TO BE FLOODED ONCE MORE: JAMES TOLAN In Conversation with Tony Leuzzi
Mass of the Forgotten
(Autumn House Press, 2013)
“How could I feel / what wasn’t there?” James Tolan writes as doubting Thomas in his two-part poem, “Carravaggio’s Thomas.” This confrontation with palpable absence is a recurrent theme in Mass of the Forgotten, Tolan’s first book of poems. Unlike many first books, Mass of the Forgotten is not the work of a promising novice but the ripened fruit of a near three-decade engagement with poetry. I met Tolan in 1992, while we were graduate students at the University of Lafayette, Louisiana. He struck me as a charming, acerbic, vigorously intelligent young man eager to make his mark in the world of poetry. This, along with patience, passion, and persistence, has enabled him to write poems one may savor like a strange yet irresistible wine. Gathering the best lyric and narrative poems from 1987 to the present—with strong emphasis on work composed in the last 10 years—Tolan’s Mass of the Forgotten manages to be both wise and fresh, not least of all because the poet is committed to tradition and the breaking of tradition. There are moments in Mass where William Carlos Williams seems to be stepping over Rilke; other parts that sound like Chuck Palahniuk channeling Robert Frost. Nonetheless, it is Tolan’s own distinctive voice that rises out of such allusions to face illusions with restraint and clarity.
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): The opening poem in any book of poems not only introduces the collection but corrals many of the themes that are explored therein. Mass of the Forgotten begins with “The Wind Will Undo Us,” an elegant, timeless moment of language. So many of the poems in the opening section, and then occasionally later on, evoke the presence and power of the wind, and in the opening poem you declare, “The wind does not forget but carries what it can.” How does this assertion underscore your concerns throughout The Mass of the Forgotten?
James Tolan: I love best and nearly exclusively poetry I hear as inspired. It’s the only poetry I hope to write, the only poetry that seems worthy of the effort, the way of being entailed in making one’s self available to such poems. Inspiration at its root is the wind that enters us and, in so doing, puts us in the peculiar condition of feeling both entirely present while at the same time open to an energy flowing into us that heightens attention to the activity in which we’re engaged (athletics, dancing, cooking, and lovemaking and so on as well as the writing of poems) and turns all other stimuli into possible contributors to that activity or merely blocks them. To be inspired is to be so entered that the voice with which you speak arrives from the wind, is delivered to you as your own and from beyond you.
So “The Wind Will Undo Us” asserts a poetry that values more than the personal or the merely inventive, that believes in a world, a consciousness outside of the corporeal self. In addition, the wind that enters in this poem is the return of memory, which leads to the lost or stolen child who, located in dreams, is moving into the waking world, is returning to consciousness.
Rail: Another repeated image is mouths: mouths in the act of eating (“I Ate Your Pancakes,” “The Meat Course,” and “Inheritance”); mouths that take in others’ bodies (“In the Sacristy”); mouths that receive bodies (“Charred”); mouths that “breathe” and “sigh” and utter surprising, pause-inducing truths. Were you aware of the prevalence of this image and the various permutations it takes in your poems? Why do you suppose it emerges so often?
Tolan: I hadn’t noticed all those mouths, but you’re right: there they are. My poems are made to be said and heard, to enter the body and not just the mind. They are offered as sensuous experiences: a mouth offering, a body receiving, being entered. I intend these poems to be heard and not merely read. The poems are intended for the body, and the mind reading moves much faster than the body and these poems.
Rhythm is the body in motion. Emotion comes out of motion, requires the body. Reading fast blurs rhythm and so denies emotion. I want these poems to be felt and not merely considered. To find their rhythm, you have to say them as I’ve scored them on the page. The play of the vowels against the consonants, the musical phrase, the line and stanza, the silences between, the tempo and pitch, so much of this is lost when reading silently. These poems are from my mouth to yours. I want your ears to hear what and how the words sing and not merely their silent approximations.
Rail: The poems in Mass of the Forgotten are almost always presented to us in a voice that is bold and vulnerable. Reading through the book, I got a sense there was very little the speaker of these poems would hold back, as he is ruthless, even ferociously honest here. And yet, the poems are not meant to shock. A good deal of their power comes from the ways in which the speaker reveals himself as uncertain and powerless before the invisible yet omnipresent forces of time. Do you see these poems as variations of one bardic voice, or as a gathering of voices speaking different sides of the same themes?
Tolan: Mass of the Forgotten is haunted by the specter of that lost child, stolen in the woods, from the end of “The Wind Will Undo Us,” which the book seeks to recover. If I experienced writing as a personal expression of the bounded self, I’d write a memoir about overcoming childhood trauma and abandonment, but my experience of that child and his recovery isn’t grounded essentially in personal narrative. I don’t see that child as merely an historic me. To think the thing that drives your art is predominantly yourself limits your art to ego—reduces art to self and self to the singular. Art teaches us that the personal is limited and largely dull. The figurative complicates, deepens, and makes inclusive the larger world, the larger self, the other, the natural world, night-consciousness. The formal contains the wild energy of the figurative/the metaphoric as opposed to the mundane personal.
The poems I write live in association, imagery, metaphor, the mythic, and language that arrives as sound, all of which are beyond the personal. Such poems often require a speaker or self laid bare because what matters isn’t the construction of a self but the making of a living poem, which is a kind of grace, a ruthlessness full of ruth, an atonement of the self with what is more than personal, with the mythic child now gone. What wouldn’t we do to recover the child lost to us, the child stolen by forces in the dark?
You follow the wind and where it takes you, abandon yourself time and again to the faith it will lead you to where he has so long been waiting. The original obligation of the godparent wasn’t to raise a child in an institutional faith structure or assume parental responsibility should a child’s parents die. The job of a godparent was to nurture the creative aspect of a child, to keep it alive, in the face of all the socialization the child had to endure. For many, that child is lost to us. Poetry and the arts so understood are how we can bring that child home, restore him or her to our communities and myth structures, re-establish his or her value. There are many winds that lead us there, and each is always the wind.
Rail: I always love to find the few poems in a poet’s collection that I would have wanted to write myself. Despite there being a number of lovely, enviable poems in Mass of the Forgotten, the clear candidates of this honor are positioned side-by-side in the second section and, despite their proximity, are of very different character. “In the Nick of Time” is a terse, gorgeous poem that slays me the way the anonymously authored lyric “Western Wind” does. It is so quotable and timeless!
I was lost
and this poem
Now we’re lost
How did this poem come about?
Tolan: Remember that excruciatingly dull Victorian Poetry class we took in graduate school at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, Tony? Straight lecture. Randy Gonzalez was there with us, too. He set himself the task of writing a crown of sonnets during the 15 weeks of the class. As I remember, he pulled it off quite nicely. I was envious and in a rut. So when he showed me what he had come up with partway through one class, I handed it back him and wrote “In the Nick of Time” in my notebook. That was going on 20 years ago and the only change has been to cut the last line: “What a relief.” After that, new poems came. A little gift.
Rail: The other “wish-I-wrote-it” poem for me here is “Giggles Before the Void,” which reminds me of a cross between Gogol’s brilliantly ironic short story “The Nose” and Gregory Orr’s semi-surrealistic, menacing poem “Hats”:
I could take her ass
and put it in a box by the window
and every morning I’d open the box
and tickle her ass with a goose feather
but sooner or later she’d want it back
and I’d be stuck with an empty box
and a bald goose
and every morning I’d have to get up
and feed the goose
and look for something to put in that empty box.
I am in awe of the knife-edge between humor and desperation here. Again, tell me what you can about the poem.
Tolan: This is the oldest poem in the book, from when I was an undergrad in 1987. My professor was the poet and Zen translator Lucien Stryk and I was enamored with his translations of the haiku poets Matsuo Bashō and Kobayashi Issa and the contemporary Zen poet Shinkichi Takahashi. The emphasis in this poetry on wild, striking images was compelling to me as a young poet. My ear was still untrained, but I was startled by the images in the poems Stryk had made available. Most of my attempts to follow their model were self-conscious, cute, or willed. I was trying too hard to impress or please.
At the same time a romance was ending and neither she nor I was doing particularly well at letting it end gracefully. As she walked to the shower one night, I was struck by how her thin waist and full hips made her bare ass seem almost square. The poem arrived in a rush while she showered and I tucked it into my pants. We couldn’t make sense of our desire for each other and our equally passionate revulsions. We swung dramatically between wanting each other and wanting each other gone, couldn’t fathom the difference between love and desire, how dangerous Eros is.
I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her.
Rail: The lovely, Frost-like lyric, “The Forest of My Hair” begins with an acknowledgement that the speaker is “Twenty-eight in the flesh.” You are in your 40s now, so I am wondering if this poem was written 15 or so years ago, or if you are, in the present, imagining a present-tense voice who is 28. How long did it take you to gather these poems? Is Mass of the Forgotten the result of decades of labor?
Tolan: The manuscript that eventually became Mass of the Forgotten went through many iterations over more than 15 years. The earliest poems in the book are 25 years old. Most are 15 to 20. The process is complicated by a decade in which I wrote only three poems, all in the book: “Whiskey and the Rake of Mourning,” “Caravaggio’s Thomas,” and “Devil Born.” I returned to poetry in 2008, and was thrilled to find it waiting for me, but only three poems—“In the Sacristy,” “Chicago 1942,” and “On the Subject of Hogs”—written over that time appear in Mass. Many other poems went through radical revisions, such as “My Father. Vietnam.”, which had been a three-page identity narrative written in long lines. As I returned to these earlier poems, I often found I could better hear what shape they wanted to take, that I could hear a form more true.
People too often confuse free verse with formlessness or, just as misguided, form in free verse as being arbitrary or imposed. Form is punctuated emotion, the embodiment in art of the discipline of a person’s life. In a poem you want to feel there’s an energy that needs containment. Form is what contains intensity within the limits of this body/this life. Without limitation, no force. Intensity is limitation combined with drive, like water through the nozzle of a hose. As a young poet, language would often rush out of me, and in my hurry to get it out, I would fail to hear the shape in which it was arriving in terms of, for instance, line length or stanzaic pattern. By not hearing the form, the language might lose direction or I might not be able to follow where it was going or how. The poem would lose its intensity and direction. As a result, I thought that to revise I had to return to the source of inspiration and be flooded once more or be reduced to tinkering around the edges of the poem rather listening to the poem anew, hearing where the language went flat as a guide to where I had lost the thread of the poem.
Rail: I’m also impressed with your wide range of knowledge. At every turn, Mass of the Forgotten establishes itself as a smart book, but not one that wears erudition on its proverbial sleeve. It is clearly a synthesis of years and years and years of reading—and reading widely. What were some of your most important source texts as you developed a poetic voice over the years?
Tolan: I have a shameful history of influence. The poets I have most loved, I loved intensely but found little of my own poetry there. I’ve spent fat chunks of my life with the Book of Songs, the Tamil Anthology, and the haiku poets I mentioned before. Blake, Whitman, Rilke, Shakespeare, Neruda, Etheridge Knight, Sexton, Clifton, Plath are all poets I’ve rabbit-holed, devouring their work only to be frustrated that in so doing my own became third-rate knock-offs of theirs. Maybe this is part of the process, to be wowed and put into your place by your betters.
The poets I’ve been able to return to fruitfully, and by fruitfully I mean that in so doing I write strong poems of my own, include Sappho, whose fragments seem like invitations to my own writing, Yeats, Goethe, Machado, and Tranströmer. To be honest, I’m working now to be less rapacious in my reading, by which I mean to stop reading chiefly to spur my own poems. It works in bursts, but the poetic avarice of such reading isn’t sustainable. I write best, and always have, when I have and take the time to give myself to poems and poets that lead me meandering to others and to art and music and conversation and food until the delight of language arrives in me. Over the last few years, I’ve been working fitfully to memorize poems I love, and this has helped me tremendously to ground form in the body. Among the poets to whom I am repeatedly turning of late are Natalie Diaz, Cecilia Woloch, Paul Blackburn, Tom McGrath, Hilda Morley, Paul Celan, René Char, Seamus Heaney, and Laura Kasischke.
Rail: It’s hard not to read these poems as calling and responding to one another across the book. “Caravaggio’s Thomas” in section three stands on its own as a persona poem, where the Thomas of the painting speaks with moving uncertainty. “How could I feel / what wasn’t there? / It was like faith, // my finger halfway in…” We know the story of doubting Thomas and Christ’s invitation. However, within the context of the collection, I cannot read this poem without thinking of “In the Sacristy” in section one, where an adult narrator remembers being molested by his priest as a boy. In this earlier poem, the Thomas story is juxtaposed with the moment of sexual penetration. How aware were you of the interconnectedness of many of these poems when you began sequencing the poems? And how did your degree of this knowledge affect the sequencing in other ways?
Tolan: “In the Sacristy” is the newest poem in the collection and came about when another poet was reading a version of the manuscript and felt deeply that something dark was apparent under the surface of “Caravaggio’s Thomas.” She suggested I rewrite the poem, and when I tried, “In the Sacristy” arrived. That it did so now seems inevitable but I wasn’t prepared for it when I began, not at all.
When it comes to the sequencing of the poems, I owe so much to my friend the poet Owen Lewis, who took a version of the manuscript on a flight from New York to L.A. and worked it into the foundational arrangement that shapes the book. My mistaken predilection was to build a heavy-handed narrative out of the poems, which tended to lump similar poems too close to one another. What Owen did, and taught me to do, was to identify the prevalent themes or tropes in the book, find poems that acted as pillars for those tropes and themes and fan them out across the book to hold up its structure—hence the pillars. His strategy allows for space, breathing room, around the poems and encourages the sorts of connections you’ve found throughout. So while I was aware of the interconnectedness of poems in the collection, it was only after Owen’s intervention that I was able to see how the book could be sequenced so that a reader could discover those connections without me insisting upon them.
The other factor at play in the sequencing was how dark the collection was in its various stages. Sometimes the manuscript pulled the reader so far down into that darkness it could be overwhelming, so the sequencing had to find a way to allow the playfulness of many of the poems to provide some relief from all that darkness without undercutting it. It was the poet and great teacher of poetry, Fran Quinn, whose ideas form the basis of so much of my own thinking, who suggested I begin with “The Wind Will Undo Us” and separate it from the rest of the collection.
Rail: One of the most pleasurable aspects of reading Mass of the Forgotten is that, while the book is clearly the result of so much intellectual and personal work, it does not feel as if it is the end of something. In fact, you seem to announce on every page that this is only the beginning of the story, that there is so much more to discover, experience, and try to articulate. What is next for you? Put another way: as you begin to build poems for your next book, what kinds of departures can we expect from you? How will that book be different from Mass of the Forgotten, or is that not a consideration at this point in time?
Tolan: The second collection oscillates between longer narrative poems, often in long lines, and short lyrics of noticeably increased nuance from most of those in Mass. The narratives take the family material and extend it, allow it to play over greater expanses of time, ground it more often in the present. These were the poems that came to me when I first returned to writing in 2008 and seem to have run their course. Little that pleases me along these lines is arriving now. That tank seems near empty. The lyrics tend to focus either on the present or on the end of relationships I dealt with only marginally in Mass, so it’s interesting with both of the predominant forms of the second collection that whereas Mass, as you mention, seems a beginning, the second collection seems to be aligned with endings. It feels like a clearing off of material that involves poems of increased expansions alongside those of increased compression.
The narratives demand that longer line, strain against too much containment. The lyrics in contrast want more constraint to keep them from pouring across the page, short lines holding them back and pushing them down the page. A poem in many ways finds its form in how the energy across the line is balanced against the energy driving the poem down the page. So often when I hear poets speak about poetry, they value the line over the energy down the page. You need a balance. It’s not the line versus the sentence but the line in relation to the sentence that I’m after, and in this second collection I seem to have settled into two predominant ways of handling that relation.
Rail: Despite the lyric sincerity of the bulk of these poems, Mass of the Forgotten is made even more dimensional by occasional moments of rough and raw images. I’m thinking of the disturbing yet hilarious dream poem “The Coup” that opens the second section, as well as the Oedipal drama in “Blood Sport.” Do you see these poems as interruptions of the otherwise lyrical feel of the book, or as essential disturbances that illuminate the rest of the work?
Tolan: Growing up as a working-class kid and still owning that upbringing, I’m fascinated in differing registers of diction and an atypical range of content. This is one of the reasons I’m taken with Tom McGrath, who moves so beautifully from high to low diction, even in a single poem. This seems related to the rough and the raw, one gift among many given to us by William Carlos Williams, whom I have been negligent in mentioning as one of my great poetic heroes, for both his work and his insistence, along with Whitman and Langston Hughes, both of whom I adore, that we can have an American poetry that needn’t seek its roots in Classicism but can be sowed of American grain, of American speech patterns and the variety of American lives. I want to insist that a poem about slugging your pop in the bread box can be vital and significant—that what seems to me the normal and healthy urge to overcome or purge the limitations and cruelties of one’s parents, when brought up into art, is a necessary and important function of the arts. So, yes, I’d call such poems “essential disturbances.” Hell, I’d even sign on for an anthology by that very title.
Rail: Here’s a tiresome question: how much of the material about adoption is autobiographical? Is this a metaphor or literal fact?
Tolan: All of it is autobiographical, based in literal facts, but if the material in each instance isn’t metaphoric as well, then those are failed poems. The danger is to think of the autobiographic as primarily, or even essentially, beholden to facts. It’s not, particularly when memory is the inspiration for a poem. My memory is sketchy at best. I recall images and moments that can give a poem its impetus, but once the writing begins the poem has its own agenda, which must seem odd to some, but it’s like dancing or kissing or playing ball; if things are going well, the activity itself guides you. Sure, my father was an alcoholic. He vomited violently on the corner of Lewis and Grand in Waukegan, Illinois, and when his father died he drank and raked until I had to drag him passed out into the house. Those are some of the facts, but they aren’t the heart or what Etheridge Knight called the belly of the poems. If these are successful poems, then they’ll affect you beyond their facts. They’ll suck a little air out of you.
And some experiences, especially repeated experiences of trauma, can steal memory. You block memory as a means of survival. Piecing together your own history through art is more than gathering facts. It’s the integration of memories and images, songs and sounds and other textures and patterns into organic wholes like poems so that you can experience such re-integration, such making whole, as possible in the world and in you.
Rail: Finally, with so many poets coming out with their first books, Mass of the Forgotten has distinguished itself as one that is worth remembering. In your own opinion, what are some qualities you as a poet have to offer that you do not see elsewhere in contemporary American poetry?
Tolan: I need a poetry of emotional integrity that extends beyond the personal. I need a poetry of apt music, content charged enough to require formal containment, and at least a moment of sheer magic. Some of these are rarely enough. Put them all together and that’s a poem. Anything less, and I’m not sure what you’ve got, but it isn’t what I’m after, isn’t worthy of being called a poem. Each time I write, this is the goal. Philip Levine said the only reason to write a poem was to change the world. Orpheus in his songs brought the gods to tears and soothed the beasts. I’m not claiming to be Orpheus or Levine, but if that’s not the goal, why bother? I want my poems to empty some space for your soul to shiver and stretch its legs. I don’t see a lot of poets after the same goal. I see a lot of invention without discovery. I see a lot of poems that arrive in Ah or Er. I want the universe in a poem and not just intellect, irony, uplift, or purgation.
Finally, I write in the belief that a poem lives essentially in the air when spoken and not on the page. It has to hold up on the page, but it lives in the open air. I don’t see many poets who write in this belief. Poetry is a pre-literate art, an oral art. When we lose that, then the naysayers are right and poetry will be dead. But not while the wind still favors me and I have poems to make.
TONY LEUZZI teaches and writes in Rochester, N.Y. His second book of poems, Radiant Losses, won the New Sins Editorial Prize in 2009 and was released the following year. In November 2012, BOA Editions released Passwords Primeval, Leuzzi's interviews with 20 American poets. His latest book of poems, The Burning Door, was released by Tiger Bark Press in March 2014.