferocity.) To some degree, my language influences itself and remains magically contagious and self-propelled. I am thinking here of the plasticity of music and painting, of say, the musical examples of Cecil Taylor and Alameda Prado, and the painterly examples of Vlaminck and Soutine…
Legris: Yes, as I said earlier, when I first discovered your writing, back in the late 1990s, I was taken by how musical it is, the poems as well as prose works like Towards the Primeval Lightning Field. At the time, I felt like much poetry I encountered was if not dead on the page, then inert, straightforward prose with line breaks, frequently weighed down by its own banality. I admit I often don’t know what your work is “about,” but I’ve always been wowed by how it lifts off the page—your ear is so distinctive, the music of your writing beautifully strange and strangely beautiful. What has sustained you as a writer all these years? What drives you to keep at it, how do you maintain your confidence, your trust—faith, for want of a better word—that this is what you need to do? I wonder this about all artists and writers, but particularly about those whose work, like yours, can’t be readily categorized, work that truly can’t have been made by anyone else.
Alexander: As for imaginal self-sustainment it has always been with me. Of course, one reads and ventures in to all manner of things across duration on this Earth. In this sense, the poet is not a vacant species, the poet is endemic with life itself. I guess the overused word passion applies here. For me, passion creates technique, not some external knowledge superimposed upon a deserted psychic land. In other words, what moves you? What allows your imagination to vibrate? My experience gives me understanding that the alphabet blazes, that its accents stir not unlike recorded dusts on Mars. Bud Powell, the jazz pianist, in his constant desperation to play, seemed consumed by an experience not unlike the one that now consumes me. If I go more than a few days without writing I feel as if ostracized from myself and so, like a camel or a cheetah, I speed to the nearest watering hole of my imagination so as to continue to survive in the flux that continues to guide the quotidian kingdom. So, for me, the whole book must be beautiful from the cover to the glossaries I employ. When I engage the piano, the same principle applies—not only the architecture of the personal but that of beauty, which one hears across the sonic spectrum from Cecil Taylor to Federico Mompou. Being self-taught in the areas of drawing and piano it seems the two electrically engage as primal colloquy. So when one engages a cancerous perfection of Language, one can never shift or take chances and therefore language regresses as a paradigm, as an exhausted conjuration cognitively parallel to itself. Nothing moves. Then each generation remains haunted by their predecessors and their considerations. A seminal text on this subject remains Philip Lamantia’s “Poetic Matters,” in which he understands Pound and his cohorts to have risen no higher than a dazed form of journalism. Poetics should not be a wake where forms of consolation are encoded, but, as Rimbaud shows, a place where language becomes a fertilized concentration that explodes.
As your specific requests upon language are explored, does not the essence of your living or once-living subjects express their animation and somehow generate a refractive electrical power in your language?
Legris: This is an intriguing question, Will. My experience of reading the poem “The Anatomy of a Bear’s Foot” is similar to how I felt when I was writing it. The “bear” in the poem doesn’t feel like “remains,” but like something very much alive. My research for each of my anatomical or “dissection” poems is as much about the living creature—whether animal or human—as it is about the internal workings of that creature. How can you study the movement and function of the muscles and bones without at least imagining a bear stomp-walking through the woods to mark its territory, or imagining the person who at one time embodied the disarticulated skeleton in da Vinci’s drawing? All of these anatomical “remains” never lose their sense for me of being connected to a dynamic whole. As you suggest, the language in the poems does express these creatures’ former animation. The “da Vinci” poems in the second section of The Hideous Hidden are preceded by an epigraph from da Vinci’s notebooks: “We make our life by the death of others.” Clearly, we’ve learned much of what we know about human anatomy and about comparative anatomy by studying cadavers and specimens, but that da Vinci epigraph resonates on a deeper level for me. I’ve always felt like my poetry has been a way of conversing with the dead in some way, of keeping a conversation alive—or imagining myself into a conversation I’d otherwise never be a part of—with writers, artists, thinkers who are long dead, but whose work has been important to me. And, of course, the poetry has been a way of creating some sort of ongoing—if, admittedly, fragmentary and one-sided—exchange with people in my life who are dead (my mother, for one, in my earliest poems).
Though I hadn’t read da Vinci’s notebooks until about seven or eight years ago, that particular line has acquired a rather perverse significance for me. As melodramatic as it might sound, I’ve spent much of my life trying to resist the desire to commit suicide. I never imagined I’d be alive this long; as a kid, I had a hard time imagining I’d make it to adulthood. For many years, I made no plans for the future because I frankly couldn’t see myself in the future. It was only after I started writing poetry seriously and conceiving of book-length projects that would take me several years to complete that I could envision myself existing several years down the road. After a life of dropping out of school and gravitating from one menial job to another, writing poetry has made me focused and disciplined and has given me a sense that maybe I have a reason to be here (I’ve still had those shitty jobs in the midst of “being a poet,” but they’ve functioned more as necessary stopgaps than as meaningless dead ends). More recently, my fear has been that if I die now, I’ll never know if I might actually have one truly brilliant poem in me! To turn the da Vinci quote a bit on its head, I feel like I’ve made a life as a poet by avoiding—or by being hyper-aware of—my own death. I write this at the risk of exposing too much, or of sounding creepily exhibitionistic. To those close to me, none of this is new. I should mention that when I saw Daphne Merkin being interviewed a couple of years ago about her book This Close to Happy (about a life pocked by suicidal depression), it was the first time that I realized that there are others out there for whom the act of making something, writing or art or anything, is a sort of promise to oneself that you’re going to stick around to see something through. In an interview I did a few years ago I said that I consider writing or making art to be a hopeful act—for me, this is definitely true.
Sylvia Legris’s most recent book is The Hideous Hidden (New Directions, 2016). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, Granta, and Kenyon Review.
Will Alexander is a poet, novelist, essayist, aphorist, playwright, visual artist, and pianist. He has published over thirty books and chapbooks. An American Book Award winner, he is currently poet-in-residence at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, California.
Banner image: from a 2018 New Year’s card created by Sylvia Legris. The two lines are from Legris’s poem “Ferns & Fern Allies.” “Where Horsetail Intersects String” is the title of the second section in Garden Physic, currently a work in progress. Courtesy of the artist.