Can a Poet Be Successful in 2016’s Terms? A Conversation With Anna Moschovakis


“I feel sad. I feel discouraged about the future. I feel I have failed more than the average person.” Those are the opening lines of “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde” the second of three long, great poems in writer, teacher, and translator Anna Moschovakis’ third collection, They and We Will Get Into Trouble for This. Named for David Antin’s book of the same name, the poem makes use of online self-tests and alternates the writer’s results with the writer’s search for a book, and, when she finds it, the subsequent search for meaning in that book.

The poem and the collection it calls home pulse with lines full of power — “The people we bury put us in the ground too”; “I was very literal/ especially with my lovers/ I could say ‘I love you today’/ but not ‘I will love you tomorrow'” — in forms interesting enough to be compelling but not experimental enough to be off-putting. It’s a fine line, and the distinction is vital for Moschovakis, who told me over the phone that her key politics, should she have them, involve “expecting and accepting mistakes, and being mistaken.”

That didn’t stop her from adorning the bottom of every page of the collection with what adds up to a book-length poem. “She wrote with something like/ optimism/ to be in the way of/ something like/ happiness,” reads an excerpt from this fragmented work that has no name, but which, over the course of reading, becomes essential to the flavor of the text. It’s a risky move in a medium often viewed through skeptical eyes.

Poetry, more than most other forms of writing, lends itself to misinterpretation, demanding close reads that could still, in the end, hit the wrong mark. To attempt to sum up Moschovakis’ position or mission statement is beside the point, and maybe impossible. Further, after talking to her about philosophy and the way Wittgenstein’s texts gave her permission to think through writing, and to leave that thinking in the writing itself, it would be misleading to present my understanding of her work as complete; the bells struck by her lines are still ringing, far from settling any time soon.

It’s best, then, to let her speak for herself. I talked to Moschovakis about her philosophy background, the nebulous terms that have come to define success in the 21st century, the necessity of empathy in life and in poetry, and how someone with four jobs manages to find the time to put out a collection like They and We Will Get Into Trouble for This.

Flavorwire: Let’s begin with your philosophy education, and how it has influenced your poetry.

Anna Moschovakis: I got diverted to philosophy, partly because it was a much smaller major, and there was something about the intensity of the group of people that were studying that stuff and I just totally fell in love with it on the one hand. But, at the same time, I always knew I wouldn’t belong to philosophy. When I read the philosophers I was reading — all white men, mostly dead, and also taught mostly by white men — I was acutely aware of all of that. I never spoke in class. And I was reading Schopenhauer, who compares women to cows. So, my way of reading philosophy was kind of like acting. When I was reading Hume or I was reading Nietzsche or Heidegger I was reading them more the way I would read literature. It wasn’t about finding my position and how that related to it.

It lead to a lot questions and feelings and anxiety, which came out in poetry that I was writing, which was really bad.

Everybody’s poetry is bad in college.

My poetry was an outlet for pressures that I felt from studying philosophy. At the same time I really absorbed a lot about the modes of thinking and investigation in all of the various kinds of philosophy. I just also really loved the way David Hume puts words together. I was a pretty irresponsible philosophy student.

Do you think that the actual language of the philosophers worked its way into your poetry? You said your angst from the program inspired it, but can you see any of that in your writing?

Probably most directly is from Wittgenstein, which is a sort of recursion — I’m always terrified to say something about a philosopher I admire, when other people know so much more than I do — but, in my reading, part of what to me, as a non-philosopher drew me to Wittgenstein, is the way in which revision of ideas and revisitation of formulations of ideas remain in the text, and so there are returns and revisions and it’s not like everything is edited down to a message which is then delivered whole. There’s something that feels like it’s left in there, of the process of thinking, and thinking is one of my subjects. We can’t get away from it. I felt permission from reading him to leave it in.

For a time, I read more analytic philosophy, and there’s one side of that that really struck me. The sincere attempt to break down and explain something in a systematic way, there’s something about that desire even to do that. To break things down in the way that can be diagrammed. That’s always interested me, though every part of me rejected it as a goal.

When you talked about Wittgenstein and what you interpret as his leaving the process in his work, it definitely spoke my job, where I feel I need to approach writing with my opinion fully formed, and that sometimes makes me uncomfortable. But you also mentioned empathy, and I was wondering if you felt that was essential in poetry?

I appreciate what you said about the world you’re working in, and the expectation you have to be sure of one’s position. I do feel like this is a particularly anxious moment for me, because my whole sort of expecting and accepting mistakes, and being mistaken, is a pretty essential part of my politics, if I have one, and it’s not an easy one to sort of defend. So, empathy, I feel like — I don’t even know how to separate poetry and living. That’s a cliché, but I don’t.

Trying to have empathy or feeling like you feel empathy for an other, those are places where mistakes are inevitable. I guess I don’t know what it would mean to be alive with other people without being very concerned with empathy. And I know that there are people out there writing polemics against empathy. I think maybe something like openness is a simpler way to talk about it. Or, opening, because it’s a verb, it’s not a state that you reach. All kinds of shit comes in and gets exposed in that, so. So, it’s also always going to be wrong.

I wanted to ask you about all the different jobs you do, as a poet, a translator, and at Ugly Duckling Presse. How do you manage your time? Is poetry a priority for you? Are there moments when you feel you have to write?

You didn’t mention a big thing: I’m an adjunct teacher. Not just the relationships with my students and with my colleagues, and the discussions we’re having all the time, but also the meta-conversations I’m having with myself and with my students and with my colleagues about teaching and especially the teaching of creative writing, that takes up a big part of my day, and it’s inextricable from writing and in many cases from friendships and editing and publishing and translating. It feels like one many-headed job, which in some cases is paid somewhat and in some cases is not paid at all.

Actual writing, I’ve never had a rule or a daily practice of writing poetry. Over the course of the day I might be preparing for teaching for two hours, and communicating with my authors for an hour, and designing a book for an hour, and then I might be editing my own poem for an hour. But the actual start to a new poem — there’s a reason I’ve taken five years for each of my books. It’s not a super-common thing that I decide to write a poem, and then they stick around for a long time. They can take a couple years.

It’s really embarrassing to admit because of all the ways in which they could’ve stood to take several more years of work.

Do you consider yourself a successful poet? And, if not, what would you consider a successful poet?

I don’t think in terms of that word, which isn’t to deny that the question could be meaningful, but I don’t know how to respond to that. I feel an unbelievable sense of something, which I can’t describe, when I occasionally get a note from a stranger or I run into someone who says they’ve read my work.

I don’t think any poets are successful in the way that this culture defines success. There’s a lot of different conversations to have about that.

I just spent a long time looking at the lives of “unsuccessful” artists, and it really furthered my skepticism about what we consider success anymore.

The term that comes up sometimes, seemingly unironically, in place of success, is “relevance,” and I find that even more sticky, and yet of course we all know what it means. At any given moment, in your mind, there are a number of people who are most relevant to your thinking. All of these things are obviously about perception and performance.

And sometimes the most “successful” people — like, say, Stephen King — aren’t very relevant in certain conversations.

I think at some point the fog around these notions is partly what drew me to those internet self-tests that are in the second poem in the book. You could type in to the computer, “How successful am I?” and I guarantee you there will be several people who devised some way for you to measure it.

[Editor’s note: Moschovakis is right.]

This interview was condensed and lightly edited for clarity.