The Interview: C.K. Williams In conversation with Ahren Warner – an excerpt

C.K. Williams by Adam Graff ©The artist, 2015.
C.K. Williams by Adam Graff ©The artist, 2015.

This conversation took place at Princeton, New Jersey, in April 2014. By the time of the interview, C.K. Williams’s health had been deteriorating for some years – a situation he had confronted with both candour and humour in Wait (Bloodaxe, 2010), Writers Writing Dying (Bloodaxe, 2013) and All at Once: Prose Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). We continued to revise the text that appears here up until his death in September this year. Some minor editorial decisions were inevitably left over and have been made since his death. The interview, I hope, offers a small sense of Williams’s vast reading and engagement with poetics and poetic history – qualities which abound in his own poetry – as well a sense of his personality: hugely generous, kind and forgiving, even when confronted with yet more questions from a young poet.

Ahren Warner
Recently, you’ve moved freely between the shorter line and the longer…

C.K. Williams
Yes, it depends now… People sometimes say, “Why do you sometimes write the shorter line?” And I’ve never been able to come up with a good answer. When I was writing the poem on Beethoven I did a lot of research, and read a lot about him. And there was one thing that struck me – someone, some time in his mid-career, said “You think he’s great in his work, you should hear him improvise!” I started thinking about improvisation and I realise that, in a sense, the final version of any work of art pretends to be an improvisation. Even a painting. First the painter, let’s say a Renaissance painter, puts down a ground on the canvas or the wood, then he puts down another layer, then he begins putting blocks and then the last layer consists of tiny brush strokes that look like improvisation. Cézanne is interesting because he’s the first person who takes out all the other layers and leaves what looks like just improvisation. In thinking about the long line and the shorter line, the shorter lines seem like less of an improvisation. The longer lines, when I’m reading them aloud or reading them to myself… They’re coming out sort of as a blurt… I call it a blurt of inspiration.

Using a shorter line takes that away. It makes clear that it’s not a blurt, it’s something that’s being figured out as it’s happening. I started writing the shorter lines in the elegy for my friend, a painter. And all the lines are five or six syllables and at one point I thought, “Why am I doing this?”. Because I really wanted, somehow, to have it go slowly. And at one point I put it in longer lines and it looked OK, I actually gave it to another poet to look at and he said, “It’s fine”. But there was something about wanting it to be seen as less of an improvisation. And I guess that’s what I’m doing still. Because I have a series of poems now, about thirty poems that are in shorter lines. It might be a series that I will have to discard and that was the discipline that I wanted, I wanted it not to sound as though it was just popping out.

AW
Recently in ‘Watching the Telly with Nietzsche’ in Writers Writing Dying… on another note, I didn’t realise “telly” was American. I thought it was just English.

CKW
It used to be. But then it came over here. The first time I heard it was in a John Osborne play in New York in the 1960s. Look Back in Anger, I guess. The word “telly” is in it. Telly? I thought, what an awful word! And then here we have it, too.

AW
About Writers Writing Dying… and a new poem, ‘The Sun, The Saint, The Sot’, published in Poetry London, where philosophy as a discipline appears explicitly. Kant comes in, and the idea of the phenomenal world, which is described as being attractive for a moment. Philosophy recurs over and over in your work, often as a frame in which to understand consciousness.

CKW
And experience.

AW
And experience. And then that also seems to be one of the tensions in your work. “Nothing real but the psyche” could describe one of the modes in which you interrogate consciousness. But on the other hand, it seems so rooted in things themselves and Kant isn’t treated without criticism in that poem. I wonder about that tension between the concept of the psyche and consciousness and that absolute imperative to be talking about the real world, the objective world.

CKW
It seems to have been one of my long-term themes. When I started looking through with the idea of making the Selected, I realised how many poems I had written about the struggle with consciousness, the struggle between consciousness and the world. And I guess it seems self-evident that that’s what one of the key things of being an aware human being is, you know, having that struggle with your mind and with the world as your mind absorbs it and deals with it. I was quite surprised how many poems did that. But it just seems to me that the mind is such a weird thing, you know? It’s always doing strange, stupid things that you dismiss, that come and go. It’s embarrassing to even say what they are and you think why did I think that? That’s such a great question – why did I think that? Who else is going to think it? It seems that the history of humanity ultimately has to do with someone thinking that, you know? And then often not asking “How did I think that?” or “Why did I think that?”. What’s going on now in Ukraine, you know, there are all these people who are hysterical to be different from what they are. And they tend to act like brutes when you see pictures of them, clubs and bats. And they will, through their passion, convince the minds of others that this is the right way to be. And you think how many times along the road will someone say “Why did I think of that?” Which is basically the question.

AW
Early on you worked as a therapist with children?

CKW
Adolescents and children.

AW
You’ve talked of W.H. Auden’s ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’ as influential for you. I wonder whether analysis and psychology, psychoanalysis, are still things you’re interested in and, of course, how your early experience of working in that field influenced your poetry?

CKW
I’m not actively interested in psychoanalysis anymore but it’s so much a part of the structure of my mind now, of the nomenclature of my mind, that I don’t have to think about it. It’s interesting – after all the study I did and all the reading I’ve done about psychoanalysis – the great presentation of psychoanalysis is still ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’, which is one of the incredible poems of the twentieth century. There are still people who will say “Freud was right, Freud was wrong…” – it doesn’t make any difference. He made these discoveries about consciousness, not all of them were right but many of them in their basic configurations are undeniable. The fact that there is something like a subconscious that makes you think things, that makes you say “Why did I think that?”. The work with kids I did was group therapy and I did it with a brilliant therapist who is still a good friend. And there were kids, you know, from… I guess the youngest might have been fourteen but they were mostly in their middle to late adolescence, sometimes up to twenty-five or thirty. And I guess the effect of it was mostly that you didn’t have to be afraid of anything that the mind does. Even though you can be thunderstruck at it, at its absurdity and sometimes obscenity, there really wasn’t anything to be afraid of. And I think that may have helped me write some poems that I might not have been able to write otherwise. Just that, being able to say “Oh, look, this is what mind does. And so what? Let’s think about it or talk about it or write about it.” If I got anything from that work, it would have been that. Although there were scary things too: kids trying to kill themselves, and sometimes succeeding. But basically it was that: realising how many different things consciousness can do, and how forgivable almost all of it is.

AW
This recurs in your work. It stems maybe from the legacy of modernism that we’ve talked about before, with Whitman and Baudelaire and the art of making beautiful things that aren’t perhaps beautiful.

CKW
Whitman is basically saying, “Look at what you’re missing”. Baudelaire is saying, “Look at what you wish you could miss”.

The full interview was conducted under the auspices of the Bloodaxe Archive project at Newcastle University. 

The Poetry Review 105:4 Winter 2015
The Poetry Review 105:4 Winter 2015

First published in The Poetry Review, 105:4, Winter 2015 © The Poetry Review and the author.