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Individual Voices / Natural Forms

Winter, 2006

Brendan Constantine

Interviewed by Velene Campbell

When did you decide to become a poet?

When I consider how surrounded with poetry I was as a child, it feels like I responded to it rather late. My parents actually met in the 1950’s at a staged reading of Cuban revolutionary poets. They were both struggling actors, very much a part of New York's now legendary cultural scene. I was thus born into a household where poetry was a tradition. In addition to Shakespeare, my mother was dedicated to the works of Gerard Manly Hopkins and W.H. Auden. Indeed, Auden's September, 1939 was in a frame on the wall! Dad tended toward complex lyricists like Edith Sitwell and to this day may enter a room, decrying in a full voice, portions of her long poem Facade, particularly the end of Part Ten, En Famille:

The Admiral said, "You could never call --I assure you it would not do at all!
She gets down from table without saying "Please,
Forgets her prayers and to cross her T's,
In short, her scandalous reputation
Has shocked the whole of the Hellish nation;
And every turbaned Chinoiserie,
With whom we should sip our black Bohea,
Would stretch out her simian fingers thin
To scratch you, my dears, like a mandoline;
For Hell is just as properly proper
As Greenwich, or as Bath, or Joppa!"

Quite an entrance, to say the least! And with all of this poetry around me, I didn't recognize it until I was in my late twenties. By then I had worn a number of hats, had already decided several times over what I was going to be when I grew up. Ironically, in recent years, my mother has changed careers and is now an amazing poet. I truly admire her skill and instinct for her art. She will graduate from New England College's MFA program this winter! Richard Garcia, a wonderful, wonderful poet says you can't decide to become a poet. You just are or you aren't. No questions or proclamations are necessary. While I am uncomfortable with any generality, I would say this was certainly true for me. There came a day when I looked back over my shoulder and realized a trail of poems. You might say I didn't decide to go, but rather noticed I had been.

I should add that I was actually named for the Irish playwright Brendan Behan, whom my parents regarded as a genius. Not just for his scenarios did they regard him so, but specifically for the poetry they heard in his writing. I will never write so well as he, but it's nice to have something at which to aim!  

You have an aspect of the storyteller in your poems.  Do you consider yourself a storyteller, and if  so, then what stories are you trying to tell?

That's quite a question. It is perhaps a non-statement to say that all art tells a story. (Yeah? And then what?) This is another generality and attempts to say more than it really does. I would have to say that if my poems tell stories it is only because that is how I have always communicated. If you ask me about my day, I will likely give you the 'story' of my day, rather than a list of events and chores. In so telling, I am also much more likely to tell you about what I saw from the window of my car and leave out that I was stuck in traffic at the time.

One unfortunate result is that I talk entirely too much but yield very little information. But whatever I say, it'll have a plot!

What stories am I trying to tell? I think my answer to the next question will bear some of this out.

How do you integrate the magical and the everyday world?

I originally read this question 'the magical IN the everyday world' and I think I'd like to answer that instead. Sometimes I think it's all there is to write about. Oops, another generality. They are quite addictive, aren't they? I think it's because they can give velocity to thought. If we generalize about something, we often do so as a means of moving faster toward a conclusion related to the thing generalized, rather than about the thing itself. If we say 'Everybody loves pizza,' we're talking about pizza and not people.

There I go again, sorry.But getting back to your question, even the most didactic piece of writing about metallurgy, if it is presented in the context of poetry, is thus offered for its phenomenal nature, the impossibilty of it, its beauty, unlikelyhood or absurdity. Whether we write about birds or the building of nations we are ultimately writing from some kind of awe.

And even if this is unconscious, the very act of writing it down and presenting it to ourselves raises the object to some kind of distinction. It is as though the artist is a person who walks around with an empty picture frame, holding it up to any experience. By choosing what is framed, by holding the frame out to isolate one small event or bringing it to the very margin of the eye and so harboring the world, or even by inventing experiences to place inside the sacred square, we are acknowledging the magical; the miracle of consciousness.

In our case, the poet seems compelled to transcend mere description of the phenomenal in hopes of embodying it. The poet seeks an even higher magic than the first order of perception where the reportage of the experience (real, embellished or wholly imagined) is adequate. Instead the poet seeks sinesthesia - to transmit one entire sense by means of another; by reading or writing to you the poet will showcase the smells, colors, textures, and temporariness of experience and you will not only understand the words but feel what is embodied as though you were the poet.

In those forms of poetry whose aesthetic comes from a post modern awareness of all poetry within the context of one poem, for instance what is today referred to as 'Language Poetry,' the same dynamics are still true. The poet is hoping you will experience volumes of association within one well chosen line. If successful, it is an observation of the magical; the miraculous nature of written language and its ability to contain more than itself.

What perhaps separates this class of poet from say, the writer of narative poems about rural life, is the not unreasonable expectation that the audience has learned from, or at least looked through, the picture frames of other poets; perhaps even delights in the frame itself and the creation of new frames for their own sake.

In his book The Dyers Hand, Auden has an essay called "Making, Knowing and Judging" where he offers the questions he would like to ask a critic. I think they also speak to the class of poet above, if not poets of many orders.

"Do you like, and by like I really mean like, not approve of on principle:

   1) Long lists of proper names such as the Old Testament genealogies or the Catalogue of ships in the Iliad?

   2) Riddles and all other ways of not calling a spade a spade?

   3) Complicated verse forms of great technical difficulty, such as Englyns, Drott-Kvaetts, Sestinas, even if their content is trivial?

   4) Conscious theatrical exaggeration, pieces of Baroque
flattery, like Dryden's welcome to the Duchess of Ormond?       

If a critic could truthfully answer "yes" to all four, then I should trust his judgement implicitly on all literary matters." 

If I may risk one last generality, I think life cannot be described. Any lifetime of any duration costitutes one complete reaction to consciousness, a reaction so complex it may, if consciousness is prolonged, require countless naps and meals to even attempt it's articulation. Whether or not an articulation is demanded in the first place is a very ancient question, but I believe poetry is the only way I will ever organize my notes.