Dustin Pearson Talks Energy Corridor With Poet Glenn Shaheen
Dustin: There’s a lot of discussion in this collection about nations and society. Not just what they are but how they function and how the people that belong to them find themselves functioning versus how they might ideally function or are supposed to function according to the speaker. I take major cues from a few poems and lines:
There / is a charge in each of us. It’s not easy to master its tremor, / but it’s possible. And then you help somebody else, that’s / what being part of a society is all about.
I wish I could protect the people who need it, a ram / among sheep. Order is the key / when thinking about making all of the people happy / all of the time, yet no one considers the door / for that key.
My neighbor has died, / but I always rushed inside to avoid helping her up / the stairs with her groceries.
Do you mind discussing each of these moments and the general trend of discussion concerning society and nation throughout the collection?
Glenn Shaheen: In this collection I wanted to draw parallels between the violences and separations of nations and the way people blockade themselves from each other on an individual scale. It seems obvious and maybe a little simplistic to me (speaking as a socialist) that those (people or nations) with an abundance of wealth, food, power, ability, etc. should give to those in need. Few people would probably argue with this, but then it doesn’t happen (as frequently as it should) between nations on the global scale, or between neighbors and friends and families in our country. There are pundits and politicians out there whose careers are built on claiming that the wealthy already give way too much. They don’t. They should give much, much more, and if they don’t, then there need to be laws that compel them to give much, much more.
The power of any nation, and the power to change any nation, is within the millions of average citizens who struggle to make ends meet, or have worked hard their whole lives and barely (if at all) crawled out of debt. Of course it is in the wealthy’s interest to diffuse the knowledge of this power the masses hold, or at least to convince many of those struggling that their real enemies are elsewhere, in other nations, in other neighborhoods, speaking different languages, so that the fury against the gross economic inequalities sewn into the fabric of this country gets redirected.
The last quote you mentioned, from “Great Southwest,” acknowledges that a part in all of us believes it may be easier just to give up on helping those who need it, on social responsibility, and still possible, even, to live a happy life, by contributing to the poison that is capitalism and helping to propel the wealthy’s version of our nation forward. It’s tough not to be envious of those who never feel a surge to help, to engage, to go to a protest or argue with a hateful coworker. But what kind of lives are those flowsters living, exactly?
Dustin: Many times your speaker seems lonely and to reject human camaraderie and connection outside of sex or violence (or perhaps more simply touch in its many different forms). I think your speaker criticizes other forms of connection for their abstractness. There are several places in the collection that have this discussion. Here’s one:
I swat at the fly by instinct and feel / instant regret I have never slept with a black / man I don’t think that’s what we’re talking / about I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a white American in college a guy / I knew had a major crush on a black woman / but she would not go out with him because / he couldn’t understand her but we can’t / understand anybody
A hug / is protection when debris is present.
I only believe in the animal in each / of us, a monster who claws for a steak / or a fuck.
Can you comment on your speaker and these moments?
Glenn Shaheen: We of course can’t truly understand anybody, can’t know the varieties of creatures that exist within each of us, but a lot of people won’t even try, beyond a physical touch. An empty hug, a “There, there.” Sex, of course. Those animals in us that look only for the physical because our animals are incapable of reason, dismantling social constructs, or analysis. We’re of course much more than these monsters. It takes work, worthwhile work, to silence them, but they are loud and we’ve probably given in to them here and there because of pleasure strands passed down since we were all primordial goop. Horror movies appeal to these primal emotions – culling from within those monsters that are driven first by fear.
What shields we build we can only build with each other. Who apart from our loved ones can salve us when pain, grief, or hopelessness strikes? Couldn’t anybody out there be a loved one? Americans shut these potential loved ones out, people in need. Why? Because they might get the last cheeseburger? That’s one animal inside of us but there is so much more to each of us, animal and sympathetic.
Dustin: Does this collection or the speaker of this collection suggest that humans try too hard to connect with each other when there are easier and more natural solutions to connection, that perhaps the aspiration to connect in less natural ways hurts more than it helps? As ironic as it sounds, the more I read, the more I found myself wanting to connect abstractly with the speaker, to have a conversation that would provoke him to say everything he does throughout the collection to me personally.
Glenn Shaheen: I hope the collection suggests that people are pushed by those in power to believe there is an unapproachable complexity in true human connection, and this illusion that people are unapproachable, that we can never process each other as fully realized individuals, makes us try too hard to connect or not even bother trying at all. Isolation and fear of those we don’t know keeps people in power.
I want the speakers in these poems to form a chorus that harmonizes around these complexities. Some of the speakers are off-key in this chorus but I’ve always been drawn to the power of dissonance over consonance. I would guess that many readers of poetry come to a book looking to return to their usual state of complacency. The world works for them, for straight white men in particular, and maybe they want poetry to be a way to calm themselves, to reassure themselves when the systems of power that bring them comfort are criticized. But I want to prod readers. I want to make them uncomfortable. Poetry is good for wounds in the way peroxide is good for wounds – it cleans them but it oughtta be painful.
Dustin: There are a few moments that seem to discuss how technology eases and complicates what the book seems to establish as the ideal human communication. I’ve always liked the idea of humans inadvertently changing their evolutionary destiny with the technology they create. What role do you feel technology plays in the collection?
Glenn Shaheen: Some people out there are sort of worried about The Singularity, the moment when AI becomes sentient and (theoretically or maybe I watch too much Star Trek) grows exponentially, but I think that could be part of an evolutionary destiny, too, as much as I believe in destiny. We’re affected by and grow because of what we encounter online – people make friends or find acceptance in communities they never could at work or school, and that’s terrific (though sometimes horrific, since online communities have also emboldened white supremacists in the past few years). But is this the same as human interaction? In person I can look at winces, frets, darting eyes, smiles that seem genuine and of course may not be, I can hear subtle shifts or tremors in voice, but I can’t get all these cues from an email, or even from a Skype chat. We’re becoming better at discerning moods through online exchanges as these conversations make up a larger portion of our interaction. As you said it’s evolutionary, and while this technological communication may be relatively nascent and arcs some tension, it’s getting better.
Dustin: I want to ask you about these lines from your poem “Beautiful Night”:
Consider the power / of the Constitution / the lyric, the titled script. Unity / among the disparate masses. We could have been / a nation of poets, but instead we’re a nation of clerks.
I interpret these lines to suggest that a nation of poets might somehow lead to more unity in spite of difference. If that interpretation is the slightest bit accurate, I think those lines make a great case for the power of poetry. I feel like I’ve heard a lot of supposedly smart people talk about 21st century American poetry in terms of linguistic exploration, self-expression, documentation, and protest. In other countries, poetry is more likely something than can lead to the exile or death of people who practice it (while still being a number of other things in common with American poetry) because of the threat it poses to the established order. In that context, poetry seems to be an art form that causes unrest and encourages change, so I guess I mean to ask more details about what a nation of poets in America would look like given poets’ historical record of provoking change or provoking in general. I’d also like to know more about this nation of clerks.
Glenn Shaheen: A clerk’s duty is to make relentless sense out of the information provided to them. Sense to a clerk, though, is bureaucratic or predefined. Sense in the line of traditional sense. A cigar just being a cigar. No meaning behind the word. A poet can exist in a world beyond what is traditionally sensical. A poet can appeal to emotion, appeal to a belief that the world can be approached and processed in uncountably vast ways. What if we thought that way in the United States? Wouldn’t we be more inclined to manipulate our ways of seeing to be more inclusive or less destructive?
Poetry isn’t always happy or transformative, but when it is destructive, when it dismantles perceptions that have been propped up for centuries, it can become dangerous, in a good way. I’m glad we don’t jail poets here, though we do jail activists when they threaten capital. Poetry exists beyond capital in our present way of living. I’d like to think a nation of poets would be more concerned with those bumps in the walk that stumble us together than profit.
Dustin: Your speaker’s wrestling with human connection seems to resolve a bit in the last third or so of your collection. Instead, his critique of place and perhaps space seems to amplify. This shift seemed to say that in light of the impossibility of a certain kind of human connection and knowing, it’s a much more effective pursuit to note trends in how people animate in different places or how different places encourage people to animate. It also feels fair to say this later part of the book is more diligent about being some kind of poetic dis-assemblage of the individual in favor of some human collective, at least from your speaker’s perspective. Maybe that dis-assemblage is what the rhetoric of a nation is supposed to do. Are these trends you also notice?
Glenn Shaheen: If somebody asks who I am, what drives me, I start by talking about the lines on the map, where I’ve lived, little allegiances I had nothing to do with, at least for the first couple decades of my life. And, often, people prod beyond asking “who I am,” and ask “what I am,” and I need to trace a line further back than I really know, to the Middle East, Lebanon, Syria, to Scotland (though that last what is never the what that they mean). The smallness of myself becomes inexorably tied to the incomprehensibleness of borders.
In Energy Corridor I wanted to look at the malady and remedy of connectivity. Sometimes when a friend or lover asks us if we’re fine we say “yes, I’m fine.” We know it’s not true, and it is probably so that our loved ones know it’s not true as well. Of course I’d like to help all my friends, to make them happy all the time, but as a primary goal in life this feels almost deficient, no offense to my friends. I’d prefer to make a city or a state a place that enacts less harm on its people. This is something I can’t do as an individual, but it’s something I could do as a bolt in a massive machine.
Dustin: What’s your current relationship to this collection (Energy Corridor)? To your first?
Glenn Shaheen: Predatory was, in many ways, written in reaction to a nation being pushed to let fear guide it. A lot of it came from being one of the people, an Arab person, that Americans were being trained to fear. In 2008, when I was just starting to send Predatory out, Barack Obama got elected, and in the thrill of the moment I thought maybe I should pull my manuscript, that its subject matter, fear of the other, fear of financial ruin, was no longer relevant. That was naïve of course – fear is big business. I hate to see that theme is all still so relevant. Energy Corridor continues some of the themes of Predatory, but I wanted it to be more hopeful, to look outward at the potential that the masses could change things, but also acknowledge the great and menacing American institutions that stand in the way of the masses. It’s tough talking about possibility and hope and the power of the unified masses so soon after Trump was elected, but I still want to believe in the potential Energy Corridor imagines. There were always blockades set up by the matrices of power in this country to stop socialist movements, to stop the empowerment and equality of the poor, people of color, of women, of the LGBT community – there will be more now, but we can still better smash those blockades together than we can apart.