by Justin Borrego
People use their eyes, be it to make judgments, be aware of danger, or to see where they are going. San Antonio poet David Ray Vance’s first collection of poems Vitreous is an exploration of vision and how it shapes our perceptions. Virtreous won the 2005 Del Sol Press Poetry Prize for this exploratory work in which, as Vance says, “ideology corrupts knowledge.” Vance’s second collection of poetry, Stupor, was released in 2014 by Elixir Press. Poet Duriel E. Harris writes of the collection, which, as judge, she selected for the Elixir Press Antivenom Poetry Award: “Vance explores adaptation and desensitization, venturing to differentiate between what truly heals and what merely numbs. Provocative and summative, the title suggests both the depression and torpor characteristic of many folks’ lives as society’s passive drones.” I’ve had the opportunity to correspond with Vance via e-mail and asked for his insight.
Justin Borrego: I would like to think I’ve familiarized myself with your work Vitreous. What caused you to work with the theme of eyes in the collections context?
David Ray Vance: As a doctoral student at University of Houston, I’d been writing poems with a view toward pulling together a dissertation manuscript. I didn’t have a theme or guiding principle in mind, but I knew I was interested in writing poems that didn’t necessarily satisfy in the way poems are often expected to satisfy—i.e., with the usual epiphanic rush or emotional tug—and I knew I was interested in writing poems that mined my interests in science Around that same time I was diagnosed as a “glaucoma suspect.” That’s the term used for people who appear likely to develop glaucoma. Basically, the pressure in my eyes is higher than is considered safe. So, one week I printed every poem draft I’d ever written and started categorizing them in terms of their aesthetic qualities and themes. I ended up with stacks spread all over my apartment floor. Combing through them, I realized a sizable portion of the poems were concerned with perception, about whether things are as they appear, and epistemology, which is to say how we know what we know. Once that registered, I could envision the manuscript. I don’t mean I knew every twist and turn, but I had a guiding principle, which led me to UH’s very impressive Ophthalmology library, and I began obsessing on optical illusions. I put together a rough manuscript and then set about writing poems to fill in the gaps and/or to replace poems that weren’t quite the right fit.
JB: Throughout the text there are images of vintage tools used in eye examination. What do you believe the collection gains by having these tools included within it?
DRV: In manuscript form I used asterisks to mark the section breaks, and when the book was in press, I proposed those images of ophthalmological instruments be substituted. They’re taken from an old edition of Charles H. May’s textbook, Manuel of the Diseases of the Eye, which is also the source for much of the language found in the ophthalmology-inspired poems like “Lines on the Cornea” and “Injuries.” It seemed to me an opportunity to make the section breaks do more work. The reader encounters these images of objects that are unfamiliar to them and pauses, I hope, to contemplate what they are and their possible utility. It seemed to me appropriate that the reader should have these visual moments between sections, and fortunately Del Sol Press was on board for using them.
JB: “Refuge” drew my attention because of its detail and story driven narrative produced in a few lines. What cause you to produce this piece?
DRV: “Refuge” is located the Recantos section. The full title is technically “Recanto XI [Refuge].” If Vitreous is a meditation on perception and epistemology, it is also concerned with the consequences born of acting on our knowledge, of having what we call the “force of our conviction” to act despite knowing our perceptions, which inform those convictions, are limited and prone to error. In this respect, the Recantos are allied with the long poem “Radium Jaw,” but where the consequences in that poem are born of greed and something like naiveté, the Recantos are concerned with the way ideology corrupts knowledge and leads to convictions that are overtly political (and personal (and political). The title plays on Ezra Pound’s “Cantos.” Pound, of course, was a mover and shaker who had a hand in the careers of many of the most important literary figures of his day, to include T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. He was also an anti-Semitic, egomaniac who supported Mussolini during WWII and was charged with treason at the war’s end for making pro-facist, anti-American radio broadcasts in Italy. He ended up pleading insanity and was held in St. Elizabeth’s mental asylum for 14 years, during which time he continued to write and publish. Toward the end of his life, however, he mostly stopped speaking which is something that always intrigued me. Pound was the sort of person who always had big ideas and with a force of conviction that made him incredibly persuasive. I like the idea that toward the end of his life he might have realized he should be mor judicious when it came to choosing what to say. And I love the fact that “Recantos” contains the word recant, as in to disavow. I find it comforting to imagine people are capable of recognizing their mistakes and learning from them, even if history shows that as a species, we’re inclined to go down the same roads over and over again despite knowing the disastrous consequences. That said, “Refuge” was written around the same time as “Because the Revolution is Never Coming” and like that poem is a response to the US’s build-up toward a “preemptive” military invasion of Iraq, which I strongly opposed, not least because it was premised on what were then, and still are, obvious misperceptions and in some cases, lies in the form of overt propaganda. It was obvious to me we were committing a generation of young people to war and death and injury and all the trauma that entails, and that we were doing so based on emotional appeals and not logic. “Refuge” is finally a meditation on the real consequences of war and all that entails.
JB: In a few pages there is a reading test displayed and despite my best efforts I cannot fully decrypt the message, would you mind giving some more context, or answer to these eye tests?
DRV: That chart appears twice in Vitreous, once as black text on a white page, the second time as white text on a black background. It’s lineated as follows:
which translates to:
IF YOU ARE A READER READY EAGER AWARE BEWARE
It’s a vision test turned warning. Humans are creatures of habit. Presented with something that looks like an eye chart, we’ll read it as an eye chart, which is to say we won’t actually read it but rather accept it as a random mixture of letters. We’re bound by presumptions and biases we don’t readily recognize or appreciate. What you see is or isn’t what you get, and what you get may or may not be what you expected given what you thought you saw.
JB: What are your current ambitions or projects?
DRV: I usually don’t talk about works in progress, but I have been working on a pi-em, which is a poem based upon the irrational number that is pi. The lines of the poem correspond with the numbers of pi with each line having said amount of syllables and with stanza breaks coming for every zero in the sequence. So the title is 3 syllables, the first line is 1 syllable, the second 4 syllables and so on. My goal is to write a stanza every week and to keep at it until I die. It’s a lesson in perpetual failure (with smatterings of success).
JB: Are there any particular influences you would like to share? Be it in your works or daily living.
DRV: Pretty much anything I read or experience can rate as an influence. As for poets that have influenced me, there are many, but I’d rate Susan Howe’s work as pretty high on the list. She’s a genius.
David Ray Vance is the author of two collections of poetry: Vitreous (Del Sol Press, 2007), and Stupor (Elixir Press, 2014) Vance has a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston and is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Program at The University of Texas at San Antonio. In 2013 he was awarded a University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award. His stories and poems have appeared in such journals as Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, Notre Dame Review, and McSweeney’s, and also in the anthologies Is this Forever or What?–Poems and Paintings from Texas (Greenwillow/ Harper Collins) and Art at our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists (Trinity UP). With his wife, Catherine Kasper, he co-edits American Letters & Commentary.