Interviews

Sasha Frere-Jones talks with poet Ariana Reines

Ariana Reines. Photo: Nicolas Amato

Ariana Reines’s A Sand Book was published in June of 2019 and longlisted for the National Book Award in September. It’s almost four hundred pages long, generous and radiant and brutal and patient and punishingly good. It pivots to truth, as Alice Notley once defined it: “a working active beingness.” A Sand Book lived in my bag all summer, nothing like an obligation and everything like a friend. The twelve sections could easily be free-standing volumes, but they churn in tandem, smoothly, inducing various states: ecstatic neutrality, detailed refusal, unworried celebration. The narrator studies the hierarchies of heaven and watches our world turn to sand amid the shiny modalities of “industrial death”: guns and Pop-Tarts and memes and all kinds of shit. The book is an irreducibly alive map of slow death, unfolding and interlacing itself through my slats, even today. “The sun was setting / Over a great confusion / And a great gray grief / Which seemed to be / The acid ocean itself / Pocked with bullet holes / And sobbing in secret / At the source.”

Reines was born in Salem, Massachusetts. Since 2006, she has published four books of poetry, written an Obie-winning play, and created performances for the Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney. She teaches poetry at community organizations and universities and works privately with people through her astrology practice at lazyeyehaver.com.

The following conversation was conducted over the course of several months. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I keep thinking about a poem in A Sand Book called “Inner Life.” It begins, “Those tweets I sent about Duke Ellington / While my mom was being evicted again / According to what ethics under the sun / Can I possibly have been speaking?” That’s a great opening.

Thank you.

Who hasn’t tried to defeat the void by dicking around online and thinking stuff like, Wait—what made Duke Ellington so good?

I studied classical ballet and I had some classical piano training. I had a small gift, but it hasn’t amounted to much. If I had had a happy family, I might have become a dancer or a musician. Discovering jazz was super exciting in high school. It might sound like a racket unless you’re inside it, like a world. I guess that’s true of a lot of music, but jazz is an entire ethic, it’s a different universe, a better one. When I got inside it it expanded my mind. I remember noticing, during the years that I lived in New York, the times when I could and then couldn’t be carried into that world. There was a period when things got so bad I could no longer enter jazz. I have had incredibly profound experiences through jazz. I don’t exactly remember what was going on in my life when I wrote that poem, but I was listening to nothing but Duke Ellington and I thought, This man is such a miracle and there is so much restorative and feeling power in this music. It could rebuild the walls of Rome. Except, you know, fuck Rome. It’s music that rebuilds the walls of the heart. It’s so human and it’s so absolutely aristocratic, and it’s so fucking real—it makes royalty out of you, and for all the shit you’ve been through, it crowns you.

But how do you talk about the morally idiotic hell of tweeting about Duke Ellington while your mother’s—and by extension, your—life is in the process of falling apart, while everything is falling apart? I don’t know. It’s impossible to talk about. I guess if you trust reality enough to trust the poem with it, or vice versa, you can be accurate. That’s it. That’s the whole job.

That’s a word—accuracy. There’s an anxiety in the precision to the poetic process, a constant temperature taking, a sense of when you’ve got it and when you don’t. I’m telling you about the time that the ice cream seemed to me exactly like steel and I could remember what it was like to be six. There are no other iterations of that, only the right one and until you hit the right one, you haven’t written it. It’s not there.

People have different kinds of understandings of form and structure and accuracy. This is especially true of an art like poetry, which is so liquid. It can be about anything, it can take any form, and you don’t have to pay anybody for equipment. There’s absolutely no restriction on it. So because of that, it has to do certain things if it’s going to last.

The “Mosaic” section of A Sand Book starts with you on the corner of Allen and Delancey Streets, listening to the sun. One of the things the sun says is, “The world always sustains the maximum suffering it can bear, according to the nature of its age.” I’m interested in the physical processes and totems we connect to extreme feelings. That kind of poetic transfer. A person has an overwhelming God feeling, or whatever they choose to call it, and then they look for words outside the familiar words, for a voice that speaks to what they’ve heard, what they’ve received. In “Mosaic,” you’re receiving something and then thinking about authorship, because the transcription of the sun’s voice takes you there.

It began as a sensational experience of deep love and rapture, which entered me on a sunbeam. And then, you know, it just kept coming, and when I realized there was language inside what was happening I took out my notebook and pencil. Words can’t do that experience justice, you know? But it’s like, I’ve made this bargain with language. I promised that I’d try. I don’t know. It was an encounter with an immensity and an awesomeness that went beyond any other experience I’d had.

I think I’m generally too timid when I talk about spiritual experiences. They’re central for me but I’ve never had a convincing way to describe them. The words I choose make me sound like I’m imitating somebody. Or I overcompensate and call God “a river of fire,” which is probably not wrong, actually.

Oh, but that’s a good thing, that timidity. Or, there’s a good timidity and a bad timidity. Timidity can be good because it’s impossible, honestly, to speak of such things. So we should be timid. You’re right to be, and it’s a sign that something is spiritually right with you that you are. I could spend all day on that inner suspicion that you might somehow be imitating, and what that uneasiness might have to do with—what we talk about when we talk about religious experience in general.

Because, on the other hand, there’s a huge taboo on the Left among intellectuals to seem at all religious. It’s seen as stupid and retrograde or intellectually weak, or the stuff of red states and pathetic racists, and meanwhile everywhere you look these miserable intellectuals and depressed activists are making their half-assed forays and inroads into ayauhuasca and yoga or recovery or whatever, and I guess a lot of us still feel weird and shy about it. Shy about how unhappy we are, maybe starting to get bored of blaming the state of the world on everybody else? Shy about admitting how deeply we long for something deep and true, even deeper and truer than “human rights,” which we live in constant complicity with the destruction of. Or as Leonard Cohen put it on his new posthumous record, “the right to disagree.”

I’d be glad if A Sand Book helped people have a conversation with themselves and each other about our ordinary unhappiness and what we really long for. People have unusual experiences. I recorded a pretty freaky one, but people have all kinds of them. All I’m trying to do as an artist and as a poet is be true to my experience.

The language of “Mosaic” suggests something like an administrative orientation and an invocation, both, at the same time. There’s a gentle sense of introduction, as in: Here’s how these things work: the cell, evil, the sun, the moon, gods. It’s like an intake session, not for a facility, but a second life. These tools have been issued to you. Do not lose them.

What the language of “Mosaic” reminds me of, maybe with some embarrassment, is the Gnostics.

Why is that embarrassing?

Because I am a great lover of the Gnostics, and it was only years later, rereading the “Mosaic” transcription in my notebooks that I realized if it sounded like anything that already existed, anything at all, it would be something from The Nag Hammadi Library. It was a delicate matter figuring out how to situate it in the book, and give it context, without like writing a hundred-page exegesis of the thing.

Is that because it feels like you’re explaining your own poem?

Yes, though it isn’t precisely my own poem, but yes that’s a big part of it. I could have written a lot more about what it took to integrate that experience, and also about how I interpreted each line while it was being uttered in me and after the fact, but I sort of think all that aboutness resolved into A Sand Book, and all the ordinary problems of life that had to be resolved in light of that miracle are in the book I wrote, so maybe an exegesis is unnecessary. Then again it could be cool, the way Marguerite Duras rewrote a great novel, The Lover, into The North China Lover, which is also a great novel. I absolutely love both of those books, which have become indispensible to one another in my mind, and both of which probably had a big hand in making me who I am. But I’m not Marguerite Duras.

I guess there are people in the New Age scene who talk about channeling and also who are excellent and able channels, with great showmanship and artful rhetoric, but in my case, I guess what might make me a slightly less New Age channeler, which is a word I don’t particularly like in any case, is that after the experience was over and the rapture had departed me, I came to find that I felt, it turned out, immensely unworthy of what had passed through me, and the week I was finally typing up what was in my notebook I reread the Psalms and just cried and cried. I just felt like such a shitty prophet. I felt like an obstruction, like my entire existence was an obstruction to God. Anyway, I’m not the only person to have felt such a thing. A lot of people have felt that way at times.

I worried that I had distorted it. It was a problem of authorship, I guess. It’s something I recorded and that’s why it resolved into a joke, which I’ll accept. The title is a joke but it’s also real. I did take dictation and I did have a fucking beard. That’s something which has theological seriousness behind it. I mean, a beard was somehow, in the olden days, another name for an elder, a wise man, a tzaddik. And of course a “beard” is a woman on the arm of a gay man. When I realized that I was transcribing something from way beyond me and that I was doing it while wearing my own particular kind of misery beard, I felt closer to the bearded prophets, and a few basketball players. It’s a joke, the joke was literally on me, and if it hadn’t been a joke, a kind of humiliating joke, I wouldn’t have been able to fully surrender to the experience, to allow that it was absolutely real.

The process of integration of an experience like that is another story from the experience itself. Everything that I’m saying to you right now, that’s a book or another project or it’s maybe a different conversation.

Wait, which part of what you’re saying is another book?

The whole problematics, let us say, of receiving information and what that brings up for a person psychologically, artistically, religiously, or whatever. It’s a different conversation than A Sand Book, though all of it is there. A person can feel and imagine their way into it, so I’m just giving you some of the story around it.

The twelve sections have this kind of undulant motion, as in, you see a bit of the last part with the next part, but not all of it.

I think of it as a kind of accordion, like a bellows. There’s some kind of flame in it, which I believe is inside the reader, or every person. A pilot light. The book goes through all the ordinary miseries, but it’s circumambulating a miracle. Somehow it goes in and out around this miracle, on the level with it, and then not, too miserable and stupid to say or do anything of value, and then in love, and so on. The miracle is physically located at the end of the book, but happened in the chronological middle of the book’s composition, and poetry being, as Julian Talamantez Brolaski says, a temporal art: It both has and doesn’t have a beginning, middle, and end. The plot accretes, rather than unfolds. The love affairs, jobs, sexual violence and family trauma, stupefaction, illumination. I mean, I always work the hardest on structure and orchestration. Somehow the anchor of the miracle disperses a spark into everything else, including the apparent misery, that comes both before and after. I don’t know how the book manages to hang together, but it does.

There are several statements of purpose in it. I knew that this would be the book that I was writing during Hurricane Sandy and there’s a poem that narrates that moment. “A couple weeks after Hurricane Sandy / I found myself on my knees sobbing // Before an image of the Black Virgin / Of Czestochowa, known in Haiti // As Erzulie Dantor.” I didn't know how big it was going to be when I started. And one of the things about it that was so strange was having to keep going.

Strange to feel like you had to keep going?

Yeah, strange that it was continuing. I realized something while I was making this book that has been true of every other book that I’ve written. Each one of them has forced me to think about the framing and widening of the frame. In the case of A Sand Book, if “Mosaic” is the most intense and inexorable theophanic encounter in the universe of this particular book, then everything else is somewhere on the continuum of the miraculous—until I can no longer safely say, this is miraculous, and that isn’t. That’s one of the reasons why it was important for me to frame “Mosaic,” including both the glory and complete bullshit of the position that I was in at that time. One of the things that the old religions do that I didn’t want to do is say, If you do this, then you will get this result. Eat this and follow me.

Transactional.

Exactly. Obviously we have that in capitalism, but it’s weirdly similar to the old management structure of the ancient religions. It’s like, If you go keto, then you will shit a brick. Or, I did this and got this result, therefore you should do this and your result should be the same. But that’s not how reality happens. It’s much more tricky and queer and freaky. Another thing the old religions do is show only the miracle, and hide a lot of the shit. Just think what miserable men those old prophets must have been.

There’s this Gustave Courbet painting that I want to tell you about. It was the summer before last. I happened to be in Paris. I was at an impasse with the book, somehow close to the edge of not being able to make it cohere. I felt like it was about to collapse, like, well, exactly like a house of cards.

How much of it had you written at that point?

I would say 90 percent. I was very close to the end. And then I saw this painting and I recognized in it exactly what I was trying to do. It saved my life. It’s a really big painting called The Artist’s Studio, A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Artistic and Moral Life. First of all we could spend all day on just what Courbet meant by a “real allegory.” That hit me like a truck, and I believe that it’s what I made too, a real allegory. I was also excited because A Sand Book spanned seven years of my life. In the middle of the painting, there’s a self-portrait of Courbet painting a landscape. But he’s not in the landscape, he’s in his studio, so it’s an off-rhyme, a slant mise en abyme, except that maybe, sort of translucently, some kind of landscape is almost a ghost on the wall of the studio. It’s a painting that has a painting in it, and it’s also this giant painting full of people, like a riff on those big historical paintings, or like a heroic Poussin allegory. We’re looking at Courbet and a bunch of his friends and his lover and their lovers, there’s even the ghost of Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s lover, who was according to legend painted out, and of course Baudelaire himself is there in the corner, reading a book, not giving a fuck what’s going on around him, just knowing it already. And there are all these allegorical figures of different elements of society from the France of that time. The beggar, the prostitute, the village idiot, dogs, a cat, a kid, a tortured or crucified man. It’s a version of the entire world. It’s as much of the world that can fit into the frame—it’s realism and allegory, two diametrically opposed approaches to art, in one single frame.

Who’s standing next to him?

There are different ideas about who she is. His lover, or “a model.” Some people say she’s not idealized, others say she is, but I hate that argument over the feminine body. I find her presence in the center of the painting has a real École des Beaux-Arts vibe, very neoclassical. She’s flesh but she’s like the nude white marble at the center of all things for the men of the nineteenth century, I guess I’m especially thinking of Ruskin, the maypole of the feminine around which that old world revolved. There are so many things I love about this painting. One, it’s a hugely macho act of total virtuosity. On that level, it’s hilarious and wonderful. It’s like, Oh yes, you asked me to paint you a landscape painting. Well I’m not even looking at the fucking landscape. It also speaks to the way that bourgeois or non-artist society used to be. Nobody cares what artists think about nowadays, but it used to be that polite society at least pretended that they wanted to know what the artist had on his mind. And it’s like, Ok, dude, I’m painting this landscape for you because it’s all you’re going to be able to understand or accept as beautiful, but what I’m really thinking about is all my friends and everything that’s wrong with society and how when I’m finished working I’m going to eat, and I’m going to drink, and I’m going to take my lover to bed. So you think you’re looking at a landscape, but he’s like, I’ll tell you what I’m looking at. I’m looking at everything and everyone I’m thinking about, which includes everyone I know and love, and a lot of people I don’t know, and some people I hate, and some weird ideas that haunt me. The painting is incredible because the frame is so wide. Maybe allegory is as close as he can get to the realist transcription of what’s really on his mind, what he “sees.” I think we’re still in modernism. It is an exciting and insane challenge to widen the frame. It’s as simple as widening the frame. Which is not a simple thing at all.

That’s a great interpretation. It reminds me of how consciousness works, the mirror-like quality that can hold several realities in one space at one time. As in, maybe Courbet has a landscape over his shoulder that is being reflected. But the backdrop fucks me up. What is going on in the back of this room? It looks like somebody has scrubbed off a painting that was there before. It even looks like he took the painting he’s working on and put it on the back of the room—a huge, enormous canvas-like space—and then abraded it and scraped it off and said, Fuck it, I’m just going to make a little painting of this and then everyone come over here with me.

I was like, This is exactly what I’m trying to do. This is what I’m doing. It’s what I want my book to do. When I saw it, I was cured. I finished the book.

I connected deeply with your book. It became completely reassuring to me.

What did you connect with so hard?

Shallow things and maybe not shallow things. I like your selection of words and I’m fatally hung up on rhythm. If someone’s rhythm—as a person or a writer—is off, they’re done. With your poems, I feel a presence paying attention to the rhythms. The range of line breaks and spacings and capitalizations spoke to me. Also, in all of your books, there’s a sexual channel, like a radio station, or a metric spacer. It feels like checking in, something that regrounds each poem. You have sex and you go out. You go to sleep, you wake up, you have sex. There’s a rhythm there which is braided with the spiritual line. “Participles of Deserere.” Actually—wait. What is that?

It’s a Latin verb which means to desert.

Ah. OK. Not “desire.”

I like that you use u and yr, texting language, but didn’t write the whole book that way. The pattern of everyday life is in your prose. If I want to go to a certain poet who has a formal feel, someone who puts up a beautiful wall, which sometimes I want, I’ll go to Dickinson or Michael Palmer. The dance is different there. But you have a rhythm which reminds me of the rhythm of my own brain. Which is a narcissistic way to read someone else’s work.

We all read narcissistically. Who else is gonna do it for us?

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in New York.