Our roundtable comes well after 9-11, and rightly so. All of us at PBQ took note of the immediate effects of fall, 2001 on our work as teachers, writers and editors. The mainstream press kept describing the terrorism as inaugurating a “new world.” For our part, we knew that writing felt different in such a world, but were not immediately able to articulate exactly how it had changed. Six months and more having passed, we decided to commit some of the conversations that were occurring around the editors’ table to tape. The resulting exchange, meandering as it sometimes is, revolves around the struggle to maintain the intimacy of a writer’s concern in a world that is irrevocably preoccupied with global, public issues.
MARION: Let’s start with the questions you circulated, Robin. [Reading] What is important to writers after 9-11? Right after, how did our sense of what mattered change? Where does it stand now? 9-11 has generated an enormous amount of discourse-what is the unique role of poetry in this? Do 9-11 events pose any danger to creative achievement? What is that danger? How have changes since 9-11 affected the way we read as editors and privately?
ROBIN: First question, and to start talking about that, I remember a day or so after 9-11, I had a conversation with another writer, Thea Goodman, around Lang College, where I work. She was pretty shaken up, as I was, and we talked about the long pieces of writing we both had in progress then, and how our sense of what we had been doing had been thrown off the rails to some extent. I think what we saw as a problem was the question of whether writing had to now engage in global issues, with multinational political issues on a cosmic scale, such as what had happened or whether it’s also meaningful to write about the quotidian concerns, the personal concern that had been making up the substance of our writing. My argument in our conversation was that it is very important to stay in touch with the minutia of experience at a time when most people are talking about big conceptual matters and large-scale events. In a way, if you can regain contact with the substance of life this is a political act, and that’s one thing writing is very good for.
CHRIS: I would take it even farther than that. I would say that I think that for the most part, the only way that creative writing (as opposed to journalism or academic writing) can deal with death and loss is intimately. It doesn’t work very well, most of the time, to deal with the death of 5,000 people in a poem or story. You have to bring it in closer to yourself and be very intimate with it in most cases for it to work. There are noteworthy exceptions. I would say that it is a general rule that death has to be dealt with intimately.
MARION: You talk about poetry and fiction, but there are so many different kinds of writing. I was thinking of Judith Butler; who spoke recently at CUNY. She spoke about the way some stories are being told and others aren’t being told. Specifically, she talked about the obituaries in the New York Times. They do portraits of each person. I was just thinking about how that became a part of the whole thing. People started to turn to that obituary in a daily way, as a sort of reckoning, a bearing witness. Butler’s point was so well taken by her audience. There were gaps-other deaths, other stories were not being told.
DANIEL: Whose stories were not being told?
JASON: The people who were not in the paper.
DANIEL: I thought the New York Times was trying to cover everybody.
MARION: Well, they did all the Americans that died. Judith Butler was speaking about all the Afghani people who have died, a lot of historical “collateral” damage.
JASON: Talking about poetry, talking about fiction, about engaging with minutia. That is something I do value a lot, not so much as a political act (unless you call an act of humility a political act) but caring about an individual person and having that kind of intimacy with that person. All my attempts at writing about the event were awful, terrible and did lack that intimacy. I was also trying to say too much about myself. But that was a very interesting effect. I became very divorced from my life. For the days following I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was on hold. Now what I want to achieve is an intimacy with the experience and to experience the actual day.
MARGIT: I don’t think that anyone could say that poetry was not possible after the event. That’s the way that Theodor Adorno reacted to the Holocaust; he said that poetry was not possible after. What he was saying was that Auschwitz was its own performance of the representation of what a regime is. It was how they wanted to portray themselves. That is almost impossible to respond to, and I think it’s a part of what is making the representation of 9-11 so problematic. It wasn’t done so much to kill those people in the building as to be a representation of performance, and any representation of a representation is always less than the original. My visceral reaction after this was that I don’t want to read any fiction. I am not ready for this to be represented to me. The only things I want to read are accounts from people who were there, or closer than I was. I don’t want to read anything that was written ten years before this happened. I don’t want to read anything written without this knowledge. I felt like I got to cross off a whole bunch of to read books on my list. I don’t have to read The Corrections. I don’t want to read some family saga or some overwrought Mary Karr memoir. I don’t want to read any of that, and now I don’t have to, because things are different. That was my first reaction.
MARION: Margit, is that true for literature only, or does it apply to other arts as well? I am curious about how the question of representation might apply to other media.
MARGIT: I do think there are differences, and that is something I thought of when I brought my texts in. I think that, for some reason, it’s harder for poetry to be overtly graphic and representational. I brought in some T. S. Eliot and a poem by Wilfred Owen. Both try to represent World War I, and while the Owen poem is good and very effective, it’s not what we turn to, to talk about representing WWI in poetry. There are probably more graphic representations out there, but these are not what we use for the most part to access the horrors of war in poetry. For some reason fiction seems to have more leeway to be graphic. I don’t know why that is. I don’t know whether that’s our expectation of the genres.
MARION: Along those lines I just read Michael Harris’ Dispatches. The genre is memoir, and it is such a profoundly moving text. It read differently to me than it would have two years ago. I wonder about this notion of representation-certainly it is journalistic, in memoir.
MARGIT: My sense of what texts have anything to say to me has been changing a little bit. My first reaction was that I didn’t want to read anything unless it was written by somebody who was standing right next to the World Trade Center, or by Spenser. Somebody writing hundreds of years ago-that makes me feel better, because it reminds me that terrible things happen and yet other things endure. Or maybe it’s just escapism-the comfort of distance.
MARION: Amen! I brought Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty.”
MARGIT: I am starting to be ready now to read other things. I found myself actually reading, of all things, drama. Maybe because it’s a sort of fusion between fiction and personal reportage, but I haven’t examined that yet. It’s also short. I can’t read anything long yet.
ROBIN: You bring up questions about the different roles of fiction and poetry and you also brought up the question of whether there’s a danger to creativity. What I see as a possible danger after something like this happens is that, especially with poetry, poetry can descend into sanctimony. A situation with such clear rights and wrongs…maybe this isn’t such a situation, but in a sense when you have mass murder there is an element of that. It is very unhealthy one potentially for poets, because the work of poetry, as I see it, isn’t to, as Robert Bly said, to paint things on the barn door. I think this is also a rich or fruitful situation for poets, because there is an immediate repression that happens when so many people have died, and downtown you have a large mass cemetery…
MARION: Immediate repression! How about state-sponsored repression! It happened on Tuesday, so Friday is the National Day of Grieving. It’s Friday-everybody grieve!
ROBIN: We have kind of shallow public statements of grief that don’t really address the fact that it’s very hard for any of us to confront the death that’s right at our doorstep. I see you brought in something from Eliot. The Four Quartets: that’s really appropriate, because the sense of death-maybe it’s even stronger in “The Wasteland”-the sense of death in life, death kind of mixing and confronting life.…In a way, death undoes the way we live our lives. That’s where I see the job of poetry, since poetry talks about things most people aren’t ready to make conscious.
JASON: I have yet to read a good September 11th poem. I just heard from a friend of mine (I was not able to get a copy of this text for today) that Frank Bidart has just written a great poem from the perspective of the hijackers, and, knowing his poetry.… He does brilliant work in the voices of people you wouldn’t expect. He has a poem in the voice of an anorexic, a fantastic poem in the voice of a serial killer who pulls over his car to masturbate on the bodies of women he killed. I am really interested in that.
MARION: Hmmm…what part of that interests you? [Laughter]
JASON: I am really interested in his talking from the perspective of the hijacker, and I do think that in terms of what you were saying, this intense right or wrong, that this is going to sound horrible. To a certain extent the victim’s experience is not that interesting. Yes, it is very clear that these people were at their jobs, and then they were killed, and now they’re dead, and it was instantaneous, almost, depending on what floor you’re talking about.
ROBIN: So you’re saying that this poet basically made a more interesting artistic choice to take it from the voice of the hijackers rather than that of the victims.
JASON: Yeah, and I’m not saying that it is the only choice, but I’m really curious about that, about what kind of subtlety you can get to through imagination rather than documentation, because, in terms of a poetry of witness, I’m very skeptical of much of what is emerging. First of all, you had a very small group of people who were there. You know, this isn’t like the holocaust or the Armenian genocide. You don’t have very many people who were there. The ones who were there were dead or alive, and it was all over in four hours. There is a real role for the imagination.
MARION: Yes, but this notion of witness gets much more complicated when you think of this as a mediated spectacle, designed within the media. Naming the exact community that was affected is almost impossible, because of this kind of imagined community that bears witness.
DANIEL: But everyone in this room within sound of this microphone was there. We did have the TV on, I assume, or at least I did, and we all heard something, or at least we all smelled something, and we all at least saw fragments of paper or even worse, or more unmentionable, and so I think there are a lot of challenges. It’s almost like a local challenge for New York poets, because these are people who, maybe even more so than outside the immediate area, have heard and smelled an unambiguous event. Poets especially thrive on unambiguous events. At least in their own mind, I think, because then there’s not even room for metaphor, and their jobs become easier in a lot of ways. I think that the potentially harmful thing is that when you take a look at the way poetry has been going over the-as Auden calls it-the “low dishonest decade.” This has been a “low dishonest decade” for more than a decade, some would say, and now we have this honest genuine experience at the end of a 25-year semiotic postmodern quagmire. So now I think as poets, everybody wants to throw their two cents in. I do believe, however, in the poetics of silence. It’s been seven months to the day now, and I think I may have tried to write one poem about September 11th, and I’ve seen maybe one good poem written about it. That’s the poem I brought in. It’s by Bob Holman. His poem called “Cement Cloud” is about being on Duane Street, seeing the cement cloud on his doorstep. That to me sums it all up. What I think is harmfuland maybe this is going to start a political debateis that there have been tendencies on both sides of the political spectrum to sum up 9/11 within hours of the event. And everybody knows the examples of the right, but here’s one from the left I heard a couple of weekends ago. Robert Hass, former Poet Laureate of the United States, on September 14th in San Francisco, saying before a poetry reading that the rhetoric has been “hijacked by the hard right.” I’ll be merciful to him right now, because I am being recorded, but I think it was totally an unwise, borderline asinine decision for him to say that at this poetry reading, when people needed other words that weren’t reductionist and harmful. I still think about that Friday. That Friday we were going into a weekend, yet we still weren’t going to work as New Yorkers. And I just think it was a distance thing for Hass. This was in San Francisco, and probably everyone who teaches got that thing from the University Michigan on how to deal with your students in the wake of the disaster, and that was dated September 15th. And the discussion prompts were so unacceptable to students in the New York area.
JASON: I had to teach on September 12th. None of my students were affected. They were in Long Island, and they were totally unfazed. Then on Tuesday I was talking to a class full of people, and someone was saying these asinine things. One was saying that it’s wrong to show thedocumentary footage about September 11th, but he watched it anyway.
MARION: This is the Nextel documentary on PBS?
JASON: Right. So I said, “It shouldn’t have been shown on television, but you watched it, and that’s the problem?” He said yes, and then asked me if I watched the documentary. I said no, I was there, and by that I meant that I left the subway at 20th street and I sawthe buildings on fire.He said, “I was there too, I watched on television,” and he was 100% serious. That was not ironic. I have always been very big on things that don’t happen to you. Poetic positioning. The holocaust didn’t happen to me, but I was raised to believe there is a certain important space in there, that it’s very important to find it for yourself. September 11th didn’t happen to me in that I wasn’t in the buildings, lost no close friends or relatives. It did happen to me in the sense that I (as an American) am the object of terror. The event was meant to terrorize me-I received the terror. On the other hand I know someone who died, a firefighter in the first wave. September 11th really happened to him. To his family.
MARION: And television cannot capture the smell.
JASON: Nobody talked about the smell.
MARION: We did, we smelled the World Trade Center. We smelled dead bodies, we smelled all of that. That is a part of our memory. We embody that memory in a way that the large community of television viewers can’t, and won’t. And I’m thinking maybe that it’s through poetry and literature that that memory would be expressed in a way that the material and visual world couldn’t present.
DANIEL: Smell is the hardest thing to write about.
ROBIN: We have seen a real failure of public discourse, and your anecdote about Robert Hass shows the partisan nature in which we approach every issue, crippling our ability to perceive what is happening. I think commentary like that-which is really just choosing sides and fitting our perceptions into a prefabricated position-is not helpful, and not useful. It shows us being company men and women as thinkers. There is a part of this that public discourse doesn’t get to. And what we said about the media-I liked what you said about imagination and witness, Jason, because in a way we rely on imagination to tell the stories that can’t be told, that unlike the holocaust there aren’t many survivors, so there aren’t many people who can say what it was like to be in there. The people who died, the stories of their experiences are something that we have to create. That’s another thing that TV can’t show.
CHRIS: I think that what Jason said and what you are saying right now are essential points. Whether it’s poetry or fiction or creative nonfiction, the purpose of imaginative writing is to do almost exactly the opposite of what we’ve been talking about. It does almost exactly the opposite of what television, even good journalism does, or good analytic writing does. It’s doing what that can’t do. I just put myself in the position of defining what I do, and I don’t know if I can do that, but I feel like it is the exact flip side of all of that. It involves what Jason was talking about with the Bidart poem. What’s important are the choices one makes to make it art, and maybe it’s one who is a witness who can make art from it. Maybe or maybe not. It may be someone who was never there who can make art. It’s about using what you use as an artist to take everything-what you saw or smelled, what you imagined-and what distinguishes it from a piece in the New York Times.…These are the choices you make to make it art.
MARION: The poem I want to write is about a group of professionals who worked down there. I was told that when they move their offices to New Jersey after this happened, the few who survived had to reconstruct the computer databases and get them back online so they could get back to work. Well, imagine sitting at a desk trying to remember A missing person’s password: children’s names, boyfriends, girlfriends, middle names? What would it be like? I think about that.
JASON: The poem I keep coming back to is Dan Pagis’ “Draft of a Reparations Agreement,” which starts out with a request for silence, “Alright you Gentlemen who cried bloody murder,” and at the end, “and straight away the yellow stars will immigrate to the sky.” I read it as asking for a political silence, because talking about it won’t change the fact that it happened.
CHRIS: Marion, you just illustrated exactly what I was trying to say. That’s what you would have to do. If you were going to write a story about it you’d have to start there. You’d have to start somewhere like that, about someone sitting at a computer trying to remember what the password of someone might be. I would say you would get well into the story before you would even allow anyone to figure out that what you’re talking about is someone who died in the World Trade Center. That’s if it came into the story at all! The bulk of the story would have them outside of that, and by doing that I think you could convey the sense and the feeling of the event in a way that is really moving to people rather than just providing them with information. That’s the art that can be made from this.
ROBIN: As a fiction editor I am already imagining how that story might go wrong. I think that it goes back to a sense of the quotidian versus the grand. I imagine it going wrong the way a lot of what I’ve read about 9-11 has gone wrong. It would go from that poignant situation of looking for the password and having to try to remember the person to the totality that we are all so used to, in several steps, in no time flat. It wouldn’t have the humility to stay with the situation about which we know, and to admit that there is a great deal that we don’t know. Maybe silence enters into this in that way.
DANIEL: Even in the media coverage the victims of the World Trade were by and large business people. They were uninteresting people to us, as artists. Let’s be honest. Well, I mean, how many stories have we heard about the resident sculptor who died, as opposed to all the business people? But I do think the poignant thing is that these people were regular people. They were normal middle-class people, which is exactly what the terrorists intended.
ROBIN: I have been really struck by the neglect of the people in finance, the fact that they are not discussed. Again and again we hear about the firemen, because the firemen, a very small number in comparison to the businesspeople, have an iconic image. They could fit into the Village People. They’re already accessible to us as symbols, whereas the businesspeople don’t seem to have that resonance for most people. But I think that is what I would like to hear about: the thousands and thousands of businesspeople.
MARION: But I want to commit the error you would edit out of my piece. Great, so we have these sort of non-symbolic lemmings. These are the people who are going to work that day. It makes me want to think about what sucks about our economy. I do want to talk about late capitalism, I do want to talk about what the World Trade Center represents, and that then kills the specificity of that moment of imagination.
CHRIS: That’s what makes writing hard. That’s what makes art hard. You have a sense of where you want to go with a poem, or a story, maybe you don’t have as specific of a thing that you want to bring out. It’s really fucking hard to do. It’s really fucking hard in a story to get an incident in the story that you want to be in the story.
MARION: But politically, the whole anti-globalization position is an easy one to take. “This whole thing is because of globalization; they hate us”: that is an easy intellectual position to take, and it gets you away from doing the hard work of knowing and imagining.
MARGIT: I was hoping we could try to articulate at some point why it is that we have the visceral reaction when two fallen towers appear in a poem. It’s like a poem is going along so well and all of a sudden you have a brass band emerge that wrecks the whole piece. Maybe it’s because, in the Benjaminian sense, the event is already art. It was a thing that was done to mean something to all of you there. To make the event-statement into art just shows the pathetic inadequacy of your hand. Good poetry that is going to come out of this is going to have to do something different than just representing it.
MARION: And yet you were within a stone’s throw of it happening-well, a couple of stones.
ROBIN: I just think about how there is a pecking order that arises from our ability to claim authority. It is almost like the apostles jostling for position under the cross, and they waited 300 years to write.
JASON: I was appalled by how quickly everyone seemed to have their September 11th poems ready. It felt much to fast for me. Every reading I go to, I hear a new one. It just feels to fast for me. I tried writing immediately after, and the poems were terrible.
MARION: Yeats didn’t wait to write “Easter 1916.” I looked at the date. It is 1916.
ROBIN: It was four months later.
CHRIS: The text I brought is a Rilke poem, and I think it is appropriate. But even more appropriate than what I brought in: there’s a passage in Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which was published as a novel, that is kind of like a memoir of his early experiences when he first moved to Paris. And in it there is a passage in which he talks about poetry. To paraphrase, he says poetry is not about the kind of feelings that a lot of people see in it. What we have to do in order to write a single line of poetry is to love and have lost, have seen people die. You have to have seen flowers open up in the morning, and then you have to forget it all. When it again becomes part of your blood after a whole life of seeing these things, then you might be ready to be a part of this 9-11 issue.
MARION: What happened to our students in all of this? What happened to teaching writing?
DANIEL: I was teaching Frank O’Hara, with this sprirt of, you know, New York New York,” and it was really hard, this city-embracing poet.
JASON: I don’t exactly know when Paul Celan was writing, but he was really furious that his poems were being taught in Germany with absolutely no relationship to the Holocaust. It was being taught as this abstract great work of art, and no one was saying, “He was in a camp.”
MARION: How long after that did he write?
ROBIN: It is interesting that Paul Celan’s poems are said to be difficult, even when it’s this kind of testimony. And I’m going back to Yeats’ “Easter 1916” poem. I think there is this kind of feat of avoidance that Yeats pulls off. Here you have an uprising of a Northern Ulster faction who are against home rule, which had been recently passed in Ireland. The northerners saw home rule as “Rome rule.” And you have Yeats, who is a Protestant from the North. And he’s in a difficult position representing Ireland, because it’s hard for him to say what he wants to say in a way that is palatable to Catholics, Irishness and Catholicness being very tied up. So what does he do? He avoids the whole thing. He aestheticizes the whole situation by talking about how these men who died, who were put to death, had feelings. They acted on their feelings. They were men of action. They were driven by these feelings. So he extracts from the situation the poetic essentials and avoids his own position. The result? Great poem.
MARION: That speech brings up the notion of silence, and some of the notions we have been talking about: the poetic imagination, the movement, and erasure of self. I guess to sum up, we have the basic question of the small versus the global. We have this question of the proper distance, and we’ve asked the question a lot about where the talk about 9-11 has gone wrong. One thing we have asked but not answered yet is, Are we ready to do better at talking about this? Or maybe it’s still too immediate.
CHRIS: I think there is something extremely important about what’s being done now, and I don’t mean the axis of evil crap. I mean the journalism and the investigation. I think there is something essential about that, because it involves trying to get as many facts as are available about what happened, and there is something very important about that. Maybe this is the time for that. But I don’t feel it’s my job. I don’t think that’s what I am particularly good at or what I have decided to spend my life doing. Now is the time to do that.
ROBIN: It seems that a lot of writing is ruined by the fact that we are always trying to gain access to the bigger arena of discourse. I think we’ll all probably agree that the public arena, the kind of discourse that’s distributed in a massive way has failed. It’s interesting that a small magazine such as ours might be where some work can be done that can go under the radar. Maybe when we talk about this we need to stop trying to go prime time and instead speak to the smallness of our real life. I think publicly talking about tragedy in a sense always fails, and that’s why literature and art exist-to make up for that failure, and make up for all that’s lost or evaded or misrepresented. It picks that up, and it makes sense of the experience in an intimate personal way.
DANIEL: Even recent wars like Vietnam, most people understand through the movies and books.
CHRIS: That’s journalistic, but it’s also literary. It’s art, too.