DD: James Longenbach has written: “Wonder is the reinvention of humility, the means by which we fall in love with the world.” The poems you’ve published as the founding editor of SHARKPACK Annual oftentimes resist the intelligence almost successfully, as Stevens would say, and in so doing, throw us into a deeper kind of wonder. Could you begin by talking about the poetic value of difficulty and its attendant wonders?
JS: I wasn’t familiar with the Longenbach quote at all. It rings very true. Thank you.
Navigating this idea of ‘difficulty’ can be a dodgy business. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is difficult, but not for ideas the poem itself contains; it utterly fails to be a compound searching art object; it is, in my opinion, the worst kind of bourgeois pastiche; it’s ‘difficult’ because it demands homework. Do you remember the gravitas with which a professor in your past handed-out the Eliot Addenda Packet? Aha, aha, his PhD at sudden good material work. This sort of ‘difficulty’ doesn’t interest me, obviously. I translate your mention of difficulty to a pretty ubiquitous term at fathombooks.org and sharkpackpoetry.com: ‘estrangement.’ I’m in debt to Paul Valéry’s “Poetry and Abstract Thought” here, his concept of poetry as the opposite of ‘utilitarian language’—that language used ‘to express my design, my desire, my command, my opinion; this language, when it has served its purpose,’ Valéry continues, ‘evaporates almost as it has heard.’ Difficult poetry reinvests the read word with its latent symbology, with language’s own native object-power. The words and phrases give up their being marbles and become, once again, nasty caltrops. To read them is to wake to the alien, anti-disappearance of that word, that phrase. No level of ‘understanding’ compromises such writing. And that’s wonder: to see the twisting power beneath the glyphs in your grocery list. Those very words, in the hands of the true poet, come to gross life.
DD: On Fathom Books’ website you explain the genesis of this publishing endeavor: ‘Fathom began with a sense of unrest that found friends. More specifically: “Fathom was driven into being by a belief that much gnostic, searching, profound verse is buried by the prevalence of contemporary talk-poetries and the politicking of certain pobiz ‘powers.’” Can you elaborate further on the problems of talk-poetries and politicking in contemporary American poetry?
JS: Reading my explanation of ‘estrangement’ likely makes clear all I oppose in talk-poetry. (And I oppose all of it.) I won’t rail on. You’ve stuck me to the wall on the ‘politicking’ charge, and I’ve got to thank you—your question has brought a relatively amorphous disgust into clear terms. I mean, largely, ‘pobiz’—that reprehensible businessy custodianship that policies awards, the little dick-sucking institutional circles that reinscribe each other’s decisions so as to bolster their repellant custodianship machine (awards-before-poems; how quickly the winner of a ‘major’ poetry prize ends up in residence at the Radcliffe Institute; the foregone conclusion of final interviews for professorships at AWP, as if there’s something to be lauded, or even located, in proclaiming oneself a writing ‘professional’; the anti-critical common inevitable sad-sack MFA-as-franchise). Contemporary poetry’s ‘leadership’ is a leadership of forfeiture. The regular question seems to be: ‘What is poetry doing? What’s trending?’ not ‘What ought it do? What can it do?’
Consider the attack that was ‘Foetry.’ Nearly every pundit thought the critique of contest nepotism valuable (well, cosmetically; doesn’t Graham remain in residence at Harvard in apparent service to literature? and Sacks? and Ramke at the University of Denver?), but a great of amount of attention was directed away from the attack’s purport to questions of Foetry’s ‘tone’ and the search for its web author. This is pure political gamesmanship—demand, so as to make filthy and unfit, the name of the outsider, while protecting the good names of establishment cogs; demand, and have your friends at the papers demand, a recognizable language and academic course of action in the very assaults on the academy. Civility of tone happens when one is complicit with a conversation’s terms; why ought an attacker of the machine speak in eliding clicks and beeps? This insistence on petting the bellies of our laureled profligates is just what’s made a little monster like me. An itinerant adversarial force has begun to poke holes in the bot’s armature, if only by rejection and leaving-off. My method is more confrontational; I will not respond decorously to the enemies of high concept.
DD: One thing I admire about you is your willingness to engage contemporary poetry with a critical eye. You are not afraid to fight for your aesthetic vision of poetry. Also, you are not afraid to say things that might be labeled controversial. Can you speak about the role of criticism in your writing life?
JS: It’s vigorous, vital; simply knowing SPR requires posts means I never stop looking into magazines and books. It all begins unremarkably: you say This won’t do, that won’t do; then you begin to see strings connecting your bêtes noires; then those strings begin to demand as much of self’s explicative time as every one of your loves. (—And how I’ve grown to understand the coverts of what I love in this critical search.) I remember hearing Helen Vendler speak about Sylvia Plath. A man in the audience railed against her verse; Vendler said he perhaps ought spend less time with her poems, since they didn’t bring him satisfaction. To me, that is wrong acquiescence; there is revelatory power in the No; I learn a great deal about my method for loving by knocking at the shell of what I despise. Speaking exclusively of my harshest critiques, of Dorothea Lasky, James Franco, Billy Collins, Henri Cole, Ada Limón: Fathom didn’t come to be simply as an embrace. I am repulsed by certain currents in contemporary poetry, and they will not escape my acid touch; this is another kind of ‘Negative Capability.’
DD: SHARKPACK Poetry Review is a beautifully designed and well-curated website. It contains very insightful commentary on poetry of the past and present moment. It also showcases wonderful poetry through features such as the SHARKPACK Annual, OUR ALCHEMICAL VALENTINE, and the Prospero Prizes. Please tell us a little bit about these features.
JS: We can’t take much credit for the design of sharkpackpoetry.com, which is a WordPress site. But our man Eric Westerlind made the Annual far more beautiful than even my lofty plans laid out. Submission to the Annual is free, and this year we’ll start paying small stipends to every contributor. The Prospero Prizes award $150 to the piece or group of pieces we think most searching in a given year; OUR ALCHEMICAL VALENTINE and Valus’ Sigil are contest initiatives (also free to enter, also awarding $150) calling for weird love poems and literature on video games, respectively. All monies paid by Fathom / SHARKPACK are out-of-pocket, and out of dedication to the art.
DD: On the SHARKPACK Poetry Review website, you say: “We believe deeply in the power of the poetic imaginary and in the intimate revolt.” Would you explain these concepts for us?
JS: By ‘poetic imaginary’ I mean an imaginative coming-to-glyph; as the dreamer rises in trance to make abstract red and puce marks, fingers half-blind across her canvas, so the poet must embrace the past-rational in her writing act, the Q as—what?—coiling snake, nebula, tiara without a head to hold it, one blank eye with a moustache. If Q can contain that many valences, what lakes are in the word Quorum? As I’ve said before: poetry must be fit to meet—or be—the Gorgon.
The concept of the ‘intimate revolt’ belongs to Julia Kristeva. Her eponymous book is worth every one of its 200+ pages; but allow me a sliced-off, telling (both in- and outside this interview’s context) selection:
Against whom can we revolt if power is vacant and values corrupt? Or, to put it more gravely, who can revolt if man has become a simple conglomerate of organs, no longer a subject but a patrimonial person, a person belonging to the patrimony, financially, genetically, and physiologically, a person barely free enough to use a remote control to choose his channel. I am oversimplifying and darkening this depiction of our current state in order to highlight what we all sense: not only that political revolt is being mired in compromise between parties whose differences are less and less obvious to us but especially that an essential component of European culture—a culture fashioned by doubt and critique—is losing its moral and aesthetic impact. This moral and aesthetic dimension finds itself marginalized and exists only as a decorative alibi tolerated by the society of the spectacle, when it is not simply submerged, made impossible by entertainment culture, performance culture, and show culture.
‘Decorative alibi.’ Rather good nomenclature for 19/20 poems read in the papers these days.
DD: In 2016 Fathom Books will publish its first three titles: Laura Goode’s chapbook Become a Name, Stephanie Adams-Santos’ full-length collection, Swarm Queen’s Crown, and, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, Owen Vince’s The Adrift of Samus Aran. Tell us about these three poets. What can we look forward to in these inaugural Fathom books?
JS: I prefer, D, to cut every tie with the terms ‘chapbook’ and ‘full-length collection.’ They are divisive and petty appellations used by publishers and academics to determine which sorts of bound objects count towards the properly progressing careerist mode. Bar codes. Rubbish. It is the poems, the objects inside, that matter. Exclusively. Let’s use ‘shortbook’ or ‘longbook’ or nothing at all, considering most book catalogues list page counts for those interested.
And from these poets? Force. The Oblique. Imagination. Formal invention. Restlessness. Reach. Linguistic and intellectual challenge. Strands of rope. Sublimity. Movement. Vince writes: ‘vocal; a Disintegrating - / tells you of how many / feet i have dropped or swollen into.’
DD: What has been most challenging in the initial phases of starting Fathom Books?
JS: Beyond securing friends (web designers, printers) aligned with my philosophy, the most challenging thing has been deciding to dedicate funds, to have none of the Orphic double-check. There’s so much unlearning to do, D. One’s got to wriggle free of years and years of meek pragmatism about money and ‘security’ and simply say ‘I must.’
DD: You are a talented poet. Your collection, Roads (Cherry Grove, 2013) is densely allusive and employs ornate, sometimes anachronistic, diction to great effect. You open up a fierce dialogue with the poetry of Tennyson, Shakespeare, H.D., Dickinson, Melville, and a host of others. Reading Roads, one is tempted to echo H.D. herself (as you have in your own critical work): “you have flayed us / with your blossoms.” How has your work as an editor and newly-minted book publisher influenced your life as a writer? In what ways has your writing life, in turn, influenced your editorial and publishing work?
JS: I appreciate your attention very much. And a common phrase is the right one here: nothing influences writing like reading. What incredible stylistic thefts I’ve made and permissions I’ve come upon reading Vince, Goode, and Adams-Santos—and many, many of the writers we’ve published in SHARKPACK’s tenure. Like your question about the critic’s influence on writerly self, the editor’s eye is likewise constantly influencing the writer. In a writerly-moral sense, I feel brimming with purpose; and that, most valuably, has torn every sagging sleeve from the truly strident, darkly joyous, animal me.
DD: What is the most encouraging experience you have had as an editor?
JS: Fathom and the Annual are the result of my once dubious, now sure apprehension that there are tremendous writing sects and Cossacks buzzing about. That’s the most encouraging experience I’ve had: finding reason to turn a critical poetry review into a little publishing family.
DD: What is the most encouraging development you’ve witnessed in contemporary poetry?
JS: Small press, shortbook press, and small magazine resiliency in the face of ideological failures on the part of would-be ‘major’ houses and periodicals—those erstwhile paragons to whom we all once looked, wide-eyed, for guidance. Imagine, D, the disappointment of a truly thoughtful poet seeing Graywolf, once a standard-bearer for possibilities in poetry books, publishing a volume of unambitious tripe by James Franco. That’s capitulation by Graywolf—a sad hope to gain capital notice when something of substance (i.e., a substantive book) could’ve taken form. Yet the underground, roiling, grassroots forces of the Poetik, generally self-financed—Pyramid Editions, for example; yes, Fathom—have used digital and print forms to mobilize a set of artists doing work in knives, taking honest risk. Said presses and small magazines aspire to do more than ‘curate’ poetry. Paris Review, Threepenny Review, Poetry since Wiman left, New England Review, Ploughshares, Atlantic, that neutered and predictable verse custodianship at the New Yorker, AWP’s disgusting mixer-stylings, visionless MFA trajectories, committees for the National Book Awards and Pulitzer Prizes—these little pobiz conglomerates say HERE’S WHAT PUBLIC POETRY SEEMS, MADAM, LET’S BE HIP ENOUGH TO REFLECT IT. Measling ambition. The higher questioning method belongs, unsurprisingly, to Gertrude Stein, and is shared by those antithetical forces I mention: ‘IF IT CAN BE DONE, WHY DO IT?’
DD: What is one thing that American poetry needs more of, in your opinion?
JS: More poets reading Clarice Lispector.
DD: If you could only read and say and remember one poem (written by someone else) for the rest of your life, what poem would it be?
JS: Nooooo. In English? Let’s agree I’m allowed four. Can we agree? At this very moment: Laura Riding’s “Nothing So Far,” Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” Thomas’ “Fern Hill,” Adams-Santos’ “Through the Long Greenhouse.”
DD: What does the future hold in store for Fathom Books?
JS: A biennial schedule of books and objects arriving with the subtlety of a train surging for its ocean end. Into the goddamn center of the gelid sea hot, hot.
Joseph Spece is Warrior-Poet, critic, books and design, amateur mycologist, callous vanguardist, ‘a common waitress.’ More at http://www.joseph-spece.com.
Dante Di Stefano's collection of poetry, Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry and essays have appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, Obsidian, Shenandoah, Brilliant Corners, The Los Angeles Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and elsewhere.