When we caught up in late October via video chat, the New Yorker poetry critic and Wellesley professor told me how The Math Campers records both what he’d been reading in newspapers as well as witnessing in his own home as his teenage sons grow up in a country where the young are taking to the streets to fight for their generation’s very survival. The book considers parenting and childhood, themes Chiasson takes up in previous books Bicentennial and Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon, adding new layers, courtesy of time, about a father examining his own maturation — both physical and literary.
During our conversation, Chiasson also described what it’s like to teach poetry during a global pandemic, prompting readers to look to verse for ways to understand our rapidly changing world.
NATASHA HAKIMI ZAPATA: Let’s start at the beginning and end of your new book. When a poet chooses ekphrasis, the visual artwork they respond to isn’t usually directly based on their life, but The Math Campers is bookended by two poems based on a mural by David Teng Olsen in your home that depicts your family. Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing “Bloom” and “Bloom II”? I’d also love to see it, since you’re at home while we’re speaking.
[Readers who may not get the chance to see Olsen’s “Bloom” in the Chiasson household can take a peek here.]
DAN CHIASSON: As I’ll show you when we go over to look at it, it’s a quite trippy artifact. The depictions of our lives and of us are all metamorphosing into creatures and certain nonhuman plants and other kinds of organisms. Dave is my friend, he’s read all of my poetry, and he came over and spent a lot of time in our house. So he got the feeling for the ambiance of our family, but then when he went to create the mural, he estranged us and our things in a beautiful way.
There’s a process of discovering yourself in it. You’ll suddenly see a face and realize, “Oh my God, that’s me,” where you had only seen, for example, a flower. In fact, the first “Bloom” poem records a real event in which [my son] Louis was walking down the hall one day and said, “Oh my God, that’s the pizza slice from the cover of your book Bicentennial.” I hadn’t seen that detail.
It’s just a beautiful work that unfolds in time and it’s never exactly finished. It seems to me it’s collaborative because it depends on our recognition of what it is depicting.
Both poems are really interesting because they bring the reader into that interactive, collaborative experience as well.
Exactly. That’s exactly what I wanted to do as a whole in this book. I want it to reflect how much of the meaning of a poem is dependent upon a reader whose own priorities and emphases and background and contexts are different from mine. We share the English language and we share a knowledge of the history of poetry, and then pretty much it’s up to them. That was a big puzzle to me — how to do that, how to represent that dynamic in the book.
Why did you choose the two ekphrastic poems to frame the book?
Well, the book is totally circular — in a thematic sense, but also in a formal and structural sense. Bookending with those two poems was sort of the largest, outermost concentric ring of the book and there are more inner rings that also have repeated elements.
You play a lot with drama in your work. I’m thinking mostly of the two plays in your last book Bicentennial as well as “The Math Campers’ Masque.” But I also think if you look closely, there’s a real thread of theatricality that runs through The Math Campers. Do you ever envision staging one of your verse plays?
I would. I have never written them with staging them in mind, but it certainly would be interesting. In a way “The Math Campers’ Masque” has been staged because in the audiobook for The Math Campers — which is pretty terrific — the director had to decide whether I would read all the parts of that play or whether she would cast actors to read the other parts, and we decided to cast actors.
I guess when I set out to write plays, I’m looking for a way to represent a multifocal point of view on a question. When I’m writing a poem, it’s almost necessarily one point of view and one voice, but if I put language in characters’ mouths, suddenly I can set opposing views in dialogue with each other.
I’ll have to listen to the audiobook. I noticed that when you were talking about the audiobook, the director wanted you to read the parts that were “obviously you,” which is really interesting because we’re often told to separate the speaker from the author. When you sit down to write a poem, do you often imagine yourself as the speaker?
When I sit down to write it, the language tells me what to do. I don’t have any conception of whether it’s me or isn’t me. It really just feels like channeling and directing or traffic-copping language, just letting it pass through my mind with as little censor or as little conscious intervention as I can. We all have a highly trained analytic side of our minds. I have a specifically highly trained analytic side in relationship to poetry because I read and write so much criticism. So I try to shut all of that down and just let the language and the rhythms teach me where to go. That may sound kind of mystical, but in fact, it’s really just pragmatic. It’s how it works.
One thing I did want to do in this book was distribute the “me” among multiple voices. In the play that works out the way you’re suggesting, but then elsewhere in the book, there is this dialogue between a man and a woman, and I really felt I needed both of those voices. One of them speaks in verse, one of them speaks in prose. In the audiobook, I speak the male parts and a wonderful actor was cast to speak the woman’s parts, but I feel that I’m both sides of that conversation.
Even though you said this process of writing might sound mystical but it’s not, I immediately thought of James Merrill, who comes up in your book and who would sometimes write poems using a Ouija board. And speaking of Merrill, your speaker seems to have a sort of trinity of poetic fathers in the book: James Merrill, whose house he stays in; Frank Bidart, who becomes his friend; and then Robert Lowell, who he comically, somewhat Oedipally, runs over and dumps in the trunk with a troll. I’d love to hear about your relationship to these three poets.
Well, so much of the first section of the book was written while I was staying in James Merrill's apartment, which is a truly amazing place. Merrill had this apartment in Stonington, Connecticut, and when he died, it became a writer’s residency. What’s unique about it is that every inch of it was designed in this incredibly eccentric way by Merrill himself and all of it is left exactly the way it was before he died. In the kitchen, there’s even a dry-erase board with a note that Merrill wrote in 1995 or so to guests who would come and stay, telling them where to put the towels and things. It’s really eerie. It’s like Pompeii or something. And his sensibility that I came to love so much from his poetry is there in his decor, it’s there in his choice of ornament and the wallpaper. Also, many of the things you’re seeing in that space are in fact described in poems that I’d read and loved by Merrill for a long, long, long time. It was really like living inside of a poem to be there, and I wanted to write about that experience.
Then while I was staying there, something extraordinary happened, which is that I pulled one of Frank Bidart’s books off the shelf and there was a dedication to Merrill from the 1970s from Frank to James Merrill. So while I was sitting in Merrill's study, I wrote an email to Frank, and he wrote right back five minutes later, and we had this email exchange. So I just started trying to think of, “Where am I in time here?” It all just felt like exactly the kind of multilayered experience of time that I love, and that I crave.
Bidart really is the reason I’m a writer. He took an interest in my poems before I’d ever published any poems, and he was very honest with me. He would not pretend to like things that he didn’t like. In some deep way, he’s connected to the very fact that I have a book at all. So he belongs in there — for all kinds of other reasons, too.
And Lowell was the first poet I really loved and I’ve been in dialogue with him in my mind for my whole adult life, ever since I was a teenager, really. I find him to be in some ways a deplorable figure. He was awful to a lot of people. He could be violent; he was violent to women. He was also a profound sufferer with his bipolar disorder, which hospitalized him almost every year of his adult life, and one of its manifestations was violence.
He’s a very troubling figure to think about. The critic Parul Sehgal had a review recently in The New York Times of Martin Amis’s latest book, and she says something great in it. She says, “You can no more pick your early, decisive influences than your dominant hand.” That’s Lowell for me, the writer I loved first. That’s why he’s in there. Also, he was Frank’s friend and teacher.
In addition to the bits of dialogue with Frank Bidart, which you said were from your email exchanges, I’m interested in other contemporary poets this book is sort of less explicitly in conversation with.
I was aware — afraid — that I was doing something of an Anne Carson–like project, the way that she mixes prose and poetry, fragments and holes, the way she composes sequences that reach out to other genres like drama or like essay, for example. I was very aware of her and at some point conscious of not wanting it to come off too much as an Anne Carson–lite endeavor. The main points of dialogue in the book are — besides those three poets — with other kinds of work. The main music of the book was revealed to me when I watched a film called Sans Soleil by Chris Marker, which has a female narrator who is narrating correspondence from a man.
There’s also ton of music in this book. I happened to be listening to the Fleetwood Mac album Tusk over and over again during this period. It’s in there. There are also fragments of T. S. Eliot’s poem “East Coker” in this book.
You have a line in the book, “It was a strange time in the country. Distrust reigned.” This line from your series “Must We Mean What We Say” strikes me as perhaps the most overtly political verse in your book. I’d love to hear what role you see politics playing in your poetry.
That is a key moment in that first section. Then there are also moments where I will call out to an unnamed source which will confirm something I’ve claimed in the poem. And the title of one of the long poems in the book, “Must We Mean What We Say,” tells us that the book is interested in layers of information.
One thing that’s happened in the Trump era is we’ve all become distrustful of what we’re told, deeply distrustful of what we’re told. It’s turned us all into either paralyzed passive spectators, or it’s made us, in my case, into amateur investigators or detectives. Politics for me enters this book because suddenly information is highly suspect and highly distrustful of what the official line or the official word on anything is.
Because of this period where trust was so violated, I see how some of my students have become a little distrustful of literature and of poetry, which is always not exactly saying what it means. In this poem, I was thinking about how trust plays into our experience of a poem when there are so many cases where what it claims to be saying is not what it’s saying, or what it claims to be about is only a symbolic system that reveals the real meaning behind it. I think that for me, and for a lot of people, distrust started to take over and I was just really interested in how that was feeding into my writing, into my reading.
That’s a long way of answering your question about politics. Then the more straightforward answer would be: We have teenagers. This was a period when teenagers were rising up around gun violence, when there was a lot of activism around the climate, and, although I finished the book before this summer, the social movements of this period I think were all manifestations of a new intensity of engagement for people of that age. I also wanted to honor that. That’s why the title poem is partly about teenagers and political activism.
I noticed the line in the title poem about sea levels rising, and also, I think at some point even Bernie Sanders makes it into the book.
I’ve known Bernie since I was nine years old! So, Bernie had to be in the book. It’s totally about Burlington where I grew up and where he was, obviously, our mayor and still lives there now. I have a book in me somewhere down the line which is entirely about Bernie, but I’ll save that for the next project.
I’m looking forward to reading that one, too! Speaking of Vermont, when asked to “pick a side” in one poem, the speaker proclaims he chooses the Vermont side. What is it about Vermont, the state you were born in, that lends itself so readily to your poetry?
Here all objectivity is going to just completely fade away. I will not even pretend to be an objective judge of this. Vermont has a lot of problems: it’s always been one of the whitest states in the country; it is not an easy place to be poor; its myths have often been created and sort of disseminated by people of some privilege. It’s not perfect, but I was looking for some vision of how a society might be repaired and re-woven together, and what I find in Vermont is everybody, even somebody who might be a Trump supporter, has the basic fundamental understanding that we depend on one another just simply to survive.
I spent a lot of time up there in the spring of 2019 and just looked at the landscape and looked at the spring as it was coming in. I felt my childhood, too. Very little has changed in parts of Vermont since the ’70s, when I was a kid, so there’s a bit of time travel for me going back there.
There’s that really great Louise Glück line, “As one expects of a lyric poet. / We look at the world once, in childhood. / The rest is memory.”
Exactly. My family going way back is from Vermont, so I really felt connected to it as a kid. We never traveled much; it was really my entire world. That really shaped my mind and my emotions.
Earlier you were talking about your teenage boys, and fatherhood and boyhood are themes that appear often in your work, especially in the last three collections. And so I wonder what being a parent has taught you about poetry, or is it the other way around?
Well, my father left when I was a baby, so I never knew him. And there wasn’t a lot of communication about him. The absence of such a critical person in my life I think, in some ways, created my temperament and my rich inner life and investment in daydreaming. When I was a kid, I would sometimes tell tall tales about who my father was. It was kind of like creating myself in a way that people who have their parents picking them up every day don’t get the opportunity to do. I think his absence fed into my capacity to fabricate in both the good and the bad senses of that word. It probably created the sort of appetite for deep introspection that goes into the poems.
Then to be a father — of sons, in particular — is to stand in some kind of almost ironic relationship to my own life. When we had kids, suddenly I was both the child and the father, but there were also all kinds of ironies, like the fact that I never had a father and here I was one.
Some of the poems in this book feel like a response to a question in “Bicentennial” where the dad is asking his kids … you’ll remember it better than I do …
The speaker of that poem says to his kids something like, “How’s your childhood going?” Because they’re just freaked out by the question, they just say, “Great.” And I start to think, “Well, nobody ever asked me that question.” That’s the bifurcation or splitting of the self that we’re talking about.
You mentioned daydreaming and making up tales — there’s a lot of that in The Math Campers, right? You have a lot of dreamscapes. What did using dreams as a device reveal to you or allow you to do?
Great question. First of all, the dreams in the book are actual dreams. I didn’t transcribe them, but I did narrate them when I woke up to my wife, and she can confirm that they are real dreams, including the one where I run Lowell over. I also got really interested in the phenomenon of the nested dream, where you dream that you’re dreaming. Then, in some cases, within your actual dream you dream that you’ve woken up and you’re sort of relieved that it was just a dream. There are these layers of consciousness that I don’t know that we ever experience in our waking lives. You close your eyes and go to sleep and dream, and you have a complex physical, somatic, and emotional response to extraordinary things that, if they happened in your real life, you would perish. You just wouldn’t be able to withstand them.
There was a lot of nesting in this book — as you pointed out, the bookending of the volume. There’s also the first section of the long poem, where there’s a dialogue between this man and this woman — we don’t really know who they are. The man speaks in verse, the woman speaks in prose, but at a certain point toward the end of that sequence, they both wonder if the other dreamt them or if the other imagined them. They’re sort of both anxious, in a sort of touching way, that they’re really just figments of somebody else’s imagination. And one of them, I think the woman, says that the two of them were like contesting realities in a film.
I also wanted to ask you a bit about time. Its power to transform bodies, minds, relationships, even poetry comes up over and over throughout the book. In what ways have you seen your poetry altered by the passage of time? I’m thinking of that great moment in the book when the speaker says of a poem he’s written, “[W]hen you find it you will see / the poem changed slightly, crucially — / because, you know why: because time.”
I guess the big argument of the book is that the thing that is most likely to reveal time’s passing is something that’s repeated. To give just a banal example, every year we have a birthday and that day is a repetition in our lives. Every May 9, I have a birthday, but with every year that that occurrence repeats, something new is revealed, which is that I’m older. Within the book, I really was thinking about the way things that remain the same throughout time, reveal time in a way that other kinds of things don’t.
Just as, as you say, that’s true of my children’s bodies as they grow older, my own body as I’m 49 years old. And true of the bodies of the poems — every time elements within them repeat, or every time they repeat or are brought back in, they cast a light upon time. That was the case in this book and also throughout all of my books. For example, there’s a poem in my first book called “Peach Tree.” We had peach trees growing up in Vermont; I was remembering one in our backyard. But anyway, I think it was kind of an important poem in my first book. Then, in The Math Campers, the peach tree reappears in the play. In almost every one of my books there are places where I’ve called back to an earlier moment in my work. It’s just to show that the passing of time affects poetry on the micro level — at the level of the line and the stanza — but it also affects the book, the career.
In March, you wrote a powerful piece in The New Yorker about the unusual pain of ending the spring semester virtually — contactlessly — due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now that we are well into an autumn marked with awkward beginnings instead of difficult endings, what has it been like for you and your students?
The thing that’s amazing is that — and I don’t want it to sound too implausible, but it is true — is that the space of conversation around a poem, like the one that we’re having right now, feels sort of timeless. When I wrote that piece, I was quite worried that suddenly time, in the harshest and roughest way, had interrupted the experience we were having. Emily Dickinson was teaching us how to look at the world outside our windows as the New England spring was coming in. That was so important to her and it was becoming very important to us. Then, suddenly, it was gone. I wrote the piece right then. Then, something interesting happened, which is that we reconvened on Zoom and there were other forms of continuity and connection that we discovered that didn’t depend on being in the same room together.
I attribute that to the almost timeless nature of this thing we do in a classroom, which is to figure out a poem together. That could be in a virtual space or a physical space. The pandemic has concentrated the mind, I think, so that we’re much more intentional about what we’re doing in the classroom. So that’s great, but the main thing is that the space in which people talk about a poem, whether it’s virtual or physical, whether it’s in writing or in person, is its own unique kind of space. That’s what I’ve learned: that with all of these changes and discontinuities, there’s one thing that’s been continuous.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata is a London-based writer and the former Foreign Editor of the Webby-award winning journal Truthdig.