Rufo Quintavalle was born in London in 1978 and lives in Paris. He is the author of the chapbook, Make Nothing Happen (Oystercatcher Press, 2009), is on the editorial board of Upstairs at Duroc and is currently Acting Poetry Editor for the online magazine, Nthposition. His work has been widely published around the world and was recently nominated for a Puschcart Prize.
Alex Boyd interviewed Rufo Quintavalle in spring, 2010.
You’ve lived in the US, England and now Paris — how does the approach to literary life differ? Or are readings and book launches completely standard?
I spent three years in an American university town and what is more that town, Iowa City, is one with a very strong literary reputation so I’m not sure if my experiences there are in any way typical of the situation in the rest of the US. Likewise my encounters with poetry in the UK are mainly from my time at Oxford – I grew up in London but was not really aware of the poetry scene at the time. In both places there were plenty of events going on and they were well attended. I remember seeing Les Murray in Oxford and John Ashbery in Iowa City and both were reading to large audiences. Recently I went to see Adam Zagajewski read in Paris (where I have lived for the last five years) and was surprised to find only 30 people in the room. But this difference in audience size probably has as much to do with college town versus capital city as it does with Anglo-Saxon versus Gallic enthusiasm for poetry. Plus Zagaweski was reading in English in a non-English speaking city.
I was not aware of much of a performance poetry scene in Oxford but it’s a university with a somewhat conservative reputation. Which mirrored my tastes at the time I guess. In Iowa City I would occasionally go along to an open mic night in one of the bars. This was probably a little more tense than the equivalent night I attend in Paris (I think there was a fair bit of competition among the poets in the Writers’ Workshop) which tends to be a very laidback, good natured affair.
One thing that all three scenes have in common is that almost all events are free. I had always taken this as a given but lately it’s started to bother me. We pay to go to concerts and indeed would find it shocking if the musicians were not reimbursed in some way for their efforts. So why should poets be expected to do their stuff for free?
I have read my own work in England, Scotland, France and the Netherlands. The audience in Paris tends to be pretty quiet but they buy the most books. I don’t think this is just because I am a local writer. A friend of mine from Berlin said he sold far more copies at a reading we did together in Paris than he did at his official book launch back home.
Your chapbook of poems “Make Nothing Happen” appears to have a title drawn from the famous Auden quote. What’s your feeling about that quote?
I found myself writing a lot of stuff that was either structurally minimalist or thematically concerned with the idea of nothingness. Then after a while I realized that what was really motivating this run of poems was not so much nothingness itself as the moment where something and nothing meet. The bare minimum one needs to tip the balance away from nihilism and into something more positive. The title of the collection came afterwards I think but seemed to sum up what I was doing.
That line from Auden “poetry makes nothing happen” is used either to belittle poetry or else to rarify it – to put it on a sacred pedestal above the realm of cause and effect, far from the messy world of action. I twisted it a little to try and turn the focus on something I think poetry can do that other more public or practical activities (the opposition is often between poetry and political activism) can’t – to make something out of nothing.
Milosz, who is probably more of an influence on that book than Auden is, says in A Treatise on Poetry:
Nothingness is so strong
We try to master it by thinking of the bones
Of pirates, the silky eyebrows of governors
On which the crabs feast.
That’s the crux for me. The possibility of there being nothing there is so awful that we have to fill that void. And when you do fill it you realize that there was something there after all – there really are bones and crabs beneath the sea – and the poetic act of creation finds an analogue in creation itself. The challenge Milosz accepts is to look nihilism and relativism hard in the face (they are the dominant philosophical positions of his and our time) and ultimately come down on the side of existence.
I like Auden but I wonder if sometimes he didn’t slightly shy away from all this. He was a very complicated figure both in his life and his poetry so one can almost certainly find lines that argue the opposite of what I am saying here but I feel there were moments when he put on the mask of the dandy when maybe he should have shouldered responsibilities more straightforwardly. “Poetry makes nothing happen” has a little too much of art for art’s sake for my liking. Poetry can make things happen and, paradoxically enough, one of the things it can shake into life is nothingness itself! You’ve got a book of poems out called Making Bones Walk; it’s a similar idea, right? Using our words to breathe life.
Your poems have a lot of philosophical musings. Did you ever consider philosophy? Is there are somewhat standard personality profile for a poet?
I never considered it as a career but as the previous answer suggest I consider philosophical ideas a fair bit when I’m writing or thinking about writing’s function. Sometimes poems come all at once and you write them down almost without thinking but the other kind of poem – the one you work at – requires a degree of intellectual effort and a degree of reflection that can’t be all that far from what a philosopher does for a living.
Having said that, poems have a physical presence owing to their shape on the page and a sensual presence too thanks to their music; this means that what a poem is saying can be at odds with the way in which it is saying it, and this allows for contradictions and contrapuntal effects that a work of “pure” philosophy would maybe not be able to achieve. When a philosophical poem works it’s better than philosophy. Richer at any rate. A kind of fleshed out philosophy.
Standard personality profile for a poet? Shy. Anxious. Asocial. Depressive. Based on a very small sample I’d say that the assertiveness of writing what you want in the way you want is often counterbalanced by a certain lack of confidence in real life. Sure there are colossal egos out there in the poetry world but I think they often conceal rather fragile people. That’s how it should be, no? When you’re writing poetry, when you’re at the coalface you’re regularly in touch with other writers who are better than you, or with ideas that you only partially understand. That makes (or ought to make) for a certain humility. The better you get the smaller you realize you are.
Your poem “Figs,” plainly states “Today the huge idea of money stopped.” Do you have ideas about what changes you’d like to see in our society and our thinking?
I wrote that poem shortly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and out of a sense that an old paradigm was coming to an end. It’s not really a prescriptive statement, more of an observation so I’d be uncomfortable with predicting the future or laying down the law.
The world of finance is a fascinating one and for all that the two tend to be placed in opposition (the brokers “roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse”) I think it has many parallels with the world of poetry. Take leverage for instance – you’ve got a small sum of money but a big idea so you use that money to borrow more and put your idea in practice. If it works then great, if not you’re bankrupt which is what happened to borrowers (both private individuals and institutions) from Valladolid to Patras, from Akureyri to Skibbereen. It gets lambasted as greed but that initial wish – to achieve something great with limited means, to use an intervention in the present to change the future – is not all that far from the impulse to write.
But although finance is a fascinating way of seeing the world it is not the world itself. No more than poetry or philosophy are. It’s an idea, or what the French would call a système de pensée. But it got so big that people thought it was the thing itself.
Perhaps environmental ideas will take the place of financial ones as the dominant way of seeing the world and understanding our place in it? I’d be happy with that. But whatever comes next, the important thing is to remember that it is contingent and not absolute. No idea, not even the big ones like religion or evolution or money, is adequate to existence.
The chapbook you’ve published has no bio, do you feel it’s best if poets remain anonymous?
I think that was more of an editorial decision on the part of Peter Hughes at Oystercatcher Press. He seems to favour a pretty pared down aesthetic for his books and I don’t believe any of his chapbooks have much in the way of author bios or critical blurbs. Having said that, for quite a while I was into the whole New Critical invisible author thing. I’ve moved away from that a bit and have even started blogging which would have been anathema to me a year or two ago! We’ll all be invisible again once we’re dead but while we’re still around why not have a public presence? Besides who’s got the time to stay invisible in the internet age? Someone’s going to out you sooner or later!
What’s next for you?
I’m currently Acting Poetry Editor for the webzine nthposition while the founding editor, Todd Swift, takes a break to concentrate on his university work. I also help edit a literary magazine here in Paris called Upstairs at Duroc. So those are two ongoing projects. As far as my own writing goes I’m working on a long poem based on Whitman’s “Song of Myself”. I’m about halfway through that and am hoping when it’s finished it will be a book length work. Bits of it have been published online and I just heard recently that a major French poetry festival, the Biennale internationale des poètes en Val de Marne have commissioned a translation of the first eighteen sections.