2nd ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 : DAY 2 :: Gary Sloboda on Buck Downs
Sifting the Workflow: A Comment On The Poetry of Buck Downs
Buck Downs is a Washington D.C. poet whose work I’ve been reading for years. Downs’ poetry arrives, old school, on postcards in my mailbox on a monthly basis. As a regular recipient of his work, I’ve become a follower and admirer of Downs’ poetic workmanship, his diligent constructions. It is that sense of a steadily pieced together form in Downs’ work that leads me to think here in a more formal way about his creation process and his poetry’s resonance.
A number of Downs’ postcard poems have been published in book-length collections, including his 2011 collection, black peppermint. In a recent interview, Downs describes the method he utilized to compose the poems in black peppermint this way:
What I had was a problem: I was (at the time) an employed person with a demanding job and a commute and all the social obligations of a normal person, and I did not want to give up any of that, but I didn’t want to quit writing poetry, either. That problem is what I was working on, and what I put my conscious effort into was creating a workflow where I could capture everything I could think of putting into a poem, get that captured data into a readable and editable form, and then work within that data. So I built a system for creating poems, and the system created the poems for me, whenever I could invest a spare five minutes while riding the train or waiting at the doctor’s office.#
Downs’ approach to writing poetry is practical – poetry as a product of a controlled system, not as words received in a rapturous engagement with the muse. Building on this approach, and as a Language poet might point out (or really anyone who thinks about it),# the prevailing ideological system and its attendant values are embedded within our language and thus within poetry too. This creates a potential philosophical problem for poets different and deeper than the pragmatic obstacle of finding time to write, but a problem which is mitigated in various ways, namely by interposing a conceptual or alternative system of composing, such as Downs’ workflow, as a buffer between — and a check on — the language as received and how it is made into the form of poetry. In this way, Downs’ workflow both saves time and filters. It also has resulted in a unique body of poetry that is compellingly freewheeling, but cinched with an insistent restraint.
This interplay or tension in Downs’ poems often conveys, through a wry, sometimes laconic voice, an irreverence for and impatience with the preciousness of verse and the ego-centered-ness of some of its strains, while delving into well-worn questions of love, consciousness, memory, identity, and death. For example, consider this poem from black peppermint, “antonym’s riddle,” in which Downs teases out a love poem of sorts, but one in which the subject of the poem is the intellectual imprint of desire — the riddle which enfolds itself from understanding:
am I, amped as I am
to see you even as
the cooling has left
you stranger to me
than even I am –
looking for cooking
in any corner
it comes from
of human connection.
the mind flits from
success to failure
to renounce either
the variable pulse
is trespassing in trust.
a distiller’s trust.
This is fairly representative of Downs’ style. The poem refuses the syrup of transcendence and epiphany so often injected into lyric poetry, but also shirks the extreme disjunctions and reworked surrealism of so much “post-” poetry. Instead, Downs’ poems trick or feint towards syntactical sense and meaning only to swerve upon closer reading towards a larger set of implications, all of which tend to fold back into the framework of the poem, so that despite the lure of explication, the answer is consistently the poem itself, which paradoxically is no answer at all, but a mode or vehicle for sifting the vagaries of existence, the deep thoughts and flashes, the pleasures and pains.
I don’t want to suggest that these qualities emanate solely from Downs’ workflow process, for even in his earlier, apparently pre-workflow poetry, these qualities persist. For instance, take these lines from Downs’ poem sequence, “Trouble Play,” contained in his 1999 collection, marijuana soft drink, in which the Descartian principle “I think therefore I am” is reconfigured into the poet’s “thought” about “thinking” that cancels identity, his subjective past – he thinks therefore he chooses not to be:
I have changed
my thought of thinking
for I have changed
and pay attention
I have been
Or, these lines from the same poem that stake a self-deprecating claim for the poem’s urgency by evoking an emotional intensity wholly conditioned on the emotional capacity of the reader or, perhaps, his love:
& this is not a work of quotation
any more than the thoughts
that line your inmost heart
are a work of quotation
As I think even these very limited examples from his poems demonstrate, Downs is a clever and skilled poet. That said, and as problematically vague as this next assessment is, Downs’ poems also have a lot of heart, a kind of scraped-by soulfulness, and it is that quality to which I most lastingly respond. Poems like “fickle instantiation” (“I have quit naming names. / everybody rules / with a broken heart”) and “chatta koozie” (“looking down the road / & wishing it were a lake”) from black peppermint emanate a bluesy, existential pain that the poem’s conceptual origins press to keep at bay, to keep from spoiling the poems with pathos and confession. The result is a limber tension, a conceptually tight but soulful verse style, echoing poets such as Ted Berrigan (particularly The Sonnets) and Robert Creeley.
Considering such echoes makes me consider Downs’ influence on my own production, which I think is inevitable, if not readily apparent. For one, I think writers’ analyses of the influences other writers have on their writing is often suspect. Maybe because admiration clouds their view. When asked these types of questions, I find myself wanting to respond by naming writers, such as Downs, whose work I return to often. But such readerly devotion does not necessarily correlate with an influence that’s evident in any concrete way. So, although my poem below utilizes a loose collage form drawn in parts from revised “found” lines, a process that seems comparable to Downs’ workflow, I do not present it as an example of how Downs’ work has found its way into mine, but rather as an attempt to express an affinity I imagine our work might share:
Poverty. Everything else is sentimental and a patch for pain. Beetles on the bark of trees in the morning shine like coal. Mortified by winter when it came down on me in my cardigan and shawl. And on the pipe seeds and dahlias. The cats curl up for heat beside the exposed wiring. It would have been better to lay one’s body down in flames as I tie up steel toes with a willowy lace to walk out under the face of a milkshake sky. Missing the waterbeds and the palm trees. I have the patience of a dead finch. And it works. The music of the city mimed in the last pimpled leaves of brownish gold. The streets I remember. Elders lugging pharmacy bags of stale bread, their eyes like red wine shimmering. In the middle of a smoke, in a park with no name, the moon takes shape in the frosted kudzu weeds. And when the night falls off the grid, swans hunt fish stung dead from the freeze.
In this way, I’m attempting in “Seasonal Dispatch,” as in my other prose poems, a project similar to Downs’: to come at the poem from the outside with a desire for objectivity/critical distance, yet wanting that objectivity/critical distance to ensare a reader’s attention, indeed, to matter to that one-off reader or small circle of readers that keeps so many writers of experimental/innovative poetry afloat. Of course, I hope such an approach is effective in my work, as it is in Downs’. Ultimately, whether any reader or I find an affinity with Downs’ poems in my work does not matter, so long as they take this closing recommendation: anyone seeking out an overlooked, truly idiosyncratic poetic voice with a riddle-like slant of mind should read the work of Buck Downs.
Gary Sloboda is a writer and musician living in San Francisco. His work has appeared in such places as Rattle, Drunken Boat, The Cortland Review and EOAGH: A Journal of the Arts, as well as Exit Strata PRINT! Vol. 2.