Ever since I was introduced to Jean Day’s poetry a few years into living in the Bay Area, I have counted myself among her diehard legion of lyric believers. And a happy fan club are we! Since the 1980s, Day has been an active presence in Bay Area poetry and a stalwart of West Coast, Feminist, post-language lyric writing. Her first collection, Linear C (1983), was published by Lyn Hejinian’s early pamphlet and broadside venture, Tuumba Press, and the panoramic medley, The Literal World (1998), was the inaugural edition of Hejinian and Travis Ortiz’s still indispensable publishing project, Atelos. Day’s latest book, Late Human (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021) is a smart, blustery addition to her published catalog, with all the hallmarks of a Jean Day classic: long poems, serial lyrics, material plenitude, idiomatic riffing, along with a wry philosophical skepticism and dark humor. A dedicated and replete craftsperson and a meandering stylist, Day has been influential to generations of lyric writers in the Bay Area and beyond.
— Jacob Kahn
Jacob Kahn: Hey Jean! Congrats on your newest book. Can you talk about the concerns of Late Human? As with your previous collection, The Triumph of Life (Insurance Editions, 2018), there is also a roiling concern with the Anthropocene — with what we’re losing, or what we’ve already lost. Tonally, how did this book come about, particularly in tandem with your last book?
Jean Day: Hey Jacob.
Due to the vagaries of publishing, The Triumph of Life was actually written after Late Human, though it was published first. Late Human had been brewing since I finished Daydream (Litmus Press, 2017) — not before we knew the planet was in trouble, of course, but before Greta Thunberg set sail, if that gives a sense of the book’s lateness.
Doom scenarios (if Late Human is in a sense one) have been among us forever — I was told in the late ’70s by a high school friend who’d joined the Lyndon LaRouche people that the world would be ending on a particular date not too long in the then-future (now long past). Around the same time, as a naive young person in the Bay Area, I was made to understand that capitalism would (should?) soon end, too. The difference between then and now is only a matter of urgency.
That urgency is registered in the book, but it’s as much personal as it is worldly. As one counts one’s actions in the world (up, as in accumulation, or down, as in a space launch), meaning becomes increasingly noncasual. Or that’s one way of looking at it.
No writer-person can deny the historical and social aspects of decay inherent in the extended present moment (bad management, bad forecasts, bad faith, etc.); I don’t mean to set myself up as any more prescient, informed, profound, or prepared than anyone else.
That said, the late human of my imagination is frankly obsessed with notions of lateness and belatedness — having come too late to the party, having aged out of the need to impress through novelty, having read too much but not enough, having observed the bending of time, having been born a century too late to gallop in on a horse.
The T of L, on the other hand, written while my parents were in their last years and then dying, is a more personal book, though it also nods to the grandiosity and world-weariness of Shelley’s poem of the same name. In T of L I wanted to acknowledge the daily entanglement of love, hope, despair, and plain speech. And although the poems in it are serial, the series are “free-er” than elsewhere in my work. I really just wanted to write some poems among and about people, places, and things that I love. So in a sense “the Anthropocene,” with a capital “A,” is just a metaphor for personal life.
JK: The mention of your serial writing is something I am keen to touch on. I’ve recently borrowed a stack of some of your early work (you can blame our mutual friend, Diane Ward), including some out-of-print chaps and publications, and one of the formal threads throughout your writing is the serial poem. The Triumph of Life is indeed formally a marked departure for you, and Late Human is a return to your — not “typical” exactly, how about “quintessential” — mode. Anyone who’s read your work will be familiar with what I’m talking about: long poems composed of discrete lyric sequences, usually a dozen or so, often no more than one page each, full of notebook chatter and gusto, marginalia and self-talk, tangent and reference, disclaimer and proposition. These elements build into poems that are more or less rhapsodic (or “operatic” to use your term) in nature. They’re such astounding and pleasurable poems to move through.
I’m curious, first, how you started writing poems like this? Why has it stuck? And can you give us a sense of how you write serially? Are these poems made of individual compositions that get shuffled into a serial form, or do you write them more or less cohesively, as one?
JD: I’m glad you hear rhapsody and opera. Both are so attractive to me — as counterpoints to the dull interiority many of us labor under — and as distressed forms of the past, which deserve both our jeers and our respect. The TV cartoons of the ’50s and ’60s are no doubt the source of some of the rhapsody and much of the opera in my psyche (The Barber of Seville in Bugs Bunny). My use of it’s not meant entirely comically, though. I also very often want to probe (as I have in a whole other book) enthusiastic and exalted states.
Serial poems: I write them because I feel freest in a large format in which the individual poem is part of a greater whole — the single poem doesn’t have to do all the work. The poem is to the larger work as the individual (human) is to the collective. At the same time, long serial works seem to offer a kind of safety; there’s comfort in knowing it’s a long way to the end, that so much can develop over time, that vocabulary can become deeper and richer as it goes through its changes (if I’m wringing changes on a specific vocabulary, which I often am).
I don’t remember exactly how or why I got into this groove. It might have had something to do with film (coming to understand that the film frame is an iteration) and with sonnet sequences (Shakespeare and Ted Berrigan). I’m sure I was also touched by the formalisms of some of the elders in my extended cohort: Ron Silliman’s Fibonacci poems, Lyn Hejinian’s iterative sentences in My Life. I was attracted by what these longer forms offered (the changes, again) but, for myself, wasn’t particularly interested in (or successful at) applying a form to the work in advance.
I think, in almost all cases, what I like about writing serial poems precludes shuffling individual poems around after the first draft. I tend to trust the logic of the sequence as it unfolds. This may be a holdover from my investment in narrative, which I’m interested in but shy of — though I doubt that’s evident to the reader.
JK: I really cherish the relative form-ish-ness of your serial works. There’s hints of formalism, something procedurally compelling, page upon page, though what’s driving these poems isn’t a strict formalism or mechanical operation but the iterative changes, the multitude of songs and jeers and accounts and descriptions that form these (re)combinatory apparatuses. In Late Human, for instance, you’ve got a numbered series (“Where the Boys Are”), a series in which each page starts with an italicized children’s rhyme (“Deadpan”), and a series that seems to be homophonically recalibrated on each page (“Undersong”). The forms instantiate, they pose questions and set in motion, but they’re not determinative. This feels refreshingly experimental and non-programmatic, like you’re trying to learn alongside me, like we’re just trying this out together. When I read your work, I can tell you “trust the logic of the sequence as it unfolds,” and I trust you trusting.
In your work, narratives seem to play in the background, like TV shows, historical enterprises, or household noise, coming in and out. I know you just said you shy away from it, but can you speak more to your investment in narrative? What draws you toward and then away from it? Is there a particular book of yours you consider more narrative than others? A related question I’m fond of asking poets: What’s your relationship to writing fiction?
JD: As for form: yes, those nods to formalisms are intended. And form, however you define it, serves the same function for me as the long poem does to my thought process: I like containers. “Recalibration,” is apt too; to the degree that form is “mechanical,” it’s iterative, and that lends it the potential for variation — for optimism (growth) and the mistake in nature.
In form, none of my work is particularly narrative, except at the level of the phrase, but much of it refers to or is codependent on narration. Hearing it “play in the background,” as you say, is a pretty fair description of how I experience the discourse of living. Narratives definitely don’t all produce a through-line.
I love stories, but I’m terrible at telling them and fickle about which ones sustain my interest. As both a teller and a receiver, there’s always the danger that I’ll get distracted or bored or lose the train of thought.
Life is, of course, the big story.
In the ’90s, I was reading whatever I could find about narrative senses of self, and this shows up in writing from that time, especially in “Narratives from the Crib” in The Literal World (Atelos, 1998) — inspired, tangentially, by a series of recordings of a toddler talking in her crib, as described and discussed by the psychologist Jerome Bruner.
As for “fiction” — I'm ambivalent. Love to read it but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t write it under any circumstances. I don’t have the skill (or will) to determine the salient points that would propel a story coherently forward.
Yet I feel very invested in beginnings, middles, and ends. I feel happy in the thrall of long stories where hardly anything happens (but somebody probably falls off a cliff or into a love problem) and I venerate Beckett, too. It’s a bit of a tight situation: I admire a well-told story but I hate predictability — and what is narrative but expectation?
JK: I like the idea of your work as being in a “tight situation,” exploring a tight situation between narrative sense and material clamor. I often find myself in similar situations — in life, duh — but more to the point, in a poem. I think I’ve clarified a narrative position only for the material, the language that forces its way onto the scene (by what logic or compulsion I’m not always sure) to defy my route. Perhaps that’s a lesson I’ve taken from your work: permission to be decisively, as you said, distracted, or bored, or not always clear. But persistent, as a politics. That is, engaged regardless.
One thing I don’t know about you — though perhaps you’d like to keep it that way — is how you “became” a poet. I have a sense of your affiliations (your publishers, your relation to other West Coast/Feminist/language-affiliated poets of your generation) but less of your tutelage. Maybe you’re one of the clairvoyants who knew you were a poet from a young age? How did poetry come about in your life? Who were the impactful poetry mentors and teachers? I guess I’m asking for a sketch of your early poetry life, however you feel up for sharing it…
JD: “Engaged, regardless” — that’s perfect. Someone recently used the term “frenetic” to describe Late Human. To me, that sounds disengaged, a kind of work that skims the surface for effect or simply can’t focus. I’m not interested in that. To be distracted or bored… in my experience, those states usually lead to productive moments, whether or not they’re intelligible or “successful” for the reader. The fact that one can find oneself boxed in by intention or what the words do on their own — a situation one has to mean one’s way out of — is the attraction. Have I mentioned that I like difficulty?
On “becoming a poet”: I think I got strokes throughout my childhood for being “imaginative,” but it wasn’t until high school, when I lucked into a Poets in the Schools workshop, that I started to think about poetry seriously. The workshop came to my school from Brown University and was led by Edwin Honig (now deceased; best known, I believe, as a translator of Lorca). He brought a small cadre of graduate students, some of whom were then being published by Burning Deck. That was unbelievably exciting to a sixteen-year-old deep in anomie — an experience I’d have to call a “group mentorship.” Probably at the suggestion of these Brown poets, I started reading Frank O’Hara. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara had just been published, and my encounter with that book opened the door to everything else.
A year later, Honig invited me to join his graduate poetry writing seminar at Brown (I think partly as a way to persuade me to stay in school, which I was seriously considering quitting). The class was devoted entirely to writing in forms: limerick, sestina, villanelle, and maybe some Japanese forms and others I don’t recall. This was bracingly technical and hard. My first real experience of the materiality of language.
I was probably a poet by the time I got to college (Antioch, the original work-study school, in Yellow Springs, Ohio). All I wanted to do was write, read, and have experiences, and Antioch was a great place to do that. One of my work semesters was devoted to an internship at the SF State Poetry Center, whose director at the time was Lewis MacAdams. (Not a mentor. He thought me humorless; I was terrified by his conspicuous hipness.) Everything there and then was novel to me, and some of it was thrilling: the remnants of the SF Renaissance and Beat scenes, the Bolinas group, the first moves of what would come to be known as language writing. So in 1977, after finishing at Antioch, I moved back to San Francisco, and soon enough I was meeting local poets, including and especially Lyn Hejinian, who has since then been (as she has for so many poets) an indefatigable mentor, not to mention a dear friend.
JK: The earliest work of yours I’ve read is from the ’80s (again, thanks to Diane Ward’s amazing home collection). Linear C (Tuumba Press, 1983), A Bronzino (Jimmy’s House of Knowledge, 1984), and Flat Birds (GAZ, 1985) are each marvelously open-ended jabs of narrative critique, full of Western pastiche and wry feminist parodies of ’70s Americana masculinity (I think of that gross cowboy-phase Grateful Dead lyric, “We can share the women / we can share the wi-ine”). Were these your first published works and was this a lexicon you picked up once moving here? More broadly, when you got to the Bay Area for the second time, for good, in the post-Beat/SF Renaissance/Bolinas milieu, did you have a sense of what you were hoping to accomplish in poetry? A particular formal or philosophical interest, or a press you were hoping to publish with?
JD: Yes, those are my earliest publications, short of a few things in magazines. And yes; although I hadn’t thought of it as a lexicon, the style of those works is probably a product of the Bay Area, or at least of my re-situation here.
I’ve never known what I wanted to “accomplish” in poetry — and have resisted the idea that poets must operate under an explicit poetics. Of course, we operate under some sort of poetics, but I’ve always proceeded as if the poetry comes first. I think (if I can really remember back that far) I wanted to create my own person (“voice” just seems too vexed, politically and psychologically), one that could be seen and heard within my cohort — which wasn’t exactly a cohort — and also resonate outside it. On the one hand, I was a sort of self-selected “young recruit” to the language poetry phenomenon, but, on the other, my mini-cohort at the time consisted of poets like Larry Price, Ben Friedlander, Jessica Grim, Laura Moriarty, and Nada Gordon (all younger, as I am, than any of the canonical LPs, I think).
Once I came to know the Bay Area small press scene, in the late ’70s, I certainly wanted to publish among those who were doing work that I liked — in Hills, This, Tuumba, and The Figures. And like many another emigrant, I found (or imagined) California to be more “open” than where I came from. I was drawn to the permission (and potential radicalism) of that fantasy, even if I ended up sometimes mistaking rigor for boldness (or was it the other way around?).
JK: Recently, you mentioned to me a period of time (I believe it was simultaneous with the New Langton Arts reading series) when you were part of the KitKat Club, a group of poets, all women, who met up to read and discuss new work. You brought it up after I asked you about this period of early language poetry, and how, as it’s historically been transmitted (or retold, or perhaps just untold), it centers a community of mostly male poets — even though so many women and non-binary poets were active in the Bay Area at this time, and produced some of the most lasting and important books of the era. To me, Bay Area poetry, in all its community formations and schools, has a very clear and foundational lineage of women and non-binary poets, and it sounded like KitKat Club was an attempt to create space for some of this. I am curious if you can share a little bit more about how and why it started? And, do you still eat KitKats? (I love them!)
JD: I do occasionally indulge. The name “KitKat” was an afterthought, though: we often split a couple bars after supper at the now defunct Larry Blake’s on Telegraph (in Berkeley), where we met regularly for some time. I would have to do some digging around to figure out the exact year we started meeting — early ’80s surely — which by then was no longer early LP days. And most of us were poets, but not all. I may not be the best historian, as others were the instigators. Definitely it was an attempt to create access to the reigning discourse for those of us who for whatever reason didn’t feel welcome to participate. There was a perception that the conversation at readings and talks (80 Langton Street being the most ongoing and regular venue for both at the time) was being dominated, no doubt somewhat unconsciously, by some of the strong male personalities on the scene. Some of us felt that something about the discourse was not welcoming to anyone of either sex who felt shy, or speculative, or unrehearsed in theory (theory itself becoming a whole other sticking point later). Regardless of the personal politics of the most active participants in the discourse, it’s just true that, at that time anyway, men were more socialized to control a room. So it was a power relation we wanted to question.
As a relative newcomer, I probably thought this dynamic was just the price one had to pay to be in the presence of interesting thinking. (I was very happy to stay in the background.) But after one particular event at Langton, the female partner of the out-of-town poet who was the act that night observed to one of us that few women were participating in the discussion. This is what prompted, I believe, the first KitKat meet-up (although we didn’t call ourselves that until later). We may have thought we were just getting together that one time, to discuss the perception that women weren’t being welcomed into the discussion, but we quickly found that we had a lot to talk about that was both personal and intellectual. It wasn’t “consciousness raising” in the early feminist sense of overcoming oppression or creating “a safe space,” exactly. I think we all assumed that work had already been done; we just wanted to reckon with the apparent imbalance of power in our own intellectual community formation. I don’t think we read works together — at least according to Johanna Drucker’s memory; we really just wanted to talk.
The most public result of our conversations was a panel discussion organized by Johanna called “Who Is Speaking?” which was held at the old Intersection location in North Beach in March 1983. My memory is foggy on that score, but apparently the speakers were Johanna Drucker, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Glück, and Gloria Frym. (Lyn’s talk is included in her book The Language of Inquiry, and Bob’s was published in Bob Perelman’s anthology Writing/Talks.)
But as the urgency of the question of who gets to speak waned (if it did), the KitKat discussions evolved into talk about “all kinds of things that had to do with our gender” (quoting Johanna). At times, in addition to being an intellectual haven, it was also a bit of a “Boyz Keep Out” sort of party. Occasionally we just played basketball. For me anyway, it was a great relief from the ego investment of the more official scene.
I’m not sure if the club played quite the foundational role you’re imagining, but it was certainly a great resource for future organizing, thinking, and practice.
JK: Speaking of ego disinvestment, I want to return to something you said about your work, which I still find myself nodding along emphatically with: “I’ve always proceeded as if the poetry comes before the poetics.” Hearing you talk about your resistance to explicitness, on the page and “in the scene,” brings to mind this riveting tension I experience in your poems between discipline and recklessness, method and impulse, purpose and abandon. Or as you put it, rigor and boldness. There’s simultaneously tremendous fascination for structure, for “(a, any, all) poetics,” and tremendous ambivalence toward those as axes, ultimately.
I have to ask, was your “self-selecting” entrance, as you describe it, into language poetry where the title of your book A Young Recruit came from? Would you still identify as “a young recruit,” or is that newcomer on the opposite end of a spectrum we’re now at with Late Human? I didn’t notice this titular arc, from “young” to “late,” in your work before, but it does resonate in that your poems have an overriding interest in timeliness, as you said earlier, in the qualities and conditions of lifespan.
JD: Ha! I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked me that about A Young Recruit, but, yes, it was partly my attraction to the going thing at the time, and my ambivalence about “joining up,” that produced that title. Even a young ironist longs to belong, dreams of being touched for a special task. Or I did. Not that I was one to begin with, but I’m no one’s recruit now (to answer that question), and I’m certainly not young! Indeed, my idealism is dead dead dead. I have to be careful not to let cynicism and despair overwhelm my productions. The idea that Late Human is the outside bookend that began with AYR is right in lots of ways — but I’m not ready for closure yet. If I find the concept of “a life” interesting, it’s the infinite variation, within the limits of life’s beginning and end, that’s the real (unkillable) thrill.