Ian Lockaby interviewed Eric Baus virtually in December 2019.
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Ian Lockaby: In his great review of your last book, The Tranquilized Tongue, John Yau called you “a poet of Synesthesia.” Your new book, How I Became a Hum, is also incredibly rich with synesthesia, containing lines like, “The extinct oracle’s seedlings reflected my tenor” and “This was how we spoke to a distant flicker. Our silence hydrated a speaker.”
Do these synesthesias come out mostly when you’re working on poems or do you experience synesthesia often in your day-to-day life?
Eric Baus: I have had a few fleeting examples of synesthesia—most recently watching a film about beekeeping while eating an orange and feeling the brief, distinct sensation that my mouth was filled with honey. In a less literal way, my perception of the world has been re-shaped by the way I have worked with language over many years. Poetry is a refuge but also a centrifuge; it gives me some distance from the patterns of daily consciousness at the same time it spins the concrete objects of the world back out at me in various ways. I pay attention to the mixture of awareness that results in the mind. When I go to write a poem, I try to move between different modes—mainly shifting between sound-driven thinking and image-driven thinking.
My friend, the writer Richard Froude experiences more textbook instances of synesthesia (numbers and letters evoke colors and shapes for him). I don’t have anything that tactile going on most days, but I think synesthesia is probably a facet of reality, rather than just a distortion of reality. Our sensory organs are trained to manage the threads of data entering our bodies in order to function in daily life but it’s very useful to observe them as they separate, blend, clash, fray, and converse. Some recent experiences with meditation have helped me to explore that dynamic in ways that really interest me. Lately, my day to day life has been informed by a fairly consistent sitting meditation practice, and I feel like I’m exploring some aspects of brain complexity more methodically now. The attitude that I take with me into meditation is increasingly like the attitude I take into writing poems. My daily thinking has changed as a result of this practice, which inevitably feeds back and changes my approach to writing in subtle ways.
IL: I know you like to employ constraints or “mechanical processes” when composing your poems. Did you find or create any new processes in the writing of How I Became a Hum?
EB: I have a section and a poem in the book called “The Rain of the Ice,” which is a micro-erasure of the title of the essay “The Grain of the Voice” by Roland Barthes. One of the things I like about Barthes’s essay is how he argues that instead of further developing our critical vocabulary around music (creating more and more descriptive language) we should instead focus on aspects of sound that we unconsciously filter and flatten out. He writes: “the ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.” I like that impulse a lot—to shift the boundaries of the thing being studied as a transformative act. By erasing a few letters in his title, I’m thinking about the fluid state embedded within the solid state—the “rain” that is always part of “ice”—and, in some oblique way, gesturing toward slipping outside of expected ways of talking about the world and about experience.
In the poem “Bad Shadow,” I found a way to graft in language from a blurb I wrote for Richard Froude’s book The Passenger: “Richard Froude was grown from film stills. Above all he was a mirror. Much of his soil was gathered from conversation. Nothing is outside the screen. His house was built entirely of redirected rivers. This caused a book of between, a book of plywood and polymers, a book we are never finished reading.” And I turned it into this passage: “Above all we were was a mirror. Much of our soil was gathered from conversation. Nothing is behind the screen. Our mouth was built entirely of redirected rivers. This caused a book of between, a house of plywood and polymers, a city we were never outside of.” I try to find as many ways as possible of repurposing and re-framing language. I tend not to make references in a conventional way, where I’m signaling the content or ideas of another work directly, and instead I prefer to zero in on some granular aspect, some tonality of the thing that I’m thinking about, and use that to build language structures that take on a character of their own.
IL: In one interview you said that you’re inspired by drone music—that you sometimes draw influence from certain “moves” of drone music. Could you expand on that? Is this a direct mapping process or a less direct transferral?
EB: My body seems to respond in noticeable ways to drone sounds, regardless of genre and in some ways regardless of whether something is music or just ambient noise in the environment. It’s a running joke with my friends that when they enter my apartment they can’t tell if I’m listening to music or doing laundry. Anyway, by holding a sound or extending a gesture far beyond expectation, you can often notice that what seemed to be one solid thing is really made up of many vibrating, oscillating things.
When I wrote my book The Tranquilized Tongue, I wanted to create a very simple structure, sort of like the units of composition used in minimalist music of people like Terry Riley or Steve Reich, and allow it to constantly shimmer and fall apart and remake itself. So, I picked past tense sentences that avoided personal pronouns. Those sort of correspond to the notes that accumulate and create pulse and phase effects. It doesn’t map 100% and I’m okay with that, but I feel like I gain something from tuning into that type of work as a compositional model.
IL: What’s some of your favorite drone music? Was there specific music that influenced How I Became a Hum?
EB: I love the drone metal band SUNN O))) so much. Their new record Pyroclasts is on heavy rotation in my house now. I love the bands Earth and Sleep too. I’ve had a chance to see all of them live within the last few years and it has definitely made an impression on my work. A while ago I talked a bunch of my grad students into going to see Dylan Carlson from Earth play in Denver after our final workshop, and at the end of the show everyone seemed to understand something slightly new about poetry. I like the bravery in that genre to trust that the audience will eventually tune in and activate, even if the pieces themselves are seemingly static for long periods of time. Henry Flynt’s You Are My Everlovin’ and Hillbilly Tape Music are so beautiful. Flynt is great because he’s not afraid to just shred on a violin with a delay pedal and allow the listener to bask in the pleasure of those vibrations. Although he’s not a drone musician, within the last year I have seen the guitarist Mdou Moctar play twice, and I love his energy, which is very ecstatic and celebratory. I find all of this music to be incredibly engaging and meditative even if it might superficially seem demanding or repetitive. If you spend any amount of time inside it, you’ll feel what it’s about. I think the sounds in the music that I’m describing here are incredibly generous and open-hearted. That’s the goal anyway.
Also, at the time I was writing the book, I was very interested in musique concrete, and I was thinking about how sound composition was changed by the ability to record and retroactively manipulate and rearrange elements of recording. Pierre Schaeffer’s book In Search of a Concrete Music has this part where he talks about being able to strike a bell with a mallet, and through recording technology, remove the sound of impact at the beginning so you just hear this amazing, de-familiarized reverberation. That is partially where the idea of the “hum” in my book comes from. In terms of actual music that I was listening to, it was about this time that I got super interested in Eliane Radigue’s feedback works, which is less jarring and juxtapositional than earlier folks like Schaeffer, and more slowly evolving and enveloping. She’s a real hero of mine.
IL: Sometimes when I’m reading your work, I get the sensation that I’m reading a translation. Homophonic translations, for sure, because of the echoing and modulation of certain phrases. But I’m also reminded of the particular beauty of “mistranslations:” phrases that seem familiar, sonically or rhythmically, but that subtly go off track in surprising deviations and create unexpected meaning. I was wondering if you think about translation in regards to your own poetics.
EB: In some of my earlier answers, you’ll notice that I am interested in correspondences and connections that are indirect or modified. I think the effect that I’m often going for is some underlying kind of familiarity and clarity merged with some aspects of unpredictability and multiplicity. I think the versioning that happens when you read various translations of the same work has probably influenced my thinking. I can read a little French, but my skills are pretty rudimentary, and a lot of the work that I love most was written in Spanish, which is even less available to me than French literature, so I’m mainly sifting through different English translations when I’m reading my favorite writers. I think this has made me pay attention to the subtle choices one makes in deciding between different words and the huge consequences in terms of tone and meaning that radiates out from the poems as a result.
IL: Another moment when I thought about translation was when I first read the title of your new book, How I Became a Hum, which immediately reminded me of César Aira’s novella, How I Became a Nun (in Chris Andrews’s translation). I didn’t know if you intended that reference, but I liked that the sound of the title brought me there. Can you talk about the title of your new book? What does it mean to you? Where does it come from?
EB: I definitely intended that connection to Aira, though not necessarily as a specific reference but as an indirect echo of his sensibility. He’s one of my favorite writers. How I Became a Nun was a book that, as I was finishing it, I was so engrossed that I was actually frightened that it might kill me, that my heart might stop, that I would permanently forget how to breathe. I don’t mean this as a metaphor—I was scared! Aira is someone who is interested in radical shifts in the direction of a narrative, and in paying attention to reality as multi-faceted, weird, scary, and beautiful all at once. So, the title is less a reference to anything specific in Aira’s writing and more a nod to the emotional space his work evokes and inhabits.
I think my title is kind of funny, because of how it seems faux instructional (like “How I Became a Hum and How You Can Too!”). It almost mirrors the language of self-help, but the goal itself is uncertain and de-materialized. I also like the way the word “hum” suggests a clipped form of the word “human”—which implies that the speaker has previously been in some state other than a human before. And, as I mentioned when I talked about Pierre Schaffer earlier, there is this idea of a hum as a sonic artifact with its origin removed.
IL: In the first poem in How I Became a Hum‘s “Bad Shadow” series, you write: “We undressed our shells in a sterile house. No one ever looked for us on 1515 Echo Lane.” The specificity of this location seemed so stark in the context of the book, which never seems to divulge correspondence to real-life locations, so I became convinced of the address’s significance. I thought it might be a portal into (or out of) your poetic universe. Can you tell me about 1515 Echo Lane?!
EB: “Bad Shadow” was the name of a reading series in Denver that my friends Julia Cohen and Sommer Browning ran for several years. I just liked the way the name sounded. Also, a while ago I was alone with my wife, the poet Andrea Rexilius, at some hot springs, late at night in rural Colorado, and we noticed some weird vibes coming from the corner of a cavelike structure we were floating inside. We both noticed it independently and only got the courage to address it the next day. I think I had written the poem before this event, and the reference to the reading series is more tonal than anything, but that phrase “bad shadow” showed up in my mind again and again and seemed to hover and haunt me. I just tried to give those shadows some space and I kept floating. I can’t remember now, but I think I asked my friends what the name meant and they said it just sounded cool, but it’s something that has stuck in my mind as a way to name an ominous and transformative environment.
1515 Echo Lane is the address of the house that I grew up in as a kid in Indiana. My parents no longer live there. It was a small, blue-grey, one story ranch-style house at a bend in the road in a subdivision bordered by corn fields. I suppose that place is a portal into my world in several ways. I first started writing poetry there, during high school, after stumbling across the writings of Artaud and Ginsberg. There were giant trees just beyond the yard whose leaves would shimmer in the way that I’ve seen aspens shimmer in Colorado, though they were probably something else. I still dream of that place pretty often, and its location as a recurring dreamscape probably has a lot to do with my poems. One time, when I was a kid, I was sick with a fever and I woke up sitting inside my closet, having sleepwalked into it, and I was holding the empty sleeve from a shirt that was dangling above me. In the dream I was holding the arm of a skeleton and as I woke up it turned gradually back into a shirt, with a few moments of me feeling like I was awake while still holding those bones. So, that place always stands in for the first site where the real world and the imaginal world blended. I also like the way the 15s in the address create an echo. I’ve thought of that house as a banal space of suburban Midwestern life infused with some definite interzonal energy. That poem came to be about various feelings of fear and containment, but also a certain kind of mysticism and openness into other realms.
IL: When I was at AWP last year, I bought a copy of Tuned Droves from Mathias Svalina at the Octopus Books table and he told me he was going to get “ERIC BAUS” knuckle tats—which I thought was very beautiful. If you were getting knuckle tattoos, what would you get?
EB: I can’t think of another person whose hands I’d rather be permanently part of than Mathias’s. I think about how most days he writes dozens of poems and how my world has been kneaded and re-formed by what his hands have done, as well as my long friendship with him. In terms of my own knuckles, I wish I still had my old text correspondences with Mathias where we came up with good potential knuckle tattoos but my phones have died a thousand times since then. In lieu of that extensive list, my cat’s name is Marigold, and I love her wildness and beautiful chaos, so I’ll go with MARI GOLD.
Eric Baus is the author of five books of poetry: How I Became a Hum (Octopus Books, 2019), The Tranquilized Tongue, (City Lights, 2014), Scared Text, winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry (Center for Literary Publishing, 2011), Tuned Droves (Octopus Books, 2009), and The To Sound, winner of the Verse Prize (Wave Books, 2004). He is also the author of several chapbooks, most recently The Rain of the Ice (Above/Ground Press, 2014). His poems have been translated into Spanish, Italian, and Finnish. He is a graduate of the PhD program in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Denver as well as the MFA program for poets and writers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He teaches literature and creative writing at Regis University’s Mile High MFA program in Denver.
How I Became a Hum is available now from Octopus Books.
Ian Lockaby is the Assistant Editor of New Delta Review. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in APARTMENT, CutBank, Bomb Cyclone, and Timber.