“Give Me Both Burdens”: An Interview with Stephen Cushman About the Place of the “Poet-Scholar”

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Stephen Cushman is a man who wears many hats: poet, literary scholar, historian, and teacher. His oeuvre reflects this diversity; he has published six collections of poetry, two books of literary criticism, and two books about the Civil War, and is the general editor of the fourth edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. He is the Robert C. Taylor Professor of English at the University of Virginia and the 2019-20 recipient of the Rogers Distinguished Fellow in 19th-Century American History from the Huntington Library, among other honors. I spoke with him over Zoom about some of these various pursuits and about his forthcoming work, a book of history titled The Generals’ Civil War: What Their Memoirs Can Teach Us Today and a book of poetry titled Keep the Feast.

Emily Grace (E): Speaking generally, your early collections, Blue Pajamas (1998), Cussing Lesson (2002), Heart Island (2006), and Riffraff (2011), are lyric in nature, while your more recent two collections, The Red List (2014) and Hothead (2018), reflect a markedly different formal approach, composed as single poems that push against strict definitions of verse. Will you speak some about these stylistic shifts?

Stephen Cushman (S): Form has always really interested me, and I think of what I do as having come particularly from two teachers with whom I was lucky enough to study: one is A.R. Ammons and the other is John Hollander. They’re very different poets, Ammons looser and Hollander more formal. I always liked thinking of myself as a barbarian among the civilized and civilized among the barbarians, and so whenever it would get to extremes of formalism on the one hand or open form on the other, I would always try to swerve away from the extremes.

What you’re seeing in the move from the four earlier books of shorter things to The Red List is that I got to a point where I just didn’t trust well-wrought, small poems that closed with a snap. It started to feel too neat, too pat, too predictable, too formulaic, too much like here is the punchline. The one task I set myself when I sat down with The Red List—which I started in August 2011—was to fend off easy closure: the whole thing about I’ve gotta write a poem a day or I’ve gotta write a poem a week or I haven’t written a poem in two weeks so I better crank one out so that I can say that I have. I just tried to avoid all of that and give my inner censor the slip by working in a kind of rhythmic self-hypnosis.

What started to become interesting to me was autofill—you know on our computers when you start to type something and it fills in—and I feel as though I discovered an analogue of that for myself. If I had my pulse in a certain rhythm, things would start presenting themselves that fit rhythmically that I didn’t consciously sync up. Each day, I would sit down in the morning, pick up where I left off (often midline), and try to enter that state of rhythmic propulsion. I would just go for a certain number of hours a day and then stop and pick it up again without overthinking the design. There’s a sentence I love from Emerson in Self-Reliance that says, “Let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not, and see it not.” I just had faith in this particular ten-month poem that if I kept putting out the stuff with one part of my brain, then with the other part I could go back and see the turns with a cold revisionary eye, working to bring them forward or push them back with a secondary stage of shaping.

E: And is that process different with your shorter poetry? Do you still have that secondary stage of shaping, or is the editing process less intensive?

S: I just started a new poem yesterday, a short poem. The hard day is day one when you’re throwing a lot of things on a piece of paper or a screen and just hoping for a first line. The great pleasure is day two when you already have something to go into. For me, in shorter forms, the composer and the reviser are less separated in time. I’m redoing as I go, and so I can be sure in a short poem that it’s getting somewhere. The thing about poems is for every “A” poem you write, there’s an “A-” or “B+” that is almost there, but never quite successfully brought off. At least there aren’t that many Fs anymore.

E: The poems that are published alongside this interview return to those shorter forms. However, when comparing them to your earlier short poetry, these new poems seem to be more comfortable with ambiguity, and the meaning at the end—the twist or “the gotcha”—is not quite as sure as in some of the earlier poems. Will you speak to that difference?

S: The first thing I’ll say is bless you and thank you for saying that, because I hope that’s true. I would say that’s a function of fifty years of writing, and I think I have more and more faith that the few people who are going to take the trouble to read these poems are probably pretty good readers. I don’t have to supervise them, and I probably never did. I feel, and I think we all feel, that there’s enough ambient urgency, anxiety, and discomfort that it’s not up to me to activate it; you’ll bring your own to the reading. For me, I look more and more for indirection, obliqueness, understatement, and humor. You know, humor doesn’t get a lot of points in contemporary poetry, but I’m big on it. It’s not my sole model, but stand-up comedy is interesting. You just start, “you know, one day I was talking to Emily on Zoom” and this leads to that, and that leads to that, and then suddenly you’re somewhere you weren’t when you started. I like that model a lot: start casual and then take it in a strange direction.

E: To follow up on your writing process, then, it seems that a great deal of your shorter work starts with that moment and then branches out from it. This is perhaps how a great deal of poetry goes: you start from a moment and you see where it leads. For you, what is the process of looking at this seed or this moment and giving it the room to grow into a full poem?

S: I think I should just acknowledge that there’s a lot of poetry that doesn’t go that way, poetry that starts with an idea: Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, starts every chapter with the argument. Obviously I’m not trying to compare anything I do with Milton’s work, but there are people who have that mindset and start with the idea first. You sometimes talk to younger people about their poems, and they’ll say something like, “what I was trying to say was…” That’s an idea that’s foreign to me, though.

Anyway, the great enemy for me now is self-imitation. I could write a poem about my backyard  at the drop of a hat: the cicadas are whirring and it’s the dog days of summer and the grass is burnt, and then I’d think of something figurative for which it all could stand, and then there it is. I’ve written a lot of poems like that. Now the process begins with the sensation of being surprised by something, ambushed by something. One example is the very pandemic poem, “Spitting Distance.” I was teaching in person, and we weren’t yet vaccinated. Weekly, UVA would file us into a parking garage which was open and we’d go through the line for COVID-19 tests.  The scene was strangely clinical—six feet apart and everybody standing in a separate parking space—and yet strangely intimate. Everybody is trying to salivate, complete with all the implications thereof. I think I know there’s a poem available when there’s a kind of overlay or double exposure, something literal in the present or past or future that is both itself and more than itself. Then it’s just a matter of probing it. The literal details of a scene like that—all the people doing the testing and staying up all night in the lab—become endlessly suggestive.

I really think that’s all a hangover from the long poems. In my earlier poems, I was always trying to find the metaphor, and that’s why sometimes they have that snap of closure. What I found in writing the long poems is the power of metonymy: things leading into each other by proximity or association or contiguity, until suddenly we’re not in Kansas anymore; something has happened. As a poet, I have come to enjoy metonymy a lot. For example, the poem I started yesterday—which may fail, may be a “B+”—has for its ingredients the sunsets that are hazy because of the fires out West, a problem I’m having with my left Achilles tendon, and a strange discovery in genealogy of a four times great-grandfather who did some interesting things. I’ve put all those things together, and I have no idea what’s going to happen or if the poem will work. The hope is to find connection, and I think there probably will be connection. Here’s the question: is mere juxtaposition of two things already connection? To what extent do you have to induce connection between two things, and to what extent can you just put them side by side and imply or witness?

E: You mentioned that your new poem pulls from a genealogical relation, and so I’m curious: with all the history you use in your poetry, do you ever find that historical veracity is in contrast with poetic eloquence?

S: That’s a really interesting question. On the macro level, if there’s a historical event I’m interested in, it’s because it already has poetic possibilities. On the micro level, I’ll often change specific details like numbers or days of the week for the benefit of the sound. For example, Kennedy’s assassination is now sixty years old, but in “Dealey Plaza, November Again,” I have it as fifty. If I said sixty, there’d be too many sixes in the poem: it’s the sixth story and the kid is six. It just had to be fifty. So I lie!

E: I don’t think it’s “a lie” per se, but, to clarify, the sound dictates some of these choices you make?

S: Yes. There was a wonderful poet and friend, Claudia Emerson, who used to say to her students, “I don’t care what the truth is; I want to know what the poem is.” I think that’s a real wake-up. Don’t overwhelm me with the details and the truth; I want something that I can sing in my head. If you have to fiddle with stuff to make it so, that’s okay.

E: Now I want to pivot our discussion away from strictly poetry to speak about some of your other work. Do you find that there are intersections in your work as a critic and historian and your work as a poet? If there are overlaps, where do they fall?

S: To return to my earlier formulation: among critics, I get uncomfortable and want to feel like a poet, and among poets, I get uncomfortable and want to feel a little more critical. We have the weird, hyphenated epithet “poet-scholar” which always makes me feel a little strange, as if I’m not very good at either one. To me, the two feel very much like our two eyes, one a little farsighted and one a little nearsighted, but both necessary. When I was in graduate school, the great discipline was reserving at least one day or one morning for my own poems. It was a matter of trying to keep the faucet dripping so it didn’t freeze, but since then, I’ve always kept the criticism and the poetry going together.

Now, history is about seeing things in three dimensions—actually, let’s say four, with time being the fourth. We use the word “presentist” to mean people who think that the present moment is the measure of all things. I’ve never had that. I’ve always felt that everything is a little populated by ghosts, whether it’s a landscape or a building or a book in the library that other people have taken out. Everything seems to want to speak to its place in time. If you start to look into the history, is that research? Is that scholarship? If I become interested in genealogy or prevalence testing for a poem and want to learn about the topic, I have this great machine to help me do so. Is that research? Is that scholarship? They all go together.

Of course, there are divergences, like when you hear somebody give a scholarly paper and it contains no word with fewer than five syllables. That’s different from a good poem. But you don’t have to write scholarship that sounds like that; you can write more simply. And conversely, you don’t have to write poems that are monosyllabic. We have great examples in the work of Wallace Stevens or A.R. Ammons, whom I mentioned before. There are all kinds of people who use the full range of diction. For example, I’m teaching a new course that I’m calling American Wild, and it’s about how we got to this environmental moment based on the ways Americans of all kinds have talked about the natural world. I’ve put an essay by Robin Wall Kimmerer on my syllabus. She’s Native American, studying the language of Potawatomi. Potawatomi is 70% verbs; our language is 30% verbs. What would it be like to see the world through a language that is 70% verbs? If that’s not poetic, what is poetic? That’s about as poetic as it gets. Her work and how I’m using it in the course exemplify how poetry, history, and scholarship can work like a chord on piano: three things that all resonate with one sound.

E: To add a fourth note to this chord, I want to address the work you did with Hemingway, the docuseries by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. What was it like to place your scholarship on Hemingway in concert with a medium that reaches a broader audience than students or other scholars?

S: That experience was a real eye-opener. We don’t have TV, so I didn’t see the film until Florentine Films sent me a DVD. However, I got emails from people I knew, from people I hadn’t heard from in decades, and from people I had never heard from before, and I suddenly thought woah, so this is what it’s like to have an audience. That’s never been the case before with my poetry or scholarship—my inbox isn’t blowing up with people writing to me about stuff. It was surreal. It was also my way of confirming my sense of a new medium that reached a lot of people. A lot of people watch television.

Now, if you put together everything I said in the film, it amounts to ninety seconds—two minutes, maybe—that came out of a three-hour interview. When I finally met Ken Burns in a session of all the advisers, it became apparent to me that what I was furnishing was pigment for his palette. I don’t feel that I had a lot of authorial control; I was providing material. It’s pretty obvious from the way I appear that I serve a particular function, which is to talk about the books and the early part of his life. All that said, it was tremendously exciting, and I loved every bit of that project.

E: You said you spoke for three hours, even though they only used a few minutes of your content in the final product. When you were deciding what to focus on from Hemingway’s life and work, how did you prepare?

S: I was invited to Washington, D.C., and we met in the Women’s National Democratic Club. There was a camera crew there that consisted of four people plus Lynn Novik, a former student of mine who was my entrée into the project. Before we met, I had read or reread all of Hemingway’s books, and it was basically like my Ph.D. orals again. They would say, “Okay, In Our Time,” and I would talk about it, and then they would stop me, powder my face, and say, “Okay, The Sun Also Rises.” All of the fluidity comes after; they’re so good at massaging different parts, at taking the reams of material from all the talking heads and piecing it together. They’re making a poem. When we were watching a rough cut in Walpole, the one conversation that Burns and I got into was about rhythm. Really, that’s what filmmaking is, that’s what poetry is, that’s what teaching is, and that’s what scholarship is: rhythm. Rhythm just means flow. That’s all it is. If you can keep that going, keep moving people forward, you have a chance of being successful.

E: So then the trick is finding what the links are, what the connections are, to keep people moving.

S: Yes, but the trick is also not overstating them and not managing your reader’s point of view too much. This turns us back to Hemingway. In many ways, Hemingway was a terrible person with a terrible life, but what you can’t argue with is that the young Hemingway discovered the craft of leaving things out. That’s what we’re up against too; how much of the old lady on the street and the tree turning autumnal colors do you have to put in to make that take shape? When have you put too much in?

E: Now this next question is a little different, and pulls from your book Belligerent Muse, in which you discuss how the writings of major Civil War figures influence our understanding of the conflict today. In your chapter on Lincoln, you write that “it cannot be the issues alone that keep us reading and reciting the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural, and to admit this conclusion enables us to raise another question[…]: What is the political or social function of eloquence?” Do you have an answer to this question when considering the current literary and critical climate and its often necessary intersection with politics?

S: I’ll creep up on it; that book was published in 2014. In 2016, we had a presidential election. Among other things, I would say that the presidential election has forever changed my attitude toward what I would call eloquence. Where does eloquence become coercive, bludgeoning repetition? The apex of eloquence from the presidency was Lincoln, and the nadir of eloquence from the presidency was our recently departed. Strangely, his verbal behavior has been just as effective among his people as Lincoln’s was in its way, so I had to rethink a lot. With Twitter and things like it, eloquence has been demonized. It’s very much distrusted and associated with elitism. Now, I would say that the political function of eloquence, or the political result of eloquence, is that you’ll lose a lot of people; you’ll lose at least a third of the electorate for sounding eloquent.

E: Thank you. I know it’s a potential minefield of a question, but the quote stood out to me when I read it, and I wanted to know how you thought about it seven years later.

S:  I would elaborate and say that eloquence was a political value through JFK and Robert Kennedy. I often teach the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., and he is eloquence. When you read King, what you realize is that the political function of eloquence is emotional engagement. Eloquence is to sweep you up and give you courage or inspiration or connection with the people around you. It’s very much a 19th- century American value. It’s a 20th-century value through the 60s, and then I think it tailed off. Eloquence is now suspect. Would you say that? If you turn on a speech and there are a lot of rolling sonorities, don’t you get a little nervous?

E: I think perhaps you wonder what you’re missing, or if the sound is hiding meaning somehow.

S: Right. The sound is hiding something. In the 19th century, I think the assumption was that the sound was enhancing something, reflecting and augmenting it. Now, I think you’re quite right, and this change could be the rise of advertising perhaps, but something makes us suspicious of a good sound. It’s also a problem for poets.

E:  Will you elaborate on that thought?

S:  I’ll give you a perfect example: we were driving home the other day, and Dylan Thomas came on the car radio. I love Dylan Thomas, but as I listened to the poem (and not a particularly well-known one, at that), I began to think this is just sound; this is somebody with a really ferocious sweet tooth for assonance and rhyme and alliteration. Once I took away all the sounds, I wasn’t really sure what was there. I think that can be dangerous. On the one hand, a poem is not a news broadcast with frills, right? You don’t want to feel that a poem is like a sandwich in a disposable container where you throw away the container to get to the sandwich. On the other hand, however, a poem isn’t just sound; it’s a strange cocktail of some sound and some sense. How you shake those up and serve them is what poets are involved in. Do you ever get suspicious of yourself? I now find myself sometimes muting sound effects, that the chiming between two words is too loud.

E: I think that’s true, and perhaps that’s why we’re so distrustful of rhyme.

S:  Well, here are some numbers for you: there are around 500,000 words in the English language and only 40-something phonemes. If you divide 40-something into 500,000, there’s no escape from rhyme and phonemic repetition. What we must decide, then, is how much we can have, or where we can place it. Where do you bring sound out and where do you push it back?

E: And you’ve found that these decisions in your work have changed over time, that you’re now muting yourself more than you used to?

S: My longer two long poems are extravagant in sound. They’re just sound circuses, and that was part of the project. Now, I’m trying to take that down a notch, but I don’t want it to go flat either. That’s the downside of Hemingway in prose or William Carlos Williams in poetry: they get so flat and the champagne loses its bubbles.

E: And you miss the music of the language.

S: You miss the music, and there’s got to be some.

E: I want to talk about some of the work you have forthcoming. The Generals’ Civil War: What Their Memoirs Can Teach Us Today is out in September with the University of North Carolina Press. What were your goals in writing the book?

S: That book emerged over about seven years, beginning, as so many books do, with requests for lectures or essays. I found myself becoming very interested in the ways in which historians of the Civil War read those 19th-century memoirs as documentary evidence, and literature people read them (if they read them, and perhaps then, they only read Ulysses S. Grant’s) as literary performances. This is turning out to be a theme of this interview, but I didn’t want to be either one. I feel that the literary people I’m around aren’t respectful enough of facts, records, and documents, and I feel that the historical people I’m around don’t know how to interpret language for a book like Grant’s personal memoirs. When he wrote it, there wasn’t a category for American Literature in the Library of Congress; he was writing in a new form that we might call creative nonfiction today. I became very interested in the ways in which, following the war, the publishing industry and literacy boomed, the American Library Association was established, the American Historical Association was established, and the Modern Language Association was established.

As these big memoirs came out, they were both products and shapers of a memory market. I’m interested in how you go from books like that at the end of the 19th century to the memoirs published by ex-presidents or former leaders today. They seem to be completely normal and inevitable now, but the practice didn’t really start until the end of the 19th century. Why do we seem to have a market for personal takes on public events? When did that become an assumed package? That’s true for Mr. Obama’s memoir all the way down to microblogging. We shouldn’t care what somebody is tweeting about the latest event. And yet we do! It has to do with the history of the first-person in narrative that, thanks to Romanticism and lots of other things, has become downloaded and installed in the American public appetite.

E: You also have a book of poetry titled Keep the Feast that will come out in 2022. Will you speak about what we can expect from the collection?

S: The book is in three parts. The center part, “Keep the Feast,” is an adaptation of Psalm 119. The psalm is an acrostic in Hebrew, and so my poem is an acrostic as well, albeit in English. Largely, this center part is an attempt to adapt the celebration in Psalm 119 into vernacular archaic, or archaic vernacular, and to talk about faith and belief in explicitly physical terms. It’s surrounded by roughly twenty short poems on either side, some of which are published here.

E: So it brings the long and short forms together and, as we talked about earlier, juxtaposes them to see what happens.

S: Yes, exactly. For example, on the one hand, you have the Mahabharata which is over 100,000 verses, and on the other hand, you have the single syllable Om. Everything we are going to do will fall somewhere between those. How far can you go from Om before you lose the power of Om? We want plenitude and resonance, but how and when do you start to scatter these, or lose people’s attention? Keep the Feast is an attempt to have it both ways.

E: Thank you, Steve, for your thoughts here. It has been a pleasure to discuss your work, and I can’t wait to read what you have to say to us in the future.