The ‘Alienating’ Art of the Camera: Questions with Karl Kirchwey

Lauren Peat for AGNI: “Speedlooker” (AGNI 86) is written from the first-person perspective of Ottomar Anschütz, developer of the focal-plane shutter. As the poem’s speaker, Anschütz suggests that his invention has “caused our first fall into alienation” (a reference to Susan Sontag’s On Photography). Where did the idea to assume the perspective of an earlier technological pioneer come about?

Karl Kirchwey: The long poem MUTABOR [of which “Speedlooker” is a part]…was the result of a trip I took in 2007 or so to the Italian-, French-, and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, with all three of which I have family/autobiographical ties. Upon my return to the United States, I began to contemplate a poem that would somehow explore the geography and both natural and human history of these three areas. Again for autobiographical reasons (the uncle for whom I was named was a pilot killed in the Pacific in WWII; my father flew on heavy bombers out of England in 1944-5), the history of aviation has been a recurrent theme in my work. It appears that Anschütz’s photos of storks taking off and landing provided a German engineer, Otto Lilienthal, with the idea for the first airfoil (wing), later used by the Wright brothers. So aviation and photography are linked. Then I became interested in the effect of photography and film on our own experience of the world; crucial in this was my rereading Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which posits a shift in the nature of the human experience of the work of art, and the loss of the “aura” of that work with mechanical reproduction (cinema and film, for instance).

The poem has grown over these ten years to now comprise twenty sections and some 300 rhymed quatrain stanzas (about 1200 lines). The open-endedness of this project appeals to me strongly; I may write on any subject and discover that it has a place in the long poem, which at its most fundamental level addresses our human experience of change (mutability) and our desire to stop or transcend it (our knowledge that we are mortal)…. As someone who has always tried to get my facts straight and pay attention to sources, I also wanted MUTABOR to be a kind of dialogue between the poem text and a marginal text, which is part autobiographical commentary, part criticism, and part bibliography, acknowledging the poem’s sources.

LP/AGNI: Readers of “Speedlooker” will likely be reminded and/or led to reconsider modern technological advancements; I think of social media, for example, and the idea that although we may believe that such platforms “bring things closer,” they perhaps only make us “absentminded and distract[ed] / …part of a collective” in which the “self is only dispossessed, / never transcended.” While the poem suggests that these technologies have “murdered” the “aura” of something formerly holy, it also gestures toward the intoxicating quality of these technologies: the machine is described as having “seduced the unarmed eye.” Has the imaginative exercise of adopting Anschütz’s perspective caused you to rethink your own relationship to technology, and if so, how? Do you struggle with this double thrust (between disillusionment and attraction) personally?

Karl Kirchwey: Mine may be the last generation that can remember not being computer-literate. And even now I am, by choice, only barely computer-literate. Which is to say that I regard the internet as a great resource but e-mail as a kind of tyranny over my attention and energy; I take every opportunity I can to be off-line and (for example) reading the cold print of a book in the quiet space of my own mind. I do not use Facebook, Twitter, etc. But then, my social needs were conditioned by the ancient practices of talking to people and writing letters to people. Along with everyone else, I marvel at how easy communication has become (though tricky, too, as the difficulty of reading the tone of an e-mail makes clear), and I acknowledge that my two young adult children are encountering the world now, including the social world, in ways that are different from those I have chosen.

I think the long poem…is indeed addressing the “seduction” of the “unarmed eye” (that last phrase is Benjamin’s) with particular regard to the voyeuristic appetite we have for watching extreme on-screen violence, for example. I think we all struggle with what you call the “double thrust” between disillusionment, with the new technologies and their virtual reality, and attraction, even to looking at what some moral sense in us tells us is “forbidden.” Of course, “mechanical reproduction” does have redemptive or recuperative qualities, too; the MUTABOR section entitled “Palmyra”—available in the current issue of the BU journal ARION—explores these effects, whereby digital image archives have allowed us to reconstruct monuments destroyed by human barbarism. (This was the case of the destruction of the Roman Arch at Palmyra by ISIS, for instance, and its reconstruction by the Institute for Digital Archaeology.)

Again, with regards to my own relationship to technology, you already mentioned Sontag’s book On Photography, which I read as a meditation on our (lapsarian, Edenic, Satanic) seduction by looking. The background reading for the poem has led me to Barthes, Baudrillard and other thinkers as well; indeed, this is the first time that a poem of mine has been informed by a set of conscious philosophical propositions. Thus I suppose you could say that I have had to rethink my relationship to technology, but less with regard to gadgets than with regard to what a poet might spend his life exploring in poetry, which is beauty and its representation in art. And the religion of beauty (for all the hazards of a nineteenth-century Aestheticism attached to that term) is part of what my new book Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems is all about.

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BillPattersonKKportrait(8.16)Karl Kirchwey has received the Rome Prize as well as NEA, Guggenheim, and Ingram Merrill grants and the Cato Prize for Poetry. His seventh book Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems was published in October 2017, and his anthology Poems of Rome is forthcoming from Everyman’s Library in April 2018. He translated Paul Verlaine’s first book as Poems Under Saturn (2011) and has also translated work by Italian poets Giorgio Vigolo and Giovanni Giudici. His long poem-in-progress Mutabor (of which “Speedlooker” is a part) has been appearing in periodicals for the past ten years or so. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Boston University, where he is serving as Interim Associate Dean for the Humanities in 2017-18. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


Peat PhotoNative to the rolling British midlands and the great metropolis of Toronto, Lauren Peat is a current poetry MFA candidate at Boston University and an intern at AGNI. Her work has appeared in Acta Victoriana and the UC Review.


Reflections on Beauty and Writing: Two Questions with Chad Davidson

Bart Kuipers for AGNI: I liked the way you reflect on beauty in your piece “Mutatis Mutandis” (AGNI 86), and especially the idea that imperfection and transience are key elements in appreciating it—as you quote Stevens, “Death is the mother of all beauty.” Reading your poem “Cockroaches” made me wonder: How do these notions of beauty influence your poetry? Are you aware of them when you write?

The essay on Spoleto started with a rather simple anecdote. As the piece makes clear, I run a study abroad program in Italy for my university. Each year, students are simply stunned by the place, and will almost inevitably say to nobody in particular (kind of to themselves or to the air itself), “This is so beautiful.” Writers constantly want to challenge the easy adjective, though, and hunt instead for linguistic precision. What precisely is beautiful about Spoleto? Could I inventory it, pay homage to that impulse we have (especially we Americans) to call Italy beautiful? Beauty can be a complex synthesis. It can also be quite simple. The essay tries to shed light on some of the ways I tried to answer that question: what specifically about Spoleto (and about Italy more generally) is beautiful?

As for how that relates to or influences my poetry, I am sure it does. Poetry (any imaginative writing, really) is concerned with aesthetics, even (and perhaps especially) when the object under inspection is not often categorized as beautiful. I suppose the Cockroach poem you reference and this Spoleto essay attempt to answer the same question but have arrived there from opposing poles.

BK/AGNI: You ask the question “Where doesn’t history transform a place, yes, but also warp the air around it, the way a desert highway trembles in heat?” and make the observation that “Time, […] forms a storage place just large enough for nostalgia.” I’m wondering: Do you feel history transforms the perception of a poem over time in that sense?

Most definitely. My appreciation of certain poems changes, expands (in some cases contracts) over time, just as my appreciation of any artwork or city or food will change. The specific issue in the part of the essay you cite, however, is how time itself provides for our nostalgia. History writ large—and not that particular building or monument or window box of geraniums—is often what we desire most of Italy (even if we are not conscious of it). The question, I think, is this: when we see the old cobbler, off a cobblestoned street of a medieval city center, do we see the cobbler or just a complex we might identify as “old-world charm”? I was interested in that noise, that disturbance, that double vision.

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AGNI CDChad Davidson’s most recent collection of poems is From the Fire Hills (Southern Illinois UP, 2014). Recent essays and poems appear or are forthcoming in Five Points, Gettysburg Review, Yale Review, Kenyon Review, and others. He serves as professor of literature and creative writing at the University of West Georgia near Atlanta and co-directs Convivio, a summer writing conference in Postignano, Italy. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Build Strangers, Bomb Walls

by John Poch

I wrote a poem called “Donald Trump.” It’s a curtal sonnet, and it’s not very good. Even though I knew I had little chance to succeed with this poem, I went ahead and wrote it. My inspiration to begin the poem was a poet-friend of mine, Matt Roth, who said this phrase that I immediately knew would make for a good ending of a curtal sonnet: “build strangers / bomb walls.”  That spondee, right? So I ripped him off, and then I just had to write the poem backwards to lead up to these final rhymes. As with most poems I write, I spent too much time on it. I’m a slow study. All told, maybe an entire 40 hours (spread out over a period of about two months). Incidentally, I wrote this poem before Trump even won the nomination. I never thought he would get that far or even be President. Who among us poets, the most imaginative of people, could imagine? I know thousands of poets, and there are only two of them who think Mr. Trump is doing a good job or could possibly do a good job. Of these two, one is a delusional person who believes Sandy Hook and the 9/11 disaster to be conspiracies perpetrated by the CIA and Jews. The other is, I think, a multi-millionaire, who personally benefits from Trump’s policies that benefit himself and the ultra-rich, so he’s laughing all the way to the bank, literally.

Like most political poems, my poem fails due to its knowing all too well its rhetorical stance. One of my favorite adages about poetry is by Yeats: “Of our quarrel with others we make rhetoric; of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry.” A poem must be a place of discovery. What’s to be discovered here, so I can be poetic and not rhetorical? That Donald Trump is, in fact, a petty and ignorant man, a lover of money, illiterate, a con-man, and a womanizer? Big surprise! Come on; everyone knows these truths we hold self-evident. Of course, being a poet, I need to say this in an interesting way, formally, so that’s a bit of a challenge and perhaps could result in something. But then, probably not much with this here poem. Yet so many people around me are writing political poems and getting so much attention for them, even though I don’t think much of these poems, in general. There’s little mystery, or none. At best, they might entertain with ranting, but they aren’t writing good poems.

I wrote the poem anyway because poems are places of discovery, and you never know what might happen. And I needed to lead up to that final surprising revelation of what it might be for a poet to say we need to “bomb walls.” I’m a pacifist, in general, though not completely, so I knew that I was conflicted there, and a poet needs to be conflicted about his writing.

For a year, I’ve sent the poem around to a whole slew of places, but no one wants it. I’ve tinkered with it, and it hasn’t got much better. I’m not upset. I get it. It’s just not very good. It’s got a few decent rhymes. Sometimes good poems go unpublished, but that’s not likely the case here. The politics (specifically, the rhetoric) limit the poem. Yeats wasn’t wrong. But my friend Paul Hunton, an Emmy-winning director, made a little poetry film out of it, and our collaboration is excellent, I think. My poem needed a little boost of visuals to raise it to a level worth listening to. It’s like most songs you hear on the radio. The lyrics aren’t very good out there by themselves, but some instrumental work allows the song with its faulty lyrics to climb the charts.

Check it out?

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John_Poch_4John Poch’s most recent book, Fix Quiet, won the 2014 New Criterion Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared widely in journals such as Paris Review, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, and Five Points. He teaches in English Department at Texas Tech University. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.


Lorca, Arvio, Malcangio, and Thomson: New Work Up on AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—two Federico Garcia Lorca poems translated by Sarah Arvio, fiction by Tori Malcangio, and poetry by Jeffrey Thomson. Check it all out!


AFNI FGLAGNI SA“Spike of blue wheat
and white poppy

My soul
one delirious


from the Federico Garcia Lorca Poem “[The Mown Field],” translated by Sarah Arvio


AGNI TM“Studies say we’re living in a bright-light deprived society. Luckily, that and exercise are available in quick-dissolving tablets or easy-to-swallow capsules. Hunters and gatherers, they had it easy: sunlight by default, running a marathon for a meal, a free-range, paleo diet maintained on a single income and with negligible forethought. There was no blue light syndrome or carpal tunnel or boys dependent on prescriptions.”

from the short story “Catch & Release: An Apology” by Tori Malcangio



“first there is the matter
of your gargantuan patriotism
brandishing the stars and bars

of its own obstinate self-regard
to explore before the ekphrasis
of the pickup and the shotgun”

from the poem “The Country Western Poem” by Jeffrey Thomson


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Laurentiis, Hankla, and Topal: Three Extraordinary Books of Poetry

by Kelly Cherry

David Ebenbach has once again sent out a call for the AGNI blog, and I wish I could come up with another idea to write about, but my husband and I are going to a movie in a small while.

Still, even while I am without an idea, maybe writing about that is useful. I’ve been lucky; I’ve never had Writers’ Block. Not that I remember, anyway. But now I do have it. It is possible for the creek to run dry.

The question, then, is how to make the water fall.

The even bigger problem is that I don’t know how.

I’ve considered writing a poetry collection about Ancient Rome, which has long tantalized me. But I spent nine years writing Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer and that’s probably how long it would take to write one about Ancient Rome. I don’t think I have the time for that. At my age, some projects turn into traffic signs that say STOP HERE.

So I have been reading books by other poets and damn if I didn’t turn up three terrific titles. These writers manage to boost metaphor, energy, and gravity. Three brilliant books at once tells me that many more poets are undoubtedly doing similar things, but in the meanwhile I’d like to send a shout-out, or rather three shout-outs. If you haven’t read these books, they will…I want to say “blow your mind” but there must be a better term…but no, I’m saying they will blow your mind.

Rickey Laurentiis published Boy with Thorn in 2015. I don’t know how I missed it but I did. Boy with Thorn is a tough read, as are the others I’ll name. By tough I mean emphatically true, with no sugarcoating or soft lining. These writers are also stretching the English language, sometimes to the point that a grammar nut like me has to put it down, but they are stretching it for good reasons.

The Laurentiis book is from Pittsburgh, and Ed Ochester deserves to be proud of his selection.

Boy with Thorn is a sculpture from the Hellenistic Period. A boy, seated, has one leg on the “floor” or “ground” and the other crossed over his knee so he can look for the thorn, in his sole, that is irritating him. It is impossible not to love this image: a young boy, fixing what is wrong, by himself, with great concentration. What we have is a Roman marble copy of the lost Third Century BCE Hellenistic original.

Presumably, Laurentiis is identifying, to whatever degree, large or small, with this image. In any case, we enter the book with this image in mind. The poems are striking. The first is “Conditions for a Southern Gothic.” A head has been hacked off. There. That’s tough enough, isn’t it? The head reminds us of Orpheus, the poet-singer torn apart, his head continuing to sing. Here’s an even tougher line: “If God made us in his image, it was the first failure of imagination.” The first part of this book takes us back to those terrible days when white people hunted—hunted!—black people. We meet Emmet Till here. The second section gives us a group of fifty stanzas of varying lengths. The poem is titled “On the Leaves That Have Fallen” and it is beautiful. The third section includes the title poem, made up of six short poems.

The second book is Cathryn Hankla’s newest, Galaxies, from Mercer University Press. She has used the concept of galaxy as a center around which various items seem naturally to occur. Galaxies, after all, are gravitationally born. Stuff accumulates. Here we have a Labyrinth Galaxy, the Some Assembly Required Galaxy, the Galaxy of Six Women. This was a brilliant idea and it gives Hankla many different ways of writing about almost anything. In “Ghost Horses and the Morning Sky” she writes, “Above me this sky opens in the moment, an immense / thought caught in creation’s throat.”

Now you have two brilliant books to read, if you haven’t already read them, and if you have, reread!

The third book is still in manuscript and for that reason I don’t think I should say much about it, but it too is indeed brilliant. The title is “In Order of Disappearance.” It is by Carine Topal, who has published a couple of other books, which are also wonderful. The new manuscript may bring you to your knees. Well, if I did that I wouldn’t be able to get back up, but you will at least feel you should be on your knees. And for no other reason than that her book is brilliant. You must read it. You must read all three of these books. It’s true that if you don’t, the sky won’t open up and swallow you, but without doubt you will have missed three of the best books of poetry ever written.

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KellyPhoto1EditKelly Cherry’s most recent poetry collection is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. She has also recently published Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53); A Kelly Cherry Reader (SFASUP); A Kind of Dream: Stories (U of Wisconsin); and a poetry chapbook titled Physics for Poets (Unicorn Press). Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

At 74, I Whistle

by Sydney Lea

George MacArthur was a great one for whistling through his teeth.

He was, however, more renowned for other things. During the autumn of 1929, for example, he cut railroad ties, or sleepers, as they were known here in the north country, out on Lake Wabassus, whose name local people have always shortened to “Wabass.”

George made it a point to memorialize every significant season of his life and labor in song. He’d borrow a well known tune for the melody, and string his own words upon it. That fall of ’29 resulted in “The “Wabass Cannonball.”

I remember each note and verse:

Listen to the jingle, the rumble and the roar;
You could hear the ice a-bucklin’ up and down old Wabass shore.
When I arrived at old Wabass Lake, ‘twas early in the fall,
And Belding’s crew was glad to meet the Wabass Cannonball.

 I asked Belding for a job, and he filled me with surprise,
When he said “Go take your sleeper axe and start in makin’ ties.”
There was about a week and a half when the sun never shone at all,
The air was filled so full of chips by the Wabass Cannonball. 

Then we went up to old Third Lake to have a little cheer,
And drove the length of Slaughter Point to try and shoot a deer.
Well, the big buck came down Slaughter Point, and he had no horns at all,
‘Cause his face was filled with buckshot by the Wabass Cannonball. 

Then the warden came into our camp and they thought they had us beat,
For cooking in an iron pot they found a little meat.
Then they hauled us into court but they had no case at all,
And the both of them were BEAT TO HELL by the Wabass Cannonball!

I may know why I thought about all this at dawn last May, alone in my room at the Park Hotel, which overlooks lovely Lake Bled in lovely Slovenia, even if this is a world about as far from Wabass as most I could conjure. I was to give a talk that day at a literary conference, in which I’d been asked to answer at some length this question: Where do poems come from?

If I had been completely truthful, as I wasn’t, I’d have answered by saying, “I don’t really know.” Fact is, poems just come. Or at least they used to. For the better part of my adulthood, they have simply been facts of life. I could say I learned as much from George: your experience brings you a poem—or not. Poems come—or they don’t.

Their coming is rarer for me now than in prior days, and at times I worry that my own will to string words onto experience may have retreated, indeed may have all but vanished. In any case, lately I often wake up with others’ tunes in mind.

Then I whistle them all day.

George could test people’s patience by the same habit: he whistled too, especially in hours of idleness, but at least the words in his head, I’m certain, belonged to him alone. I drive my poor wife to distraction with this all but tuneless whistling of compositions that have nothing to do with any creative spark of mine. It’s almost as though I’ve surrendered proprietorship of my own language.

Of course I’ve gone through similar periods of self-doubt before; they just haven’t been so protracted and unsettling.

Be all that as it may, I don’t romanticize when I say that George had a substantial literary influence on me. And yes, if it sometimes seems that what remains to me is just a patch on what my words once sought, if I can manage little but a less than birdlike song, this doesn’t mean I love those worlds any less than once I did.

This whistling is puny, and yet it’s likely still a stab at making the various worlds I’ve known or heard about cohere, no matter that the deeper those worlds sink into memory, the shallower my breath, the thinner my tune.

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author photo craftsburySydney Lea has recently completed four years as Vermont Poet Laureate. His most recent publications are his fourth collection of personal essays, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long, and his twelfth volume of poems, No Doubt the Nameless. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.


by Rick Bursky

Someone once wrote, “everything I ever learned about myself I learned while looking in a mirror.” Hmmm, interesting. For years I thought it arrogant. Followed by a couple of years thinking it was stupid. For the last few days I’ve thought about it and now I might actually understand. Every morning I brush my teeth while looking at myself in a mirror. Then I shave. Looking in a mirror. Occasionally, I think about what I see. Occasionally, I write about it.

The mirror was invented by accident, or so the story goes. I’ve written poems about/with mirrors. None were accidents. Pliny mentioned mirrors in his Natural History, written in 77 AD. Mirrors date back to 2000 BC in China. People have been looking at themselves for a long time.POST -- Bursky Rick Mirrors poem gray

Confusing the subject is easy. The poem was invented by accident, or so the story goes. Pliny mentioned poetry in his Natural History, written in 77 AD. Poetry date back to 2000 BC in China. People have been looking at themselves for a long time. Poetry.

Frustrated with a poem I was writing, struggling with, I held it in front of mirror and read it backwards. I was hoping some revision revelation might occur to me. It didn’t.

Mirrors are important to me. I don’t know why. Poetry is where you discover what’s important to you. Writing is exploring. But you already knew that.

There was a time I thought that the invention of photography should have made mirrors obsolete. I started to calculate how many hours I’ve spent looking at myself, in mirrors. While doing the math I started to become nervous and abandoned the idea.

In its simplest form, a mirror is a sheet of glass with a piece of aluminum or silver attached. Staring into a mirror for too long causes headaches and sadness. (Dr. Gorlick told me this.) There are occasions when staring into one is appropriate.

It is unfortunate the requirements of modern grooming have made mirrors a necessity. A world without mirrors would require more trustworthy friends. There’s something completely inappropriate about putting mirrors in wide, gold frames.

Mirrors should never be used as decorations. Large mirrors on the walls of restaurants make them appear larger, and to tell you the truth, I like that. Large poems on the walls of restaurants, I would like that, too.

We painted our faces in shades of green and black. This was when I was a rifleman in the army. Some of the soldiers used small mirrors from cosmetic compacts or signal mirrors from survival kits. Some soldiers preferred to avoid the mirror and have other soldiers paint their face. I was one of the latter and avoided the mirror. And after my face was painted, I painted his. Soldiers are like mirrors, you look closely at them you’ll discover a poem.

There was a mirror store on West Third Street in Los Angeles. Large mirrors in elaborate frames sat on the sidewalk and leaned against each other. A man walking past stopped, looked at himself in a full-length mirror and punched the mirror. A large piece of the mirror crashed to the pavement. He shook his fist and walked away. I was leaving the ice cream store across the street as this happened. I can’t tell you why he did this or what sort of damage he might have done to his hand. This is something better explained in a poem.

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bursky_bio_photoRick Bursky teaches poetry for the Writer’s Program at UCLA Extension. His most recent book, I’m No Longer Troubled By the Extravagance, is out from BOA Editions; the previous book Death Obscura, was published by Sarabande Books. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.