Poet Noah Eli Gordon on his wild new collection, The Year of the Rooster
Noah Eli Gordon's newest book is hard to pin down. And why would you want to? The Year of the Rooster, out now on Ahsahta Press, is best understood through experience rather than painstaking analysis. It's wild and flowing, playing with gender pronouns, musical imagery, and poetic forms to create a thoughtful, vibrant work full of multiple interpretations. At the center is the the rooster of the title, who flits in and out of the work as both a grounding, repetitive image and enigmatic character.
Gordon will read this Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe in Boulder, along with Graham Foust, Eleni Sikelianos and Anne Waldman. We caught up with Gordon, a CU Boulder assistant professor and Letter Machine Editions co-publisher, about Rooster, how failure as a musician led him to poetry, and his decision to dedicate his release to the memory of fellow Colorado poet Jake Adam York.
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- Jake Adam York, Colorado poet and teacher, dead at forty
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Westword: What was your process for writing the book?
Noah Eli Gordon: I started in 2004 on January 1. I gave myself this task of trying to write one ten-line poem every day for the entire year, and I got to about maybe 35 or 40 days and started realizing that my hair was going gray for the first time. [Laughs]. I was totally flabbergasted with the immensity of the task and gave it up. But then looking back at all of those things that I had written, I realized that they had some interesting common theme, which was a kind of anxiety about the role of the artist, uncertainty about the authoritative use of language, and then a dedication to both looking out at the world and recording and looking at oneself looking out at the world and recording. So I started putting them together, got rid of all the titles that I had originally given them, and decided that that would be the beginning of this long poem that turned into what's more or less the meat of the book, which is "The Year of the Rooster" poem.
How did you continue to develop it?
From there this weird, strange character of the Rooster appeared out of nowhere. I think part of it was because at the time I was reading a book by Alice Notley called Disobedience, which is a really wonderful book, but it has these strange characters that appear here and there that I just didn't understand aesthetically. I didn't understand what they were doing, what was going on, and how they functioned in the work. I think in order to wrap my head around that I decided to try something similar myself. So instead of trying to completely figure it out I thought I would take an intuitive approach and more or less feel it as a kind of mode. I let this character appear throughout the book, and I think it's really purposefully unclear who the speaker is sometimes. Is it a he? Is it a she? Is it this Rooster? Is it me? Is it the self? But what the book is interested in doing is demonstrating through example and enactment the slipperiness of our use of pronouns and how they feel so steadfast and concrete when we encounter them in day to day life, but the truth is there's a kind of artistic imperative that can drive their deployment. I think if we start to recognize that slipperiness it can only, in a way, open us up in general to the truth of how uncertain pronouns are for so many people out there.
You use lines from Bernadette Mayer, "A woman I mix men up," and Alice Notley, "He's wearing both a dress and pants," as an intro to the title's poem that speak to this interesting use of gendered pronouns. What made you want to explore gender in that way?
I think one of the things about perceived ideas about gender identities is that, as Judith Butler says, gender is a performance. It's a construct. It's not something that we have to completely buy into. It's really interesting for me right now because I have a 9 month old girl and I've found that it's almost impossible to avoid already ascribing her to some kind of codified sense of gender just via the clothing that's available. I try not to actually dress her in anything that signifies in one way or the other, but regardless that then therefore signifies. Which is to say people all the time say, "look at your cute little boy," because I don't have her in pink dresses. Initially I would correct people, but then after a while I decided I'm not interested in spending my time correcting strangers about it or whatever. But it spoke to something really intriguing to me and that's something that the book itself is trying to get at. What happens if we do take these seemingly monolithic ideas about what constitutes the way to live and start to explore them a little bit? What happens if we take all the statues that have already been erected in the park and say, well, let's see what's going on with the foundation of this statue? Let's actually read the plaque and see what this information is. I think partially, too, because it wasn't something that I had done previously. As a poet I'm always interested in challenging myself, so I think that gender itself was a construct hadn't entered into my work. So it was like, maybe it's time for me to do that.
What made you choose the Rooster as a way to explore those themes?
Partially it wasn't that I chose it as much as it chose me. I can't even remember where it came from, but at some point this word "Roo" popped up in the writing. If you're thinking about different notions of masculinity, all of the kind of negative definitions that we can ascribe to it definitely play themselves out in the rooster as this figure of protector or aggression. More or less, the rooster is the ultimate mansplainer. It's like waking up in the morning saying, "Hey world, let me tell you how it is. The sun's up. Look at me." I thought that was a kind of interesting thing to pull apart.
You mentioned that you were sort of questioning the role of the artist and throughout the book, "blah blah blah" is repeated. Does that relate to this questioning? Did you discover through writing any more of what you think is the role of the poet?
The interesting thing to me and my relationship with poetry is that it's constantly changing and I'm constantly having to refigure those things that initially I felt strongly and steadfastly aligned with. The older I get and the longer I've been doing this I find, wonderfully and bewilderingly, the less I seem to know about it. But I think that's actually a gift, because I feel much more open to all sorts of possibilities. I think the "blah blah blah" that does appear throughout in a way is a kind of a response to and attack on some of the excess noise that arises around discussions about what one should do and how one should do it. I'm so much more interested in someone showing me all these different ways rather than telling me this is how it is.