The Amazing Gorilla: An Interview with Rusty Morrison

By Julian GewirtzJanuary 20, 2016

The Amazing Gorilla: An Interview with Rusty Morrison
RUSTY MORRISON — poet, editor, critic, and publisher — has written a series of lucid, restlessly imaginative books while presiding over Omnidawn Publishing, which she co-founded in 2001. Omnidawn’s books include acclaimed poetry, fiction, and chapbooks — featuring, in particular, poets of many generations, from Donald Revell, Ann Lauterbach, and Lyn Hejinian, to younger talents such as Craig Morgan Teicher, Brian Teare, Lynn Xu, and Margaret Ross. Alongside her husband Ken Keegan and Omnidawn’s managing editor Gillian Hamel (who also runs the monthly online journal Omniverse), Morrison has stewarded Omnidawn through nearly 15 years of continual experimentation. She understands both the necessity and the limitations of editing. In “Fallacy,” a poem centered on a moment of struggle to speak honestly, she writes: “try to remember something no one else knows, a short preface that cost-cutting editors left out of later editions.” One senses that Morrison has considered “cost-cutting” herself, but that she continually takes the side of finding “something no one else knows.”

Morrison, as much a poet as an editor, maintains this same curiosity and omnivorousness through her poetic practice. Susan Howe has praised Morrison’s poetry as “absolutely original” and distinguished by a “contemplative visionary quietism.” In books like After Urgency (Tupelo Press), the true keeps calm biding its story (Ahsahta), and Beyond the Chainlink (Ahsahta), her writing, at once tender and erudite, pushes the imagination past its boundaries, past “the stilled-death specificity of appearances” — in order to, as she writes in a new poem in Lana Turner, “blur every limit it makes.”

Because of geographic distance, we decided to conduct our interview by email — a series of messages exchanged as summer cooled into autumn, with a writer who once described “the best conversation” as “more like the nod of / grass under a good rain.” In the spirit of preserving the authenticity of Morrison’s responses, we’ve left her original typography in place.


JULIAN GEWIRTZ: When we were deciding how to conduct this interview across the continent, you wrote, "i’m freer and more spontaneous when i’m typing." To start, I want to follow that thought, because a sense of being "freer and more spontaneous" is also a quality that I associate strongly with your poems. Do you write your poems on the keyboard or with pen and paper — or does your instrument vary?

RUSTY MORRISON: i do carry a notebook with me everywhere, and i jot down things, conversation points, moments of musings... but, because of physical limitations, i write almost exclusively at the keyboard. i have a wrist and shoulder problem that makes handwriting painful after a short while. but i created a little cradle, a little pedestal, for my wrist to rest in a safe manner when i work at my laptop. so, all typing is cradled in the awareness that if i lose my attention to proper posture, then i fail my body.

this is true, for me, in the work of writing, too, i realize... attentive awareness, attuned, limber and yet with room for a little rocking, this is the best posture of mind for swinging out into the space that my language is seeking to inhabit.

but you asked about my being “freer and more spontaneous”... thanks for suggesting that my work offers these qualities to you! i’m delighted. the sense of “freedom” as bearing with it responsibility, as eleanor roosevelt is often quoted as saying—this is very important to me. and aligns with some of what i’ve already said. though there’s much more to it—

i’m thinking, too, of harney & moten’s THE UNDERCOMMONS, where they point out that “knowledge of freedom is (in) the invention of escape, stealing away in the confines, in the form, in the break.” i’m thinking about how important it is to allow the shifting under one’s attention to unearth risks that upset balance, yet one always has to find new equipoise when about to leap. paradoxical, isn’t it?

and, i want to add this about spontaneity: the first drafts of any idea, poem, prospect in my life—in all of these i often have to find my spontaneity. i know that many writers see the first draft as the place where spontaneity spawns, but for me, it comes during deep revision, during what i think of as the phase change that comes as i press the energies of the ideas. it’s during revision that i can glimpse of a way out of my most normative patterning. as i re-read what i have on the page, some inkling of alternative arrives and i write it/ride it where ever it takes me. if i’m lucky i glimpse a way to fall forward, or up, or down through what i thought i’d meant, escaping its rut, re-routing, and sometimes re-rooting so the plant of the idea will grow in entirely new ground. for this reason, i find the computer to be an excellent place to spawn to splay to hunker into as many slips and slides as i hanker for....

"Out of the cradle endlessly rocking" — though surely in a way that Whitman, even with his Civil War slings, never foresaw! I can imagine how intensely embodied this makes the process of typing-writing feel, even though usually pen and paper are prized for exactly that reason, making the process physical in a way that it might not be for most people who use a keyboard.

I love the way you characterize yourself "finding your spontaneity." It makes me think of the lines in your "Vulnerability Says":

Strategy: Not giving it shape, but giving in to the shapes
you’ve become.

How do you distinguish between spontaneity and vulnerability in poems, especially your own? These are two qualities that so often seem to come together in poetry — the declaration as discovery, the feeling as found thing or "spontaneous overflow." Yet we all know, as poets, that these are effects (and perhaps even affects), like Yeats says in "Adam’s Curse": "I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught." So if spontaneity is something that you find in your own process of "stitching and unstitching," what is vulnerability?

a wonderful question. my first thought is that vulnerability is the quality that allows one to trust, actually to see value in what might have gone entirely wrong in a process. while the word “spontaneity” has primarily positive connotations, “vulnerability” is tinged with the potential disaster that its presence might incur. i realize that i have a sense of their close interrelation, but i’m glad you asked me to consider them together. i haven’t done so before. so, as i begin, i don’t really know the answer...

the qualm i feel when i say “i don’t know”—the feeling that i might err, since i don’t have available to me any previously preformed idea about what might say—this activates my sense of vulnerability. i imagine that a willingness to be vulnerable to—and responsible for–whatever arrives from the unknown, to accept the danger, to stay poised for it—this kind of allowance of vulnerability is a key component in the work of spontaneity.

it’s funny to have you ask me this right now, since over the past few days i’ve been dealing with some challenging life issues. and i’ve been asking myself how to allow the confusion, upset, pain, of those challenges into the work of my current poems. how to let actual experiences impact my writing in ways that will enliven it? vulnerability means being open to possible repercussions of just such messy details, doesn’t it?

and, trusting in vulnerability means bringing the messiness here, too. so i’ll just share a bit about it: we just learned that we’ll have to move omnidawn from the building where we only just moved to a few months ago. the new space has been wonderful, but there was a fire there, only a few weeks after we moved in. the landlord had hoped to be able to renovate and resolve the fire damage, and save the building for use, but that hasn’t worked out. (and, as you can imagine, the first move was costly, as all moves are). this second move will add a shocking and unexpected cost to our operations, so it’s a serious financial problem. besides the money-worries, there’s the challenge of finding an affordable space in the sf bay area to move our book-storage and office space... there are always new creative challenges involving finances, in small press publishing and in the arts... so we know how to stay resilient. still, it’s always an emotional blow when a new problem arrives!

here’s the reason that this is relevant to your question of what vulnerability and spontaneity mean to me, in relation to my poetry: it’s an enormous challenge to not let the struggles of my worklife take over my poetry life. in the past weeks, i’ve been trying to be tough and not let the feelings i have about all of this overwhelm me, or take me out of the hour i try to give myself in the morning to write. but a crisis like this wants to be welcomed into my poems—the crisis generates so much fear in me, but attending to that fear will allow my writing to remain relevant—real to me, and i hope to readers.... bringing the shock of displacement into the poems themselves, this risk is the only way to keep writing. but there’s no simple answer to the question i ask myself each morning: how to use the actual, as difficult as it is to face, and let it change the directions and dimensions of the poems i’m writing. if i don’t let myself be vulnerable to any answer that comes, then i may miss the most compelling, albeit frightening trajectories my work might find and follow.

trusting in vulnerability means one may be wounded as one proceeds. though a word like “wound” does have such cliché connotations... and one danger, when writing into any crisis, is to fall back on the clichés of emotions, the expected expressions. and I can see that this is true in even just talking to you about this process. but, paradoxically, i often find that the work is to engage directly with an arriving cliché, to press it for more. i suppose the work is to wound the cliché and see what it yields… if i’m not inquiring into all that arrives, and to seek to press it, where it is most sensitive, then the work will be numb.

there’s an idea of agamben’s that i have quoted before, but it remains important to me in this context, and in my keeping equanimity over the past few days, so i’ll quote it here: “the entry point to the present necessarily takes the form of an archeology; an archeology that does not, however, regress to a historical past, but returns to that part within the present that we are absolutely incapable of living.” over the past week, i’ve found it hard to re-enter the poems i had been writing (let alone to make time for any writing at all). but it’s in the work of writing that i can mine the present, that i can press past the shock and the numbness, and seek the most vulnerable regions where enacting spontaneity might yield “a part of the present” i’d been “incapable of living.”

it’s often in crisis that i find my crucial work spawns... and though i’ve taken very little time for writing poems, over the very recent past, something of the crisis has been bringing me to write work that attempts to mine a deeper instability, to open myself to some of the crises i sense in current experience. i don’t mean that i’m writing poems that simply relive what’s been happening to me, to others like me... but more, it’s igniting, in the moment of writing, what is ‘this’ moment’s present—not only my experience of it, but what i see around me as well, what is actual in this “present” which agamben tells us “is nothing other than the unlived element in everything that is lived.”

Whelmed, wounded, vulnerable — this is an endlessly rich line of words and meanings. And the challenges of the Omnidawn move sound almost impossibly intense. I hope our readers will find ways to help, too! Because the service that you perform there is truly crucial.

It feels wrong to use a fire at a publishing house as a way to transition to talking about the work you do there, your work as an editor, which I want to return to in a moment. So first let me ask you about that word you use, "crisis," as one way your work spawns. There is that old meaning of the word, which I love, "the turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death." I want to put this next to those terrifyingly precise words from Agamben, "the unlived element in everything that is lived." You have written about living with and through disease, "pain" that is "invasive" but "perhaps usable." In what ways has disease informed your writing? Might this be one reason that, for you as a writer, "crisis" leads to what you call "igniting, in the moment of writing, what is ‘this’ moment’s present"?

in other forms, in other essays and interviews, i’ve spoken about my experience of writing with, through, into, among the dis-eases that make up my particular relationship to illness. so, i want to be careful not to say something i have said before. it’s dangerously easy to fall back to (funny to have just typed the word ‘easy’, since it has kin here already on the page, lurking in dis’ease’)... anyway, i don’t want to fall into the ‘ease’ of repeating to myself, and thus to you, what i’ve said, in the past, about this particular aspect of my life circumstance.

but that bit of word play is probably worth pursuing... i suppose ‘dis-ease’ is what living with hep c has helped me to learn to value. or maybe it’s better, less melodramatic, to say un-ease, and to think of it as a form of the uncanny. the uncanny, which is there just behind the mask that is ‘the ordinary’, which is probably what gives the mask of the ordinary its shape, its contours. but when we pull away the mask that is the ordinary, we find revealed the face of endlessness behind it. it’s that sense of un-ease that illness has allowed me more access to.

i was recently reading nicholas royle’s THE UNCANNY (just bought it on a recommendation from my friend the poet rick meier), and so it’s in my mind. i’m in NY just now, and i didn’t bring the book with me, so i don’t have it to reference (i brought a suitcase of other books, but left that one behind. it’s so heavy. uncannily, because it was left behind, it’s calling to me). but i did note in my notebook this quote from his introduction, though he was quoting gordon c.f. bearn: “the uncanny is a philosophically significant form of disquiet.” and, most to my point: he notes that stanley cavell calls it a preoccupation with “the surrealism of the habitual.”

hep c has made precious to me so many of the habits of health that i once could ignore. now they seem essential if i’m going to avoid being overwhelmed by illness and its symptoms. but i have to keep in mind that whatever becomes precious can be allowed too much power in one’s life: there are dangers in allowing what’s precious to become sacrosanct. i have to keep alert, and playful, to toy with those rules, those habits, even though they are so important to me. it’s the precociousness (the curiosity about what might happen when the precious is pressured a bit) that keeps life vibrant, i think. and it’s from that precociousness that my best writing often whelms forth. in some sense, much of what i write now is in/ toward/from these larger questions. though i’m not currently writing poems that have illness as their obvious subject matter, i’m often writing about the need for, and the dangers of, habit—cavell’s phrase “the surrealism of habit” is an excellent catalyst for me.

i have spoken often about agamben’s belief in the value of profanation. so i won’t say more about that. only that i am grateful to his generosity in writing extensively about the usefulness of ‘play’— the usefulness in not paying complete fealty to any idea, even and especially if i think my life depends upon it.

I wonder, too, if this connects to your work as an editor and publisher, creating this productive "dis-ease" or unease in a writer so that she may see the work anew. Or perhaps it isn’t too much of a stretch to see a good editor as a sometimes healer, among much else... though I can appreciate why an editor might not want to talk about her work in that way! Regardless, I’m eager to understand how you think about the task of editing. What experiences as an editor had you had before Omnidawn — and how did you get involved with Omnidawn?

i do like the way that you’ve phrased this: “a productive dis-ease” is interesting to consider in this context! i think of an editor’s task as helping to enhance the senses of the writer, so that she/he/xe can be most fully alert to any ways that would be most useful to perceive, and if appropriate to press the boundaries of the manuscript, its vigor, its valorous sentience.

to answer your question of how i came to be involved with omnidawn: actually, my husband ken keegan and i began omnidawn in 2001. since then we’ve been publishing poetry, poetics, translations, and fabulist fiction (as full books and chapbooks, and recently on our web mag and in the past couple years, we’ve been very lucky to have the wonderful gillian hamel as our managing editor.

in 2001, ken and i decided to begin omnidawn because we believe in the work that small presses do—bringing thought-provoking, enlivening insights to readers. without small presses publishing, the unifying, stifling, benumbing drone of the large, mostly-profit-minded publishing houses, corporate booksellers, and media outlets will homogenize variation in literature and language and thought. on our website we quote italo calvino: “in an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing… flattening all communication into a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language.”

i work as senior editor of omnidawn with the thought in mind that each omnidawn book will constellate its differences in its own unique ways; each one teaches us how to read it, how to see anew the landscape of language in its dawning light. as our name suggests, we are interested in an “omni-” (in all ways and all places), “-dawning.”

before we started omnidawn, i’d gone back to school to get an mfa in poetry. i graduated from that in 1999. i was in my early 40s. before that, i’d been a HS teacher for 18 years. but i decided that i’d risk everything and change careers if i could—i’d enter the arts... become a poet (something i’d desired since elementary school!)... after i finished the mfa, i did a lot of teaching—as a comp teacher to undergrads, then as a workshop teacher in grad programs... we started omnidawn with the sense that it was now or never. it was frightening and exhilarating. and it was entirely ken’s idea.

when i was in grad school, i had two amazing teachers, brenda hillman and lyn hejinian. both have been hugely important to me (and to ken; they gave us the courage we needed.) and, lyn had recommended that any poet who wanted to be published should begin by giving back to others what one wants for oneself: she said “if you want to be invited to the best parties, then learn how to give one.” ken took her at her word.)

And I’m glad they did — Omnidawn books are "the best parties." Given the important role that your poetry teachers played in encouraging you and your husband to begin Omnidawn, do you feel that your own spirit as an editor is similar to your spirit as a teacher? Put more simply: how do you engage with your writers when you are editing them?

thank you julian, for saying that you see our books as “the best parties”! lyn hejinian’s point has been a powerful agent of continuing evolution for us. she focused in all her conversations with her students at smc on the interactive web of literary endeavor, of literary adventure. stay alert to what is alive around you! and give more than you take in any conversation—these are guidelines that i took to heart from lyn. they serve me as a teacher, as an editor, as a writer.

similarly, but in her own unique way, brenda hillman kept us focused on how we poets would best support our own work if we listened and engaged with each other. she saw the mfa program as a place to help us foster that interactivity, so that we could each be for each other conduits for ideas that challenge and excite, that renew energy and insight.

for me, this is also true of a good press—i believe that each author, each book, is in conversation with every other author, every other book we publish—a conversation that can be an exciting constellation of difference. and, i see this happening WITHIN each book, as well. in each book, each poem is equally charged with responsibility to offer its difference to the constellation of the book as a whole. i have come to see that the best parties have room for moments of private reflection which allow differences to spawn in healthy ways, as well as moments for offering the pleasure of group engagement and renewal.

i noted italo calvino’s words earlier in our conversation, and I think they are relevant here, as well. as an editor, one of my tasks is seeing how the work can best display, disclose “communication between things that are different… because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them.” as editor, it is my responsibility to reflect back to the author what i see: and to ask how every aspect of the work is being enacted, or may be brought into more lively engagement, within the work? what aspects of the work, in part or as a whole, may be radiating forth from each poem, line, phrase? robert duncan’s description in “ARTICULATIONS” of “the artist” comes to mind as i write this: the artist is someone who “works with all parts of the poem as polysemous, taking each thing of the composition as generative of meaning, a response to and a contribution to the building of form.”

an editor offers the author another ear, a very sensitive ear—so that the author might hear more of the manuscript’s full range of resonances. then my task is to communicate everything i hear to the author. of course, each reader will attune to different aspects of a work’s communicability. i think the best editors can help a writer enlarge/heighten the magnetic force of a work’s constellations of difference, not of sameness (this is another way to say ‘un-ease’, isn’t it?). the author will know best how, and to what extent, to take recommendations into the work. my job is to offer ways to hear as many frequencies as i can!

in almost every conversation i have with an author, as i discuss the work, i end up repeating this quote, at one point or another. so i’ll offer it to you: “the border makes up the homeland. it prohibits and gives passage in the same stroke” which is from helene cixous. what i think a good editor must do at the outset is to ask herself where the work intentionally abides by its borders and where it crosses them. what in the work has been acquired successfully in the progression? where is the work continuing to inquire? to my thinking, both to acquire (and keep w/in its borders) and to inquire (to press passage beyond them) are actions essential in a fine manuscript.

I’m interested in following up on your comment about the conversation among the books that you publish — because, to use the language of that lovely Cixous quotation, that forms an additional border for each book, a contiguity with the other books that Omnidawn publishes, but not one that the author can necessarily anticipate in the writing of a manuscript. So it seems like a borderland where the editor is especially vital. Can you talk about a few specific examples of books published by Omnidawn that you see engaged in this kind of conversation?

what first comes into my mind, as i read your wonderful question, is that i wish we were sitting together in omnidawn’s office. then we could walk into the stacks and i’d start pulling books off the shelves and reading you passages, showing you the diversity and interweavings, the different formal relations of language to page and how variations reflect and refract upon each other. we’d see the shifts and startles in one, the serpentine subtlety of another.

but whenever we summarize in words the constellation of a book of poems we will always to fail it, since we attempt to make finite what flows uncannily from the experience of reading. nicholas royle says that “reading entails something unreadable, in reserve, something that resists being understood now.” i am imagining how all of omnidawn’s books meet in that space of resistance, and that an editor’s work is to be a resonating field into which that resistance penetrates.

when a new volunteer joins our staff, the first thing i do is walk through the stacks with that person. we start pulling books off the shelf and talking. the books will resonate differently each time i do this. i wanted that calvino quote on our page because it reflects my sense of the importance of small presses, presses that operate outside of the normative confines of mass market. what’s fascinating to me is that each of our books subtly shades into different variations of itself depending upon who it is that i’m talking to about the book, and depending upon what book i’ve just discussed previous to the one now in my hand. yes, of course, each book is its own constellation of difference, but i think that it’s also fascinating to see how the best books of poetry are a bit chimerical. i think of something in lyn hejinian’s early ground-breaking, seminal work MY LIFE. she says “one cannot be afraid to watch too long to render the world uncanny.” what i seek in all the works we publish is that paradoxical sense of both home land and border crossing, and that the experience dawns in me, brings me into it as reader so that i feel and fear, so that i find myself in the midst of risk and relish.

but if i let myself just muse, without getting up to look at any books, and i ask myself what are a couple books that i might mention, i think of how i’m honored to have published the long sentenced prose poems of richard meier as well as the shockingly honed, short-lined terse tangents of douglas piccinnini. both, in completely different ways, change the barometer of ideational sense that i inhabit; but with such formally different weather systems. i might, too, talk about how repetition is never sameness in lynn xu or in craig santos perez, and how the formal device of repetition converges with subject matter in each to yield entirely different contextualized content.

but to do the list justice, i should speak to each book and create a topological map not a linear comparative. it’s not something we’d have time for, but it is a thrill to fantasize that!

A thrill indeed! And that leads me to wonder: What do you not have on your list that you can imagine is missing, or that you wish someone would create?

interesting question! but i actually work hard to stay open-minded. i want to avoid narrowing my expectations with preconceived ideas about what i’m seeking as i consider work for future publication.

there have been so many interesting studies that suggest we humans often see what we expect to see and miss entirely seeing what we aren’t expecting. i’m thinking of that famous study where the audience for a basketball game was asked to count the number of times various moves were made by players. a large number of the observers were watching for certain behaviors so closely that they missed seeing a person dressed as a gorilla walk onto the court.

this analogy is a stretch of course. but i raise it because i think it gives you some sense of why i want to keep my senses alive to all the unexpected ways that a manuscript might engage readers. i don’t want to bring too many preconceived notions of what ‘kind’ of work i’m looking for, what moves i’m seeking or counting, and then miss seeing the amazing gorilla!


Julian Gewirtz is a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. His first book, on the role of foreign economists in China’s reforms after Mao, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.

LARB Contributor

Julian Gewirtz is a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and The Washington Post, and his poems are published or forthcoming in AGNI, Boston Review, The Nation, the New Republic, Ploughshares, and the Yale Review. His first book of nonfiction, Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.


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