If Nothing Escaped Us: An Interview with Poet and Philosopher Troy Jollimore

TROY JOLLIMORE is a poet, critic, and professor at California State University, Chico, where he has taught since earning his PhD in philosophy from Princeton University. His three full-length collections have received widespread acclaim and prizes from the National Book Critics Circle and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, among others. Known for his deft poetic technique, Jollimore might be the closest thing we have to a genuine poet-philosopher, in whose work elegant words and difficult ideas complement rather than hinder each other.

This interview was conducted via email a few months after I met Jollimore at his reading in Venice, California.


PIOTR FLORCZYK: Allow me to ask you something I’m sure you’ve been asked before, since you are both an academic philosopher and an award-winning poet. Are poets like philosophers, who try to work out one problem or subject throughout their life?

TROY JOLLIMORE: I suspect everyone has their small set of themes they return to over and over: poets, philosophers, gardeners, cab drivers … It’s obsession with a set of themes, in large part, that gives a life a shape. Though one also hopes that a new theme comes along from time to time, or else you’d become completely intolerable, especially to yourself. For me, maybe because I’m limited, I often find the same themes showing up in both my philosophy and my poetry. Love, for instance. Or the question of beauty. Or the nature of reality and its relation to certain parts of reality that we think of as being in opposition to reality, like dreams — something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. And the world of childhood, of course — that lovely, lost, luminous world that we long for all our lives and never get back to, which might be everybody’s unexorcisable subject and theme.

Your first collection, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, can best be characterized as a long persona poem. What are your thoughts about books as concepts?

Well, there are other poems in Tom Thomson too, but yes, a large part of it is one long sequence. I didn’t realize I was writing a long sequence (let alone a “concept book”) until I was well into it. I don’t think I ever set out to write a concept book, and when I hear about a book that is identified as a concept book I always wince; I don’t know why, exactly, but it feels too much like marketing to me. Like somebody said at some point, “How are we going to blurb this book? How will we sell it? What’s the book’s elevator pitch?” And that kind of talk makes me a little queasy. But when the stuff you’re working on begins to congeal into a book, you begin to become aware that, yes, there are certain themes, ideas, concerns, obsessions that run through it and unite it, which hopefully appeared of their own accord and forced themselves on you. The less conscious it is, the less intended, the better. A concept imposed on a book nearly never works, I think, but when a concept arises spontaneously from a book, that can be wonderful.

Poetic repetition or seriality, be it formal or thematic, can be a dead end. Berryman’s The Dream Songs, for instance, are terrific, but most readers I know prefer the culled selection to the whole thing. Your Tom Thomson sonnet variations come back in your second full-length collection, At Lake Scugog. Why?

The poems themselves more or less decided that, just by showing up. My only decision, once they had shown up, was whether to include them in the book. I don’t plan what I’m going to write; I discover it by writing it. I was somewhat surprised, when the first book was done, to find myself writing more Tom Thomson poems. And I had to wait to see if they felt legitimate, if I really was still writing out of that voice and that particular sensibility. In the end I liked them enough to feel that the sequence could continue. It’s open-ended, in principle. Maybe if I thought the first sequence, the poems in the initial book, were close to perfection or finality, I would feel a pressure not to continue, the way you don’t want your favorite novelist or filmmaker to make a sequel to a book or movie that’s perfect. Nobody wants to see No Country for Old Men 2: The Revenge of Anton Chigurh, and every poetry reader is happy that T. S. Eliot never wrote The Waste Land 2: Waste Harder. But there are already lots of imperfections and infelicities in the original batch of poems, and also a lot of open space — poems are so much about open space anyway that returning to them in some sense always seems an option — and this seems to have given me a freedom to return and play some more in that sandbox.

That said, yes, it’s hard to tell when the original inspiration has run dry. Or at least it seems that it must be hard, based on various examples from other people’s work. It’s easy to tell, it seems, when someone else’s inspiration has run dry. With your own work … it’s easy to give it the benefit of the doubt, and I’m not sure what to do about that, other than to hesitate to publish anything, and to keep a group of reliable friends who will be willing to tell you when your stuff isn’t working anymore, and really listen to what they have to say.

Most poets repeat themselves even when they don’t try to write extended sequences. Do you think that’s inevitable? And if so, is that something you consciously try to avoid?

This is a poignant question for any poet, because poetry is, by its nature, repetition. In large part, anyway. A rhyme is repeated sound. Formal, structural elements are matters of repetition: a sonnet means repeated sounds at the end of the line, the repetition of a certain stress structure within the line, the repetition of the four-line stanza, and so forth … So knowing what to repeat, when to repeat, and when not to is key to writing poems that work. And maybe for that reason I don’t worry too much about repeating myself, especially during the writing process; when it’s done, if it feels like it’s just a retread of something from before, I just throw it out. Obviously you can’t get away with literally writing the same poem over and over (although a few poets, like Frederick Seidel, have tried even that on occasion). A “new” poem has to be, at the very least, a substantial variation on what has gone before, and so in some real sense a departure. So what constitutes a departure? Somewhere in the composition process you end up reading your poem to yourself and trying to hear its voice, trying to hear how, exactly, this particular bit of language differs from anything you or anyone else has ever written. Which is a lot of pressure to put on the poem, and on ourselves. And yet, once in a while, somehow, it happens. It feels like a small miracle when it does. One must be grateful.

In the title poem of your second volume, you write “the gap between / the words I said / and those I remember saying // is just wide enough to contain / the remains that remain / of what I assumed I knew.” These lines suggest a speaker dwelling in uncertainty, some existential neither-here-nor-there. Can poetry help us navigate the dire straits between the known and unknown worlds we bounce between on a daily basis?

It might also be some existential both-here-and-there. That’s what I’m finding more and more as I go on, that the world is pluralistic and full of contradictory things happening all at once. Can poetry help us navigate that? I like to think it can at least open us up to the possibility that this is, indeed, how the world is, and help us learn how to grasp that complex reality, when so many aspects of our lives are pushing in the other direction; there’s so much pressure from so many sources to accept a simplistic account of things, deny or flee from uncertainty or difficulty. You know, it’s okay if the world doesn’t make sense sometimes or is too much for us to take in all at once. It’s okay not to understand something, not to know how to feel about something, to take pleasure in something without being able to explain why you enjoy it or give a proof that in fact everyone should enjoy it. We do live in uncertainty. Sometimes that’s difficult, but it isn’t necessarily something that should always trouble us. We don’t have to be anxious all the time.

Later, in “Imperceptibly,” a seemingly loose gathering of untitled poems in quatrains that use the caesura prominently, you write, “each image a slimmer / fraction of what / there is for a lens / or an eye to see.” Do you find the fact that so much escapes us, physically and emotionally and intellectually, stymieing or liberating as a poet?

Liberating and stymieing, yes, both. One of the themes I do return to repeatedly in my philosophical work has to do with perception, and the idea that perception is inherently limited and limiting: to see something means to see from a particular standpoint, which means you can’t see what the thing is blocking, or what is behind your head, or what is 2,000 miles away, and so forth. A vision of the world has to be, in some sense, a vision from a particular place, and hence the vision of a particular person; the aspiration to see everything from everywhere all at once sounds nice in the abstract, but it’s incoherent, and if it were coherent at all it would not be a form of seeing but a form of blindness.

Imagine what life would be like if nothing escaped us. There are stories of people with perfect memories, people who can never forget anything. It drives them crazy. This confirms what Nietzsche figured out some time ago, that forgetting is an ability, an achievement. Identity, personality, sensibility — these things are a matter of who and what you aren’t. What you don’t see or hear. What doesn’t occur to you on any given occasion. What doesn’t move you. And yet of course there is a profound sadness attached to the thought of the infinite number of unrealized forking paths that you might have followed at any given moment, or that you actually do follow but in some other realm or dimension, depending on which physicist you’re listening to.

The four-stanza “Gate” is one of the shortest pantoums I’ve ever seen, yet the poem works great — it both stalls and initiates us, the readers, into its inner world. What are your thoughts about writing in received forms?

Thanks! The pantoum form is such a great example of repetition in poetry and the work it can do. I think of a pantoum as collapsing into a single reading the important phenomenon — it’s a phenomenon that’s been important to me, at any rate — of experiencing an artwork for the second or third or 10th or 100th time, how each experience is different, just as each performance of a play is in some significant respect different. I often find that the second viewing of a film, or sometimes the third, is the peak viewing: you know so much more going in — some things mean more to you and you pick up on others that escaped you at first. Of course the first viewing is special in its own way, and — going back to the theme of forgetting (see, I’m repeating myself) — one would like to be able to completely erase one’s first experience of a work, sometimes, just to be able to repeat that thrilling encounter with the unexpected.

Poems aspire to be reread, but even in the first reading of a pantoum you get something like that experience, as a line you have already encountered comes back again and opens itself to reveal new possible meanings. (It occurs to me as I write this that there are films I think about in much the same way — Inside Llewyn Davis, for instance, in which the final scene is a nearly identical re-presentation of the opening scene, but our experience of it is entirely different because of what we have seen and heard in between — just as our experience of any film’s opening scene would be different on a second viewing.)

All of this suggests, I guess, that at least for one type of form — the pantoum — there is legitimate work for it to do, there are things it can do that a poem in a different form (and every poem has a form of some sort or another) could not do. So yes, I’m a great fan of received forms — when they work. As for the political objections to using received forms, I’m unpersuaded; I think they are usually based on a somewhat simplistic view. Of course there are cases in which poems in traditional forms express bad politics or are politically suspect in some way, but it isn’t merely by virtue of the form, and there are poems in radical forms of which the same could be said. And traditional forms, among other things, open up wonderful possibilities for transgression and subversion — I think of some of Paul Muldoon’s sonnets, for instance, like the wonderful “Quoof,” which is an extremely clever poem about being an Irish poet writing in English, and more generally about Anglo-Irish relations, and more generally still about power relations and the nature of language. There’s a phrase in that poem — “a red hot half-brick / in an old sock” — which is an image for what a poem can be: the “old sock” is the sonnet form, and the “red hot half-brick” is the challenging, dangerous, deeply subversive meaning that Muldoon has found a way to place inside the sock. It’s lovely.

“Advisory” could be called a found poem — or a catalog poem that owes its genesis to some found language, in this case the official State of California warning on products that contain carcinogens and other toxic materials. Except in your poem the warning applies to life in general. It’s a brilliant and funny conceptual appropriation. How important is humor to you as a poet?

I originally intended for my third book, Syllabus of Errors, to have no “funny poems” in it, simply because I felt I was running the risk of being typecast as a yuk-yuk badum-bump kind of writer. But the fact is, it’s hard to write funny, and when it works I’m grateful for it, and if a poem is working, no matter how it’s working, I’m not going to turn it away. And frankly, our predicament, as bleak as it is, is also pretty funny. If we couldn’t find it funny I doubt we could tolerate the bleakness. I suppose what I really aspire to — and I want to emphasize that I say this is what I aspire to, not what I think I have achieved — would be a poetry that is able to register the full range of human experiences, and that would have to include the comic, it would have to include finding some part of the universe downright hysterical. Also, there is a great deal to be learned, for poets, from stand-up comedians. The things that make a joke work are often the same kinds of things that make a poem work, even when the poem is not funny. And stand-up comedians, the good ones, are so skilled when it comes to timing, pacing, the unfolding of a narrative, the selection of details, the communication of sensibility. If you’re able to make the reader laugh, you’re probably well on the way to being able to evoke a lot of other types of response as well.

In “Ache and Echo,” the first of the longer poems in your latest book, Syllabus of Errors, you write “I can’t // give up my beauty, I’m an addict, a beauty / fiend.” Despite the irony embedded in these lines, to what extent is writing poems about finding beauty, which tends to be either over- or underappreciated, in things and places we don’t normally think of as beautiful?

I don’t think I’m unhappy that the lines sound ironic, or at least sound like they might be ironic, but in fact — and of course we all know that the speaker in a poem is not the poet, never the poet — but the fact is, I am a beauty fiend. I’m a beauty nut. I’m happy to find beauty in unexpected places, and I’m just as happy when it does me the favor of turning up in the expected places. I go so far, in fact, as to agree with Susan Sontag when she writes,

[T]he wisdom that becomes available over a deep, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic cannot […] be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness. Indeed, the various definitions of beauty come at least as close to a plausible characterization of virtue, and of a fuller humanity, as the attempts to define goodness as such.

Birds and birdsong are a major focus of your new book. In “Oriole” you write, “How many continents / has this lone oriole / crossed to come balance / on our sagging clothesline, / and what urgent thing / is he trying to tell us?” These lines testify to the speaker’s wish to communicate with the natural world, perhaps balancing his awe with a sense of limitation.

It’s one of the perennial questions of philosophy, and hence of being human: do we really make contact with the world outside us, or, since everything has to enter us by being translated into human terms, are we really only living in an artificial world that we have created, centered around ourselves, without ever being able to truly break out of the closed circle of human concepts? When I was a teenager I found myself wrestling with this question without really intending to as a result of reading books by Stanisław Lem like Solaris and His Master’s Voice. And later, Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star. Then I started studying philosophy and found Donald Davidson’s writings on “conceptual schemes” and recognized the question that had already been haunting me. The experiences of different human individuals, it turns out, are often much more different from one another than you would guess — a common language often tends to submerge and conceal the differences, as does translating something into the language you prefer — so who can imagine what the life-worlds of the animals are like?

In one poem, you call imagining and remembering “the tearstained and wistful delicious twin pleasures.” If you had to give up either one, which would it be?

Life without imagination would be intolerable — which hasn’t stopped so many of our current governmental and corporate entities from pushing us toward such a life as hard as possible. But you literally couldn’t give up memory, because what was left would not be you; and anyway, my attachment to the world — to the real, the thing — is far too great to allow me to imagine (since I can still do that) myself wandering around without a head full of beautiful and painful (because nostalgia-inspiring) images of the Nova Scotia of my childhood. So I can only thank you for your unanswerable question, and pray that I never face such a choice.

In your most recent poem titled “Ars Poetica” — you’ve written several of them — you call poets out for their naval-gazing, saying, “The poet’s pain / is his bread and butter, his keys to the kingdom, / his ace in the hole.” Are poets really that narcissistic? These days quite a few get involved in “speaking truth to power,” as it were. Is Troy Jollimore a poet of the frontlines or the sidelines?

That way of thinking — that poetry is about personal suffering and trauma, and that’s where its power comes from — represents a certain conception of poetry, which, happily, not everyone shares, but a lot of people — especially people who aren’t poets or who are just beginning as poets — find it attractive. In fact I haven’t found most poets to be excessively narcissistic, either as writers or as persons. It was something I wanted to mock, an idea that sometimes surfaces even in people you really admire; Berryman, for instance, whom you mentioned before, made a bit of a cult of agony, and said once in an interview that he hoped “to be nearly crucified.” It seemed to work for him, of course — at any rate something worked for him, and if he claims it was the ordeals, who are we to disagree? But I think it’s a potentially bad example for young poets, not only because it might lead them to harm if they really took it seriously, but also because it suggests there is a kind of shortcut, as difficult as taking that shortcut might be, to the writing of really strong poems.

You’ve mentioned the experience of rewatching films. Do you find the visual arts — painting, cinema — conducive to your work as a poet?

Yes, painting and cinema, especially cinema. If I had to choose one, I’d say that cinema is the great art form of our time, immensely creative and immensely powerful. It’s a shame so few people seem to be interested in it, or in experiencing it properly — that is, actually in a movie theater, on as large a screen as possible, in an act in which you submit yourself to the performance rather than insisting on being in control of the performance by watching it at your convenience, pausing it to go to the bathroom, watching half now and the rest in a few days, and all those other terrible things people do. A movie ought to be an event, something that isn’t at your service, something that will happen at a certain time whether or not you happen to be there. And it ought to be a thing that happens in public where you can come together with strangers, your fellow citizens, and share an unpredictable, uncontrollable experience. There is a sense of civic life that is lost when people no longer possess a sense of shared literary culture, when all interests and pursuits become personal and idiosyncratic, and when public events like going to the movies are transformed by technologies into private happenings that no longer possess the status of an “event” in any meaningful sense at all.

It’s funny when you think about it, because movies are so large, and poems are so small — but they do have a lot in common: image, and also timing. The way a film editor controls the timing of the events we see is similar to the type of control a poet exercises over the progress of the reader through the poem. The best fiction does it, but fiction can get away with being sloppier that way; you can read it at your own pace; and when fiction gets called “poetic,” it’s very often because the author has exercised the kind of care and attention to pacing and timing that typically gets exercised in poetry as a matter of course. And in music, of course, which has also been intensely important to me. But really, I’m a sucker for all the arts. I’m a beauty fiend, as I’ve mentioned.

How do poems come to you?

Mostly as a tiny bit of language, with a certain particular rhythm, that insists on its presence in my inner ear, and then serves as the seed crystal around which the larger crystalline structure grows. The poems I like the most and tend to feel happiest with afterward — “On Birdsong” and “On Beauty,” “The Solipsist,” “His Master’s Voice,” the Tom Thomson poems — tend to show up with a pretty distinct sense of who they are, rhythmically speaking, at least.

Finally, what are you working on these days?

I’ve been sort of working on an essay about what the words “reality” and “realism” mean in the context of art, with special attention to theater, cinema, and poetry, that might also be an essay on dreams. And a number of essays about contemporary poets. There are other things in various states of progress, too, but those are the most solid things. And the poems still come when they come; maybe I’ll have another book of those in three years, or five.


Piotr Florczyk is a poet, essayist, and translator of several volumes of Polish poetry.