Correspondences: On Claire Schwartz’s Civil Service (letters 1-3)

Monday, October 24, 2022

What follows is a series of letters I wrote with Bradley Trumpfheller—author of the chapbook Reconstructions (Sibling Rivalry Press) and dearly beloved friend who I was lucky enough to intersect with in the greater Boston poetry scene. The two of us have been thinking about shared poetic influences, and have long dreamed of assembling our ongoing conversations in a more formal manner. Below, we present the beginnings of a critical experiment, writing letters back and forth discussing a recent book that compelled us both: Civil Service by Claire Schwartz. Part essay, part review, part letters between friends, we are grateful to any readers who join us in this conversation. 

Given the length of the conversation, we’ve split the letters into two volumes. This first, below, contains letters 1 through 3, and the second volume will be published next week, containing the final 3 letters. 

* * *


I’ve been thinking a lot, in part due to our ongoing conversations, about my troubles with the idea of confessional poetry. As you and I have mentioned, there’s a long lineage of (necessarily white & western centered) catholic hegemony implicit to the idea of a confessional mode—which, of course from my positionality as a Queer Palestinian raised in a christian family, is certainly a source of my own personal friction with confessionalism. The impulse towards confessionalism is also, innately, an issue of power. We live, as Foucault says, in a confessional society—a shadow consequence of the matrices of social power extending from the interpersonal space of marriage power dynamics (and sexual discourses thereof) to the level of the state (via interrogation and surveillance). I’ve always considered myself a poet who embraces intimate, personal narratives in my work—qualities which critics have lauded in the Capital-C Confessional Poets (Sexton, Plath, Lowell, etc)—but never once have I ever considered my work confessional? Confession, to me, always implies the question of confession to whom, which implies power. Hence the return to the Foucauldian paradigm. What is confessional poetics, then, if not a participation in (or more accurately, submission to) our contemporary regimes of surveillance and power?

This has led me to a question that seems impossible: how, then, can we build towards critical language for, and creative praxis surrounding, a poetics which resists confessional power structures without sacrificing, withholding, or displacing interiority and intimacy? One of the most compelling pieces I’ve seen which grapples with the question of confession and power is “Lecture on Confessional Poetry” from Claire Schwartz’s recent book Civil Service:

“To confess 
          is to offer the territory of your elsewhere 
      to the Dictator’s compass.

Wave the red flag of your interior.
The army stations around its perimeter.  

Cops populate their websites with headshots.

                                        Call it good.” (57).

If language is, as Schwartz writes, “the perimeter of the interior” (62), then what is confession if not submitting to the drawing of a border around one’s self? Under confessional power structures, one must articulate a version of self committed to “the task of exoneration”—here, “the name is the guilt. Death cleanses the name” (60-61). The poem offers other angles, too, on this thread of guilt and exoneration: how a country is “the distance between you and the war” (58), or regarding the displacement of the I under the borders of confessionalism:

“Inside, pronoun-less. Then yolked to I-you.

Now that you are you, you are
the I’s guardian.
            I is you, is not.” (62).

Perhaps the goal of confessional power was always a sort of displacement from the self? Or perhaps I’m trying to ask the inverse of my question above: is it even possible to articulate a version of self beyond these borders of the confessional, and the matrices of power underlying them?

Civil Service offers an attempt thereof, especially considering Amira’s role here and throughout the book. I’m deeply unsure of how to read this, dare I say spectral, presence, but it has me thinking of the interior, the confessional borders, the displaced I, and the gazing of the reader itself. Schwartz’s opening poem sequence ends:

“Do you consider yourself a part or apart from?

Where you are apart from, what do you cast into the distance

A poem is a line cast into the distance.

Now Amira is a part of you.

You are responsible for Amira.

Here we are.

She’s in your hands now.” (9).

Thereafter, another voice appears scattered throughout the book in grayscale text, and often devoted to the right margin. I’m curious, Bradley, to hear about how you’re reading these Amira traces, throughout this confessional poetry piece but more broadly too of course—though perhaps this is a question we’ll likely return to throughout our letters?

With love, always—




Hi dearest,

One of the things that flashes out to me about Civil Service, having read through it a few times now, is precisely the moment you just quoted, where the book I think is kind of enfolding the reader in its world and as its world’s condition of possibility. The gesture feels like it’s moving from a kind of ready-made lyric I towards something, though I’m not sure what: the reader (you), Amira, the world outside of the given room? It’s an interrogation room, we learn in the pages immediately following. The opening section of the book, I think, enacts this: each page has a line or series of lines which are sequenced to seem like they grow out of each other, becoming a door, a carton of milk; container and contained; limit and caesura. Civil Service brings its world to mind this way, beginning in a room from which the world is thought and unthinkable. Amira is here in this, a fugitive from that world, being held and being questioned. She is also ever-elsewhere, in the poems “outside” of that room, haunting the right margin. It feels to me like she’s hiding among the civil servants who populate the book: the Archivist, the Censor, the Old Dictator, the Cook, etc. In their houses, their offices. Amira’s spectrality (you always dare), her fugitivity, is also the condition of this book’s sense of what it is to be civil, to be part of a social order of apartness called citizenship. “Of course Amira is wanted,” Schwartz writes on the page after the one you quote. Citizenship requires—it desires, these poems instruct me—an outside: I think of how the so-called freedom on loan in the United States needs the possibility of a racialized and classed unfreedom, of which one name is prison. Amira incompletes the world, makes it real. We need Amira; we are responsible for her.

How is it that she becomes a part of us, as readers? By reading? Is it as readers that we are responsible? I think about how reading well is so often (I really want to say always) reading carefully. And I think about how responsibility is, in the language of ethics, a response-ability, a capacity to be in response to another, to listen. When I read “Lecture on Confessional Poetry,” I wonder about that capacity in a couple of ways. What kind of reading does the critical frame of the confessional poem demand? What kind of response does it invoke in us, what kind of responsibility? “To name yourself is not to declare your innocence,” Schwartz writes. “To name yourself is to commit yourself / to the task of your exoneration.” If the position of the reader, in the confessional mode, rhymes, however slantly, with the position of the priest, or the cop, what’s being asked of us when we—I mean you and me, George—read a so-called confessional poem? Exoneration, maybe? Forgiveness? Simple recognition? How is it that we come to know a poem is or is not confessional? What does that process, that desire, have to do with historical forces and relations that shape them?

Forgive the wall of questions here. I frame some angles of the dilemma I think you’re identifying this way because I feel Civil Service is a book which really asks me to take seriously what happens when I read a poem, when I bring my desires to bear with and against the desires of a particular speaker. All of this is at stake, I think, in confession. There’s a Freud quote I want to set next to this: “In confession the sinner tells what he knows; in analysis the neurotic has to tell more.” Reading and analysis have more than a little in common, but that seems like a rabbit hole—I bring Freud up because of the first clause. The sinner tells what he knows. Maybe the distinction we can reach for when we talk about poems that are “confessional” and poems that are deeply involved with the messy work of being an I, is also Freud’s. “Poetry is productive of the unknown,” Schwartz says in “Lecture on the History of the House.” You asked me if it was possible to articulate a version of the self in poetry beyond these confessional borders, and maybe my only firm answer today is to that question, and my answer is no. I’m not so interested in an articulable self. I feel like the state, however, is very interested in stable, knowable, and separable selves! Poems are, or I really want them to be, more than what we know. Listen to Amira slipping out the door: “Look how you’ve made language a monument / to your destruction and called it memory.”

I biked home this evening as a thunderstorm rolled in—you could see the lightning pretty clearly, but totally noiseless. Miss you,






Hi dear one,

Thank you (as always) for these questions! Where these thoughts lead me, especially thinking about what you said about response-ability, is the realization that confession is a fundamentally relational mode—a relation which is not always (or perhaps even not usually) entirely consensual, and whose dynamics are governed by asymmetries in, among other things, knowing. And of course, power structures like a state exploit such modes, forcefully imposing relations via confessionalism which both acquire, and build borders around, knowing. For instance: confession as a process of offering “the territory of your elsewhere to the Dictator’s compass,” in Schwartz’s poem, is contingent upon the orientations, desires, and geometries of knowing implicit to the compass. Your point, Bradley, about the existence of a rhyme, however slant, between the reader of a confessional poem & others at the receiving end of confession, living under our normative matrices of power, is so resonant. I agree with your thinking in the sense that A) I, too, am not necessarily interested in articulable selves, or at least not nearly as much as potentialities of self, and B) the interpersonal borders drawn under confession are inescapable insofar as the power structures underlying coloniality/modernity exist—that is, up until this world’s inevitable fall. Perhaps, then, instead of a model for articulating the selves beyond confessional borders, another question I want to ask is: how are poems able to negotiate, at once, the terms of their relationality and knowability? What does that say about the poem’s im/possible relations to self (interpreted broadly—the selves behind its making, the selves it reaches towards as readers receive it)?

I’m curious to think about what these analytical axes (relationality & knowing) could offer when reading poems which explicitly invoke, gesture towards, or otherwise engage in, acts of confession. One poignant example that comes to mind, moving briefly away from Civil Service, is “On Confessionalism,” the opening poem to John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry. From its opening breath (“Not sleepwalking, but waking still”), the poem takes control of the shape/terms of its knowing, proceeding with an awareness of surveillability (details of “an old woman staring” and watering a flower which is “also staring”) until its closing breaths: the detail of leaving a pistol in the storm drain, though the speaker “never got around to wiping away the prints” (3-5). I read the title “On Confessionalism” less as a riff on the poem’s impulse to confess to some reader, and more the speaker’s own desire to confess to themself, on all the selves they could have become that day:

“I pulled the trigger—once,
            twice, three times—then panicked
not just because the gun jammed, 
           but but because what if it hadn’t,
because who did I almost become” (4).

The confessional relational dynamic, here, is related inwards and we, readers, are merely spectators being allowed to overhear a conversation the poem’s speaker is having with their own self—an un/loneliness of sorts? I’ll circle back to loneliness later in this letter, because I think it’s key in Schwartz’s text too. But Murillo’s invocation of the confessional mode here is intimately linked to a conversation with/of/among the self, recalling something he said in his Vs Podcast interview on the selves we create while writing poems:

“I think, in a lot of ways, right. With how social media, with how culture reality shows, our love of celebrities, the ways that poets and other artists tend to kind of create a persona, right? And write through that… At some point, I wonder if this becomes something the artist is conscious of and ends up writing through that consciously. Or, if it’s something that they’ve written their way into, and it’s hard to get out.”

In retrospect, this makes a lot of sense, not just for the poem, but Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry as a whole. In the other ars poetica motions of the book (e.g. “On Metaphor,” “On Magical Realism,” “On Prosody,” etc), Murillo’s speaker is both working through a specific craft technique to arrive at a new articulation of self, but also, is writing a sort of craft essay in poem form, getting us to think about the ways we deploy certain craft techniques (confessionalism included) to create a certain persona of I.

In addition to Murillo writing one of my most returned-to books of the past several years, I’m particularly excited to put his book into conversation with Schwartz’s Civil Service, which also does similar work in its “Lecture” pieces. There are a few directions we can go from here, I think:

1)    Schwartz’s treatment of loneliness, particularly in the book’s closing breaths, seems particularly relevant, especially considering the praxis of reading and/as writing Schwartz brings into this project. In a recent interview with David Naimon’s Between the Covers podcast, Schwartz said, “I think of writing as the form of reading where the impact of my reading is most visible. To me, having sat with this text as a text that I’ve been writing for almost a decade, but really that I’ve been reading for that long or reading for for much longer actually feels beautiful I guess just to be like a reader among readers of it actually.” I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the book’s treatment of loneliness and reading?

2)    Circling back to Amira, I am definitely in agreement with your reading! It’s so interesting because both of our descriptors (spectral + fugitive) are ones Naimon uses in his podcast when talking about Amira, likening her presence to Brand’s Yasmin in Ossuaries. I’d love to hear more thoughts about how you’re reading Amira with respect to the question of self & loneliness, especially because Claire says such interesting things about Amira in the aforementioned podcast. There’s an interesting moment where Schwartz says, “I think all of the enclosures that structure our social space as it is and the fact that we clearly need some kind of totalizing catalytic action, that I think is often called revolution in order to move us from this world to a different kind of world, can mean that that action is the narrative climax really, is where the story can end, but it felt important to me to signpost that there’s something on the other side that’s not wholly knowable from where we stand but that we have glimpses of in the world that exists as it exists now.”

Today, I picked up a copy of Azoulay’s Potential History and was thinking of you & our ongoing convos as I paged through it. You’ve gotten me thinking about the constellating energy of my reading practice, and the ways my current reading (Jeannie Venasco’s memoirs, Chen Chen’s latest poetry collection, Brand as aforementioned, the theory-space of phenomenology) may be trickling into this conversation, if even unintentionally and subliminally. Or maybe not, who knows! Love that I can be liminal with you in this format, dearest.