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Friday, July 16, 2010

Interview with poet Crag Hill on his book 7x7

Crag Hill's 7x7 is a book of poems with each poem given the title of  a card from the traditional playing deck. He makes use of a lot of randomness and quotation, as he will make clear below. Also, the book was written in 2003 and concerns itself with the early years of the George W. Bush presidency.

1. Is this the first time the whole collection has been published? I had no idea when I read this book that it was written in 2003. I thought that it was written recently and it was looking back on the past decade. I find this impressive: Your commentary on a specific political moment has some staying power beyond that time. What strikes you when looking back at them now? Do you see them as a type of political poem?

Yes, this is the first time this series of poems, composed in 2003, has been published in its entirety. I had been holding out, looking for a publisher who could print them on 8 1/2 x 11 playing cards in an 8 1/2 x 11 box (with rounded corners no less). As they appear in this book from Otoliths, they are in the order of composition, the year 2003 unfolding chronologically as it were. I'd like for the reader to be able to shuffle that chronology, seeing what happens, for example, when all the Kings and Jacks are juxtaposed. I'd like to subvert the notion of chronology itself-as if any present can be experienced without the past or future breaking into/through its chronic/logic.

The poems in 7 x 7 are first and foremost political poems, even if they may not have started out that way. I knew that in 2003 Cheney-Bush would invade Iraq (many of us knew that on 9/11); Colin Powell had already given his bogus presentation to the U.N. to gain international support (which never materialized the way it had for Afghanistan). Simply put, the 7 x 7 project was designed to keep me writing everyday (difficult to do then as a classroom teacher), envisioned as a daybook with Oulipian constraints (each stanza constitutes a day in a week in the year), cutting across what I was reading, seeing/hearing on radio and television, what I was thinking and writing in prose and poetry, the poems as documentation of what was happening within/without the spheres of my attention/s.

I'm gratified you find that the political moments have staying power; I worried that not getting 7 x 7 out while Cheney-Bush was in office would diminish the impact of the poems, our short public memory disappearing the references (the risk all political poetry takes, events receding into cultural obsolescence). Alas, our continued involvement in two wars keeps the poems pumped up with relevance.

I am struck by how much of my attention was consumed by the war that should never have been (which, of course, could never compare to the time and energy and turmoil of those who served in Iraq or those who lost loved ones). I wish I could have found something to do about it but fume and fester and write. If this is a daybook, I'm struck by how little of my domestic life entered these poems-my family, my travel, my job teaching high school English, my own study working toward another degree. Yet my reading-news, fiction, poetry, lit crit, my own notebooks-glares through.

2. [Please refer to these poems as they were published in the net journal "Hamilton Stone" throughout the rest of the interview.] All the poems in 7x7 take their name from a card from a standard playing deck. How does this randomness fit with the formal discontinuities in other parts of the poems?

I cannot recall if I chose playing cards to title the poems before or after other aspects of the project in place (ultimately each title corresponded to the card I slid from the diminishing deck). One of the 7s in 7 x 7 represents the number of days in a week. Thus the first day of the week has one line, the second day two lines, etc. (I have used the seven days of the week before-see The Week, The Runaway Spoon Press, 1991-to structure a writing project). The other 7 denotes the number of different sources I worked with to write the content of each stanza. I used seven playing cards to select each source for the day. If I pulled an Ace from the short stack, I selected from poetry in my notebook. For a 2, I selected prose from my notebook. With a 3, I chose a quote from a book I was reading. With a 4, I rewrote a passage from a book I was reading, changing the sense while retaining as much of the sound as I could. Drawing a 5, I quoted news from the internet or magazines (primarily Newsweek). With a 6, I quoted from a newspaper (most commonly The Moscow-Pullman Daily News, circulation 8000). Pulling out a 7, I quoted-or slightly misquoted/misheard-television and radio programs. For instance, in "Queen of Hearts," the first line is a taken from a prose passage in my notebook about Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. The next two lines are quotations from a political news show. The next three lines are a rewriting of a passage from something I was reading (I didn't keep a record of these texts). The next four lines are a poetry excerpt taken from my notebook, a poem written on a drive across Montana to visit family in Wisconsin. For the next five lines I again drew an Ace and excerpted from a poem based on a dream. The last two stanzas are direct quotations from my reading (direct quotations of text are marked by italics).

In short, the procedures were deployed to create discontinuities, to disrupt the recursiveness of my writing process. I wanted the language material around me to construct its own meanings with as little "supervision" from me as possible. As a teenager I was struck by Lautreamont's chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissection table. Though much of surrealism has been rendered cliché, there's still much to be gained from these unintentional juxtapositions. Since, I have endeavored to make possible as many impossible encounters as I can, making volatile neighbors of Fox News and MSNBC, of fiction and poetry, philosophy and trivia.

I'd argue that this isn't random randomness, chance for chance's sake. The world's quick and immense, impossible to encompass or comprehend; chance procedures can bring order to chaos (and chaos to order), although it may not always appear to be so on the surface.

3. How does the italics work with and against the standard font?

The italics, as I mentioned above, mark quotations from books I was reading. In a future edition, I'd like to take this marking a step further, making the font uniform for each of the seven sources, e.g. Cambria for quoted poetry from my notebook, Arial for prose, Times New Roman for quotations taken from my reading, etc. That would add texture to the poems and enhance the intertextual readings between the poems, between sections (the collection could be read through selections of my notebook, poetry and prose, excerpts from my reading rather than beginning of poem to end-the series of poems then becomes one poem with many interconnected strands).

4. Are there chance operations or collage elements in the poems other than the deck of cards?

Answered in #2?

5. Do you consider George W. Bush a work of randomness itself, and is this an ode to his Presidency and his time in office?

I wish George W. was a work of randomness. Alas, George had too many people pulling his strings to be random, the ultimate puppet, a wooden creature with no original thought. There are many painful things about 9/11, one of them being that that event reassured his re-election (as a 16 year old student I had in Republican-swarmed Idaho predicted that very same day). The U.S. would have backed any sitting President at that time; patriotic fervor comes with its own peculiar blinders. Bush was in the right place at the time but was he the right person to respond to such a cataclysm? Time-7 x 7 as an anti-ode-answers in the negative.

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