The Poetry Project

Lawrence Giffin Interviews Jean Day on Late Human (UDP, 2021)

November 2020; transcribed by Raphael Schnee

Lawrence Giffin: The first things I noticed about Late Human were the myriad references to prior texts. This is clear just from the titles of the poems, most of which are titles of 18th and 19th century books. So thinking of the title, Late Human, which is itself a nod to Ernest Mandel’s Late Capitalism, the poems seem to relate to history through citation and through the way that the citations never build toward a larger narrative or argument—they appear for a moment, then the poem moves on. We encounter them in the poems the same way we encounter history in everyday life: clichés and dead metaphors, unnoticed statuary and plaques, the accumulation of architectural styles on a single city block.

The poems are shot through with these temporal discontinuities and sometimes grotesque, sometimes anachronistic juxtapositions, but all this seems to have something to do with the theme of lateness or belatedness alongside that of borrowing, both of which you’ve talked about elsewhere in relation to these poems. I was just curious if you could speak to these overarching themes of untimeliness and lateness in regard to some of the more referential and citation aspects of the poems.

Jean Day: I think part of what the borrowing and the belatedness are about is the accident of where I am in history. The appropriations are all part of my intellectual and to some extent experiential landscape. In repurposing all these titles, I’m using them as clichés often—in the way that cliché seems to get you right to the heart of the matter.

The series “Where the Boys Are” actually didn’t start with the movie, but with the question, “Where are the boys?”—often asked in my house while my son was growing up. And this is an example, I think, of the way “history,” personal or social, filters through the work or is appropriated unconsciously. I did get into the movie, of course as soon as the title occurred to me, because, as part of popular culture, it just asserted itself—and then it turned out to fit, in a way, with the ideas I was passively pursuing. I live in a really small house, so when my son was still living with us, the question of where everyone was (whether I could be alone) was pretty significant. And once you have a title with “boys” in it, the question of gender also asserts itself. So the poem then became partly about that. And then it turns out that the movie, far from being a spring break comedy, is actually a tragedy. I mean, there’s a date rape at the center of it.

LG: There’s a lot of vernacular in the poems, but I think what you were saying before about the accident of where you are in the world is a more interesting way of thinking about history rather than a larger grand narrative. The day-to-day, vernacular aspects of the poems are interesting as historical elements, not “historical” in that larger sense, but more in the sense of navigating the mélange of culture and making what you can in certain conditions.

JD: That sounds right. I’ve wanted to do something called “Late Human,” almost since I bought a copy of Late Capitalism back in the 20th century. But the impulse was partly ironic from the beginning: the reason I bought the book at all was because I thought it was required reading, even though (or maybe because) it seemed to weigh more than a small child. And the reason I thought I had to master it was, I remember, that when I moved to San Francisco in my early 20s, I found myself interviewing for a shared apartment. The group of roommates (a sort of Inquisition in my embellished memory) were sitting around acting smug, and one of them asked if I was a dialectical materialist. I had no idea what that was. So shame led me to the Mandel book, which, in the end, I only ever read bits of—

LG: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think I’ve owned a copy at one point that just took up room in my shelf for a while. It’s definitely a book, if you live in a college town, that you come across cheap at the bookstore, and you’re happy to own a copy. I was lucky no one shamed me into buying it, but I probably shamed myself into buying it and, maybe, reading the introduction.

JD: It was just so iconic.

LG: Absolutely. It’s a book you see on someone’s bookshelf, and your eye goes right to it. So I think, if your reference to Mandel’s work was different than that and somehow more “sincere,” I would be disappointed. I think that the way you’ve described it is the perfect way it should be in this book. It speaks to these accidents of biography that link us up to these larger ways of thinking about history, if not just history itself.

JD: Exactly.

LG: I’m glad you brought up clichés earlier; I’m interested in clichéd language as well, I think for reasons similar to yours. They do a lot of work on their own, so you can mess with them and come up with really interesting things. And they’re also how, collectively, we encode beliefs and behaviors in ways that become second nature.

JD: They’re nuggets!

LG: My feeling in reading the book is that rhetoric, writ large, is central to the compositional process: the subjects of each poem often develop through several different rhetorical channels that are occurring simultaneously. You’re switching between one and another and back again. And the movement between lines is often accomplished rhetorically, sometimes through a joke. In one poem a line ends “who,” and the next line picks up, “Let the dogs out must return them to their mothers, / For Buster has licked the chicken...” I thought that was wonderful.

JD: Thanks! And the way you describe it seems much more articulate than the way I proceed, which is very much by feel—improvisational: one line calls forth the next, so the poem is unfolding as I’m writing it.

LG: There are a lot of jokes that are not funny jokes, but they’re sometimes corny, sometimes they’re just upended: the line “business interruptus,” for example.

JD: I do have to be careful not to be corny. But I also love cornball.

LG: Yeah, absolutely. There’s definitely a camp element to it. It feels very well-earned.

JD: Well-earned corn?

LG: Well-earned corn! There are some times where you’ll use rhyme in a funny, almost doggerel way to advance the poem. In one poem, you write, “it struck me at Itchetucknee.” And then, in “Low Life,” you write, “I’m hungry for the fruit of Bouvard and the OCD of Pécuchet. —I just need to get away— What you will, will be OK.” It’s sing-song-y and enjoyable even just on a surface level. There’s a sense in which the experience of history is very textual. When you think of belatedness in relation to the poems, does that factor in at all?

JD: Well, I’m not sure I’ve thought about it that way before. But in so many examples of “the late work,”—

LG: Like Bouvard and Pécuchet?

JD: Actually, was that a late work?

LG: I think it was. In my memory, that’s his last novel.

JD: Then that’s a perfect example of the kind of willed idiosyncrasy associated with late works that I was courting, where the artist is like, “What the hell? I’m old enough, I’m at a place in my life where I can do whatever I want.” What you’re calling rhetoric, I think might be thought of more as registers. As in, I enjoy the contrast between registers (kinds of diction, for example); it can be productive, so I don’t necessarily care whether the poem from beginning to end is all pitched in the same way. And maybe in some instances I really don’t want that kind of continuity.

LG: There is a sense of, “I could do whatever I want at this point,” but also a new relationship to one’s, for lack of a better word, “craft.” Like when you read Bouvard and Pécuchet, what you think of as plot, which in his other novels fades into the background, as one expects a plot to do, but in Bouvard and Pécuchet, it becomes so abstract and whittled down almost to the act of simply turning the page.

JD: Part of what I love about that book is that they’re solving the same problem over and over. There are a number of places in my book where I’m fighting against an idea of lateness, or against any definitive sense of it, of seeing life or the world as having passed by, or having been tarred by the brush of knowing ennui. Two people trying repeatedly to solve the same problem seems incredibly silly and human and hopeful. And that’s why Late Human ends with the long poem “Early Bird,” a sort of naive note of optimism. I really don’t want to see the world, or my life particularly, in terms of early and late, sunrise and sunset, but these frames keep getting cast over one’s age, one’s projects, one’s ability to look to the future. I definitely identify with the bungler trying to solve problems that just won’t stay solved.

LG: You’ve mentioned a pessimism that becomes clear in some of the poems, and that would seem to link to the theme of Weltschmerz, which you’ve mentioned in connection to the poems in addition to borrowing and lateness. I was wondering if you could say more about the ways in which world-weariness manifests in the poems for you.

JD: Part of it is just a sense of futility, which, from my relatively privileged standpoint, is more historical than personal. At a certain point, you have to laugh or become religious or a little bit of a pessimist. Or all at once. Most of the poetry I’ve read in the last five (ten? fifteen?) years has something of this edge; it’s a feature of what any human has to come to terms with in the present. That’s why it’s Late Human, not Late Me, although the elegies in the middle of the book press a little harder on the personal point.

LG: Keeping with this theme of Weltschmerz and tackling the same problem over and over again and worrying that the only solution may be to give up, build a desk, tend your own garden, whatever else the people at the end of books end up doing, there seems to be a real, I hesitate to call it ’despair,’ but there’s a sense in which the forms that we choose, the forms that we inherit or are thrust upon us, engender in us desires for things that the forms either can’t allow for or won’t.

JD: They can’t deliver.

LG: The very thing that makes you want to communicate the thing that gets in the way of you saying anything at all. Does that seem like a theme that might go with the Weltschmerz and lateness?

JD: I think that is the Weltschmerz, period.

LG: Say more about that.

JD: Well, it seems like one spends one’s whole life trying to strike out of the forms of life that have been given, whether they’re biological or social or political—or at least to push at the edges. And the longer you live, the more experience you have of those forms pressing back at you, of their power and menace. And that can be productive, but it’s also tiring. It must be one of the reasons I write—for the sudden exception. But then one also still has to carry the weariness and aftermath.

More info on Late Human here

#265 — Summer 2021