The poetics of WTF

“Everything I know is something I’ve repeated,” said poet Rae Armantrout, reading a line from a new manuscript on the afternoon of January 21 to a large audience at the University of Chicago.

Armantrout’s most recent book, “Versed,” is her tenth. Her poems are short lyrics that probe human consciousness and the various influences that penetrate it: “the impersonal abjection of being finite, of being created, not self-created,” she said at a lunchtime lecture on the 22nd. Armantrout uses found language from contexts that are typically recognizable to readers, if typically untraditional in poems. One quotes a telephone bill: “These temporary credits/will no longer be reflected/in your next billing period.” Armantrout said that she found that little note “somewhat ominous…Is this our modern version of ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may?’ I guess I wanted the reader to hear that, too.” Other poems draw from overheard conversation, the newspaper, popular songs, or books about physics and neuroscience. “Generally, wherever they come from, these pieces are things that make me say ‘huh?’ or ‘WTF?’”

Armantrout is known as a Language poet, a term which describes a loose grouping of writers with similar politics and aesthetics who came together in the Bay Area and New York in the 1970s. The Language poets, Armantrout said, “allowed for a kind of space between sentences or between statements, between stanzas, spaces for uncertainty, where the connections between what came last and what comes next are problematized and open to reader interpretation.” “Versed” was named this weekend as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; it was also a finalist for the National Book Award in 2009.

Her new manuscript is called “Money Shot”–she joked at the reading that the audience must be polite if it wasn’t giggling at the porn reference. The title poem refers to the banking crisis and the atmosphere of acquisition and attainment. “The money shot of porn, as we all know, is when it becomes obvious that the man has ejaculated,” Armantrout said. “In more general terms, the money shot is where something is revealed.”

See the Chicago Weekly’s blog for the full interview with Rae Armantrout.

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