Walter and I met in college at NYU, where he was studying linguistics, and I was designing an interdisciplinary major at Gallatin; in my case, that meant drawing on history, cultural studies, and literature courses to study the concept of the American Dream. We remained friends after I moved to Abu Dhabi for work, and whenever he was in my part of the world, we would meet up and gossip about whatever books we had recently read. Now we get to gossip about his first book, Etymologies, which won the 2021 Omnidawn Open and was published this spring by Omnidawn. Cathy Park Hong described these poems as “glorious distillations of mischief and erudition,” and I will add that these poems reminded me that there exist many lenses through which we can look at the world or even a single word.
One notable thing about Etymologies is that it is a sort of reference work. It reminds me of David Bowie’s comment: “Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary? When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.” Etymologies is not long, but it might be about everything; in particular, it might, in looking at the origins of the words we use to describe ourselves, be about our own origins—or our inability to know them.
Samantha Neugebauer: In a recent interview with Fran Magazine, you spoke a bit about the history and beginnings of Etymologies, and it made me wonder about your history with the word ‘etymology’ itself.
Walter Ancarrow: Writers are naturally drawn to etymology. Poets use it all the time. There was recently a review of my book in the Los Angeles Review of Books that was also an overview of etymology in contemporary poetry, which perhaps shows the topic’s popularity.
But there is a difference between poems that happen to use etymology (often to further a point already being made by the poet), which is commonly done, and etymology turned into a poem, which is what Etymologies does and which I think is more rare.
When I started to think about etymology as poetry, I started to have serious doubts about what etymology can tell us.
SN: Can you share one of those doubts?
WA: Well, there is the notion that the earlier form of a word is somehow the one more true. This is built into the word etymology itself—“study of truth” in Greek. Maybe that’s why poets like using it. Its popularity reminds me of the craze for Egyptian hieroglyphs during the Renaissance. It was believed, based on the writings of Plotinus, that the hieroglyphs were sent directly from the gods, and so if we could decipher them we could understand ourselves and all things.
But in reality, a lot of meaning-making comes from outside of language, which my book shows in different ways. So one doubt I have is that etymology can tell us much about anything, nevermind what our ancestors were thinking. We can’t even agree on the definitions of words now! And we might ask whose definition of any word is likely to have been preserved.
SN: One of my favorite poems in the collection begins NUDE DESCENDING A STAIRCASE and then lists in a column the etymological variants of spider. Given this poem’s form, it seems to me that this poem exemplifies the “etymology turned into a poem,” as you said. It’s minimal. It’s almost a found poem. You add just enough to turn what would otherwise be a dry dictionary entry into something more.
WA: Yes, exactly.
SN: You begin with the Old English spiðra, but I imagine you could have gone further back than that. I’m curious about this choice.
WA: I began at spiðra because that’s as far back as my dictionary went. Other sources might go back further. You may recognize another problem with etymology: every placement of a beginning is arbitrary. I had the idea of using that Duchamp title because maybe I realized a link between Dadaist readymades and etymology-as-poem. This combination made me see painting and poem differently. Changes in orthography and pronunciation are not discrete units but gradations. An etymological dictionary presents us with words as if they were steps, while actual language change is like the nude figure above them, descending.
SN: How did you make choices about what parts of a word’s history to include or exclude?
WA: I used what seemed most necessary. If it did not add meaning, I did not add it to the page.
SN: That makes sense. Considering that Etymologies travels across time and place in terms of word histories, I want to shift gears and talk a bit about your own travels. I consider you an inveterate traveler, and I look back fondly on our travels together in Oman. How does travel inform your writing?
WA: I remember sneaking you into the apartment in Muscat where I was staying, so that you had a place to sleep!
SN: Of course I remember!
WA: It used to be that when I went to a new city, I searched for its center. This was not the literal city center nor its downtown but more like its “heart,” and if found, I thought I could know the place. But it was always somewhere else: another plaza over, or the bazaar at a different hour, or down the street I didn’t take. I felt that I was missing something essential wherever I went.
The poem on the etymology of bagel deals with this feeling specifically. But I set the poem in New York City, the place most familiar to me, my home. That search for a center is the same search for an origin of our language: the hope that we will finally come to know our place in the world and have the right words to explain it to both ourselves and others. I needn’t get into the reasons I was dispelled of this notion, except to say it happened as I finished writing Etymologies and partially because I had finished.
So I want to turn the question on its head: how has poetry affected how I travel? How has Etymologies? I am still figuring that out.
SN: Who is a poet who has affected your traveling?
WA: The great Lebanese iconoclast Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, who traveled around the Mediterranean writing poetry, being ambiguously Muslim, and criticizing the prose style of every writer who was not him. He’s sort of my literary idol.
You can also never quite tell if he’s joking in his observations on other cultures. He goes to England and starts the rumor that Shakespeare was secretly Arab. He visits London’s factories and writes a proto-Marxist critique of British capitalism. You can find these and other treasures in his highly offensive masterpiece As-saq ‘ala l-saq. This work also includes a passage on French sexual mores that is so vulgar I had to close the book momentarily because I couldn’t believe what I had just read.
The two most remarkable things about As-saq ‘ala l-saq is that it is a dictionary that is also a travelog—you can see how it influenced Etymologies—and that it contains a description of Alexandria that convinced me to finally visit, where I met someone whose presence and absence is on every page of my book.
SN: On that topic, a lot of interviewers will ask their subjects about their influences and inspirations, but I prefer the phrasing of a similar question by Michael Newman, who asked W.H. Auden during a 1974 interview in The Paris Review: Are there any poets you’ve read who have seemed to you to be kindred spirits?
WA: Auden actually. He is not a favorite of mine, but I do feel a kindredness to any gay intellectual with no particular desire to write about sexuality. Edwin Morgan for the same reason. The just-mentioned al-Shidyaq. Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj because he deferred to geometry when words were not enough. Al-Hariri for his scheming. Wallace Stevens and Azealia Banks.
SN: I’ve found that Auden is a reliable hit with almost all my students, especially his “As I Walked Out One Evening.” At the moment, I’m teaching a course on ecopoetry through Johns Hopkins; it’s a free course open to the public, so it’s not only for students and academics. In fact, part of the idea of making the course public is to think about and inspire ways of living that might make the humanities relevant to people outside academia, i.e., to people from all walks of life. Do you think about audience when you’re writing?
WA: In the moment of creation, no. Afterwards, yes. Part of being true to oneself as a writer is allowing a way for readers to enter your interior world. Some of my most incisive readers are non-poets. My best reader has no background in literature and speaks English as a second language. Etymologies is dedicated to him.
I don’t worry about making poetry “relevant.” I wish it were less relevant. Freedom from relevancy! Freedom to be useless in a society that values use-value!
SN: Yes, I agree. What’s something useless that you’ve been reading?
WA: Shahab Ahmed’s Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in Early Islam. It is not about the Rushdie affair (which is never mentioned and which would give it relevancy) but about a theological question. Though it seems unbelievable now, in the first two centuries of Islam, all Muslims believed the Satanic verse incident occurred. Ahmed goes through all fifty riwayahs related to this verse, and does so meticulously, almost obsessively. I love that another human being could be so interested in such an esoteric problem from fourteen centuries ago.
SN: Obsession is always interesting, I think. Thank you, Walter, for this chat, and thank you for sharing Etymologies with all of us.
Walter Ancarrow lives in New York City and sometimes Alexandria, Egypt. Etymologies (Omnidawn, 2023) is his first book.