Season 1, Episode 5: Love Poetry

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About R.A. Briggs:

About poems and poets mentioned in this episode:

At the beginning and the end of the episode, you hear Ray reading their poem "Ex Wife."


If you have comments, ideas, or suggestions for future episodes, you can contact Carrie Jenkins here.

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Labels of Love logo designed by Jen Sung.

Show notes photography by Jonathan Ichikawa.

    Labels of Love is a research creation outcome of the Metaphysics of Love Project, supported by The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Additional financial support for the project comes from the Canada Research Chairs program and the University of British Columbia.

    I am grateful for help, guidance, feedback, and support from:
    Drusilla, Ray Briggs, Ray Hsu, Jonathan Ichikawa, and Mezzo.


    [Speaking in this episode you can hear: Ray Briggs, Jonathan Ichikawa, and Carrie Jenkins.]


    I. Still lovely at sixty,
    with skin like a tarn on a windless day,
    she has stormed out of my life.
    Long ago, she enraptured me with her spirit
    when it stole into my bedroom on cat paws.
    She was all grins and tangoes then,
    all phantoms and farragoes, picnics with princes
    by the frog pond, naked gyrations in the clearing.
    Once, she led me blindfolded and groping
    to smoke out the honey bees of the moon. But lately, the last
    of the endless soup has disappeared.

    Jonathan: You’re listening to Labels Of Love.

    Carrie: Hi and welcome to the podcast. I'm Carrie Jenkins, a philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, and the author of What Love Is and What it Could Be. Today I'm talking about love poetry, with Ray Briggs. Ray is a professor of philosophy at Stanford University, working to understanding the justification of beliefs and decisions, by applying formal tools like probability theory. Ray is also an awarding-winning poet, who’s published two books of poetry. The first one is called Free Logic, and the most recent is called Common Sexual Fantasies, Ruined. I spoke with Ray about what they take love poetry to be, and also how their own work interacts with its various traditions and conventions.

    Ray: I think poetry is … like, first of all it's a historical genre. Actually, is that right? Maybe I want to say poetry is, like, songs but they don't have to have music to them. I think I'm writing about love. I'm not sure that it's completely conventional love poetry. I think of conventional love poetry as a lyric ode to a beloved. You want to praise somebody's loveliness, and so you write this flowery lyrical thing in praise of them. So I love Donne's love poetry, and I feel like that's all pickup lines: that's, like, the speaker is trying to get the audience to want to sleep with him. I don't know when this has ever worked, but I guess it must! I'm opening up my first book, which is called Free Logic, and the first thing in it is called "Twelve Love Stories." It is really kind of conventional love poetry in the sense that it's sort of lyric … either praise of the beloved, or telling a story with a feeling in it. So, one of my goals for this thing was I just wanted the poems to sort of reflect the twelve months of the North East US, where I grew up, and the seasons in those twelve months. I also just wanted the stories to be about a bunch of different kinds of people. They're not all romantic love; so one is a brother-sister relationship, one is a sort of ambiguous friendship between two girls that is probably about romantic love, but one of the girls eventually dumps the friend for a boy. One of them is a relationship between a person and their genderqueer partner, and them sort of failing to stick up for their genderqueer partner in a case where it counts. Donne says: "Mark but this flea, and mark in this, / How little that which thou deniest me is". I've got a flea that I'm using to try to seduce you. It has bitten us both, so we've already shared bodily fluids so sex is not a big deal. One of the things that gets attached to the symbol of blood is, quote, maidenhead, unquote. He says, "Thou know’st that this cannot be said / A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead". So I kind of, I took an oblique take on this. I didn't want to just be like, "No, Donne, you’re wrong," because, like, I do object to the role that virginity plays in this poem, but it's also like a beautiful lyric. It's a great line, it's very clever. I wouldn't recommend listening to the dude, but I'm sort of ambivalent about it. All right, so I’ll do the poem, which is called “Biting Insects.”

    Biting flies are back. Let our bloods be mingled.
    If your beard veers whitish, if I'm no maiden,
    still we burst with juices. The wanton blackflies
    sup on our ripeness.

    They return each year; our welts rise to meet them.
    Berry-mad, we grasp them between our fingers,
    Crush the bloated lobes til our palms turn purple,
    taste the raw tingle.

    How the forest buzzes with black abundance!
    From old bottles, gutters, the mouths of tyres,
    Life zooms forth, the mirrors of scum reflecting
    perfect imagoes.

    If this fly be marriage bed, marriage temple,
    marry me again. Let us be remade.

    So I think it's that I want the tools, and I don't want to be doing the thing with them that Donne is doing with them. I mean, there is this view that I don’t subscribe to, that you shouldn't write in rhyme and meter, or that you shouldn't write lyric poetry, because it's sort of fundamentally conservative and conventional, and I think that's just false. I mean I don’t think that I'm the only formalist poet who is doing, like, different things with these tools. I should plug Mary Meriam, who writes formal about lesbian relationships, and is, sort of, pretty political about it, and, you know, so there are lots of people like her and like me. I do like the intensity. Then a lot of the stuff that gets attached to the intensity is not much fun, and not something that I’m much interested in subscribing to any more. Like, I think, like, a lot of people have in their head this idea that the poet is a man, and the poet is the one who gets to make noise, and his beloved just gets to sit there and be pretty.

    Carrie: Right. A muse, right?

    Ray: And that's boring.

    Carrie: It's boring!

    Ray: Yeah, a muse. It's so boring to be a muse! Why would anybody want that job? I mean, I … that’s not totally fair. I mean, all sorts of people, it takes all sorts, but...

    Carrie: Right, right.

    Ray: … it's not a job that I want. One thing I think is particularly sad about that is, I know I just dissed the role of the muse, but I think it's kind of sad for men that they don't get to play that role. One thing I wanted to talk about was, like, poems about the beauty of men, and how I love those poems, and…

    Carrie: Do you have any favourites? Examples?

    Ray: "In a Black Tank Top" by Danielle DeTiberus. Like, the words are in the shape of a tank top, which I kind of love. So, I don't know, I feel like history is kind of this beautiful trash heap, and what we're doing is kind of taking things back off the trash heap and making art out of them, if that makes sense. Part of love poetry, and love, is about playing with power differentials in a safe way. I think it is actually, like, pretty vulnerable to tell someone that you want something from them, or need something from them.

    Carrie: Yeah, yeah.

    Ray: Like, that is legitimately scary, and it gives them the power to break your heart. So if you get your heart broken, one of the things that you can always do is go write a poem. Gosh, everything in Common Sexual Fantasies, Ruined is about getting your heart broken actually.

    II. The lonely house
    refuses to play fetch, only mopes on its belly, 
    talons outstretched. There is no need for polite fiction
    now that the howling windows
    drown out the neighbours' parties
    and 3am lovemaking. In the bedroom, 
    bulbs blaze and blow out. The fridge light
    illuminates no pork chop, no bok choy, 
    only endless beer. Empty takeaways
    sprawl across the counter. Here is a newspaper, a sock, 
    a dead gecko. I reach for my tea
    and find it cold. When I speak of my wife,
    gemstones tumble from my lips.

    III. I cannot sleep
    without jolting into icicle dreams.
    All night, I murmur love poems
    and stow them in the eyes of black-feathered birds:

    Sunstone for the magpie, 
    moonstone for the crow,
    amber for the currawong, 
    garnet for the chough.

    Last night, I repeated her name into a string of pearls,
    dangled them around the neck of the spangled drongo
    and kissed off with two rubies, 

    XO, XO

    By augury and apantomancy, I know
    she reads these letters. What else could explain
    the spiders who tat her name in door jambs and corners,
    the hieroglyphics chipped by woodworms into the floorboards,
    Or the black cat with familiar gold eyes
    I sometimes glimpse in dreams?

    Carrie: Many thanks to today's guest, Ray Briggs. To find out more about Ray's poetry, check out the show notes for this episode, where you can also find links to all the other poems and poets that we talked about. The episode has featured music by Lee Rosevere, Silence is Sexy, and Cold Noise. And you can find out more about my work at, or you can follow me on twitter, where I’m @carriejenkins. Thank you so much for listening.

    Ray: The number of people who have picked up this book at a book fair, been disappointed that it did not sufficiently ruin their sexual fantasies, and put it down without buying it.

    Carrie: Oh no!

    Ray: I don't know what's wrong with people.

    Carrie: You know when I think of a conventional love poetry, let's be honest, I'm thinking of a dude poet, writing how beautiful some woman is to try to get into her pants. I mean that's kind of …

    Ray: Yes. Can you put that line in the podcast? That's really good. I think that's what I should've said.

    Carrie: Well it's basically ... I'm just kind of paraphrasing …


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