Books In Conversation
ALBERT MOBILIO with Tony Leuzzi
“There needs to be that predicate of the ordinary, the everyday, in order for the strange to flex strangely.”
(Black Square Editions, 2020)
Albert Mobilio is a poet and critic whose poems exhibit a highly critical intelligence. On the other hand, as demonstrated in the following discussion, his critical acumen can be as aesthetically rewarding as his poems. Each role informs the other. “My work as a critic and book reviewer,” Mobilio explains below, “accentuates an evaluative disposition I have to tilt against.” Such tilting results in a body of work that foregrounds its very procedures. It is no accident, then, that Same Faces, Mobilio’s fifth full-length collection of poems, opens with an excerpt from a letter Ray Johnson wrote to fellow artist Dick Higgins in 1977: “I’m sitting here waiting for something to happen.” Both Johnson and Higgins were affiliated with Fluxus—a community of experimental artists working in multiple disciplines who emphasized process over output. Mobilio may not be a Fluxus artist but based on the poems in his latest book, this poet-critic is clearly attuned to process and receptive to whatever arrives as his poems get made.
Although originally assigned to review Same Faces for the Brooklyn Rail, I was so excited by the exploratory temperament and startling turns evidenced in these poems that I requested the assignment become an interview. The result proved even more satisfying than I had hoped. Across a one-week period in mid-December 2020, Mobilio and I exchanged a number of question-answer emails, all the while wrapping up what may have been the strangest term in our respective careers as teachers. Following months of Zoom sessions, internet doom scrolling, and various social-distancing imperatives, Mobilio’s enthusiasm, generosity, and sparkling intelligence felt like a medicinal boon, and our time together what the poet himself cites in “Informal Lull” as an “embrace / within a labyrinth of dusks.”
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): Hello, Albert. Congratulations on Black Square Editions publishing Same Faces in 2020. It’s a bold, confident collection of poems arranged into three distinct yet complementary sections. Before we begin talking about the book in more specific terms, I am hoping you can discuss how each section functions independently and then clarify how they work collectively towards an overall conception for the book.
Albert Mobilio: Thank you, Tony, for your generous words. The book’s first two sections bring together a number of poems that I began while spending several weeks at MacDowell. In fact, I was staying in the cottage where Thornton Wilder wrote the last act of Our Town; Grover’s Corners is a fictionalized version of Peterborough, NH, where the colony is located. Wilder, as you know, had a close friendship with Gertrude Stein—a relationship I delved into while there, reading a biography and a volume of letters between the two when, perhaps, I should have been writing. Stein has long been an important influence, as much for her rhythms as her oblique relationship to a conventional kind of sense-making. Her playfulness—narratively angular and experienced aurally—is an element I often try to tune into, especially when starting a poem. I began the volume’s title poem “Same Faces” with the idea of writing a series of run-on sentences whose line-breaks would function as shifts against fluidity. Or maybe that would accentuate the run-on flow with unexpected breaks in pace. The launch point for these poems that eventually resolved themselves into three-part or three-sentence poems, each part seven lines in length, took inspiration from early Stein pieces like “Portrait of Mabel Dodge,” as well as the casual, colloquial dislocations in her letters. The poems assembled in the first section of the book were outtakes of sorts—lines that didn’t quite acquire the head-long momentum I was pushing toward in “Same Faces.” The book’s final poem and the last composed, “Guide for the Discouraged,” is, it strikes me in retrospect, a reaction to the propulsion I was aiming for earlier. Its inspirations are Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s endlessly entertaining Waste Books and E. M. Cioran’s equally nimble All Gall Is Divided. Both are volumes of aphoristic observations marked by sly twists and a near-uniform gloominess. What knits all three book sections together—well, it’s not quite for me to say—but I’d venture that it’s a voice that ranges through dictions high, low, arch, and elevated.
Rail: Stein’s influence is palpable, though your response to her is personal and not derivative. Incidentally, you just mentioned a word I’d written in my notes after reading your book—propulsion. Throughout Same Faces you appear to be pushing the language forward in controlled yet dissonant ways. There’s a whiff of danger here: sharp edges, startling line breaks, whiplash turns. I am reminded of jazz. Only someone alert and fluid enough to improvise could accomplish these effects and still stay spontaneous, especially in some of the poems amassed in the first section. Does improvisation play a part in your process?
Mobilio: It does. My work as a critic and book reviewer accentuates an evaluative disposition that I have to tilt against. I mean, I can whittle a line of poetry down to a useless splinter. I suppose I could aim for a more integrative approach but that subtlety eludes me. Starting fast from something—a stray thought or the sound of a phrase in some book—provides the push. Clark Coolidge, a poet from whom I’ve learned a good deal about the effects of sound, is also an accomplished drummer. In an interview, he talked about how he played air drums as a way of warming up to write. My version of that might be repeating a few words snatched from the breeze until they rest as, say, “just some reed they hope will tuneful lie,” a line that will be an ignition point even if it ends up—in the case of that phrase—in the middle of a poem.
A connection to music, or really what I’d call “mental music” is important. I’m aiming for a voice that is hearable, and even familiar—a voice that moves among dictions, yet still registers as being spoken by a single person. Sentence fragments, unorthodox punctuation, unexpected lineation— these elements are mustered in pursuit of a specific rhythm—the “music” of thinking. Our digressions, pauses, interrogative lilts, and modes of emphasis all combine to form an aural fingerprint. I’m looking to set this interior voice against the more conventional field of public expression—idiomatic expressions, clichés, slang, jargon. Here the relation to jazz might be relevant: as a musician might bend an accepted chromatic progression, I’m trying to bend these bits of familiar speech. To voice what happens to them when they’re put through the cerebral ringer. There was an experiment done by cognitive scientists some years ago. First they showed subjects a color, say green, and asked them to type the word “green.” Subjects then were shown green again but now were instructed to type the word “red.” Comparisons of brain scans of the mental activity in both instances revealed unusual and complicated patterns in the second instance. In many of my poems, I am trying to approximate those “photos” of the brain caught between the sound of words in the world and how they ring and get wrung in the mind.
Rail: You end “Moods at Noon,” a poem from the initial portion of the book, by saying “I genuflect then slightly clown.” I have returned to this line again and again because I feel it serves as a kind of poetics. Yes, the line is intrinsically interesting, because it shows how the capacity for reverence and irreverence might coexist in one being—Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself?” comes to mind. At the same time, a pronounced juxtaposition between sacred and secular (or sincere and ironic) impulses permeates the entire book. Is this your relationship to poetry in general or a position you were exploring for the sake of this project?
Mobilio: I like your interpretation of that line as enunciating a larger aesthetic—I certainly didn’t intend that. The mix of high and low, sacred and profane, earnest and cynical—all of these supposed opposites, of course, as you say co-exist in any single entity. By nature, I’m an ironist and somewhat faithless in most matters; it’s hard for me to take things too seriously, a likely by-product of twelve years of parochial school education. Intellectual survival in that milieu required taking a subversive angle on almost everything, whether quadratic equations or the nature of the Trinity. People in gloomy costumes were telling me that I would burn in hell—this was pre-Vatican II—for eating a salami sandwich on Friday. No doubt my skepticism is more than tinged with adolescent wise-assery, but that’s how God and the good sisters made me. So I tend to find writing that takes itself too seriously or speaks earnestly about “important” things less compelling as an influence than writing—Lydia Davis, John Ashbery, Raymond Queneau—that approaches significance with stealth, humor, and a wink. At some level, I believe all art must amuse. I know that sounds trivial. Privileged, to be sure. But I value self-consciousness shot through with irony, wit, and play because, well, it’s the voice I have.
Rail: It isn’t surprising that you frame your ironic, witty, playful, and self-conscious voice in terms of privilege. A lot of writers whose work exploits a pronounced degree of distance are, in light of present-day cultural politics, reevaluating their relationship to creative procedures. When matters of identity and equity are on the table, and many writers are addressing social justice head-on, those whose works are comparatively more experimental and meta-literary may feel compelled to acknowledge their freedom to ponder a more abstract approach. And yet, in its own way, Same Faces alludes to issues that dominate current public discourse. The opening stanza of “Guide for the Discouraged” is a good case in point:
I’m always taking the test—the cake
I have or the cake people recall
being the best back before
we were overtaken by remorseless now.
Here, you obliquely address the despair of our age. How does our nostalgia for some idealized past inform ways in which we address the unbearable present? Escape seems seductive. The following stanza reinforces this concern:
The sun can’t be stashed in a drawer
Just so you can snooze through
its clamor. Look around …
This sounds a lot like “wake up”—or “get woke”—albeit from a certain slant. As you say later in the same poem, “the angle / of approach is everything.” How would you position yourself as a poet and the poems you write in the current zeitgeist?
Mobilio: Whatever I have to say about the current moment is likely to be said unintentionally or told slant. And it’s the same about what I have to say about myself in poems. Yeats’s famous quote—“All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt”—articulates my own reticence and reliance on packing materials, but perhaps in my case it’s bubble wrap. It can be very hard to cleave personal despair from, as you say, the “despair of the age.” Modernism got its start with “The Waste Land” a poem that sprang from Eliot’s nervous breakdown and calamitous marriage, yet it came to be read as a poem about devastation in the wake of a world war.
There are many artists and writers far better equipped with experience to address identity and social issues head-on. You’re right, though, in citing “Guide for the Discouraged,” a poem that I think arguably intimates political ideation (“we deplete ourselves pursuing / velvety yet elusive neutralities”), as well as personal confession (“Ah, literature. Me lifted by thee / wrongly”). There are certainly contemporary writers—Mary Ruefle, Erica Hunt, Ed Roberson—who address ongoing perplexities in work that doesn’t lack for self-consciousness, irony, and intellectual play. The dichotomy between socially purposeful art and art for art’s sake is a rhetorical creation. There are many writers whose engagement is manifest and forceful even as they operate in so-called avant-garde traditions.
Rail: The cover of Same Faces features a painting called Double Portrait with Frames by the New York-based figurative artist Alex Katz. Was this cover your decision or the publisher's? How do you see Katz’s work aligning with yours—or at least preparing us for the poems within?
Mobilio: Almost all of Black Square Editions’ books are graced with covers chosen from the ranks of contemporary artists by publisher, poet, and critic John Yau. To look at the web page of the press’s catalogue is to take a contemporary art tour—artists like Chris Martin, Squeak Carnwath, Helmut Federle, Nicholas Krushenick—that demonstrates John’s long-standing view that visual and literary art can be bound together in productive, exciting ways. For my book Me with Animal Towering, he found the perfect image—a painting of Philip Guston’s titled Paw, that depicted a rough-hewn hand drawing with some kind of stylus. John’s knowledge of artists and their bodies of work is voluminous: he suggested Katz’s Double Portrait with Frames right away. I had some idea about using a photo-booth reel, but when I saw the image we used I knew it was the right one. Each of the 17 sections in “Same Faces” is paired with an erasure. Thus, the words in both sections are, to nod in paraphrase to Stein, the same but different. Katz’s portraits of the woman are the same but not so: at first and even second look, she is clearly the same person. But closer examination reveals small variations—the shape of the button on her collar, the number of white dots on her scarf, the width of her smile. After closer study you realize the woman on the left offers a stiffer smile, one bordering on grimace. On the right, she appears at ease, her mouth more natural and relaxed; she candidly meets the viewer’s gaze. Two very different emotional temperatures. We wear many faces for different occasions at many times in our lives. But we live behind only one. I think “Same Faces” is an attempt to formally address that paradox with its pairings, while also probing the way language itself determines our persona—one we amusingly believe is singular and unified, but is, in fact, as multifarious as any dictionary.
Rail: I’m glad you’ve already begun discussing “The Same Faces You Can’t Believe In,” which comprises the second portion of the book. It is easily my favorite portion of Same Faces. In this section, you pair each of seventeen poems with a corresponding erasure. Yours are among the most satisfying erasures I have ever read. Part of the enormous pleasure I felt in reading them came from the way in which you free yourself (and your readers) from the relentless engine of form. As you mention above, the source poem for each erasure consists of three seven-line stanzas where each line is of generally uniform length. The results are full, blocky poems of somewhat imposing appearance that have little-to-no punctuation. Initially, I felt like I was walking through a city clogged with brutalist architecture, where one feels the density and weight of form everywhere. Nonetheless, the source poems fascinate me because within the tight uniformity of their appearance, a deceptive freedom and space persist: the dearth of punctuation allows one to group phrases and clusters of language in multiple ways. I exit those poems feeling as if I have unfinished business. But then, to the right of each source poem is an erasure that asserts itself with an astonishing lyricism. Although your erasures tend towards the abstract, there is a sense of inevitability about them, a rightness, as if you’ve discovered the kernel poem within the preceding poem. Each time out, I had the urge to applaud. There is a sense of release, too, as your erasures are spare and porous. Ironically, this release from form is only possible through the imposition of form. Am I off-base here?
Mobilio: Not at all. Form is key to all poetic expression even if only to define a certain kind of formlessness. I’ve never written a sonnet but my first influences were the field compositions of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley—poems in which the use of space, lineation, and punctuation are as precisely and effectively employed as meter and rhyme in more traditional verse. The paired poems that constitute “The Same Faces You Can’t Believe In” are designed to play differing modes of speech, of grammar, against one another. They are meant to sound as different as possible despite being made up of the same language in the same progression. The multiple readings that the lack of punctuation in the first, more prose-like sections, allows are, I think, also present in the more formally arrayed erasures. But I hope they register in distinct ways: the deliberate confusions that crop up in the first poems disappear in the erasures even as other ambiguities—more familiar ambiguities of meaning rather than of sense—appear. When I was revising these pairs I wanted to be very careful to preserve the spontaneity of the source poems’ actual composition and not reverse engineer them to make the erasures “better.” Yes, each of the paired poems is 21 lines, and the source poem is grouped in three seven-line units that approximate a sentence. But, I’d argue, the fealty to the compositional process is also kind of form—not as obvious as a sestina’s, but a kind of form nonetheless. Its effect might be what you noted as a “deceptive freedom” within the appearance of uniformity.
There’s also a desire to create a tension between the lyricism you describe and what at times can be felt as syntactic static. The lyric lines—often straightforward, even emotionally charged, generally at the end of a seven-line section—are meant to emerge, to feel as though they’ve come clear of some tangle of linguistic activity—that “density and weight” you note—for a brief but languid stretch in the sun. Or maybe I’m getting carried away with what I think these effects are. After all, these things we’re talking about take place on a rather micro scale—a comma’s pause, an uncertainly placed modifier. Thimble-size word dramas of fleeting consequence. My favorite kind.
Rail: So, the three-sentence, 21 lines poems existed first? Did you, at any point in their composition, know you were planning to perform erasures with them?
Mobilio: Those source poems came first in a kind of sustained burst. As they took shape I was aware that they were rather crowded—maybe even “clogged.” I tend to be both spasmodic and casual in my writing habits so the crowded poems sat around for over a year until I pulled them out with the intention to restart the word blitz. But it occurred to me that I might air out those already written. Like I said, my reflexive impulse honed as a critic and editor is to cut. Instead, in this case I decided to hold on to the “first drafts.”
Rail: We may be loosely calling them “first drafts,” but those source poems have their own autonomy. While I believe the erasures are astonishing, there are moments in those original versions that slay me. From “Torches line the road”: “I pretend not to notice / the pharmacy in your drawer.” From “How prove each soul”: “we always stare / headlong into the barroom’s oscillating fan.” From “The thing itself all heaving”: “I learned your poem but you won’t learn mine… .” There is this persistent sense that the everyday world is being intensified by fresh perception. That intensity makes what was familiar quiver with a certain strangeness.
Mobilio: There’s that well-worn anecdote about Paul Valéry telling André Breton that writing novels wasn’t for him because he refused to write, “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.” Poetry as a genre—whatever meaning that category holds in an age of hybridity—offers more license than prose for obscure figuration, disjunction, and outright rupture. Or maybe it’s just that the audience for poetry tolerates these tests of patience. In any event, absent plot’s requirement of sequential logic, a poem can recount the departure of the Marquise at five and then his return at six as the emperor of ice-cream—and the savvy Postmodern reader won’t even blink.
I look to begin with some familiar, legible predicate that can be knocked about by an unexpected turn of phrase or change of scene. The monkey wrench, though, requires a functioning works into which it can be thrown. There needs to be that predicate of the ordinary, the everyday, in order for the strange to flex strangely. I’ve been enjoying Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker lately; she’s a master of jangling sense to achieve fresh perception. Not for nothing is her selected poems, translated by Richard Dove, titled Raving Language (2007). Her eye moves across and through a scene pulling in stray observations and elevating them for a moment than moving on. She generates a break-neck pace but you want to hang on. Here’s “on this morning” in its entirety:
to spit around
the little prayer-mat
babble around throw one’s arms around
as though I were now her mother and she
my child … it’s all, she says, getting turned
inside out, she’d
expected more of old age, the world’s
lost its charm
meanwhile February shoots up
in mimosa plumage
How and who spits around whatever prayer-mat babble is? And the three successive “arounds” dizzy whatever scene may be taking shape. Then there’s a quick sketch of parental role reversal that’s familiar; maybe we've landed at the point where we'll dig into that. But no. The “world”—all its charm gone—sways on the precipice of a stanza break. That thought’s potential profundity is shaded comic by the casual “meanwhile,” which, in turn, serves as the hinge to a lyric image that enters out of nowhere. Mayröcker’s compact poem is a coiled spring that pops with the physics-defying energy of a Warner Brothers cartoon. Theme? What’s happening can’t even be summarized. But to paraphrase Keats, it proves itself on my pulse.
Rail: Noted on the title page for the book’s second section, “The Same Faces You Can’t Believe In” is a paraphrase from a passage in filmmaker Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer: “Film after film, subject after subject, confronting the same faces that one cannot believe in.” Earlier, you mentioned Creeley whose “Bresson’s Movies” is one of his finest poems. I’m not sure if your interest in Bresson came via Creeley, or if, more simply, you and Creeley happen to share an appreciation for the director’s spare, tensile scenes. In what way(s) was Bresson, and the passage of his writing that you cite, an apt metaphor for this section of Same Faces?
Mobilio: Bresson’s actual films aren’t really present as an influence. It’s more his expressed aesthetic. Throughout Notes on the Cinematographer (I read the deliciously compact Green Integer volume published by Douglas Messerli), Bresson returns to the idea of authenticity and repeatedly voices an effete disdain for “acting” and actors. Of course, he famously cast non-actors in key roles in many of his films. I’m less interested in the consequences of that predilection in the films than I am in his fealty to naturalness and reality notwithstanding its passage through all the falsifying machinations of filmmaking. His book is really a collection of remarks and epigrams, and the quote I use is taken from one that defines the “Star-system,” presumably Hollywood’s. He returns again and again to the idea of faces—“Your camera passes through faces,” he writes, “provided no mimicry (intentional or not intentional) gets in between.” That the face is often the medium through which narrative is expressed in movies is a commonplace. The idea that there are transparent faces and deceptive faces, those that cannot be credited with belief because of, well, that “mimicry,” connects to the poem’s theme of doubleness—mind and body, presence and absence. The opposition itself—true and false faces—seems itself a product of mimicry: the poetic figuration of contrast, of dividing things into one or the other category for the purpose of effect.
Rail: When I first read the Bresson headnote, I was struck by the latter half of the sentence: “confronting the same faces one cannot believe in.” To be unable to believe—that experience can produce immediate frustration and prolonged anxiety; but it also can furnish space for exploration, for wandering. As you say in “Categories of Apprehension,” “Nobody/ wants a static, bookish thing / that doesn’t get devotional.” How, if at all, are matters of belief connected to your urge to write?
Mobilio: Belief is such a broad and almost infinitely fractioned disposition. You can believe in a sports team, in their superiority and winning destiny, with the same fervor as someone else directs at the idea of a soul. You can believe, as many people I know do, in the redemptive power of art or in the power of positive thinking. I’m less attracted to belief as a spiritual or intellectual stance than I am to its emotions and trappings—its rituals, mannerisms, and materials. The stage show of belief. We can be moved, even overwhelmed, say, by Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. Artistry aside, I’m moved by a sense of the painter’s own devotion, his profound bond with the figures he paints, and his apprehension of the sacred. I lack the inclination to actual devotion—it requires more humility than I have in stock—and I understand the sacred largely as a characterization rather than a living force in my life, yet Masaccio’s display of belief thrills me. Makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And there are countless artists—John Donne, Christopher Smart, Hildegard of Bingen, Emily Dickinson—whose performance of believing is separable—at least to me—from their actual belief. So my thought there in that line might have been that for a book to “get devotional” is for it to draw on the literature and art of belief, to generate the feeling of that old time religion. Because all I really have of it is the chants, candles, and incense.
Rail: My question about belief was not specific to religious matters. The reason I asked it is because I sensed your “lack of inclination to actual devotion” surfacing in unexpected places in your poems. In “Wanderer” you write “You situate yourself among tenuous proclamations / no more plausible for the suddenness with / which they are made”—three lines of poetry that strike me as meta-referential, where uncertainty (or: wandering) is a necessary condition for the creative act, or at least your creative process.
Mobilio: You’re right about that line’s implications—allowing for uncertainty in composition, as well as treating how we experience it as a theme, are preoccupations of mine. The book’s epigraph, a quote from a letter written by Ray Johnson to Dick Higgins, is a pretty accurate description of what passes for my creative process: “I’m sitting here waiting for something to happen.” I rarely start with an idea that needs to be carefully worked through, but instead throw down a kernel of something, as I said before, a phrase from a book on my shelf, a misheard lyric from a song that creeps into my head, and then I see what “happens.” There’s a desire to preserve that provisional quality, the spontaneity, throughout the revision process. To resist the urge to make everything fit well. The syntactic work done by line and stanza breaks is essential to creating a feeling of multivalence and unpredictability. The habitual smoothness of our reading experience obscures a good deal of language’s potential for the sake of convenience. Stein again is relevant here. And Creeley. He is a master of using disruptive syntax and lineation to reproduce the actuality of thinking. Of course, it’s a tightrope to walk. Disruption and order (however momentary or provisional) work in tandem and in measured degrees. No doubt, I frequently misstep.
The Rail: A few poems from the first section of Same Faces cite theater as a metaphor. “Amphitheater” is the most obvious example, where the entire poem is centered on stage performance and its effects on the audience. But the conceit emerges again in “Faults in Place,” in which the intention of portrayal is considered “Before the curtain rose” and then, once raised, is enacted—and the effect of the man’s performance “made us feel ourselves / as shadows breeding shadows.” What is your relationship to the theater? Do you draw a correlation between stage performer and poet?
Mobilio: I just drew a correlation between a stage performance and belief; I’d draw that correlation for all of lived experience. Poets and electricians wear different faces, speak in different voices, depending. There’s always this strong sense of contingency at play—who am I writing for, how will it be heard and understood. One performs for an audience—performance acquires its chief meaning in relation to others, to viewers or readers. “Amphitheater” grew out of spending time on the stone steps of the open-air, Greek-style theater next to my cottage at MacDowell. Overgrown with moss and decaying, it hadn’t been used in decades. In the ’20s, the town held historical pageants there. One of the odd dynamics of watching anything outdoors is that the performance is infused with a larger world. This theater is perched high atop a slope with several mountains in the near distance. Whatever the long-ago doings of high-school kids and general store owners (remember this was Grover’s Corners), they were likely much enhanced by the beauty and drama of the landscape. The view is to the west so evening performances beginning at sunset must have had an almost fantastical dimension. Ordinary people, at least in my imagining, were transformed—sons saw their fathers made strange, clerks saw their customers anew, their costumes arrayed against the fading light. I wouldn’t want to push this notion too far, but there is a way of thinking about language—ordinary, utilitarian, doing the work of getting the Marquise in the room at five—made new, maybe even astonishing, in the poem’s fabrication of a fleeting kind of light. Or maybe I did just push it too far.
Rail: Three years ago, Black Square Editions published Games & Stunts, a collection of your stories (or prose pieces), each of which develops from a game or trick. Because Games & Stunts and Same Faces share the same publisher, and because of the proximity of each one’s respective release date, it’s tempting to see the books as companions, each informing the other. Would you go this far? More broadly, how does your imaginative prose relate to your verse poetry?
Mobilio: Well, the idea of order and disruption working with and against one another is the animating concept behind Games & Stunts. The short fictions in that book were built from late 19th-century game manuals, books that catalogued the precise rules and practices for all kinds of outdoor sports and parlor games. What amused me about their prose was how it employed a near-military tone to lay out the means by which you are supposed to have fun. This paradox—hyper-directive language and rules as the source of the disordered behavior and emotional tumult that we experience when we play—is kin to the paradox I’m describing between sense and syntax in Same Faces.
The first few stories in Games started out as prose poems, and I suppose they can still be read as such; eventually I introduced a group of characters and those pieces are more readily categorized as fiction. In both books, I suppose, my concerns are diminutive ones: whether the granular language of rules and minute actions of the game-players or, in Faces, small evocations of mental discontinuities and dislocated feelings. My observational range is rather “small picture,” you might say. More snapshot than Cinemascope.
Rail: Albert, thank you for devoting so much of your time to a discussion of your work. It feels fitting to end our conversation with a question about “Guide for the Discouraged,” the magnificent final poem in Same Faces. I’m not certain if it is a mosaic of aphorisms and propositions told from one critical voice, if it is the wise, disconnected trance ramblings of a shaman, or a panoply of voices sounding forth in grand procession, but whatever it is, it is powerful. I experienced a visceral thrill moving through it. What started as a bit of a head-scratcher left me vibrating all over. What are your thoughts about this poem and what inspired it?
Mobilio: This has been a delight, Tony. I don’t much brood on these issues so it’s useful for me to hear from a reader as attentive and astute as you. Again, you’re spot on about the various voices and dictions threaded through “Guide.” They shift from deploying archaic notes from 18th-century poems to Burt Bacharach lyrics, from film noir dialogue to philosophical phraseology. “Trance ramblings of a shaman” is as good a description as I could manage. Although, I’d prefer a modifier—a would-be shaman.
I mentioned reading Lichtenberg and Cioran as inspirations. Those books make use of what seems to me an inherently comic form—the aphorism. The form is typically directed at so-called large ideas so its very brevity is a comment on the weightiness of those ideas. The brevity is subversive. I wrote about Cioran’s aphorisms many years ago and suggested he could play the Kramer character on Seinfeld—the big-browed philosopher who sidles into the restaurant booth as his pals order drinks and intones, “Any and all water is the color of drowning.” In “Guide,” I wanted to exaggerate that comic effect but retain a strong glimmer of the seriousness of the subject being addressed. The poem—despite its chorus of impersonations—operates, however slyly, in a confessional register.
A collection of aphorisms, too, is not meant necessarily to be read in order; you should be able to open to a page at random. I wanted the poem to have multiple points of entry and thus would encourage reading forward and backward, skipping around. The structure isn’t quite arbitrary but that’s an initial impression I want to be alive for the reader. More uncertainty. It’s often unpleasant in life—hasn’t this year been a lesson in that—but in art, it can be regarded from a safe distance. The great buzzing confusion, as William James called it, is manageable on a page or within a frame.
Joseph Donahue—the brilliant poet and a longtime friend—and I were trading misheard lyrics from our youth sometime in the early ’80s. There’s a line in Cream’s “Badge” that goes “Then I told you 'bout our kid, now he's married to Mabel,” which he had always believed was “Then I told you 'bout our kid, now he’s not a tomato.” This led him to an interpretation that involved a family whose offspring had been reduced to a vegetative state by drug use. The parent, however, demurred and instead asserted, “He’s not a tomato.” Or, Donahue posited, maybe this was a Surrealist declaration: all of us are fruits and vegetables except this kid, who emphatically is not. I’m indifferent to Clapton’s actual line. Who cares who Mabel married? But Joe’s mistaken reception produced better, even wonderful possibilities. That’s my sweet spot—between what’s said and what’s heard—the uncertain space where mistakes arise and dislocations occur. The zone of perplexity.