Interviews

Knocking Poetry Off Its Pedestal in “The Math Campers”

A review of Dan Chiasson's new book, "The Math Campers."

An extraordinary, often mesmerizing engagement with the nature of identity and other existential trappings, The Math Campers, Dan Chiasson’s new collection of poetry, is a meta-kaleidoscope of literature and literary influence. A geometric swirl of the many faces of the author’s family and friends (particularly his teenage sons), it is colored and blended by the joy as well as confusion that accrues over our scarcely understandable stretch of time. At its core, the book explores this lack of true comprehension: the cognitive difficulties inherent in our varying ideas of meaning, and ultimately, the sincerity — certainly, not the value — of the poetic act itself. It was my great pleasure to interview Wellesley College professor and New Yorker poetry critic Dan Chiasson to put questions to him regarding his latest offering.

Ryan Asmussen

How do you see Campers in line with your previous work? Do you see it as a departure from your prior concerns? Or does it fit more snugly into existing preoccupations?

Dan Chiasson

There’s a lot of Vermont in it! But, honestly, when I think about what I’d like to do with my work, it has a lot to do with conjuring the spirit of a time and place. In that way, it’s entirely in line with my earlier work. But, in every meaningful sense, it’s a departure, as I hope were previous books of mine. I heard a different music. Antiphonal, voices in my head, the sound of someone asking questions, the sound of someone answering, the ambient sounds of crowds, children, overheard voices.

Also, the news. For the last four years I’ve been living in the front of my mind, consuming information, riding the day not as a sequence of hours but as an unpredictably timed series of spasms of information, “Breaking News,” and I wanted to find a way to represent that experience. That very unpleasant experience, of living in news time, anxious for the next dopamine explosion from the Mueller investigation or Ukraine or whatever the press is bringing to light. But also, to burrow into my mind and understand the rhythms of the seasons, the year, dreams, the ways I’m living, often, in my distant past, even as time marches on. 

Ryan Asmussen

The sense of the dream, the texture of them, even, predominates, weaves a spell around the more literal proceedings. How tricky was it for you to work the book’s overarching structure?

Dan Chiasson

That’s great! One model I had was the nested dream, where one level of dreaming is marked “dream” and the other “reality,” although, of course, they’re both dreams. I wanted a book in which a “poem” was revealed through all the stages of its life, from the initial inklings, dreams, hunches, false starts, drafts, to the “finished” and published poem. But, then, most important for me, how the poem passes into a reader’s hands, her mind, her moral and imaginative worlds. That process where a poem takes shape in the reader’s life, quite apart from what the poet intended, fascinates me. I needed the book as a whole to feel, also, “unfinished.” There are gaps, missing footage, moments where we seem to fast forward or where there’s some footage spliced out. So the book begins with unfinished poems confided to a stranger, and ends with something already in the world, but, to me, to the author, still larval. 

Ryan Asmussen

This life-and-death-ness of poetry isn’t unthinkingly, sentimentally embraced or glorified by you but, really questioned rigorously. Philosopher Stanley Cavell’s essay “Must We Mean What We Say” — for my money one of the most intriguingly-titled pieces of writing ever — lies heavily over the proceedings. Could you share a bit about how Cavell’s lessons in linguistic ambiguity relate to your book? One of your collection’s long poems, one in “four phases,” as you write, is given this title.

Dan Chiasson

Cavell means so much to me, especially his book Senses of Walden, his work on Shakespeare, and his writing on Hollywood films. I used to talk to him in Cambridge, though I never took a class with him. He was an incredibly gregarious man, just as was, they say, William James (who Cavell revered, and in some ways emulated). So the first thing was just to pay tribute to the body in the world that corresponded to that mind so richly and generously and unguardedly in the world. It’s hard for me to say what I mean by “Must We Mean What We Say.” That’s either an annoying dodge or an insight. I knew I wanted a title that referred to layers of communication. I knew I wanted to cue the poems in the book as both completely sincere and also devious, duplicitous. I wondered, for poetry, what Cavell wonders for philosophical claims: what sort of covenant is a poem? Surely not some promise only to say what’s true. Not, even, to say what is felt to be true.

Ryan Asmussen

Taking a nod from your epigraph from Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, let me ask: is the inner self, as you understand it, naturally a concealer? Do you feel it’s primarily concerned with keeping itself out of the heavy lifting of the conscious mind, the willingly presentational of the everyday? What role does it play?

Dan Chiasson

Everyone loves being confided in. I thought if I could make my poems feel like intimately shared secrets, they’d be that much more powerful. And everyone loves eavesdropping. So, for much of this book we’re peering into a secret relationship between strangers, one of them sending poems, the other receiving, mulling, processing. I hope that makes the book feel somewhat illicit. 

Ryan Asmussen

Is it the “enormity of time,” as one poem suggests, that compels us to discover the truth of our lives through symbology? The symbols of the “drone, the GPS, and the buoys” appear to your poet’s pen pal as ways of “understanding.” Is it our comparable slightness in the face of this infinite stretch that does it?

Dan Chiasson

Yes, these three ways of turning time and space into shaped entities do turn up in a number of poems. And you’re exactly right, they build phases into eternity, they give direction and position, they estrange the familiar (as when a drone you’re flying shows you yourself flying it, from far above, looking tiny against the landscape) or familiarize the strange (as when a GPS prophecies the existence of a cop, or a broken down car, up ahead on the road, which also means, in the future).

Ryan Asmussen

At this point in the interview, a non-reader of Campers might perhaps get the impression that your collection is a rather ‘serious’ undertaking. She may be surprised to learn, however, that the song “Crazy Train,” the Peanuts gang, Paulina Porizkova, and a Louis Quatorze gilt dildo make an appearance between its covers. Not to mention that, although “East Coker” is present, Eliot’s second section of Four Quartets (another long poem in four “phases”!) is in the form of cassette tape. In actual fact, irony rip-snorts its way throughout the book. How is humor important for you as artistic communication?

Dan Chiasson

The key thing is not to be boring. I hope that doesn’t sound craven. Being funny is one way to keep the poems interesting. Also, to minimize or ironize their grandiosity, which does exist, there are many poems aiming for something transcendent, frightening, obliterating. What’s funny is often what’s humiliating or absurd. The final image in the title poem is of an an astronaut beating off at the sight, out his capsule window, of the earth. He’s sick of the universe, he misses people. Any port in a storm!

One thing I wanted to do in this book was topple poetry off of its pedestal. That’s why all the draft material, unfinished stuff, blanks, lines marked as inaudible. This is, I hope, a politics. I was conscious of my own forms of privilege, and how white men have written about their lives as though theirs was the fundamental and representative experience. Inwardness itself, if handled or presented wrong, feels manipulative. I kept trying (I hope I’ve done this in all my books) to stifle that “universalizing” rhetoric, displace it, make myself, my experiences, my traumas, seem kind of puny in relation to the suffering of the world. 

Ryan Asmussen

Tell us about poet Frank Bidart, your “friend, colleague, and mentor” to whom this work is dedicated.

Dan Chiasson

Frank and I have been friends since 1997, when I audited his classes at Wellesley. For years he read my work before anybody did and was very candid with me. That’s the most straightforward answer.

The second answer has to do with the majesty, the ferocity, of the work and the kindness, the empathy, of the person. I taught a course on Frank’s work, and many of my students had learned from him as well, but many of those who knew him did not know how uncompromising, addled, serious, violent, enormous, learned, passionate — I could go on — his work was. Frank is sometimes seen as a kind of recluse, but in fact he taught me how to be in the world.

The third answer has to do with time. I remember visiting his apartment, early in our relationship, to drop off some poems. His mailbox in Cambridge had a small slip of paper taped to it, reading “Lowell,” from a period twenty-five years earlier when Robert Lowell stayed with him. Now, twenty five years later, I can see easily how such a trace would only gather in power and a kind of weird cosmic intimacy. And so one of the strains in the book has me in James Merrill’s apartment in Stonington, CT, where I lived for a few weeks as the Merrill Apartment’s writer in residence. There on the shelves were a number of Frank’s books, inscribed to Merrill, who clearly treasured them. There’s a real transcript in the book of the emails sent back and forth between me and Frank that night. These are the kinds of wormholes in time where I station my book, where I feel as though I’ve accidentally strayed into the past or welcomed some herald from the past into my life.

Ryan Asmussen

What risks do you feel you run, if any, being a poet as well as a critic of poetry? When I think of you I think also of Randall Jarrell who managed to do both exceedingly well. But there must occasionally hover some doubts, no? Something along the lines of robbing Peter to pay Paul?

Dan Chiasson

I’m so flattered to be compared to Jarrell. He’s the gold standard. Poet/critics are often mediocre at both, as though some finite quotient of talent had been divvied up. But, I won’t be a poetry critic forever. I’ll write other prose things. I’m conscious of taking up space, and listening, very hard, for signs I’ve taken up too much, or need to move on. I’m nearly fifty. It’s too old. You get stodgy, defensive. It’s natural to begin to distrust the new. I would never say, I won’t be a poet forever. Or, that I will stop writing prose. But, poetry critic is one mode of voice, one application of passion and learning, that I could easily retire. Poetry, on the other hand, accommodates every change of life, mind, and situation. It often grows precisely when it’s renounced.

POETRY
The Math Campers
By Dan Chiasson
Knopf
Published September 22, 2020

RYAN ASMUSSEN is a writer and educator. He has published criticism in The Review Review and the film journal Kabinet, journalism in Bostonia and other Boston University publications, and two short stories in the Harvard Summer Review. His poetry has been published in The Newport Review, The Broad River Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Compass Rose, and Mandala Journal. Having earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Boston University, he is now pursuing a master’s in creative writing and literature from Harvard Extension School.

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