Aaron Shurin

Interview with Aaron Shurin

Poet Aaron Shurin lives in San Francisco, California, and is the author of over a dozen books, both poetry and essay collections. He cofounded the Boston, Massachusetts-based writing collective Good Gay Poets, and was the director of the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at the University of San Francisco.

Shurin’s newest book is Citizen (City Lights Books, 2012). The poems in this collection started as a response to a Martin Puryear sculpture exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Shurin explained, “I started writing down words that I saw as his materials, from the museum tags describing the pieces. It could be wagon—there was a wagon, cedar—which the wagon was made of, yellow—the color something was painted. . . . I felt like for this show, that my response was that I would write poems using the same materials that he used, except that my materials were the words of his materials.” To get a feel for how Shurin turned his notes into poems, listen to Shurin read “Gloria Mundi” from Citizen here:


In the following question and answer set, Shurin elaborates on the structure of his new book, what readers might take away from Citizen, and his thoughts on the writing life.


Do you have a philosophy for why you write?

Poetry is attention, and it is the means of attending experience. Attention is the key word both for what it requires and what its nature is.


How does the structure of a piece influence your work? What’s the relationship between content and form?

Structure is just process, it is the way that I compose. Because topically Citizen is about anything, I wanted it to have coherence. I threaded it with a few operative structural elements to give it a sense of unity, rather than being a random collection.


There are contributory figurative elements that are dynamic in Citizen—the constant restatement and its incessant use of dashes and ellipses. I wanted there to be a sense that language was shimmering, which is to say it could always be restated. Language was never permanent and that kept the world in flux, and perhaps more lifelike.


I’m also constantly proposing little collided pairs of words that re-shift the focus, and restate the shift. It was easy to collide words in unusual pairings, little “scintilles,” to use the French word that describes the sparkles from fireworks. The pairs are little scintillations that erupt in the middle of the poem as it shifts.


There are about half a dozen things that were simultaneous thematic or structural cohering points in Citizen. The first was the process, the second was the use of ellipses and dashes, the third was these colliding pairs of scintillations. Then there were the thematic phrases that appeared: “Perhaps it is,” “It is or it isn’t,” “It may well be.” Those become motifs, as does “Once I was,” and then there a number of poems about the sky. I didn’t start out with all of those, but did attend them. As some came up, I realized that I wanted them to reappear. “The beautiful nights dance like bears,” comes up, and it is actually stolen from a poem of mine from a book written almost twenty years ago.


What do you hope readers will take away from Citizen?

I hope they take extreme pleasure in the sensual and intellectual synthesis of language at play. I’m not sure I can say much beyond that.


Well, I’ll tell you a little bit more about the background of Citizen. There were several threads within the book, and one was the structural one I just described. Another was that I wanted it to be permeable to the world, as narrative is inclined toward the world. I was traveling a bunch, mostly to Mexico and some to Arizona, and so I made the decision to let the sights, sounds, artifacts, and experiences of my travels come through. As for what people take away, everything that I put in, I wish for them to get—the meeting point of the imagination and the world.


One of the things that I talked about with my publisher is the title, and it has occasionally given some readers trouble. Some people had pre-formed ideas of what a book called Citizen should be in this climate. In my view, Citizen had multiple layers. It was also situating myself as a citizen of the imagination, which seems to me the primary locus of poetry, and also as the cover suggests, that I am a citizen of the book, of the language of poetry. I would love for all of those layers to be active for readers.


What do you find most challenging about writing?

Challenging in the sense that one wants a challenge? So, what is that: the art.


What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

The best advice I was given as a writer was not verbal, but modeling. I had the great fortune of having stupendous friend/teacher models: Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Diane di Prima. It was their practice that is the best advice that was ever given to me. Their combined authority and figure of how to live a life as a poet was the richest information that could have been departed to me. It was a touchstone all my younger years. To have them as models both for teaching and for writing, models of poetic integrity—that meant everything.



About Aaron Shurin

Poet and essayist Aaron Shurin was born in Manhattan, New York, and grew up there, in eastern Texas, and in Los Angeles, California. He earned a BA at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied with poet Denise Levertov, and an MA in Poetics at the New College of California. Influenced by Robert Duncan and Frank O’Hara, Shurin composes lyric poems that explore themes of sexuality and loss. 


Shurin is the author of more than a dozen books, including the poetry collections The Paradise of Forms: Selected Poems (1999), a Publishers Weekly Best Book; Involuntary Lyrics (2005); and A’s Dream (1989), as well as the essay collections King of Shadows (2008) and Unbound: A Book of AIDS (1997). Shurin has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Gerbode Foundation, the San Francisco Arts Commission, and the California Arts Council. He cofounded the Boston-based writing collective Good Gay Poets and was the director of the MFA program at the University of San Francisco. 


(Biography source: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/aaron-shurin.)



The view from here’s a novelty act, a spectral jam, an overlap: in back of me the scoured hills release the steely mist like topsoil, a peel of gray, a shadow grue… in front the aerial city lifts its box-tops to the escalating sun, a brimming pool of ore… light in flight… The view from here is stitched into my skin as if the hills were mine, the stretching air mine, the tattered plaza my staging ground and rising stage, the light my lifting eyes… How I got here: in a dream. Where I came from: a dream. How I walked and how I tore into the bread and licked the glazed pots and stitched my skin into the men who carried me in to the view I made… an overlap… a fold or two of what I knew and don’t yet know… a danzón in the square with you, you lead, I flow… How I thinned and how I grew my hair and climbed the alleyways like a fugitive mule to see the view, and how it changes in the dancing rain, prismatic rush, a thunder wheel, a splattered tear, a train of silver pools and where they flow… from here…



What did I say, what did it mean, ribbons of ink — luxe spawning — how did it work, did it work, what did he think — shield me — what did I want, what do I want, flicked it off — flux you — cradled his head in the ebb of a smooth piano run — what was the mood — sleep — an inversion of talk — grinding away at the air — chambered glances or no glances stalled in the half-light — who did it favor, who did it shatter — walled up in his hoodie and jeans — the skimpy blankets, the skimpy tissue of night, waking and waking, how many times in the no-light, the one more night, the one night… 



We are some place that isn’t now, with our bougainvillea shorts in a tangle, and the salt air fresh on our florid lips — but there are no flowers here, no viney pop-ups, no scarlet puff-balls blowing light. We are people who aren’t really us, changed by the falling curtains and blocks of ice, the spasms under sheeted clouds of shrieking rain, that pocked our arms with scars like bite marks… cinder stars… How did we change so fast, dropping our books and wigs in haste, dazed by the silver ripples in the sky that seemed to know our secret wants and needs…? We fell hard, wanting to be known, hurting to be had… as one by one we took the gelatin host, molded into our lungs so every breath we drew was stuck with the gum of who we couldn’t be, a thickened gasp of passing phantoms… Shaking our heads, arms hacking the air, we fled — but how do you flee the sky? — we stopped — or were we commanded to stop? — we settled — is that the term for falling down? — forever restless in our toes and lobes, heavy to sit and light to think. We are happening sometime that isn’t where we are, in a seam of a seal we can’t remember or describe… and pace the quadrant up and down, and claw the ether as if it were fitted stone, and glance over our shoulders in nervous twists as if we were coming to get ourselves, pale and driven and blazoned with revenge…