Interview with Diane Raptosh
by Nin Andrews
Diane Raptosh has published three books of poems, of which her long-poem, American Amnesiac, is new from Etruscan Press. The recipient of three literature fellowships from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, Raptosh teaches creative writing and literature at The College of Idaho. She was named Boise’s first Poet Laureate in 2013.
NA: This is an amazing book, and one that keeps singing in the brain, long after you put it down. I was wondering how it evolved. And if there might have been a particular moment, meeting, or incident that inspired the book?
DR: For a long time I had wanted to write a book-length poem or series that grappled with, among other things, the declining state of America—the colossal upward redistribution of income; white privilege; the decimation of the middle class, of the working class; the cruelly surreal notion of corporate personhood; the bloated U.S. prison population, to name but a few matters that had long been concerns. I could see that some rather considerable shifts—bad for everyone but the super-rich—were underfoot, taking place both incrementally and in big waves. I wanted to investigate these subjects through poetry but wasn’t sure how.
I didn’t want to write bad imitations of the work of a great poet like, say, Adrienne Rich, and C.D. Wright had already written the brilliant book-length work, One Big Self, about the broken U.S. prison system, giving voice to some of its unforgettable denizens. I have always admired what Wright does with different voices within a text. And this phrase “one big self” kept rattling around in my head. I needed a vehicle for meditating on what I felt were matters of import; whatever the vehicle turned out to be would need also to permit levity, playfulness.
In my distress over the state of what is frequently referred to as “the common man,” I began toying with the trope of “Everyman.” I’d read some articles about amnesia, about amnesiacs. It is not a far cry to suggest that we all suffer from a culturally imposed amnesia; in fact, some prominent scholars and writers (i.e., Cornel West and Henry A. Giroux) argue this line very persuasively.
Gradually, my version of a single big self began to come together—as voices within one head, inside the man with two names who straddles many possible versions of reality, who walks the plank inked between lucidity and madness. Housing many selves (as we all do), John Doe/Calvin J. Rinehart gave me a way through, a means to investigate self and nation-nature simultaneously.
American Amnesiac is a challenging but beautiful read. It’s perfect for Etruscan Press. How did you know to send it to Phil Brady? Did you worry, in this age of increasingly accessible poetry, that you might have trouble finding a press for it?
I did not know who Phil Brady was or what his literary tastes might encompass at the time I began sending the manuscript out. In truth, I have very few contacts in the literary world. But during that manuscript submission phase, I had read a poem I was wowed by (written by a writer whose name, alas!, I can no longer remember) in Field magazine. I read in her bio that she had published a book by Etruscan Press. So that was my primary impetus. I had also earlier read Myrna Stone’s The Casanova Chronicles, which I liked. After I reviewed the list of authors and titles on Etruscan’s website, and liked what I saw, I sent the manuscript there. Naturally, I feel enormous gratitude for the fact that Etruscan decided to pick it up.
About the second part of your question, I’m drawn as a reader to denser, complex poetries that go beyond the merely personal. I didn’t even realize that more accessible poetry is preferred these days. But I don’t necessarily think of American Amnesiac as inaccessible. When I was working on the manuscript, all I could think about was writing it. I didn’t think at all about whether it would be published. I carry a pretty heavy teaching load in my working life; I have a young-ish daughter at home (two at home at the time of writing the book), and my life often feels tightly squeezed. The beauty of this situation is that it keeps me focused on what’s most essential: writing.
I read a lot of poetry but don’t worry too much about what kind of poetry is in or out; I can only write the poems I am able to write. After I’d finished writing the manuscript, I had no idea whether it was even publishable. But I did begin to feel compelled to find a good publisher for it, as I felt that Calvin Rinehart/John Doe had an important story to tell with which others might be able to identify. The plot of the book (if collections of poems can have “plots,” and why not?) at its simplest is this: The protagonist wakes up one day and wonders what the heck has happened in this country and how can I go on? It occurred to me—after the writing was done—that John Doe might be a character able to reach people who read a lot of poetry as well as those afraid to go near it. The book is challenging, yes. My hope is that it is also something to dance to.
When I started reading American Amnesiac, I felt as if I were reading about a man who had lost his mind, but after a while I found myself identifying with him. After all, it’s sometimes hard to keep one’s sense of self or personal integrity when so much distressing information is coming across the screen every day. I’m always trying to block this influx, but you managed to incorporate it into your text, to make it poetry. I know this is a stupid question (forgive me), but how did you do it?
Not a stupid question at all. As John Doe notes somewhere in the book, capitalism—especially the desperate strand of late-stage capitalism within which we are now living—tries to create us in its image, to turn us (as Doe says) into either purchasers, war fighters, or criminals. It is the task of a lifetime to foster our most high inner selves—again, in Doe’s words, “to curate who we say we’ll be” in the face of such brutal forces trying to blot out the inner life, to remake us wholly. To perform this act of self-curation day after day, is I think, the most necessary and perhaps the most supreme act of resistance. It is the poet’s job.
I can’t say exactly how I did anything in the poem but I know that I myself don’t know how to block the daily influx; I don’t know how to look away from information about the wreck that is, increasingly, life in America and beyond—not that I am of the belief that we’ve fallen away from some glorious golden age. Even so, each day, as you suggest, Nin, so much tough information marches across our collective screens…. I didn’t know how not to incorporate it into American Amnesiac; it was all of a piece. The primary engine driving the book was my own feeling of exasperation, of desperation. The act of writing, of hanging out with John Doe, gave me renewed hope; it would make me immensely happy if readers, having finished the book, walk away with this sense of hope too.
There is so much to love here. I love the crossword puzzles and the word-searches incorporated in the text. I love the references to psychological tests. I love Lisette. I love all the names for John Doe in other languages. I would really like to post a little excerpt of your choice that might offer readers a taste of the text.
Thank you! John Doe definitely needed some female companions to assist him on his journey toward renewed selfhood. So his ex-wife Lisette makes a cameo appearance here and there, as does his devoted nurse, Roxanne. He also spends time with the Athena of myth.
What helps heal Doe, and what makes life worth living for all of us, are “tiny right acts.” The sounds of weird words. Sudden outbursts of beauty. Music. Perhaps the below is a somewhat representative excerpt:
We are all in sales, vending our accomplishments and charms,
insists this book titled 2013: The subtext of each encounter
includes at least one of the following: 1) I’m trying to get you
to believe I am who I say I am, and 2) I’m trying to make you
accept that I get what you’ve been through. My version’s
not quite verbatim but even my horoscope claims
I should cease to be so secretive about myself. Maybe it is right—
I should shout hallelujah, I am John Doe! as I pinch myself
on the haunch, pat myself on the pate, and at the same time
swivel to James Brown and whiff these crimson pirate daylilies.
It’s true: I’ve fallen in omni-directional love these past few weeks.
With this bowl of pluots my nurse brought me. With the below mock diagnosis:
Sphenopalatine Ganglioneuralgia. It means Brain Freeze. O BFFs
from this unfinished planet, it’s such clean joy to curate who I say I’ll be.
How did you come across this term, dissociative fugue? As Hix pointed out, you have made it into a genre of poetry. Do you think you will continue to work in this genre? What is your next project?
I love combining research and poetry, and this book was no exception. I read a lot about amnesia, psychological disorders, and other conditions during the pre-writing and writing process. Doing so, I discovered there are many different strains of amnesia. Dissociative fugue is one rare form I encountered: a rare condition in which a person suddenly, without planning or warning, travels far from home or work and leaves behind a past life. This is likely the type of amnesia from which Doe suffered—if in fact he actually had amnesia. Suggestive possibilities of the musical form of the fugue also play nicely into the text. But it is the brilliant reader Harvey Hix who suggested that the condition turned out to be itself the genre of the book! I didn’t think of that. I had considered myself to be working in a very loose version of the ancient Arabic form of the ghazal, a mash-up version I like to refer to as the western bastard ghazal.
I am not working within that genre now. I have two manuscripts underway: The first is a collection of mostly prose poems, tentatively titled Samurai Boygirl. The second is another book-length dramatic monologue, Torchie’s Book of Days. The speaker Torchie is, among other things, a yogini, a futurist, and a self-described “perceptions worker” with interests in subjects ranging from jellyfish to Wittgenstein. Now that I am near the end of this interview, I can see that she shares with John Doe ferocious longings for authentic selfhood. She therefore asks us along the way in the ms.: “If the womb’s griot found a way to hand you straight back / to yourself, stripped of all status and code . . . / would you have any idea what to do with you?”
Wow! I can’t wait to read your next books! One more question, do you happen to have an audio recording of a reading from American Amnesiac?
If you click on the link you will find an audio file called American Amnesiac. There, I have recorded three poems from the book. Some of them read a tiny bit differently from the versions in the book; I made this recording some time ago, before the poems had been revised for the last time.
Nin Andrews’s poems and stories have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies including Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Best American Poetry (1997, 2001, 2003), and Great American Prose Poems. She won an individual artist grant from the Ohio Arts Council in 1997 and again in 2003. She is the author of several books, including Spontaneous Breasts (1998), winner of the Pearl Chapbook Contest; Any Kind of Excuse (2003), winner of the Kent State University chapbook contest; The Book of Orgasms (Cleveland State University Press, 2000); The Book of Orgasms and Other Tales published in England by Bloodaxe Books (2003); Sleeping with Houdini (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2008); Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane (Web del Sol, 2005); Dear Professor: Do You Live in a Vacuum? (2008); and Why They Grow Wings (2001), published by Silverfish Press and winner of the Gerald Cable award. She is also the editor of a book of translations of the French poet Henri Michaux entitled Someone Wants to Steal My Name from Cleveland State University Press (2003).