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"There Weren't Any Witnesses": An Interview with Adam Day

Adam Day is the author of Model of a City in Civil War (Sarabande Books), and is the recipient of a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for Badger, Apocrypha, a PEN Emerging Writers Award, and an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. His work has appeared in Boston Review, Lana Turner, American Poetry Review, Poetry London, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. He coordinates The Baltic Writing Residency in Latvia, Scotland, and the Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest.

His poem, "What Would I Document," appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about John Cassavete's Opening Night, the sense of impotence that radiates from the images, and where the poem leaves the narrator and reader.

What role, if any, did the content play in pushing for a two-stanza piece?

There’s a kind of mental stutter that occurs when making the kind of monologue-like statement one might make to someone, like this poem portrays. It’s both run-on and hesitant, so, choppy. So, the two-stanza form seemed an organic fit for that context. It also felt fitting that if provided the paradoxical phenomenon of seeming symmetry via the couplet, but actually explicit moments, given the line-breaks, of asymmetry, fracturedness, confusion.

The diction pops, and the resulting images carry the most weight. What connects the images for you?

I’ll likely go a bit on the connection between the images. John Cassavetes’ film Opening Night (1977), a film about a stage actress’s intense personal and professional turmoil in the midst of performing her role in a play, is important to me, conceptually. While the character Manny, the manager of the starring actress Myrtle, referring to a scripted moment in the play where Myrtle is hit by her counterpart on stage, asks Myrtle on the phone, “What’s wrong with being slapped?” he is also annoyed by his wife Dorothy’s pantomime of being slapped her face, making a noise of contact with her mouth, and falling limp to the bed. This idea of a female actress, playing a female character, being actually slapped, but in the context of the performance of a play, by a male actor, playing a male character, and then the male manager, Manny, questioning her issues with being slapped, while Manny’s wife makes fun of the actress’s complaining by enacting a violence that is seen as real but “pretend” via performance, but which is quite likely a violence women of the era—both within world of the film, and within the real world—would have experienced in the domestic space, is all just too complex and multi-layered not to play with. Not to mention, the implied sexuality of the slaps—Dorothy and Manny are, after all, in their pajamas and in bed during this phone call. And further not to mention, that the actor and actress play lovers in the play, and play lovers in the world of the movie, while the manager and the actress have also been lovers.

So, “I request it,” becomes both literal: “I” request a playful slap, hard slap in the bed; or “I” “request” a slap because “I” am self-destructive, at times, as is Myrtle, the actress, in Opening Night; or “I” “request” a slap by pushing the other over the edge, such that their most likely reaction is to reach out violently, not that that violence can be excused.

And that water spilling down the back of the desk is precisely the kind of thing that might make one want to throw something, make them want to act out, but there is no one to act out against, only a desk or a cup, some water.

But both slap and the spilling water, even just the sound of it, represent some kind of sense of impotence, of the frustration that a thing cannot be undone, that there is no satisfying practical solution. 

The poem ends with a new image, leaving the reader with a sort of agency in understanding how the story ends for the narrator.  As the writer, where does the poem leave the narrator? What about the reader?

The poem likely leaves the narrator in a paradoxical space where self-recognition, which takes some salt, exists besides a kind of vulnerability. The British satirist Simon Hoggart wrote of a member of parliament, “All through Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, Caroline Flint, the Labour MP for Don Valley, had been bobbing up and down, desperate to catch the Speaker's eye and ask a question. Even in the new Labour party Ms Flint is regarded as something of a hardline toady, an aardvark-tongued bootlicker, a member of an active service unit in the greasers' provisional wing.” The hilarity, skepticism and offensiveness combine for something powerful in a more personal context, where the satire is project at the self rather than the other, but still “in the presence of” others, the satire, though now directed at the self, still public, on view. The reader is both being appealed to, implicitly, but also entirely in the position of agreeing with the criticism, rather than offering the potential for relieving the narrator of his/her poor self-perception. Of course, this mirrors the reading experience, in general: the reader always already either is drawn in or turned off; it’s simply in this cast that that phenomenon is addressed directly, and in a more focused way.

What are you currently writing?

I’m just finishing up very long conceptual poem that utilizes a New York Times travel article as its template, over which is written a confusion its context, “36 Hours in Tuscany,” with the ambience of “the war on terror,” and the historical, cultural, and geographical context of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is more subtle than it sounds.

I’m just beginning a longer “poem” that reworks the really, just laughably horribly-written sex scenes penned by authors like Updike, Roth, Franzen, Henry Miller, Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Styron, and others in the context of two great, radical art house films; the former French, the latter Belgian: Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967), and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (Chantal Akerman, 1975). Further contextualizing the “poem” is work from Ikkyū, an iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist Monk who wrote eccentric, often crude and sexual poetry; the Circe section of Joyce’s Ulysses, which usefully confuses gender and sexuality; and Rabelais’ intelligently, flagrantly vulgar Gargantua and Pantagruel.

What are you reading?

I read a lot of contemporary and late-modern foreign fiction in English translation. Right now, I’m reading a fantastic Bulgarian novel by Georgi Gospodinov, called The Physics of Sorrow (Open Letter Books, 2015), and Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s engaging Satantango (New Directions, 2013), a Hungarian novel. Krasznahorkai just won the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. I’m also reading Jakov Lind’s Landscape in Concrete (Open Letter Books, 2009), first published in German in 1966, which is wonderful. The Green Ray (Ugly Duckling Press, 2015) by Corina Copp, and recently finished Fred Moten’s book of poems, The Feel Trio, which is just a mind blowlingly complex and compelling text. I’m just about to dig into Broc Rossell’s new book with Cleveland State University Poetry Center, Festival.

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