Inquistor: Ray DeJesús
Participants: Christine N. Kanowink, Jeff T. Johnson, Claire Donato, Mark Guarie, Amanda SmeltzScene: Virtual round table discussion. Questions are posed by the inquisitor. Panelists eag, Allison Power, David Blasco
Let's get it on!
Do you consider yourself 'poets'? If so, how do you negotiate around the traffic of social conversations that would require you to admit such a label, or is it as my friend Lauren Hunter says, "your dirty little secret"?
CK: It helps that 90% of my friends are also poets or something equally silly, but, yes, it is hard to say it with a straight face sometimes, especially among respectable members of the community.
JJ: I admit to writing poetry, but don’t usually call myself a poet. If someone else does, fine. But what do we even mean by poet, or by poetry? Even in a poetry workshop, we all have different ideas of what poetry is, or what effective or worthwhile poetry is. Anyway, I’d rather describe myself as a writer, just as I prefer to think about writing as writing, rather than a particular form or genre. I do think what is it is an ok question, but just like I prefer what does it do to what does it mean, I prefer what does it do to what is it. And maybe what does it do and who or what does it do it to, and when, etc, is a more productive series of questions. So when people ask me what I do, I might say I write, or that I write poetry, if it makes sense in context, but I am a poet sounds to me like I’m different from you, or I have a different/superior grasp of language than you do. If we feel self-conscious as writers of poetry, or as self-proclaimed writers of poetry, is it because we perceive poetry to be ridiculous or unnecessary? Or are we giving ourselves a backhanded compliment, bemoaning the myth that poetry is not valued in society, or that poetry is an occupation that doesn’t pay, but we do it anyway, or that we are misunderstood? Poems are more interesting than poets, and poetry is more interesting than poems. I make poems, sometimes with words; call me what you want to. Call me Jeff or hey you.
MG: Well yeah, so I just tell them that I write stuff and it’s mostly poetry. I don’t often use that label (‘poet’) in describing myself, but I certainly won’t correct anyone if that’s what they chose to use to describe me.
CD: In response to the first question, a quote from my friend and teacher Ross Gay comes to mind: ‘We are not our poems.’
In response to the second question: When I find myself in a social situation that requires me to talk about poetry, I usually say, ‘I studied poetry in graduate school’ or ‘My formal training was in poetry writing.’ And then I qualify the statement by stating that I’ve also studied and written and done a lot of things, all of which feel like poetry to me.
AS: I don’t know that I’d call myself a Poet. I’ll wait for other people to do that.
When it comes up in conversation, I often dodge - talk about writing first, and then if people press, I mention poetry. I’m reluctant to have to explain myself too much.
DB: In my experience, the conversation rarely makes it much further. If you say you're a poet, people take your word for it; whether it's from manners or indifference or both, most people leave it at that (& I don't feel obligated to explain anything).
AP: I smile and change the subject.
Why? Why poetry?
CK: No one has good reason to do anything. I was good at writing and people complimented me on my writing and I kept on writing and then I went to study poetry at various accredited universities and now it is what I am always doing and thinking about. That’s not a very romantic answer. I think it suits me and the way my brain processes things, but if things had gone a little differently I could imagine myself pursuing any number of ridiculous artist endeavors.
JJ: Because it is.
MG: For the money and the fame.
CD: Right now, my mind goes here: Because everything has a poetics, and because language lets me check in with my ears.
AS: Because I came out of the womb rhyming. Because elliptical and inverted expression. Because over-explanation bores. Because the mystery of shared language is one I serve. Because singing.
AP: Because I'm not a painter. (Too obvious? Sorry, but I hate this question.)
DB: Could you repeat the question?
But isn't poetry a dead art form?
CK: If an art critic for the New York Times hasn’t declared your art form dead, then it isn’t worth doing.
JJ: What is poetry’s form? What’s it made of? If language, what is that? Isn’t language always dying in the form of utterance? How long do poems stay fresh? Why do we keep making them? Are we just trying to make a really good one so we can stop making them? Poetry is a form of death. Art is what you make it.
MG: Most things taste better when they are dead.
CD: If every word invokes a little death, I die – ‘I’ become(s) dead – as I write. I aspire toward the deadest death, and I call for you, the reader, to press your mind against the surface of this text. It will come alive.
AS: As long as humans speak to one another and babies babble after birth, poetry is inherent in existence.
One of our panelists, Jeff T. Johnson has said that, and correct me if I'm wrong, JJ, that poetry is as much an art form as the visual arts (e.g., painting, photography, video, et al). Jeff, can you can you exlplain this theory a bit more? How do the you others feel about this theory?
CK: I’m not sure I get this one and would hate to get egg on my face in front of the whole BAP readership. Poetry is art, the same way a painting is art and dance and basket weaving and songwriting are art. Is poetry a visual art? Depends on the poet/poem. Poetry does exist visually since most people experience it on the page in its visual form; however very few poems would do well framed and hanged in a gallery. Saroyan and Appolinaire would, though.
JJ: Claire Donato and I have an ongoing conversation about this. I probably got the notion from her, and she probably discovered it elsewhere. We (the larger, more nebulous we) are comfortable describing painting as art (though art, or the art world, whatever that is, is currently over painting, maybe), but we don’t necessarily think of poetry as art. Or, better said, when we say art we might think of painting or sculpture or drawing or video installation, etc., but we probably don’t think of poetry. Why is that? Visual art sounds familiar to us, but we don’t think of poetry as visual art, even though we like to recognize poetry as text with line breaks. (Who is we?) But poetry is visual art. Poetry is language art. Sound and meaning are important in poetry, but so is shape. And, to be sure, poetry (and language) is not just words. If one of poetry’s best strategies is juxtaposition, can we do the work of poetry using only images? Of course we can. And words can also act as visual objects to be looked at. We can read images, we can look at text. And we do. Why shouldn’t we create multimedia poetry?
MG: I’d argue that poetry can work like the visual arts, and yet, on a couple levels it is a completely different animal. For one thing, the aural quality of poetry predates its written presentation: long before languages were codified, long before print, there were story-tellers, Greek theatrical epics, bards, etc. Here’s the big, bold and probably refutable statement: No matter what their aesthetic is, all poets working today are still reckoning with the pre-codified, aural ancestry of the art form. I’d even argue that “visual approaches” to poetics, still imply some sort of sense of real-time, of being inside time with the spaces between stanzas enacting pauses of sorts. That being said, I think visual arts approaches to poetry most assuredly do inform the way a poem is read. Many decisions that poets make are ‘visual’ or ‘graphic’ in nature. I don’t even know if I answered the question.
CD: I’m interested in what Jennifer DeVere Brody calls “an expanded field of writing” where language is embodied material that takes shape both on- and off- of the physical page. With regard to embodied writing practices, it seems many visual artists are writers and vice-versa and versa-vice until the boundaries are broken down and blurry. I think of Jenny Holzer’s nighttime projections, Tom Phillips’s treated Victorian novel A Humument, Caroline Bergvall’s language-driven installations, Aram Saroyan’s lighght verse, Kenneth Goldsmith’s book-objects, C.D. Wright’s carefully sculpted texts. The list goes on.
AS: Of course it’s an equal art form. Poetry does things these other arts can’t, which is not to their detriment, but is worth noting: verse can be memorized and carried in the brain whole. You can only have a memory of your experience of those other art forms, but the moment you recite a poem from inside your self you experience it again, in total. It’s awe-inspiring.
DB: There's less money in it.
Okay, time for some irreverence. Are smoking and drinking prerequisites to becoming a 'poet'?
CK: No, but it helps. Depends on whose portrait you have in your locker. If it is Rimbaud, then yes.
JJ: [smokes a drink]
CD: word ‘aspire’ comes from the Latin aspirare, from ad- ‘to’ + spirare ‘breathe.’ Aspiration is connected to all writing. I choose to breathe.
AS: Nah. You do have to be a good lay, though.
AP: "O for a draught of vintage! that hath been/ Cool'd a long age in the deep-delve`d earth,/ Tasting of Flora and the country-green,/ Dance and Provencal song, and suburnt mirth!/ O for a beaker full of the warm South!/ Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,/ With beaded bubbles winking at the brim/ And purple-stain`ed mouth;..." No.
DB: If you or anyone you know has a substance abuse problem, call 1-866-923-3761.
What type of clothing must a 'poet' wear in order to be considered a true 'poet' these days?
CK: I don’t know. A cloak and dagger?
JJ: I don’t like to put on words, says John Cayley.
MG: Probably the same type of clothes that got the poet into this mess in the first place.
CD: Everything but underpants.
AS: I know Blasco wears a beret a lot. Or is it a Kangol? I know I could use a few new bras.
DB: Fez (sp?) and little cymbals. Dance monkey dance.
On a serious note, where do you all find yourselves writing? For instance, I find it comfortable to write in the most uncomfortable positions (e.g. on the bed)? What is your spot?
CK: I’m not really a “spot” kind of person. Right now I am at my desk in my room. I like it because I can sit upright. Keeps the blood flowing to the brain (very scientific!). But I’ll write anywhere. I’m not picky.
JJ: I usually write on my computer.
MG: resent the kitchen table beats my desk by hair. Ten years ago I was one of those coffee shop flies, but that seems a tremendously inconvenient (not to mention like clichéd or something) space in which to do serious work. Back then, when I went to “write” at my local coffee shop, I was probably more interested in the social scene (and yes, that one really cute barista) than accomplishing anything in particular. It should be noted that the ideal space for me is less a physical location than a stretch of time in which I am uninterrupted.
CD: I write on my computer, but also in my head. (‘The mind is in the head,’ Robert Creeley says.) In my head, thoughts are mostly uninteresting, but sometimes, a thought reverberates. I type that thought while sitting at a desk (or on the floor, or on the bed). Or, I allow myself to forget the thought. If it’s worth becoming text, it will persist.
AS: Notebook on the train or in a restaurant, laptop on the dining room table. I hate desks. Mine’s just piled with crap: bird feathers, scraps of chocolate-covered paper, spools of yarn.
AP: A room with a view.
DB: I've written poems everywhere, including the 5th floor men's facilities at the New School.
What poets should we be reading these days?
CK: Anyone you’ve never heard of. Go to an online poetry journal and do the opposite of what you would normally do: click on the names you don’t know, especially if they have a really cool name like “Leviathan.”
JJ: Everything. Not just words. Things we don’t know we like. Things we used to not like. Things we’ve already read. We should read in other languages, even if we don’t know them (also, demand bilingual editions, and read both versions). We should read people we know and people we don’t know. Yes, we should read poets. And poems. I love to swap recommendations in conversation, because there’s context for suggestions, and I’m more likely to remember to look for something based on a particular discussion. In the context of this interview, I’d say poets should be reading multimedia and multiform work: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, bpNichol, Lyn Hejinian, Thalia Field, Charles Bernstein, Leslie Scalapino, CD Wright, Caroline Bergvall, Juliana Spahr, Rosmarie Waldrop, Keith Waldrop, Jhave, John Cayley, Ian Hatcher, Judd Morrissey & Mark Jeffery, Shelley Jackson, Talan Memmott, Justin Katko, Keston Sutherland, Rachel Zolf, Samantha Gorman, Lisa Robertson, Erin Mouré...
MG: Dead poets: Ted Berrigan, Gertrude Stein, James Schuyler, Jack Spicer, Frank O’Hara… Living poets: Anne Carson, Dara Wier, James Tate, Dean Young, Harryette Mullen, Rosemarie Waldrop, John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout
There certainly are more…
CD: Yikes! I just wrote a way-too-long yet still completely incomplete list. Let me delete it and instead list two writers who don’t currently reside in America whose work you should check out:
* Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi (Spain): Over the past few years, Azie has helped me to think about language and its relationship to the mind more than anyone else. Her prose is crafted out of living cells; it does not shy away from death. Her narrators’ perceptions are always uncanny; they say things like ‘We are said to die of one thing on paper, but it is entirely of something different that we die.’ I cannot recommend her work enough. (Note: Read excerpts from her novella Fra Keeler (http://www.harpandaltar.com/interior.php?t=s&i=7&p=54&e=79) online at Harp & Altar and Dewclaw (http://dewclawjournal.com/issue-3/azareen-van-der-vliet-oloomi/). Also, New Herring Press (http://newherringpress.tumblr.com/) is releasing a novel-excerpt called Girona any day now.)
AS: I’m a huge advocate of Matt Hart, a fire-and-brimstone humanist out of Cincinnati. He’s a juggernaut, dashes cynicism to the ground. I’ve been really impressed by Ange Mlinko’s intense linguistic explorations, and I fell in love with Joshua Beckman a few months ago: weird, lyric, tender. And if no one has read my recently passed mentor Paul Violi, go read him right now. He is a wry celebration, a glory. But I think we should be reading as widely and variously as possible! Poetry is in good health.
AP: All of them. Except the bad ones.
DB: Martin Beeler.
How do we feel about traditional form versus, dare I say, experimentation?
CK: this point in poetic history, I don’t think that experimentation is about form. I think that ballgame has already been played. There might be something left to try, but I think real experimentation exists in the content of the poem. I think there is a bit of a pre-occupation with conceptual forms right now, with or without the content to back it up. The most amazing, original poetry I’ve been reading recently hasn’t necessarily been formally inventive. Most have been left justified with rather traditional line breaks. I also think there are certain “tricks” that certain poets use to signify that they are writing an experimental poem and if every is using them as they have since, say, the 70s, then it isn’t really pushing the envelop anymore. It is like writing an exquisite corpse: super-fun to do, but usually should stay in your scrap book.
JJ: Every word is an experiment when you set it next to something else (including other words). A friend told me someone told him experimentation happens between words. This thought should make us less suspicious of experimentation (“dare I say”), but does not absolve us from the imperative to try different things, to discover new enabling constraints, and to find more rules to break. Form is form is another thing I like to hear. Tradition comes and goes, and experiment goes and comes tradition.
MG: There was a time when a traditional form was experimentation. There are times that I have experimented with traditional forms. I think imposing a form on writing inherently leads to surprises, to moments in which the form (be it traditional or something at play in the piece itself) dictates the outcome. In this sense— and I think this has been true of my own work— traditional form becomes a kind of experimentation.
CD: At its best, form refers to the visible shape of language, or a thoughtful arrangement of language’s parts on the page. At its worst, form provides language with a mold. JELL-O is made of bones and hides. I like some flavors: cherry, peach, mixed fruit. Is a broken sonnet an experimental thing? Poetry = wordplay = experimentation. No one, not even the writer, is sure of the experimental thing. If the writer thinks she’s sure, she’s wrong.
I love formal restlessness. All animals have nervous systems. What does it mean, to be ‘formally restless’? Anxiety and boredom dissolve in very hot water, spill across the page, then chill and transform. Powder takes on the shape of a word, and, in the hands of the other, disintegrates into JELL-O form.
AS: I feel Yes. I don’t think there’s as much conflict between them as some might suspect. Besides, it’s hard to be “traditional,” even if using a historic poetic form - contemporary voice and rupture of languages tends to shine through.
AP: Are we there yet?
DB: Stevens wrote "All poetry is experimental poetry. But mine is better than yours."
Does anyone in this panel listen to music while writing? If so, what? I myself, when writing, like to listen to The Melvins, Circle Jerks, The Krays and The Truents (NYC punk bands that everyone should be listening to), The Ramones.
CK: No. I generally don’t listen to music as background. If I am desperate for accompaniment I will put on some Shastkovich because it makes me feel important.
JJ: The record player helps me write. The need to get up and flip the record, or look for another one, reminds me to stretch out and loosen up, and gives me a physical rhythm that incorporates breaks in patterns of concentration (musical structures also provide patterns to write with or against). If I lose a thought on the way to the turntable, it probably wasn’t worth the effort to pursue it. I don’t listen to anything particular when I write—whatever I’m in the mood for will do, and I write in diverse moods. Also, I might start writing after putting something on, even I hadn’t planned on it.
MG: Ray, as we’ve discussed before, our musical preferences have much in common. I do often listen to punk bands when hacking away: To your list I’d add power-poppers like the Buzzcocks and the Jam, as well as west-coasters such as the Dead Kennedys and X. There’s a crop of newer bands that hold the old ethos, while referencing their psychedelic/glam ancestors: Thee Oh Sees, Psychedelic Horseshit, The Bitters, The Whines, Times New Viking, Tyvek, Eat Skull, and Jay Reatard (R.I.P.). These bands seem also indebted to garage bands like the Sonics, the Gories, and weird 60’s freaks like the Fugs. And then, of course, I feel like David Bowie was a sort of guiding figure in the series of poems that made up the bulk of my thesis “Resistant is Futile,” wherein I created a Ziggy Stardust-like alter-ego. Yes, well, and sometimes I listen to instrumental classical music, particularly the inventions of Bach (played by Glen Gould) and Erik Satie. Let’s not forget to add a dash of Django Reinhardt.
CD: I sometimes listen to music when I write, but usually not. Right now, when I do, I listen mostly to drone/ambient music, like Growing or Tim Hecker.
AS: I find music distracting while writing, as it futzes with whatever rhythms are driving the piece at hand. I write with musical composition very much in mind. But hip-hop has taught me a lot about my idiosyncratic music.
AP: Philip Glass. True story.
DB: I love the night life. I've got to boogie. On the disco-a-ha.
This question is directed at the women in our panel: Can you give me your thoughts on female representation in the poetry world? It seems to me be as scarce as latino poetry.
CK: I don’t know, there are more women then men in this country. We are everywhere. There are more female poets than male poets, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at poetry journals. I think we all just need gender neutral pen names. I bet I would get published a lot more if I changed my name to Leviathan.
JJ: Guys should answer this too. We need to pay attention to more poetry, from more people and places. Anyone who thinks less women than men publish poetry or are anthologized because of a discrepancy in poetic facility between men and women is fooling themselves and misleading others. However, the solution to this problem is not, for example, to host more all-female readings, but to host less all-male readings. It’s not about numbers, it’s about diversity and access. Any homogenous reading is less rich than a heterogeneous one.
CD: I defer to the men on the panel. No, really: This is something we need to work out together. In general, ‘societally,’ I’m concerned that we too often defer to numbers as solutions to our problems. Dear statistical analysis: we need to shift our perspective! If you count me as a woman, are you also recognizing me as a poet? Who shows up for the census? Once upon a time, I tried to edit an all-‘female’ literary journal and found myself troubled by my editorial constraint. It seemed arbitrary. Also, it seemed strategic. Numbers as ammunition. When ammunition detonates, it makes a big sound. Which isn’t to say I don’t admire organizations like VIDA, publications like How2, or presses such as Switchback Books. I really do. But representation should not be a contest. As long as it is, the group with the power will win (will dominate the other [team]). So let’s change or dissolve the game, come up with a different field.
AS: It’s there. Plenty of it. It just has come about in the past twenty or thirty years, I’d say. You have to read contemporaries to find fair representation - the “canon,” whatever’s left of it, just missed out on publishing all those women who have been writing for ages. But I think of Olena Kalytiak Davis, Matthea Harvey, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Kiki Petrosino, Claudia Rankine, I mean, the list goes on and on, and I’m not even listing the women who are already “canon.” Women are killing it; the major literary publications just have to catch up with showing it.
AP: I'm sure Smeltz has answered this question sufficiently for all of us.
DB: ugh. Women.
Okay, first ever book of poetry you picked up as child, teen, etc. Mine: cummings' 100 poems, back in high school.
CK: Believe it or not: Robert Frost’s Selected.
JJ: The first book I really remember is The Heath Guide to Poetry, from a high school English class. I still have the same copy, with my mind-blown marginalia.
MG: as a selected T.S. Eliot of some sort. I don’t know the imprint or the editor. I remember being struck by the sprawling intensity of “The Wasteland.”
CD: ee cummings 100 poems too, I believe, though I liked Marge Piercy’s The Moon is Always Female too.
AS: Eliot’s “Waste Land” and Bob Frost’s collected in high school. Typical. But I fell in love with Pablo Neruda and Anna Akhmatova not long after - that was a good combo.
AP: Robert Frost as a child.
DB: I forget. Great American Prose Poems was huge for me, though.
If you had to stop writing, could you stop?
CK: Sure. Definitely. Writing is an impulse, or at least composing is, but the physical act of committing thoughts onto paper or computer or what-have-you is purely elective. Like today, I was on the train and there was something I wanted to write but I had lost my pen. If I had to stop writing I imagine it would be like that.
JJ: I stop writing every day, and I start again the next day.
MG: What do you mean by ‘had to’? What do you mean by ‘writing’? Like gun to head?
CD: The world doesn’t need my poetry. On a selfish level, however, communication is key, even if I’m not very good at it. I don’t think I could ever stop exchanging letters (as in characters and/or the sharing of ideas and/or feelings, out loud or on paper) with other people. Teetering on the edge of language with others (especially those who also teeter on the edge of language) is very important! But, as I mention above, many things feel like poetry – or writing – to me. I (would) just as happily practice arm balances, go running, grow vegetables, read books, hear music, hang out with my cat, etc.
AS: Not even a life in the salt mines could deter me.
AP: Yes and no.
DB: If I "had to stop," I'd probably write more. Make me stop, Ray!
What are your favorite sports? Name teams or athletes. Mine: Baseball--NY Mets fan, tennis-Roger Federer, Stefan Edberg fan.
CK: I like football more than I care to admit. For football and all other sports I’m a Chicago-fan all the way. I have also decided to start watching Soccer even though I find it impossibly boring, but I like talking about Soccer, because I like talking about how Argentina deserves to beat Italy. I feel like I have to justify my love of sports as a young woman who writes poetry and wears dresses. People don’t believe me.
JJ: Football (Raiders and Steelers) and basketball (Lakers). My favorite athlete of all time is Magic Johnson. However, the homophobia (Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah each recently made homophobic slurs during games) and sexual predation (Ben Roethlisburger, Darrell Russell, Kobe Bryant, etc.) seemingly endemic in professional sports often make me wonder why I still follow sports. We face similar dilemmas as music listeners. Is this behavior a result of exceptionalism confined to sports and music, or is it a spotlight on problems in the country (and world) as a whole. Sadly, it’s a bigger problem. Perhaps the microcosm of sports can help us work out some of these issues. If progressive-minded people boycott sports, there will be less pressure to condemn hateful behavior in those arenas.
MG: As one raised in Cleveland, my relationship to professional sports is complicated, rife with unresolved tensions, disappointments, bizarre moments of elation, etc… I always liked to watch basketball, it’s a beautiful contest of improvisation, psychological resolve, and a solid dose of good ole fashioned athleticism. I have no particular affiliations, don’t follow anything too closely, but can see the appeal. I recently saw a couple games of the NHL playoff series between Boston and Montreal (with a friend from Boston as well as a friend from Canada), and kind of got into it. Scratch that, I got way into it. The next day I had a pretty bad hangover, go figure.
I used to fence competitively, briefly flirting with a semi-elite level, but never quite being able to crack the top ten of the US Under 17 rankings. The fencing ‘scene’ (as it were) has much akin to the poetry world: there is no hope of a career (except maybe teaching?), you will not be recognized on the street even if you are the best, but there is a fiercely dedicated, small, contingent of passionate practitioners.
CD: I used to love Olympic ice-skating and have seen many Stars on Ice shows. Oksana Baiul!
AS: Baseball and basketball, without question. I get all achey when I hear someone dribbling on asphalt because it was so much a part of my childhood. Major Jackson’s “Hoops” makes me endlessly happy. I also love Jimmy Rollins off the Phils - sorry, Ray - and I thought John Kruk was hilarious growing up. I still do. Dude is absurd.
A: Teams: Pats. Bo Sox. For watching: Tennis. For doing: Skiing. Tennis.
How does pornography fit into poetry? Is this a ridiculous question?
CK: You would ask this question. Pornography can go wherever it pleases. Personally, I have never written a sexy poem in my life. I actually think it is kind of a problem. I’m trying to work on it. However, you Ray, please feel free to write about weird egg fetishes. I am also sure that there is a philosophical argument linking the two, but I will leave that to the other panelists to figure out.
JJ: Depends how you define pornography, if not poetry. If any graphic or explicit use of language or image can be described as pornography, lots of poetry can be described as pornography, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with sex.
MG: Um, just right? With the proper amount of lubrication? This is not a ridiculous question.
Certainly there is the extent to which reading is a kind of seduction, that its pull can work in a manner like (if not directly related to) that of sexual attraction. In a sense, the act of reading involves a sort of communion between author and reader, a communion not unlike sex. But so we are not talking about sex, we are talking about pornography, right? Well, just kind of for fun, I am going to argue that the reading of poetry implies a sort of pornographic approach: The sex/text (no kids, not sext) or rather the sexual/textual is observed, looked at, etc. always in a private manner. Even when you read aloud, you read alone. This, then, is rather like the ultimately lonely sexual release that one gets from porn (unless you go to rally weird parties). In this sense, the relationship between the text of a poem and whatever it may be that this text represents (or can be said to “mean”), is analogous to the relationship between pornography and the actual sex act. Wow, how about that for masturbatory.
CD: Without knowing, I consume very little and too much of both.
AS: Um, I dunno - I think sex is inseparable from poetry, given that I believe both are inherent to bodily existence. But porno? I guess if Tao Lin started writing poems there’d be a lot more sloppy beej. I suppose there are probably plenty of blow job poems out there. Porn is a simulation, you know? I want the real deal, in poems and in intercourse.
AP: No and yes.
DB: Both are great distractions. "Peeled pencil, choke. / Rub her coke."--G.Stein
What journals/zines should we be reading?
CK :I don’t know. Maggy? Supermachine? When my press, Augury Books, prints its first book in the fall you should read that. Give me and my friends your money.
JJ: Check the “poems previously appeared in” page of your favorite books of poems to find out where people you like to read publish. Chances are you’ll find other stuff you like by reading those publications. Also, pick up anything that catches your eye, and as you flip through it, read whatever looks interesting or perplexing. By now we ought to know that online publications are at least as worthwhile as print ones, and of course web venues can support multimedia practitioners.
MG: Lately: “1913: A Journal of Forms,” “Supermachine,” and “Forklift, Ohio.”
CD: Abraham Lincoln, Cabinet, Evening Will Come, Cambridge Literary Review, Cannibal, Bad Serials (http://badpress.infinology.net/), Whiskey and Fox.
AS: Should? I like Black Warrior Review, H_NGM_N, Alaska Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Tin House, Jubilat, Supermachine, love Typecast/Sawmill for their aesthetic - I mean, the range is so wide. It depends on what kind of poems you want to be reading. I like oodles.
AP: The ones made by your friends. The ones not made by your friends. Some of thenew ones. Some of the old ones. As many as you can stand.
DB: Ones with tastefully done cover art.
You are all, or were, MFA students. What are your thoughts on the MFA? I know it helped me in that it helped me get over, not entirely, over my shyness and introduced me to a community of like-minded folk that I wouldn't have met otherwise.
CK:I met a bunch of awesome people. It is a terminal enough degree that we can all teach college (in theory). I got to have a lot of people spend a lot of time on me and my poetry. I worked with brilliant poets who said nice things sometimes. It was pretty rad.
JJ: I had a great time at The New School. It helped me develop a writing community and critical audience, made me aware of work I hadn’t seen (including that of fellow students), allowed me to work closely with some writers I admire, and most importantly, gave me an excuse to prioritize my writing for two years. MFAs aren’t for everyone, and they shouldn’t be required of poetry teachers or practitioners, but I’m happy and fortunate to have had the experience.
MG: It took me a long time (like 6-7 years) to come around on the issue. As a pretentious little undergraduate I was convinced that one could not “learn” how to write in a class, that MFA programs were basically a sham, that it would turn me into a derivative poet. I wanted to, you know, ‘just do it,’ to be out there, to sneer and self-identify as some sort of pseudo-bohemian not quite punk-rock artiste archetype. I recalled that early heroes of mine, people like Rimbaud, Greg Corso, those well heeled New York Schoolers, had among them zero MFAs. I viewed the professionalization of poetry through these programs as a way to streamline and in some sense sequester poetry. Like I said, I was a snotty little sucker. To be sure, however, I learned quite a bit during this time outside the academic setting, the most important lesson being that I can push myself to work as an artist in an unstructured setting. And this is an important lesson: I can’t help but wonder about those that go straight from undergraduate into an MFA program. Will they, post MFA, continue on outside of the gentle and caring setting of the workshop? Can they knock out a manuscript without the pressure of a thesis due date? Will economic pressures and the marginal status of the art form disillusion and then crush another talented upstart?
That being said, I do whole-heartedly believe in the benefits of the MFA. This isn’t just because I am a recent graduate of such a program (though I suppose I better believe in a 40K investment). Ray, as you mentioned, there is a lot to be said for the community that a program can build: Perhaps the most important thing to a writer is that set of peers off of whom s/he can bounce of ideas, experiment, vent, and from whom s/he can get suggestions. I learned so much from the faculty as well as my fellow students: I am confident that I will continue to learn from, be impressed by, and perhaps get drunk with these people in the future. The workshop process provides not only a few good suggestions about how to make your own piece better, but also fosters in one’s self a more critical eye: You learn how to ‘read as a writer’ by becoming involved in the work of your peers. These kinds of skills are not only essential to fostering one’s own writing practice, but also in developing a skill-set for teaching (now I feel like I am writing an awkwardly worded cover letter or something). Oh, and in addition, the MFA program certainly exposed me to poets and types of poetry that I never would have discovered on my own.
CD: I went to Brown for my MFA. In general, I think the MFA experience depends totally on the cohort of people you’re with. And that external factors can impact the experience as a whole. For example, consider the following scenario: the economy collapses and you’re living with your suddenly unemployed boyfriend in a huge apartment that costs too much to heat. That experience is a little awful while you’re in it, and yet when it leaves, you’re like, ‘I really miss it.’ I think about Providence a lot. I spent a sad year there. But there’s an amazing interdisciplinary arts community in Providence, not to mention people like John Cayley and Joanna Howard, who make me want to create things.
AS: I went to it for community and seriousness, to apprentice, and that is exactly what I got. It was worth every penny and frustration. But I met a bunch of geniuses and badasses, so maybe my experience isn’t representative.
AP: Paid good money for my friends. Worth every cent.
Is poetry utilitarian? My Dad is a CPA, and I often wonder why I didn't just follow in pop's footsteps.
CK: No, poetry is not utilitarian. Well, rather, there is hopefully some sort of need that is fulfilled when certain people read or write poetry. Other than that, not really, and that is what I like about it. I may try to deny it, but I love the unnecessary. When an architect puts a flourish on a building it isn’t utilitarian. The building is necessary since it is a shelter, but that decorative column isn’t. Well, I like that decorative column.
JJ: Poetry won’t do your taxes, nor will it pay them, but it will give you something to think about besides money. Which is not to say CPAs don’t also think about language.
MG: I’d like to hope that someday my poetry will at least pitch in on the utility bills. Also, I was thinking I could use my poems as fodder for the woodstove that heats my tenement apartment in the run-down but fashionable bohemian district in which I live.
CD: Play is the only utilitarian thing.
AS: No. And when it becomes so, it becomes ad copy. Poetry isn’t for use, it’s for food.
AP: "Poetry is of course not to be defined by its uses." --T.S Eliot
DB: I would like to be a "dentist of the mind. / We all fear for our lives." --M.Gizzi
Who was your first kiss?
CK: , I forget his first name. In the church parking lot. Turns out he was a total d-bag.
JJ: My hand. It was a terrible kiss.
MG: Her name is Rebecca. Gee whiz. Oh my.
CD: It’s true: I was the first ten year old to successfully kiss herself.
AS: I think probably Billy Daiber, sometime in elementary or middle school. He liked me because I liked video games. We sang a duet from “Carmen” in fifth grade.
AP: Amanda Smeltz.
DB: Gene Simmons.
Last question: In 5 words or less, what does poetry really mean to you?
CK: Welcome to the limit, bitches.
JJ: Poetry means poetry means poetry
MG: I am thusly afflicted.
CD: Keywords: play, anxiety, desire, treatment.
AS: Everything or less or more.
DB: "Five words can say only."--Bob Perelman
A hearty, robust thank you to all who participated this afternoon.
Mark Gurarie is a recent graduate of the New School's MFA program with a concentration in poetry. He hails from Cleveland, OH, where he received his BA in Comparative Literature, German, and Psychology at Case Western Reserve University. Having resided in Brooklyn for over five years, he busies himself as a sometime copywriter/editor and general "guy that needs a job," while also playing bass and writing for the band 'Galapagos Now!'. His work has appeared in several issues of 'Spot Lit Magazine,' 'the 16th & Mission Review,' as well as 'the Case Reserve Review.' He is also a co-founder of the forthcoming Html/Blogger/ or maybe Wordpress site sensation to be entitled "Tao Lin is going down but I remain." He's pretty sure the blog will be his ticket to untold millions, specifically those that belong to Tao. He takes checks and most major credit cards.
Claire Donato (somanytumbleweeds.com) writes across genres, lives in Brooklyn, NY, and has taught at The New School, Brown University, and 826 Valencia/NYC. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Boston Review, Black Warrior Review, and Octopus. She holds an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University, where she received the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. In May, she will complete the 200-hour yoga teacher training program at Sonic Yoga in Manhattan. Her documentation of the experience can be found at Muscle Memory (somanytumbleweeds.tumblr.com). In August, she will be in residence as a fiction writer at the Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz, NY, where she will work on her first novel, Noël.
Jeff T. Johnson’s poetry is forthcoming or has appeared in 1913 a journal of forms, Boston Review, Slope, VOLT, Caketrain, and The Laurel Review, among other publications. Critical essays have appeared in Coldfront, Fanzine, The New Yinzer, and Kitchen Sink. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He lives in Brooklyn, is the poetry editor at LIT, and is an editor at Dewclaw. More bout and by Jeff can be found here: jefftjohnson.wordpress.com
Christine Kanownik's poetry, art, and reviews can be found in current or upcoming issues of: Everyday Genius, Another Chicago Magazine, Coldfront, Letterbox, Shampoo, Glitterpony, and Delirious Hem. In 2007 she completed a theatre residency at the University of Chicago and her book on the subject of cheese and chocolate can be found at Vosges Haut-Chocolat. She is currently collaborating with the profoundly relevant Raymond DeJesus.
David Blasco, a poet whose work has appeared in Maggy and Court Green, was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, & grew up in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. He lives in New York City for kicks.
Allison Power is an editor at Rizzoli publications and edits the poetry journal MAGGY. Her poems have recently appeared in Washington Square, Post Road, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Pax Americana.
Amanda Smeltz recently completed her MFA at The New School. A philosophy major in undergrad, she now writes poetry and sells wine at a restaurant in Manhattan. Her work appears in the anthology "Why I Am Not a Painter." She lives and moves and has her being in Brooklyn.
I'd like to thank Stacey Harwood and David Lehman for affording me this wonderful oppurtunity; it was an honor to server as guest blogger for Best American Poetry. Secondly, to all friends, readers of the blog, I hope you enjoyed. Thirdly, I'd like to thank the DeJesús clan for supporting me even if they didn't read a word I typed. Lastly, I just want to take a moment to let you all know that this entire week is/was dedicated to Raquel Maldanado Rodrigiez and John DeJesús: Que descansen, que desacansen. Siempre estaran en mis recurdos y corazon.
Until the next time, folks: