Interview: Inside Voices, Fast Poems, and Forgetting

Ariel Yelen& Jennifer Soong
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Ariel Yelen

I want to hear about your research on forgetting.

Jennifer Soong

I’m working on a critical project about the relationship between forgetting and poetry in the long 20th century. Honestly, it’s a way of tracking what I'm reading. Part of the inspiration for it was my reading, but also the fact that I have a terrible memory myself.

Ariel Yelen        

I don’t buy that, based on the way I’ve heard you speak about poetry...

Jennifer Soong 

No, really. I forget things all the time. And I think... I mean it really kind of sucks if you're a poet, because it's so impressive to recite lines by poets you've read. But I’m really terrible at that.

Forgetting is a very negative word in today's world. The duty to remember is a non-question for most people, and that sense of obligation and justice has dominated the postwar discourse around memory and forgetting.

So I really wanted to figure out how poetic forgetting could intervene as a marginal way of thinking about forgetting, which already is a marginalized term! If you look at the poets I write about, forgetting always means something other than loss to them. It’s more than an obstacle or a technical error.

The project—which, if all goes well, will become an academic book—begins with Gertrude Stein. And how forgetting breaks up memory’s hegemonic relationship to knowledge. I’m interested in how Stein uses forgetting as an epistemological tool.

Ariel     

Do you think there’s a logic to poetic forgetting in Stein’s work?

Jenn

Logic is a tricky word, but in short: yes, forgetting is a kind of active method for Stein, one that allows her to attend to and know the present. It manifests itself stylistically, so it’s also a way of writing. Some of those stylistic markers are repetition, the present progressive, non-referential and anti-narrative language. Forgetting is not just a stance! It’s less an idea than a process.

Ariel

Will you tell me more about the project in general?

Jenn     

From Stein, I move to the New York School poets. And I discuss how forgetting the future, which sounds like an impossibility, is in fact possible in the famous “to-do” list poems. These poems set up reminders or promises, things to do, but invite us to ask: What happens if you forget to do the thing that you were supposed to do but never actually did?

And then from there I study two more poets: Lyn Hejinian, with her comic use of forgetting, and Tan Lin, who writes a lot about creating ambient, forgettable works.

There’s just so many different ways of thinking through forgetting.

Ariel

When I think about forgetting, I also think of saving or storage. And how the processes of...forgetting and saving, or even hoarding, feel related to each other. And also to big data, the cloud, and the "feed" where things like tweets are quickly forgotten. In another way, I also think of forgetting as a mechanism of erasure and worry about that element of it. Do you think about forgetting in poetry in relation to these things?

Jenn

The relationship between saving and hoarding is not so self-evident. Tan Lin has this great bit about how his parents—who are immigrants— became more American the more they bought things and bought into American consumerism, but also became more Asian the more they bought things that were on sale and were “saving” on great deals. Forgetting, here, not only has to do with the shelf-life of goods but also cultural capital and ethnic identity. I think about the relationship between forgetting and excess quite a bit, but not just in the context of planned obsolescence. I’m not particularly interested in erasure poetry, but it is an obvious example of how poetic forgetting can be used to critique political suppression and cultural amnesia.

Ariel     

OK, so now I want to hear a little bit about your first experience with writing poetry.

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Jenn     

I remember it...sort of. I wrote my first poems the summer after my first poetry class with Helen Vendler. That experience is always so weird.

Ariel     

You still remember it?

Jenn     

Kind of. I remember trying and struggling. But then a few times I'd be like, oh wow, and experience that momentary high right after you've written some half-decent lines. And of course, you go back a week later and it's terrible.

Ariel     

But at first you're glowing.

Jenn     

You're glowing. And I think that glow is ... that illusionary glow is so important. Because that's what poets, I think, live for. Publication is one thing, but the experience of making something? I think everyone needs to make something. I truly think that's one of the greatest human needs. And I don't know if that means poetry is for everyone, probably not. But I think even people who aren't in the arts feel that need.

Ariel     

I want to talk with you about your first book Near, At, which Futurepoem published in October. I’m interested in how time and logic function in the book. That thoughts themselves somehow keep time, that lived experience is just one of many functions of time. The inquiry feels philosophical, asking when and for how long does an event unfold, what shape does it take over time? I’m curious if this resonates.

Jenn     

It does. I'm interested in the phenomenology of time and the different ways that we account for it. There's psychological time, physiological time, work-day time, geological time, and then there's also the time of language, of reading or writing something. The experience is different if you read a book in one sitting versus multiple sittings. It often takes me a long time to finish reading a book, in which case, life interrupts.

At the same time I also really like fast poetry. I like it when the words on the page seem to escape my understanding, and my understanding is constantly trying to keep up with the poem.

I get bored easily, and I can have a terrible attention span. So I love poetry that seems to move and go somewhere. Part of that is about speeding up time. I find it interesting that we live in a culture, place, and time where time really does move fast. Yet, sometimes nothing happens in that time, or it moves so quickly that we are left in the exact same position. I tend to think of the two extremes of modern life as boredom and anxiety. Between those two temporal situations, I try to create poems that are like pieces of time, eclipsed in a way, clipped off. That’s what I was trying to do with the line breaks in Near, At.

So yeah. I want to make time palpable but also fleeting.

Ariel     

I see that. There’s a quickness to your poems with very short lines, but also often, the object of the poem seems to be stretched out and almost slowed down. I’m also interested to hear more about what you mean when you say “fast poetry”.

Jenn     

I forget now who said thinking is basically slowing down your thoughts enough to actually experience them. I think that’s where a fast poem can end up becoming elliptical—it has to stretch out in order to materialize that speed in comprehensible language time. I care about following a thought through to its apparent end. Sometimes that means slowing down my thinking enough to have it be interrupted. Sometimes that means slowing it down enough so that I can actually be thinking it at the same time that I'm thinking it, in a weird way.

And obviously I'm heavily inspired by Stein here. Her poetics are all about how we can push the monotony of daily routine to an extreme while being conscious of consciousness itself. The meaning of her sentences eludes us, but they're also extremely repetitive and slow, in a way.

Ariel     

In Near, At, we’re very much in between. There's Netflix and then there's abstract philosophy. We’re between an experimental poetics and more traditional poetics. We’re in the external world but we're only partly there, like half-waking. I want to know your thoughts on this kind of in between space, and I also want to ask what the tension is between the internal and the external world of the speaker.

Jenn     

That in-between space created by Netflix and abstraction comes from my interest in using different registers of language. I think a lot of poetry today either just uses pop language, the language of texting, or else, language that’s really composed, overly polished, and likely workshopped. I don't see myself in either of those worlds, exactly. But I'm interested in all sorts of lexical sets, so I think that's where the variety of tone comes in.

It's also just a part of who I am: I do watch Netflix, and then I do read something abstract or philosophical. That's just part of my existence.

Ariel     

I really appreciate, and think readers will appreciate, that you're not one or the other. It’s hard to put a finger on what “type” of poetry you write, or what your “brand” is, not that you’d want that necessarily. 

Jenn     

Yeah, and I mean where’s the fun in already recognizing your poem before you've even written it? Like if you know what you're going to sound like, if you know what type of poem you're going to write, then I think you're completely right, that’s just a version of commodification. That's a wholesale package way of writing.

I like trying to write the complete opposite poem of what I just wrote.

Ariel     

Wow.

Jenn     

I don't know where I read this, but someone was saying that one way to be contrarian is to sound anti-contemporary. It helps to know what “contemporary” sounds like.

It’s not that I want to be a contrarian for it’s own sake. It’s more that I want poetry to be as varied as possible. If I’m reading too much of one thing, I sometimes get frustrated and feel the need to create a “counter-balance.” 

I think a lot of poetry today is really flat and paratactic, for instance, which is fine. In fact, it opens up a lot of new possibilities like the merging of poetry and prose, which has become extremely popular. At the same time, I'm really interested in how the metaphysical poets were making these really complex, intricate, sort of baroque objects. And so, some of the poems in the book actually use fairly hypotactic language. It’s one way to extend thought. If the thought is not presented as linear, then it can somehow extend itself by wrapping around other words or ideas.

Ariel     

Your desire to do something very different from what you just did in a poem—is that a desire to be in an amateur space? Or, where does it come from?

Jenn     

I like to be challenged. I like to feel like everything has yet to be written.

I also think it's just a fear of being pigeon-holed. I don't want to become “X” writer, you know? And if I look at all the writers who I really like, like Prynne or Alice Notley, they're sort of like reinventing themselves with every poetry book that they write. Or at least, some books.

I think that sense of being able to upend your own identity is really powerful. And it's liberating. The freedom is part of it.

Ariel     

Do you feel like outside of poetry you let yourself play with this same idea? Is this a poetics you live by too?

Jenn     

I’m not sure. When I’m with my parents, I speak part English, part Chinese, which has had an impact on my relationship with language. I’ve told my partner, half-jokingly, “Oh my gosh. I'm a poet, and I'm actually really bad at English.”

I just remember being bad at grammar and vocabulary early on in my life. And I still have a terrible grasp of most American English idioms, which are mainly metaphors that have become transparent in culture. I think that's definitely influenced the way I see language. Which is that it's not transparent, it's not just an “in” that everyone automatically has. It can be opaque, it can be strange and even alienating, and that’s why it’s interesting.

I think I’ve strayed from the question, but I guess part of experimenting with different voices is also admitting that you can love certain sounds at one point in your life and then be happy outgrowing them.

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Ariel     

In reading your book, I really felt that you’re engaging with language musically, and also felt it when I heard you read. Like you were conducting a musical score in a way.

Jenn     

Yeah. I think at one point we were talking about whether I should have more consistent punctuation.

Ariel     

Right, that was one of my biggest questions for you when copyediting.

Jenn     

I think my response at the time was that my punctuation is consistent if you think of it as a score. It's consistent if you think about it in terms of okay, well, a period here make sense because there's a sense of finality or because you want the next word to really initiate.

And that's sort of the principle or the law that I'm following. Not the ones in grammar books.

Ariel     

Do you have favorite musicians or people that you listen to for inspiration? Who or what is in your archive?

Jenn     

Oh yeah.

Music-wise, I mean, I listen to everything—my first love was probably Bob Dylan, and my favorite piece of music is probably Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I love the freedom, texture, and chameleon nature of Arthur Russell’s work. I almost always work out to Todd Terje, and I have a soft spot for good pop, whether it’s delivered straight like Paul Simon or slant like Jenny Hval. Someone whose musical poetics I'm interested in is Meredith Monk. She builds something really complex out of something really simple, let's say a sigh or a note. She makes a world out of that.  

And Monk is also just weird. Like how can a human voice sound like a cow? She has a song about mooing. And another one about the sky ranting, and one about howling. I love how she treats the voice as this really extreme place for creating sound. In the same vein, I admire Caroline Shaw, or someone even a little more pop-oriented, like Julia Holter.

Ariel     

Oh yeah, I definitely get a Julia Holter vibe.

Jenn     

Yeah, I love Julia. One thing I'm really interested in is quiet poems. And I think many of her songs begin in that quiet space, before building up—either with some looping or with more orchestration. And then there'll be like an explosion of saxophone at the end. Or not. It’s lovely and surprising. Often there’s a sense of being amused, too.

Julia Holter

Yeah. I think there are archives you work with and then things you love. And I think the number of things you love should always be excessive.

Ariel     

Yes, totally.

Jenn     

Right? Like way broader than what you identify with. I think it’s so important to love things radically different from your own work. I love being a fan.

Ariel     

I do too. But could you talk a little bit more about quiet poems?

Jenn     

I'm interested in people's inside voices, which is something I'm still trying to think through. Like what is my inside voice versus the voice I speak and communicate to others with.

And that might be different from an internal voice. Which could be very neurotic, for instance.

Ariel     

Okay, so I was thinking “inside voice” like when an adult tells a child use your inside voice. But you're talking about inside as something else.

Jenn     

Yeah. I think of an inside voice as extremely private, in the sense that private can mean withdrawn. It needs to be enticed out while being protected, maybe even earn your trust. It's something intimate.

Ariel     

Okay, like meant for one other?

Jenn     

Yeah. Even if that one other is yourself, or the person you want to be, or the person you are tomorrow, or a dead person. I think there's something sacred about the inside voice.

Ariel     

And how is it different than the internal voice?

Jenn     

I think of the internal voice as something involuntary. I think it's sort of just…how our brain chemistry works. It's very tied to how we respond to situations.

I think the inside voice is more crafted. I'm really talking about it in terms of how can I get an inside voice onto the page, or how can I get an inside voice inside a poem.

And I think this goes back to my desire to create an inner world without being solipsistic or boring.

Ariel     

You’re interested in the way that it's powerful to have an intimate conversation with somebody.

Jenn     

Exactly. When I think about the declarative poems, the powerful stance, that’s also a stylistic choice, right? Using language to declare, to speak out, to assert.

And I think those are all really important things that language can do. But what other performative things can language do that doesn't necessarily have to be in that register?

Telling a secret. That is extremely powerful.

Ariel     

Something else that’s extremely powerful is the manifesto on the back of your book. I’d love if you could talk about it a little bit.

Jenn     

Well, I still consider myself a young poet. But at a certain point I said to myself: I want to actually think about what I believe in and what my poetics are. When you look at the poets who’ve shaped history, you realize they all sort of have some manifesto or some form of poetics. And so the piece on the back of the book was really just an attempt to articulate my own.

Image / Audio Details:

1. On the homepage: Louise Bourgeois, Ode à l'Oubli, [Ode to Forgetting], 2004, courtesy of MoMA6.

2. Near, At book cover

3. Jennifer Soong

4. Jennifer Soong & her parents

5. Julia Holter's "City Appearing"