If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving
BRENDAN LORBER with Todd Colby
I first met Brendan Lorber at The Poetry Project over 20 years ago. He’s always amazed me with his energy, his dry wit, and his ability to literally not only be willing, but able to talk about anything from the weather, to physics, to the politics of time. If you’ve never seen his online weather reports, I encourage you to google them and marvel at his ability to turn something as ordinary as the weather into a form of poetry that no one imagined doing until Brendan showed up. He was once the editor at the Poetry Project Newsletter, and has co-edited one of the longest running literary journals in NYC, LUNGFULL, known not only for its fabulous content, but it’s fabled indestructible covers, which I’ve seen him demonstrate many times by pouring a glass of water directly onto the latest issue in his hand. It gave me great joy to interview Brendan on the occasion of his first full-length book of poetry (20 years in the making): If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving, (Subpress, 2018). His book release reading last spring (paired brilliantly with John Yau at The Poetry Project) was packed with lovers of his work. The entire evening was a testament to Brendan’s central role in the community of poets and a celebration of almost a quarter century’s work. – Todd Colby
Todd Colby (Rail): There’s an enviable clarity and precision in If This is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving. The sentences pretty much all have a really tight, concrete logic, even when they don't. The clarity of your sentences serve as a sort of seatbelt while you're taking me on a joyride through the twists and turns of the subject matter. One of my favorite things about reading your work is I never know where I'm going to end up. It is futile to anticipate anything. Which is kind of a good life motto, you're welcome. There's an element to your work that reminds me of a well-read ace comic with expert timing and a deep understanding of the times we live in. The question: Are you a fan of comedy? Who was the first comic you loved?
Brendan Lorber: Between the dark arts and the sweet science, is comedy. I am totally in favor of it. Totally in favor of using all the architectures of catharsis to build and enter that scary space between is and ought, including Hitchcock reversals, Ashbery tree-extensions, Notley mystery. Plus the tragic, epic, and cheap laughs. I’m not beyond invoking Colby hot pig tips in cold cat milk to approach the core pain in us all. Tom Devaney once referred to the black ops of such work as "the darkness that illuminates."
All means to an end. But to get to the end, as you intuited, we need a start. My first comedy love: Monty Python. My family put it on late at night when I was like 4. Being new to earth and to language, I was unable to grasp neither British dialects nor absurd dialectics. Despite the missed content, the disrupted structure of the setup and release let me know when to laugh. And by laugh, I mean hurtle into a new reality, irreconcilable with, but living alongside, the old. This happens a lot when you’re 4 so, like, no biggie. Each episode cold opens with a man in shredded clothes and long beard who staggers to the camera and says “it’s…” and the announcer jumps in with the show's title. I have no proof, but the “it’s” was definitely lifted from the William Carlos Williams’ ars poetica Spring and All: “A work of art is important only as evidence, in its structure, of a new world which it has been created to affirm.”
Thank you Todd for the affirmative Life Motto, but you give my work too much credit — my floating is less Mohammad Ali’s butterfly and more Major Tom’s most peculiar way. I’m always angling for the gorgeous intersection of Ontology and Epistemology, but often we end up in the wrong neighborhood of what’s what. Over here between Asphodel that dead parrot’s greeney plumage and the place where so much depends upon the crunchy frog lightly glazed with fructose. But we are always in between, so redemption is always possible.
Rail: Speaking of anxiousness, can you explain a bit about the gaps between clusters of words in your poems? The gaps seem to serve as part punctuation, part micro-breath in the line, and part mysterious thrilling gap to leap across the same way the spaces between islands in Maine seem to indicate scale and continuity.
Lorber: Yes lets talk about not talking. Spaces between words are the unsung (unsingable) heroes of poetry — the sealed-lips opposite of snoozy conference panels or Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer’s “You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything.”
But let’s also talk about the racing heart. When I was a kid, almost every show I watched had a car jumping over a slightly open drawbridge, usually in slo-mo, sometimes landing only after a commercial break. And every time it was like Frank O’Hara leaning on the john door at the 5 SPOT not breathing while Billie Holiday whispered a song.
I mention this because the gaps are all the things you named — and as such emerge from the open drawbridge prosody of Chaucer’s trips to Canterbury, Olson’s open field, William’s variable foot, Notley’s descents, Kerouac’s prose beliefs, Myles’ conversational dodgems. They’re the empty sleeves I’ve got nothing up, that magically trace a lineage and pace the line.
If the phrases are the moving parts of the poem, the caesuras are where everything else can move. No ideas except in the space between things. Space that gets filled with relationships implied by the bounding phrases’ proximity, rhetorical expectations, and narrative urges. A gestational realm where, as Giraffe-head Jones once said “It happened, it just hasn’t happened yet.” Air is just air, but not when hemmed in by a couple about to kiss. A second is just a second, but not the one after you drop your phone and before it hits the sidewalk. These gaps want to be William Blake’s grain of sand, but because this imperfect world is too much with us, they are Blake’s grain of sand in your bathing suit.
The gaps also create the opportunity to reach outside the language while remaining within the poem. So much of the experience of a poem is tangential or entirely exterior to it. A work of heartbreak rings you round to your own less than rosy life and you slip away into what might have been, far from whatever the writer is continuing to do. The gaps in If this is paradise are designed to foster and be fed from that state, encouraging departure and arrival. Geographically, they are def the spaces between Maine islands as you said, but also, the wetlands of Louisiana where neither “land” nor “water” quite apply, where hurricanes get absorbed, where most life on earth exists and new forms germinate.
Also they are mysteries that can only be solved with larger mysteries. Like death, which the gaps gesture towards, and rebirth, which the subsequent phrases insist upon. They are spaces for ideas to emerge inside you, the Nabokovian vacuum into which it all rushes, the white knuckles in the wine-dark sea between Scylla and Charybdis. It’s that sweet empty chamber in the bicameral mind where you can experience yourself as a stranger, and have the talk you and you need to have.
The trick is to make it big enough for things to happen, but not so big that the energy diffuses like Game of Thrones season 5. Creating conditions for the next phrase to happen, but then refusing to let it. It’s where a guy walks into a bar, except it’s not a guy, it’s syntax, BDSM, desire, yearning, saudade, the objet petit a, and an open drawbridge. And it’s not a bar, it’s all your terrible decisions that seemed amusing at the time and which you thought you could handle until you discover that the safe word is nothing at all.
Rail: So, what is it about poetry?
Lorber: In it for the frostbite
What makes you what
is A cold finger pointing
it out or a broken one
About which to be wrapped
Poetry my name ask me
what you get when he
is a vampire and you cross
it with a snowman cross
about wise mysteries that
poetry cracks with larger ones
Rail: Talk about the weather, or your love of reporting on the weather.
Lorber: So boring right? The medium that exists precisely in the spaces that separate us, separates us further with the empty small talk it encourages.
But it also connects us. Every breath takes in molecules exhaled by someone else, and another before them, around the world and through history. You’ve got a little Lincoln and I’ve got a little you. Gross right? Don’t even get me started about humidity and where that shit comes from. But also wonderful. Where does your personal biome end? Maybe it never does.
Also, as Wayne Koestenbaum pointed out, weather is the only nature here in the city.
But I’d be lying if I said that’s the reason I dig the sky. It’s more that the dynamics of something simple as holding hands are unbearably complex and frightening. I’m like, if I can look up and understand the complex system at play above us, maybe I can look at you and understand the one between. That’s kind of a Don DeLillo answer, which makes me doubt my own non-fictionality. The belief that maybe I don’t exist is the reason I do occasional weather reports. The weather exists. My six or so youtube followers exist. Therefore, I must exist. Maybe.
Also weather is just so beautiful. I mean. Look at it.
Rail: A lot of the poems in If This is Paradise are dedicated to various friends and acquaintances of yours, which is a great way to start a poem. I'm reminded of Jim Brodey, who did that a lot with his poems, as well as various New York School poets that I admire. How did you decide who got poems dedicated to them?
Lorber: dedication creates a secret holiday in which the poem becomes a present. But even if the holiday is also one of those lesser obscurities where you still have to go to school/work and you were hoping for a present more like an Xbox or a necklace, the creation of a new holiday with gifts changes everything.
The mechanism through which it changes everything is this: Poems are latent conversations, dormant until your mind brings them to life, your mind filled with immediate responses to each phrase, which makes the next phrase experienced as a response to your phrase. It’s a privilege and responsibility for you, a declaration that you are what makes this poem glow, and a responsibility that the poem holds its end of the bargain instead of just some expression in a vacuum.
Your name at a poem’s outset demands that you participate. At a reading or in a book, it puts everyone else on notice that they might be next. Everyone is paying attention, like we’re guests at the dinner party at the end of a murder mystery where the detective stands, wine glass in hand, and explains everyone’s involvement.
Dedications are indeclinable invitations to become the poem’s plus one at an event created specifically for you to attend. As you and the poem travel together, everyone else gets to be a voyeur. Illicit but sanctioned, like on-the-wire feds in the basement or thin wall neighbors. It’s simultaneously exciting and unnerving
My dedications are usually shoutouts to you who provided the kernal of the poem, either through something you did or said, or something in my perception of your nature. The difficulty is never being quite sure if you’ll be happy at your influence or angry at your having been robbed. We are all shades in the hell of our insecurities, and it is a pleasure to be spoken of through poetry in the sweet world above — but the declaration of affinity is fraught. Years ago at a long-gone Tribeca bookstore called Biblio’s, someone once read an uncharacteristic love poem dedicated unexpectedly to the evening’s host and the entire night went off the rails.
My very first chapbook The Address Book is a collection of sonnets each titled with the address of someone on whose door the poem was ostensibly taped to. Nobody was mentioned by name, but it created a map of friendship, love, enmity, missed connections, and the sexy frisson of O’Hara’s “Personism”. If the poem then becomes a conversation, perhaps it’s less what O’Hara was up to and more of a we do this/we do that poem. I almost never write a poem without thinking of a person or people who are the rightful owners of its aspiration. Often this is done in secret, as a way of charging the poem.
Which leads to the unasked follow-up question: why are some poems undedicated? Some emerged from too many sources, or none in human form. But many of the dedication-less poems were too intimate, or lousy with innuendo. There are dedications in If This Is Paradise where I worry about how the addressed might take it. I read one such poem this past summer where the person was there. After the reading they didn’t mention it — meaning either no big whoop, or such an enormous whoop that there is no way to reconcile forever. Who knows!
Rail: I know you're a notebook/journal keeper. Did your journals play a role in the composition process of If This is Paradise?
Lorber: It is just tremendous to confess your most depraved secrets, to write these horrors down in a book and then, at least once a month, leave it behind at a bar, grocery store, or daycare center.
I have two identical moleskin books. One a journal for the unthinkable. The other a series of to-do lists for work. Sometimes I get home, and discover my work notebook in my bag. Which means my journal is back in the open plan office, probably on my desk, definitely turned to some especially vulnerable but filthy page that my coworkers can never unread. These low level panic attacks are how I manage to still fit into the tuxedo I wore at my high school prom.
For the record though, I write in the journal as much as possible. I do it partly to preserve ideas and incidents before their details are lost to time. But really what the journal is there for is to crystallize events as they happen, with their immediacy intact in the structure of the entry. When a poem emerges from the journal, the examined moment is still very much alive. The opposite of a scientist who murders to dissect. You can tell the dif between reporting from within the event and reflections in tranquility after. You can learn from the reflections, which is great. But it’s only the former that you can you can experience, which is one of the things poetry lends itself to more readily than almost any other type of language — the ability to be by my side as we go through it together.
As a side note, if you are wondering, you, you reading this, are probably in my diary somewhere. Though if you’re worried it’s probably something like “Fantastic to run into X today. The bastards are going to have to try a lot harder if they’re going to bring X down.”
Rail: This line from your poem "Because I am so Badly Loved” really broke me up. I feel like its the best representation of being a creative person in 2018:
"We want the epic
but the epic wants time we don't have"
What is your work/poetry life balance?
Lorber: My life is a perfect balance between invisibility and the moment the sleeve of my shirt is on fire but I don’t know it yet. Balance between forgetting to eat all day and forgetting to eat because, according to the ghost hunters in my house, I’ve been dead since 1832. Balance between being drunk and being drunk by a 200-foot tall city councilman who didn’t notice I’d fallen into his bathtub sized bowl of miso soup as he voted on new parking regulations for his own 400-foot long car. Balance between I love you as a friend and I love you as an inanimate object on your bedside table unable to express the depths of my love and tortured by proximity. Balance between most people are half-metabolized cocktails of Adderal, Ocycontin, weed, and Nicoderm patches, while my own stenotic heart can only handle a couple cups of coffee before it’s done for the day. Balance between being unable to find my keys, and the xray revealing the thing I was looking for was inside me all along.
Rail: What’s the last movie you paid to see?
Lorber: Just last night I went to Film Forum to see Jean Vigo’s 1934 L’Atalante at Film Forum. You wonder how beautiful a film can be then you get on board this barge among the canals of France and you find out. On board with the insecure just-married skipper, his bride who wants to see Paris, the old first mate who’s seen it all through the oily portholes, the mate’s dozen cats (the real masters of the barge), the mate’s dead friend’s hands in a jar “It’s all I have left of him,” the hapless ship’s boy, the broken phonograph, the fog, the canals, the locks, all drawn onward onward onward.
I go to Film Forum a lot with my dear friend, the great musician Milton. He gets the tickets and I get the snacks, and afterwards we get drinks. We talk about music, poetry, films and how to fend off the despair. He’s really smart. The music of his friendship and the friendship of his music are two ways the world isn’t a complete disaster.
The movie before that one was The Hot Rock about a diamond heist at the Brooklyn Museum on the 1970’s. Robert Redford leads the gang but the real stars are old New York and Quincy Jones’ soundtrack.
Rail: What’s the light that gets you through the darkness?
Lorber: Because I am aware of my surroundings, it is very difficult to be happy. But your sweet act of asking that question is itself the answer, for reasons that the light cast by the question will make clear.
But can I first admit that I was so at a loss to respond honestly that I googled “happiness” as though it were a foreign city I wanted to learn more about. Google agrees that it is elusive. It provides a kind of circular definition and then this example sentence: “She struggled to find happiness in her life.”
Can I also admit that I’m optimistic she will find it. Easy for me to say, I know, especially about a fictional google definition example person. But perhaps even for the AI bots and NPCs that (like the darkness, but different) surround us, sorrow creates empathy and empathy is the secret alchemical stone of projection that connects people.
I may be the least qualified among us to talk about connection, but my poems are possessed by the desire to get there. Even those gaps, the spaces that divide phrases, contain within their existence the secret mechanism by which they can be populated. Without those sweet nothings, there would be no nothing to fill with sweetness.
We talked about the gaps earlier, how they incite your involvement in the poem. But what I didn’t say was that your involvement is what makes the poems work and as such, is an act of compassion towards the poems. The poem doesn’t know you are doing this. It is a thing. But touched by your mind, it becomes sentient in a way. It’s a pure kindness, this act of yours, uncut with the possibility for any ulterior motives.
The shore in the woods, a poem early on in If This Is Paradise, says “what I am trying to say is the light in my heart is your heart.” You are the mystery that solves my original mystery, and the compulsion to continue solving each mystery together with ever larger ones, knowing we will never get to the end, is it crazy to think this is what love might be?