On ‘For a Dead Ant Preserved in the Middle of a Clear Straw’

read the poem here

Dara Wier has been on the forefront of experimental poetry for years and recent books like “Reverse Rapture” and “Remnants of Hannah” show her to be in top form, nimble as ever.

This is possible in part because of her ability to let thoughts bob up and down on the surface (like the loon on the lake in her poem “For a Dead Ant Preserved in the Middle of a Clear Straw”) and appreciate their circumstance while keeping track of the way they make her feel and the possibilities present in that moment.

In this interview, Gene Myers tries to follow Wier into a moment and watch as the delicate balancing act takes place.

GM: A lot of thought went into this poem about thinking. What sparked it?

DW: Isn't it tragic to think of the ant inching its way into the leftovers of something sweet perhaps, in the straw, and then somehow getting stuck in there, and so visible, very visible?

Its instincts sent it into the straw. It’s hunting, let's say, whereas the loon seems to live. Doesn't it? It doesn't get stuck in the lake. It goes on. It moves on, and while a lake is where a loon is more at home, it also visits land, and while I don't think an ant belongs in a straw, as we know an ant will go anywhere, whereas a loon won't.

So go our thoughts, some go where they should and do and will, and at times they go places they just as well might not have gone.

GM: This poem simultaneously investigates deep philosophical issues and flows well as a meditation. It reminds me of the Zen saying, "A net can't catch itself" as well as Descartes. While Descartes says our thoughts are the only trustworthy, irreducible experiences, Eastern traditions would balk at that notion and say that there is no "you" to inhabit a thought. Where does this poem sit, for you, on that axis?

DW: This is a complex question. And I'm pleased you call to mind that the poem is a meditation, it is. You are exactly right in bringing this to mind.

Most of the time when I'm writing a "you" if by that you mean just now a "me," an "I," these things transform themselves (all the pronouns) into fictional areas of address and informative tones…In a poem these words are transformative. So, I guess I can go along with the idea of there being no "you" to inhabit a thought, okay, until these things enter poetry's realm. Then there is definitely a "you" obviously, active in a poem.

GM: It seems your appreciation for transformative pronouns and your interest in following the thoughts (whether ant-like or loon-like) are what make the poem a meditation. Would you say that these characteristics apply to your work in general? As a contrast, even though writers like Jane Kenyon and Anne Sexton wouldn't want their pronouns to point to only them, one really gets a sense of entering their heads and their lives when reading their poems. It sounds funny to say, but you rarely come to mind when I am reading your work.

DW: This is a great compliment.  The me who would come to mind were I to materialize during a poem wouldn't be the one you know anyway, right, so I'm really glad that you can say directly that you don't think of me.  Wonderful.  Amazingly--exactly what I would hope. 

Since the thought or thinking in a poem typically goes in several directions, several at once, thought itself is the character and the action. Thinking through the poem is the main event. The awesome complications of our brains at work, these are what keep me attentive. 

I think poetry gives us access to this action in a collective way; we share language's powers, characteristics.  For example, it's amazing how we can hear or read a word, know what it is, at first say, a shell…see the ocean, hear the surf, and with a few words, or a moment's notice, we can shift that meaning into another meaning of shell, a bullet, for instance. We see a violent scene. We hear fire. Our brains adjust as the words bring us new knowledge. 

But see, it matters that our first thought had to do with the sea, and second thought with the shifting into a second thought about artillery.

The emotional content of all that is so rich. I can see a shell shooting through the ocean; that is an image that contains both factual and emotional content. I can hear it muffled beneath the waves, or watch it perhaps ricochet off the water's surface say, anyway, there's a much more provocative set of circumstances at play for us when we are able to contain several meanings of something at once.  And our feelings will be affected by them all.  Once I think of a bullet I'm not going to be able to erase that effectively -- automatically or otherwise. It will have its echoes.

GM: The ant, the loon, the thoughts themselves, the light, the water and the land all seem to put me in a place of "just being."  But then there is the preservation, the looking, the first person experiences like decreasing, logic, and solace...and the next thought. These things belong more to the black hole, to the more aggressive side of existence. The side that needs our attention. How much wrestling did you have to do to balance these themes within the poem?

DW: Not much wrestling, more or less I followed where the loon (the thought, the head of a loon, the lake up top which is seen, lake underneath unseen) went, and so went the thought, which turned into thoughts.

You know how one thing leads to another, sometimes by sound, other times by sight, at times by instinct and observation, other times by syntax.  Where in a poem, if one's lucky the next steps will occur almost of their own volition it seems.

So there you are right. There is no me directing this. It is directing itself, and I'm (the physical material me typing) hoping to not betray it or lose sight of it (as we do lose sight of loons on lakes, one never knows where they'll next appear once they go underwater).

GM: What do you have to do to keep the next steps occurring of their own volition? You are being very kind and giving a lot of credit to the poem for doing the work (must make for a good working relationship between the two of you!). But wouldn't you agree that it takes a lot of care and attention for a poem to work so well on multiple levels?

DW: Okay, to keep the next steps occurring one needs to not get in the way....what does that mean? Well, it means following sound, noise, words rubbing against words in that elemental way, sound effects being one essential element in all language, and one highlighted often enough in poems, and in lists of words, say, a sentence is a list of words, for example.  It means letting syntax suggest one's next thought. 

Syntax tells us how words relate to one another. So it makes for thinking's directions. It guides thinking, it complicates things for us.  Of course, resisting syntax is also one of our strong responses; we do argue with a sentence as it gets made.  Sometimes we have to withhold a thought while another thought finishes up.  To interrupt and not interrupt, we are always able to do or not do these things. 

And then there's one sentence's response to another sentence; the one it follows and the one it precedes.  This is all a great conglomeration of so many things. The wonderful thing is that it's all mixed up together, how we mix it up, what we bring together, these things give us, if not new, newly realized moments.  It helps keep us feeling alive.  It multiplies the feelings we have of time being bigger, wider, deeper, fuller, less fleeting.

GM: Why did you choose the prose form for this poem?

DW: I don't know if it is in a prose form, I don't know how much we need to determine this.  I think it's in long lines, and because I've been sticking to long lines lately, it looks like it might be a prose poem. But truthfully, I don't know this. If it is, good.  If it isn't good. I'm happy to call it a prose poem. The poem's logic is what interested me.

GM: OK, now you know you've touched upon one of my pet peeves here. So, I have to ask. When you say you don't know if it's a prose poem, what does that mean? If it were a prose poem, wouldn't you have to give up control of the line breaks? What, to you, makes a poem a prose poem?

DW: Well, you're exactly right, of course. In my prose poems, I do give up the use of lines. But all prose poems don't do this. I think I'm being hesitant because compared to what others have said about prose poems, I have little to add.  Who can say better or more interestingly than Russell Edson anything about prose poems?

And that should be the case; he's a master. He's made an alternate universe for us in his work, a parallel, extra existence. Wouldn't you say that everything else, besides line breaks and possibly stanza breaks, are at work in a prose poem?

When you think about everything that is at work, a prose poem isn't really all that different from an unprose poem.  You know, like so many things, maybe the name "prose poem" isn't useful anymore, or if not useless, misleading. 

I know you know that poems in prose have been around as long as poems in, uh, poetry have been around. So just when did this become an issue anyway?  I suspect it had to do with poetry deeply entering the contemporary academy, the academy trying to be taxonimistic to the nth degree, like a botanist, say.

An insecure humanist might try to cover value by impersonating a scientist, instead of relishing the distinctive ways we think, deal with ideas, view the world.  I wish we always honored the different ways we think by different logics and means. 

I didn't turn out to be a scientist on purpose. And scientists I know chose not to be poets, though, and this is important, we often do like to experience very unfamiliar ways of thinking, e.g. a doctor might like to write a ghazal, a poet might like to do a little brain surgery!