David Baker
in Conversation with Kyle McCord


KM: What was the starting point for Scavenger Loop? Was there a particular impetus or foil?

DB: Scavenger Loop contains poems that I wrote over quite a number of years – including one or two pieces, radically revised and rewritten, that are ten or maybe fifteen years old. I’m excited about the appearance of this book and grateful for it. I hope people find it and hope they enjoy it. But I have to confess I didn’t have any sense of it, at all, as a book, until I had written a draft of the long title sequence, “Scavenger Loop,” and that came along pretty late in the scheme things. And that sequence in itself took several years. I thought this particular piece would be a poem or series of poems about the Midwest, its farms and villages and neighborhoods and meth labs and agribusinesses. And then, when my mother fell and (in 2013) died, I turned the sequence into a pastoral elegy of sorts; I looped the elegiac narrative into the pastoral one, the contemporary Midwest pastoral I’d been writing all along. It was then a matter of placing the other poems with each other and finding their order and sectioning.

So, no, there was no initial impetus for this book. Beginnings evade me. Of course certain things accrue and, like gravity, they start to hold together. Things emerge and stick. For many years I have used bits and phrases from other writers, other sources, in my poems – I mean, directly quoting them or sometimes paraphrasing them. So in Scavenger Loop part of the conceit of the book is this act of verbal scavenging, of picking up stuff and moving it around, appropriating and apportioning and reapplying words and phrases. Just so, in the title sequence much of the conceit derives from natural scavengers, those heroic critters who redistribute the world’s matter – ravens and beetles and all those creatures who keep the circle of things moving around. The poet is language’s scavenger. But we all scavenge each other’s emotions and gestures and ideas, not just each other’s words. Our very bodies are made of reused materials, matter reconstituted as “us.”

So back to the question: I don’t write books of poems, at first, as books. I write one poem at a time and find that hard enough. I understand other poets, sometimes, get an idea for a book of poems and then set about to write the book. That practice is beyond me. I also understand poets sometimes write their books as projects – but I have to confess I have rarely read a project book with much satisfaction. You know, maybe there’s a handful of good or sometimes terrific poems and then a lot of not-so-good poems, filler. In fact, the project book seems tidily connected to grants and institutional project-proposals and the like. We can’t just say to a grant-giver or a school administrator, please support me while I, uh, work on some poems. We have to presuppose a thematic structure to validate or earn the support of that grant giver. So then we have to fulfill our proposal – by writing that project book – to justify the support.

My own compositional method doesn’t work well by trying to write a poem whose conclusion is reached or determined before I write the poem. I like to discover, not prove. Likewise my books. I write poem by poem, slowly, and at some point I start to shuffle the pages around and look at what I’ve got and start to make a book, or sections, or some kind of coherent thing.

KM: One of the first poems that attracted my attention in the book was “Simile.” What bonds the two sections of the poem together are the final lines of each section which tie together the body, work, and word and let them float away as ash. It’s impressive. I wonder if you could speak about how the architecture of the poem came together. Did you begin the poem intending to defer the narrative about the suicide bomber? How did you reach what feels like a useful sort of enigma at the end?

DB: I’m glad you enjoyed “Simile” and I appreciate the time and thought you are giving the whole book, Scavenger Loop.

I write poems slowly, as I said. I gather bits and pieces of things (phrases, stories, impulses) for a while, perhaps material for several poems over days or weeks or months, and then I look for a center of gravity or some kind of potential adhesive element in order to start building a single poem. I like putting things together that might otherwise remain separate or unconnected. I guess that in itself is a definition of metaphor.

“Simile” began that way – with images from my own back yard in Ohio, some of the brush and flowers and moths living there, and with images from the ongoing heartbreak in the Middle East, and with some phrases from Whitman, and more. It percolated at a time when I was writing an essay about metaphor and simile and talking to my friend Stan Plumly about it all. My “Simile” is a response to or continuation of some of Stan’s thinking in his poem “Simile” from a great book, Old Heart. Stan’s “Simile” is one of my favorite of his recent poems.

Anyway, though we tend to talk about simile as a category within the larger scheme of metaphor, I think it’s important to look at the differences in those manners of trope, too. Briefly: when we make a metaphor, we suppose a direct linkage, even a transformation. A thing becomes another thing. “The rain’s silver hair sweeps though the high maples,” we might say, and in this figure the rain becomes hair; it is hair. The transfer is direct. But with a simile we might say, “The rain sweeps through the high maples like silver hair.” Here, though the image is similar, the actual figure is as much a reminder of difference or unlikeness as likeness. I mean, if I say the rain is like hair, that is also a way of saying or remembering that indeed the rain is not hair, only that it bears some element of resemblance.

In “Simile” I try to look at both tropes. Even the poem is in two parts. And the affiliations here are multiple, linking the moth-wings, the flowers, the paper (newspaper, writing paper, pages in a book), as well as the flame and ultimately the body – the body politicized even as it is aestheticized. I wanted to say that, sometimes, a thing is like no other thing at all. To render the suicide bomber as simile (she is like a burning bloom, or she is like a slender wing of flame) is to prettify, in this case, or to make unreal the very real fact of her life and the several deaths of her last act. It is only and wholly itself.

The poem also wants – well, I wanted – to examine the linkage of the natural and the human, the beautiful and the horrible, where the seeds of each continue to spread and take root.

And finally, the poem’s last statement is an explicit union of ash and ash, body and body: simile and metaphor together. The body seems to settle back down to the earth, out of the figure of simile, into the figure only of itself.

KM: I’m quite taken with this idea of showing that “a thing is like no other thing.” I’m of the opinion that poets are often out to remind their readers that semiotic relationships are not inevitable; that we live in “the desert of the real” (to quote Baudrillard) where one thing is forged to another in an ultimately false (and as you mention politicized) set of correlations. By rewriting these correlations through figurative language—for example a suicide bomber as a wing—the poet exposes a sort of caprice in commonplace signs and reminds the reader what else is possible. Perhaps even the thing only as itself.

You detailed a bricolage process you used to construct Scavenger Loop. I wonder what types of relationships you resist as you place pieces together? What did you fear to beautify or dishonor in this book?

DB: Poetry is an art of error. I don’t want to get too pedantic here, or too obvious: but of course any kind of likeness or linkage is a mistake, an inaccuracy. Of course “my love” is not “a red, red rose,” though Burns says so. No one thing is any other thing, though there may be art in the gorgeous falseness of the trope. Even the language we use for a thing is not, in fact, that thing. The word “tree” is not that green thing outside my window, but is rather a symbolic representation of that thing outside my window. Poetry wants us to know two things at the same time: that words are not the same as what they point to; that words are all we have. This is the fabulous paradox on which poetry feasts. This is the source of its inventive beauty and its inherent sorrow.

The danger is not beautifying or dishonoring something. It is being glib. We have to make metaphor to make meaning. So it’s not quite that I want to resist relationships in this book, but rather that I hope to resist too-easy or glib relationships. I want to be mindful of the likenesses and affiliations my language makes with its tropes. Thus, the careful parsing of those likenesses in “Simile.”

KM: As I move through the book, I’m struck by the dynamic changes in shape from poem to poem. What the line means in the book shifts as well. I wonder what is your sense of the poetic line? Were there shapes in here that really challenged that understanding?

DB: Much of the joy and anxiety of making poems is for me a formal curiosity. Yes, the poems in Scavenger Loop are in many apparent visual and audible forms. I like texture. I like the meditative capacities of blank verse, and I like the agitation of irregular forms, especially as those irregular forms, on repetition, might settle into a kind of stanzaic fractal.

More so, in Loop, I wanted to write big poems and little ones; poems with a very serene and coherent sense of voice and form and those with a fractured or absented or partial phrasing; poems with overt narrative lines and those with intensely interior sites and scenes; poems with lyrical music and some with spoken, or yelled, or discovered/appropriated voices. I hope you find a whole landscape of poetic varieties and I hope the poems all seem like they’ve come from a single source.

If you look at lots of the poems, you’ll see a decasyllabic line – not metrical in a rhythmic sense but metrical or measured in a syllable-by-syllable mathematic sense. I love to juxtapose the regularity of a syllabic line with a highly changeable or varying accentual cadence. But sometimes for me the syllabic line is a starting point, a compositional method to permit me to get the thing on paper. Then, sometimes, I take that regular syllabic back apart. If you look at the first two poems here, you’ll see that “Swift” is a decasyllabic poem, and “On Arrogance” is made of very irregular, jagged quatrains. But look closer at the opening of “On Arrogance” and you see the buried syllabic: “I thought I / killed it—too / little water” and so on. That’s 2 ½ lines in the printed poem but it is also a single ten-syllable run. That’s how the poem started, in those ten-syllable lines, and then I broke them back down. That’s a tactic (or oddity) I often use. “Of Shine” started as a sonnet and ended up in three-syllable lines; “Our Ivy” began as blank verse and ended up as a quantitative syllabic; “Belong To,” reassembled, is a sonnet with an abbreviated or bitten-off final line. As I said, sometimes the syllabic line is the final form of a poem, and sometimes it’s the origin, the thing I use to help me get started, a method of composition and discovery.

Likewise the line in Loop is sometimes pretty formal, sometimes very ragged. Or both. If you look at the long title sequence, you’ll see lots and lots of pieces: many sections, sections within sections, single incomplete images or lines, and so on. But again, much of the poem is syllabic, though I think it doesn’t sound so or want to appear so. There are many found voices here, but even they are sometimes reshaped into a syllabic structure. I love the pressure that the right side of a poem can apply to the language, along with the abiding pressure of the left side, and of course the fatal pressure of the last line pushing up. Such pressure gives a poem its agitation, its tension, its fruitful anxiety, and in turn that sense of pressure can transfer quickly to the phrase, syntax, and narrative of a poem. Trouble the waters.

In writing a poem I often try many forms (linear, stanzaic, rhetorical) before settling on the final versions of those forms. Constantly I am beguiled by the many forms that operate within any single poem. I mean, all poems are “formal” poems. All poems are a matrix of forms – from the shape of the whole thing, to the forms of line and stanza, to the more interior forms of metaphor, rhetoric, and syntax. This makes the art of poetry so much more compelling – to me – than any other written art. There’s more going on per square centimeter than anywhere else.

KM: While we’re on the topic of numbers, let’s talk about the title sequence of the book. Numbers in the form of statistics, social media “likes,” and even Poisson’s equation feature prominently. You discussed how numerical features interest you on a formal level, but I’m also curious what attracts you to numbers as subjects. Can you speak to what drew you to these as you composed this poem?

DB: Poetry and mathematics – or numbers – are intricately bound. We measure or meter our very lines. We count, and this counting provides a further means of formal pressure or exertion on the language and experience. Even when we’re not counting, we are shaping, pushing the poem from the right side as well as the left.

You’re correct. In “Scavenger Loop” I use lots of numbers. I think that mathematics and poetry, along with music, are the three great forms of language we have ever developed. Each of these kinds of expression is a symbolic or representative system – a language – with a syntax and lexicon and rhetoric of meaning. Each of these is a radical attempt to express experience, existence, nature, being. Poetry, in turn, makes intense use of both mathematics and music. It is the most synthetic of them all.

Much of “Scavenger Loop” draws on science – chemistry and medicine and horticulture and biology. Mathematics is of course a direct expression of that science; numbers are a blunt or unparaphrasable form of knowing. But we tend to think that numbers, statistics, are a better form of knowing than, say, language or music or other expressive arts. Numbers aren’t actually better than words, but are instead a form of words, a kind of language. And I want, in my poetry, to make full use of all manner of language/s. I listened to lots of musical loops as I wrote, too – Bach and John Adams, Gregorian chants and Steve Reich and Grandmaster Flash. Music is as richly numeric as poetry. This is part of its logic and part of its enchantment.

The other compulsion for numbers, in this poem, I think, derives from the desire to understand. In this case, to understand loss and death. What pushes us to poison the earth? The answer is only partly greed and stupidity; it is also hope, the hope to devise some way to feed a lot of people. What pushes us to sing, to hurt, to construct, to love, to destroy? And how can we say these things in real life? Well, let me count the ways. . . .

KM: In addition to the musical loops, you had a number of other voices coloring your writing as you worked; you cite nearly twenty poems, novels, and websites in Scavenger Loop.” That’s a lot of voices to have in your head. What process did you use to navigate between your voice and the echoes of other sources?

DB: I confess I don’t think much about how I write, as a process, when I write. I know that’s not cool. People seem intent to explore their own process, and talk endlessly about process. I have studied for a long time, and I read and think and wonder and plan. But when I sit down to write, I hope I forget that stuff. I try not to be too deliberate or strategic. I try not to be professional. I aspire to be an amateur – to discover as I go, and err, and fumble around, and be open to surprise and innovation. If all I do is reconfirm my process, then that would feel too mechanical to me or over-determined or machine-like. Or perhaps I mean, I hope that what I know, and have learned, becomes part of an instinctual or felt thing as I write.

I don’t mean to be evasive. I do have a few habits that I seem to start with. As I said earlier, I don’t start a new poem for quite a while and instead I take a lot of notes and think about it all. When I do set some lines down, I frequently write in some syllabic form, just to give me a template for pressure to the language. Often then I abandon that syllabic.

There are, you bet, lots of voices in my head. That’s true of all of us. Sometimes we strain to shut them out; sometimes we let them speak at once. For me, I guess I learned very early on, as a musician, to listen to all the other players while I play. I performed in so many bands and groups, growing up, all through junior high and high school and college and beyond. Big-band jazz bands, duos, marching bands, concert orchestras, combos, rock and jazz and country and bluegrass bands. I learned when to sit back and play rhythm and when to stand up and solo front-and-center, how to play in harmony and in discord, how to be raucous and serene. And that, as much as anything, is a glimpse at how I hear a poem. I hear a lot of voices and intonations – some from other poems, more from remembrance and speech and I-don’t-know-where – and I work with “my” voice among all of those others. Sometimes that voice – my voice, or my operating conceit of voice – is dominant or primary, playing a solo, and sometimes it is part of a richer harmonic with other voices rising and fading. Sometimes I identify those others in citation and quotation and sometimes not. To think we each “have a voice” is pretty misleading, I figure. Sometimes I’m amused by workshops whose guiding thesis is Find your voice! Voice is no more singular, or stable, or fixed, than is self or identity. I enjoy the fluid prospects more than the fixed ones. I figure that, after the fact, something like voice or personality will be there, as the result of our writing, more vividly and accurately than some pre-determined notion of how we should sound.

I am fascinated by embedded texts, found language, in lyric poems. That’s something I have pursued for many years. I guess I don’t believe that old saw about the lyric – that it is the voice of a single person talking; nor do I believe the new saw – that voice is nonexistent or falsifying. We are a self among selves, a word among words, a creature among creatures; and yet we are always part and parcel of a single living entity and a single language.

KM: Scavenger Loop begins and ends with an eye on the natural world. In the May/June issue of Kenyon Review (where you are poetry editor), the magazine featured a folio of contemporary EcoPoetry. EcoPoetry has one of the longest lineages of any contemporary tradition. What novel territory has been opened for Eco writers? What part of the territory do you believe you’ve carved out for yourself?

DB: I am very proud of the May/June 2015 Kenyon Review. It’s the result of two years of thinking and gathering. I’m going to do it again in our issue next May, and I think this feature will be a permanent annual offering in KR. I can’t think of anything more important to attend to than the “natural” world, whatever that is, and to the terrible peril we have created in that world.

To be sure nature poetry is one of the art’s most ancient categories. I’m encouraged by so many devoted new poets who are writing about nature – who are defining what that term means, and what our obligation may be, and what our opportunity and our doom may be. I guess the term ecopoetry is still uncertain to me, though I use the term. Is it a synonym for nature poetry or environmental poetry or does it indicate a more explicitly politicized or activist stance? All of the above, I think?

I am a nature poet, I reckon. At least I have written about the big green world for as long as I’ve written poems. I come from small towns, from Missouri and now Ohio, and from a family that includes farmers and gardeners and coal miners. I spent huge swaths of my younger years outside, playing, camping, hiking, fishing, walking and walking and walking. I garden now in Granville, and I walk just about every day around the village or into the woods. I try to pay attention . . . though sometimes I try not to pay attention at all and just be there.

Many of the poems in Scavenger Loop are specifically “nature” poems. Sometimes that’s the simple fact of their setting and sometimes it’s the social or political design of the poem’s argument. The title sequence is a new version of a very old form, the pastoral elegy. What is the pasture today? A green lea where shepherds dally? A big garden of corn and soybeans? A woodland? An exurb? A managed agrifarm? A village? A city? A chemical plant? The elegy in this poem is, first of all, for my mother, who died in early 2013; but I suspect readers will also hear an elegiac component for nature, too – or better, for us and our relation to nature. After all, nature isn’t going anywhere. But in this sequence I try to build a complex loop, thinking about origins and endings, and the persisting reinvigoration of things. The scavenger is nature’s hero or at least its necessary enabler. And what is a poet if not a scavenger? None of our language is original to our use but something we’ve found, heard, read, and something we reuse, recycle, repurpose. The same with our body.

KM: Certainly, you’re right: the pastoral elegy is not new, but the elegy for nature itself is more contemporary. Blending scientific diction and citation into the pastoral is novel as well. I wonder how this blooming of the possibilities for the pastoral has changed the way you read naturalistic poems from authors like Pope, Frost, or James Wright. What sort of relevance do these writers hold for you?

DB: I think the lyric poem more complex than we sometimes realize. Hesiod wrote a “scientific” lyric in large swaths of his early georgic, Works and Days. Even Theocritus in his Idylls was writing a more ironic pastoral than we sometimes think. Sure, his poems are full of shepherds gallivanting around the leas, singing songs and such. But though those shepherds were simple and pure, the audience for Theocritus was anything but: he wrote for the scholars at the library of Alexandria, who knew full well that the gorgeous dream of the pastorals was fictive, unreal. The history of the lyric is a story of such ironies – the supposed purity of the thing is complicated by what we really know to be the case.

I think the lyric poem is more vivid, more alive, and more surprisingly flexible than we sometimes think. I love those poems where the lyric language accommodates the idioms of behaviors or disciplines outside the lyric – science, politics, whatever other source. I think it has always been this way. Pope is a great example, and Whitman, and as you say, James Wright, who could write a gorgeous “pure” lyric and a much more funky one at the same time. With Wright, again, part of the power of his purer poems derives from his knowing, and our knowing, the fiction of such purity. When he’s lying on that famous hammock at William Duffy’s farm, lazing about, doing nothing (like a pastoral shepherd), he is also aware of everything he’s not doing at the time, and so are we. When he says he’s wasted his life, we hear the radical complexity of that apparently very simple statement. In other words, a profound irony rises out of a seemingly pure moment of stasis and simplicity.

I think it has always been this way, though perhaps more poets are pushing the lyric borders wider and wider today than ever before. The poem is being reshaped for more and more inclusions and additions.

As for your question about elegies for nature. Many of Wordsworth’s poems – two hundred years ago – seem sorrowful for a loss of nature, elegies for the fading natural world. I think my “Scavenger Loop” is more specifically an elegy for my mother. But you’re right, the other subject of my poem is nature, the growing green world. I don’t think my sequence is as much an elegy for nature as it is a kind of defense of nature. Nature is not, after all, going to die. We are. But we are radically changing natural processes and life-forms, mostly for the worse. The story is gruesome and we are barbaric and ignorant. But nature will persist in some form or other. The elegy is for us, for our better selves, for our dream of a nature we haven’t spoiled or tainted or manipulated; and it is for the legion of individual lives and whole species we have destroyed, exterminated, and driven or are driving to extinction.

KM: In closing: in “Metastasis,” the final poem of the book, you loop the reader back to the dedication by drawing on Stanley Plumly’s “Beach Reading,” featured recently in The Atlantic. Plumly’s is more purely ekphrastic; the speaker is detached from the pastoral except through reportage. But in “Metastasis” the “we” and “you” become part of the pastoral and in the final line are promised transformation. I’m unsure whether to read that final phrase with optimism or pessimism. What did you seek to build on in Plumly’s work? And what do you want to leave the reader with in this final turn?

DB: Stanley Plumly is one of my favorite poets. Really, he’s a genius of a lyric poet. Who writes better sentences these days than him? Carl Phillips’ are gorgeous, too, more hesitant and self-correcting. We each have our list of favorites. To my ear Plumly’s sentences and phrases are masterful examples of fluidity, inclusion, measurement, personality, and music. When his “Beach Reading” appeared in The Atlantic, I clipped it out and started a reply. We’ve known each other for a long time – he’s a sort of big brother – and sometimes we write poems back and forth like this, in direct reply or indirect echo. There’s another of his poems at play here, too, called “Cancer,” from which I culled a few details for “Metastasis.” The term “metastasis” is a cancer referent having to do with malignant spreading. Some of the cellular language and tactics of Stan’s poems have spread into my poem. Likewise the stasis of these scenes is “meta,” which is to say made self-conscious and probably fictive. Stasis isn’t possible. My final line is neither optimistic or pessimist, or rather both aspects operate as harmonics in the lyric chord of possibilities and simultaneities.

I wanted the closure of this book, Scavenger Loop, to loop back and reconstitute at the beginning with the opening dedication to Stan. Likewise, regarding Stan’s two poems with their gorgeous waves and star-stuff and old Ohio fields, I wanted to keep the natural action going. I also wanted to play with that trope, by imagining the tide going back out, or the whole process turning back around on itself, reversing. If you look closely, you’ll see that time goes backwards for a while in my poem. From the present moment, back (as in Stan’s life) to the fields of Ohio and back further to the prehistory of inland oceans and such, back perhaps to some explosive origin. I think I imagined this as a way, another way, to make the movement of the poem and the book loop around, continue, reconstitute, and go on again. Like the body, like the world, like the stuff of stars and cells and waves and words.

Maybe that’s my own lyric dream.