On a busy, damp evening this week I interviewed by phone or in person three prominent younger New York poets who also run poetry reading series—Steven Karl, Douglas Piccinnini, and Chris Hosea. Enjoy the interviews, and it's been a pleasure blogging with you all this week.
Steven Karl co-leads the Stain of Poetry reading series and is the author of the three chapbooks . Among other things, in this interview you will learn of his change of heart for Emily Dickinson, as well as elusive mysteries about grapefruit.
"There's really no money in poetry."
RC: How do you see the connection between your work as a poet and your work for a reading series?
SK: They're almost inseparable for me in a way, as readings tend to be one of the more immediate ways that I hear new poets or poets that I'm perhaps not familiar with—or even poets that I am familiar with. I remember the first time hearing Dottie Lasky read, and once you hear her read you're like, "Oh that's how her poem is read." So readings kind of form my way of thinking about poetry and reading poetry. And I feel lucky to be working in readings too because, with the Stain of Poetry reading series—it's myself, Christie Ann Reynolds, and Erika Moya—at almost every reading I get to hear one or two poets I'm not familiar with, so it really helps bring in more of an eclectic range of readers which helps me a lot.
RC: So what do you think is the function of a poetry community?
SK: What is the function?
RC: Yeah, I mean what do you think the purpose is, or can you say something about the benefits of it.
SK: Yeah definitely, that's one of the ways a lot of us feel real lucky to have a poetry community, and I especially feel that way living in New York. For me it's really nice because I have like six, seven poets that are literately my neighbors, so if I walk three minutes in any which way there's somebody who's writing poems, somebody who I admire, somebody who I find inspiring. And with the larger community, one of the benefits that I really find is being able to get people who don’t live here to come in and see them do a reading, and that’s one of the things that I really enjoy.
And then it's also sort of a shared community too, because I guess in a weird way there's really no money in poetry. It doesn't mean that poetry's not competitive, but I feel like people are genuinely happy and excited for each other, because no one's trying get that "book contract." So when you see someone published in a journal, whether it's in print or online, or they're doing a reading, or there's a video that's popped up of them doing a reading, I feel like people are genuinely supportive and pretty excited about it.
RC: It sounds like the New York poetry scene, because it's New York I guess, is not actually that insular because people are always coming here, so ideas can move around. It's not just New York poets talking to each other.
SK: Yeah absolutely, and if it works out it's usually what gets us most excited, because it's like a treat to have these poets who are just coming to New York anyway, and then why not do a reading? And those are usually really well-attended readings too because they're not people we get to see usually.
RC: Alright so let's talk about yourself as a writer. When were you first drawn to poetry, and when did you first think of becoming a poet?
SK: In high school I started writing poems but really those poems were much more like song lyrics, and at that time I had not really been able to differentiate between a poem and a song lyric, and it wasn't until maybe 10th grade that I remember we had to read Emily Dickinson. And I actually didn't like Emily Dickinson at the time, but the fact that her poems were so short and she was using an em dash, that was nothing like a song lyric. That was sort of my first realization of the difference between writing a poem and writing a song lyric. And so I spent high school writing really bad poems, as I think most people did, but then I continued to just keep writing poems.
RC: That's funny you mention the em dash, because I noticed that one of your poems ends in an em dash, which I found interesting.
SK: Yeah later on, in college I took a course that was all about Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, and at that time I ended up falling in love with Emily Dickinson, and I certainly have been unable to shake the em dash. (Laughing) She has forever stained me with the em dash—that’s sort of an unfailing love that I’ve stolen from her.
RC: I noticed that your poems have two very different styles, the first being visually disjunctive in style. Can you comment about this visual structure you use?
SK: Absolutely, I feel like I write in at least two or three styles. I got to a point where I had been writing a lot of sonnets and sestinas, a lot of abecedarians, but I decided I wanted to break up my poems more, and wanted to think of them in a more abstract way, so that they felt more like they had the movement of music or the movement of actually looking at a painting.
RC: The other style I'm thinking of is your prose poetry, and these also include a first person narrator. What's your connection with these very different poems?
SK: That's true, that is a big distinction—a lot of the poems that are all over the page was also me getting away from using the "I." Not that there's anything wrong with using the "I", but I got tired of writing "I" narrative driven poems, so breaking them up over the page, I got away from that. But then it's still a form of poetry I enjoy, I still like reading lyric poetry and poems with that guiding "I". So my next compromise was to go back to those "I" poems but to put them in more of a prose form. And I kind of like that because I feel like it's a little looser and I can have a little more fun with it. And the “I” is always a shifting “I” in the prose poems. It may come out of sort of a personal experience, but then one of the reasons that I write poems is to bring in new experiences or to shift that perspective.
RC: And I guess my last question is what's up with the grapefruit? (Laughing) What does this mean?
SK: (Laughing) What does grapefruit mean?
RC: Yeah you seem to have some sort of an affinity, sort of like a love-hate thing? I was just wondering, what's up with it, what does it mean?
SK: It's kind of open for interpretation, but it's certainly my fixated object of obsession. And the idea kind of came about with originally looking at Yoko Ono's book Grapefruit, but then of course the grapefruit poems I wrote have nothing to do with that because Yoko Ono's poems are so much more abstract and so much more fun. Which is what I originally thought that I was going to do. And I tried writing a bunch of poems sort of mimicking that, and they all sucked. But the only thing that ended up carrying through was, I was like, oh wow, every time the grapefruit makes an appearance it kind of works. So then I had to go through and re-edit those, with the idea of focusing on the grapefruit. And sometimes I don't even know what the grapefruit is. Sometimes the grapefruit is just literally like a grapefruit, and other times the grapefruit is just a stand in for, or a metaphor for many other things.
* * *
"Youth & all its fins" by Steven Karl
Today it is all rain. A week ago & a day before it was also all rain. Also thunder. Also lightning. I decided to take a short-cut across the lawn at work. I slipped on the mud.
While teaching I realized that I smelled like dirt. That day I had a glass of grapefruit juice. It was my last glass. That night I gave a reading. The rain stopped. People came. People left. I almost had a good time. I didn't stutter too much, nor did I mention grapefruit or mango.
I bought grapefruit juice yesterday. I had sweet potato fries on Monday. I had yogurt & granola with honey & bananas for breakfast. I spent Thursday wandering through a park. There was sun. On rainy days like today it's easy to forget about sun.
Steven Karl is the author of the chapbooks, emissions/ of (H_NGM_N, 2011), (Ir)Rational Animals (Flying Guillotine Press, 2010) and with the artist, Joseph Lappie, State(s) of Flux (Peptic Robot Press, 2009). His poems have recently appeared in or are forthcoming from With + Stand, Jellyfish, EOAGH, Taiga, and paxamericana. In one way or another he is involved with Coldfront Magazine, Sink Review, Stain of Poetry: A Reading Series, Borough Writer Workshops, and Writopia. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. Visit stevenkarl.blogspot.com.
Rob Crawford is the author of Brilliant Families, forthcoming from Counterpoint Press. An editor at Overlook Press, he attended Phillips Academy Andover and Yale University. His writing has appeared in Golden Handcuffs Review and Publishers Weekly, and he lives in Brooklyn. @rcrawford7