- An Interview with Rae Armantrout
Since the early 1970s, Rae Armantrout has been affiliated with the “contentious community” we now think of as the West Coast Language poets (Collected Prose [Singing Horse, 2007] 9). Despite her having been repeatedly anthologized among the Language writers, despite her close friendships with members of that cohort, even despite her having coordinated for a time the signature Grand Piano reading series, in the 1970s and 1980s she often felt herself on the margins of that collectivity. This may be attributed in large part to Armantrout’s tendency to probe and challenge conformities, even the emerging norms of the radical innovators whose work she admired. She recollects that in the mid-seventies, when nonreferentiality was a key concept for her peers, she “wasn’t convinced that language could be nonreferential and, if it could, I wasn’t sure I would be interested in the result” (Grand Piano, Part 3 [Mode A, 2007] 53). Similarly, after recalling “I think we all found the first-person lyric poem as we had inherited it (with its production of ‘the personal’) somehow unsatisfactory, even disingenuous,” she adds, “Then what? Pronouns don’t go away” (Grand Piano, Part 1 [Mode A, 2006] 61–62). The early essays in her Collected Prose show her “struggling against (what [she] saw as) over-restrictive definitions of what a new poetry should look like as well as against a complacent mainstream unwilling to examine its own ideological and aesthetic baggage” (Collected Prose 9). Several decades later, when it’s clear her Language peers have developed a diversity of practices, Armantrout’s “fit” may be less subject to question, but her work remains distinctive and [End Page 219] distinctively fresh, particularly in its allegiance to a honed version of lyric that brings to mind the poetry of Emily Dickinson or George Oppen, and in its attention to the degradations—and the surprises—of American speech that permeate our consciousness and infiltrate even our dreams.
For instance, “The Garden,” from Armantrout’s 1991 collection Necromance (Sun & Moon), turns on several colloquial uses of the verb “smack.” Probably prompted by the sight of oleander, an ornamental (and thoroughly poisonous) shrub, the poem—as is typical of Armantrout’s often disjunctive work—quickly shifts, in this case to social issues associated with the blossoms’ color:
Oleander: coral from lipstick ads in the 50’s.
Fruit of the tree of such knowledge.
To “smack” (thin air) meaning kiss or hit.
It appears in the guise of outworn usages because we are bad?
Big masculine threat, insinuating and slangy.
This garden plant evokes a story like that of Eden seen through a feminist lens and, though “outworn,” still being reenacted in the era of Armantrout’s youth (she was born in 1947): a tale of gender inequity and misogyny, of supposed female sin (or “badness”) and forced female subservience. “Smack” might denote a woman’s smacking of her lips as she finishes her self-ornamenting application of the cosmetic, or the mouth gesture of a lustful male observer longing for a taste—or a more overtly aggressive slap. Through her trenchant notation of a word’s common usages, Armantrout reminds her readers how male control over female sexuality continues to be enforced by the threat of violence.
Rae Armantrout’s terse and witty poems often incorporate bits of demotic or flatly ordinary speech, or dialogue from TV soap operas or comic strips, in ways that invite attention and encourage multivalent [End Page 220] analysis without condescension. “I keep asking what happens to the subject—the ‘cogito’—in a society where perceptions are commodities, already shrink-wrapped,” she explains (Collected Prose 120). The results are what Rachel Blau DuPlessis aptly terms “educational outlets in strip malls” (Wild Salience [Burning, 1999] 40). Although the feminist slant of “Garden” is typical, other selections from Armantrout’s work might better convey its intellectual range and persistent curiosity about such fields as contemporary philosophy or physics. Here, for instance, are the first two parts of “Entanglement,” from Up to Speed (Wesleyan, 2004); while the first presents formulaic demotic language (a bumper sticker), and the second, contemporary physics, both involve collisions, whether of...