Both Coasts: An Interview with Geoffrey G. O'Brien

By Adam J. FitzgeraldFebruary 14, 2011

Both Coasts: An Interview with Geoffrey G. O'Brien

Fatigue and anger, vitamins, of being born at some remove from Sunday, leaving any world untouched, I guess I sing. But many other things show up. The safety of the ports, large gulls improperly inland, that rip within a point of sale; and lunch beforehand where we wondered whether forms detach from prior eras reappear as Morris Louis veils or if an accident is king of how museum shadows thicken into middle distances. Wrong to think of day as falling up and out of bed

— from "Metropole"



GEOFFREY G. O'BRIEN'S TWO PREVIOUS BOOKS, The Gun and Flags Project and Green and Gray, have raised the bar in contemporary poetry with their sui generis fusion of political conscientiousness and formal mastery. O'Brien writes with a supreme music and a targeted lock on the materials of daily life, the hefty minutiae of our collective subjective experience; reading him, we soon find that the boundaries have dissolved between prescription medicine, American imperialism, fabricated dreams, and the workweek calendar. Call it an existentialism of enjambment: Why shouldn't poetry contain as many simultaneous disjunct realities as a web browser with multiple open tabs, comprising everything from BBC Breaking News to a Gchat with a friend to an insurance bill to translations of Schubert's Lieder?

O'Brien's third and latest volume, Metropole, is a work radically engaged with our polysemous, vacuous age, a work where redigested news reports emerge from an archly constructed musicality. He is acutely sensitive to the void underlying our rhetorical fabrics (pleasing, horrifying, autobiographical, topical). Often the poems in Metropole feel so vibrantly tense because you can't uncover how much O'Brien has determined the poem, or how much it has determined him. The radioactive, steely language of Metropole appears to be contained, and an ever-cooling intellectual temperature prevails. More than the poem feels about to buckle from such understated torque and meticulous restraint: Isn't it our whole society that's at this constant breaking point? (Exeunt pursued by hurricanes, terrorist attacks, economic collapses, the next Cheney-Palinesque "tell-all.")

In O'Brien's hands, the American lyric receives a dry, mischievous reassembly; mundanity must testify as itself (though the Court of Public Opinion is thankfully never in session). Everydayness becomes the imagination's detour towards something like an authentic, integrated way to be awake, to be alive in our time, using the very language that has been so smudged by lawyers, politicians and ad-men. But how to make it sing? Here's one way:


a kind of slashed leaf or wheel
added to the litany,
one of those things you start off
without and over the week restore

— from "Folie A Deux"


Poetry being our closest and most ambitious ally within our indifferent, chaotic and — yes — seductive Disinformation Age, it takes something as artful and intelligent as Metropole to restore us.


          — Adam J. Fitzgerald



ADAM J. FITZGERALD: How long have you been working on Metropole? How does the process of building a "book" differ from merely collecting together miscellaneous lyrics after a period of a few years and saying, "Hey, it's time to put out another book?" 

GEOFFREY G. O'BRIEN: Well, it's usually four or five excruciating years, but my first two books were the product of exactly this uninteresting quantitative reckoning: It's time. I can, however, briefly defend that passivity. While wanting to think of the book as an aesthetic opportunity, I also worried about it as a marketplace fact and convenience: the gathering of poems, of poetry, under an optional name in a portable material form. It often seemed to me a thing for sale I didn't want to opportunize or misrecognize as primarily aesthetic.

A less principled but related defense has to do with the psychic life of reception: The poem pre-publication is an actual poem but its readership is potential or virtual. With the poems in that state — made but unavailable — the composing ego can fantasize that the poem is for all potential readers, no matter how much she knows about poetry's actual contemporary minority as an art in the shadow of corporatism, its wars and distractions. When the poems are collected for sale within the three dimensions, you suddenly feel hard what you already knew about poetry's market share, and it's painful both because you wanted more and you didn't want a market at all. 

So an abstention from the aesthetic possibilities of the book form was my hypocritical hygiene; I participated, I published, but only to a point, refusing in one minor way to abet poetry's commoditization by seriously inhabiting that book-structure. But it can't be avoided. You're still choosing the order in which the poems will appear; you're still naming the book as though it were a poem itself. So it was as much a doomed aesthetic hygiene as it was hypocritical or inconsistent.

While working on Metropole, that inevitability of ordering and my inconsistencies about publication weighed on me as much as the book-form itself (and let me say that I'm a fan of the physical thing, I love its non-glowing, hard-to-destroy portability, and how the independent stores that specialize in selling it, and of which there are therefore fewer and fewer, feel less store-like than other stores). It seemed like there had to be a way to use the form rather than only disguise its non-formality. John Ashbery developed several strategies for simultaneously dodging and inhabiting the demands of the book-form, often arranging his poems in alphabetical order (pitting one logic against another while he watches from the sidelines) or naming a book after one of the poems it hosts. Another way poets have learned to confront the book is via seriality, extending a form or a single poem to the scale of an entire book (Ben Lerner's three books are great examples of composing on that scale, especially the last, Mean Free Path). With about half a book's worth of freestanding lyrics, I decided the second "half" (already thinking within book-logic) would not be more of the same, but something massive and serial that would approach but deny the scale of the entire book and would do so knowingly. In short, I'd write a poem that knew its fate was the book, that wouldn't be surprised to find itself there. So I wrote a 40-page prose poem in iambic meter, setting poetry's hard-to-monetize metrical past within the prose that makes the week go round, and titled the whole book after that poem. To work a serial form congenial to the book-scale but stop short of rendering the poem as entire book expressed a ratio of acknowledgment/resistance about the facts of publication that I could live with. 


You wake only afterwards as though
on days protected from musical speech

— from "Restricted Palette"



I see the body as a gun not yet
pointed at anything worth mentioning

— from "Street Cry"


FITZGERALD: Your poetry emerges against a consciousness of social reality, but still seems to me to embrace art as possible. Reading your new work I'm reminded of George Oppen, another poet of the vatic lyric who honors the eruptions of political philosophy and social awareness inside the poem.

O'BRIEN: For Oppen, everything is political because we have chosen the problems and opportunities of "being numerous." He wanted that polis, that being-multiple, to be a conscious commitment and to host an actual life in common rather than only the self-interested interactions of billions of "shipwreck[s] of the singular" where each person is a Robinson Crusoe free to act as if alone. When Oppen ends "Giovanni's Rape of the Sabine Women at Wildenstein's" by asserting that the aestheticization of brutality requires more faith than he possesses "in songs," he's chastising any art willing to forget about actual human misery even as it ostensibly treats it. Sharing the impulse behind Adorno's famous interdiction on lyric after Auschwitz (later mostly recanted), Oppen wants no art that shirks responsibility to persons or omits the conditions in which it and they are made. 

There's also the opposite peril, that of overstating art's ability to intervene in material conditions, fantasizing it can make something, rather than Auden's "nothing," happen. In either case it lets itself off the hook and risks ending up an empire's cosmetic. When poetry neither ignores immiseration nor purports to solve it, I think it can teach a nonspecific care for the actual world and contribute purposive but purposeless language to that world; but it has to be a language Crusoe and Friday invent together and speak as equals, and it can't pretend England and the slave trade don't exist. Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely and Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone with Lungs come to mind as recent examples of this refusal-to-deny; they don't pit private experience against global damage but insist on scaling and shuttling back and forth between them until the double inventory of disaster and personal attachments can become a kind of joyous responsibility of form; they find a poetry that can accommodate the bad world and the good house. In Rankine's case via a set of stunned prose paragraphs set so narrow they feel as pressured from without as verse lines; in Spahr's case a house-that-jack-built structure of repetition that tells the structure of the physical universe while also capturing the relentless stream of "news" from multiple war fronts (including the war with nature). In my own poems, Metropole's "Bohemian Grove" for instance, I try to make the kinds of responsibly ecstatic forms those poets do, but it's a permanently mutating task.

FITZGERALD: Tell me about "Bohemian Grove": what it is, and what it means to the architecture of the book. 

O'BRIEN: The Bohemian Grove is an encampment set among redwoods in Northern California where male politicos and captains of industry go for two weeks every summer to relieve some of the tension accumulated while despoiling the world the other 50 weeks of the year. The Grove's motto is "Weaving spiders come not here" and its members kick off the two weeks with a "Cremation of Care" ceremony under the 40 foot concrete owl pictured on my book's cover and then proceed to get drunk and put on plays that often require cross-dressing. So it's a sealed, ritualistic space cleaned of the complexity (cares and the "weaving" of schemes) of the rest of the world: multiple genders, races, class stratification, regional conflict should "come not here." In other words, it's a kind of political pastoral, a simple green world, a private California, in which song and pageant can take place: a pastoral with an electrified fence and a guarded perimeter. 

"Bohemian Grove" is a poem about the dangers and absurdities of conceiving of art as happening elsewhere or of capturing the world via a falsifying simplicity. It moves around in time in the 20th century, the syntax with which one decade is treated melting into the syntax of another ("in leaves, in the 70s I sang a song of we / became ourselves again as women, specifically") to show this protected space's blithe passage through history: they just keep staging plays year after year while Rome continues to burn. Putting an image of that ridiculous, sinister owl on the book's cover was a way of admitting my poems happen in the same world as the rituals of the Bohemian Grove, albeit with an entirely different concept of the function of artifice: to incur responsibility rather than relieve it. Like Oppen, my faith in song is limited but my desire to sing isn't, so my solution is to try to sing the false pastorals of the actual world rather than flee to them.


November dream: to walk like a feeling would
and then become the fear of finding it
whitely merging in a corner of a store,
the evening before last becoming huge.

— from "Three Years"

FITZGERALD: Pastoral is a genre you seem to be continually modernizing, making contemporary, in your last two books especially. "Three Years" - one of the longest poems in Metropole - is a miracle of prosaic daily life becoming ritualized in a montage of seasons, times of day, and scenes of waking and working.

O'BRIEN: "Three Years" came out of my engagement with Kafka's diaries: grim, early 20th century Eastern European writers have a way of turning the diary form, and the dailiness it supports, into a satiric meditation on labor (writing's relation to vocation/occupation distinctions). Beyond Kafka's real office miseries and worries about literary production, I'm thinking of Witold Gombrowicz's famous opening to his own diaries:






And so on: the ordering of time into days and days into the work week, resulting in the first person as a lonely direct-object consequence of work. In my poem I intended to cycle through the days of the week and the months of the year often enough and unsituatedly enough that they ceased to measure anything particular and reappeared as absurd abstractions, hopefully thereby separating the measurement of time from the recording of lived experience, which at its best might not have much to do with the proper names of the calendar. Time doesn't have to be the false passage between labor and leisure, and poetry has always felt to me like the place where another kind of time faintly beats. The poem ends, after 16 pages unrelieved by stanza break, on the lines "Thursday and Friday are enough the same / I remember the game of features again." I hope, while revealing that game and destroying time's familiar names, to provide another experience of time as formal time, as poetic rhythm, so the four- and five-beat accentual verse makes constant use of November and Thursday and all the other terms to build the poem's streaming semi-regularities of beat distribution.

FITZGERALD: Speaking of prosody, let's get technical. One of the most distinct features on every page of Metropole (excepting the eponymous prose poem) is the radical enjambment of the poems; in the sense that each line is its own unit; that the poems could almost be read forward or backwards (as the title "To Be Read In Either Direction" signals). Tell me about this formal feature and how it relates to what you're up to.

O'BRIEN: Well, poetry gets most of its charge from its distance from instrumental speech and most of that distance from its formal features, the determination of line being particularly crucial because it interrupts syntax for rhythmic reasons (meter or syllabics, rhyme, or even a visual intuition) but produces new syntactic entities (the autonomous syntax of a line "within" the sentence of which it's a part) by that interruption. You thus can't talk about enjambment except as the interaction of syntax and form: all the reasons and methods the poem has for breaking a line. I've become increasingly interested in how an aggressive prosodical character to the line, when coupled with line-initial capitalization and an absence of terminal punctuation, can produce a kind of formal parataxis within the hypotaxis of a continuing sentence, an assertion of line against or over sentence, and how that can in turn disturb a readerly certainty that syntax is continuing at all. For example:


He observed of clouds they represent
What else could have happened
In half-worked fields the painting is

— from "The Other Arts"


These three lines can be read as a single syntactic movement, or as three disjunctive propositions, or, more quietly and just as importantly, as two connected lines and one freestanding statement, or as a stand-alone statement followed by two connected lines. Producing all these possibilities for enjambment and its absence doesn't leave the poem indeterminate so much as multiply determinability. As you imply, this capacity to be read in either direction (to which neighboring line does "What else could have happened" attach itself?) has conceptual and critical consequences. For me poetry at its right margin offers the capacity to move among readerly emphases without forgetting any of them, a powerful non-choice I'd contrast with the real choices between meaningless differences that one makes when one buys one brand of jeans rather than another though both are only denimized money. In other words, I see poetry's enjambments as offering an alternative experience of consumption in which the reader is an active optional participant who thinks in chords rather than a set of economic decisions. 


The index crashed between the pillars of the week. You'll find a massive game of solitaire in progress underneath the window cops were laughing with the doorman in the dusk. I'm thinking of a statue going shopping in New York but stopping somewhere privately forgetting to perform. Each task contains this threat: you print the boarding pass invades the house. But he remembers holidays instead, decides to draw between all wounds a line when walking past the calendar, beginning with parked cars emitting outlines under snow 

— from "Metropole"



FITZGERALD: "Metropole," the ambitious prose poem that closes the book, begins: "Inaudibly, technologies lament their falling into parts have everywhere scattered anywhere a world extends." The sentence breaks and bends together (as "Metropole" does continually) in the clutch of a medial word ("parts") almost the way Milton uses a caesura to nip-tuck his epic onward. Tell me how "Metropole" developed stylistically: its constraint of iambic prose and these pivot-shifts mid-sentence. (I would add that I can't recall reading a longish prose poem so regimented, "versified" in a sense; even its stanzaic-like shape on the page is so assuredly, calmingly formal.)

O'BRIEN: Your parenthetical was the heart of the ambition here: to place a lineated verse feature, in this case iambic rhythm, where one would least expect to find it sustained: in prose. This ghosting of the metrical also provides a technology of capture for the rhythms of daily experience: humming regularities interrupted by the soft shock of substitution. The pivot-device you mention, in which a word occupies two syntactic fields at once (e.g., "The sun revolves around the EARTH revolves around the sun" or "Get thee HENCE they do") is another submerged lineation phenomenon: enjambment, here imported into the middle of a lineless sentence but full of the same power to orchestrate two experiences of syntax nearly simultaneously. It's no different from, say, the second and third lines of William Carlos Williams' "Spring and All" ("under the surge of the blue / mottled clouds) where a reader first takes "blue" as noun and then as adjective. "Metropole" records the falling of meter and other verse capacities into prose for several reasons: I wanted to prove to myself that meter and emphatic enjambment (like that you noted above in the first part of the book) could be viable, non-nostalgic resources for contemporary poetry, and I wanted to make an argument that prose poetry should not abjure pattern and system complexity when it claims prose for another genre. I'm interested instead in testing the very limits of pattern apprehension, producing a faintness of measure the reader must work to recover but can't exactly ignore; the last line of the book I wrote before Metropole reads, "It's like twilight to be alive now." So my commitment to incomplete or unexpected prosodies stems from a desire to capture the experience of the ungraspable: a system-experience in which we are constantly encountering rules unknowable in their totality but felt all the same in each local moment of attention. This poem's embedding of strict pattern within prose and its dislocating mid-sentence shifts of syntax speak to a sense of structure that's palpable even when the structure's too complex or submerged to hold explicitly in mind.

And I hope those formal choices give onto large concerns: The poem ends "I thought both coasts," and I mean this in several ways. Formally, it serves as a description of the poem's integration of traditional East Coast form with the much more recent West Coast form of the New Sentence, and Language Poetry's effort to make the prose sentence a formal unit disjunct with the sentences before and after it; I'm grateful for the Language Poets' commitment (post-Vietnam doublespeak and mid-post-structuralism) to breaking open a well-wrought urn model of the poem and its speaker because of their ideological freight. I wanted to see what happened when the verse features Language Poets opposed for their history of use reappeared right in the midst of prose disruptions of a presiding lyric ego. Experientially, the phrase "both coasts" also records the proximity of New York and California on the internet; it's much easier to keep up with the writers and shibboleths and innovations of any region virtually now. On Facebook people even choose to "attend" poetry readings thousands of miles away as a way of saying they wish their bodies were there. And that virtual ubiquity or mobility is also an argument about the psychogeography of empire; rather than the old center and periphery model of the metropole, we now have a kind of everywhereness, mostly because the dominant political entity is the multinational corporation rather than a single nation-state. 

FITZGERALD: Finally, I wanted to ask you about thinking and writing that went into your new book that might not be apparently citable, or knowable, but helped formulate this book. I'm thinking of nonliterary, or perhaps even non-textual sources, as much as anything else. Invariably, much of what goes into our heads before/during/after writing is a perishable history; but maybe there's something to reflect on, reveal or credit parenthetically?

O'BRIEN: To stick with both the long poem and the web a little further, I'd say the internet itself, as both a source and a form of life. While writing "Metropole" I found myself constantly throwing open a browser window to educate myself quickly and irresponsibly in subjects like Caesar's invasion of Gaul ("All Gaul is divided in three parts" just like the three prose stanzas on each page of "Metropole," which was written during the endless middle of the occupation of Iraq) or how the cathode-ray technology of the TVs of my childhood worked. I wanted the poem to be kitchen-sink, an autobiography of an era that happens to coincide with my conscious lifetime (1970-now) rather than the story of a distinct person, and it required deep but brief "occupations" of lots of little facts (the Hudson River dredging projects, invasive species on the California coast, transit worker strikes, and so on) that resemble, no are, our itinerant, peripatetic link-to-link travel through websites and social media; that intense brevity also marks how crises dominate news cycles then disappear from them. The pivot feature in the sentences of "Metropole" is another attempt to capture these abrupt shifts of environment, shifts I think we experience as both rough and smooth. Maybe we could say that the internet too is prose that's full of verse form, no one's and everyone's.


LARB Contributor

Adam J. Fitzgerald is the editor of Monk Books and the poetry journal Maggy. He teaches poetry at Rutgers University and lives in New York City.


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