Podcast • February 15, 2011

Elliott Colla: “The Poetry of Revolt” in the New Egypt

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Elliott Colla. (50 minutes, 23 mb mp3) Elliott Colla is sharing the soundtrack in his head of Egyptian revolts, today and yesterday, going back to the 1880s. Poets ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Elliott Colla. (50 minutes, 23 mb mp3)

Elliott Colla is sharing the soundtrack in his head of Egyptian revolts, today and yesterday, going back to the 1880s.

Poets were invariably major players — in heady, optimistic, galvanizing roles as popular risings took off. Novelists (including the great Naguib Mafouz) got the darker job afterward of detailing regrets and reversals. Most of Egypt’s ten popular rebellions before the epochal events of this winter were against the British, and most of them were sorry failures.

We’re talking about the “the poetry of revolt,” street songs, chanting for courage, the tradition more than a century old of satire, ridicule and invective that has finally toppled a US-chummy police state and, for now, beaten the odds against a people’s rebellion.

Memo for the next explosion: tune in on the poets and the jam bands; tune out the newspapers. So much of what we’re told about places like Egypt — and so little of the story now unfolding — gets centered on the geopolitics of the place, and its holy books. It’s the novels and the pop culture, as Elliot Colla’s reminding us, that suggest how people live and love, aspire and mourn. Astonishing, isn’t it, how little we hear from the earth-shakers in Tahrir Square about the U.S. or Israel. Or the Koran. Or, for example, about the Arab nationalist giant of the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who seems as remote from today’s proceedings as the Sphinx.

I am asking Elliott Colla why the rebels who busted Mubarak have been so tender about his great backer, Uncle Sam. Are they playing to President Obama, who could still be their partner? Or to their young Facebook Friends in America? Or are they just ignoring us? Or maybe unaware of us?

This is a new generation, a generation of activists who are not ideological. In other words, they have looked at the struggles of their parents and even grandparents against imperialism, against capitalism, against all the “isms.” By and large, they are saying that’s not how they want to understand the world, and that’s not how they’re going to organize their response to the problems that they face. In this sense, many in the leadership have no ideological platform; they are starting their analysis and their project from how they live their daily life, what they see, what they experience, what they would rather have. …

Look at their demands, these aren’t specific to Egypt, these are simple, straightforward civil and human rights that they started with. They’re confident in this: if they can have those things, they can have a government that actually represents their interest, and not the interests of a ruling elite, and then they can handle these other things that might be called ideology. It’s a completely new way of doing revolution. We usually think you get your ideology straight first, and then you do your program; this is doing it the other way around.

Elliott Colla of Georgetown University in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, February 15, 2011.

Podcast • April 9, 2010

David Shields: Kicking Ass and Taking Names

David Shields practices what he preaches. Aphorisms in the Nietzsche manner are the coin of the literary realm that surfaces in his manifesto, Reality Hunger. In conversation, aphorisms seem to come as naturally to David Shields as fugues came to J. S. Bach
David Shields practices what he preaches. Aphorisms in the Nietzsche manner are the coin of the literary realm that surfaces in his manifesto, Reality Hunger. In conversation, aphorisms seem to come as naturally to David Shields as fugues came to J. S. Bach:

So much of the gesture of my book is about rescuing nonfiction as art.

Why can Finnegans Wake be a tissue of citations and quotations without reference? Why can so many poems — whether it’s “Paradise Lost” or “The Wasteland” — be tissues of citation? James Joyce famously said, “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.” The 1812 Overture has buried within it the French national anthem. Writers, composers and visual artists from the beginning of time have endlessly appropriated each other’s work. It’s only now in our extraordinarily literal-minded and litigious society that we absurdly have the lawyers telling the artists what they can’t create.

Two of my bêtes noirs are Ian McEwan and Jonathan Franzen. I use them because they’re relatively easy and large targets. You know, they’re both highly praised and commercially successful writers whose work bores me beyond tears. They’re antiquarians to me. They’re entertaining the troops as the ship goes down. They’re just utterly devoted to a 1910 version of the novel, pre-James Joyce essentially. To me it’s pure nostalgia that people find such works of interest. It’s essentially an escape from the thrillingly vertiginous nature of contemporary existence to retire and retreat into the cocoon of the well-made novel.

It seems to me obvious that in 20 years or less there will not be publishers. It’s hard to believe there will be these brick-and-mortar buildings, and someone will take a book, publish it, send it to a warehouse New Jersey and then to Denver on the off chance that a Denver bookstore wants three copies and when no one wants it, will mail those books back to New Jersey. It’s just a completely irrelevant model.

Somehow the remix is what we want. There’s a wonderful line in my book by Adam Gopnik where he talks about something that is really a beautiful statement of the kind of art that we’re talking about. And Gopnik says, “It may be that nowadays in order to move us, abstract pictures need, if not humor, then at least some admission of their own absurdity, expressed in genuine awkwardness or in an authentic disorder.” Gee, those are marching orders for me.

After writing Moby-Dick Melville wrote to Hawthorne and said, “I wrote a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb.” That should be the goal of every writer.

Nietzsche said, “I want to write in ten sentences what everyone says in a book, or rather, what everyone else doesn’t say in a whole book.”

There’s something about the very nature of compression and concision that forces a kind of raw candor. So I would say Nietzsche, Pascal, Rochefoucauld, Sterne, and Melville are giants to me. And you could see them as in a way — and this’ll sound absurd — but they’re kind of bloggers, you know? They’re writing down stuff.

We’re here on the planet. Let’s try to figure out a little about our existence. I’m going to tell you how I solve being alive right now. So listen up.

I have no consoling religions, no consoling god. We are existentially alone on the planet. We can’t know what each other is thinking and feeling. I want art that builds a bridge across that abyss.

Walter Benjamin says all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. That is tattooed to my forehead.

What I love about [my students] is their impatience, their Attention Deficit Disorder, their hunger, their weariness with formula, their desire to have voice just command them, and how little the Dickensian model holds for 2010.

We’ll all be dead in 50 years, perhaps less. Here’s our chance to communicate with each other. Bring the pain.

David Shields in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, March 17, 2010.

David Shields is a name-dropper, too, who incites name-dropping in others. In an hour’s conversation, we referred to these, among others, in alphabetical order:

Theodore Adorno


St. Augustine

Nicholson Baker

Walter Benjamin

Anne Carson

DJ Dangermouse

Larry David

Don Delillo

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Anatole France

Jonathan Franzen

Amy Fusselman

William Gibson

Jesse Helms


Dennis Johnson

Michiko Kakutani

Wayne Koestenbaum

Jaron Lanier

Maya Lin

Robert Mapplethorpe

David Markson

Ian McEwan

Herman Melville

Michel de Montaigne

Vladimir Nabokov


George Orwell

Orhan Pamuk

Blaise Pascal

Marcel Proust

François de La Rochefoucauld

Chris Rock

Philip Roth

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Vincent Scully

William Shakespeare

Tristram Shandy

Sarah Silverman

Zadie Smith

Laurence Sterne

Alexander Theroux

Leo Tolstoy

John Updike

David Foster Wallace

Podcast • December 3, 2009

Whose Words These Are (17): Henri Cole

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Henri Cole. (42 minutes, 19 mb mp3) The poet Henri Cole got his French first name from his Armenian mother. From his father, a military man, he got ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Henri Cole. (42 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

The poet Henri Cole got his French first name from his Armenian mother. From his father, a military man, he got his Southern speech and, in what sounds like sadness and irony, “a knack for solitude.” Poetry was the place where as a young gay man he worked through yearning and anger to astringency and order. French, Armenian and English were the languages of his home growing up in Virginia in the sixties and seventies. “And hearing this braid of languages regularly spoken,” he has written, “heightened my sense of words as a kind of loge in which desires were illuminated, memory was recovered and poems would be assembled.” On publication of The Visible Man in 2005, Harold Bloom pronounced Henri Cole “a central poet of his generation. The tradition of Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane is beautifully extended … Keats and Hart Crane are presences here, and Henri Cole invokes them with true aesthetic dignity, which is the mark of nearly every poem in The Visible Man.”

I was an undergraduate student at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and I was reading the novels that we all read — Woolf, James, Conrad. These are novelists who, you might say they’re novelists of the interior – and that kind of transcript of the interior life in the novel somehow got me interested in how some version of that is achieved in a concentrated way in poetry. I grew up in a military and Catholic household, so I was used to rigid structure and passion you might say, the passion of the mass and the structure of conforming military uniforms. My brothers were jocks and I didn’t really have a way to be myself, I guess I was probably looking for a way to be a man or masculine in some different way, and somehow poetry entered my life and it gave me a way to have a conversation. It made me sociable, I wasn’t very sociable — I was a pretty shy undergraduate so it made me sociable…

In Boston, now his home base, Henri Cole is reading to us mostly from his latest collection, Blackbird and Wolf (2007). Listen to his “Dune” and consider Colm Toibin’s observation that “The self in his work is explored as a diver might explore the ocean bed, it is ready to be surprised, frightened, puzzled, while the world above the water is noted with something close to calm and half-remembered acceptance. Cole’s poems at times display an amazing eloquence and command of form, but they are usually also impelled by sorrow, by dark knowledge, by pleasure, by the body and its discontents, and by history and what it has left us. It is not surprising that he has invoked the language of prayer as being an early influence.”

Our Proust Questionnaire

Q: Who is your favorite all-time fictional character?

A: I remember reading a French novel called The Wanderer when I was a young man, by Alain Fournier. I don’t remember the character’s name, but let’s just call him the Wanderer.

Q: What’s the quality above all that you look for in a poem?

A: Two qualities: there has to be a commitment to emotional truth, and there has to be a little concerto of consonants and vowels.

Q: What is your idea of a perfect poem?

A: Almost every poem of Elizabeth Bishop’s. James Merrill has a poem called “The Broken Home” that I love. In the Merrill poems, the thing I like so much is the combination of a high register of speech with total colloquial moments – I like that the poem has a range that can go from very high to very demotic in a few short lines.

Q: Who do you write for?

A: I don’t think too much about it. I am more committed to the truth and sound thing. If you think about too many people in your head, that’s like having a bunch of guns pointed at you, and that will censor you I think. When I write a poem, I hope to be in conversation with Merrill, who hopes to be in conversation with Cavafy or Whitman, and it goes back and back to Horace. But I guess I am also aware of the need to push all of that out of my head and just write the poem that I want to write.

Q: Who do you think of as fellow travelers in other media? Who is doing the work of Henri Cole’s spirit in a different way?

A: I am probably most nurtured by visual art. I love Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois, Vija Celmins, Alice Neel. I’ve collaborated with two great visual artists, Jenny Holzer and Kiki Smith. Visual artists tend to be freer than writers are. Writers seem to have more boundaries – maybe it’s because making art is more physical, but they just seem freer. Also in relation to public events, speaking to the moment in history.

Q: What is the talent that you would most love to have, that you don’t yet?

A: I would love to be able to fly. I would love to be able to sing and fly like a bird. That would be fantastic.

Q: How would you like to die?

A: Alone, in a way that is not painful for anybody that loves me.

Q: What is the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: Empathy.

Q: What is your motto?

A: I like Henry James’s motto. “Be kind, be kind, be kind.”

Henri Cole with Chris Lydon in Boston, 11.20.09.