“Mr. Fuller has come to a dead end, and likes it”
[This interview originally appeared in Quid]
I once misintroduced William Fuller as “a banker and a poet.” He corrected me on the spot. Although he has been employed for twenty-seven years by a large Chicago bank (where he is currently the Chief Fiduciary Officer), he has worked there in its old and formidable Trust Department, administering personal trusts for which the bank serves as trustee: “trust officer” is the more accurate term of art, not “banker.” In the same period Fuller has published several books and pamphlets of poetry in the U.S. and U.K., including Sadly and Watchword (both from Flood), Dry Land (Equipage), and Three Replies (Barque). Before working at the bank, he earned a PhD. in English from the University of Virginia, where he wrote a dissertation entitled “Symbols of Thought: Browne, Traherne and the Neoplatonic Tradition in Seventeenth-Century Literature.” He was born in 1953, and is descended from the Puritan Thomas Fuller (himself a poet) who came to Massachusetts in 1638 a few years before the outbreak of the English Civil Wars. Margaret and Buckminster are two other notable nonconforming relations.
We recorded the following conversation in his office in downtown Chicago on a snowy Friday in March 2007. Rather than update it in light of the collapses and stimulations that have since turned all of us into hedge funds, I let it the transmission stand here as is and refer readers to Fuller’s new collection, Hallucination (also from Flood).
“It gradually infiltrated my writing”
ES: Is the work that you’ve done by day here at the Bank these last twenty-odd years related to the poetry you’ve written in the same period? The second poem in Watchword is “Ode (at Work).” Working that pun, I’m asking: what does your poetry owe to the work you’ve done here in trust administration?
WF: I’ve never really tried to sort it out, but it’s not something that I conceive of as any disjunction.
There’s a story about Stevens arriving straight from a business meeting to give a reading at Yale—as you know, he was the head of the surety division at Hartford Accident and Indemnity. Before the reading he showed Louis Martz the contents of his briefcase, saying “On this side I have my insurance papers, and over here is my poetry; I keep them completely separate.” Well, clearly I lack Stevens’ organizational skills [points to a messenger bag stuffed with books and papers jammed together at odd angles]; and that has made all the difference.
Because my job can at times be all-encompassing, and because over the years I’ve developed some strong views regarding what I do, and strong feelings about the people with whom I work, there’s a certain emotion that feeds into the poems that comes directly out of the workplace. I will also admit that from time to time the urge to satirize does come upon me, usually to be tempered by the editorial process. And if there are elements of my work that are more or less parodies of the various rationalizations one encounters, these are not solely derived from the world of the job.
When I started out publishing (the book byt  for instance), I was more interested than I am today in thinking about the idea of everyday life and poetry as a means of dealing with the day-to-day, or at any rate as something would add interest to everyday life as opposed to the job, which at the time wasn’t terribly interesting. As the Roman Jakobson epigraph to byt suggests, I was thinking about the Russian Formalists and Constructivists. That’s a Malevich defaced on the cover. Part of the focus of that book was on de-routinizing the routine, and finding a way to frame everyday life that wasn’t writing about that life, but somehow enacting it. Early drafts offered more emphasis on “laying bare the device” which ultimately turned out to be itself an irritating device.
ES: byt’s published by Leslie Scalapino’s O Books, which has published a lot of work—like yours—that’s in some way or other in conversation with Language poetry. How did you come into contact with this kind of writing? I don’t expect it’s something you encountered in graduate school in the early ‘80s.
WF: I didn’t encounter any contemporary poetry in graduate school, nor did I seek to encounter it. I was sunk in history. For years I barely ventured beyond the age of Milton. But once Elizabeth and I moved to Chicago and I suddenly began to write poems, I stumbled on a handful of Tuumba Press titles at a used bookstore on Sheffield, and they immediately stimulated me. So that’s how I encountered the Language poets: shopping.
ES: What was it in their writing that attracted you?
WF: It simply appealed to me. Not all of it certainly. But it finally got me reading contemporary work in earnest. I read books like Alan Davies’ Name, Peter Seaton’s The Son Master, Larry Price’s Crude Thinking, Kit Robinson’s Riddle Road, Tina Darragh’s On the Corner to Off the Corner, Ted Pearson’s, Lyn Hejinian’s, Tom Raworth’s, and Peter Inman’s various books. I corresponded first with Lyn, who told me about SPD, and for the next year or two I read everything I could find that looked vaguely experimental or untraditional.
Back then I felt a need to develop a strenuous mode of expression perhaps to compensate for working at a place where the texts that were daily proffered appeared to have been systematically stripped of any quality that would render them interesting. Later I would contribute my fair share of these. But I should say that when I began to deal primarily with wills and trusts, as opposed to operational memos, there was plenty of interesting stuff to read, on a number of levels.
ES: Do you have a sense of how the relationship between your poetry and your job has evolved over the years?
WF: When I become a manager in 1992, there was some question about whether I was going to be able to continue to write. I had to think much more coherently about what I did for a living because there were people who I had to account to and account for. I was the transfer point between the trust administrators, on the one hand, who were out there doing the work that kept the place going and paid all our salaries, and the people who looked down at it from up above, on the other hand, who were trying to figure out how to increase revenues. As a result, reconciling the managerial discourse with the actual discourse of the job became a compelling part of what I did. I didn’t have time to sort any of this out, but it gradually infiltrated my writing—this activity came to be part of how I represent the world in a poem, to the extent that representation is an issue. You might say this happened by accident, or out of efficiency.
A “Strangely Restorative” Poetry of Inconvenience
ES: On Thanksgiving Day a few years ago the Chicago Tribune ran a front page article about that rare beast, the executive who is also a poet. The headline reads “Execs say writing poetry helps improve their form” and the subheader: “Poet-executives fight stress, reclaim individuality, express emotions, gain stability and transform daily experiences in ‘strangely restorative’ exercise.”
“Strangely restorative”: I knew that was you before I even read the piece (the big juicy picture of you may have helped). The piece leads with you, reporting that “Fuller makes a regular habit of writing poems, usually on his 45-minute train commute” and then trots out a handful of other “poet-executives,” the most illustrious of whom was then-Poet Laureate and former insurance executive Ted Kooser.
WF [incredulous]: This is like a real interview question.
ES: Let me juxtapose these two quotes from the piece:
Fuller says setting aside the stresses of his high-level post to write poetry is “strangely restorative.” “My day’s experiences are transformed into something else by the process,” he says. “Don’t ask me to explain it. I can’t.”
Kooser sees poetry writing as a way of bringing order to life’s daily chaos. “In a stressful and disorderly world, with lots of phone calls and papers flying in and out, a poem is a place of order,” says Kooser […]. “Writing poetry makes my world orderly. It brings me solace. It’s a source of endless entertainment.”
On the surface there seems to be a similarity, but the differences are important I think. Your language suggests mysterious therapy: the writing process is “strangely restorative” and “transforming”—but not something you can explain readily at all. Kooser is more than ready to explain: “in a stressful and disorderly world, a poem is a place of order,” a “solace,” and a “source of endless entertainment.” I don’t want to pursue an easy invidious comparison here, but I’d like to get you to say some more about what the poem does for you, what the relationship between a poem and work is, what your sense of order is.
WF: Well the other restorative that executives have typically had resort to would be cocktails. And I can’t comment on Kooser. I guess that’s how it works for him. But for me, I actually view my job as about creating order. In the work I do, while there are structures and conventions—and obviously laws and codes—you can nevertheless find yourself involved in situations of great ambiguity, where there may be a variety of alternative courses to take, and no bright lines to guide you. My job is to bring perspective, judgment, and calm to these formless situations as they develop, which on occasion I am able to do. I’m supposed to be at the point where things get focused and defined. Which is kind of sad when you look at my desk.
If the order-making activity is what ideally happens here at work, then poetry, without pushing this too far, is more like dream-work, or a kind of anti-work, which derives semi-autonomous and weird things out of all these experiences and materials. Like Sir Thomas Browne’s famous description of how dreams make “Cables of Cobwebbes and Wildernesses of handsome Groves.”
The restorative function is fairly temporary. And when a piece isn’t going well of course it’s not restorative at all; it’s highly irritating.
ES: It’s clear that the poetry that you’re writing is different from the poetry of Kooser or of other poet-executives who have since been promoted to captains of the poetry and arts industry, like John Barr and Dana Gioia. Like Kooser, Barr and Gioia both put a heavy premium on entertainment and on a kind of legibility that doesn’t seem to be all that hospitable to what you are describing as dream-work.
WF: I haven’t read either of them. I’ve read little snippets of John Barr’s poetry in a recent New Yorker article on the Poetry Foundation that whetted my appetite for some more plantation dialect. But I would say that that is different from anything that I would aspire to create at this point. (I am familiar with the Poetry Foundation and the lawsuit they have pursued in probate court in Indianapolis, which I have followed with some interest as a trust administrator.) And I know more about Gioia from what I’ve read about him in Business Week than from his poetry or his essays.
ES: Before Bush appointed him head of the NEA, and before he published “Can Poetry Matter,” Gioia’s claim to fame was his resuscitation of the Jell-O account for General Foods.
WF: Those were the days of Jell-O Jigglers if I’m not mistaken.
ES: “Concentrated gelatin snacks” was their scientific name. He used to talk about making Jell-O “more convenient, more contemporary.” It’s only a slight caricature to suggest that that’s what Gioia proposes poets do in his anti-modernist anti-intellectual critical essays: contemporize poetry by making it more “convenient” for the reader. This is also pretty much what John Barr argues in that essay on “American Poetry in the New Century” that Poetry published last year. They both do this in language tricked out in pseudo-populism that fails to cover-up the shallow conservatism they’re prescribing in the name of orderly convenient entertainment.
It seems worth posing what I think of as a keyword of yours against this prescription for “convenience,” and that is the word “convulsion,” which shows up in more than a few poems, for instance in the first poem of Aether—“Money floats on its back of flame / unclarified, its golden head / convulsing”—and at the end of “Homburg” in Watchword: “feeling his great loss he made no reply except through the art of label making where he excelled all others in convulsions purified with ice.”
I wonder if you can speak a little bit about your poetry and the convulsions it records in distinction to this poetry of convenience.
WF: I really am unable to comment on either Barr or Gioia because that whole discourse does not interest me. But if “convenience” is an idea they market, then clearly mine is the poetry of the inconvenient.
I will say that I’ve never really designed it to be that way, and maybe there’s a part of me that every time I sit down to write would like to write something that’s “convenient,” but by the time I’m done I’m stuck with another William Fuller poem. And I seem to be incapable of changing its nature once it’s begun.
I haven’t really thought about “convulsions,” but I’m willing to make something up. “Homburg”‘s “convulsions purified with ice” could be about an involuntary eruption having been rendered after the fact or made intelligible. In “Aether” the convulsion awaits clarification, a volatility giving rise to recollection in the tranquility of a train ride home. But clarification doesn’t indicate the convulsion has necessarily subsided: it still feeds its energy into the piece, like a breach held in tension. The involuntary nature of a convulsion, the ensuing turmoil—we have that here all the time.
Perhaps it overstates the issue to talk about the convulsive nature of corporate life, but the system does seem to encourage it. Nobody can ever leave well enough alone; there’s this sense that turning people upside-down every ten minutes is a mission-critical activity. They must teach a course in it at business school. But writing through these periods and these experiences sometimes allows me to connect with people despite using an inconvenient idiom.
Let me give you an example.
I wrote a poem called “Reply to Experience,” to be published soon by Barque [in Three Replies], and I gave a public reading of a draft of it in December of last year. There’s a long prose section at the end that bounces all over the place. It’s one of these things that veers in and out of several worlds, tearing out little bits of this and that—this and that book, this and that experience, this and that werewolf—but nevertheless has a rhetorical flow to it as it is read in a public reading, in this case in a bookstore in Winnetka where I live. The audience included interested neighbors and people from the bank, a number of whom live near me, and with whom I am very close here at work and deal with on a daily basis. These were trust department people, and we tend to identify ourselves as such, reflecting how we are perceived no doubt—but we are a breed unto ourselves in this corporation, for better or for worse. When I introduced the poem I joked that it was a cross between Kierkegaard and a well-known consulting company, who was then creating havoc for us in the self-assured, reductive way consultants do.
Most of my co-workers aren’t reading poetry regularly, and I’m sure that what I read was different from what they’re used to—they’re not in a place where this is part of their lives. I know I’m not working in an easy idiom.
But I sensed as I read the poem, and gathered from comments afterwards, that people were with me the entire time on some level. And it had an effect on them, and it had an effect on me, that maybe had to do with some common emotional experience that was only contained there in the reading site, I don’t know. I felt that people were following me well into the wilderness, and we were all noticing the same things. And the next day at work I was talking with someone who had been there and thanking her for coming, and she said “How often do we have an experience where we’re all somewhere together?” So that poem was taken to register some aspect of our common surround in the downtown commercial world, and it appealed to an audience unfamiliar with this sort of contemporary writing—they would never come anywhere near it except for their friendship with me—and they simply forgot about its alleged inaccessibility. It may help that the work doesn’t condescend when addressing our common world, either by quaintly compartmentalizing it, or by employing a deafening critical irony. We don’t need a laugh track or lecture to know what we’re dealing with. That was useful to me because I thought I learned something about how this can work in a way such that the austerity of the project is not diminished but the point comes across and everybody finds it’s done something for them—I assume by seeing our common context dealt with in a way they apparently thought was interesting. I don’t experience that often but it usually comes from bank people, as opposed to what Joel Felix calls the “PhD crowd,” who get a different stimulus from this stuff. It was a fun night because of that.
At this point the interview suffers its own inconvenient convulsion when the digital recorder I’ve borrowed runs out of memory. I go out into the swirling lake-effect snow to buy a new one, and by the time I return Bill has located his colleague Karen Cortese, who gives her own report of the reading Bill had been describing. While she’s talking Bill is rummaging among his papers, and eventually locates his copy of “Reply to Experience,” from which he reads the relevant passage.
WF [to KC]: I was trying to explain how this incomprehensible work can somehow nevertheless find some resonance with the people who work at the bank and don’t study poetry. And I’d repeated your comment after the reading last time, that we were all sort of in the same place with a common experience.
KC: What was interesting was having his words. The people that were there knew exactly what he was writing about. It’s like your other family here. We want to be real. What we’re about is trying to help people and get them to realize their goals and do it the right way. But sometimes there are these clouds of pressure and you feel like you are walking in sand.
WF: Or as one of our colleagues says, having your head held under water.
KC: The people who determine what the value is aren’t necessarily the people who understand what the work is.
WF: That’s it.
KC: Sometimes it’s so frustrating.
ES: And what was Bill able to do with his poem?
KC: Well there was a remark of mine from work that he put in one of the poems.
ES: Oh I see—so you were triangulating something. You were able to identify an experience at the bank that he was referring to, but you were able to identify that by means of an experience of language that’s not at all transparent.
KC: No, not transparent at all. It’s really hard for me to understand his writing.
ES: Me too. And I’m not sure he understands it.
KC: Sometimes when I get the theme then I can understand it, but usually reading it I can’t understand it. Sometimes I’d like some feedback. I mean, why the hell can’t I understand this? I’m a smart person. But it’s totally different thinking. It’s a totally different way of looking at things. [to WF] I think of you riding the train and think of you writing this stuff, and I ask how does he think of this?
[to ES] We were sitting in a meeting together and listening to a presentation. And Bill had his pad, his little note pad, so I knew he was getting words. And I turned to him and I said “This is nuts. This is not good.” And his shoulders started going up and down. He was trying to be so bank.
ES [laughing]: He was trying to hold it in by being all bank in his suit…
WF: And that shows up late in this piece that I read. It’s a long piece, but people were following it—
KC: Yes they were
WF:—maybe because prose is a little bit easier to follow.
ES: You do tend to read prose at a somewhat slower rate.
Experience confirms that long lost memories can be summoned up from the deep, until one day the world expands before us and we pick out the sea-glass, to feel its honed edges, while the golden flood shimmers ‘here was’ and ‘who were’ and ‘what might they have said or done.’ When play resumes, the beautiful heart flowers, with dusky spots, in a nest of olive green. Poplars.
Maples and poplars. Sunlit
transactions. A woman near me says—and I believe her—‘These people are really nuts,’ which does not explain as much as it should. There was a different earth here yesterday, different from the one here last night. The dogs dragged them both away.
KC: That bit about the glass shards: I thought that thing was really cool. Because glass shards to me are broken things. [Gestures with hands as if holding a piece of broken glass.] And I think you said—
ES: They’re sea-smoothed or something
KC: Yes. And I said to myself, “Well are we just kind of breaking into pieces and trying to find our way in a new environment and just hold it together all on our own?”
ES [ruining it]: That’s great! And Bill’s work is fractured stuff. The connections aren’t explicit. We were just speaking about how his poems are more like a set of convulsions, the way they fit together, rather than standard prose or even kinds of poetry where rhyme is organizing things or meter—
KC: Or what you’d expect.
ES: And you plucked out of those words the piece of glass that’s a shard but smoothed over as if by a process.
WF: But it’s still a shard. Because nobody here was trying to gloss over the edges. And you talk about those other businessmen poets… I mean the reality of the business world is—. [WF looks at the recorder] Turn that thing off.
Convulsions and Conjectures
ES: I wonder if we can relate some of what Karen was just saying about togetherness—both about being together and trying to hold it together—to Sadly’s epigraph: “In which being there together is enough.” That’s another one of your uncited, hermetic epigraphs.
WF: It’s from Stevens, “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.”
ES: There’s a calmness to that epigraph, and a sense of sufficiency, which some might sense is at odds with the velocity and range of the poems that book contains.
WF: Well it’s a sense of sufficiency that you do feel—that lucky people feel—with their families.
ES: Can you say more about the project of conjectural poetics in relation to this idea of togetherness? As you note in the “Restatement of Trysts” essay in Chicago Review and in “Harmonious Verification” in Aether, “conjecture” means literally “to throw together.” The compositional process you describe in that profile here for the bank’s internal newsletter seems to be directly informed by this etymology: “I basically pour my life, and the phrases that occur in it, into a mental hopper, shake everything up, and pick out combinations that seem interesting.” Added to this I think there is a real togetherness to your poems—regardless what different vectors they may contain, and separate from any biographical or documentary facts we might be uncovering in this interview—that I think might be relatable to this idea of convulsion we’ve been talking about.
The etymology here is a rich one, from the Latin convellere “to pull violently hither and thither, to wrest, wrench, shatter,” from con- “together” + vellere “to pluck, pull, tear.” So to convulse is to pull or tear together—a paradoxical simultaneous sundering and joining motion.
WF: Oh I see where we’re going with this: “heterogeneous ideas yoked with violence together” or whatever—Samuel Johnson’s Life of Cowley.
ES: Okay, very good: you are stealing my thunder, but please try and play along. Can you say something about “conjecture”?
WF: Well I wrote about some of this in the “Trysts” essay, which is probably the place to go for the definitive statement.
I will say that there is something to the idea of the conjecture that has given me some sort of impetus and has helped me to think about what I’m doing—that is, during those two or three occasions when I’ve actually tried to think about it (including right now). The idea is that you’re positing things and you give them a kind of provisional existence. And there are multiple things thrown out there that either stick or are withdrawn. The process, at least for me, in writing—not that this is terribly interesting—usually involves many, many revisions, and as I revise I add or subtract elements to see if it makes things more interesting. And then if that whole structure conjures something, some fortuitous and fleeting unity… And I don’t know what that is, but that’s something that presumably if readers find interesting, then that’s something that they can attach to.
ES: To speak of conjecture and convulsion as techniques or spasms of intensive combination brings us close to Johnson’s description of Metaphysical Poetry as “heterogeneous ideas yoked with violence together” (as you’ve so helpfully anticipated). That makes me think of the way your poems will often make jagged shifts or splices, from the diction of capital to the diction of pastoral, the bureaucratic to the vatic, or what have you. In his essay on the Metaphysical Poets, Eliot speaks of Donne’s “sudden contrasts” and his “rapid association of thought which requires considerable agility on the part of the reader.” But I wonder what you make of the category. Are you writing “Metaphysical Poetry”? That seems to have become a touchstone for a few of the people who have reviewed your work over the years.
WF: I’ve watched this term used from time to time, and it’s clear I’ve read and enjoyed the Metaphysical Poets for many years, and I’ve read and enjoyed the prose of Sir Thomas Browne, who has a similar kind of range. He’s not doing it for a dramatic lyric effect, but he’ll find some underlying structure that he’ll often bizarrely trace throughout a huge range of material—nature, literature, history, whatever.
From my standpoint what I seek to do artistically is create a sense of density, of things overlapping. Except, of course, when I think I’m doing something else. But typically what I enjoy is the process of fitting in elements that are almost contradictory. That’s something that I always seem to end up doing whether I want to or not.
ES: Is there a wobble here? You just now said of the elements your work includes that they are “almost contradictory.” But earlier you stated that you felt no disjunction between your occupation in poetry and your occupation in the bank—
WF [interrupting]: Well even if I said I sensed no disjunction between working at the bank and writing poetry, that doesn’t mean I don’t sense a disjunction between the kinds of elements included in my poetry.
ES: Well sure, okay, fair enough. But what I’m trying to get at is that there’s a caricature that says that bank work and poetry must be separate categories, that they can’t possibly be mutually informing or usefully occupying the same head. And it seems like one of the promises of your work is showing how those things can or do go together. The work doesn’t get bogged down in concerns about what is supposed to belong with what, and instead is concerned with what moves or what coheres. I guess that’s what I’m curious to hear more about: the relation between the parts.
WF: I need to make it clear that while some of the elements in the poems may come from work, they also reflect my experience at work as simply another experience of living, which of course sometimes could be an experience of disturbance or alienation. Let’s say, for instance, there’s an initiative going on here that really bothers us old-timers; all of us, not just “the poet,” feel this as an alienating fact. So in a sense, as Karen was describing, there’s solidarity in that. And there may be an opposing value posited within a poem that we would all subscribe to, although I don’t think of myself as consciously placing that kind of counterbalance within the poem. And naturally none of this is unique to people who work in corporations.
This is first and foremost a social place. We spend our days talking about, working with, and getting annoyed by each other. Years ago, a poet-friend commented on some of my memo poems from Avoid Activity—which Douglas Rothschild read for me in absentia at the Ear Inn—that they reminded everyone of “how frightening that world is,” by which I assume he meant the business world. I clearly don’t have the luxury of being outside that world, to make such observations. I encounter people here as people; I have my favorites and my not-favorites. I don’t see them as manipulated by a discourse whose motives they don’t understand—many of them have acute understandings of the most subtle nuances of that discourse and offer hilarious insights. So to stand outside and comment ironically on the whole of it would seem adolescent to me.
That said, I’m pretty much alienated from everything, other than the little quiet space mentioned in the epigraph in Sadly—so the idea is to bounce the alienations against one another. I think that’s what my publishers had in mind when they talk about irony on the back cover of Sadly.
Our former head of trust sales once called me “the ultimate chameleon.” “And believe me,” he said, “as a salesman, that’s the highest compliment I can give.”
ES: With apologies to Keats, perhaps we should start identifying you as that special breed of amphibian, the “chameleon poet-executive.”
WF: I’ve always preferred Clare to Keats.
ES: Why’s that?
WF: His laissez faire approach to spelling and punctuation, among other things.
ES: Sadly’s back cover also quotes Maureen McLane’s description of Aether as “luminous images that consistently marry the cerebral with the sensual.” McLane’s terms are close to Eliot’s description of Donne and company, who on his account had a “direct sensuous apprehension of thought” that allowed them to “feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.” Eliot was reversing Johnson’s reading of the Metaphysicals, which complained about what he saw as conspicuous seams in the poems of Donne and Cowley and company, a fault between the heterogeneous parts in their poems that wasn’t being bridged. Eliot’s rejoinder was that Johnson misunderstands the Metaphysicals, because he’s looking back at them from the other side of “the dissociation of sensibility”—whatever that is—that “set in” circa the English Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century.
Leaving aside questions of the “dissociation of sensibility”: is Eliot a poet who’s mattered to you? I see him as someone similarly working in the twentieth century and similarly looking back at Renaissance poetry, incorporating it into his own work, and writing something like The Waste Land as a text whose language has been intentionally “dislocated” in order to accommodate a fragmentary and convulsed range of experiences. As he puts it at the end of his “Metaphysicals” essay:
[I]t appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. […] The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language to into his meaning. (65)
WF: That essay was the sort of text I’d once committed to memory. And I certainly agreed with Eliot’s taste, even if I never really bought the historical argument.
He’s obviously someone who was saturated with sixteenth and seventeenth century writing in a striking way, and who’d had commercial experience that on the surface is similar to mine. And although I’m really ignorant of his biography, I gather he was at one point chosen to help resolve German loans still on the books of Lloyds Bank at the end of World War I. Which strikes me as a stressful thing to have to do, especially while writing up a bunch of lectures and book reviews at the same time. So out of all that comes The Waste Land—I’m not surprised!
Now as to the question about whether my poems are usefully illuminated by comparison to the techniques of The Waste Land: well probably not. Certainly there’s stuff that I’m conscious of doing, like yanking in sixteenth and seventeenth voices.
ES: For example “Kind pity chokes my spleen”—the opening from Donne’s third “Satire” that you include in that line “Kind pity kind pity” in “Sadly”?
WF: I love Donne’s “Satires,” and am known to use him on occasion. I quote “I do hate / Perfectly all this town” in “Profitability Death Spiral.” Bradin Cormack pointed that out right away when I read down at the University of Chicago.
Usually when I appropriate a line it’s because of the aspect it adds in combination with layers from other places, times, contexts. By and large the process is intuitive, and really goes toward a feeling that’s developing in the piece. While I know the provenance of any given snippet, it’s not used to set up some ironic contrast to a spiritually impoverished present, which is what my teachers used to say Eliot was doing. Today when I read The Waste Land I simply ignore the footnotes and unlearn everything I once learned—not so difficult given my memory—and it comes across as a weird poem.
ES:—a poem that does not on the face of it submit to any expectation of a convenient reading experience. It’s a sharded poem. As you might put it, it’s a poem written in the breach.
WF: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” I like fragments quite a bit; but I wouldn’t actually try to write in fragments. In fact, I resist any tendency to do that. I get disappointed when people regard the poems as fragmentary, and feel like maybe I didn’t do my job the way I thought I was doing it. Obviously there are things broken off in my poems, that’s true. And I’ve always been attracted to Hölderlin’s unfinished poems. But to try to write that way would destroy what is attractive about the fragmentary, that is, its accidental character.
My sense of what I try to do in my own poems—and this, I think, is regardless what Eliot’s up to or what Metaphysical Poetry is or does—is put language and experience under a kind of pressure that forces them to yield up a tenuous continuity, or roughly drawn site—unsteady though its boundaries may be—that feels authentic to me.
“Welcome to the seventeenth century: the goose has been shot”
ES: You once told me that in your dissertation you suggested a redefinition of “metaphysical poetry” using the work of the fifteenth century philosopher Nicholas of Cusa.
WF: The main work of my first chapter was describing the metaphysical image as a Cusan conjecture, but that was a long time ago. I will occasionally reread Nicholas, but he’s not part of the active circulation right now.
ES: In The Idea of the Renaissance, William Kerrigan and Gordon Braden describe Nicholas’s project in a way that I’ve found useful in thinking about your work. Can I just read you a few lines from their chapter on Cusa, to refresh your memory?
WF: Yes, “to refresh your memory,” like at a deposition. Wally and Gordon wrote that after I’d left UVA.
ES: It was all new to me, and fascinating. Here are some sentences on disproportion and negative relatedness circa their account of Cusan anthropology and theology:
There is no proportion between the finite and the infinite. All attempts to know God are […] disproportionate.
We cannot know God absolutely, as God knows only himself, and we cannot know ‘the quiddity of things’ in this world as they are known by God. Our knowledge rests on comparison and degree. It cannot be definitive.
Our concepts are provisional, like the world they hope to exhibit.
The nulla proportion does not imply that creation has been severed from an acosmic God, for there is a relationship between the finite and the infinite, that of being without proportion: most of Nicolas’s energies as a philosophical symbolist are devoted to creating metaphors for this negative relatedness.
For Cusa, they say, “man is the inveterate conjecturer” (97). Human incapacity to comprehend the infinite is compensated for by human capacity for conjecture. And so even though a polygon is not a perfect circle, it can approximate one, and that suffices. At the end of the chapter, they argue that in Cusa’s system the symbol serves to conjoin unlike things, not in order to demonstrate some kind of cutesiness (what Dryden accused Donne of doing—“affecting the metaphysicals” to impress the ladies), but rather in order to redirect thought onto thought’s own processes. In defiling categories and jamming the keys, symbol allows for a kind of plural vision.
WF: That sounds like what I argued in my first chapter, which was a reading of Nicholas’s De possest, spiced with some Cassirer and Gombrich. The notion of conjecture originally arose for me in connection with Sir Thomas Browne’s The Garden of Cyrus, especially in a paper I wrote around 1979, for Wally Kerrigan’s seminar. I know this because I scoured my dissertation for the analysis in order to reheat it for the Chicago lecture [“Restatement of Trysts”], but it was nowhere to be found. Then I remembered it was in the long-lost seminar paper, which meant I had to think the damn thing all the way through again.
As I recall, the notion of conjecture—if not necessarily my take on it—was generally imbedded in the Neoplatonic tradition. Nicholas wrote something called De Conjecturis, and the Cambridge Platonist Henry More wrote a book called Conjectura Cabbalistica, which I toyed with writing on—until I actually tried to read it.
Nicholas’s symbols are almost like fifteenth-century European versions of Zen koans, in that they have a tendency to lay bare the limits of intellection while at the same time offering a countervailing experience within the imagination in which irreconcilable elements are held in tension. To that extent the symbol forms a distinct conceptual entity, registering the failure of one kind of thought through the success of another. Ultimately in artistic work that’s what you’re looking for. You’re not looking beyond whatever to X, you are also looking at this, the moment that it’s leading you away from itself. I used to call this the “Neoplatonic imagination.”
ES: Can you say a few words more about your dissertation and your training at Virginia?
WF: I’d come to UVA with the idea of studying early eighteenth-century literature, which was what the department was best known for back then. I only started getting into Renaissance literature my senior year as an undergrad at Lawrence. I liked Spenser in small doses, and was thrilled by the little bit of Browne that I’d read. When I came to Virginia I took Irvin Ehrenpreis’s eighteenth century course, which he hadn’t taught in a while, and Wally Kerrigan’s Milton course, and I pretty much pursued the seventeenth century after that.
ES: On the merits of that first toke?
WF: I was headed in that direction anyway. And I found Wally a fresh and compelling teacher and a good friend. His focus on the wellspring of Milton’s creativity involved reading a lot of Freud, as I recall, which was fairly controversial at the time. I remember a seminar of his where one of my classmates blurted out “I hate what you’re doing.” And yet a number of his students—several of whom were also my friends—have gone on to become important Milton scholars.
ES: Was Kerrigan the main person you worked with at Virginia?
WF: I wrote my dissertation with Wally, and I was close to Jim Nohrnberg as well, who taught courses on the Bible and on Spenser. He’d written The Analogy of The Faerie Queene, a huge book that I believe is longer than the poem itself—which is saying something. He has one of the most amazingly fertile minds I’ve run across. I should mention that when I was leaving Virginia, I remember telling Ehrenpreis what I was going to do, and he said something to the effect that “some of my best friends are trust officers.”
ES: And how did you first get involved with Renaissance Neoplatonism and hermeticism, and with the radical political writers of the mid-seventeenth century? What was the bait there, and what the hook?
WF: That actually came about in the year off I took around 1977 between finishing my Masters and starting the PhD. I had moved to New York, and where I lived in the Upper West Side there was a pretty decent used bookstore that had Don Wolfe’s book, Milton in the Puritan Revolution, which had some Leveller tracts in the back. And they also had Wolfe’s collection of Leveller tracts. I found them pretty interesting. And this was around the same time that Christopher Hill’s book on Milton and the English Revolution came out. From that I looked around and found his World Turned Upside Down, where I learned about Winstanley and others. I had also finally read Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium which concluded with a long exposition on the Ranters—in fact it may have been Cohn’s book that really got me started. At any rate, I loved the Levellers’ pamphlet literature—still do. A prose of direct, if occasionally repetitive, statement, that tears right into fundamental issues of equity. In Winstanley’s case, there’s a visionary beauty, utterly limpid and straightforward, that overlays his lucid accounts of his legal battles with the local landowners over his fate and the fate of his cows.
My interest in Hermeticism came about the same way everyone else’s did: Frances Yates. This interest likewise led me toward non-canonical prose texts, like John Dee’s Mathematical Preface to Euclid, and the strange books of Robert Fludd, among many others.
And so I divided my time that year between thinking about Renaissance Neoplatonism vis-à-vis the occult and then this political ferment in the 1640s and early 1650s, which had some relationship to the occult, it turns out, but at that point I wasn’t really focusing on that.
ES: And did this material form the basis for your dissertation?
WF: The politics didn’t but the Neoplatonism did, as it emerges in Browne and Traherne, in rough descent from the habit of thought I trace in Nicholas of Cusa. The political stuff did show up on my PhD orals reading list, and gave me a chance to think about an instrumental prose (many of the texts took the form of petitions to Parliament), rather than Ciceronian or Senecan prose, which were the conventional categories people thought in terms of in times of yore. It took about six months of reading but only two minutes of the exam, because one of my examiners said “I haven’t read any of this, so I’m not going to ask you any questions on it.” Fortunately, E.D. Hirsch, another of my other examiners, did want to hear!
These remain some of my favorite books. I tend to go back and reread stuff that I’ve read before because my memory is so bad I can never remember it, and I have to keep refining and understanding the context, which indeed scholars continue to do.
ES: Neoplatonism shows up a fair bit in Avoid Activity, which takes its epigraph from one of Plato’s Renaissance translators, Marsilio Ficino:
You asked me yesterday to transcribe for you that maxim of mine that is inscribed around the walls of the Academy. Receive it. “All things are directed from goodness to goodness. Rejoice in the present; set not value on property, seek no honours. Avoid excess; avoid activity. Rejoice in the present.”
This is a really strong proposal for withdrawal and retreat, for what the Romans called otium, a life of contemplation—but it’s issued from the desk of one directly involved in the thick of nec otium, the newfangled business of commerce and property, the precinct of negotiations.
WF: Contemplation is the Renaissance topos in all of that. I suppose I was thinking of it in an ironic context. And my publishers took it literally of course.  [Laughs] Oh I shouldn’t say that. They have apologized many times, and they did an absolutely beautiful job with the book.
I use the word “activity” a lot. I’ve noticed because I find I’m always taking it out.
ES: So the title is actually an editorial instruction.
WF: It’s a word that I associated with stuff that goes on here at the bank. Some of it pointless, pointlessly pointless, some of it quite efficient and useful and helpful to people.
ES: “Avoid activity, rejoice in the present”: that sounds pretty great, like I can take it easy in this armchair here as I read this book. But then you start actually reading and it turns out that rejoicing in the present or avoiding activity is a somewhat different prospect than one might have anticipated [hands WF a copy of the book].
WF [flipping through the pages]: I’m trying to remember how this book came about. Most of it was just the stuff written after Aether; but there were several pieces that arose of my “participation” in an e-mail listserv years ago called Sub-Poetics, which I joined briefly at the invitation of Larry Price. And I really had nothing to contribute, but every now and then I’d deliver a memo to the group. Some of the prose pieces in that work were those memos. This is the book that’s probably most directly about the world of bureaucracy. For example, there’s a piece in here called “Thomas the Rhymer” about the organizational chart and uses the phrase “negativity accountability,” which is my Keatsian take on certain management behavior, crossed with Neoplatonic emanation theory. I had occasion to cite this to a colleague literally yesterday, as we noted that the more frequently one uses the term “accountability” the fewer are the things for which one holds oneself directly accountable. There’s another one which describes the budget season: “Diuturnity” (a term used by Sir Thomas Browne in Hydrotaphia). And there’s another one in here, “Fierce Vegetation” (a phrase in Blake somewhere), which is about the annual merit budget. They’re more directly about mysterious managerial phenomena. But I view these as little deadpan meditations on hierarchies, bureaucratic or Neoplatonic. I had done similar things in Aether’s “Harmonious Verification,” but less directly about work.
ES: The vocabulary of this workplace shows up rather differently in your “Restatement of Trysts” essay, where you conjoin a sharp consideration of Leveller tracts, which directly address the question of trust and political rule and war, with a reading of one of J.H. Prynne’s chapbooks, among other things. “Prynne, like the Levellers, tends to announce himself in pamphlets,” you wrote. Early in the essay you offer this definition of a trust:
A trust exists when one has authorized someone else to act on one’s behalf and in one’s best interest. In the context of property law, the trustee takes title to property on behalf of another person and for that person’s benefit; as Austin Wakeman Scott notes in The Law of Trusts (3rd ed. 1967), the trustee undertakes the burdens of ownership while providing the benefits of ownership to the beneficiary of the trust. When one undertakes to be a trustee in this sense one assumes certain duties. One of the most fundamental duties, if not the most fundamental, is the duty of loyalty owed to the beneficiary of the trust. By this duty, a trustee must place the interests of the beneficiary first and foremost, and must put aside the trustee’s own self-interest: to ignore this duty is to be in breach of trust.
WF: You will recall that essay came about as part of the deal for reading at the University of Chicago—that I give a lecture the day after the reading. That kept me unwilling to participate for quite a while! The idea of writing on trusts (as opposed to poetry) came from Tom Raworth, actually. And around the same time it occurred to me that there’s this one book that I really like by Prynne, Red D Gypsum, but I hadn’t a clue what it was about. I figured if I spent some time with it I could establish why I responded to it. It was an opportunity for me to tie together a lot of things that were flying around in my head, along with some of the seventeenth-century political stuff I’d been reading without ever really trying to understand how I was taking it in, how they all went together.
I was writing this during the first summer of the current war, waiting for my son every Thursday at his orchestra practice, and reading things like William Walwyn’s The Bloody Project, which he wrote in 1648 during the Second Civil War, or, if you prefer, the Puritan Revolution. As I was reading the Walwyn I was thinking: wow, that’s terrific. Because back then when they wrote their pamphlets they did not mince words. They had a gift of a certain kind of emotional clarity that was really good to see at that moment. Reading and writing on Walwyn was a real release.
Anyway, so when I read Walwyn and Richard Overton speaking about what was going in the late 1640s in terms of a “breach of trust” I naturally related that directly to what I’m concerned with as a trustee—that is, keeping a trust, not breaching it—and I thought I could tease it through a few things, to broaden out the sense of trusts, and keeping trusts. So I did my best. I didn’t have a lot of time to write.
ES: It’s a rich piece for suggesting ways of reading, especially for reading poetry that doesn’t submit to received ways of reading. There’s that thing the British critic Edna Longley says about Red D Gypsum, for instance, that it permits “no retrieval of coherence at a higher interpretive level.” And I think you set up—you are able to articulate a reading process that usefully fix the work not in any kind of reductive or belittling way—but to hold it in place to allow certain things to get exposed.
People gravitate toward that essay, I think, because there’s something compelling about the way you were formulating your questions about work that’s “written in the breach” (as you put it) at that moment as the Iraq adventure was being embarked on, in fall 2003, and the republic was subject to special pressures around the questions of governance and consent and responsibility—when writers, especially, were awakened to the question of how to write in relation or in response to that kind of circumstance.
Those were pretty dynamic animating questions to be focusing on at that moment, and continue to be. And I emphasize “the war” that was afoot as you wrote and read that piece and that persists as we speak not in order to reduce the document to a symptom, but to indicate why that essay is suggestive as a point of reference for thinking about your own writing and writing like yours.
But the essay is also not just about that particular moment, fall 2003. It exceeds it, by far, not least by embarking from Walwyn and Overton’s agitations in the seventeenth century. Walwyn’s pamphlets were written in response to the English Civil War—its title page notes that it was “written in this year of dissembling, 1648”—and decrying the covetous interests that get laid bare when wars in general get embarked on. That’s the “bloody project” he’s addressing, and he’s lamenting that circumstance, and the “uncertainties” it forces men to “go on in” as he puts it, articulating “negative capability” as a fact of life 150 years before Keats.
And now I know I’m hogging the mic here but I wonder—I want to see if you can help me clarify something about this notion of “breach of trust” as it might be related, or not, to Eliot’s account of a “dissociation of sensibility,” which he seems to identify as a consequence of the breakdown of church and state in the course of the convulsion of the English Civil War. As good as Eliot is at articulating the living strengths of Donne and others, his valuation seems to depend on a story of collapse and decay, a falling away from a prior, whole, unadulterated state we “moderns” are forever banished from. But my sense is that unlike Eliot you aren’t operating with that same narrative of decline from some prior state of wholeness. Your attraction to the radicals who were writing in the midst of—and in some cases contributing directly to—the breakdown Eliot laments would suggest as much… That kind of nostalgia doesn’t seem to be animating your operation, though there are more than a few elements from that habit of thought present via the Neoplatonist materials you’ve worked from. This leads to a central anthropological question (related to some of the Cusa we’ve touched on), and that is to ask whether your poems are written in order to restore a lapsed zone of coherence and plenitude—which is to say “associated sensibility”—or rather is the anthropology closer to the one that the Leveller Lilburne describes when he writes of “the original state of chaos and confusion wherein every man’s lusts become his law”?
WF: Well go on: you tell me. You’re saying it better than I can.
Obviously, the Renaissance felt some sense of primal breach as well, hence the focus on strategies to recover paradise or to reconstitute ancient, pristine wisdom. Winstanley’s experiment owes something to this feeling; for him and for the Levellers the political fall came with the Norman Conquest and the subsequent introduction of law French!
You will recall that in the discussion following the “Restatement” lecture, my publisher, Mr. O’Leary, said something to the effect of “Breach? What breach?” I simply point out that he is currently writing a dissertation on the science of fractures.
I think Eliot saw his modern practice, owing to its indirection and complexity, as capable of approximating, albeit self-consciously, the thorny artistic, psychological, and intellectual plenitude of Donne, for example—you know before Milton crushed it all. Eliot was, in Borges’ terms, creating his own precursors; and that’s an activity none of us should avoid. The poems I talk about [in “Restatement of Trysts”] are coming to terms with wreckage, which is not what Donne was doing, but is perhaps closer to what Overton and Lilburne were doing.
We break for lunch.
“How long have you been a patron of poetry?”
ES: Can you throw the archivist in me a bone and say a little about Chicago back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s? I fear that a lot of that local history lore is at risk of evaporating in the ether.
WF: Well I’m clearly not the one for that question, because I was not involved in much of anything. When I first started writing and publishing in the mid-to-late ‘80s there was a group of poets—many of whom had studied with Paul Hoover: people like Elaine Equi, Jerome Sala, Connie Deanovich, and others—with whom I was friendly. But mostly I was keeping to myself—sort of how I am today! Eventually I became viewed as the local representative office of Language poetry, younger brother division.
ES: There’s that early piece in the Tribune on you.
WF: “We have our Language poet too”—that’s how that came across, Laurie Ramey told me—she was at University of Chicago at the time. It was called “Impossible Pictures,” which looks to have been a Nicholas of Cusa reference.
Mostly I had friends who were not writers but, uh, raconteurs. One exception was my friend Dan Ursini, who had written several plays for Steppenwolf Theater, and who was always working on various projects. We’d get together regularly, forming a salon of two. Dan was a great help to me.
Later I did curate a reading series with Paul, called “New Writing/Lower Links,” and we had a number of people come through town: Leslie Scalapino, Michael Palmer, Larry Price, Cecil Giscombe, Elizabeth Robinson, Kit Robinson, Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, Andy Levy. We had a reading during the MLA back in 1990 with a packed house.
It was at this reading that it started to dawn on me that some of the Language poets with whom I had been corresponding were quitting their old day-jobs and joining the academy. For one thing the reading actually started on time—which was unusual, this being Chicago. I had barely made it from work in time to give the first introduction. And I still have bruises on my ribcage from people elbowing me aside to get to some of the tenured members of the tribe to put in a good word for them with the hiring committees. Years later at a party I gave during another MLA, I was introduced to a young PhD poet, who after hearing that I worked at the bank sniffed, “How long have you been a patron of poetry?” I’ve had my fill of MLAs.
I also recall that Stephen Lapthisophon and I cobbled together a brief series at the Nancy Lurie Gallery on North LaSalle, in maybe 1991 or ‘92 where Tom Raworth, Steve Benson, Marc Giordano, and Susan Wheeler read. Followed by pot-luck dinners I think.
And then in 1996 we moved out to Winnetka, and I would give maybe a reading a year, maybe not that often. And I’ve only paid sporadic attention to Chicago poetry since. There was a period there when I was writing, but really was not pushing anything. There’s a fairly long gap between Sugar Borders and Aether. Five years I think. I wasn’t really focusing on it. You’d be surprised at how much crap you come up with after a year that you haven’t crossed out.
I have still sort of been connected to things because Tom [Raworth] visits once a year or so. He introduced me to Devin [Johnston], who I’d already heard of because he’d published Larry Price in Chicago Review. Tom has introduced me to most of the people I currently consider my poetic fellow travelers in Chicago. That seems typical in a way. In 1985, Charles Bernstein introduced me to Paul Hoover—at another Chicago MLA.
The phone rings and Bill takes it.
WF: I’m not very comfortable in that situation talking about poems that I’ve written. I mean, I can talk about materials that were employed in the making of the poem; the actual object that came out of it is beyond what I can talk about. And I think there was the sense that the material ought to hold a key for them. And while they are an element of it, the piece for me has to take on a life that stands apart from the materials; despite the apparently private nature of the references, it has to earn its independence, to go abroad as Plato said (negatively) of writing, unsupported by the uttering presence, but open to all the contingent effects of minds and time.
ES: Even to explain to certain readers of poetry that there were “materials” that went into the making of a poem is already to challenge an assumption about what a poem is.
WF: Correct. I felt that. One of the poems in Sadly has a reference to a fairly well known Hank Williams song, “Lovesick Blues.” There was some sort of outrage that they should know about the song. And I said well it helps but I don’t think it’s determinative. It’s just something I was listening to. And for these students it came across as this sort of contingency: “Well how does that work, just anything that comes into your head?” And my response was: well yeah, sort of. But it’s got to stay in as you go through this process. And sometimes they leave and go away and sometimes they stay and the poem is built around them in some way.
A few weeks later I wrote Bill the following e-m, and received his response the next day.
ES: Would you have any interest in writing me a little note about the role of music in your writing, i.e., in your composition? We’ve touched on Donne and other seventeenth century material showing up in your work, which makes me curious about all the music that does. I’m thinking about how you let lines in or detourne titles, like “What a beautiful thought I am thinking” from Roy Acuff’s “Great Speckled Bird” in Sadly’s “The Later Chapters.” I hear Elmore James’s “The Sky is Crying” in the title of Sadly’s first poem, “The Sun is Raining.” Sometimes you admit into the proceedings either musicians (such as Howlin Wolf’s drummer Willie Steele in Watchword’s “Accidie”—as John Latta’s uncovered or characters from songs (like Bob Wills’s Ida Red in Sadly’s “Lower Utility Surface”). Western Swing and the blues seem to be an important groundplot for a lot of Sadly: “The Lovesick Blues” is one of your titles there, and another poem begins “The earliest stringbands were bunches of twigs.” I’m just curious, and I think other readers might be: how do you use music / how does music use you?
WF: I view music references as a textural element I guess, more layers of language to inflict on a reader. For some years now many of my favorite songs are sung in Lingala, of which “bolingo” [which turns up in “Sadly”] is about the only word I know. Although I will confess the odd poem “It’s This, This’s” was compiled out of definitions in a Lingala-English dictionary that I keep handy to decipher those Congolese rumbas.
I get a kick out of Bob Wills, Tommy Duncan, and all the rest, but I don’t think twice about dropping in lyrics from anyone, anywhere, and anytime if appropriate. So while I am mystified when students are angry at missing references (I like to think I miss them all the time, but can still pick out the shifts and pivots and decide whether they interest me), I figure that’s just a question of how to read.
I notice in my new Penguin edition of The Waste Land the editor felt he had to footnote “London Bridge is falling down.” In that light, what hope is there for Hank Williams?
Back to our chat at the office.
ES: An impression I have from conversations with you is that by and large the postwar poets first canonized in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry—New York School, San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain—don’t tend to be poets you return to very often or organize your thinking around.
WF: I think that’s true, given the narrowness of my reading—with the exception of Spicer, who I have read with a lot of interest and delight for many years. I’ve been trying to catch up.
ES: And I suppose Ashbery must be there too for you. I see that Barque has gone so far as to publish a pamphlet of yours entitled, simply, Three Poems.
WF: Ashbery actually came into my consciousness in the days when I didn’t read anything but Spenser and Milton—there was probably a whiff of Stevens there that I picked out as familiar; otherwise contemporary poetry was a complete blank—just a bunch of people with long scarves taking part in the workshops across the hall. Once, after I came back to Chicago, I got involved in a little controversy with another poet in the letter pages of American Scholar. He had done a review of Ashbery which purported to be sympathetic, but was designed essentially to disengage readers from him and unplug his reputation, as his title suggested: “How Good is John Ashbery?” At one point he triumphantly quotes several interesting lines, and states that after all “this is just a mixed metaphor.” Regardless of what I thought of Ashbery at the time it was clear that whenever he was quoted, the article became interesting. Which was fairly instructive. I’d been reading Adorno, and so I sent in this brusque, snarling letter to the editor which wasn’t very generous, I’ll admit, and I probably wouldn’t write it that way now. The author didn’t like it and in his response talked about my schoolyard bullying. And then he said something like “Mr. Fuller is somebody who has come to a dead end—and likes it.” I still think about having that on my tombstone. But you know in a way I think that in my poems I have come to a dead end and I do like it. [Laughs] There’s something great about picking things out of the junkyard and seeing what can be done with them. That’s the way I view it.
ES: That makes me think about the “immutable present” in the Roman Jakobson quote at the beginning of byt. On the one hand, that sounds really baleful.
WF: Well that was from Jakobson’s essay on Mayakovsky’s suicide.
ES: Let me read the epigraph:
Opposed to [the] creative urge toward a transformed future is the stabilizing force of an immutable present, overlaid, as this present is, by a stagnating slime, which stifles life in its tight, hard mold. The Russian name for this element is byt.
Even on its own, without that hard slime, “the stabilizing force of the immutable present” sounds like something ugly and bad. But what you were just saying about being at a dead end and liking it sounds like a way of coping. Not in some compensatory fashion but—I don’t know what the right language exactly is—it’s a way of going on in uncertainties (to use Walwyn’s phrase) with regard to what’s in that cul-de-sac. Because you can’t actually know what’s next, but it’s coming and it’s unavoidable. And there’s something about that stance towards the immutable present that I’m only recently coming to see in your work as this modest affirmation.
WF: Oh, I know what an immutable present is. I’ve been on this floor for twenty-two years. And this book was written in 1987—a full twenty years ago. [Laughs] You plod ahead to the tune of Beckett’s “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Everybody here’s doing the same thing. But at least you’re doing something.
ES: And maybe that’s something that cuts through or at least serves as a counterpoint to the stagnating slime. “Enjoy the present,” as Ficino says in Avoid Activity’s epigraph. And maybe it’s a little bit like Stevens’s quirked-out copacetic aesthetic? “The dump is full / Of images.”
WF: Maybe. I don’t know. “Somehow on.” I just write the stuff.
It is the case that Stevens has always been important to me. I wrote a typo-filled BA thesis on him well over thirty years ago. After the reading at Danny’s last fall, several people brought up Stevens, which curiously enough never used to happen, even though Stevens has always been the default response when people think of poets situated like I am. This guy asked, “Do you read Wallace Stevens?” “Oh yeah,” I say, “I’ve read Wallace Stevens.” “Well it’s interesting because, you know, your work is nothing like his!” Which I thought was a strange comment, given how idiosyncratic his approach was: how could those poems be deemed the standard for how someone who works for a corporation would write? And yet knowing my own history, and all the miserable pastiches of Stevens I wrote all those years ago—I felt like saying: “Finally.”
The Smithsonian Institute held its first and only mock conference on JELL-O Brand History, featuring such topics as “American History is JELL-O® History,” “The Dialectics of JELL-O® in Peasant Culture,” “The Semiotics of JELL-O®,” “JELL-O® Salad or Just Desserts: The Poetics of an American Food.”
 T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays (Harcourt/FSG, 1979) 60.
 As we prepared this transcript for publication, Fuller drew Clare’s and Keats’s comments on each other’s work to my attention. Keats observed of Clare’s early poetry that “description too much prevailed over sentiment.” Clare replied of Keats: “it is the case with other inhabitants of great citys he often described nature as she appeared to his fancys and not as he would have described had he witnessed the things he describes…what appear as beautys in the eyes of a pent up citizen are looked upon as conceits by those who live in the country.” A recording of Fuller reading Clare’s “Dewdrops” can be found here.
 This is the first sentence of Fuller’s The Sugar Borders (O Books, 1993).
 William Kerrigan and Gordon Braden, The Idea of the Renaissance (Johns Hopkins, 1989), 89