Photo by Misa Martin
Camille Paglia burst onto the literary scene in 1990 with Sexual Personae, her look at sexual conflict from every conceivable angle: history, religion, the arts, psychology etc. She has written four books since then, including her most recent work: Break, Blow, Burn, an anthology of 43 poems accompanied by her close reading of each one [see CLR's review ]. Long a controversial figure with her unapologetic opinions on art, pop culture, feminism and politics, she recently spoke with the California Literary Review about why she chose to write Break, Blow, Burn.
- Why a book about poetry?
- American culture is swamped with dizzying media images, which have become a primary form of communication. Language has become increasingly debased. It proliferates on the Web but in rushed, banal form. Newspapers and magazines no longer have a concern for style of expression. Just look at a Time magazine cover story from the 1960s, and you’ll see what I mean–there was an editorial quality control operating that is now quite gone.I want to revive an interest in language for its own sake. English is a very powerful medium of expression, but even established writers (fiction and non-fiction) are careless about style these days–or they use English in a precious, effete manner that is too far removed from the robust vernacular.
- Poetry study reinvigorates language by forcing us to focus on the individual word–its complex history, its associations and context. A single word contains volumes.
- How did you select the 43 poems?
- I spent five years on Break, Blow, Burn. It took a year to gather material; two years to write the book; then two more years when I worked on nothing but prose style. I searched the collections of university libraries and bookstores for lively, accessible poems that could appeal to the general reader. Half the book is canonical poems that I have worked with in the classroom for over 34 years, but the other half contains some new discoveries of mine–obscure poems that few people will have read. Many famous names whom I thought would be in this book are not–because to my shock they have not, despite their great talent, produced strong, free-standing poems that deserve to be in the same book as, for example, Yeats’ classic poems.
- One of the selections was a song lyric, Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” Why did you choose that one, and did you give consideration to anything from hip-hop?
Very few lyrics can survive the transition to the printed page. I assert that “Woodstock” is a rare exception. As a young folk singer, Joni Mitchell belonged to the ballad tradition that extends backward to medieval England and Scotland–that same tradition that inspired the work of Wordsworth and Coleridge, who are also in this book. Hip-hop songs would be appropriate for a book entirely about modern song lyrics, but they were not relevant here. Aside from that, no single hip-hop song has yet had the enduring global public impact of “Woodstock”.
- You’ve always had a fascination with the power of nature. Can you talk a little about that in light of the recent tsunami?
- The theme of nature runs throughout my work. The blotting out of nature in poststructuralism is one of its most toxic effects–pernicious as an influence on impressionable young students. However, I also celebrate the power of artifice, even in its most decadent incarnations–a major theme of my first book, Sexual Personae.The terrible tsunami waves that swept through the Indian Ocean in December provided but another example of human impotence in the face of natural power. I have repeatedly written about the illusions we must live under in civilization. The slightest tremor of the earth’s crust can turn everything to ruin–something I realized as an adolescent in my study of archaeology (particularly that of the ancient Near East). Look at a map of Indonesia, and you will see that nature has been drawing and redrawing the shapes of those islands for millennia. They all could disappear overnight.
- How did this influence your writing in Break, Blow, Burn?
- In Break, Blow, Burn, there are many nature poems–from Emily Dickinson’s contemplation of a cold mechanical universe to Gary Snyder’s evocation of a glacial pond in the High Sierra. But the most dramatic example is one of my discoveries, Norman H. Russell’s “The Tornado”, which captures the horror and chaos of sudden disaster, whether from the rude elements or from a terrorist attack.