In her first three books of poems, Lisa Olstein demonstrated a uniquely heightened attentiveness, an environmental sensitivity that took note of such resonant minutia as “the quiet ribs / of a salamander crossing the old pony post road” as it stood watch against such large-scale threats as surveillance drones “filling the sky with robotic eyes” like “automaton dragonflies.” The poems in Late Empire, Olstein’s recent fourth collection, are among her most vigilantly keen-eyed and close-focused yet. “Seated in the horse’s ear,” the book tells us, there is “a wild little knoll, an entire world.” Earlier this year, Natalie Diaz, author of When My Brother Was an Aztec and Olstein’s colleague at the University of Texas at Austin last fall, asked Olstein about this latest book, its composition, its contexts, its indebtedness to Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and its unwavering engagement with world we live in now. This is their conversation.
Natalie Diaz: I want to open with some wonders about the second poem in Late Empire, “This Is Our American America Here Is Your Son.” This poem immediately sets a wager, or lays a question bare, the question being, at least: how do we carry on in our day-to-day when the distances between what is intimate and what is strange, what is public news and what is private life are increasingly skewed and shifting? Or, how do we gauge anymore what is real emotional experience and what is data overload and exhaustion? And where in all of this do we find space for introspection? The poem begins, “We bring the world to bed with us, / its weather, its moving maps, / and its wars.” This list, this stream, is a fastness that doesn’t let the reader stop to consider their larger implications beneath the surface of their data.
Can you tell me more about this poem, about how it speaks to the book as a whole, and about its poems’ relationships and conversation with these ideas of public/private, of data/news, of what is intimate or what is a replacement for intimacy?
Lisa Olstein: There is no replacement for intimacy, I don’t think—we’re wired for it—yet we’re living day-to-day lives that are, in a variety of ways, radically altering many of our opportunities to experience it. The intersections you identify in this poem constitute a set of urgencies running through the whole book: public/private, individual/collective, intimacy/distance, although distance no longer seems the most apt antonym for intimacy—more and more, a kind of over-exposure becomes intimacy’s opposite.
In many ways, these poems are compelled by the need to think through not only how we experience these aspects of our lives and their often troubled intersections, but also how, wittingly or unwittingly, we might actually be reinventing them. So it isn’t merely a question of how we gauge what is real emotional experience and where do we find time for introspection, but of how the very nature of emotional experience and introspection is being transformed.
Fastness, as you point out, is one of the complicated hearts of the matter—the speed and volume, not to mention kinds, of information. The ways we metabolize it physically, emotionally, intellectually. The ways language metabolizes it, reflecting and evolving our lexicons (floods, clouds, streams, dumps, leaks, feeds) and our narratives, which in turn shape the very movement of our minds. The question of what punctuates it, what punches through not only by way of anger or alarm, but by way of tenderness. There’s the hyper-speed version of this we see play out across traditional and social media every day: the heartfelt solidarities, the outrage rodeos, the shift from one crisis or cause to the next. And then there’s the stranger, deeper version that plays out in the realm of our inner lives as we chart and re-chart the course of our days.
“This Is Our American America Here Is Your Son” attempts to engage some of these questions and conditions, which then go on to animate the whole collection. It’s full of information reaching us—and reaching into us—in sometimes amplified, sometimes flattened ways. Mimicking the instability and multiplicity of our subject positions, it shifts between person and tense, moving from present first-person plural (we bring) to past third-person plural (they brought) to present first-person singular (I know) to conditional second-person (if you know). And a horrifying collision of public and private is its point of departure and return.
ND: Early in the poem wars are equated to the weather or the GPS on our phone, and these very real interactions in one’s day seem less real than watching the grieving chimp: “tomorrow / they’d bring her a baby, she understood / her baby, the one three years ago / whisked inexplicably away, / not any baby, which is what / they brought. Of course / she wouldn’t touch it.” This tension is abated with the next lines: “of course / this lasted all day and into / the night and by morning / had been replaced by embrace,” and for a moment we feel relief. That relief, however, is a small wound in that we realize we were waiting for it, we came for it, for the discomfort we knew might be eased. This was a choreographed and curated emotional experience, leading us the whole time.
LO: I’m intrigued by your idea of what the curated emotional experience revealed—how this can expose the easy outs we grasp for and the ways we might enter into, even embrace, discomfort in order to then feel its easing, to feel relief. And how recognizing this orchestration is a potentially important kind of wound. I’ve never thought to chart the grieving chimp’s trajectory in terms of tension and release, but you’re right, her story—the details of which I gleaned from an article in a science journal I happened upon—speaks to me both of fierceness and also of how fierceness evolves, how adaptable we are, must be, when survival—physical or emotional—is at stake. Often, we have no choice but to adjust, to love what we can love.
I resist poems that imply an easy logic of epiphanic revelation or repair. They feel dishonest to me, and reductive: harm does last and also it does evolve. I’m drawn to art that itself discovers—and allows me to discover along with it—ways to reveal or enact some of the complexity of that experience. As much as I might wish to be reassured, false reassurance is often more alarming, can feel more damaging, than no reassurance at all.
ND: The poem doesn’t stop at this discovery. It takes us deeper into the shadowy world of data, and blurs even more the public and private, as it recounts an execution online. The speaker says, “Tonight I know the head / shot, I know the kneeling man.” And even though the poem tries to return us to a moment from before we had seen what we’d seen, consumed what we’d consumed of image and information, and the poem ends on the person “still a person,” still alive and sitting across from them at a table on a sunny day, it is too late.
LO: We never can un-see what we’ve seen. Sometimes it is too late, repair isn’t always possible and when it does occur, it doesn’t erase damage’s fractures. To me, the chimp’s eventual embrace of the baby that isn’t hers doesn’t release her (or us) from her bewildering loss. Her loss leads her to a different place, a different self, a different need, a different love—that is, to a present that has no choice but to encompass a past and to lean toward a future, which is our condition.
The title “This Is Our American America Here Is Your Son” is a paraphrasing of ISIS’s announcement of the execution of a hostage—the journalist James Foley, who was a friend of mine from graduate school—who is the figure the poem returns to at the end. Via the title, from which we embark, Jim is referenced from the greatest and most horrific distance, a symbol manipulated in, literally, the most violent and public way. A short time but a great distance later in the poem, he’s remembered—rejoined, in that way memory is a medium for time-travel—as a real person through the simplest and most accurate intimacy I could conjure: my memory of him across a table on an ordinary afternoon.
I don’t want to exaggerate my relationship with Jim in light of his brave work or his tragic death: we were classmates and casual friends, but not close. I learned about his murder as people all over the world did simultaneously, via social media in some manipulated version of “real time.” In that moment, past and present collided, privacy exploded into exposure, the most intimate kind of grief was rendered the most public. This, of course, was intentional. This was the perpetrators’ enactment and philosophy of war into which all of us were thrust.
It seems to me that maybe I inhabited a middle space between public and private: Jim was a real person to me, but he wasn’t my beloved family or close friend. In the face of the unspeakable violence done to him, I was horrified in an embodied way I’d never experienced before—I fell to the floor, I would burst out sobbing for weeks, I dreamt about him for months—but I don’t claim the grief of deep personal loss. Rather, the heartbroken state of knowing that someone who was rendered unreal was in fact very real, that searing intersection, and the felt knowledge that comes with it: how the realness of one person calls out the realness of every other.
ND: I’d like to talk about the formal relationship between the second and third sections of Late Empire, the second being a sequence of slant sonnets, and the third being a series of interconnected prose poems. In a way, these feel strikingly different, of course visually, and also because the second section wrestles with the idea of the “safe house” and what it could mean, while the third section focuses on Whistle, a child who is not yet born. However, the sonnets and their questioning of what is safe or even what is love, feel essential to Whistle’s coming existence in the prose poems. These two sections feel in deep conversation with and understanding of one another. What did you find in these two forms that feels overlapping or touching? How did the forms collude or inspire the poems in each section? Were any of the poems written simultaneously or in direct conversation with one another?
LO: You’ve put your finger on the twin urgencies of both sequences: questions of safety—literal and figurative, physical and emotional, how we succeed and fail in creating it, how we happen into and out of being graced by it—and what it means to love in the context of these questions.
The slant sonnets are brief, of course. I was looking to create a mechanics of suddenness, an encapsulated but not overly contextualized emotional space, aiming for a kind of episodic unity within each one that would support an accruing conversation between them. To me, they feel like quick-turn kaleidoscope scenes peering into the idea of safe houses that necessarily fail in their promise but not in the sincerity of their wish.
The prose poems, by contrast, are long and wordy, propelled by the energy of a pressing epistolary/conversational address, looping through associations and anecdotes, raveling and unraveling context. Unlike the sonnets, these were written in a somewhat desperate rush, a bit of a flood, and though I later revised them toward alacrity and clarity, they remain in essence very close to what I produced in a personal crisis of fear and love.
I arrived at both series’ final forms through a combination of intuition and experimentation. Both involved intentional shaping after the fact—I didn’t originally draft them as they now appear—but their final forms resemble the way the poems arrived and seek to amplify where their energy felt most vital. The brevity and stanzaic clarity of the sonnet form, its ghosts of song and turn and tradition, allowed those particular poems to better articulate what they wanted to say. Likewise, the unlineated, essay- and/or letter-leaning form of the prose poems felt like the right shape for the emotional and thematic logics of the Whistle poems (originally, they were lineated but, although I worship at the altar of line breaks, here they felt somehow falsely decorative).
In determining the shape of a poem, I always try to follow its lead on the one hand and engage its plasticity on the other. Sometimes it announces its form early on, other times I play my way into discovering new aspects of its countenance. A similar kind of discovery occurs between poems. These two series converse in a way I wasn’t conscious of as I wrote them. The poems that ended up in the sonnet series were drafted over many years, so they both pre-and post-date the Whistle poems, which were written all at once over the course of a few weeks.
When it came time to assemble the book (to see if what I had was a book), I had multiple formally discrete series linked by overlapping concerns and image systems, so I thought a lot about the relationship between them. I wanted there to be distinct and sustained moods across the collection: visual, sonic, tonal, lexical, and rhetorical sensibilities that would create enveloping spaces for the body and mind to enter into, while also allowing for a conversation between them, an echoing and development of concern. The suddenness of the sonnets seemed like an interesting space to inhabit just before the more discursive, looping territory of the prose poems.
ND: Late last year a lot of media attention was given to what was thought to be the CDC’s ban from using the words “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based” in its budget documents. Your book is engaging with the political implications of language on many levels, particularly in the fourth section of the book, “A Poetics of Space.” This phrase from section nine of the ten-part poem strikes even more powerfully today than when I first read it: “language in danger / utters words that are dangerous.” Can you talk a little about how these poems are working internally, as part of the clockworks of language, as part of the gears which turn and mark time and knowing, and also how it was to craft these poems, as the clock maker, in the context of American language today?
LO: I’m entranced by the inner workings, the mechanisms and gears, that articulate language’s extraordinary range of powers and possibilities. And I’m terrified by the ways these powers and possibilities are currently being weaponized all around us—a new version of an old evil. We think in language and language thinks us, building self- and world-view, constructing the very syntax of thought, and operating, at all times, across a spectrum of aesthetic valences that shape how we feel, that equally powerful but less recognized kind of knowing.
I think we tend to overestimate the sturdiness of narrative and semantic meaning—which, as we’re seeing daily, is all too easily distorted—and to underestimate the salience of aesthetic pleasure. The charge of, say, anger, grievance, bullying, blame, superiority, praise, fear, etc. conveyed through the aesthetics of language and how it’s delivered is a kind of visceral pleasure that can be channeled into a frighteningly compelling force. What we just saw in the campaign, what we’re seeing every day, is, yes, an astonishing hijacking of narrative meaning, but also an awful triumph of aesthetic pleasure.
“A Poetics of Space” foregrounds language’s plasticity as medium and subject, as well as our relationship to it. A direct engagement with the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, each section of the poem uses a corresponding chapter of Bachelard’s book as a source text according to a procedural process I accident-ed my way into and quickly became devoted to. I’d loved the book in my twenties, and for years it had loomed inspirational in my mind (e.g., The poetic image is a sudden salience on the surface of the brain.). Returning to it years later, I felt differently: I still adored Bachelard’s archetypal images and his ecstatic relationship to language, but I found many of his ideas about poetry silly. My reading became a strange cocktail of navigating the text, which seemed romantic and dated, alongside the meta-experience of my relationship to the text (and to my former self) over time, while simultaneously being delighted by the beauty and emotional resonance of many of its images and phrasings.
I started copying phrases that I particularly loved—little word-constellations of image or affect—into a notebook. Focusing on one chapter at a time, I’d read it forward and backward and in random order, collecting phrases of no fewer than four words and no more than six in order to retain their aesthetic sensibility but free them from their situational meaning. Then I’d sort and reorder my collection of a given chapter’s haul until the phrases were completely separate in my mind from their original context, a sort of dream residue. Then I’d collage them together to create new sentences that sprang into being with astonishing ease: syntax, voice, theme, and, most unexpectedly, narrative instantly cohered into new units of complex meaning and, cumulatively, into new systems of image and story.
It felt like watching cells assembling into new life forms, and the most revelatory part was the way meaning’s malleability was rendered so exquisitely evident. Suture phrase A to phrase B and one reality emerged; re-suture phrase A to phrase Q and an entirely new meaning was right there, ready and willing. It was exhilarating and startling to see phrases intentionally denuded of their content and context instantly invent new content, new context. We’re so attached to an idea of Meaning as a grounded and resolute thing, working in concert with Truth. But here it flashed and darted like schooling fish.
The CDC situation conjures so many related concerns: the power of language—through use or erasure—to make and to manipulate meaning, to (mis)shape the subjects and subjectivities that define reality. Lately, I’m struck by how even when this manipulation begins in the most obvious, ham-fisted fashion, a blunt blow, you can already sense its ominous smoothing out over time as it accomplishes its distortion and hides its own culpability. We now understand that the ban wasn’t an edict handed down from Washington, but an internal strategy designed to increase the likelihood of the agency gaining support for its programs. I’m not sure what’s true, but this alternative explanation is almost as sinister as the censorship from on high: see how we self-distort or distort-in-return. Certainly, it’s no less revealing of language’s function as a reality-shaping tool.
ND: In the poem “Space Race” the speaker is in conversation with Whistle, the unborn child, and says: “What / am I doing with my one little chance to be alive?” Here you are, building with language. Has your relationship with poetry or poet-ing changed in regard to what you think its role is or how you see it as an action or an art, as a resistance or a weapon?
LO: Lately, I’ve been leaning on an idea articulated by the contemporary philosopher Alva Noë. He postulates that art is a form of essential human research we undertake—have always undertaken—to understand ourselves and the world. That it’s a vital and necessary means by which we investigate, discover, interpret, learn.
In the context of the disorienting, distressing moment we inhabit, it’s easy to question our commitments and to doubt the utility or meaning of our endeavors. To some extent this is probably healthy and important, but pretty quickly it veers paralyzing. I believe art is an essential form of human research, so I believe artists must make art. And I believe that we need the widest possible range of research that art can embody: witness, invention, provocation, exhortation, documentation, discovery, resistance, escape. And I believe imagination is literally essential to both empathy and reason. So, it’s relatively easy for me to feel confident in the concept of poem-making, but unsurprisingly, it’s a bit less easy to feel sure of the utility or importance of my own work. I do know that the poems in this book embody a deep and desperate love for the damaged world.