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Statements on Writing by Michael Palmer

From an Interview with Keith Tuma (1986)


… I’ve always been intrigued by the information I could derive from … areas such as glossolalia, that one sees as outside and yet apposite to everyday discourses, providing alternative logics, alternative modes of thought and perception. These seem to me to offer new information about the territory the poem occupies, how it moves and what it sets about meaning in a kind of resistance to the habituated modes of conventional verse, confessional expressionism and that kind of thing – the representational modes that still remain effectively the mainstream of American poetry writing. The mainstream is in itself somewhat diverse, but it is unquestionably something that rejects the major discoveries and the impetus of modernism in favor of a return to a kind of centered, commodified mode of working that was called for by the generation of Randall Jarrell and others; they felt that things had gone too far and that it was time to close the windows and lock the doors and get the house in order. …

… Some people have tended … to be uncomfortable with modes of, let’s say, counterlogical thought, analogical thought, the kind that sometimes occurs in my work. In that respect, the work becomes a form of address rather than contention; it becomes an attempt to reinvoke such modes of thought. There are various political dimensions that I feel extremely aware of in thinking about the entire politics of the poem in relation to current society but also in relation to all societies, historically. In relation to the discourse of power, for example, I’m very conscious of the role that poetry can play as resistant to and as a critique of the discourse of power by undermining assumptions about meaning and univocality. But also by occupying, hopefully without marginalization, the margins of the cultural landscape, working on the boundaries.


You say hopefully without marginalization. Are you fearful of – you wouldn’t be the first certainly – poetry’s marginalization within the culture now?


I think the ultimate marginalization of poetry comes from people who trivialize it, poets who turn poems into commodities. The truly marginalized poetry is the poetry next to the cartoons in the New Yorker or the kind of rote composition and commentary that occupies most pages of the American Poetry Review. That is self-marginalizing verse because it is commodified and can be discarded. Obviously, we don’t have large audiences in any given moment, and yet if we’re doing work of any significance, we are refusing that kind of self-imposed marginalization.

Michael Palmer: On Writing in the Autobiographical Mode

[The essay opens with an anecdote about Palmer’s first publisher requesting a biographical note to accompany Palmer’s dust jacket photograph.] … On hearing of the problem [Robert] Duncan offered to compose the biographical note himself. I accepted and he immediately wrote the following:

I think Michael Palmer was delivered two blocks astray in 1943 because he was aborted at our address two months before. Now he has arrived I think a long way from the Rhinelander Apartments in Greenwich Village with a poetry addressed to occupant to refund the Indians for the Manhattan sell.

The next day I sent it (special delivery, memory tells me, as a return gesture) to John martin at Black Sparrow [Press] with instructions to use it as the biographical note. In fact when the book appeared Robert’s note had been placed below the [author’s] photograph and above it was the following:

Michael Palmer was born in New York City in 1943. He was educated at Harvard University and now lives and works in San Francisco.

So. So a decision has been made, if not by the writer whose identity was at issue, to reimpose order and offer an outline of the "real" facts. A person had been born, raised, educated certainly, had lived somewhere and moved somewhere else and presumably there were additional "real" facts that could be supplied to responsible parties upon inquiry. The reader was to be relieved of any puzzlement or unease generated by Robert’s note. …

[Palmer examines in detail other examples of apparent "autobiographical" expression. At one point he quotes a poem from his collection The Circular Gates entitled "The End of the Ice Age and Its Witnesses" and, after revealing that it "draws upon a range of sources including Carl Sauer, Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, various poems and letters of Rimbaud, Trees of North America and Hedy Lamarr’s Ecstasy and Me," he then quotes several paragraphs from Lamarr’s autobiography that provided specific phrases included in his poem.] … I do in fact enjoy the one-dimensionality of pop autobiography (maybe it possesses that quality of blankness I was after for the autobiographical note). In any case it has a specific linguistic coloration which in "the End of the Ice Age" I was trying to use along with other language colors to make a kind of false autobiographical collage that might turn out to be quote true. …

… Poetry seems often a talking to self as well as other as well as self as other, a simultaneity that recognizes the elusive multiplicity of what is called "identity." It is heuristic, that is, a procedure of discovery within which identity may appear as negative or in negative. An obvious result is that autobiographical material locates itself differently and memory functions differently than in linear narrative. (I’m not denying that a great deal of poetry is narrative and more or less discursive.) By foregrounding the inherent complexities and complex possibilities of discourse, poetic speech often becomes paradoxically more direct in its presentation than apparently simpler forms of writing: the evasions, displacements, recurrences, etc., stand as an immediate part of the message. …

from Michael Palmer, "Autobiography, Memory and Mechanisms of Concealment," in Bob Perleman, ed. Writing / Talks (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), 208-209, 221, 227-228.

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