Books In Conversation
with Pirooz Kalayeh
(Tiger Bark Press, 2018)
Tony Leuzzi’s Meditation Archipelago is an exploration into constraints, process, and memory that evokes the imagination with its super-wide-reframing of life’s in-between moments, where a constraint, haiku, or emotion can transform into improvisation, humor, or the impossible. The book is told in four parts that explore Leuzzi’s personal geography, as well as imagined geographies that are given their parameters either by zip codes—14620, his zipcode, serves as the syllabic meter for each line in several of the poems from the first section, “And Then,” where the first line is one syllable; the next four syllables, and so on—or other launching points, such as writing with the non-dominant hand, an e-mail from the Permanent Office of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and an article in the New York Times. The resulting collection often feels like a multi-faceted gallery exhibition, with Leuzzi’s interests in painting, music, and philosophy informing his poetry, and vice-versa. Our conversation explores Leuzzi’s process, his belief that there’s no such thing as “too much thinking,” and the far-reaching repository for art, thought, and language his poems evoke.
Pirooz Kalayeh (Rail): Meditation Archipelago begins with “Still Life,” which turns on itself with the phrase “I know what you are thinking,” until the description of the “pewter bowl” fragments into alternate possibilities, and finally rests to "stain the world" and begin. You've off-set this piece before we start the four distinct parts of Meditation Archipelago in a similar imaginative shifting that often becomes “another possibility” in the poems themselves. How does this “reframing” of one possibility to another shape the curation of the book?
Tony Leuzzi: I’m happy you see all of this, Pirooz. One of my favorite poems is Emily Dickinson’s “I Dwell in Possibility.” I think most poets are people who engage the imagination as a place of refuge. When personal, national, and global despairs become too much, one turns inward and creates an alternative world. This is not necessarily escapism. It can be a strategy for survival. In any case, “Still Life” does metaphorically allude to the formal and tonal shifts that occur through various reframings as one moves across each section of Meditation Archipelago. Those maneuvers occur within individual poems, too. “Still Life” was one of the last poems I wrote for the collection, and I conceived it as a minor-key prelude; a small, possibly unsettling doorway into a book made up of seemingly-discrete “islands.”
But this discretion is only an illusion. The two headnotes promote interconnectedness. The first quote, from Arthur Schopenhauer, claims: “The scenes of our lives resemble pictures in rough mosaic; they are ineffective from close up, and have to be viewed from a distance if they are to seem beautiful.” I appreciate this observation and cite it as an aesthetic principle for the book. Many of the poems in the first section (or archipelago) reconstruct memories from the position of distance, where even the most intense moments are subjected to a rigorous yet frequent comical restraint. As with one who views a mosaic from afar, this very distance allowed me a measure of objectivity so I might understand such fragments of lived experience as part of a larger, coherent narrative. The second quote following Schopenhauer comes from the first few lines of Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Islands”: “O for God’s sake / they are connected / underneath.” Isn’t that the truth! We are not separate from anywhere or anyone. Nor can we ever escape ourselves. Therefore, a poem ostensibly about pears in a pewter bowl becomes the story of an Iraq War veteran-turned-painter who has lost his fingers and who must now guide the strokes of his paintbrush over canvas by clenching it between his teeth. A commonplace still life is not commonplace at all because the painter’s desire to overcome his physical limitations is so strong that the obstacles become stepping stones in his process. That first line, “Blue plums in a pewter bowl—” is borrowed from the first line of Arthur Sze’s poem “The Waking.” I liked its concreteness, its specificity and wanted to see how far I could travel away from the image in the course of the poem. Sze was kind of enough to give me permission to use that line. It was one of many ways I reframed and curated a variety of materials.
Rail: I said “curation” in the previous question because I don't feel like I'm reading in Meditation Archipelago. It's more of a seeing into possibility. You show us the tools: the paint is on the canvas; and then, suddenly, a “bird;” “No, it’s a bull!” and then “Baltimore,” and so on. How much of this is brought about because of your interest in painting? And how much because of your interest in examining process itself?
Leuzzi: My work as an untrained painter is very much a reflection of my work as a self-trained poet. In both instances, I tend to work with found materials and collage, and in both mediums I adhere to certain self-imposed restrictions before proceeding. As a painter, I collect tacky reproductions of famous paintings on board—you know, those framed things people had in their living rooms in the ’60s and ’70s?—and paint over them, leaving some of the original image underneath intact but cropped. That’s my way of collaborating with the great masters, I guess. It’s also a very clear example of reframing. But is it traditional painting? I don’t sit down and say, “Today I will draw a bird.” I just don’t work that way. I let the energy of the painting I’m painting over determine where I will go. Similarly, when I write a poem, I don’t feel like it’s ordinary writing. Many people write because they have a burning need to say something. I have a lot of things to say, but in my poems, I only discover those things once I’ve been working with certain forms or procedures. I’m not sure why this is the case. It’s not as if I don’t have opinions. Ask anyone who knows me: I’m a pretty blunt and direct person who isn’t afraid to say what I want to say. But when it comes to my poetry—and, for that matter, my paintings—I let whatever processes I’ve chosen to follow dictate where the work will go. As a result, all but one or two poems in Meditation Archipelago follow some sort of formal strategy that dictated how the writing emerged. Even the freer-seeming poems are in form. “Baltimore,” “Short Story,” and “Sablefish,” for instance, might initially seem like chatty, prosy, long-lined poems that starkly contrast the more conspicuous syllabic experiments elsewhere in the book, but those three poems are syllabic poems, too, with alternating lines of thirteen and seven syllables. This variation of decasyllabics has precedent in the work of poet Michael Waters. He’s done great things with it. I wrote fifteen such poems but only included three. I dump a lot of what I write in the cyber bin.
Rail: This interest in allowing for “the energy of the painting” to come into being reminds me of Zen Master Seung Sahn who suggested to “only don’t know” as a path towards enlightenment, or even Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought.” I’ve often considered how “being open” can co-mingle with materials and produce something closer to an authentic exchange that is wholly different from having a set destination. Would you say this type of openness with your environment coupled with poetic constraints is creating an additional “something” through this juxtaposition within the book?
Leuzzi: I don’t know Seung Sahn’s teachings, though I like the idea of not knowing providing a path to enlightenment. I’ve often struggled with Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” for reasons that are too convoluted and subjective to discuss here. Still, your extrapolation of my process is really cool. It makes me think of something poet Philip Schultz said at one of his readings: “Let the poem be about two things.” In my head, I immediately rejoined: “The moment the poem becomes two things it becomes three.” As two things come together, the juxtaposition of those two things inevitably creates a third. Put another way, when one voice harmonizes with another, a third voice asserts itself, which is, essentially, the commingling of the harmonizing voices. This happens in poems, where certain textures and ambiguities not only exist simultaneously but fuse. Specific to my work is the tension between openness to possibility and the strictness of form. What emerges from this tension is what distinguishes my poems from mere exercise: an inexplicable energy that can’t be subjected to analysis but is viscerally felt. If I want to be high-falutin’, maybe it’s a kind of Hegelian dialectic energy, the result of thesis and antithesis blended into synthesis. When I’ve listened to solo jazz piano improvisations from the likes of Keith Jarrett or Andrew Hill I hear that kind of tension—not so much frission as a conversation between premeditation and discovery. Even if someone like the late Andrew Hill was working alone, he wasn’t an island. While he played, he was reacting and responding to various musical tropes, traditions, and expectations. I ramble.
Rail: Is this why the constraints themselves, such as using the zipcode “14620” or writing with your “non-dominant hand” are off set against this backdrop of islands—a search for something between constraint and improvisation or place (specificity) and nowhere (infinite)?
Leuzzi: Probably. But my use of “island” and “archipelago” as structural metaphors for the book has as much to do with my childhood obsession with cartography. I loved looking at maps and imagining what life would be like in far-flung places. For this book, I wanted a number of poems to be patterned on my current zipcode and in doing so honor and/or react to my immediate environment. Meanwhile, the entire fourth section of the Meditation Archipelago is made up of poems patterned on the postal code for Belushya Guba, the sole settlement in Novaya Zemlya, an arctic archipelago explored in the second section of the book. As a kid, I was obsessed with extreme, marginal places on the world map affixed to my bedroom wall. I loved the shape, geographical position, and name of Novaya Zemlya and dreamed of living there. So in a way, that remote cluster of islands became an alternative home, a home that couldn’t actually be found anywhere in the world except in my brain and heart.
The non-dominant hand experiment was a different story: that was a trick I learned from visual artists. One of my good friends who works in various mediums once told me the less control you have over the instrument you’re drawing with, the more surprising and unfettered the drawing will be. The same holds for writing anything with your non-dominant hand. Because it takes longer to write down words, the mind is racing far quicker than the pen, so weird associations have time to creep in. The initial, expected responses are overtaken by the unexpected connections that reside in the subconscious. You could say, in a way, it’s anti “first thought-best thought.” My motive for doing it was to let Dadaesque experiment and play guide the process. I struggled with whether I should mention in the brief “Notes” page at the end of the collection the compositional approaches for the various syllabic and other formal experiments. I thought, shouldn’t the poems stand on their own without such contextualization? But then I figured so much of what I was trying to assert in Meditation Archipelago was the value of process for the sake of process. It’s not only the carrying on but how we carry on that matters.
Rail: There’s another element that is also coupled with this examination of process and that’s how deeply personal these poems are—even though they are operating under constraints and serve as you say “to not only [carry on],” but offer a possibility on how we do so. In particular, I remember the scenes with the father on the farm, the negotiations with loneliness, and the fragments with lovers that come and go, almost as if these “moments” between what others might identify as “significant” is where your reframing helps us look. Would you say that the personal becomes more so because of the constraints employed and your willingness to speak by what remains unsaid as much as what is spoken?
Leuzzi: Your observation means a lot to me because my poems do try to honor those seemingly insignificant moments that occur between more significant, dramatic moments. It’s in those in-between spaces where life really happens. I’ve been tramping around New York City these past few days, visiting with friends, having a lot of laughs, checking out monumental gallery exhibits, trying on but not buying exorbitantly expensive clothes, etc., but today I keep thinking about a sign I saw earlier on the gate of Abingdon Square: “Park Closes at Dusk.” It made me pause. The park’s operations committee felt it important enough to nail that metal sign to the gate—but what a half-assed sign! When does dusk precisely happen? How can one plan around it? Since the rising and setting of the sun is always changing, wouldn’t an affixed time be better? Or varying time schedules for each season? It’s mundane absurdities like this that capture my attention and often provide the impetus for poems.
More broadly, my honoring the in-between moments is also my way of placing value on what is traditionally undervalued or deliberately ignored. Such moments might be, for example, hygienic. I remember watching the movie Desparately Seeking Susan as a young teen and being horrified yet enthralled by the scene where Madonna’s street-urchin character dries her wet armpits under the hot-air blower in a public restroom. Initially, I thought it was gross but I quickly became fascinated. Her character was so bold and resourceful. Other in-between moments might include those times when we talk to ourselves or occasionally dream or remember something we’re too ashamed to tell anyone else. When someone asks me, “what did you do today?” I often pause, take a beat, and think, “Well, I had a hell of a party in my head.” My list of possible in-between moments is endless.
I’m not sure if the formal constraints I impose on myself allow those in-between moments to surface more readily or not. You propose an interesting theory.
Rail: I’m also reminded of Barnett Newman’s Onement I (1948) in your examination of process, and how his splitting of a canvas that is entirely in Indian Red by a stripe of cadmium red allows for a non-dualistic point that courts something just beyond imagination. At the same time, the poems in Meditation Archipelago do not seem to be exclusive of negative space either, but a marriage between the binaries that your constraints/personal/non-dualistic and lack thereof/impersonal/dualistic afford. Would you say that this relationship is also something you were hoping to explore in your examination on process?
Leuzzi: This question is enormous! I’m not sure I’ll be able to answer it well. I know this much: I love Barnett Newman’s Onement series and have always responded to them with enthusiasm. I’ve never been entirely sure why I love them but there’s no question that I do. Perhaps, for me, it was his use of vertical bands of color that compelled me. Those fields—if that’s what they’re called—looked like urban colonial houses without peaked roofs. “You mean a rectangle?” some smartass might say. But I’m not thinking “geometrical shape” when I study his canvases. I’m thinking “home,” or “room,” or maybe even “poem.” One oil painting in particular—it’s called Black Fire I (1963)—is composed of two nearly but noticeably unequal bands of color that, to me at least, suggest the slightly-lopsided distribution of the octave and sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet, a form that resists structural symmetry and uncomplicated thematic duality. Traces of the sonnet form are in everything I write—but that’s another story.
Back to your question: I love your phrase “marriage between the binaries” and wonder how this marriage manifests itself in my poems. If there’s a marriage, as you say, then there are still two distinct elements that remain two, even when they commingle. There’s a poem in the collection called “Lines” where the speaker—let’s call him “I”—writes a list of all the people he has slept with. That seems like a straightforward if slightly-morbid activity. But it isn’t straightforward at all: I can’t remember many names, “if I ever knew them,” and conflate those I would have slept with, “given the chance,” with those I did. Then I begin to wonder if someone somewhere else is composing a list like this with my name on it. In brief, the activity is intended to be linear (start from the top and proceed to the bottom of the page) but turns out to be rather recursive. For every name placed on the list there emerges either a question or a complication. “Lines” is emblematic of a thinking person’s experience; and I consider it an homage to anyone who has ever had to endure someone else saying, “You’re thinking too much.”
Rail: This voracious appetite for learning, growing, and “too much thinking” reminds me of a story about Joe Brainard that Bobbie Louise Hawkins told me. She visited him at his apartment and saw that he had two piles of books on either side of his bed. On one side, piled from the ground to his elbow as he lay there reading, were the books he had read, and on the other side, was another stack, equally as high, that he was going to read. When she asked him what exactly he was reading, he said: “Everything.” I often think of this story and how important his work has been for me. I thought of it again when I read the series “Haiku from the Other Hand” you dedicated to him. They capture—and I don’t know if you intended this—a lot of his humor. Take for example: “I love wallpaper / when it isn’t plastered on / the inside of vans.” This made me laugh out loud. And there are many moments like this throughout Meditation Archipelago that blend humor into the constraint, or point towards an imaginative turn that keeps upending itself that begins as early as “Baltimore” with its “…brown Jennifer, whose love for birds / allowed her wings to soar with / rooks to Arkansas…” and continues throughout the book. Most poets turn away from humor, but you embrace it wholeheartedly and place it side by side with all the various emotions humanity traverses. Does this attention to humor within “too much thinking” break something open inside the constraints themselves?
Leuzzi: What a great story about Joe Brainard. I’ve stolen a lot of ideas from him over the years, including the idea of the tiny, one-sentence essay, which is a great form to try. When I came up with the idea of writing haiku with my non-dominant hand, I realized it had to be dedicated to him. As you can probably guess from the humor in those poems, I had a ball writing them. Anyone who has read Meditation Archipelago has cited one or more of them as a favorite. Ironically, I almost didn’t include them in the book. The last grouping of poems are only six lines long each and have, at times, the feel of haiku, so I didn’t want to overwhelm the book with too many haiku punches. At the last minute, I said “what the hell” and reintroduced “Haiku from the Other Hand” to the manuscript. I’m glad one of them made you laugh out loud. That’s a very high complement because I value humor in poetry and see it as an important aspect of shared experience.
My embrace of humor is more nuanced, I think, than outright “light verse” or various “har-har” moments one finds in limericks. That kind of poetry turns me off. I want humor that is one or two steps away from pathos. The funniest moments are those that are underpinned by a persistent sadness. My favorite poets understand this: Joe Brainard, Kenneth Koch, Gerald Stern, Charles Simic, Wislawa Szymborska, Aleksandar Ristović—the list goes on. My blending of humor with imaginative turns is the result of deep reading and enjoyment of such poets, perhaps none greater than Ovid, whose Metamorphoses has taught me more than any other poet about transformation and shifts in tonal register.
Dickinson, Whitman, Keats, Lorca, Rilke, and Stevens are very important poets to me. But what I don’t observe in their work is an outright embrace of humor. There might be fleeting moments of it, but, as a rule, these poets sustain more dignified, serious “lyric” utterances. Since the mid-century, in American poetry anyway, the notion that humor must be relegated to satire and light verse has pretty much crumbled. The world has become so increasingly absurd that one cannot ignore the ironic, unintentionally-hilarious circumstances of modern life. Still, as you note, many poets shy away from it in the service of saying something “important,” i.e. serious. This is unfortunate because I think you can embrace humor as a way of exposing and engaging sorrow more fully. In other words, when I quip or turn comical, I am not saying “lighten up” or “chill out, dude”—two directives that make my skin crawl. Rather, I’m inviting laughter into the same room as sadness or tragedy or horror or despair because laughter is a real and viable way of dealing with those emotions and experiences. Once that barrier preventing humor into the room is removed, the possibilities for the poem expand. In the final section of “Baltimore” I write about showing Terrence a sequence of crowned sonnets that began, “On Sunday I strolled by a rotting byre,” which, in my youthful delusion, I think is:
a masterpiece worthy of Donne or Richard Wilbur,
neither of whom Terrence knew
when I asked if he sensed their influence on my work,
but as unbelievable
as his not knowing seemed, I didn’t doubt the naïf-like
power of his ignorance
nor the untutored grace that spurred him to say “Let’s try
something utterly pointless.”
That’s when we removed our socks. He handed me a green
crayon, chose red for himself
and on the backs of poems we traced our naked feet.
So many jokes are crammed into these final lines: seeing my work as worthy of Donne and Wilbur; referring to Donne and Wilbur as if they themselves were equally great poets; my assuming Terrence is ignorant for not knowing them; Terrence’s graceful evasion as he side-steps my pretentious invitation to discuss their influence on my work; and his counter, cow-punning invitation to do something “utterly pointless” instead. This part of the poem often gets laughs when I read it aloud. But then the final three lines are regarded with joyful surprise. No one expects the poem to end where it does in this moment of strange, child-like intimacy. The humorous build up makes that ending possible.
Rail: I understand what you mean by using “humor to [expose] and [engage] sorrow more fully”. Kenneth Koch’s ability to traverse these lines in Art of the Possible and Wishes, Lies, and Dreams are texts I often return to for their ability to help me forget anything I’ve learned and enter the imagination. Meditation Archipelago also evokes the imagination in its reframing, oppositions, humor, and cartography. Would you say these pieces seek to find that place where imagination is possible within constraints?
Leuzzi: I would say constraints, whatever they might be, make moments of imaginative leaping and possibility possible. I would also say that imagination is what releases us from various constraints and restraints in our lives. The world would not be bearable without it.
Rail: Are the pieces in Meditation Archipelago performing a similar type of erosion to how Koch describes his education in poetry, as finding a past “more exhilarating and interesting than the Egypt and Ethiopia that [he] studied in fourth-grade geography” a language “bigger than the one [he] spoke” and a “bigger poetic [form] than [he] knew about”—only to understand after finding these things that he “had to start getting rid of them?” Are you employing constraints to also find a way to exit them simultaneously?
Leuzzi: Definitely! Most poets are trying to find and use a language more open and encompassing than the language we are taught at home, among friends, and in schools. That language often inhibits us, reduces possibility to a litany of musts and mustn’ts; that language is often evoked in the service of creating acceptable boundaries that would force us to live shrunken lives. But artists, whatever their mediums, won’t accept such restriction. Circumstance might attempt to reign us in, but we, to cite cartographic imagery, redraw our borders to suit our pleasure. This is why studying the humanities and artistic production is so essential in schools. This is why parents should encourage their artistically-prone children to pursue their passions. If they don’t, many of them will find a way anyhow. I also think poets attempt to say the unsayable, to address what cannot ever be fully understood, so the language has to reach beyond common, serviceable language into something else. There are many ways of doing this, and some of the best poets manage it without conspicuously reaching. I tell students that a great poem could be considered an answer to an impossible question. When Billy asks his daddy, “Where do we go when we die?” any answer Daddy gives will be smaller than the mystery and possibility made possible by the question. A great poem can attempt to answer such questions while never losing that mystery and possibility.
But there’s another aspect of your question that fascinates me. The means by which artists create are, in and of themselves, somewhat ephemeral and contingent upon whatever is attractive, available, and/or appropriate at the time. Those same artists eventually remove such scaffolds the way snakes shed their skin. It’s a paradox, I guess: we frame and reframe to break free of containment.