Around and About Sound: An Interview with Poets Joyelle McSweeney and Ken White

Two U.S. poets, Joyelle McSweeney and Ken White, published books this year that distracted and disoriented me in the best way. Though diverse in theme and form, their verses are crisp and intricate with attention to sound. To separate sound as a topic of its own in the poems of these gifted thinkers is a little like trying to peel raindrops. Nevertheless, one idea magnifies the next in our conversation as we discuss their natural draw towards sonics, how they manipulate meter, the role of listening and the pull towards the lyric in their new poetry collections.

Interview conducted October, 2020

ELEE KRALJII GARDINER: Joyelle, Toxicon and Arachne (Nightboat Books) is a publication made of two texts: Toxicon, a collection of poems in which poisons infect the verse and metastasize into virulent vocabulary, and Arachne, named for your daughter who died in the hospital. In “Toxic Sonnets: a Crown for John Keats” you write in the persona of the tuberculosis bacteria.

I’m a threat to life, a violent butter. 
I spread my toxic inklings like a cloud 
— seeding-drone, & drop on crops my shake 
of violet water.

The poems race and clatter, the meter sometimes mimicking the heart in AFib. The rhymes spiral, too — it was impossible not to think about a DNA ladder twisting and repeating. Can you speak to how medicine and virology work in these poems?

JOYELLE McSWEENEY: When I wrote Toxicon, I began with some strong thoughts about the lyric: what is the lyric? What are its necessary properties? How is the scale of the lyric so contradictory, at once so big and clearly so small? For me there’s a kind of flight or fleetingness to the lyric, and there’s an intensity that feels both exhilarating and fatal. After all, in its brevity, lyric’s flight and descent are inextricable. In its dubious intensity, lyric runs close to that ambivalence of writing Plato warned about — for Plato, writing is the pharmakon, the drug that heals or harms. I wanted to write a book of poems which would activate this sense of the lyric as a killer high, a flight that sinks. A lyric like a poisoned arrow. When I learned that the word toxin is etymologically rooted in a poison arrow, I knew that, where Plato had his pharmakon, I would have my Toxicon.

Of course, in the Western canon, Keats is the figure for lyric’s sweetness, intensity, brevity and fatality. He himself acknowledged this —  though he would rather have lived. I started thinking about the TB that killed him —  how it delivered him into both mortalitie and immortalitie. I thought about how Keats trained and was licensed as a pharmacist —  passed the exam based on his schoolboy Latin. These are all my favorite nouns. I grew obsessed with Keats. But I was also obsessed with the tuberculosis bacillum that delivered him out of this bad world, and I felt similarly dubious as I devoured all his letters, poems, biographies, etc. As I began the sonnets, I realized I was in some ways infesting Keats, like TB, or possibly more like grave fauna, consuming him, releasing waste products of exuberance and dismay. The sonnets themselves began to feel like lungs where all the toxins and contaminants of our toxic planet would run, chemical and lit up. New ingredients —  be they novel influenza, genome-altering chemicals, rapacity, forever wars, clashed and mingled in the poems, a toxic stew that sent up prophetic fumes.

Ken, Middlemost Constantine (Spork Press), is your third collection and like The Getty Fiend (Les Figues, 2017) and Eidolon (Peel Press, 2013), considers a mythical figure within a modern context. Here we have Merlin and Nimüe negotiating their mutual accord of exile in contemporary times. The poems are laid out without punctuation in double columns on the page,  a crevasse of blank space between them. Arthurian legend is ancient and yet the idea of Merlin being banished to his oak tree and Nimüe trapped in a lake is resonant with isolation and social distance in this pandemic. Certainly, you’ve captured today’s loneliness: (MC, p15):

I flutter my phantom
tongue you wave                   farewell by phantom
hand predictably                  I wave my own

Will you talk about any or all of these ideas?

KEN WHITE: Characteristically, I find myself returning to the same old concerns — plus I’m a fiend for mythology, particularly Celtic. For a time I had contextualizing epigraphs, but instead erred on the side of never referencing the legend directly. In terms of the score, the difference in my reimagining is that rather than having Nimüe trick Merlin into a trap and “steal” his magic via pathologized wiles, as the post-Christianized versions of the tale go, Nimüe has worked hard, exceeded him in skill and powers, and he’s simply weary of the labor, so asks her to take it up in his stead. However, in containing him in some space (the oak/stone/cave/crystal) that suspends time, time is likewise suspended for her, and the curse is that she too, like The Dude, must abide. My loose organizational system was Nimüe in the present (Hallowed Damosel), Merlin in the trapped ever (Barrow Wight) and some sort of merging fusion in all-time, now and falling forward (Mercury Wall).

I’m charmed by the use of repetition in both books: not just the reoccurrence of an entire word within a few feet of its first use, but also how sibling phonemes and slant rhymes kick up the tension. Related to anaphora, can you also discuss enjambment, particularly with a hyphenated word? Or for Ken, how the columns hobble the rhythm?

From Middlemost Constantine, p.5, 11:

infidels of my tiny after life          have pity on us no means
nor choice but trust                    have pity on we who
despite resistance                      memory carries where it will

I want to cam with you                  so hard though
well past bored with                    same poses example
failing light socket in high wind       pose also the pose
elephant palm defrocked                 by steam then
needle-of-the-sky pose                  in which you lean
through ingress                         of the needle so abruptly
when I breathe I forget                 all about the mirror

And from Toxicon and Arachne — “Sestina Gratitude,” (p.61):

The brain
mints double currency, twin waves at twin across a river, you
my brother and you, my veiny border. For you I roll my syndrome down
to zero. I stop the clock; a stopped clock’s a double crown

and it says zero zero, while the crowd
shouts from the bleachers, bleached of stain, shouts
shalts and shalt nots as the ball crests, sinks down
to fill the basket like a crown, upside down. Water and salt
fill the isolation tank where this moment is suspended, you
and your brain rock there, sapless as a brain 

-dead bade.

JOYELLE McSWEENEY: Love your use of ‘charm’ here, EKG — the sense of incantation, song and, in our current  parlance, something inconsequential yet fascinating, something apt to be pocketed and/or lost. Many charms for children are made of lead: charmingness irrevocably poisons. I’m very driven by sound in constructing my charms  — actually I’m not sure I construct them, they move through me, and I try to transcribe without correcting too much. The ‘breakneck’ element of the poem on the page, the sheer careening, captures the risk of the poem as I race after it, try to be simultaneous with it (but am never quite) — all the tumbling over lines captures, for me, that risk and speed, mistakes and bad guesses, the desire to land on one’s sprained ankles and go off half-cocked and canted with one hand on one’s hat —

KEN WHITE: In this particular arrangement, the ways that I hope the disorientation of the weak and strong bonds among sibling sound disrupts/disarticulates expectation of where a line might typically break based on our training, or breath, or habits. I also hope it strips some of the expected bindings from our predictions or assumptions re: how time is supposed to work, when it’s being polite.

When I’m working with sound I engage it as a dimensional body, various bodies that begin and end. I think and talk a lot about z-axes — in everything, of course — physical choreography on a physical plane, blocking on a set and how that reads in the falsely flattening frame, etc. Duration, our experience of it in sound, is embodied, but when we set it in ink, it becomes fixed (obviously), and then we can choose when to utter/project/experience it against the backdrop of whatever other fields (bodies), their own fireworks display of emission, flaring, fading, overlap and interference, will interfere with it. Or if we choose the sub-utterance of interiority, in which we are able to contain what shapes the sounds might make to the confines of an internal theatre, then any interference to field needs to show its tickets at the gate.

So when I look at the three columns on the page, if I’m looking Western-style — the left text column, the space column and the right text column — I think of crawling to the top of three-dimensional bodies, looking down each like a well and seeing those relationships among the sounds. Not only do I pinball among their sound-bodies as I fall down the column (Ender: The gate is down), but they vibrate when struck, which makes their like bodies in the other column resonate across the space column. So sometimes I’m embedding a natural break in the middle of the line, and jamming, rather than enjambing.

What rhyme or sound shapes or patterns do you adore/resist?

JOYELLE McSWEENEY: I think I like a horsey gallop in which the human imitates the horse — why else is there a stirrup in the ear? Half-ridiculous and half-sublime, riding its own seam to the vanishing point. I also have a hearing impairment, and my hearing drops out at certain pitches and volumes. So I live in a sonic landscape where certain sounds are amplified and others suddenly drop out  —  my sonic landscape sometimes resembles Wile E. Coyote’s flight in the Road Runner cartoons — he’s suddenly out in air, with no ground. “Inebriate of air — am I — “.

KEN WHITE: When left to mine own best worst devices, I indulge, an unrepentant maximalist. How long can I get a note to sustain? What if I bend it? What if I fling it like a Frisbee? What if I burst through the swinging double doors of the sound saloon with pens drawn, slinging telescopic clauses?

Ken, how does Skaldic poetry connect with Middlemost Constantine?

KEN WHITE: So. The form made sense when I was looking for, which was — and I’ll use your earlier verb, Elee — something to hobble the horses of my same old tricks. I do love Eddic and Skaldic verse, with the two oar stroke/stresses per column to muscle, and an alliterative chain to whipstitch the lines onward seemed a nice pier from which to launch. I had to put a juke on myself. First I folded the arrangement recto-verso across the caesura, then added another folded column and played the whole bit in double-time with four stresses per column. Then I threshed it again with some of the initial constraints.

Practical matter: what is your scanning process? Do you read your work aloud as you write? Count syllables on fingers? What inner impulses guide meter and sound?

JOYELLE McSWEENEY: I’m not a scanner but go for a clumpy galumph, but I also like something a bit glittery like a crown dropped in a creek. Dismay and exuberance are important to me, a Looney sublime, and circuited together. Get you a lyric that can do both.

KEN WHITE: Unless I’m really trying to hit a specific verse form as a project or a lark, I don’t scan during, but after, diagnostically, to see what I was up to. Then sometimes I even have a better idea of how I’d been experiencing the physical world but maybe wasn’t tracking it. I’m of the strong opinion that the physical patterns we engage — and we’re always in motion — inform/influence/instruct our language pathways. And not just what we notice — what we don’t do has its own just-as-valid shape. Then I can amplify or resist whatever I ended up doing to help expand or compress the slinky of how I want the line to read.

Ken, in conversation you once mentioned stacking syllables as blocks, removing every third and generating momentum that way. Can you both speak about rhythmic pace through the poem and onwards through the book?

KEN WHITE: The stacking for sure. Both like Legos and in sonic molecules. I think of the vertical strata of lines as colonies of sound and stress that may or may not be in direct relationship with whatever the words prescribe as experience or intention, while the sonic architecture of the work communicates its own field, is always streaming via simultaneous channel. Warp and weft — it’s not the wave that gets you, it’s the current.

I may have been inventing an example aloud, but removing every third syllable sounds exactly like something I would try, if I wanted to disrupt some pattern that had such a grip on me that I’d become too comfortable. Subtracting every third unstressed syllable seems even more likely. Of course this, and/or anything like it, would be just a trick for myself. A little something-something to slip on in the fitting room just to see how it drapes. If it requires a pleat. A belt. A stitch. Kind of make a semi-arbitrary filter, apply it and then deal with the consequences of the mess I’ve made. Somehow it still sounds more or less exactly like myself, but with clunkier or more jagged welds.

Going in I tend to organize my systems in types of containers or functions. Hinges, scaffoldings, poorly sorted Tupperware, various apparatuses, so the surest matching wing in a hingeform is a perfect word double, which forms midway between it and its antecedent a linchpin, whether in a sound/shape that fits the bill, or one implied by its position. Also that hinge shape/function can collect the canter, coil it, then let the leg out on the line again. I suppose all the Cartesian hijinks help me get a handle on the Tetris. You might plan your ranch for cattle, but get cats. Then you lead your cats to water and hope for the best. Actually, that’s kind of ideal. Cat ranch.

Joyelle, I’ve seen recordings of you singing your work. Tell us about that practice!

JOYELLE McSWEENEY: Well it’s embarrassing, so that’s one thing. Cringe, as my kids would say. But I feel literally compelled to do it, by Art and by the Rose. Art has her prerogatives and sings her songs through me. And actually, my performance style is never improvisational. My goal is to get as much out of the way as possible and be machine for playing the sound-structure exactly as I first received it. Partly this fastidiousness on my part is because of my devoutness and partly it’s because I learned after the first reading I was ever able to give that, while audiences generally like my readings, they frequently remark at being surprised by the sound, saying it doesn’t at all sound like it looked on the page. At first I got upset about this, tried to figure out how to make my poems look like how they sound. But then I realized, hey, I’m not Gutenberg and I didn’t invent text! I’ll just surprise them by a vivacious reading, and that surprise will be the event of Art’s arrival in the room of the reading, and that eventfulness can be ecstatic and political.

I think my actual performance style is influenced by reading about the diaries Nijinsky wrote at the end of his life, when he invented a pen called ‘God’ which he would use to destroy the stock market and when he had lost his looks and figure yet journalists would sometimes travel to the asylum to watch him jump directly up in the air in his brogues.

credit: Nijinsky, 1939 (c) Jean Manzon

I’m supposed to be speaking to you about sound but I’m distracted by the beautiful understanding of exile in both works. Joyelle’s poems on alienation from the role of Mother/aka the Good, Safe, Happy Woman, and Ken’s poems which literally consider the concept of the heart’s abode:

From Middlemost Constantine, p.53:

I’ve gotten so much older so          very quickly and skyscrapers
likewise fail me a failure            I reciprocate hard
like home is hard                     I don’t mean here
or now I mean                         the place I’ve never been

JOYELLE McSWEENEY: So I think in this book, looking back at it, I’m thinking about calamity and arrival — the arrival of Art, the arrival of event, the arrival of life and death. This constant calamitous arrival. I would like my poems to host those arrivals and also show the alienation of being pushed further and further into the water by these arrivals, being pelted by arrivals, crushed (but not crushed out, unfortunately) by immanence. The grief-rage in Arachne of course responds to our personal catastrophe, the death of a newborn infant, the terrible shock and surprise of life doubling with death, arrival as departure, the cosmic, inhuman scale of it. This was the worst thing in my life but at the same time it threw me onto the shards of the sublime, on my back in the glass and looking up at the rose like a glassy mountain. I wish I were dead, the clichéd refrain of so many teens and poets, truer than true. But then you’re a human poet with eyespots for a consciousness, which is a curse, and that weird teasing subjunctive tense gets you wondering again, like light just coming under the door, and you kind of squint your eyes at it, or like a bug on the wall, some new inkling.

One thing both books do is drag the thread of the line down the hallway and around corners: I can’t stop chasing. I found it nearly impossible to choose excerpts and ended up forgetting myself in the transcription process as I typed whole poems out.

JOYELLE McSWEENEY: Love that metaphor! I am very interested in lyric’s capacity. Its sideshow sleights of hand and scale. Aren’t there poems you feel like you could live forever in, hell, single phrases, line breaks, even the white space after a last line? That kind of living forever is actually posthumicity  —  the afterlife is the life you get to have forever, and you can have it, in Art. I am quite fanatic on this point, quite devout.

KEN WHITE: I’m cutting and pasting this bit to read as ballast on some dark day. Quite devout. Quite. Thank you both, Joyelle and Elee, for your generosity, insight, revelations and conversation.

This seems like a good place to (never) end. Here’s to living inside the poem, eternally. Thank you both for sharing your brilliance.

Elee Kraljii Gardiner is the author of two poetry books, Trauma Head (Anvil Press, 2018) and serpentine loop (Anvil Press, 2016), and editor of the anthologies Against Death: 35 Essays on Living (Anvil Press, 2019) and V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012). Originally from Boston, Elee lives on the traditional and unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam Peoples, where she works at Vancouver Manuscript Intensive. More:

Joyelle McSweeney is the author of ten books, most recently Toxicon & Arachne, poems (Nightboat Books, 2020); The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults, a goth ecopoetics (University of Michigan Poets on Poetry Series, 2014); and Dead Youth, or, The Leaks, a verse play (Litmus Press, 2014). She co-edits the international press Action Books and is a co-translator of Yi Sang: Selected Works (Wave Books, 2020). She teaches at the University of Notre Dame. More:

Ken White is a poet, screenwriter and the author of three books of poetry: Eidolon (Peel Press, 2013), The Getty Fiend (Les Figues Press, 2018) and Middlemost Constantine (Spork Press, 2019). White teaches Creative Writing at the low-residency MFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, and is an Assistant Professor of Screenwriting at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Writer’s Workshop. More: here