Philip Fried has published six books of poetry, the most recent being his book about the national security state, Interrogating Water (Salmon, 2014). Carol Rumens, writing in The Guardian, called that collection ‘outstanding’ and praised it for ‘the valour and vision of its protest.’ In October, 2016, Salmon will bring out Squaring the Circle. For the past 35 years Philip has been the editor of The Manhattan Review.
Previous American Poets
The High Window is pleased to introduce Philip Fried, one of the poets included in our new anthology, Four American Poets. Here he is in conversation with Anthony Costello:
This unedited conversation took place on August 5th,2016 at 4.30pm Luddendenfoot time, both editor and poet ‘not morning people’. AC had sufficiently recovered from a rather fitful afternoon nap and PF was bringing himself to sentience with late morning cups of coffee in Manhattan.
Thank you for agreeing to be the American Feature Poet for issue 3 of The High Window. The four poems you have sent us – ‘Voice’, ‘Canticles’, ‘Interrogating Water’, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Paper Clip’ – will appear from Sept 1st. In what way are these poems representative of your work? AC
‘Voice,’ the most recent, which first appeared in Issue 13 of The Lampeter Review and also in your new anthology Four American Poets; ‘Canticles’; and ‘Interrogating Water’ are representative in that they display the interaction of different registers of language. This is an approach I have been experimenting with over my last few books. In ‘Voice’, there is the combination/collision of advanced medical technique, debating tips, and the lingo of weaponry. In ‘Canticles’, the combination of love and warfare, through the use of language and form from ‘The Song of Songs’, King James Version (I use biblical language and form in a number of poems). And in ‘Interrogating Water,’, a poem about terrorism and torture, there is the jargon of homeland security, combined with a description of an electrolysis experiment (don’t try this at home?). These poems are typical also in their avoidance of the standard lyrical ‘I’ in direct communication with the reader as it expresses emotions and thoughts. ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Paper Clip’ is obviously a pastiche on Wallace Stevens, a poet I admire but couldn’t resist ‘updating’ and bringing down to earth a bit—he’s so ensconced in his brilliant language. I’ve sometimes used pastiche as a device elsewhere, too. PF
There is a lot there! That will teach me to ask an open question! Of course I saw the nod to Stevens, and perhaps in the first stanza of ‘Interrogating Water’ the influence of A.R. Ammons (I am thinking of ‘The Brook Has Worked Out the Prominences of a Bend’), but then the poem becomes very much your own with the images of technological terror. In some of your poems the modern world of science and technology and politics is central, in capital letters so to speak. Whereas Ammons’ poems start with nature, and then move towards science and often end in transcendence, your poems are politically direct, embrace cutting edge science and a panoply of languages, including slang and biblical allusions, military jargon and mysticism. In a poem like ‘Canticles’ history is almost identical with a hideous present in a way that makes me think of Zibgniew Herbert, in some way, I don’t know why. Perhaps it has something to do with prophets and prophecies? Your poetry is confident and forthright. Is your writing a conduit for a reality in a way that prophecy can determine? Or put another way, are you conscious of the prophetic role of a poet and, if so, why not a prophetic ‘I’? Or is ‘voice’ as an impersonal pronoun more suitable for an anodyne neutrality, a prevailing sense of dystopia? Sorry a lot of oblique questions. AC
Ammons, on whom I wrote my doctoral thesis, was a strong early influence. I admired his use of scientific terminology and concepts. In fact, when I was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop, I took as many biology courses as literature courses and was considering becoming a biologist. I actually met Ammons when I interviewed him for the first issue of my poetry journal The Manhattan Review in 1980. I was so nervous that when I called him up from a pay phone in Ithaca, NY, where he taught at Cornell, my teeth were chattering. But when I encountered him in the flesh, I became much calmer. In fact, I strangely had the idea that I needed to protect him … and that was somehow comforting.
I wouldn’t claim the mantle of prophecy. I just would say that I try to be attuned to different voices and registers of language. As for the ‘I’, I think, at least for me, that it needs a little rest. We inherit our first person pronoun from the Romantics in a sense and it seems we are driving it into a corner. This overuse of ‘I’ relates, too, to the American sense of Self as the all-important essence of identity. Such a sense comes out of Whitman and the Transcendentalists, so it has a distinguished ancestry. But I feel that in making so much dependent on an identity, we de-emphasize our social connections and our life together.
‘Voice’, I would hope, is better for its neutrality and more chilling for not being mediated by the ‘I’ which might soften and/or overprepare the reader for a warning/connection. PF
That is such a charming story about Ammons. The humility in his saying he was content to be an amateur poet in starting out. I think he stands alone in many ways which is why he is not much anthologised in many American poetry collections. I love his undulating lines. He is a master of enjambment, only his technique of word choice for the beginning and ends of lines is superior to what that term represents. Yes, I see what you mean by the chilling quality of ‘Voice’. One can’t fail to be engaged with lines like ‘moreover, scientists believe the immune/systems of any faltering weaponry/will soon accept vocal chords taken from dead women donors’ (this reminds me of the direct engagement required in the reader by a line like ‘a large transparent baby like a skeleton in a red tree’ in Peter Redgrove’s The Visible Baby); Redgrove, like you, was interested in biology and chemistry.
I have an alternate theory that the ‘I’ in poetry is nothing but a mask and far from self (even in Whitman), but perhaps more of this some other time. I can certainly see how ‘the roiling mass of different linguistic registers’ are central to your writing at the moment and that a singular pronoun and a single point of view would not allow you to write about your subject matter. Can you tell us something about your experiences in Iowa, your background and your editorship of The Manhattan Review? AC
The use of ‘I’ relates to an attempt to purify and isolate poetic language, to ‘purify the language of the tribe,’ in Eliot’s phrase. I think it’s preferable to engage with, even embrace impure and intractable language. I like what Martin Buber says about ‘the exuberant world of It.’ That is, the world of things and thingified relationships, not the I-Thou. But the key word is ‘exuberant’ .Why should ‘they’ have all the fun? In psychoanalytic terms, this would be called ‘joining the resistance.’
In other words, join the savage jargon-ites and howl a little with them; e.g., military language often seems like it wants to move towards mysticism, then let it go all the way
…that metaphor doesn’t quite work, as a mystic wouldn’t ‘howl’ but join the jargon and let it play out. PF
Interestingly, Philip, the above (3 quickfire emails you sent) appeared in my inbox after I had replied to your ‘main’ reply to my previous question. I think we should publish it as it is, out of sync, or meant to be, our ipads and laptops determining the structure of the conversation as it is being created and as it will be read. I may transcribe and cut out each word of this your most recent reply and throw them up in the air and construct some sentences from where and how they fall. Aleatory, Burroughs-like. Let them answer? I will add the result of this experiment at the end of this conversation.
(*Actually I wrote three lines at The end called ‘Fun’). AC
so we’re making a poem together 🙂
is the interview continuing? PF
Yes. But a message keeps appearing on my ipad saying: ‘unfortunately, Google app has stopped working.’ AC
Yes, those are very interesting ideas about the first-person, to pursue another time.
I came to Iowa from Antioch, where I felt a bit self-important as one of the college’s handful of self-proclaimed poets. However, when I arrived at Iowa, one of hundreds of writers ‘in a Midwestern cornfield,’ so to speak, self-importance quickly fell away. Many of my fellow writers were very talented; the star was James Tate, and Jon Anderson was very respected as well. So, a constant nagging question in the back of my mind was, so what do I have to offer? Some of the writers collectively admired were Bly and the deep-image poets, Creeley, Neruda, Snyder … One of the unspoken rules was, Make it strange! So, often the poems I thought of as my best were hermetic. And over a period of two years, I managed to work out a place for myself. Marvin Bell was an excellent teacher, sympathetic and receptive to a student’s own style. Robert Sward, whose work I also admire, was a visiting professor and introduced me to the work of Gary Snyder.
I started The Manhattan Review in 1980, two years after I finished my Ph.D. at Stony Brook, where I studied with Louis Simpson, a gifted and stylish poet. Feeling isolated in the work world—I did a lot of temp work, typing and such—I started the magazine to feel more connected, first, with friends whose work I published, and later, with poets whose work I admired but whom I didn’t know personally. I liked donning an institutional mask; it enabled me to approach other poets with more confidence.
In 1994-1995, the magazine (meaning me) launched a campaign to improve the number and quality of poetry reviews in the New York Times. But that’s a story in itself; perhaps for a later time?
It was through the magazine that I became acquainted with Polish poetry in translation, Herbert, Baranczak, Hartwig, etc., and those poets showed me that poetry could avail itself of all its linguistic resources while addressing public issues. PF
That is such an amazing story and poetic lineage that I am sure our readers will revel in. I have always noted the potency of the Russian Formalist notion of ‘language made strange’ and can see how that wouldn’t have been out of place in Iowa. You had a solid apprenticeship! I had wanted earlier to ask you about the Black Mountain poets and what the influence might be for you, especially with regard to Olsen’s ‘projective verse’, but your interests are wide and I can definitely appreciate how Herbert, and other Polish poets like Szymborska and, perhaps, Zagajewski appeal because of their public witnessing and human and humane testimonies. The Manhattan Review is a great creation. I think you modestly underplay your role there. The good fights you get in to, believing. It is an amazing achievement keeping a literary review in print for 35 years, the poets you have published, many of them British and European. AC
I read Olsen many years ago but not recently, but I think his sense of the page as a force field influenced me, as it did many other poets.
One of the best books I’ve ever read was Martin Duberman’s on Black Mountain college. Duberman injects his own comments into accounts of policy meetings and this might not seem a good idea, but it works. I felt something of a kinship with this legendary place, having gone to Antioch, another quite experimental college. It closed down several years ago for lack of funds but now has re-opened and has regained accreditation.
Thanks for your kind words about the magazine. I have made an effort to publish anglophone poetry and translations from around the world and, in the last decade, to focus on British poetry, in the hope that we won’t be quite so divided by a common language. In the new issue, due out this Fall, we’ll have a number of British poets and translations of work from the Polish, French, and Latvian. After 36 years or so, what still keeps me interested is the thrill of finding new work I like; that feeling must go back to the thrill of the hunt (sublimated). In the first decade or so of the magazine, I had an interview series, which included Peter Redgrove, A.R. Ammons, Thomas Kinsella, Zbigniew Herbert (not interviewed by me but by John and Bogdana Carpenter, his translators), and Paul Ricoeur. I had to give it up because it proved too exhausting, but I had some wonderful encounters. And the next issue will include the work of American poets whose work I love, for example D. Nurkse, who is known to many British readers, Marc Kaminsky, whose Road from Hiroshima is an out-of-print contemporary masterpiece I’m trying to get republished, and Hal Sirowitz. PF
It’s a wonderful history of serving the cause and meaning and importance of poetry, Philip. We at The High Window are in our first year as a journal and our paths have crossed. Our intention is to be outward looking too. Conversely, we are reaching out to America and the world to try and widen the conversation about what is poetry? We contacted you because we admired your work. And we are not alone. Fred Muratori in the American Book Review (2014) suggests you are the illuminating poet that can shed some light on this dark age and Carol Rumens in the Guardian and Poetry Review in 2015 reviews you glowingly, praising the depth of subject matter and your ‘immense technical control’. When people like your work they really like it!
You are one of four poets in an anthology of Four American Poets published by the High Window Press in September, 2016 and you have a latest collection published by Salmon Publishing in October, 2016, your fourth collection with this notable Cork-based Press? AC
You’re very kind. Actually, my next book, Squaring the Circle, due out from Salmon this October, will be my fifth book with them, and my seventh overall. Jessie Lendennie, who runs the press, from the Cliffs of Moher, is a wonderful publisher who has done so much for poetry, and Siobhan Hutson, who works with her, is a gifted book designer.
Sounds like a conclusion? It’s been fun. Thanks so much for publishing my work and for the opportunity to talk about it. Kudos to you and David for starting a journal and a press! And I’m proud to appear in such a notable anthology as Four American Poets. PF
And thank you for supporting what we are trying to do at The High Window. I have so much respect for what Salmon and Gallery Press and Lapwing Publications are doing for poets and poetry from their various strongholds in Ireland. It is an honour to be publishing you. Yes, perhaps we have come to an end (and a beginning). I had wanted to ask much more (about Futurism, Artificial Intelligence, Bahktin’s theory of heteroglossia!) with regard to your work, but let’s go with the (sometimes computer-jibbed) flow of these few fading real time hours. Readers can buy Squaring the Circle and Four American Poets…let your poems do the talking?
But you can have the last words here.
What is your favourite quote about poetry?
And if you had to choose only one poetry book for your desert island which would it be? AC
It’s not directly about poetry but I respond very strongly to Buber’s
“the exuberant world of It.”
One collection? Hmmmm. Tough. Maybe Rilke, whom Auden called ‘The Santa Claus of loneliness’.
Savages jargon-ites howl military language,
The exuberant world of ‘it’,
Joining the resistance. AC
And here are four Poems by Philip Fried:
“Voice is a pretty amazing thing,” said the lead
researcher for an experiment to implant
connective tissue and lining cells from healthy
vocal cords into the muzzle of a jammed
Kalashnikov, reviving the keen patter
of one whose speech had unexpectedly faltered.
“We don’t give voice much thought until it goes wrong,”
he added. “It’s an exquisite system and hard
to replicate.” When the transplanted folds of tissue
in the AK were triggered, they spoke with the same penetration
as a normal forceful voice and therefore could pierce
irrelevant objections of walls or of common
vehicles’ metal bodies equally well.
And cogent arguments remained intact
even after making contact with bone.
Moreover, scientists believe the immune
systems of any faltering weaponry
will soon accept vocal cords taken from dead human donors.
Best of all, high-speed digital imaging
revealed the Kalashnikov had endured the scaffolds
of tough elastic tissue without failing
to cycle, and was uttering bursts of words
on the tactics and techniques of debate; for example,
I commence my case with an attention-grabber.
Or, To better rebut my opponents’ contention,
I remember to cluster sub-points closely together.
Imagine you are interrogating water,
coercing the hydrogen and oxygen
to violate their bonds, give up each other.
Water, a non-state actor,
flows secretly over borders,
gathers in pools, conspires
with bacteria and mosquitoes
You can perform this at home with simple materials.
All you need is a battery, two no. 2 pencils,
salt, thin cardboard, electrical wire, a glass …
Foe of stability,
it erodes in drizzles,
revolts in tsunamis, riots
in floods, and from covert puddles
takes part in uprisings
… of water. Sharpen the pencils at both ends.
Cut the cardboard to fit over the glass.
Insert the pencils in cardboard, an inch apart.
but under every skin
is another, while fluid rib
over rib will hide the atomic
truth in a wavering cage
Using the wires, connect the tips of each pencil
to opposite poles of the battery, then place
the other ends of the pencils into the water.
Excitable even in teacups
its sloshing shifting mass
can menace levees and dams
heave at the ocean’s crust
subverting the Earth’s rotation
The molecules will confess in tiny bubbles
of hydrogen and chlorine gas, at the pencil
tips, chlorine masking the fugitive oxygen.
Who is this that comes from the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with lamb skin and burnt gunpowder?
Behold, thou art fair, my love, behold thou art fair; standing behind the wall like a roe or a young hart, looking out from blast-resistant windows.
My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand.
He bears a sniper rifle, being an expert at war; an XM2010 with a fluted, free-floating barrel.
His legs are as pillars of marble, clad in flame-resistant trousers. His head, crowned with bulletproof Kevlar, is as a watchtower looking toward Kandahar.
Thou art fair, my love; thou art fair; thy eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters: thy hair as a drift of Predators, that appear over the Spin Ghar Range.
Thou art beautiful, O my love, and terrible as an army with banners.
THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A PAPER CLIP
Among the piles of snow-white paper,
Dirtied by print,
The only glint came from a paper clip.
There never was a world for it,
Except the one it organized.
O blessed rage for order! My pale
Hispanic friend, when the Siren’s song is over
And the darkening sea is masterfully lit
And portioned out, will you finally turn your attention
To the paper-clipped order for your deportation?
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a clipped prenup
One summer night like a perfection of thought,
Flood and mudslide, famine and drought,
Execution, invasion, insurrection,
Were filed away alphabetically,
Fastened by the paper clips of oblivion,
In the lateral cabinet of the cerebrum.
The paper clip is gripping without tearing.
The homeland must be secure.
Continual conversation with a clip,
Even enhanced interrogation
Twisting it out of its double-oval shape,
Would only evoke this one
Bit of intel:
Modest almost to a fault
The paper clip cum icon will survive,
As cyber symbol,
The prophesied demise of writing paper.
O men and women of the West,
Do you not see how a tiny trebuchet
Can be constructed from paper clips
And a D-cell battery?
Bijou, mignon, petit chou are endearments not
Usually applicable to a paper clip.
A paper clip, even under a full moon,
Is not much given to reverie,
And yet its simple unadorned form
Can inspire a mini-frisson
In the soul of an internal auditor.
Steel wire bent double around
Nothing, a clip must have an absent
Mind of winter.
Attaching but detached, it does not suffer
Any harm or benefit
Discussed in the clipped paper.
Clasping a vendor contract
In the NSA’s untidy paper archive,
It systemizes but does not disclose.
Discrete and bare,
Like the anecdotal jar
On a slovenly hill in Tennessee,
It takes dominion everywhere.
The constellation Paper Clip,
Heroic in its own way as Orion,
Secures the scattered stars
To the calendered black paper of heaven.