Daniel Rounds was the distinguished author featured in the 2018 edition of American River Review. He has been published in Aufgabe, 3rd Bed, Goodfoot, XConnect, and Fish Drum Magazine as well. Here he is in conversation with Rachel Heleva, the editor in chief of the 2018 American River Review, discussing his latest collection of poems Notes on the Possession of Animals by Spirits.
RH: Reading your latest poems feels like looking at the work of a dramaturg, throughout this manuscript you seem to have sketched a map of some performance event, a grand undoing of the self. Would you classify your dramaturgy as more sociological or theatrical in nature?
DR: My writing takes place at the intersection of social theory and continental philosophy but I am often inspired by theatre, cinema, music, and visual art. In particular I find myself moved by film, dance, and, at times, the stage. Almodovar and Wong Kar Wai movies have been touchstones for me. Robert Wilson and Pina Bausch are poetry more than most poetry is poetry.
You are right to note the performance aspects of the new manuscript. I have asked myself how I would visually depict the ideas I am trying to express if I was doing so with a camera and a stage. In a certain respect I want my poems to behave like art installations.
And you are totally right about the subject matter of the book—”a grand undoing of the self”. I have been digging into a lot of Buddhist and Nihilist thought of late, in particular, the work of Keiji Nishitani and his ideas about the big nothing behind and present in everything. If we had less ego in our lives we would all be happier.
RH: There seems to be a distinct arc in each of your individual works and in your three texts collectively. Are your books in conversation, do you see a pattern of growth when you look at them?
DR: All my books are interrelated in that they all came out of my fucked up head. There are lines in poems that repeat across the texts. I return to themes and ideas. I reuse material in new ways. For me the reuse of lines is a concrete manifestation of the idea that the world is multiple and that potential is all around us, even where it is unrealized.
RH: Throughout all of your works you seem to be concerned with the ephemeral, with our inability to arrive where or acquire what we desire, do you agree with that assessment?
DR: I think there is a deep longing in my art. My heart is [a] tractor. And it drags words onto the page. I have been dissatisfied with my life for a very long time and that makes its way into the poems. I have loved hard and lost big. It is only recently that I have realized that desire is the false idea that something external to us will make us happy. I want to be enough for myself. I want this moment to be enough, just as it is.
RH: You reference many philosophers and literary greats by name in this latest manuscript, do you think that it is important for works to acknowledge those that have inspired them directly? If so, why, and can you discuss the role of intertextuality in your work?
DR: I don’t know. My writing takes place in conversation with big ideas because my brain puzzles over things and much of my poetry is either me trying to work through a set of ideas or a set of emotions. I don’t really have much of a choice in the matter. I try to make sense of a world in which I often feel lost and alienated. So I go to other writers and thinkers so that I can use the tools they have developed to give the world form. Of course it doesn’t work. The form is illusion. Language is our way of giving the formless world form. That’s what the new book is about. How language is nature thinking itself. But nature is really just energy in flux and behind it there is nothing. When we realize this we gain a certain amount of freedom to be part of the flux.
RH: Your book Eros Zero is described by some as exploring “the act of physicality as self-definition.” Does that seem an accurate or fair description, and if so, can you explain or expand upon that relationship?
DR: Eros Zero has three main ideas and is built around three forms of address. The first idea is that desire is a productive vital energy—that it is, in some sense, will to power. This comes from Nietzsche, Deleuze, and Elizabeth Grosz. The second idea, is that desire is lack which is Lacan. The third idea is that desire is grasping in the face of impermanence. This is obviously from Buddhism. I am still working very much with these ideas in the new manuscript.
The three forms of address in Eros Zero are the lover speaking to the beloved, the writer speaking to the reader (as beloved), and the lover recognizing that he/she needs to be his/her own beloved. That no one completes anyone. Ultimately Eros Zero is a book about the error of thinking that someone or something other than you can complete you or make you whole. In reality, we are all looking for ourselves in the eyes of our lovers. It takes a long time to learn this. And it is painful. Eros Zero is me working through that pain.
RH: Your latest book, Notes on the Possession of Animals by Spirits, seems to explore this theme in a way that is Goffmanesque. You have numerous references to social costumery, the performance of lipstick theater being a notable example, which leads me to wonder if what you are proposing in these poems is that even our most intimate relationships are no more than a crude type of theater?
DR: Notes has three movements: the first movement is the becoming of the world from emptiness; the second movement is the emergence of language from nature and the possession of human animals by the construct of language (in this sense spirit is simply a metaphor for language); the final movement of the book is the dissolution of self in the recognition and acceptance of impermanence. Language is simply nature trying to give itself meaning. But there is no ultimate meaning. There is no substrate.
RH: What is it about physical desire that you believe makes it such a good medium to explore self-definition?
DR: Physical desire is rooted in nature’s vital energy. It gives us drive. Maturation is the process of learning how to tap into this drive without becoming its vessel.
RH: In regards to your latest manuscript, Notes On The Possession Animals By Spirits, do you think the way that we anthropomorphize animals is similar in nature to the way that we script roles for our lovers in our heads?
DR: This book is trying to decenter the human by conceiving of the human, and human language as products of nature. But Language does script roles for us. It operates behind our backs to structure the unconscious (Lacan). I think Buddhist approaches to the problem of grasping are essentially the way to respond to the question of Lacanian lack. Everything is temporary. Love is temporary. The people you love will leave you. Relationships end when the lover/beloved no longer fits into the symbolic order that structures the unconscious of the lover/beloved’s partner. We pick partners, unwittingly, to fit into an unconscious set of ideas about how we want to fit into the world. We are looking for ourselves in our lovers and when we no longer see ourselves in the eyes of our lovers we move on. But that self that we are looking for is not a self we consciously chose. Our subjectivity is constructed for us through the medium of language and the way our early childhood experiences situate us in the symbolic order. Our self identity is completely caught up in this intersection of experience and the way language tries to impose meaning on it. And all that shit is rooted in childhood. Without even knowing it we act out a script into which we have come to rest. Look at all the books on relationships failing out there. We are basically continually repeating shit we didn’t get right the first time around in order to learn some kind of lesson that hasn’t yet been learned. So yes we script roles for our lovers, but it’s not really us doing this consciously. There’s a fundamentally tragic nature to the way the scripts of two lovers play themselves out in a relationship. Much of what is happening is not happening because of conscious decisions. Many people really lack self awareness when they make decisions. In a very real way the decisions are actually making them. People are moved to do things because they are possessed by certain ideas about how they want to fit into the world. Meditation is a practice that helps develop the mindfulness that allows us to see the truth of our own subjectivity and its nature as a made-thing that can also be unmade.
RH: What is it about the “city of the unmade self” that calls to you so strongly?
DR: I want to be free. I suspect that is easier if I can find a way to unmake my ego and recognize that all the shit I have endured doesn’t have to own me. If I realize that my story is just a narrative structure imposed on meaningless events then I don’t have to give meaning where there is none. And then I no longer have to be a character in a movie with a sad ending. I’m really tired of sad endings. They grind you down into powder.
RH: What unique capabilities do you think that poetry possesses to challenge readers? Do you set out to challenge your readers when you write?
DR: I am not in the entertainment business. I write, and have always written, first and foremost, for myself. I don’t set out to challenge readers. I set out to work through a set of ideas or emotions because I have no other choice but to do so. Writing is a compulsion for me. I cannot not do it. I’ve been writing for three decades and it is only recently that my work has been seen by a wider audience. All those years I spent scribbling were not about honing my craft so that I could show it to someone else. I did it because it’s the only way I know how to live with myself.