Poet Of The Week

Jeffrey Pethybridge

     February 3–9, 2014

Jeffrey Pethybridge is the author of Striven, The Bright Treatise (Noemi Press, 2013). His work appears widely in journals such as Chicago Review, Volt, Poor Claudia, The Iowa Review, LIT, New American Writing and others. He is also the North American Editor for Likestarlings, a web archive of collaborative poetry and poetics. He’s currently at work on a graphic novel called “The Book of Lamps” and a documentary project entitled “Found Poem Including History, an Essay on the Epic.” He will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series on Friday, February 21, at Studio 10 with Ana Božičević and Thomas Heise.

The New Humors (1)

stein or no
set on or in

no tin rose
is a rose is a rose is

or tension in torsion

is one torn
torn noise neon riots

siren onto rites no on
ire son not risen onto

rose not in eros not in
nine roots

one is torn
reins onto aggression

no to rinse inner soot
depression tires noon

sleep regulation snore
into rest onion not

in eros no rote sin
suicide notion &
res sooner tin

stone iron ore in
tons roe in tons

rose is a rose is
inert soon

–From Striven, The Bright Treatise, Noemi Press, 2013.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this poem in the summer of 2007. I was very early in the process, just at the beginning, really, of writing Striven, The Bright Treatise. That book was written in the wake of my brother’s suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge. Part of my response to his death involved throwing myself headlong into researching suicide, depression and melancholy. I wasn’t researching with the intent of making poems sponsored by that research, nor was I researching in the hopes of exactly understanding my brother’s suicide; rather, because I have so few skills, research became my way of going through the experience of grieving my brother. This felt very much like a responsibility–to undergo both my own feelings as well as the state of thinking about suicide, its science, and history of that thinking. Perhaps this sense of responsibility was a function of the guilt I felt in the face of my brother’s suicide; whatever the source of this drive to research, it was real and seemingly ineluctable.

There is a line of thinking about suicide, which is also a line of division, that understands depression and melancholy–the whole range of human affect, really–to be rooted in body’s materiality, its various chemistries and genetic dispositions. My research brought me up against this materialism which is present in contemporary psychiatry, with its focus on pharmaceutical remedies for depression (and other illnesses) but is also seen in the early modern psychology with its theory of humors–the fluids and vapors of the body which regulate the psyche and temper of the person. This conceptual rhyme became important to my thinking: are depression and melancholy, the scholar’s disease as Burton calls it, the same disease or are they different? After my brother’s suicide I had to reckon with my own history of melancholy and/or depression differently; our shared materiality cast any and all of my own suicidal ideation in a different light, the light of likelihood, estranging likeness.

I take the insights and achievements of the materialist approach to human affect seriously, but it doesn’t seem to be enough, and the narrowing of contemporary psychiatry comes at real costs: our chemistries are so varied that some people suffering from mental illness will remain unresponsive to pharmaceutical interventions, and what then? Suicidology, the discipline, the science dedicated to understanding suicide, absolutely, in order to prevent suicides, is actually an anti-materialist science; its founding study was a study of suicide notes, a study to determine whether or not the linguistic expressions of the notes would yield insight into the psychologies of those that commit suicide. Suicidology holds that the final cause of suicide happens not in the brain but in the mind, its psychological drama.

So I wrote “The New Humors (1)” with my thinking driven against, and away from materialist psychology, of wanting to be more than the sum of my chemistry, to be alchemical, and yet admitting how utterly my mood, and often much more, is precisely a matter of brain chemistry. I wrote this poem the moment I saw “no tin rose” inside “serotonin,” and immediately thought of Stein’s “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” I wrote this poem mainly at night, over a couple nights’ time. Later I made some revisions. I wrote this poem, which for a long time had no title. I wrote this poem with the dictionary open; first when I discovered the anagram; later with a kind of magical thinking, a talisman for the poem to happen. I wrote this poem longhand. Like a logic problem, I worked the anagrams by hand. “Show your work,” says the poem, its notion and res.

What are you working on right now?

A couple things: one an adaptation of a long poem called “The Book of Lamps, being a psalm-book” into a graphic novel. The book is at a bit of an impasse, since the first artist I was working with kind of disappeared, and some of the choices about how exactly to adapt certain elements of the poem into the graphic novel form will depend upon the overall visual vocabulary of the book, so I’m actively looking for a collaborator to finish that project with. As with all collaborations, it’s about finding the right person at the right time in which to make the work together.

The other book I’m working on now is called “Found Poem Including History, an Essay on the Epic” and it’s a mix of poetry, prose and documents from the body of bureaucratic, legal, legislative and NGO documents that often get called the torture memos. The book understands the documents to be the epic poem of America in the early part of the twenty-first century. Pound’s definition of the epic as a “poem including history” is the source of the title. The book, which is still very much a work-in-progress, is predicated on the idea that there will be neither a legal reckoning for the authors and agents of torture, nor a political reckoning (say in the form of a truth/amnesty commission), and so if neither court nor commission, what then: can what we call cultural forms such as history or poetry embody an alternative, albeit lesser, form of accountability? And what might a cultural reckoning look like?

What’s a good day for you?

Good news day. Good radio day. Getting some work on a poem done. Getting any writing done. Good reading day, discovering something new, something which sparks the right thought, the right word. Good curry day, especially in the winter. Also a day of winter-sun. Good mail day–books in the mail. A good email day, especially when someone unknown or barely known reaches out and says a good word about the work of poems. Good reading day, the small utopia of the poem of being it, and being new, different in being–even if only for the duration of the poem, its clearing, the utopia of being changed from it, now being in its wake. A deepening conversation with my son, in which he’s able to disclose more and more of himself in the medium we have to share, language. Good travel day. Good library day. Date night is also a good day.

So you don’t live in Brooklyn. Where’s home for you? What’s it like being a poet there? As Jay Z might ask, Can you live?

Right now I live in Lewisburg, PA, which is a small town. I grew up in Virginia Beach, which is a beach town, and a tourist town, a town of strip malls. I went school in Norfolk. I went to school in Boston, and fell in love–‘nuff said. I went to school in Columbia, MO, which is a college town, and where my son was born. My wife went to school in Austin, and we lived in that city, and my son began to tame the language inside him. Home increasingly seems like a process, rather than any stable place, a syntax, and set of relations, and being a poet there means finding, making works and days in and among those shifting relations, folds and distances.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

All my visits to Brooklyn have been brief, and spent with friends breaking bread, catching up and goofing off, which is to say my impressions of Brooklyn aren’t really about Brooklyn, but the reflected shine of those relations.

Brooklyn is a friend of friends.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Hart Crane.

Derek Walcott had me (and my classmates) memorize the proem to The Bridge and I was immediately hooked. And Crane’s particular form or inflection of modernism with all its gaudy romanticism, and gravity-defying metaphoric language, and what he does with prosodies (from the archive) feels to me still as one compelling contribution to the repertoire of being modern, what Langdon Hammer’s called Hart Crane’s poetry: Janus-faced modernism. White Buildings is the dream of the city modern, and its annulment, and that contradiction courses though all his work, you feel the full force of the city (even before it truly lives up to the empire it’s becoming).

“One must be absolutely modern,” says Rimbaud, and it’s clear Crane felt the force of the imperative, and felt it absolutely:

“Brooklyn go hard.”

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

The Antidote | Jackqueline Frost | Compline | 2013

You Have The Eyes Of A Martyr | Jackqueline Frost | O’Clock Press | 2013

This In Which | George Oppen | New Directions | 1965

ARK | Ronald Johnson | Flood | 2013

The Mourning Voice: An Essay On Greek Tragedy | Nicole Loraux | trans. Elizabeth Trapnell Rawlings | Cornell | 2002

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you should assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Doesn’t one of Basquiat’s paintings have the little scrawl: Pierre Menard, author of the Leaves of Grass?

Why Brooklyn?

Before the flood comes, props to the birthplace of American poetry / before the flood // of the twentieth century.