Suzanne Buffam was born and raised in Canada. Her previous collection of poetry, Past Imperfect, was published by House of Anansi Press, and won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for the best first book of poetry published in Canada that year. She lives in Chicago, and teaches at the University of Chicago. Her new poetry title this year is The Irrationalist.
Alessandro Porco interviewed Suzanne Buffam in August, 2010.
Hi, Suzanne. I’d like to kick off the interview by asking about the book’s title. In the poem “Trying” you provide a gloss on one source for the book’s title: in his Poetics, Aristotle says that “it is exclusively the irrational upon which the wonderful depends for its chief effects.” But it seems there’s something else at work in your own take on the irrational: rather than a condition of exceptionalism, the irrational, as it plays out in your own poems, is kind of ordinary. Could you maybe talk about the title more, and that interplay between poetry, irrationalism, and the ordinary?
Well, I do think Aristotle’s onto something when he points out the uneasy relationship between the faculties of reason and wonder. I just happen to find ordinary things like streetlights and clouds no less wonderful than exceptional things like killing your father and sleeping with your mother. While everything may ultimately boil down to some single, elegant, mathematical equation, there still seems to be an excess of mystery in the universe that can’t be accounted for by reason alone. Poetry, as I see it, is a way of exploring this excess.
As for the title, I’ve been struck by how many reviews so far have pointed to that quote from Aristotle as providing a key to the book’s general stance. It’s understandable, I suppose, given the title, but at the same time I hope to write poems that don’t resolve into paraphrasable maxims. There are lots of quotes from various folks in the book, some quite contradictory with one another, and the book’s title, as I envision it, gives me license to hold conflicting views at once without worrying about whether or not they resolve into any coherent philosophy.
You’re totally right that the book cannot be contained by that single quote — in fact, that’s what motivated my question, as you’re poems continually resist pathologizing the irrational in a way that’s, well, inevitable in Aristotle’s structuralism. So what’s interesting is precisely your swerve away from Aristotle’s definition. Having said that, I do want to push the idea of the ordinary and everyday a little more, but talk about those ideas in terms of form and genre — in particular, the anecdote, which you seem to be the master of inserting at just the right moment and of making matter in unexpected ways. For example, there’s the little tale of Harriet Beecher “on the Tunisian front” in the poem “Placebo”; or, in “Trying”, talk of Schopenhauer’s walks. Can you talk a little about this aspect of your work?
Thank you for swerving away from Aristotle’s structuralism. I’m much more comfortable talking about “the ordinary.” As for anecdotes, I tend to read in a pretty erratic way — say, a book about heaven one week, a book about the concept of zero another—and often what catch my eye and stick in my memory are stories like the ones you mention above. There’s something about little snippets of individual lives –especially the lives of famous or eccentric individuals (lives that otherwise seem so remote) — that contain the texture of lived experience and embody a feeling in a way that no abstract formulation could ever achieve. When I come across something I’m drawn to, even if I don’t know why (and often I don’t), I’ll write it down and carry it around in my notebook until I find the right home for it. This sometimes takes years. The anecdote about Henry Beecher (a distant relative of Harriet’s, as a matter of fact) came from an exhibit I saw about pain at an art gallery in Berlin several years ago. I had no idea where or if or how I’d ever use it, but I found it extremely suggestive, and one day when I was reading William James’ The Will to Believe something clicked and the rest of the poem, “Placebo,” began to constellate. Recently at a reading I gave in Ontario, a woman in the audience pointed out that the poems in my first book are more rich in images than my new poems (and therefore, in her opinion, superior!), and I think she’s probably right — about the images, at any rate. To some extent, it seems that here anecdotes may have replaced images — but perhaps work in similar ways. It may simply boil down to that fundamental principal, “show don’t tell,” that writing teachers are always hammering down. Stories are a way of showing — even when you’re not exactly sure what it is you’re being shown.
Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say a more rich imagery in Past Imperfect automatically renders it superior to The Irrationalist (with all due respect to said audience member). I find the latter— image rich or not— far more compelling than the former, for what it’s worth. Maybe, as you say, anecdotes have replaced images, but I actually think it’s something else: a more cerebral wit (which isn’t to say passionless) takes hold in The Irrationalist, especially in a sequence like “Little Commentaries.” I think that’s the quality I most admire in the collection. Would you agree? And could you talk about “Little Commentaries” a little.
Thanks, Alex. That’s nice of you to say. I don’t feel able to judge the quality of wit in these poems myself, but I’m happy to talk a little about them in practical terms. I wrote them over the course of a few months, usually several a day, on a sort of sabbatical in Mexico, after a long dry spell of not writing much at all. The title had been on my mind for several years — copped from the title of Copernicus’ radical little pamphlet, Commentariolus, a model of intellectual compression in which he lays out an early version of his heliocentric theory of the universe in about forty hand-stitched pages, passed around among his friends. Basically, the aim of this sequence was to compose the most compact, and most surprising, poems possible on a range of topics so vast and various as to demonstrate that, as Copernicus’ theory makes plain, “there is no one center of the universe.”
I’d like to shift gears a little. The Irrationalist is published in American and Canadian editions: the former with Canarium books, the latter with Anansi. There are some textual variations — not in the poems themselves but in the overall presentation (e.g. blurbs, notes). Most notably, each edition has a unique cover. Could you talk about your decision to publish the two editions? I’m especially fascinated by the cover images, each framing one’s reading of the book in a different way.
The decision to publish two editions was based on the fact that I’ve been living in the U.S. for going on seven years now — and therefore feel myself increasingly engaged with the literary community here — and / but still feel very much invested in literary life in Canada as well (I grew up in Vancouver, studied in Victoria and Montreal, and lived for a while in Nova Scotia as well). Unfortunately, unless you are very famous, like, say, Anne Carson or Margaret Atwood, and in spite of considerable in-roads made possible by the internet, the border between the two cultures remains fairly impermeable. This may in part be due to a sort of provincialism that applies on both sides of the border — but I think as likely results from the sheer abundance of presses, large and small, that are publishing poetry these days, and thus the near impossibility of getting one’s bearings in a literary landscape outside of one’s own. My first book, for example — published exclusively by Anansi — received a wide readership and generous reviews in Canada, but was really only read down here by friends or friends of friends. This time around I’ve been lucky to retain my relationship with Anansi — a press I love and respect — while forging a new relationship with an exciting new press, Canarium Books, down here in the States. The two editions contain a number of minor variations — as you point out, there are notes in the Canadian version, and none in the American; the blurbs are different; internal layout is different; there is even one extra poem in the Canarium version; and, of course, the covers are so different they must necessarily inform somewhat different readings of the work inside. Having put the book together from the inside out, though, it’s very hard for me to gage just what these differences might amount to. As much as packaging is important, though, my long-range image of the book consists of torn scraps discovered in the belly of a moose.
Well, thank you, Suzanne, for answering questions about The Irrationalist. To end the interview, I was hoping you could talk a little more about your time living and learning in the United States, as a Canadian — you are, of course, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and currently you teach at the University of Chicago. A few years ago, on a conference panel, I suggested that much Canadian poetry is, in part, produced by way of American institutions, a fact that debunks (or at least upsets) nationalist arguments in favor of a distinctly Canadian aesthetic or phenomenology. (Naturally, the idea wasn’t warmly received — at least not by Canadians, anyway.) But I think your work is a good case-study for what I was describing. Any thoughts? And thanks again for your generous answers!
Well, Emily Dickinson was an American poet who read almost exclusively British writers: Keats, Shakespeare, The King James Bible . . . Did this make her any less American?