Each Chartered Street is, in many ways, both a critical and lovingly hopeful song for Philadelphia. How did place come to be so important in your recent work?
Place in Each Chartered Street is mainly incidental. I do admire poets who’ve given us great, textured portraits of place, particularly cities. Anne Winters’ New York, Roy Fisher’s Birmingham and Ciaran Carson’s Belfast come to mind. Though if they inform my work it is rather from long acquaintance and not from deliberate borrowings. The poem “Corner,” looks at kids from a ritzy private school driving a Mercedes going one way and a neighborhood kid in a pimped-up Impala going the opposite way—a spectacle one gets to see quite often if you walk around the time school lets out. The poem argues at some point that any other places would be equally legitimate to explore that rift. So to me the book is not a portrait of Philadelphia—though I’m flattered when readers find the portrait compelling or well rendered. What I wanted to deal with was my neighborhood and its social tensions and by extension the concept being a neighbor. In that context, the different social classes that share the space were more important. It’s a weird place where less than a block walk will take you from that last, high-rise project standing in the city, to eight-room Victorian houses with more than a quarter million dollar price tag. Within that huge range, you also have many property-owning folk sliding up and down different income brackets but somewhat middle class, and each and every one of them has a different claim: you have the conservationists, the guys obsessed with crime, the parents, the dog rescuers. So many of these claims are incompatible. I hope at the heart of the book, the central question is whether this domestic, bourgeois society is sustainable at all, while at the same time trying to write what it feels like to be uncertain and yet reasonably stable while surrounded by instability.
Many of the poems in this collection are quite long and take us in so many directions: from the crack house down the street, to your daughter’s play room, sometimes ending in a completely different place. Could you tell me a little bit about your poetic process, and how these poems come to take their form?
The easy answer is that I like poems to be both capacious and layered. My poems I think are often reconciling or working out different possibly contradictory impulses. I like narrative but find much of narrative poetry to be too anecdotal, so if I’m working in a narrative poem I resist the anecdote and try to short circuit it with other suggestive material. “Testimony” is a case in point, with the Chinese woman whose husband kidnaps their kid. It started as a straight narrative and had the first line from the outset, and it felt like one of those poems where you know you are reading about a victim, so you’ve got to feel something. Then just an OED search sort of opened the poem up and allowed me to place the character in a larger and sonically more interesting canvas. Some other poems begin—or I think I begin them—as well-argued Metaphysical poems. I like how the Metaphysical poem feels more argued than others. What I end up with most of the time though are poems that are too densely packed, crabbed and gnarled, so I try to inflect them with detail to let them breath a bit. “Knowledge,” the opening poem is a case in point. It began as this dense thing where the focus was these two kinds of knowing, the middle-age’s guy and the kids doing homework. It became a lot more interesting as I got the kids to do stuff in the poem.
Each Chartered Street often takes a sociological attitude, critiquing the political and economic tensions of urban life and the broader structures that create them. Your previous collection, To the Bone, shows a similar inclination towards the critical. How did social commentary become such an integral part of your poetry?
I gave a copy of the book to a sociologist, friend/colleague of mine mainly because he had been incredibly supportive at some point and did not expect him to read it. He actually read it and recognized the sociological bend but praised—and I take any praise I can—that Each Chartered Street knew better and different than sociologists because the latter are only interested in models and not in people. I write poems because they help me understand things that I find perplexing. I’m interested in discrepancies between those sanctioned narratives we tell ourselves and what is actually going on. To the Bone for instance began as I was working in and living through a sort of glamorization of food, chefs, etc. Each Chartered Street also tried to tackle the more rosy-eyed versions of community. Within that framework, I try to get things as they really are.
In a similar vein: for you, does poetry have a place in the call for social change, and if so, where is it?
No. Not at all. I know people don’t want to hear it, but poetry is too elitist and its audience too narrow for any social change to take place. Moreover, it doesn’t matter in what time zone poets fall—anywhere from formalism to experimental, most poets share similar political values. So to write poems for social change would be like preaching to the choir. I distrust most calls for social change—though I guess I’m a meliorist of sorts, a pessimistic one. Still poetry as a tool for social change seems antithetical to me. If poetry is good at anything, it is good at zeroing in on our ambiguities and sound the emotional resonances there, so ambiguity and social change seem like a recipe for disaster. Not that certainty and calls social change have done any better historically.
To the Bone and Each Chartered Street are both works built from constant observation of your surroundings and imagination of their backgrounds and histories. Any current projects in the works?
I’m writing. I know the evidence is against me but I really don’t work on projects or don’t set to do so in any case. Some poets do like that. If I ended with thematically coherent books, I did so because of my work load. As the poem “Commute” makes clear, I adjunct and am running from place to place. Its not a good thing for sustained writing of any kind. So the reason the two books got written, the incentive to get up and write, was really that I could revisit a single place I’d grown fond of for a few hours every day. That’s more or less what Coetzee says about writing novels.
Sebastian Agudelo is the author of Each Chartered Street (2013) and To the Bone (2009), winner of the 2008 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, selected by Mark Doty. He teaches at University of the Arts and lives with his wife and daughter in Philadelphia.
Kasey Erin Phifer-Byrne is a native of southeastern Pennsylvania and an MFA candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she was the 2014 recipient of the David and Jean Milofsky Prize in Creative Writing. Her poetry is published or forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Spillway, and other journals.