IN PARADISE WITH MY FEELINGS
BEING A CONVERSATION BETWEEN BRENDAN LORBER AND LAUREN IRELAND
Brendan Lorber: Hello from Moose Bar where people want to know why I’m sitting alone reading a book called Feelings. But I’m not alone, I’m floating with you here in the cloud where we now live most of our divice-ive days and nights. And we are interviewing each other because, thanks to a cruel combination of lifestyle choices and sleep away capitalism, we never get to IRL it up without some ulteriority. Even this sentence, that’s pretending to be part of Totally Normal conversation, is actually an introduction to this formal exchange in which I question your Feelings, which is more of a perfect book than any of us deserve. And you can ask me if this really is paradise after all.
Lauren Ireland: Hello from the sky somewhere over Montana’s crumpled brow. Remember when we lived in the same city, and we could sit together in your kitchen with a bag of just-the-right-level-of-stale Mi-dels and some whiskey and read other people’s poems? I do. And this plane is a bullshit substitute. However, I have a PDF of Paradise to guide me over the scary red parts of the planet. And every flight attendant on this plane is a huge fan of whatever snippet of your work they glimpse as they rocket by.
BL: I explained to the people in the bar that Feelings is an over the top title that kneecaps the naïve idea a legit book of poems could feeling-driven. But at the same time, it’s maybe a nod to the fact that what else is there to write from? Like we live in the pretense that life keeps going forever when, spoiler, it won’t. So the title is a kind of doubling, saying the book is not about the one thing it has to be about. Or tripling, if you consider that feelings might not be the things we have, but rather what we do with our hands in a dark place when we are trying to figure out what is going on. They didn’t seem to buy it, and I’m really good at misunderstanding things — but is this an okay way to start talking about your book to strangers?
LI: I think it’s extremely accurate—you just left off the part about how I’m still wearing a chip on my shoulder w/r/t feelings and poems. I learned about confessional poetry at the same time I learned that mostly women wrote it, and no one liked it. But if writing about my life and my feelings isn’t how to make a poem, what am I supposed to do?
My therapist says that some people do their feelings so I decided to be one of those people.
Maybe you were talking to people at just the right pitch of drunkenness when they can’t feel their feelings. Two more drinks and they will be feeling alllllll the feelings. Then you should give them my book.
Your title is a question I know I’m not supposed to answer. It would be a good alternate title to Fodor’s Hell (a volume not as up-to-date as I’d like), as it certainly previews the endless circular route of Adult Life. And in your book, there’s a lot of moving through the curtain between earth and the bardo and whatever else. Why’s it so haunted?
ghosts but do we have to be ghosts
of something? I want so badly to not be
of myself but I’m so bad at everyone else
Why are we in the car? And why are we still driving? Can’t we take our hands off the wheel?
BL: It’s haunted less by ghosts than a nagging sense that we are really in for it this time. And also a few ghosts. The kind that demand answers. Using your question to rephrase the question in the title of my book is a clever way of trying to make me reveal how the magic tricks work or to perjure myself. Nice try! Sure we could get out of the car. We could “follow our bliss” or “do what we love” or any of the other mantras that dog our minds. A little voice telling us we’re living in the precarity the wrong way. The darkness doesn’t surround us. It is us, and every other pantone chip in the book. Like an auto-tuned Robert Creeley slow-jam played at doubletime or an old joke that the unanswerability of the title is punishment for having laughed at a bad joke in fifth grade. Here’s the joke:I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming like the passengers in the car he was driving at the time.
Ooh. The bartender just gave me a buyback. It will take some time to recover from this interview. Strange that getting free poison is considered a boon. When you call something strange in your poems, are you directing our attention to things which can’t be boiled down because they’re designed to boil over?
LI: Nope. Maybe.
BL: Yeah. Me neither. (looks away uncomfortably)
But what are we to do with a mystery which, by definition, can’t be solved? Unresolvable states like trauma or love that unstick us in time and space and remain present years and miles away from the event. Like here we are, savaged detectives, three-toed-sleuths, charged with unraveling life from within it. This is two questions really — what do you mean by strange, and what’s with poems all tagged with locations and dates that move with a weird associative fluidity?
LI: Maybe what I mean by strange didn’t exist until I read your question. I guess it is a clumsy attempt to describe all the non-flesh feelings and the way they linger and change over time. How you can experience trauma one time but wake up to it forever. How a relationship can end and the love can end but somehow you’re still in it with alarming immediacy when a memory overtakes you.
Which also answers your second question, sort of. I was poking fun a little at poetry and at keeping a journal, for sure. And thinking about confessional or whatever poetry. But it’s also an attempt to capture the way feelings collapse time.
You brought up weird associative fluidity, but you take it so much further than I do. You change the meaning of words as I read them; it’s like stepping into a rip current.
Like in The Butterfly Defect:
Only words are magic
that move light across a table Once I loved you
only so much but now I love only you so much
And lots more. It makes your poems move on the page. What’s this instability about?
BL: Stability is an illusion. In my case, all ability is an illusion. But I wanted to reveal, in the structure of the poems, the way this instant is established by the one before and then changed by the one after. Each phrase appears to exist on it’s own, with a little space on each side. But it is is informed by memory of the lead up, by the anticipation of the next one, which in turn doubles back and redirects the phrase. It’s a good way to fight nostalgia which is a kind of grass-is-greener death-in-life. More specifically, it’s an honest way to appreciate both kinds of relationships that continue after they’re done – being together without the love, and being in love after you’ve broken up.
That may seem pessimistic, but actually, it’s not — because the architecture of the phrases does not permit done-ness. Ideas aren’t static, they are driving, and if they pretend otherwise, they must be hiding something that is. It has to be broken open. That’s, like, our job. But like splitting an atom or an egg, it’s terrifying if the idea is a big one (love, death), but provides access to the unseeable mysteries of the universe. From the moment you zygote it up from one cell to two, your sense of time is shaped by memories (past) and desires (future). Maybe there is an objective ontological foundation. Maybe we can sort of glimpse it in the distance as a kind of unreachable coastline, but the solidity under our experience is basically just all those tiny icebergs that polar bears live on. Tiny. Unstable. Melting. And there’s a hungry polar bear next to us.
Hey did I mention that I miss you? I mention this because you miss people in your book, and paradoxically harbor amplified loneliness when actually together. Is that because things don’t happen to people, but to the space between them? Even when it snows in your poems, the storm is mostly the space leading up to or between snow. Like how Gertrude Stein could only understand Oakland from France, or nobody who lives in New York City ever sees any of their friends who live here until they move away and then come back for a visit. Does intimacy require distance? You should visit.
LI: Is there a word for pre-nostalgia? For experiencing nostalgia while living the moment I’ll be nostalgic for? If so, that word goes right here. It’s nearly impossible for me (for anyone? I really want to know) to be in the moment or whatever without mourning every second as it passes. Unless I’m having a horrible moment, like this turbulence over one of those rectangular states—the one with the wiggly stuff at bottom right and a bite taken out of the upper left side.
Also, I’m reminded of a Calvin & Hobbes panel that made me sad even before I knew what it meant. It’s the one in which Calvin asks his dad about the halcyon days of youth: what the hell are they, and is he having them now? And his father replies that they are only awarded retroactively.
BL: I can’t talk about Calvin and Hobbes because Bill Watterson’s genius was precisely what made my youth halcyon. I also can’t talk about it for much more recent joyful reasons later made sad. Sometimes you have to add layers to the onion, just to get through the day.
Every happy day is a little wounded by time’s arrow, the down side of “this too shall pass.” Weirdly some of my most vivid childhood memories are of nostalgia for some vague earlier time in childhood. Unremembered Eden, before a long-suppressed banishment. The word nostalgia is from the greek nostos (return home) and algos (pain). The german is similar: Heimweh, Leading to the joke “What’s a Heimweh?” “It doesn’t weigh anything because you can never reach it, yet are forced to carry it forever, its unbearable heaviness.” It sounds funnier in german.
The closing bit of your opening poem is a sequence of equivalences circling to a giving of yourself. “Beauty isinsane insanity is divine / divinity is violence violence is beauty I am yours.” Is that a kind of arg poetica for the book, the turtle under the crystal at the center?
LI: You know, I realize you mean ars poetica and I was going to correct it and decided not to because it is actually an ARRRGH POETICA. Turtles all the way down. I’m back to the idea of poetry as a thing–a thing that only works when it’s about drilling down.
The shore in the woods
I have a core — less solid
filtered through thin walls A set of beliefs that lives
by the shore I visit a couple times a year where
I light a fire whose light you can read about
the fire by The jury met in secret in the woods
and though the contest winners were chosen
the jurors mostly judged each other But what I am
trying to say is the light in my heart is your heart
You are drilling down, but then distancing yourself and your reader from what’s down there. But I think this creates a more driving need for the reader to grab the smoke, put out the fire, sort through the ashes. Why, when you get so close to the core, do you dance away?
And why do you get to the most intimate, most sacred at the end of the poem–and just leave it? I LOVE that you do that, but I have to know.
BL: A good guest knows when to leave. Thanks for letting me come over to your life for a few lines. Next time let’s have you come here.
Oh and in that previous question, I meant Arg. Thank you for not asking me about my wise arse poetica.
We’re the only animals that know that death is coming. Is that knowledge terrible? And is terrible bad? It casts every departure as a kind of pre-hearsal “How can I live / like this with everything dying coming back / to life then dying again?” Does knowing this destroy meaning or create it?
LI: Is that true about us? I think other animals might know–don’t cats drag themselves to secluded places to die? I think knowing death is coming fucking sucks. No other way to put it. A person could argue that without that knowledge, life is meaningless, but that’s horseshit. However, it does create meaning, both good and bad. I think about it a lot and maybe that is why I write poems. I’m really scared that death will hurt. And I’m really really scared to think about what it will be like to be widowed.
BL: I don’t want you to die. Or me.
Jim Behlre just tweeted: “When it’s my time I don’t want a Memorial Poetry reading. I want everyone to put on some black robes, go out in the woods, set a fire, sacrifice something and bring me the hell back.”
I think about how that song/play/movie Fame is a really dumb misunderstanding of living forever. Also of learning how to fly. Fame!
I was born with a heart problem that was going to kill me if they didn’t fix it. Problem was they didn’t know how to fix it yet. They were like, just hang on a decade and we will (probably) have invented the new kind of surgery. So I did, and they invented it. So I didn’t die. But I did get a foundational sense of mortality. Part of why I unearth all these things in my poems and then break away suddenly is because the start of my life was filled with meditations on the end of life, and while I am compelled to explore them I am terrified of the conclusions.
Jokes are a good oven mitt to be able to pick up the unbelievably hot topics with. Like Sparrow’s aphoristic poem Chess — “I played a game of chess with Death / and I lost / so I had to wash Death’s car.”
He also wrote a poem that goes “You are reading this poem / after I have forgotten I wrote it.”
Isn’t it weird that when your book comes out, the poems are “new” but you’ve been living with them for years?
LI: Yes; I find it very, very strange, especially when reconnecting with something that felt so immediate four years ago or whatever. I first started writing these poems 5+ years ago.
What’s the oldest poem in your book? And did you mine even older poems? I scavenge and cannibalize a lot.
BL: I cannibalize so much. “The job at Bardo Palace” dedicated to you, was started in 2004. “One with the wind” for Tom Devaney has elements from 1998. But the oldest lines are within “Bad back in the winter of mirrored snow” which began its life right after my father’s ended in 1995. Revisiting the poem I see it could be used to respond to almost all of your questions: “I meant to show youyou had a heart after all by breaking it but I’ve said too much already… Our subverted inquiry finds its own form… by opening the chest to find a heart and opening that to find the answer is the thing which is wrong.”
The passage of time is one of the main characters of Feelings. And the grief for lost selves. You say “I’m tits-deepin mourning / for my old selves tonight” And elsewhere, “In six months I will be me but also someone else.” What in us is new over time and what endures? And as a follow up, “I cannot love you. There / is only one of you and four of me.” Does the passage of time, the accretion and loss of selves, mean real love/connection is futile?
LI: Yes. No. I don’t know. I think everything is futile, especially now. I catch myself wondering why I bother with another manuscript, or saving money for retirement, or other future things. I am not sure I really believe there will be a future, you know?
I read a lot of wistfulness in Paradise. It seems like you are denying permanence and, in fact, disappearing yourself.
I think I was a sound in the night —
maybe a backfire or something
falling from a window but you go back
to sleep and it’s forgotten by the morning
Is ANY connection meaningful and lasting? Or are you–or your poems–steering away from permanence because it’s also pain?
BL: Everything is in jeopardy, but only because everything is up for grabs, which means scary, painful, but def not futile, right? And being in jeopardy, working from jeopardy with others in their own tenuousness, is kind of the most meaningful thing there is. Even when the connection is short, the effects endure. The rains stops, but the ground remains wet.
I am totally freaked out about the difficulty of connecting to other people. But in the poems I can become less concerned about avoiding pain as avoiding a misinterpretation of love as an end state. A happily ever after, that obviates any subsequent evolution. It doesn’t work like that but it is so painful to change in concert with someone that couples end up in estranged stasis, resentful because they both know they are living a lie. Or they end up alone which is honest and internally chill but, facing the terrifying exigencies of life, not so great. There’s another way, right? There’s GOT to be another way that I’m hoping these bruised poems can reveal.
I keep mistaking myself for this fixed thing that moves through it all, but my cells are constantly dying and being replaced. You have NONE of the same cells that you had in 2011, unless you ate a hearing aid battery and it’s stuck in there. In the time since I walked into Moose Bar I have shed and replaced over 4 billion cells. Am I still Brendan? Will the same Lauren get off the airplane she got on a few hours earlier?
Now we are getting into the physicality of existence.I really enjoy how you sensualize the abstract. That is, make the intangible available to our senses. A kind of inversion of Kerouac’s what you feel will find its own form — what you form will be able to be felt. Why is this so satisfying?
LI: CONFESSION: I am pretty sure I must have read Kerouac, but I wouldn’t swear to it. So I’m not sure I am answering this correctly. But anyway:
Satisfying for me, or for the reader? For me, it’s not so much satisfying as it is a necessary step toward understanding the abstract–articulating what scares and saddens me.
You, meanwhile, seem to live comfortably in–and constantly turn tangible things into–the abstract. For example, the very best poem in the whole book, The job at bardo palace, takes place in the most abstract spot there is, and reads like a recipe for human soup: all the junk and futility and actual stuff of life swirling around in the middle of actual nowhere.
Are these poems driving us into a/the bardo?
BL: Alfred Hitchcock said you should always say the opposite of what you mean, but I never do that. Meet me at this bar though and we can talk about the bardo.
For the record, there are bare shoulders, human skin, and hand jobs in that poem. It is all exxtremely sexy. Also alienated and beat up by the ascetics of late-capitalism..
The title of your book is funny and deadly serious. So too are lines like “there I’ve solved poetry.” Are jokes in the service of unguarded inquiry a way of resting a moment from the onslaught of discoveries, a kind of faux/real bravado, a deflection, a seduction — or are they a fuck you to someone who would ask this sort of question? Just what are you up to with humor?
LI: What are YOU up to with YOUR jokes? I have some idea–is it right? I think that often your jokes are self-deprecating and deflecting–they are very self-aware but also sensitive and sensitizing. Tender and tough. Very very sad.
Here’s what I think my poem-jokes are about. It’s a lot:
- Humor makes it easier for me to address what is most frightening and sad. it is sometimes certainly faux bravado. Occasionally real. Often simply resigned.
- What is most frightening and sad is also extremely funny.
- Poetry is funny. What IS it? Why do we make it? It’s funny to make little rectangles of ideas and put them in books.
- Humor is a definite fuck-you to the idea that poetry is very serious all the time. But not to someone who would ask the question.
- I’m clinically depressed, and humor is one of the only good ways I know to respond to all its symptoms.
The title is a joke-not-a-joke. I started this book six months before I got married, in an attempt to chart the days and intentions leading to and from that event. The dated titles are diaristic, of course–but I never kept a diary; this is the closest I’ll ever come. So the title is a guide to understanding the body of work, a joke about poetry, and the truth about what (I think) poetry is about: being human. Feeling things. Figuring out what the fuck to do with all the feelings.
BL: That’s a titanic answer and I am totally on board. Your conception of jibes jibes with mine. In Paradise, one phrase gets rewritten by the phrases on either side — but the joking-not-joking element presents yet another dimension.
A lot of my jokes deflect or intentionally ruin the moment, but only when the moment is too hemmed in to provide leverage. It’s the O’Hara step away from them all that makes them all available as never before. It also creates the cognitive dissonance that sheds any mistaken belief you got all the answers.
It also also does the opposite of what this answer is doing, which is, the jokes undercut the speaker so what’s said can arrive refreshed, unencumbered by ponderousness.
It’s like when Anselm Berrigan introduced himself to a class he was facilitating, “I don’t take myself seriously. But I take poetry very seriously.”
At the very least they can be a seductive or welcoming gambit, to make readers at ease in a weird landscape.
But at their best poem-jokes can also operate as encouraging rituals that create and extend a moment, so you can absorb the unbearable and be changed. Transformations aren’t instantaneous, but the conditions have to be sustained if the transformation is to be successful. The birthday cake doesn’t suddenly appear on the table. Someone has to light the candles and bring it out. And so we require the happy birthday song to be sung, to buy energized time to walk it over, for a wish to get dreamed up, for everyone’s attention to swing from individual distractions to a communal awareness of this instant as it archives the last year and makes room for the next. Metamorphosis complete!
LI: Do you think of a reader or readers, specific or anonymous, as you write? Do you have an intended audience?
BL: Yes. Do you?
LI: I don’t.
BL: I mean no! Me neither! Shit I always get these questions wrong. Can I change my answer? I’m writing for everyone who failed to get tickets to Hamilton and they should use the money they saved to buy my book. And yours. Buy two copies of yours. To send to a far off comrade.
Distance and repetition are almost architectural elements in your work. Blood, a little rain, winter, husband, snow, missing you, the smell of night and other abstractions, crazy gods, love — they take on rhythmic, totemic qualities. It creates two experiences — one is of your investigation, and the other is of mine as I stride across the site you’ve constructed where something has to happen. Is that intended? Because it feels really good.
LI: I’m glad you feel let into my poems. I don’t want anyone to feel locked out by impenetrable language or tricky structures, but I’ve never written for a specific audience other than the “you” any one poem is addressed to, whether or not the poem is dedicated. Because poetry is so personal for me–so much about intimacy and real feelings and real humanness–it’s impossible for me to write if I’m attempting to consciously include a large audience. That’s the opposite of the kind of intimacy I find with myself in my poems.
In fact, you’ve made me realize that this is one of the few places where I can think and talk about the Big Scary Things. My exterior, non-poem life is 90% 9-to-5, what am I going to wear/cook/eat/do, when am I going to read/sleep/see friends/fuck. It’s 9% reading. And it’s 1% deep interior exploration, aided by my patient therapist. My poem life is 100% terrifyingly omphalocentric, and I don’t often like what I see. So I write about it. Also, this is probably why there are jokes in poems.
Something so interesting about Paradise is that it is structured as a roadtrip, with very clearly delineated day parts. However, within those day parts, the poems themselves seem to move freely.
The books stretches through morning, evening, and night, then back to morning, where it ends. It’s interesting that there’s no direct, sunny afternoon light here. Why did you break the book into times of day, why did you choose these times, and how do the poems within each time support that structure?
And why are we along for the ride?
BL: Why do humans like breaking things and then naming the parts. We did it with all these national borders and we did it with the days. I think it used to have something to do with crops and religious ferver but most of the people I know have diurnal breakdowns like the one you just outlined. Wake//subway/work/subway/I AM BRIEFLY ALIVE/sleep) I’m reading on the subway about the druids, mostly to be not aware of the horror of the subway. Their days began with sunset.
I could have titled each section “Arewealmostthereyet?” but honestly there is no there or even a yet.
We are along for the ride because, as I said sometime in the evening, “I don’t know what I am doing but I can’t do it without you”
The ride is mandatory, apparently, but there are ways of navigating it, and people with whom to navigate it, that make it better, transformative in satisfying ways.
What are you saying when you say “death doesn’t really mean it. / I’ll be back soonmaybe not like this / but I’ll be back.”
What do you know that we don’t?
LI: Nothing, everything, I don’t know. I don’t know what I don’t know is something I say too much. I’m a little death-obsessed. I mean, don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine. but I’m definitely going to die. I’m afraid it’s going to hurt. And, like more or less anyone who’s not Ram Dass or whomever, I find it impossible to believe that even after the lights go out, my brain won’t be floating around somewhere. I like to think we get to choose what happens next.
Denial and destruction and minimization of the self are major themes throughout Paradise. The self consistently dwindles, disperses, is actually a ghost, was never really there. And love–or stable partnership–is always revealed to have been an illusion, a delusion, or simply less than it seemed. What is solid? And is there a real difference between poems and “real life”?
BL: Not less, but other than it seemed. Nothing is solid. Which is insane. So we pretend otherwise. But we are constantly in the process of coming into being something else.
And it’s hard, almost impossibly hard, but also exciting and sometimes wonderful. Which is a good thing because, though we’ve got plenty of choices of how we continue through it, we have no choice but to continue.
And to continue even after death. Even after death our physical matter, and energy of decay, continues to exist, increasingly diffused back into the world. I’d like to believe there’s some form of consciousness that goes along with that. Nature proceeds out of necessity. I can’t think of a necessary condition for consciousness to arise while alive, we could just be non-aware complex chemical reactions. Yet I can attest to my own consciousness, does so there must be a reason. Why should a form of consciousness not present itself after we’re dead?
Being dead seems to be the most minimal we’ll be, and if we still express some form of awareness in that state, how exciting! I’m not kidding around, though I’m not in a great rush to get there.
I think I’ve said too much tonight. Let’s delete this entire conversation.
LI: OK BYE!