Jon Woodward on Binding Time

H. L. Hix: The repetition in this book is uncanny, as the title Uncanny Valley suggests, but I wonder if, in addition to the title, another clue to the work repetition is performing occurs on p. 13, with the line “No narrative momentum.”  My impulse as a reader is to emphasize “narrative” and to add an implicit “but…” onto the line: No narrative momentum, but….  Would you as the poet condone that impulse?  I.e., are the poems after some other kind of momentum (one to which repetition contributes) rather than after the rejection of any kind of momentum?


Jon Woodward: Your question made me start thinking about “narrative momentum” and what that might mean. “Momentum” must have something to do with how we experience time, the moment, in the poem.


A poem binds time* through various means. One of the most common is narrative (broadly considered): characters persist through multiple events much like people persist over time, and their actions in the past have predictable (or “lifelike”) consequences in the future. The momentum that one feels while caught up in a narrative is, I think, the experience of bound time running alongside actual (external, unbound) time, and that’s a truly magical thing!


And I think that in my book Uncanny Valley, I do make some use of narrative time, but I’m also trying to bind time in other ways, often concurrently (or overlappingly) with the narrative. As you suggest, the stretches of repetition are the most prominent. Repetitions of words or lines establish a wholly other engagement with time. These repetitions appear as bubbles or cysts of trance-time, of an ever-present, in otherwise narrative contexts. The “lifelike” causality of past-present-future finds no purchase inside them. Their momentum is unique to them: the pulse of words turning into pure sound, into heartbeats and lungfulls. Which I also think is completely magical. And I think that these two modes (narrative and repetitive) change each other in strange and productive ways, when interspersed and interleaved.


So, short version: rather than “No (narrative momentum), but…” I would say, like any beginning improviser, “Yes, and…”



* The “binding” of time is a bit of vocabulary that I’m borrowing from composer Chris Dench, specifically from his essay “Time-Travel” in Arcana II, edited by John Zorn, published by Hips Road/Tzadik. The essay doesn’t answer or solve anything for me, but gave me a term to use when thinking about these things.

Jon Woodward.  Uncanny Valley.  Cleveland St. Univ. Poetry Center, 2012.

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