I N T E R V I E W S
Inverted Syntax’s Editorial Assistant Allissa Hertz has an inspiring chat with the poet Eric Baus about his writing practice.
How long have you been writing and how have you maintained your enthusiasm during times of doubt and frustration?
I originally thought of myself as a fiction writer, but I ended up liking the poetry teachers that I had and being more interested in what you could do at a smaller scale. I was good at zeroing in on fleeting impressions and assembling them together. Poetry was closer to how my brain naturally functions and how I made sense of the world.
I would say I wrote my first poems that I would consider readable around 1994 or 1995. One of them is in my first book of poems that was published in 2004. It doesn’t seem significantly different from some of the other poems, but I wrote one pretty good poem in 1994 and a whole bunch of crappy poems in 1994-1998. Then, something happened (I think it mainly had to do with reading more and more poetry) where I figured out how to write more poems that I was happy about.
The times that I got frustrated were the times when I wasn’t writing, which was often after I felt like I had completed something or after I felt like if I kept moving in the same direction I was repeating myself. Rather than beat myself up about it, I would just read. It was like I had to fill up my brain with books. I had to read eight or 10 books that I was excited about. I wouldn’t even think about writing. At a certain point I would figure out what the next thing was.
The things that were positive and were validating have always arrived at the right time for me. I certainly wanted to have a first book for a couple years before I had one, but thankfully the timing worked out and the book came out when I was ready. I’m not really someone who struggles with feeling bad about myself if I don’t write. Listening and reading are the things that make me most excited about writing. Sometimes you think you’re done with it, like you’ve cracked it, like I know how to do this and it’s just going to be easy from here on out, but I don’t think that state ever really arrives, or it doesn’t arrive in the ways that you would hope it will arrive, or it’s fleeting. I feel much more relaxed in the process of writing now. I think if I can surprise myself that helps.
The other thing that I do is cut-ups and processes. That’s something that I would do in addition to reading. I would cut up my previous work and combine it with other things that I had written. If I felt like I had exhausted the language or the style that I was writing in, I would try to disrupt it in a low-stakes way. I would watch a movie, print out a bunch of cut-ups of my poems that I had arranged on my computer, and then go through and circle interesting sentences. You have a low return on that process, so I might get a decent one-page poem every couple hours of writing, but that changed how I thought about composition.
There was a certain point where I was able to write to surprise myself, but without using as many techniques. I feel like I was changed by doing a lot of processes all the time. I thought more like a cut-up. A while ago I had cut up one of my manuscripts. I had my name in the title and my address on the first page of the manuscript. I did this cut-up where I smashed together all the different language from the manuscript, put it into columns, alphabetized it, randomized it, and tried to make it unfamiliar to myself. One of the cut-ups that came out was “Eric Baus is a result.” That’s actually kind of the closest thing I have to a poetics. It’s not that my writing is a result of my personality and my feelings so much as a lot of my personality and my feelings are the result of being a person who engages with language in this really precise, intimate way over large patches of time. It’s a reversal of those terms.
You listen to a lot of audio recordings of poetry. When do you find time to do this? Is the experience the same for you as reading or do you use this as a soundtrack to daily life?
Over the years the answer to that question has changed. I first started listening to poetry seriously in the late 90s before broadband internet, archives like PennSound, and before YouTube, so I would get cassettes from the library of canonical figures like William Carlos Williams or I would watch video cassettes of people. There was something about spending a lot of time with someone’s voice and the intimacy of that. I understood the books from the inside out, from a granular perspective. It was like reading a book letter by letter or listening to someone’s voice and hearing every small change in it. It tuned me in to an intimate scale of things and made me pay attention to small shifts in sound.
I wouldn’t say that reading a book and listening are opposed. They affect your body a little bit differently. Listening made it feel like I was hearing with my body and with — not just my ears — but with my lungs, because you can feel how the emotions that you’re feeling change your own breathing. I felt acted upon by the language in a way that was useful to me.
In the 2000s, more stuff started popping up online and I started getting involved in recording and archiving things. I felt like I had been living on the moon doing this weird thing with almost all my free time for years and then I just turned my head and there were thousands of other people who were interested in that kind of experience too. I still think that it’s a huge part of how I write and how I think about poetry. Before PennSound came out, you could have the illusion that you’d heard a lot of what was on the internet. In 2018 it’s this exponentially different universe of language where I can listen to William Carlos Williams or Fred Moten or reading the same poem in three different places.
Now I’m pretty casual about how I listen. I’ll put something on and do the dishes and see what comes back to me. If I listen to something four or five times, what are the patterns that I notice? I like settling into something and listening to a whole album or just picking something up and trying it out knowing that I have a certain kind of attraction to this kind of style and then deliberately interrupting it or antagonizing my experience of it. I am using myself as a weird test subject in some sort of ongoing experiment that has very undefined conditions. I do it with the same ease that I feel the need to go and take a walk when I’m feeling kind of overwhelmed. It’s a natural part of my life. I’m reflective about it. I have thoughts and feelings about it. It helps me solve problems. It helps me think about the world and my own work too. I am a big fan of repetitive ambient exposure to something. Then, I might settle down with it and have a sense of what textures I want to pay attention to. In the 90s, I listened to a lot of Indie rock, and I had a narrower set of aesthetic preferences. That was probably true of poetry at the time as well. I’m in my 40s now and it seems more interesting to just be surprised and let myself be changed by sound rather than seeking out some aesthetic I already know I’ll have an affinity with.
You’ve said before that you don’t typically write every day or in consistent blocks of time. How does that have an impact on your writing?
I’ve come to think about it as collaborating with time and collaborating with forgetting. I have lots of notebooks that I’ll write in for short patches that I’ll go back to or that I’ll lose. Then, I’ll rediscover them months or years later and approach them like a stranger would. Those gaps in comprehension of what I was doing at the time have come to be important to me. The part of my brain that is not writing is kind of writing sometimes. When you’re cooking food, time is an element. It’s not just knowing what to combine and how much heat. Sometimes you need ten minutes. Sometimes you need six hours. I’ve tried to remove the anxiety part of that. I just try to put that to the side, because it’s not helpful. I use the same brain that I use to write poems to do a lot of things now. I find that I’ve spent so much time in this weird world of language that just the common, everyday stuff that I do, I do kind of like a poet. A lot of my daily life is about assemblage, looking at larger patterns, having a recursive process, stepping back from something, and then zooming in on something. It’s an expression of having done this activity in language for a relatively long time.
In a 2014 Interview with Touch the Donkey you said you prefer writing prose poetry because it has a built-in velocity to it and that you didn’t feel that you’ve exhausted the form for yourself yet. Do you still feel the same way? Are you exhausted? Do you think that you’ll continue writing prose poems?
I do, but I think that they’ll change formally. Sometimes people talk about prose poetry like it’s just one thing. I think it’s many things. It can be a paragraph or a couple paragraphs on a page. It can be isolated sentences on the page. It can be clusters of sentences. It can combine different kinds of forms too. I’m really interested in that aesthetic quality of multiplicity within surface sameness in anything I encounter, so that’s why I really like drone music and minimalist music. Someone else might listen to a repetitive note for 45 minutes and hear just the repetition and monotony. If you listen closely, you hear the difference emanating from each note. You hear the changes over time. Reading Stein is like that too. You attend to yourself listening to something. It allows you to have this meditative space. A lot of what I like to do when I write is assemble elements that I’m working with, so I can set everything out on a table that I might make a poem with and then gradually remove things that feel less relevant. Then I’m left with a couple things and decide, OK, I’ll make this poem out of three or four different gestures, or I’ll make this poem out of a couple different kinds of sentences. Then I’ll step away from it a little bit.
When I look at the books that I’ve written, there’s a certain vocabulary that’s consistent, but some of the books are very different than the other ones and they are all prose poetry. I have a book that’s coming soon that’s all prose poetry and the new manuscript that I’m writing is basically all prose poetry too. I would say the difference is that I’m interested in very short prose poems right now. I used to be interested in ornate, winding sentences, unusual sentence constructions, and breaking grammatical rules to create different kinds of effects in the reader. Now I’m interested in these very direct statements. My most recent book is all simple, past tense, declarative sentences. I wanted to spend time paying attention to the variation within consistency in that form.
Now I’m doing something similar, but it’s a little more human. It’s a little more in a conversational voice. These are sentences that a human being might plausibly say to another human being, which is new for me. I used to be interested in 90% just surprising myself, constructing and getting lost in these generative worlds that I had created like ongoing Sci-Fi writing that wasn’t really tied to plot, this endlessly unfolding novelty. I wouldn’t say that’s all that I did, but I was very interested in that sort of quality. Now I’m interested in beginning in that mode, paring it down, and having the poems be a little bit closer to ideas that I have about the world or experiences that I’m trying to convey. I’m writing closer now to how I think about the world. It took me a couple of decades to figure out how to do this thing that I think most people do naturally, which is to speak in a concise, precise way that’s also musical.
What do you feel is missing from the current literary and visual arts landscape? What do we need more of & more spaces for?
There’s so much variety right now. I’m interested in paying attention to what’s already here that I’m not paying attention to. For me, that’s reading outside the genre of poetry. I’m committed to creating a space where surprise will exist in poetry and I think that’s never going to go away. It’s less that I think there should be more of certain kinds of poetry, but more that we should be aware of all that’s happening simultaneously. I feel like it’s healthy to talk to other writers who are doing something similar, but also with a slightly different emphasis and world attached to it. I use my poetry brain to absorb other genres more than I did in the past. I’m a prose poet, so I can learn a lot from people who are writing in prose genres.
Polyvocality within people’s work is interesting. Maybe what we need is more space so that writers don’t feel like they have to be nailed down to one particular voice and that their writing can be surprising and can change. I really like filmmakers, writers, and artists who have a certain sensibility to their work, but there are huge differences project to project rather than developing a style that people recognize, and they’re rewarded for it, so they reproduce it until they drop over. I always admire writers with a lot of range. I would like for us to have more of a vocabulary to reward for people trying new things. I say that probably because I’m the kind of writer who will sometimes hone the same gesture for a decade. I appreciate the thing that is most difficult for me to do. I don’t think I have the answer to what needs to happen. I think the answer is happening and will continue to happen. It’s just paying attention to the variety that already exists. Almost any aesthetic can be interesting.
There is also something to be said for having an idea about what you want to do and why you want to do it, and consciously working with other like-minded people towards a certain goal. Especially if the aesthetics of what you are doing are connected to a politics you want to advance. I think that’s valuable and essential. I don’t necessarily think everything should dissolve into a genreless, aimless mishmash. As a poet, I’m always for poets and poetry because the larger culture doesn’t seem to understand or make enough space for what we do. I think there’s a lot of weird ideas about what it means to be a poet and what our lives are like, so part of me is adamant that we allow poetry to be idiosyncratic and to exist in its own space largely separate from market concerns. The more I’m able to set aside my own understandings of why I write so that I can listen in a more open way, the more I’m able to reclaim the newness of how I came to poetry. Poetry is always larger than what one person can absorb. I want to gesture toward that largeness alongside other people.
What are you working on and what’s been on your mind lately?
I’m working on very short poems. A poem that I’ve read a couple of times that I am a little secretly proud of is a three or four long poem called “In Order to Form a More Patient Astronaut”. That’s the direction I’m going in now where it’s about time and scale. It’s about big things, but the poem isn’t big. It’s about putting two or three precise perceptions together and then walking away and trusting people to feel it. My new idea for a poem is that it should be like handing someone a cool rock, and then walking away and letting them look at it on their own. I’m trying to move more towards that.
Over the years I’ve been really interested in the poet, Ed Roberson. I’m re-reading his book called Atmosphere Conditions. Ed Roberson’s career is exciting to me. He’s been doing this slow modulation over a series of decades. He’s been evolving his way of working. He’s someone who works in book length sequences that are often subdivided into smaller sequences that are subdivided into smaller gestures too, so there’s a fractal structure to what he’s doing. He’s someone who pays attention to, among other things, the environment and ecology via the genre of poetry, which is maybe not the most efficient way to make an argument about ecology in the mass media, but it’s an amazing way to experience what it’s like to actually be part of an ecology.
I like a book that behaves more like weather than a book that tells you what the rules of weather are. Ed Roberson’s work is dynamic. It’s powerful, moving, deeply informed by history, and political in a way that I’m in awe of. He’s working with scale, perception, and time in stunning ways. He’s sort of like the actualization of this Wallace Stevens poem How to Live, What to Do, which is a pretty good poem, but it doesn’t especially tell you how to live or what to do. Reading an Ed Roberson book is basically how to live, what to do, or how to make sense of the world, particularly, human relationships to the natural world. I just really want to emphasize that more people should be reading Ed Roberson.
I’m as confused as anyone else in 2018. Every day I wake up and I have the same level of anxiety, worry, anger, and frustration as all my friends and family. I don’t know that I have a wisdom to bring to what is happening right now, but in place of that wisdom what I feel is important for me to do right now is to clarify perception and to make a space for paring things down and looking at things closely. In my poems I’m trying to be much more careful and say just a couple things that at a time. That feels implicitly political to me. I’m trying to be the opposite of a newsfeed or an endlessly scrolling sensibility. That’s the way in which I’m choosing to respond, to try and say a few precise things and then trying not get in the way of those things.
Photos by Eric Baus
About Eric Baus