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Pulitzer Prize Winner Rae Armantrout, 2010's Miss Thing-In-Itself, Answers the Big Questions

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On Monday, the Pulitzer Prize jury awarded Versed by Rae Armantrout their 2010 award for poetry. The collection is, they said, "striking for its wit and linguistic inventiveness, offering poems that are often little thought-bombs detonating in the mind long after the first reading."

As it so happens, Armantrout delivered three thought-bombs to this month's Poetry Magazine, and after each poem the linguistically inventive and witty poet herself answers questions from the editors about why she wrote what she wrote. It's a unique opportunity to read into the mind of a celebrated poet.

Here is her poem "Soft Money," followed by the Poetry Q&A:

Soft Money

They're sexy
because they're needy,
which degrades them.

They're sexy because
they don't need you.

They're sexy because they pretend
not to need you,

but they're lying,
which degrades them.

They're beneath you
and it's hot.

They're across the border,
rhymes with dancer--

they don't need
to understand.

They're content to be
(not mean),

which degrades them
and is sweet.

They want to be
the thing-in-itself

and the thing-for-you--

Miss Thing--

but can't.

They want to be you,
but can't,

which is so hot.

****
It would be giving away the poem to tell us who you mean by "they"--but can you talk a little about them?

"They" could refer to several things/groups and I don't want to limit the reading. But I'll tell you what the starting point was for this poem. Once again, it was in popular music. I heard that old Duran Duran song in which the chorus says:

her name is Rio she don't need to understand
and I might find her if I'm looking like I can
oh Rio, Rio hear them shout across the land
from mountains in the north down to the Rio Grande

I noticed how very objectionable that was. So let's say that the poem started by thinking about the "male gaze" as exemplified in that song. I don't want to limit it to men and women though. It started there, maybe, but it expanded. It's also about imagining what might be on the other side of some boundary. It could be women, aliens, etc. Whatever it is, it could be looking back at you in a way you didn't anticipate. This poem might represent that returned gaze. But, as the poem goes on, it turns on itself. Archibald MacLeish famously said that a poem "should not mean but be." People tend to think of poems as pretty but effete. So is a poem a bit like the "Rio Dancer" in the song? I'm hoping it isn't.

What, in a poem, is sexy?

The question of what is sexy in a poem is fascinating. I think some kinds of uncertainty can actually be sexy. Did that word (that look) mean what I thought it meant? Double meanings in conversation, blues songs, or poems can be sexy. I think they can be sexy whether their content is overtly sexual or not. They're sexy because they pull the reader into a relationship with the text in which the balance of power is uncertain or unstable.

Is money sexy?

It's sexy when things (meanings) are in play, up for grabs. That's my feeling anyway. The title is part of an ongoing motif in my new manuscript, which is called "Money Shot."

Can you tell us, if you remember, when you first heard the expression "Miss Thing," and what comes to mind when you think of it now?

I'm not sure when or where I first heard the phrase "Miss Thing." Certainly it's associated with the gay/camp sensibility. I think it refers to a kind of narcissistic abjection or to a claim to stardom based on a staged vulnerability. I could be wrong, but that's how I see it. Anyway, I just couldn't resist going from the thing in the famous philosophical problem about the "thing-in-itself" vs. the "thing-for-us" to the phrase "Miss Thing," slamming those two contexts together to see what sparks fly.

One lingering question: "Rhymes with dancer"? In the context of some of your other work, one inevitably leaps to "cancer" at this point, which suggests a more specific, and darker, reading of this poem. Would you object to that reading?

I never object to what words suggest. "Dancer" doesn't quite rhyme with "border" so one might start wondering what it does rhyme with. "Cancer" could come to mind as could "answer." I guess "cancer" might represent "the return of the repressed." I don't intend to bring my medical history into everything always, but it's never too far outside my awareness.

Read more from Armantrout here.

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