Gordon Massman is the author, mostly recently, of the companion volumes Death and Love, both out from NYQ Books this year. His work has appeared in Antioch Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Georgia Review, Harvard Review, The Literary Review, and RATTLE, among others. He teaches writing and literature at The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. The poems below are reprinted from 0.174: The Complete Numbers Cycle (NYQ Books, 2011) with permission of the author.
Okla Elliott: 0.174: The Complete Numbers Cycle represents over twenty years of working on a single project. How did the project present itself to you? How did it mutate and grow over the years? And, with a project like this, I have to wonder how you can know when it’s done. The numbers could literally go on ad infinitum.
Gordon Massman: I was around forty when I lost faith in formal titles which to me monumentalize a work into a monolith, looping the last line up to the title in a never-ending closed circle, removing the work from relationship with past or future pieces. Freeing the work of the conventional title in favor of numbering it in the order written among cohorts places it in a context and continuum—as a step in an evolutionary process. So, this project presented itself, consciously and philosophically, through an intellectual callisthenic. Suddenly I liberated my pieces from standing alone and allowed them to be part of something larger than themselves. I think of 0.174: The Complete Numbers Cycle as a single—I hesitate to use the word for reasons stated below—poem.
Spiritually my subject—making visible my subconscious longings, urges, fantasies in naked, visceral, glaring terms—came to me in the way a seed is naturally programmed to become a tree of its species. I was a hyper-sensitive child in the hands of monsters who compressed me into a certain kind of seed programmed to blossom into a raging twisted tree. I did not select my lineage; my lineage selected me. During and for ten years following an emotional crisis which occurred at age thirty-five, I pursued Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis which opened a crucial field of examination—the subconscious. I felt then that my writing, heretofore consisting of stale programmable subjects was derivative and lacking. To my mind, all frontiers had been written by past masters to perfection save one: the human interior turned inside-out. In this, there are few, in any, antecedents. (Only Ted Hughes’ magnificent book Crow comes to mind with Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell, wonderful writers though they were, following tepidly behind.)
All that remained for me–the most difficult part of this project–was to find the courage to strike genuine ore regardless the consequences. The mutation you speak of is the mutation of gazing more and more deeply, bringing up in particularized imagery that which drives me, and presumably, what drives most human males. Oddly, women like my work more than men as I think it confirms what women have always known about men, but which men want to deny.
The four hundred pages of 0.174 represent a handful of the entire project which is over three-thousand pages. It could, indeed, go on ad infinitum as you suggest, and I think that I will take it up again after I finish the third volume in a trilogy of books NYQ is publishing (Love, Death, and God.) I would like this numbers cycle to extend into late middle and old age—I am sixty-five—to record what maturity brings.
OE: I see an affinity between your poems and the fiction of William H. Gass. Both are experimental and postmodern in certain ways, and both seem interested in delving into the uglier and more uncomfortable or untoward aspects of human life and thought. What drew you to the formal aspects and contents of these poems?
GM: This is a core question and forces a hand. The term “formal aspects” implies non-porous walls between genres, a concept I reject for my own writing. The truth is that I do not believe in the concept of poetry distinct from prose as if each contained a separate circulatory system, an exclusive blood flow. I believe that “poetry” and “prose” are the same being named writing, and that some writing is more powerful than other writing. Some writing which we commonly call prose is the highest order of what we commonly call poetry I have ever read—Virginia Woolf, George Konrad, Hermann Broch, William Faulkner, Victor Hugo, come to mind. While some writing which we commonly call poetry is the lowest order of prose I have ever read, sanitized—I won’t name names. I consider myself a writer, not a poet, who formalizes on an instinctual level and who believes more in the power of words than in the power of form. Honesty will design and occupy its own vessel. We have evolved past what once served us well: strict academic boundaries. We are past the notion of fortress identity. The messages in 0.174 made square brick-like formations that cracked off lines jarringly to maintain smooth edges. They just wanted it that way for no rational reason.
I dislike labels such as “experimental” or “postmodern” because they imply the critical world’s lack of imagination. Writing is experimental or postmodern only because the reader/critic before encountering it could not imagine it. The terms essentially arise out of a failure in the public imagination and are irrelevant to the creating artist.
Likewise, what are untoward and ugly but a culture’s failure to include them in what they want to believe beautiful in human existence. Rage is beautiful. Envy is beautiful. Self-hatred is beautiful. Shame is beautiful. These terms “ugly”, “untoward”, “uncomfortable” and the like, (“vulgar”) accept as justifiable a mass lack of imagination, an unwillingness to accept as intrinsically valuable, even beautiful, the many facets within us. I am not speaking, of course, of what causes harm to others, of psychopathologies, but of the commonplace and universal egotisms which rampage through all.
I am, therefore, comfortable making visible and owning publicly that I possess these turbulent virtues which drive me and interest me more than the placid ones. By doing so, I reason, I can baptize and make them legitimate upstanding citizens. To closet and cloak them in shame is to deny fundamental truths about one’s self and to create a flammable pressure in the heart.
OE: Your newly released companion volumes, Love and Death, are also a large project. Could you tell us a bit about them and how they came about?
GM: One of my legs is filled with death, the other love. When I walk they flash and cut like scissors. Death was easy. Since an early age I’ve hated the reality of death and every day I awake with its heaviness on my chest. A few years ago within the span of nine months both my parents died with me standing helplessly bed-side. When death has one’s throat death is implacable. A few months after the second death the poems poured forth, immediate present tense snapshots and long contemplative incantations, the final being a twenty page rock riff. Death required from me this exorcism. During this process my psychotherapist dared me to write a book on love, romantic and otherwise. But being heavily invested in despair I balked for a long time until finally grudgingly writing a love poem, then grudgingly writing another, then grudgingly another until an avalanche happened and I found myself mirroring death with love: immediate present tense snapshots and long rock riff incantations. The two books were published as companions, or perhaps as scissoring legs. On the rare occasion I do a reading I alternate death with love, love with death until the two blur into a single experience, which they are. Each compressed the other into a rich and tragic existence.
I am now finishing the third book making this project not twins but triplets, this last one titled God. Now I have three legs, or perhaps, more accurately, two legs with that smaller one in the middle!
Argument is arbitrary. I could have stated the opposite of what I stated in this interview and been believed. I could have chosen from a thousand possibilities, all persuasive and definitive. All language is swindle and anything presented well can pickpocket its victim. Nothing is obvious. All my answers are lies, but in self-defense, the lies I tell here are the ones which I tell myself are true.
Am I more like steel or fruit inside? If you drilled deep
through me would I fi nally break your bit or ooze pear-meat
and weep like a godless Jesus of Nazareth? I want to know.
Drill me to the core. Screw out big chunks of me in your deep
steel grooves and spit me free, you with your blindness and
vulnerability. Make me spasm and curl with your all-nighters
and narcomania my teenage son. Find my vanadium or peachpear-
plum blood. You have drilled through my fl esh, it fl ew
apart like a burn, and several inches into the beams in my
bones, but I’m still steadily beating. Push hard on your tool.
Drill through my collar past my lungs into my heart pushing
with all your weight, feet off the ground, grinding out meat;
fi nd what’s there. Get to my mettle. Drop out. Coke up.
Fuck the syringe. Find your own gore in vehicular winter. Am
I cold? Am I mechanical? Can I walk through closed windows?
If you peel back my surfaces do I glisten? This is your mission.
Let me see from a distance the crack pusher’s wing fold
over your shoulder and usher you forward, your two backs
fusing. Let me witness dissolution. It is the father’s privilege. To
strip off my sirloin like meat off a prey to fi nd what’s lying
inside my cage. Let me see graphically what your brain isn’t
getting: high school teacher’s spittle, orange lunch room chile,
that geeky conventional gangly camaraderie, auditorium pep
rallies, an appropriate foreign language, stupidity, time, time, time.
And this little piggy squealed “no,no,no,no,” all the way home.
And then all the toes were accounted for: the big, the middle, the
nondescript, nondescript’s neighbor to the East, the itty-bitty
which made baby laugh like a nautilus. And then the toes blinked
out like a disappearing photograph, and baby went on a miniature
vacation to Puerto Vallarta where a lion almost devoured
him like a fortune cookie, but he escaped and wind rattled the
blinds like dangling bones, and he whimpered and whispered a
prayer-precursor to the Divine Death Overture, something about
soft protrusions and blue rain. And baby Carroll decided he
was having none of it and shattered two panes in the living
room belonging to Daddy and his entourage one of whom played
the Ace of Spades and raked in the kitty while on the artery a
fl ying mechanical scream engulfed horizontal human moans
in a white steel cube smudged with a red intersection and far,
far away two events happened simultaneously: an imaginary
Holstein jumped over an idiot moon keeping constant vigil on
the continuous catastrophe, and in the silo accompanied by
secret platoons of yellow arthropods Jack fi nally found Jill’s
gooey ooze representing nucleic acid’s undeniable invincibility.
Testimony of the best pig in the sty. I’m king mounter. I
shove it in. Gertrude craves me. Matilda moans for me.
I grunt and eat slops pushing away others. I get mash.
Dark splotchy pink, stout nose, neckless, number 77
tagged to left ear, luckiest number around. Rump like
a cement mixer nobody kicks, squiggly fi rm tail, blood
to tip. Super Pig, pig literati, nineteen hundred twenty
six pounds, hog literally, the Indiana hogs, borne of
Chester and Duchess, Chester Iowa State Fair Champion
Derby Hog, Duchess six hundred pound 4-H Purebred
Champion, daddy shot me into her like a roman
candle. I burst forth like Ben Hur. Sunburnt from so
much fucking, out from mud, into mud, ear tag jangling
like revolutionary, Illini nights reclining under
stars, contemplatively smoking, pink eyelids, lavish
lashes, back legs crossed, I love everything, fences,
twigs, friendship, water trough, soft breezes drawing
across skin, the smell of piss, I, Davy Crockett pig,
adventuresome, undaunted, courageous, proud, out
to farthest post, to gate, scratching along wire, sniffi
ng earth-untrodden, snorting intoxication-liberation,
left-and-right pig, pig of The Nation and The New
Republic, chest-out puffed-up herd-guardian wise
warrior pig, pugnacious purple irremovable squealer.
The whole thing goes kablooy, hypochondria torments sister;
dementia creams Daddy; mortality frightens but cruelty
out Mother’s skin; forty years of tolerance collapse under
Larry; BDD splinters me in circus mirrors; preemie lungs
asphyxiate Kevin; Depakote sloshes Bradley’s brain; Hep
C like a rabbit nibbles cabbage of Allan’s liver; genocides
cook and serve severed leg; have another chilled eclair,
sweaty chocolate, chewy shell; oh baby; testicles strike
like factory workers, tongues fall mute; rocks clog urethra,
plaque arteries; well, smasheroo; brisket, lamb, claw, stew
slide off table into Magical Mystery Tour performed by
nutcases at Unity Church; refugees land in black fog of
dereliction and fl ies bite beautiful faces near McFadden’s;
Witcomb crawls into death’s bomb shelter everything rips
through: guilt, shame, dejection, despair, paralysis, rage.