November 29, 1995
This interview appeared in TriQuarterly 98,
Winter 1996–97, and is reproduced in full by permission of TriQuarterly and Alec Marsh.
Alec Marsh teaches poetry at Muhlenberg College.
Copyright © 1997 by Alec Marsh and Alice Fulton. All rights reserved.
“Triptych For Topological Heart,”
Alec Marsh, "A Conversation with Alice Fulton," TriQuarterly 98 98:22–39, winter 1996–97.
Poems discussed: "==," "Give," "My Last TV Campaign," "OVERLORD," "Passport," "Some Cool," "Turn: A Version," "Vanishing Cream," "World Wrap."
This early morning interview took place on November 29, 1995, in the recording studio of WMUH, Muhlenberg College's tiny radio station; it has been edited and Fulton has taken the opportunity to expand on some of her responses. The studio setting is one reason we got to talking about popular music and television and its influence on poets. But Fulton's new book, Sensual Math, contains a sequence called "My Last TV Campaign," which raises the issue of the poet's relationship to the electronically mediated world.
Alec Marsh: One of the things we have been talking about this morning is the influence of television on poetry. You are of a generation, as I am, that grew up within the world of television. One of the opening lines of one of your poems in Sensual Math, "Vanishing Cream," begins "TV rules." I wonder if you could talk about what that means to you.
Alice Fulton: In that particular poem, it's an advertising executive who's speaking. The first line is "TV rules: it must be visual velcro ..." There's a double meaning on "TV rules," one implication being that it rules in the sense of dominates. But the poem also is listing various rules for the production of a TV commercial, such as "... it must be visual velcro / at four grand per second." What does "TV rules" mean to me? Let's see ... I grew up watching it, but I never liked it very much truthfully. As a kid there were certain shows I watched. I can't really remember what they were, but by the time I grew old enough to think — at twelve or so — I wasn't watching much TV anymore. My parents would have it on, and I would be up in my room listening to records or reading.
What was happening to music in the sixties was more powerful to me than anything I saw on TV. I always found TV kind of vacuous and boring, in fact. Other people seemed to find it mesmerizing, but at that time and I guess even today, I don't find it very engaging. I can walk away from it, turn it off. My husband, for instance, says that he can't do that. He gets sucked in; he's a visual person, a painter, and he finds it much more engaging than I do.
I tend to disagree with many of the values encouraged by TV. In "My Last TV Campaign," the ad executive, after a life of selling dish soap, et cetera, is given the chance — finally — to create a campaign for something she or he believes in, a big idea that could have a positive social impact. The poem considers the difficulties of presenting or "selling" ideas that are not already part of culture. At least, that's one thing the poem does.
AM: I wonder if "TV rules" dictate, or give you a structure from which the quick cuts of your poetry are derived. Is there an influence there?
AF: Well, in "Vanishing Cream" there might be an influence. That poem quotes from ad copy the speaker is trying to write. It is a little disjunctive, at times. But the disjunctiveness in other poems of mine probably comes more from what I've read and from postmodern ideas that question continuity and unity. Shifts of viewpoint and diction are a means of disrupting the poem's surface. I'm interested in dismantling the single, firm, unified speaking voice. Rather than the continuity and smoothness and polish of a steady subject, I'm interested in plurality of voices and registers of diction. My notion of poetry itself suggests quick cuts— those moves that used to be called poetics leaps. They allow the reader to fill in the gaps and participate by recreating the poem's meaning in their own minds. Poetry, to a greater degree than prose, depends on what happens between the lines. The gap between meanings is wider in poetry. My concept of poetry depends upon deletion and non sequiturs that the reader can reconstruct into meaning. To me, this is a component of poetry. It has nothing to do with TV.
AM: I noticed when you were reading last night that some of the poems that I took to be monologic, actually seemed to have a couple of voices coming in. It suggests to me that often lines that are taken off the left-hand margin indicate another speaker. Am I making that up?
AF: In one poem, "Some Cool," I used indentation to show shifts in thought. When I read that poem, it has the effect of being in different voices because the poem's speaker — me, in this case — is remembering the various voices. She's putting a string of pig lights — those lights they make now in the shape of animals — on the Christmas tree. While doing this, she's remembering two voices: her neighbor and the text of the Elvis cookbook she's received as a gift. But these various languages take place in the speaker's mind and in that sense are part of her shifting sense of self.
In this poem and other ones there's counterpoint — so I think you're right to pick up on that. To make it easier for people to hear them when I'm reading them, I'll say, for instance, "This poem is in the voice of an ad executive." But you don't have to read it that way; it can be read as parts of a sensibility, rather than parts of a single steady speaking subject. There are various polyphonic ways to look at the poems.
AM: The first time I picked up the book, I cracked it open to one of the poems in "My Last TV Campaign," it was the Valentino poem, "Passport," and I thought, "Oh I'm not sure about this." When I realized it was a dramatic poem I felt much better. It made sense as the mind of this TV person. But at first I took it as sincere: this is Alice Fulton speaking.
AF: You used the word "sincere," just as I might use it. But I wonder — what do we mean by "sincere?" Are autobiographical poems necessarily "sincere?" It seems to me that lyric poems often assume the pose of sincerity, and I find that posture off-putting, sometimes even offensive. I don't like it when manipulation insists upon its innocence or tries to pass itself off as guilelessness. All writing is manipulative, but writing that admits to its manipulations — by use of surface effects, tone, disjunction, what have you — seems more honest, perversely, and therefore has a better chance of convincing — or moving — me.
Even in lyrics, where it seems I'm the poem's speaker, that sense of self and voice is something of a fiction. I'm wary of being completely identified with the words being said because that way of reading fails to account for the mediation — the screening, selection, censorship — that inflects all writing. On the other hand, I have to admit that whenever I create a persona some of my own beliefs come through.
Basically, I think that autobiographical poetry needs to be viewed as a construct rather than as a "sincere," unmediated slice of life. At the same time, poetry in voices — or poetry that creates characters — can be read as mediated autobiography, mediated sincerity, if you will. During the late seventies, I worked for a brief time as an advertising copywriter in New York City, and there's a part of me in "My Last TV Campaign." I sympathize with the intentions of the speaker and the outrageously benign ad campaign she or he is trying to devise. But unlike the persona of the poem, I knew I couldn't stand advertising right from the start. I used to come home, go into the bedroom, and cry. I couldn't have lived the life of the ad executive in my poem. For me, that job was a horror. Yet to write that character, I had to have some area of sympathy or congruency.
Some readers have mistaken "My Last TV Campaign" for a satire on advertising, but that wasn't my intention at all. Advertising is a satire on itself already. The poem is much more "sincere" than people might think.
AM: Dramatic monologues or dramatic multi-logues, as some of your poems are, do seem to give a poet a lot of freedom about hiding and coming forth.
AF: "Multi-logues" is a good term. It describes contrapuntal poems very well. I began writing them because I got so tired of writing from my own experience, writing about my own life; it didn't include everything in a certain way. There were areas of human experience and thought that I wanted to experience vicariously; I wanted to go deeper into otherness. One of the ways of going more deeply into otherness is to write from the perspective of someone who's not you, of course. So that was how I began doing it, just trying to stretch that lyric sensibility a little bit. Now I'm going back more toward my own life and experience and away from other personas.
AM: "My Last TV Campaign" seems to have one speaker — although it's difficult to say just who that speaker is.
AF: People read my sequences, like "My Last TV Campaign," and sometimes don't know if it's one speaker. I have no objection to reading the poem as polyphony, but when I wrote it, I thought of it in terms of a single character.
AM: The poem's speaker is deliberately androgynous. When I started reading the sequence I just took it to be a woman, because you're a woman. Very naive. As I got halfway through I thought that maybe it was a male speaker, but it's actually deliberately left fuzzy.
AF: Right, the speaker's sex and gender are left open. But people always inscribe it. I think that's because the mind has trouble seeing two things at the same time. You could envision a transvestite or someone who is androgynous, but to envision both a gendered male and gendered female together is, perhaps, impossible. The poem is meant to oscillate between them. Some people inscribe it as male and will tell me about the man in my poem; others will say the woman. But it can be both; it can be either. The two overlap, switching back and forth, shuffling and flexing.
AM: Have you ever written dramatic monologues with a male speaker?
AF: Yes, yes. Several times. A sequence in Powers of Congress called "OVERLORD" is spoken in part by a soldier who's landing in Normandy on D-Day. That was definitely a male speaker. And in a recent issue of TriQuarterly, I published a poem called "World Wrap" that was in the voice of a man I'd describe as a feminist.
AM: When you write a poem and the speaker is the other gender (if there is just one other gender) it makes one think about the role of gender, or the role that gender is. What's that like for you?
AF: Before I answer let me be clear—when I say "sex" I'm referring to biology, while "gender" refers to the social and cultural construction of the self. Now that we've cleared that up — I think gender is a great inconvenience. I'd like to get rid of it. I don't mean the word "gender," which is very useful, but gender in action. For women, it's terribly constricting. The female gender role involves much more artificiality and contrivance than the male — though neither role is "natural."
When I was writing "OVERLORD," I tried to imagine my way into the consciousness of a soldier in World War II, who found himself in that particular historical predicament. I thought about what his background might be, and I thought of how he regarded women — that was one of the interesting things for me in the poem. When he's at war, he's remembering sex and the woman waiting for him back home.
More deeply, the poem's concerns had nothing to do with character. It thinks about the connection between childbirth and warfare as triumphant spheres of endeavor. Since antiquity, childbirth has been woman's means of transcendence and heroic endeavor, and war has been man's. "OVERLORD" is a means of meditating on that deep structure. There's a childbirth poem, in the voice of a woman, too, in that sequence. It gave me a chance to engage with sensibilities and thoughts that I wouldn't have encountered otherwise, and become more of a "chameleon poet," as Keats said.
AM: You obviously believe, as most poets of consequence do, that "the poet thinks with the poem" as William Carlos Williams said. You mentioned meditation. How do poems begin for you? How does meditation happen?
AF: It depends on whether it's a commission or whether it's something I choose to do on my own. Writing without an assignment is in some ways ideal because you're free to follow the deepest passions and interests. With commissions, the challenge lies in finding a connection between the assigned theme and your own urgencies. When I'm writing on my own, I look into notebooks I keep. And I look at what I have written and see where I was, where I left off, where I was deeply engaged last.
And then, what I haven't said is of interest to me. Have I neglected anything? Was I short-changing some aspect of a subject that interests me? Have I shied away from it? Have I been uncourageous or have I been wimpy about something?
In a way, that's how I got interested in writing more about emotion. Language has always attracted me in poetry. When I read poetry, it's the way things are said that appeals to me. So as a poet, that's very much where I began. That was the praxis or center for me. It still is. But as I thought about it, I realized that I'm also very drawn to poems because of their emotive qualities, because of what they make me feel. That's very hard for the poet to guess, to do, to control. I don't think you can control it really. But by not thinking about emotion at all and just letting it happen if it did, I felt that I was not taking on something that was finally important to me and important to poetry.
On the other hand, it seems to me that too many poets cultivate emotion at the expense of language. There's a lot of sappy poetry being written and published. The language in the poems might be plain — monochromatic, beige language — but the content is florid and gushy as cabbage roses. I have a horror of writing that way. When it comes to emotion, I prefer poems that err on the side of austerity. Most contemporary poems want to move the reader. But the emotions I feel when reading them are not the ones the poet intended. I might feel anger or disgust because I sense that the poet is trying to manipulate me with sincerity. All language is manipulative, but the poems that move me are those that seem somewhat surprised, taken aback, by their own emotional developments. I believe that can happen when feeling seeps into the poem without calculation on the poet's part. That's why I've allowed emotion into my work as an accidental (not an accident, but a fortuitous, unforeseen chromatic alteration), and maybe that's why the emotion in my poetry tends to go unnoticed.
With emotion, you can't only think, because then you're back where you were before, with the analytical. But it's possible to be analytical at first and then to allow spontaneity and feeling. To think and then let the poem rip, in both senses of the phrase. Let it be more vulnerable. Poems of "desire" or loss are the safest, least vulnerable poems imaginable these days. It is far riskier, more vulnerable, to allow contrarian feelings — humiliation, vulgarity, perversity, humor, et cetera — into the poem than to express loss. The emotional range of contemporary poetry seems far too limited. When I think of the poetry of emotion I think of surfaces that tear. Things are exposed that maybe you didn't intend to show. Those can be the most powerful points in writing.
AM: Did those moments happen in your notebooks or only when you move from the notebook to the poem? I'm trying to imagine your notebooks now.
AF: I have so many notebooks. Some are just collections of words and phrases that I like. But in them I'll put things I notice, things that I might feel. They are full of observations, aphorisms, about emotions or things that I've noticed about how people are acting — little things that I could work out and develop in a more nuanced and complex way in a poem.
I have a friend I talk to who's a scientist, John Holland, who's a colleague at Michigan, and we have wonderful conversations about science and literature, and I keep notes on that. So I have many different kinds of notebooks.
AM: Do you carry them all around with you?
AF: Never, no. That wasn't why my suitcase was so heavy! I don't because I'm afraid I'll lose them if I travel with them. I keep them at home. I have one small one that I carry with me sometimes, one where I might just jot something down, like a diary, if something happened. I also keep language in it that strikes me — bits of phrasing and words. There's nothing to notebook-keeping that's a "should-do." And I like that.
AM: I was wondering if you feel you need a subject to bounce off of to begin the poem, or do you sit down and wait for the poem to say itself to you?
AF: I usually have something in mind. Very often what I have in mind isn't where I end up. But at least it's something to start from, something to meditate on, to think about, and something that interests me. If the poem is a commission, of course, I'm given that start. Then the difficulty is connecting it to my own deep interests. But I don't start with absolutely nothing. The blank slate is off-putting, while words give rise to words.
AM: Do you meditate on words or images?
AF: I always look at entries in my notebooks. I've occasionally stared at visual images — such as photographs. This morning I was thinking of book titles, and I came up with the word "vinyl." To me it's an interesting word. And not a "poetic" word, not "desire," not "angels." A poem name that came to me was "dirt." I'm interested in the word "failure" as a poem title. America is so much about success. The idea of admitting failure, of admitting weakness, is interesting to me at the moment. I'm very interested in the connotations and the feeling and the taste and the texture of particular words. Sometimes I'll copy down a beautiful sentence from someone I'm reading.
AM: There's so much energy and tension in a good sentence. I think of prose writers as people who write great sentences. With poets you think great lines. What's the difference between a sentence and a line?
AF: Well, for me, the line is still the unit of composition, which might be a little bit old-fashioned at this point. It's a shame that the possibilities of the line are being neglected. It's a linguistic structure that I'm not keen on giving up, though writing in lines is certainly a lot of trouble. The line is something that poetry gives us that prose doesn't, a little sculptural thing on the page, a unit of thought with a brief rest at the end.
A line should be interesting in and of itself, and then it has to work within the context of the sentence. The line provides an opportunity for syntactic doubling — a wonderful term I learned from Cristanne Miller, a scholar who writes brilliantly about poetry. It is possible to create one meaning when the line is decontextualized and read as a thing unto itself, and another meaning when the line is connected to what follows. This sort of syntactic doubling depends upon the multiplicity of the last word in the line. But a word within the line can also act as a syntactic door, opening and closing on meaning, changing from noun to verb, for instance. "TV rules: it must be visual velcro," the line you cited earlier, is an example. "Rules" can be read as a noun or a verb. It isn't something poets want to overdo, but it can add to the richness and ambiguity of the poem. This particular linguistic effect is not possible in prose.
The line makes poets and readers think about language very closely. The end word in a line receives a great deal of pressure and attention. It's interesting to try to move the weight toward the beginning of a line. Enjambments that end the line on function words like articles, little words like "a" or "the," the seam stitching of language, are less teleological or end-driven. They lighten up the right side of the poem. Beginning with a noun or verb places more weight to the left, frontloading the line.
The most common way to lineate is to simply write lines that follow the syntactical pauses of the sentence. Poets who support this lineation sometimes call it naturalistic and say that it mimics speech. But if you listen to people talk, they pause in ragged places, leaving the prepositions in midair.
The line adds multiplicity and depth to poetry, while asking the reader to slow down. The wide margins of poetry should be read, just as much as the text. The white space and the silent rest at the end of every line conduct the music of the poem.
But When I quote poems, I probably remember phrases rather than lines. I think in terms of the phrase. Last night I was quoting Dickinson, "I like a look of agony, because I know it's true." I don't know how that sentence is lineated. I'd have to look it up.
AM: What about those dashes in Dickinson? You use them too, and then you also have invented a new form of punctuation, the double equal sign, which is a kind of double dash and must at some level has something to do with the effect of Emily Dickinson on you.
AF: Yes, oh absolutely. Her dashes are so mysterious. In her work, I feel the dash has been done to perfection. And that's partly why I made up another sign that could be something to think about in terms of punctuation. It wouldn't be the dash because I just can't imagine anyone using it as well as Dickinson. She uses it in ways that let you become more involved with the poem's syntax, you can fill it in, inscribe it. The dash is an empty space, but Dickinson's syntactical deletions often ask to be filled in; they exist to be recovered. Recovering the deletions makes reading her a very active, reciprocal experience. You feel like you're building the poem with her as you read. Sometimes you can't recover the deletions. The phrases on either side of the dash remain non sequiturs. Again, I have to credit Cristanne Miller, whose marvelous book on Dickinson, A Poet's Grammar , articulates these effects.
I also love the way the dash looks like ... well, sewing. It suggests the way Dickinson sewed her manuscripts together. For me, it has a feminist aspect: it looks like thread, it looks like sewing, holding the lines together. But mostly I love it because it allows multiplicity. And I like the story of Dickinson's reception. I love the way that they tidied her up and put the periods in, and by regulating her punctuation, removed the single best thing, for us, that she did.
AM: It seems to me that one of the reasons that her reception was so belated was that readers had to have already been trained with a little bit of modernism, by Marianne Moore perhaps, to understand those dashes as dashes and not as little Emily's mistakes.
AF: I think that's true. She seems postmodern in fact. We needed indeterminacy, we needed all these twentieth-century ideas about turbulence before we could really appreciate what she had done.
AM: Now your revision of a dash into this double thing. It's a sign that's not voiced when you read the poems so it's a form of punctuation ...
AM: — and therefore it's a visual sign —
AM: — and you just mentioned that good lines of poetry reminded you of sculpture, which makes me think that you see your lines before you hear them. Always tricky to make a judgment about that, but maybe you could talk about the relationship between sound and sight in your double dash, or "bride" as you call it.
AF: Although the sign is visual, as you say, when I'm writing a poem the sound comes first, the music. Again I think I'm old-fashioned that way. Not that the poems have a steady meter, but I hear the music of the words and rhythm. The bride sign is silent and it's mostly for readers of the page, because when I read the poems, you hear a rest or pause, but you don't know what the punctuation mark looks like. There's so much going on, I think, not only in my poetry, but in most poetry, that it's very hard for listeners to hear it and take it in if they haven't read the poem on the page. So, that's the kind of writer I am, the book kind, not the performance kind.
AM: Well, having seen you perform last night, I want to qualify that. You read your poems beautifully and you do make the poems complex in a different way, by revealing a play of voices or slight shifts of inflection which give the impression that there is more than one voice.
AF: Oh good, it's nice that there's a reason to read them. Thank you.
AM: You were talking last night about your "Daphne and Apollo" poem, and you used a wonderful image about how Daphne had been "stirred into" a tree at the moment of metamorphosis. This curling image reminded me again of a word you like a lot: "turbulence." I began to wonder if the bride sign [ == ] is silenced because it's also a bride— perhaps a woman who has been silenced and who is full of turbulence—it marks a moment of transformation.
AF: Oh that's really lovely. I think it is a moment of transformation; I'd like it to be that. It could also be a hinge; I see it that way too — the hinge that allows the door to open onto another realm. That threshold moment is transformative. Actually, one title I considered for Sensual Math was Transformer.
I also think of the double equal as the sign of immersion. The single equal sign retains the separation of whatever is on either side. We know that separate is not equal. The double equal, as I said in one defining poem, "means more / than equal to == within." It signals an absence of boundary, that two things are immersed in one another, as in metaphor. A simile is separated by "like" while a metaphor is transformative; one thing actually becomes the other. So, I think of the double equal as a metaphorical sign and a feminist sign, imbued with the qualities of the background, of negative space, of reticence. Yet, it's also very visible. It calls attention to itself because it's a mark that no one has ever seen in a poem before. I like the fact that it both recalls the reticence of women, the way that women have been in the background historically, and it also brings them visibly to the fore.
I also think it's a turbulent sign. To make up your own sign is probably in some ways not a good idea. It could cause some anxiety and hostility. I was aware of that, but I think poetry should be a bit turbulent and should raise arguments. It should have people saying "Why are you making me notice this?" Those are valid things for poetry to do that it hasn't been doing. It's been disappearing and being decorous. It's been behaving itself. In making that sign I wanted to take a bit of a risk, the risk of being called gimmicky and contrived and all that. That's part of the turbulence for me, that's the risk of it.
AM: It will be interesting to see if this sign will proliferate.
AF: Well, that would be the ultimate compliment. That would be an honor to me, because if you wrote a poem with that sign in it, you'd be saying to me that you weren't ashamed of being associated with the ideas that we've been talking about, that you were a fellow traveller. If others were to use the sign, they'd be supporting a world view. I have to add that I don't expect to see this.
It's amazing how conservative poetry is. Many people who get involved with poetry seem to be fearful, easily threatened. Maybe that's just human nature. But I do wish the world of poetry weren't so small and mean. If you change a tiny aspect of poetics it's "Off with her head! Off with his head!" It's as if you've done something very rude and conceited, calling attention to yourself and so on.
AM: It sounds like you've caught some flak about the sign already.
AF: No, in fact I've been lucky. I've just been counting my blessings. I'm waiting for it, it might happen next week. There's a book review coming out next week, and it might be in that, I don't know.
AM: It's always in the next review.
AF: In the next one, sure.
AM: You'll get slammed —
AF: Yeah, you're just waiting for it.
AM: Insofar as the sign does have this sense of the feminine, we can interpret the term feminine very broadly to suggest all that is disorderly, contaminated, seductive and therefore problematic in an ordered, male, analytical, philosophical world. The sign seems to remind us that the silence of the silenced is always turbulent, must necessarily be turbulent.
AF: Yes, under the surface there's writhing.
AM: It reminds me of your Daphne, stuck in a tree and looking out through the cracks in the bark.
AF: Waiting for her chance to be seen. She's a figure for what's happened to women historically. I didn't just think of her as a woman in American culture, because women in this country have a much more comfortable way of living than women do world-wide. I was thinking of her in terms of what has happened to women in the biggest ways. At the end of "Turn: A Version," she peers out of a tree waiting to see and be seen. Apollo had installed mirrors in the tree, so that Daphne's reflection of herself is his construction, his idea of her. All she could see was the image of herself that was given to her by the male god. She's trying to open the tree to see the world from her own point of view, and to have someone see her as she is.
AM: If there were such a someone, who would it be?
AF: I think it happens when women become more culturally dominant. It occurs when women are empowered (if it ever happens. I don't know that it ever will.) If women came to the fore of culture and were more visible,everyone would start to see what women can do. Women's image might not be limited to stereotypical or essentialist notions that define women as part of nature because of their association with child-bearing and child-rearing. Women could redefine themselves through opportunity, showing that they could do science, they could do math, they could be analytical. The world gaze would be their gaze.
AM: I'm beginning to see that the person looking through the crack on the other side might first be a woman poet, or a woman philosopher.
AF: Yes, she could be in any number of fields as long as she's a pioneer.
AM: Because you mentioned vinyl earlier, because we were talking about growing up in the 1960s, has the poetry of rock 'n' roll influenced your work? I mean, you said that when you were twelve, you were upstairs listening to records.
AF: Yes, Dylan, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell and all those sixties people.
AM: I don't actually hear them in your work as I've read it, but —
AF: No. not really. I think they wrote wonderful songs, but I'm sure you've noticed if you write down those lyrics, they don't do very much. It's the music, it's the phrasing, the production that gives them life.
AM: It's the particular sneering way they get sung.
AF: Dylan certainly sneered. The difference between song lyrics and poetry is that, with poetry, the music has to be in the language itself. The language of the poem has to do everything. Musicians have instruments behind them and they have their singing voices and so on. If I wrote words like theirs, the words would fall flat without the tunes and chords.
AM: The pretend book called Vinyl sounds like it might have to do with records. Records are a big image for you. I know you were a DJ once. What is it about records? Say something about vinyl.
AF: O.K. Vinyl is a highly artificial, human-made substance with associations of resiliency, longevity, cheapness and sleaziness. I'm thinking of vinyl car seats, now, not only records. Vinyl is much tougher than natural substances. It doesn't biodegrade, which is very bad from an ecological point of view. Vinyl is forever. It's a petroleum product, and it looks like solid oil. Vinyl is used in place of leather, but considered declasse, less lovely. However, vinyl is less cruel than leather, a material that evokes suffering — the suffering of slaughterhouses. Leather is fetishistic because it evokes the living and the dead. It's a fabric of domination — evoking not only sexual domination, but the human domination of the natural world. Leather is much more expensive than vinyl, and displaying leather is a means of asserting wealth, taste, class. Vinyl, on the other hand, is a subject of jokes and dismissal. Yet, as I've said, vinyl is more eternal than leather. Vinyl is kinder. The vinyl used in records is a repository that looks unassuming — dark, uninteresting — but within its negative space are sonic complexities, beautiful, invisible harmonics.
You reminded me of something else with your question, actually, about the effect of rock lyrics. (They were all on vinyl, for me.) I think one thing they did for me was not make sense. In those days, the sixties, seventies, lyrics were things that you puzzled over. You heard them again and again, appreciating them for everything that they didn't say clearly. You appreciated the mystery of them. Who is "the Walrus" in the Beatles' song? And Dylan was terrific for lines that had resonance but couldn't be pinned down. I think today's popular music is clearer. I don't mean the sort of marginal music that is played on college radio stations but the mainstream. I've asked students, "Don't you listen to music this way anymore?" A way of listening that appreciates something for what it retains and conceals, so that you had to hear it again and again. That is the appreciation I took to literature. The need to read that poem again and again was part of the pleasure. The places where the poem interested me most were those places that retained a residue I couldn't completely excavate. One of the deepest pleasures of literature for me was the sense that a work had no bottom: it was infinitely understandable because it couldn't be completely understood. It couldn't be seized back from connotation into denotation. There would always be a layer of meaning that I couldn't retrieve.
AM: Where did that happen for you? Do you remember a time when you picked up a poem and couldn't get to the bottom of it?
AF: All the time in high school. My sister was an English major, and her books were up in the attic. Around the time I was listening to records, I was also reading poetry anthologies. I'd write out Keats and Shakespeare's monologues in my own hand as a way of appropriating them. I was doing that with the song lyrics, too. It was the same appreciation. They both were mysterious and wonderful things made of words that I wanted to memorize and internalize, but even at the time, I recognized that the rock lyrics were not as good as the language of the poems. When you took away the music, the song lyrics fell flat, while the poems didn't need any music, outside of the music they made themselves. Since I'm not musically talented, I had to write poems rather than music. I would have probably become a musician if I could have.
AM: Who wouldn't?
AF: Right, who wouldn't? But I couldn't. If you could sing! To me, that's the best. Many poets really want to sing, especially lyric poets. But since I couldn't, I came to poetry.
AM: Who was the first poet who grabbed you with the same intensity as, say, the Beatles must have grabbed you?
AF: Gosh, I read so many, but probably Dickinson, from way back. I loved her work when I was in high school and then, of course, you just go on and find out that there's a lot more than those pocket-sized, gift shop volumes of her love poems. That was where I started, and then I realized that it didn't have to end there. Dickinson had this big body of work, and so she carried me through. I became fascinated with her biography. Of course, the legend of Emily Dickinson seems so romantic when you are in high school, you buy into it. You believe all that, the romantic mythology —
AM: — her lowering the little basket out the window —
AF: — exactly, the white dress.
AM: Who was the first contemporary poet whose next book you would wait for with the same eagerness?
AF: Probably Adrienne Rich. Denise Levertov, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin. I didn't start to read contemporary poetry till the mid seventies, when I was an undergraduate in college. The first course I took was "Women Poets" at Empire State College. It was a very small seminar, with only about four people, and our teacher, Carolyn Broadaway, was outstanding. She took us to a feminist poetry conference at U Mass., Amherst, where Adrienne Rich was reading and speaking, along with other poets of the day, feminist poets. So I actually was sitting, literally sitting, at Adrienne Rich's feet in this informal meeting. Hearing her speak, hearing her read, and I'd already read all of her books to date, in the course, along with all of Denise Levertov. Rich is one poet who made me think this is the kind of thing I wish I could do. She was an inspiration.
AM: Is she still that inspiration for you?
AF: She'll always be a wonderful poet for me.
AM: A final question. Where do you think poetry's going? Which is just another way of saying where do you think the culture's going?
AF: Oh, it's so hard to say where poetry is going. I don't think it's going to become more popular because electronic media are on the rise, our lives are changing. Maybe not mine, I'm very old-fashioned and I don't have much to do with television or computers, but I think electronic media are increasingly important within world culture. I also think books and poetry will always have their place. Books offer a particular kind of intense, complex, imaginative experience that can't be found electronically or through visual images. Reading requires a more active reimagining than viewing a screen. TV and film do a lot of the work for the viewer. That's one reason they're popular. But for those who learn to read as children — I mean those who learn to love books — reading is a kind of deep intoxication, a means of experiencing otherness deeply. That, nothing can replace. As long as kids still learn to read that way, I believe some of them will value books and want them around. As long as there's a written language, I think people — certain small groups of people — will prize poetry as the best example of an elegant, and thrilling, linguistic structure.
Alec Marsh, “A Conversation with Alice Fulton,” TriQuarterly 98, pp. 22-39, winter 1996-97. Reproduced by permission of TriQuarterly and Alec Marsh. Copyright © 1997 by Alec Marsh and Alice Fulton. All rights reserved.