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Seth Abramson 



What you cannot face 
you face-that's your direction. In houses in cars
           in cars that become houses
the event stage is dark
then revealed, the longest story chapter by chapter, 
what makes someone somewhere 
despise you. How will I know when it happens?
          It'll be a long drive,
you'll know. 
Across the street is a streetfight 
in which a man without shoes shrieks to no one 


but not to me. The alarm clock is pushed away
from the bed and a man is lifted up to a white van.
          His arm falls to signal everyone back 
to the races. Or it's midnight,
          and men and women are in each other
in buildings, 
          and some have never gone anywhere
but there, over and over. What apartment are you in
          they will be particularly asked 
and they will say 
the same as before, Mother. What state are you in?
Again. The question has their scent and the answer
their form. It is the fight of their
lives, if they walk away from it. And then that's that,
or nearly.

All You Ploughboys

          What I found at the back of the wood
made my hairs fray,
and what I saw over the weeds in the water
were stars, some of which were sweet to me 
          many years

          though I knew they were just
lamplight from the homes of people like me

capable of anything. At the back of the wood 
          I am capable of anything. 
The blanket of black water is being shaken
by a relentless mother
on the far shore, 
          the lake of weeds is being tussled 
by the breath of its father. 
The actual stars can no longer be seen because 
          the light from town

          But then they say nowhere light is
is unnecessary. 
          Leave the light on for me 
          I say to the people who love me 
when I am sure 
to do something horrible. I am by the lake 
at one
wearing leaves from the back of the wood,
          I am sure
to do something horrible. Half the wood is
halfway there. 
And half this town is half in love with itself, 
           but me I go all the way.

Hometown Courage

The minute hand was bent.
At eight
it was almost eight. At nine
almost nine. 
I have almost been made
many times,
          once in Concord

with two girls from Stow. 
One held me down
while the other one 
went to it on top of a guy
with a large, clean pickup
out back. He looked over 
from the other side 
of the four-poster. This is
good, he whispered. 
Yes, I whispered back, this 
is good.


The minute hand was longer than
usual. Beneath it 
a man was standing over a girl,
his arm reaching above her
his fingers
curled around the minute hand
like a truncheon. Each minute 
there was a click
and the hand pulled him closer.
Can I get you 
anything, he said. Can I get you 


The sofa was too short for anyone
to lay down on. People were sitting


who wanted to be lying 
on one another, people were lying
on the floor
who should've been sitting upright
in cabs. Only three girls passed by 
that way,

and only one would sit. Only one 
is ready, a man with a pickup said 
to me. She's not from around here, 
he said. That means-

I know what it means, I said. I can 
see it.


                                                                --from Thievery 


BIO: Seth Abramson is a poet, editor, attorney, and freelance journalist in Madison, Wisconsin.

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry: Thievery (University of Akron Press, forthcoming 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize; Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose; and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). A contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008), he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose first edition will be published by Omnidawn in 2014. Presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets (University of Virginia Press, 2008), Poetry of the Law (University of Iowa Press, 2010), Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Harvard Review, AGNI, jubilat, and Colorado Review. In 2008, he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry.

A former commentator for Air America Radio and a Koufax Award-nominated political blogger, his essays on poetry, politics, and higher education have been cited by The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Economist, The Los Angeles Times, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, New York Magazine, Poets & Writers Magazine, Jacket, the Poetry Society of America, and elsewhere. From 2001 to 2007, he worked as a staff attorney for the New Hampshire Public Defender.

REVIEW: Click here for a review of Seth Abramson's Thievery at Savvy Verse & Wit


INTERVIEW: An INTERVIEW with Seth Abramson by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum 

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: "Slowdown" makes some radical leaps via images that are easy to follow even though the connection is rather difficult to comprehend, particularly in these early lines:

     How will I know when it happens?
               It'll be a long drive,
     you'll know.
     Across the street is a streetfight
     in which a man without shoes shrieks to no one

     but not to me. The alarm clock is pushed away 
     from the bed and a man is lifted up to a white van.

I find these lines fascinating because I can see everything that is happening, but I couldn't tell you what is actually going on in a literal sense. So it's delightful on the level of the image but oddly perplexing when it comes to what is actually taking place in the poem. Typically, this would really bother me in a poem, but it doesn't here and in much of your work in general because the images excite my imagination and keep me guessing. What do you think of this reading of your work?

Seth Abramson: I try to take the two most important imperatives identified by the historical avant-garde-to return Art to the praxis of Life, and to destroy Art-as-institution-both literally and figuratively, and I think that drives some of what you're picking up on in the work. My experience has been that it's nearly impossible to make any sense of the self, but what we can achieve while here, albeit I think it takes a lifetime, is a sense of rightness. I don't mean in the moral sense, but the aesthetic: a sense that we could not have been composed differently, could not have lived differently, and could not have had a different experience here. It's a sort of satisfaction that's spiritual rather than smug. In my poetry, I'm often trying to capture those two things at once: the incapacities of our self- and sense-making apparatuses, but also the fact that these cohabit, in the moments we feel most human and extant, with a feeling that all is as it must be.

"All" refers here only to the evolution of a self, of course; politically, almost nothing is as it must be, though I consider a subject who is right with/in himself or herself as one of the only consequential weapons against otherwise impenetrable injustices. (And perhaps a subject whose subjectivity has been organized via the poetic praxis is even more equipped for political commitment than are others; I think that theory is still under development.) All of this is to say that what I want the work to provoke is both a sense of the disconnectedness of things but also their (albeit abstract) cohesion. So the reading of Thievery that says many of the poems are narratively obtuse but nevertheless compelling and surprising in a way that feels sturdy is one I'm thrilled to hear.

As I tend to write from different chaos/order centers at once, I do like to think that there's often at least a circular narrative at play in the poems of Thievery. But whether a reader experiences that valence of each poem is not, I hope, dispositive of the experience of reading the book. The aim, instead, is to have nounal play and interplay, coupled with rhythms and rhetorical structures designed to provoke attention, generate that feeling of a collapsing oneness (a paradox) that I generally associate with the praxis of Life.

I've always been interested in how language generates atmosphere; I read a certain type of text-Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense" comes to mind-and almost imperceptibly find myself inserting my own tone and rhythm. 

AMK: There's all sorts of wordplay in "Slowdown," particularly in those opening lines:

     What you cannot face 
     you face-that's your direction. In houses in cars
                in cars that become houses
     the event stage is dark
     then revealed, the longest story chapter by chapter,
     what makes someone somewhere
     despise you. 

If you had to pick a poison, would it be image, word play, imagination, surprise? 

SA: That's a tough one. I feel like each of those four elements is absolutely essential to what I want to do with words, and choosing any one by definition diminishes it. I wouldn't value the image as much as I do if it lacked the capacity to surprise and the imperative to respond to (and also provoke) the imagination. In the same way, wordplay keeps the reader on the page-emphasizes the immanence and materiality of language-without which gesture the transcendent elements of contemporary verse (like image and imagination) would be ineffectual. For me, one of the hallmarks of poetry is its ability to hybridize, to synthesize myriad data no matter how disparate in form or content. I don't think the poetic praxis is fully functional when it isn't simultaneously on and off the page, familiar and surprising, imaginative and as mundane as living sometimes is. All that said, the conceptual poems I've been writing lately generally draw from source material that eschews imagery, and conceptualism generally works a different imaginative muscle than does lyric poetry, so if I had the gun of an interview to my head I'd probably say that, to me, surprise is the most far-reaching of those four elements. It seems to me that the other three are its instruments. 

AMK: You are one of the more "experimental" poets we have featured on POW. You're not what I'd call a narrative, lyrical, or lyric-narrative poet. Perhaps a meditative poet is a better adjective. I'm wondering how much "concern" you have for your reader. Do you think as you revise about how a poem might be read or interpreted, or is this something you think about from the very beginning? Do you feel that you should "help" your reader understand what you are doing in a poem or do you leave that up to them?

SA: A poet I very much admire once told me that we poets must never forget that others don't necessarily come to poetry for the same reasons we do. For instance (this poet said at the time), some people need poetry in their lives as an augmenting mirror for their own experiences and perceptions, while others need poetry to transport them to an understanding of language that's entirely different from the one we develop in childhood and young adulthood. I really do believe that readers of poetry, who are understandably self-interested in the sense that they're highly motivated to discover the poetries they most enjoy, ultimately do find what they're looking for. If I thought of a possible future readership while writing, I suppose I'd also have to ask the question, "Which reader? And how do I choose?" Each reader is impelled by their own private roster of values and preoccupations.

As you say, I definitely do not see myself (not that I get to be the final arbiter of this) as a lyric, narrative, or lyric-narrative poet, though on many occasions readers have come to that conclusion. That used to trouble me-engaging with readers whose experience of the texts I've created is so different from my own-but I'm finding that, by and large, it doesn't anymore. I like the idea of poetry as a palimpsest of poetics: you can engage with the work at a variety of levels, including several at once, and it only enhances the pleasure produced by the work to do so. I've been a self-consciously "conceptual" poet for five years now-writing poems, as in Thievery, that are activated by a poetics of space I'm devoutly faithful to-but it's only since I began foregrounding form in my poems that my work began hitting somewhat with that community of readers looking for "experimental" writing (though of course all writing is an experiment of a kind). I think that's a shortfall of contemporary poetry pedagogy; we're taught to associate experimentation generally and conceptualism specifically with conspicuous form, when often enough it's the latent rhetorical structures we should be looking for.

Having said all that, I also love discussions of poetry, so I do think a poet working with latent structures should be willing to engage forthrightly with readers who want that. I think if a reader wants to engage a poetics pedagogically, they should be able to find something online or in print that would help them do that. I don't see that as interrupting or diminishing the work itself, but it does take a committed reader to make those sorts of exercises productive. And with the short attention spans all of us (me more than most anyone) have developed in the Internet Age, that sort of writer and that sort of reader is getting harder and harder to find outside explicitly pedagogical (e.g. university) settings. Particularly as literary scholarship, and the cloisters of poets it latches upon, inhabits communities almost entirely impenetrable to the average reader or even poet.

AMK: One formal device that you employ in these poems is repetition. In the first two lines of "Slowdown," for instance, you repeat "face" and "car." In "Hometown Courage," you repeat "eight" and "nine" in the first two lines. "All You Ploughboys" doesn't lead as aggressively with repetition, but it's there pushing the poem. Why repetition and why in these poems? 

SA: I want to try to return Art to the praxis of Life in as many ways as I can, and repetition is, for me, one of the hallmarks of living. It's not just that we repeat our actions incessantly--performing the same anxieties, making the same errors, participating in subcultures whose communal gestures are eminently predictable-but that the same memories, atmospherics, and even phrases recur in our lives, and often (therefore) become a focal point for our psyches. I want to write poems that honor, among many other things, that aspect of the human experience.

As a former practicing attorney, I also think quite a lot about the value of rhetorical devices that are commonly used to command attention under difficult circumstances, and poetry-writing and poetry-reading in the twenty-first century is definitely a difficult circumstance-one in which commanding attention-in-itself (i.e., open-ended attention) is a challenge. Many of the attention-seeking rhetorical devices that were once considered effective in verse I think are now less so; that's one reason I only sparingly use metaphor, simile, extended description, autobiography, received form, or adjectival accumulation in my work. All of these gestures have been hallmarks of lyric writing for centuries.

AMK: "All You Ploughboys" utilizes all sorts of metaphor and transformations. We have the blanket of the "blanket of black water...shaken / by a relentless mother / ... / the lake of weeds...tussled by the breath of its father", the stars that are "just / lamplight from the homes of people like me...", and the actual stars that can't be seen due to light pollution. In "Hometown Courage" we have that bent minute hand. Looking at these examples, I'd say that transformation, that this notion of halves, is present in much of your work. What's going on here? 

SA: Back when I was taking creative writing workshops regularly, I remember being told by a classmate that my work seemed obsessed with symmetry. It's not something I'd ever consciously thought about, though as soon as I heard that reading I recognized it as the sort of preoccupation that's central not just to my writing but to my psyche. A lot of this comes from being a public defender for so many years, and therefore investing so much of my daily energies in a truth-seeking mechanism (the criminal justice system) that enforces symmetrical structures vigorously. As I get older, I think that interest in symmetry-which probably manifests in Thievery both in terms of the poems' visual form and also, as you mentioned, in many of the images-becomes less a matter of conspicuous structure and more an implicit feature of the work. For instance, a poem that seeks to release back into the wild the very same stock of data it took in at a given moment-simply processed (now) through the poetic praxis-is conceptually symmetrical, even though that might not show up formally on the page. "Hometown Courage" looks at how symmetries of time and space can be off in the worst possible place for it to happen: one's home environment. Likewise, "All You Ploughboys" tries to put important forces, particularly forces that are generative and destructive during childhood and young adulthood, on the far side of a divide that I do think has a line of symmetry at the center. 

AMK: "Slowdown" utilizes an unnamed (and what seem universal rather than particular) you. The speaker in "All You Ploughboys" is left up to the reader, and utilizes an unnamed "they" as it addresses the "people who love me..." What's going on with all these unnamed, mysterious voices and characters?

SA: I'd say that I have less invested than many do in having the speakers in my poems [serve as] proxies for me. I don't want that; I actually don't even think of them as proxies for any particular person or demographic. I think of them as situated intelligences, which sounds a bit elevated but I really just mean that these poems consider what happens to the ego when it is surrounded by a unique vortex of images, rhythms, atmospheres, et cetera. I don't think of them as having characters per se, and more often than not the poems of Thievery are not identifiably voice-driven. What I hope they call to mind is a voice whose directionality, intent, and composition [are] unclear but nevertheless authoritative. I'm interested in that sort of imperative speech because I think it both inhabits and rules our internal atmosphere (as id or ego or any one of a number of other imaginings) and guides us as an external force (in its manifestation as God or myth or the law, to use just three examples). 

AMK: Do you think much about the "theme" of a poem or a book of poems, or are you more driven by structure, voice, personae, tone? You seem to have a lot of fun doing things a little differently. 

SA: A big part of my writing ethos-which suits my temperament, but certainly others' mileage will vary-is that I only write poetry when it feels imperative to me to do it, and that I follow only the rabbit-hole before me, not those from/in other poems I've written. That's the only way I know to write an honest poem. To clarify that: I mean a poem that's faithful to all and anything I am; I don't at all mean that others who write differently are not writing honest work. Every poet is responding to their own circumstances. So generally, and this was the case with Thievery, I spend a year or two writing poems using this compositional mode and then look back to try to find a throughline. And I almost always find one, however subtle; I think throughlines are inevitable if the poems are (in the sense I was just using the term) honest. So in my own experience-speaking only to that-theme is not something one imposes, but something that invariably rises up from the bottom of the work. 

AMK: Weird is probably the best word I can come up with to describe "Hometown Courage." Weird, of course, is good. We have this odd image of people inside clocks and men whispering back and forth to each other in what seems to be the midst of erotic acts, and "people...lying / on the floor / who should've been sitting upright / in cabs." In cabs? Whoa. There's something arresting about these moments. We're not sure what's going on. I think we're almost happy not to know what is going on. And yet we are intrigued.... 

SA: Like many of the poems in Thievery, that one is meant to deeply unsettle. As I get older, my emotional life gets "safer," but poetry is still a place in which I can explore not just the decades in my past of a different type of living but also the infrequent abysses I still find myself circling. 

AMK: What's going on with these sections in "Hometown"? Are they linked in some way? Are they flashes of disconnected pieces that connect merely because they are in the same poem or because of something larger beneath the surface? 

SA: When I was writing Thievery, I was very interested in atemporality-the way poetry lets us step out of time, if we're willing to make that leap of faith. I still would consider atemporality a critical element of my worldview as an author. One thing section breaks do for me, as I'm writing, is double down on this idea that linear narrative is almost always a trap. I don't know that I've ever been caught up in a story or moment that was linear in its trajectory. Has anyone? So yes, those section breaks are definitely "pits" inside of which time and space should be imagined as very, very wild. The text is circling the breaks, not the other way around. At least that's how I think of it when I'm writing. 

AMK: What drives the decisions you make about indented lines and line breaks? I'm especially interested in why there is only one indented line in "Hometown Courage" and why that particular line? 

SA: Some of it is just "going on your nerve," as Frank O'Hara said. I think that, even in a world of literary scholarship and university-housed pedagogical spaces, we must always leave some room-in fact, for me, it feels like it should be half the available space or more-for instinct as opposed to design. I think instinct is more instructive and communicative; revealing when and where your instincts are activated tells the reader a lot more than do carefully designed elements that are often guided in part by a desire to fulfill readers' expectations. The breaks of Thievery definitely expose some of the obsessions I've mentioned: symmetry, authority, attention-in-itself, atemporality, non-linearity, and also my longtime anti-descriptive bent. Hopefully the breaks in Thievery simultaneously interrupt the modes of communication we commonly encounter and reify the philosophies of communication I'm proposing as an alternative. I don't want readers feeling comfortable, in other words. There's so much comfort in contemporary America-not just material comforts, which are of course wildly and unequally distributed, but also the comforts of habitual thinking that we all indulge-that I'm not sure how much my poetry should or needs to be providing that. 

AMK: Thank you, Seth.

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