Ypsilanti poet Rob Halpern's "Weak Link" connects the personal and the political
Ypsilanti writer and Eastern Michigan University professor Rob Halpern considers the relationship between the personal body and political violence in his new book, Weak Link. Through several forms ranging from poetry to numerical essay, Weak Link examines physicality, art, politics, and war, among other topics, and also is self-referential.
How the writing is working and what it is doing are explicitly addressed and questioned within the text itself. How do we understand and connect with that which we haven’t experienced? How do we go beyond ourselves and situations while still recognizing where we are and what is? What can poetry be and do? These questions and many more populate the collection.
The text expresses a desire to make connections between the public and the personal, between socio-political issues and the self who is interacting with them. At times reading like a stream of consciousness and at others like a well-plotted argument, Weak Link simultaneously consists of a thought experiment, aspirational view of poetry, and penetrating depiction of reality.
Q: You are a poet, essayist, translator, and scholar. How do these many interests fit in your work?
A: Poetry, essay, translation, scholarship -- these are just different ways in which I do a similar thing, and I would describe this thing I do as trying, always trying, to bring something into language that might otherwise be imperceptible or unspeakable, at least to me.
Q: What brought you to Ypsilanti?
A: After living for 20 years in San Francisco, I got a job as a Professor of Creative Writing at EMU in 2010. It was so hard to leave the Bay Area! The writing communities there are very strong and nourishing, as are my friendships. I still call San Francisco “home,” but I call Ypsilanti “home,” too.
Q: You have a new book out this year, called Weak Link. What do you want readers to know about this book?
A: Weak Link is a book of poems, lyrical essays, letters, translations, writing exercises, and manifestos. Everything collected in the book has been recovered from the faults and cracks within and between my previous four books -- Rumored Place, Disaster Suites, Music for Porn, and Common Place -- which together comprise one long serial work. One thing I really like about the way Weak Link turned out is that it has shown me how my work over the past two decades has been shaped by a more coherent vision than I ever knew, even if I wasn’t always aware of what I was seeing. It’s sort of like suddenly being able to look at the unconscious of my writing life, if that’s ever possible. For despite this book being joined together from lost parts dating from 1998 to the present, it feels very much like a cohesive thing in its own right. This jibes with my sense of one’s writing life as a kind of sedimentary rock, or -- to use a more textual metaphor -- a palimpsest, where the material that impacts the work or makes it what it is as it evolves over time gets buried or covered beneath the work’s surface, only to reveal itself later by scraping or digging.
Q: Since you now share your time between Ypsilanti, Michigan, and San Francisco, California, do the two distinct places influence your writing in Weak Link? How so?
A: Wherever one happens to be influences one’s writing -- right? I mean, how can it not? Sometimes the influence of place is immediately recognizable and conscious. Sometimes the influence is more subtle. Everything from climate and history, food and community, job and trees influence one’s writing. Since I moved to Michigan and began coordinating and teaching poetry workshops inside Women’s Huron Valley prison, for example, my writing has been impacted by my relation to the carceral state, mass incarceration, and other forms of detention. And while the prison system is everywhere and omnipresent in the U.S., its effects are not evenly distributed across places and demographics. Mass incarceration and the social devastation it has wrecked on our social life has become much more immediate for me here in Michigan than it has been anywhere else I have ever lived. That doesn’t reflect negatively on my life here in Michigan, which I love. It’s just an experiential fact for me right now. One poem in Weak Link that speaks directly to my work at Women’s Huron Valley prison is called “After the Prison,” which is a creative translation of a prose poem by Arthur Rimbaud (“Après le Deluge”), and I wrote it for the incarcerated women I work with. The opening goes:
When the idea of detention fails to keep us from the secret of our unhappiness, everyone’s organs will revive in the halogen fog of creameries, merging dreams of care & waste. There’ll be fossils for gathering lichens and utensils will invent new feasts! Lilies will awaken in the debris of San Quentin, as once tortured wounds withdraw now swollen with hypertrophic music. Out on the beaches, not much will have changed, but everything will be different.
Q: As you mentioned, Weak Link forms a serial work with your other four books. How is Weak Link different or similar to your other books? Do readers need to read them in order or can they start with Weak Link? And do you anticipate this series continuing in subsequent books?
A: Each of my previous books aims to sustain an engagement with a particular phenomenon within our contemporary crisis, from the so-called “War on Terror,” to Hurricane Katrina, to Guantánamo Bay, while also drawing quietly on personal intimacies. Weak Link finds its material in poems and notes and drafts and letters and talks that I set aside during the construction of each of these previous books -- set aside not for reasons of quality, but for reasons of “fit.” So this book has a very different feel, at least for me, and yes, it definitely stands on its own and can be read on its own. As for the series continuing, I had thought of Weak Link as signaling the completion of a long project, a cleaning up after the mess, as it were -- but the book concludes with a fragment from my current work in progress, called My Augustine, which deals with very intimate loves and losses during the AIDS crisis, and while this new writing is very different, it does maintain a weak link to my past work.
Q: Tell us about your writing and editing process for your poems.
A: I make use of many processes -- from dreamwork to Google searches, from excessive freewriting to constrained transcription, from forensic research to calculated versifying -- but like any writer, I work hard measuring the effectiveness of every word, and I edit to strengthen that effectiveness without compromising the illusion of spontaneity. Or at least that’s the aim!
Q: As a professor who teaches poetry at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), how does teaching influence your understanding, reading, and writing of poetry?
A: OMG. That’s a huge question! Teaching affects everything about my relationship to poetry. But let’s cut to the chase: Weak Link contains an exercise called “Maimed Wellbeing” that I created for one of my classes, the aim of which was to help the students to understand -- by way of their own experience and imagination -- their relationship to any of the bodies lost to current crises and endless wars, “Iraqi women & Afghani men, Gazan boys & Pakistani girls lost in the debris of suicide bombs, missile attacks, or drone strikes executed with hardware produced down the road from where I live,” as I write in the book, bodies that might feel very far away but have implications for us here. It’s a strange exercise, indebted to the poets CA Conrad & Bhanu Kapil whose work I often teach, and it involves architecture, public space, and a body organ from the writer’s own body: “vital, like a lung, or sensory, like the skin, or reproductive, like an ovary.” The exercise asks one to imagine this organ becoming the most sensitive of psycho-social instruments -- sort of like a poem! -- capable of registering subtle fields of force and supersensory currents connecting the environments we move in throughout our everyday lives to scenes of war half a world away, and then we write by way that organ. But I’ll leave it to your readers to check it out. Anyway, I often participate with my students and do the exercises I assign to them -- like this one, which served as a prompt for a poem in the book -- or I will bring to them exercises that I give myself as part of my daily writing practice, and in this way I’m always learning from and challenged by the students and writers I work within many different learning contexts.
Q: What tips do you give your students about writing, editing, and poetry?
A: Risk nonsense in the interest of making new sense!
Q: Stylistic features in Weak Link include line breaks that split words with hyphens that don’t appear until the beginning of the next line so that the reader realizes a word’s division after reading the partial word on the previous line one way and then seeing that it’s another word when they get to the next line. How did you develop this style? How do you see this style working in Weak Link?
A: This technique of occasionally breaking words to expose their component parts is just one way I try to pressure the lines of a poem to intensify multiple meaning-effects. My hope is that this never feels gratuitous, or gimmicky, but is rather demanded by the line itself, its semantics and its rhythm.
Q: Some of the work in Weak Link is graphic and piercing, while speaking about itself and about what poetry is. In particular, I’m thinking about the section called “The Wound & the Camp, or Visceral Solidarity: Some Notes toward a Radical Queer Poetics.” How would you define radical queer poetics, and how does Weak Link represent it?
A: I hesitate to define “radical queer poetics.” But whatever such a poetics might be, it would need to resist the prevailing gay political agenda that equates social justice with military service and marriage. As I put it in “The Wound and the Camp,” “I want a poetry that is responsive to contemporary crises and inseparable from one’s body understood as a geopolitical situation or problem, though this is not the only thing poetry should or could be.” I think poetry offers a unique ability to respond when it locates itself outside dominant expectations and “common sense,” or whatever passes for that. I also believe that a queer approach to the poem can do this by probing the relations between our differently embodied desires and the systems of domination that govern our social lives, while risking an effort to imagine those relations differently. Even if we can’t clearly grasp and articulate these relations, a poem can attune itself to feeling them, and in doing so the poem can help us to think what might have otherwise been unthinkable.
Here’s a short poem from the book that seems appropriate to end with:
rain today, just need a little something to funnel down
the spine, it’s this peculiar odor of dust, and ocher rising
from the softer growth, where some relation begins
to cohere, a place where no one lives anymore
I was thinking all this under duress & up against the wall
wondering how we ever got from then to now
having merely said this, having said this
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
Rob Halpern reads from "Weak Link" on Friday, March 8, at 7 pm at Literati Bookstore.