INTERVIEW WITH RICK MOODY
RATTAPALLAX: Several of the poems cite some of the research that went into them, and they include regular citations from the presidents and other media figures. This makes me wonder a bit about your process in crafting poems about the presidents. What sorts of materials were you initially attracted to? What drew you to the presidents in the first place?
MOODY: The first poem assembled was the Bill Clinton poem, and it was mainly constructed because I was obsessed with the textuality of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. At every turn, there was text generated by the scandal (and it goes on, I note, because the Enquirer has a cache of notes she sent to him then that were hitherto unknown). Best among these in retrospect was The Starr Report. Starr's vindictive and stop-at-nothing hatred of the Bill Clinton of the Lewinsky scandal was electrifying to me. I love the footnotes and the back matter in The Starr Report. And that text in turn generated some other strange research leads, like Nicholson Baker's VOX, which Lewinsky apparently gifted to Clinton, and so on. The birds migrated into the Clinton poem because I needed a metaphor to describe the mating ritual that seemed to be played out in the scandal. And the Clinton poem was oddly successful (it's probably one of the few found-text collages ever published in The New Yorker), therefore emboldening me to attempt more. I believe I did George W. Bush next, and then started moving backward in history.
RATTAPALLAX: In a similar vein, the poems often straddle the line where public and private lives meet. The figures of the presidents occupy that nexus—between war and love affairs, for example. A lot of our national conversation, particularly at election time, seems to indicate that the one is indicative of the other. It’s obviously an old question, whether private and public virtue are intimately linked. Given this context, I’m interested to know what is interesting to you about the more personal, private side of a public figure, aspects of their lives like alcoholism (“And So He Drank”) or personal insecurity (“It Generally Takes a Solitary Life or Lives in Pairs” and “Nychthemeron”).
MOODY: I always conceive of the presidents first as characters, as people, not as presidents. That may be because I think like a novelist, or it may be because I often read biographies of the presidents (or autobiographies—in the case of Ulysses S. Grant), and this biographical footing suggests a conception of character. It doesn't matter to me if it's a wholly accurate conception of character, it only matters that it is somehow in the realm of plausibility. For example, I don't think Grant's alcoholism is at all surprising, really. Many people have written about it. But I have had trouble with alcoholism myself, so his alcoholism (which is probably partly my own) gave me a route into the man. He seemed afflicted to me, like many alcoholics, and this despite being effective enough to prosecute the end of the Civil War. I don't expect that a poem, like an essay or a presidential biography, needs to concentrate on the public face of presidential experience. Indeed, a poem is well situated to do just the opposite. Poetry is about consciousness, or often of poetry is about that, and I want these gentlemen (I hope they are soon joined by a lady) to probe into consciousness in that poetical way.
RATTAPALLAX: Progressing through the poems, we get a sense of the history of the United States. Everything is folded into it: birds and trepanation and Muzak. When writing about historical subjects, do you feel a responsibility to situate events concretely, or do you feel free to draw connects across time? For example, in the poem “And So He Drank,” you write, “New wars echo old ones.” What is the nature of that echoing?
MOODY: I think time in the presidential poems is like time in Berryman's Dream Songs, which is to say the completely anachronistic time of the oneiric. The whole project is a dream about the presidency, in which the desperations of the personal erupt through the machinations of history. That's how I think about these things: presidents sneaking drinks, presidents chewing aspirin bottles, presidents romancing their interns, and so on. And the philosophy that makes these eruptions of the personal inevitable. They are incredibly human, my presidents, and their humanness bends time, so that these presidents can swallow up any era, really. And thus eras repeat, wars repeat, calamities repeat, and their textual repetition is beyond me to suppress.
RATTAPALLAX: In “Rural electrification,” there are a couple lines that beautifully capture the early days of the reign of audiovisual media: “He installed speakers to blare Muzak from the trees” and then, more toward the end, “Toothpaste commercials blaring out of a television.” There’s a white noise quality to both, which casts the italicized presidential remarks in new light. I get the impression that the president’s voice itself becomes white noise, calming and meaningless. I’m wondering if there’s a connection between this effect and the use of repetition in the poem about Obama, “It Can’t Be Done.” Lines made up of names of colors, repeated one after another: Is the idea a sort of flooding of signifiers that drowns meaning? If so, is “rural electrification” the antecedent of it?
MOODY: The truth is that the presidents happen in my writing life like little seizures. I'll buy a book (James Grant's biography of John Adams, e.g.) years before I get around to reading and pilfering it, letting the poem fester in me, letting the language and collage of the thing speak through me, so that there is not a lot of conscious thinking going on exactly. There is a great amount of unconscious thinking, and then a laborious period of editing down the tsunami of textual obsession. So I cannot actually remember where I found that line from in "Rural Electrification." I think your sense of the project being like white noise is not inaccurate, although I would probably say it's more like spinning through the radio dial of the presidency alighting on the stations only briefly. All of culture has to have its say here, and that's why trepanation is perfect for George W. Bush. The Obama poem has colors in it because of the obsession with Obama's color, which turns up again and again in biographies of him and books about his presidency. I am simply cataloguing what is already there (the color sections were suggested, I should say, by my friend John O'Connor, who worked on that section of the poem). It is not, I don't think, that meaning is drowned in these poems, so much as that a traditional idea of meaning--referential or denotative meaning--is ancillary to this American presidency, which is more about the swampiness of intertextuality. I am simply depicting that phenomenon.
Interview by Craig Epplin.