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In ‘Money Shot,’ Poet Armantrout Reacts to Financial Crisis in Verse

January 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Rae Armantrout's poetry finds its place at the intersection of the public and the private. Armantrout won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award for her 2009 collection, "Versed." Poems in her latest book, "Money Shot," speak to the economic downturn.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, another in our occasional series on poets and poetry.

Rae Armantrout won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for the collection “Versed.” Her latest book, “Money Shot,” was published last year and deals in part with the financial crisis.

RAE ARMANTROUT, “Money Shot”: “Complex systems can arise from simple rules.”

My name is Rae Armantrout. I live in San Diego. I grew up in San Diego, actually. I teach at U.C. San Diego. But, mainly, I am a poet.

My poetry always includes whatever is around me. If I watch something on television, if I hear news in the car, if I hear certain phrases being bandied about, or if I see things happening to my friends — like a couple of my friends have lost their homes in this financial debacle — of course that is going to get into my work.

And what I like to do really is to write about the intersection of the public and the private, or what is left of the private, in our lives, and to kind of bring those aspects of reality together.

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“Money Talks.”

“Money is talking to itself again in this season’s bondage and safari look. It’s closeout camouflage. Hit the refresh button and this is what you get, money pretending that its hands are tied. On a billboard by the 880, money admonishes, shut up and play.”

In the poem “Bubble Wrap,” which I — is the one I wrote on the day that the stock market lost so much of its value, I was coming home from the store, and I actually saw this immigrant who was selling — or trying to sell — no one was actually approaching him — these scorpions made of what looked like twisted electrical wire.

And I had thought, well, this is going to be the new economy now. It seems like, if value can suddenly disappear that way, then what kind of value was it? It’s a sort of magic value that they can create out of nothing, and then it can disappear.

So, I was listening to the language that they used to talk about the crisis in terms like credit default swaps, and leveraged buyout. And although the whole thing was horrifying, as a poet and as someone who is interested in language, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by those terms.

“Now, an engine’s single indrawn breath, the black hole at the heart of it is taking it all back. An immigrant sells scorpions of twisted electrical wire in front of the Rite Aid.”

There’s a lot of the San Diego landscape in my poems. There’s a lot of — there are a lot of palm trees and junipers, and just the flora of San Diego comes in constantly.

One of the poems, “Long Green,” would possibly, in some sense, be a pastoral poem. It’s about plants. There are various kinds of plants are mentioned. But the language of the financial crisis kind of creeps in and becomes integrated with the language about nature.

“Long Green.”

“Such naked spines and vertebrae, convincing parallels, upright, separated by a few inches of clay. Such earnest, green gentlemen, such stalwarts jouncing in the intermittent wind. Idea laundering exists primarily to produce a state of equilibrium. All night, the sea coughs up green strands, cold boluses and swallows them back in.”

RAY SUAREZ: You can hear Rae Armantrout read more of her poems and watch an extended conversation with the poet on our website.