Listen to the entire pod cast. David Lehman joins at 40:40
PP: It’s lovely to talk with you, Karen. I’m writing from Doha, Qatar. The heat is finally relenting a bit, and we’re just a few days away from Eid. I’m looking forward to both the cooler temperatures, and a week off from school!
I was a student in the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth when VCU established a branch campus here. VCUQatar arrived in 1998, and was the first American university established in Doha. It has since been joined by Weill Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M, and Carnegie Mellon. I was interested in coming here because I wanted to know more about this region, and I have always been interested in travel. After high school, I joined the marine corps, in part, to travel, but sadly, went from boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina, to the School of Music in Norfolk, Virginia, and was then stationed in Quantico, Virginia. I didn’t manage to get very far from my hometown of Vernon, New Jersey. In 2005, I had been out of the MFA program for a few years, and was teaching at VCU in Richmond when a position opened up in the English program at VCUQatar. I jumped at it, and was fortunate to get hired. This is my 10th year here. I’ve been here much longer than I thought I would be, but VCUQ continues to be a place that offers enormous opportunities for personal and professional growth, and I can see myself staying another 10. It’s quite a momentous time to be in Qatar. The country is growing rapidly, and it’s especially interesting to observe the bristling dynamic between tradition and ambition.
KS: diode poetry journal came into being sometime during your 10 years at VCUQatar?
I arrived in Doha in 2005, and in 2007, started diode. When I was in the MFA program at VCU, I had the good fortune to intern at Blackbird the year before it went live. Blackbird was one of the first journals to go online, and in my humble opinion, it continues to be one of the very best journals, online or otherwise, in existence. My time with Blackbird piqued my interest in starting an online journal, and this was further fueled by feeling somewhat isolated from the poetry community. Jeff Lodge, one of the founding editors of Blackbird, came to teach at VCUQ in 2007, and he was instrumental in helping me get diode up and running. He’s wholly responsible for the design of the journal, and even though he’s now back in the US, we continue to create the journal together. Diode has far exceeded my initial hopes. I’ve had the opportunity to publish emerging poets, and poets I’ve admired for years, including teachers and mentors.
One of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had as an editor is this one, which I wrote about in the preface to 3.3:
“When I started diode, I hoped to create a community of writers, something I missed in my own life having moved to Doha, Qatar, in 2005. I missed being a part of a community of poets, and I hoped diode could create such a community. I enlisted Jeff Lodge to serve as co-editor, and in the fall of 2007 diode was launched. Diode has come to exceed our hopes in every way. We have connected with so many amazing, generous poets, and thoughtful, passionate readers. It has been an honor to be a part of this community.
Even after three years, diode continues to create connections we couldn’t imagine in 2007. Like this one: When I was sixteen, a sophomore at Vernon Township High School in Vernon, New Jersey, a teacher read a poem about finding a dead mouse in a cupboard. I had almost no experience with poetry. I had a vague remembrance of having read “Jabberwocky” in grade school, and an even more opaque recollection of a Frost (?) poem with an image of mountain peaks that the teacher pointed out resembled a saw blade. This “mouse poem,” as my memory filed it, slapped me awake to poetry, and began my own attempts at writing. The imagery was striking, and tangible. I could see the poem in my mind and it stuck there. For thirty years. Then came Facebook. A few months ago I found Therese Mattil, an English teacher from my high school, on Facebook and we began corresponding. I paraphrased a few lines from the “mouse poem” and asked her if she remembered it. Not only did she remember the poem I had heard back in 1980, she is its author. I’m delighted to be able to present this poem, and one other, by Therese Mattil, in this issue.”
KS: I have so much respect for diode. I love its spare aesthetic, and the poems I’ve read are arresting and well wrought. By now, we know the presence that online journals have in the writing landscape, but it must have seemed like a leap at the time.
Diode Editions, your press, opened with the chapbook A Concordance of Leaves by Phil Metres, and has published a chapbook by Traci Brimhall and Brynn Saito, as well as full-length collections by T.R. Hummer and Joshua Poteat. As an editor, what did you want to do with a press that you couldn’t do with a journal?
Thank you so much for your kind words about diode. Jeff Lodge designed the site, and is responsible for its clean aesthetic. When we started diode it did feel a bit like a leap, but we hoped that we could produce a journal that published exciting, eclectic, and engaging work, and that diode would have a long life. Now, approaching our 8th year, diode has wildly exceeded our hopes. There was a point when I wasn’t sure if I would be able to continue diode. My husband passed away 15 months ago, and in the aftermath, I deeply doubted that I was up to the task of keeping diode going. But, when I dove into the submissions, I found such hope, solace and inspiration. I always knew that diode was an important constant in my life, and I am deeply grateful that it has also become an essential part of my healing process.
Diode Editions has allowed me to present a larger offering of the work of poets I very much love and admire. It has also afforded me the opportunity to make actual, tactile, objects. I work at a college of art and design, and over the years have grown more interested in the visual arts, particularly in book making and cover design. Making chapbooks has allowed me to converge my interests, and my teaching, with art, design and book making. For example, I used Philip Metre’s lovely chapbook A Concordance of Leaves as the basis of a class project in a creative writing class I taught. Before the book was published, the students read and discussed it very closely, and Phil was kind enough to work with my students as they engaged with his chapbook. It inspired their own writing, and through their close reading, taught them a great deal about poetry. Since my students are heading into the design fields, I asked them to create cover designs for the book. With Phil’s help, we selected the cover. It gives me great joy that VCUQ students designed the cover of A Concordance of Leaves. I’ve also been able to work with VCUQ graduates on the layout of the books.
KS: Tell me why you were drawn to Phil Metres’s manuscript. Is there a Diode Editions aesthetic? Were you conscious of looking for work that your Arabic students would seize? On one level I’m asking if you think of poetry as a bridge between cultures, but also asking if you see your press as working to build that bridge.
I do think that poetry has the power to bridge cultures, and I hope that diode and Diode Editions has created even a single plank in that bridge. I think poetry can help us understand and appreciate the differences among us as we gain a greater sense of, and appreciation for, all that unites us. The potential to bridge cultures did draw me to Phil’s manuscript, but what enamored and excited me, was the stunning beauty of the work, and the careful, thoughtful and often breathtaking way he negotiated, and internalized his experience of attending a wedding in Palestine, an experience that was simultaneously de-stabilizing and deeply enriching. The single, long poem of Concordance is a deep and meaningful exploration of borders, of place, and of love, and he transports the reader across these borders through skillful indexing, and beautiful imagery. The fact that Concordance is deeply relevant to my students, and this region, was a wonderful bonus.
I think this passage from Concordance illustrates what moved me about the book, and compelled me to publish it:
the last time you rose from the bed
of this parched ocean, its dried swells
now hills & swales, sister you left
your new love at Tel Aviv / his history
holding him at passport control / he passed
an olive tree necklace to you saying
a country is more important than one person
you’d carry it ten years around
your shoulders / & now this country draws you
the way olive roots draw invisible water
sister soon you will be written
alongside your future
husband in the book of books
& though our father’s passport held aloft
will not stop the Sabra tank
from blocking the road
you will find another way
back & soon new sisters will inscribe
your body with henna
ink your feet & open your hands
I try to not have any definable aesthetic for diode, to keep my particular biases out of the editorial process. I’ve found the process of selecting poems for diode, or books for Diode Editions, to be an ineffable, almost alchemical process. Because of the volume of submissions I receive, I have to read through them fairly quickly. When a poem, or manuscript creates a pause, stops me in my tracks, so to speak, my attention is stilled and piqued. It’s a sensation more than something I can articulate—a feeling of being startled, snapped awake, sometimes like being pushed or slapped, sometimes nudged or caressed. Whatever the sensation, what soon accompanies the sensation is an urgency to share the work with others.
KS: What is your submission schedule for diode and Diode Editions?
I read all year, and we publish three issues a year.
KS: You were one of several editors for Gathering the Tide, a wonderful collection of Arabian Gulf poetry translated into English. I used it in my classroom and it was phenomenal to teach. My students were moved by the range of subjects, styles and emotional tenor, and the book lent itself well to all kinds of wider discussion. Congratulations on this incredible publication. How has the anthology been received?
Thank you so much for using Gathering the Tide! It’s lovely to hear that your students were moved by the poems. The anthology has been well received, and it is finding a place in classrooms all over the world. It’s the only anthology that presents contemporary poetry in translation from the Arabian Gulf, and I think it offers a unique glimpse into this region at a time of great change, and at the poets working in this context. It also powerfully demonstrates, I believe, the deep commonalities that connect us.
KS: Would you like to speak to The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf? It is beautifully illustrated.
Like many of the projects that I’ve been involved in at VCUQ, The Donkey Lady was inspired by my students. I taught a topics course on folk and fairy tales, and asked my students to collect folk tales from their parents, or grandparents. The stories that came in were fascinating in their similarity to, and differences from, the stories I had grown up hearing. The subtle differences in the regional versions of familiar stories I received were richly culturally nuanced. For example, in the regional version of Cinderella, called “Hamda and the Fairy Fish”, the description of traditional dress and customs were much different than the Cinderella stories I had experienced. There were also several stories that are unique to this region, such as “The Legend of Mai and Ghaillan,” a pour quoi tale that describes how the dhow (a fishing vessel) came to have a sail.
As a component of story collecting, I asked the students to illustrate their stories, and it was immediately apparent that there was an opportunity to present illustrated stories from the Gulf region in book form. I worked with Michael Hersrud, a graphic design professor, Don Earley, a professor in art foundation and fashion, and Jesse Ulmer, an English professor. We also collaborated with Dr. Sara Al Mohannadi, an English professor from Qatar University. Her students also collected stories in Arabic, and then translated them into English. We assembled a large team of current, and former, student artists and designers, and over the course of two years created The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf.
For a sense of the stories and illustrations, one can see and hear a story here:
KS: Thanks very much for taking the time to tell us about Diode Editions and the other work you're engaged in. We look forward to seeing you at AWP.
Thank you! The pleasure has been all mine.
Karen Schubert is the author of three poetry chapbooks, most recently I Left My Wings on a Chair, a Wick Poetry Center Winner (Kent State Press 2014). Her work appears or is forthcoming in Extract(s) anthology, Traveling Stanzas, Poets’ Quarterly, and Common Threads. Awards include a 2013 residency at Headlands Center for the Arts and 2014 Pushcart Prize nomination. Read David Hassler's Meet the Press interview with Karen Schubert here.
Patty Paine is the author of Grief & Other Animals (Accents Publishing), The Sounding Machine (Accents Publishing), Feral (Imaginary Friend Press), Elegy & Collapse (Finishing Line Press), co-editor of Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Arabian Gulf Poetry (Garnet Publishing & Ithaca Press) and The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf (Berkshire Academic Press). Her poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Blackbird, Verse Daily, The Atlanta Review, Gulf Stream, The Journal and other publications. She is the founding editor of diode poetry journal and Diode Editions. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar where she teaches writing and literature.
(Ed note: Scribner has launched a new on-line magazine and its first issue features a conversation between Best American Poetry Series Editor David Lehman and 2014 Guest Editor Terrance Hayes. Follow this link to read an excerpt. The full interview is reproduced below. Click on the cover image above to purchase The Best American Poetry 2014. -- sdh)
(Image left: John Ashbery & David Lehman (c) Star Black. R: Terrance Hayes)
DL: Terrance, when you look back over the year you surveyed for The Best American Poetry 2014, what surprised you the most?
TH: One of the many surprises was just how many literary journals are out there. It's hard to believe — no, I can't believe poetry isn't thriving when so many editors are dedicating time and energy to so many publications. Here are some of the amazing journals I was unaware of before my editorship: Make Literary Magazine, Little Patuxent Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Spillway, The Normal School, ABZ Poetry Magazine, Willow Springs! One of the vital fringe benefits of The Best American Poetry is discovering these publications. I hope they get a few new subscribers because of it.
DL: I hope so, too. I never tire of saying that lit mag editors are among the unsung heroes of American poetry. You know who I think is an underrated poet? Nabokov. I take it you admire him from your decision to cast your introduction in the form of a fake q-and-a with Charles Kinbote of Pale Fire fame.
TH: Nabokov is an early and enduring guide -- muse, really -- for me as a writer. Lolita was my first love. When I read it for the first time at 20 years old or so, it prompted something I'd never experienced as a reader: something like ecstasy by way of the language and horror by way of the implications. (I feel similarly reading a lot of Flannery O'Connor.) In any event, Pale Fire prompts similar complex feelings because of the ways it combines poetry, fiction and criticism. I love that it implies that "close reading" requires, or maybe prompts, a sort of delusion. Looking at poems, little constructions of suggestion and innuendo, requires, or maybe prompts, a little craziness. Who better than Charles Kinbote, then, to help us into an anthology of contemporary poetry: contemporary songs, illusions, and shadows?
DL: Lover of wordplay that you are, do you think verse forms, traditional or ad hoc, are making a comeback? You and I both do variants of the "golden shovel." Sometimes I suggest that aspiring poets take an Auden sonnet, retain the end words, omit the rest and fill in the blanks.
TH: No, I don't think traditional forms are making a comeback, but that's only because I don't think they've ever really gone away. We all need something to push against or outgrow or reinvent, and I believe all the old fashioned forms are where we start and sometimes return to... I suspect if we look under Gertrude Stein's bed we'll fine a sonnet or two.
DL: My old mentor, Kenneth Koch, has a poem ("Fresh Air") in which a mythic personage called "the Strangler" targets bad poets, such as "the maker of comparisons between football and life." To my knowledge no such strictures exist regarding comparisons between basketball and poetry. So I ask you, the dude who guarded Ray Allen in high school, what is the equivalent of a fast break in a poem?
TH: Oh, that's a great question! My answer is syntax--- the way a sentence adjusts its rhythm and angles as it moves across line breaks is surely akin to the way a body or bodies adjust speed and direction in a fast break... Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem "Carrion Comfort" comes to mind. Not in its subject necessarily, but in its verbal grace and athletic syntactical contortions.
Maybe there isn’t room for the whole poem, but behold the linguistic equivalent to a Lebron James fast break:
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
DL: That Hopkins sonnet has one of the all-time great last lines. I sometimes write a poem and notice only afterward that it is in 14 lines with a break around the 8th or 9th line. Do you fall back on the sonnet as a kind of default form? Our anthology opens with one -- albeit an unconventional one -- by Sherman Alexie.
TH: There have been sonnets in all of my books. It's the form I return to most often. It's a centuries old box always waiting to be reshaped, adapted, filled with new words. I love to see what new things poets do with the form. Hence my attraction to the very smart Alexie poem. Alexie also has an on-going interest in poetic form, I think. I can recall a short story of his which utilized the sestina form.
DL: Oh, I love the idea of hiding a sestina within a prose paragraph. Edmund White does that in one of his early novels ("Nocturnes for the King of Naples"). With so much to like in modern and contemporary poetry, does it drive you crazy to see reviews that treat the poet as if he or she were a criminal on the dock? I wonder when the snark arrived – the little imp that instructed magazine editors to commission articles on the “most overrated poet” or the like? I'm not asking reviewers to be cheerleaders, but there is something a little cheap, even cynical, in the excessively nasty pieces that turn up regularly in well-funded magazines.
TH: On one hand, I think the constant assessments (and self-assessments) of poetry (or any cultural phenomena) are ages old. Whether the reviews and lists and critiques are good or bad, outrageous, misguided, I see them as an avenue for people with an interest in poetry. I suppose the feeling of despair comes when the writing seems to be more about the reviewer/critic/list-maker than the actual poetry... It reminds me of the feeling I used to get watching the young Geraldo Rivera. It was as if he needed to situate himself at the cinematic center of whatever drama or tragedy he was covering. It seemed being first was more important than being right. A lot of the online articles on poets and poetry often seem driven by the same quality of self-importance. The more “followers” and potential followers, the worse it is. I guess people just want to be “viral.” (How did “viral” become a good word?) I'm glad to read any provocative or new news about poets and poetry, but these days I trust blogs like Structure and Style or your own Best American Poetry blog where the odor of ego is not a distraction.
DL: Thanks for the plug. I hope you will agree to be a guest blogger on the BAP blog. It is a pity that ego should get in the way of poetry, which seems to require egolessness (also known as "negative capability"). But if most critics are failed poets, that's also true for most poets, alas. As a teacher, do you have a shit list of instantly poetical words you hate to see students use in a poem? Like "cicadas," or like "cupped" as a verb? And a second question: do you think a proliferation of bad poems, stimulated by contests or creative writing classes or whatever, is bad for the art (inasmuch as it lowers the cultural denominator) or good (inasmuch as it is a sign of vitality)? Please answer either -- or both.
TH: Years ago Michael Harper told me "nice," "cute," and "amazing" are three words that never belong in poems. I've been trying to work them into a poem ever since. No luck yet, but I haven't given up. My attitude-- that what's bad might be made good--maybe shows in my response to your second question...
I think the challenges of what makes a poem good or bad have always been with us. Maybe the scale is more evident, more prolific because there are more publication venues these days. It makes the hunt for what anyone considers good or bad more intense, but not impossible.
DL: Every year when The Best American Poetry is published, I ask my students to write two poems, “one that is better than the best poem in the book and one that is worse than the worst poem.” It’s liberating for them to know they’re entitled to dislike one of the “best” poems. But the real surprise is that in writing a deliberately bad poem, they may happen onto something pretty good.
To pursue the basketball analogy a little further: which poet from the previous generation would you single out as the most difficult to guard?
TH: That's a very tricky question. "Guard" implies a poet to be stopped or maybe overthrown... Uhhh, I don't even think I can say who's the Poet-Jordan of the 90s or the Magic-poet of Magic's era... Certain poets who maybe are not "franchise poets" like Ashbery are still distinct for an inimitable style of play: Allen Grossman, Harryette Mullen, Rae Armantrout, Ed Robeson-- I'm thinking of poets hovering in the avant garde domain, I guess. Poets who write the sort of poems that prompt mutual pleasure and mystery... You can't guard what you can't touch!
DL: I sometimes think of the prose poem as the equivalent in poetry of the free throw in basketball. Something that should go in, if you’re a professional, and yet Shaq missed a lot of them. Any comment?
TH: I hadn't thought of it before, but yes, maybe the prose poem is akin to the free throw in that both appear very easy--free of line breaks "should" mean easier, but, no sir. These days I love to go to the gym and do little more than shoot free throws for a few hours. It becomes a meditative act. So I'd probably have associated it with something more formal, something less surreal than the prose poem. But forget that: the prose poem is a smarter parallel.
DL: In your introduction to The Best American Poetry 2014, you say that the 1990 volume, edited by Jorie Graham, was the first book of poems you ever purchased – and that you own all the books in the series. Which are your favorites?
TH: Well, I've taught Rita Dove's 2000 edition more than any other-- partly because it was published around the time I began teaching poetry, partly because it covers such a wide array of styles. And I know, just about by heart, every poem in Graham's edition. Philip Levine's poem "Scouting" and Yusef Komunyakaa's "Facing It" are still among my very favorite poems. In fact, it's easier to recall favorite poems than favorite books and poets. Allen Grossman's "The Piano Player Plays Himself" from Ashbery's edition-- one of my very favorite poems in the world; Thom Gunn's "The Butcher's Son" from Louise Guck's 93 edition; Brigit Pegeen Kelly's poem, "Scouting the Famous Figures of the Grotto of Improbable Thought," from Ammon's 94 edition; Larry Levis' "Anastastia and Sandman" from Tate's 97 edition. My two favorite poems by Charles Bukowski appear in the series, I discovered the awesome prose poems of Phyllis Koestenbaum (whatever happened to her?) in this series. I first encountered Dean Young in the series-- he's regularly amazing. If I were to make a list of my top twenty contemporary poems, maybe 60-70 percent would come from the BAP series. I have lots of favorite poems from the last ten years as well, but it'll be another decade before I can say which poems stay with me.
DL: Great answer. Do you have a question for me?
TH: I've long wondered what an edition solely in your hands would look like. I doubt any of the past, present or future editors could do a better job than you alone. What sorts of qualities would you look for in your dream BAP anthology?
DL: I’m grateful for the compliment, but I’d have trepidations about taking on the task. If I did it, I think maybe I would get obsessive, try to read everything, and do little else, though that does not seem like a practical solution. I would hope to find someone like David Lehman to send me packets of poems at regular intervals, nudge and cajole me, and make sure I hadn’t overlooked something vital.
During your year reading for The Best American Poetry 2014, did you write much poetry of your own? If yes, is it because reading poems, especially good ones, acts as a spur?
TH: Yes, I wrote while I was hunting poems. Whenever and whatever I'm reading I often approach as a miner (looking for creative influences/resources), teacher (a teachable poem isn't the same as a poem that opens the roof) and fan (looking to have the roof torn off). I found lots of roof rippers and even poems that were both teachable and awe-inspiring, but I can't recall any one poem directly impacting a poem I wrote in the last year or so. Eventually, I'd love to try what Sherman Alexie does with the sonnet form and what Rosemary Griggs does with the "Script Poem." Subversions and appropriations of form are always of interest to me.
At his recent New York solo recital debut at The Frick Collection, English pianist Charles Owen featured the compositions of past masters—J.S. Bach, Mendelssohn, and Debussy—as well as two brief pieces by the composer Nico Muhly, who was in attendance. Owen gave Muhly’s scores a skillful and energetic reading, and Muhly seemed genuinely pleased by the performance.
Muhly, now 33, has been in the public eye for quite some time. Music critic Alex Ross first wrote about him in the New Yorker ten years ago, when Muhly was a 22-year-old Juilliard student. Rebecca Mead profiled him in the pages of the magazine in 2008, and Ross has since covered the premieres of Muhly’s two operas, Two Boys—which received its U.S. premiere at the Metropolitan Opera a year ago—and Dark Sisters. Andrew Solomon included Muhly in Far from the Tree, inthe chapter on prodigies.
In the following interview, conducted by email, Muhly shares his thoughts on setting verse to music, among other topics.
JS: I enjoyed Charles Owen’s recent performance of your compositions—my only quibble is that he ought to have played more of your music. I wondered whether the pairing of pieces he played in the first and second halves of the recital was meant to suggest ideas about influence: Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses are clearly in dialogue with Bach, and your Short Stuff and A Hudson Cycle seem to echo Debussy’s Preludes, no?
NM: Concert programming is really the art of imagined correspondences, isn’t it? I think that you hear a lot of Debussy in A Hudson Cycle, with those tight French chords, but really, you could well have played Short Stuff next to the Bach and it would have had its own resonances with Bach’s clear economy. I’m touched that you’d think to ask for more contemporary music!
JS: Another influence I heard in A Hudson Cyclewas Philip Glass.
NM: Glass is always there for me. That piece takes a fundamental building block of his music—the two-against-three rhythm—and subjects it to hiccoughs and bumps. It’s sort of like taking the first cycle of Mad Rush, slowing it down, putting it all in the same register, and then going through and erasing beats at random. The idea is that there is an implied regularity that actually never happens.
JS: You’ve composed a lot of vocal music. What qualities in a text inspire you to set it to music?
NM: I have found that the best text to set is the King James Bible. The trick becomes about finding language that is simple and that can unfold over the length that music requires without losing its meaning. This is harder than it seems; one of the tricks of great poetry is that each line, when read silently, retains its meaning from beginning to end. Set to music, it becomes more complicated, and by the time you’ve got to the end of the line, the beginning is forgotten. So I’ve found that short, simple, declamatory statements work best.
JS: You’ve also set poetry by Walt Whitman, C.P. Cavafy, George Herbert, Christopher Smart, and Lemony Snicket(!!). What is it about these poets’ works that drew you in?
NM: I suppose it’s the simplicity of line that draws me to any text. I’ve been really, really into Daniel Mendelsohn’s Cavafy translations these days, with a mind to set more of them next year. There is such efficiency to them. For me, with poetry, you look at it and it sort of “sets itself,” in a way, or it doesn’t. I’m setting text by the illustrator and author Maira Kalman right now, and her words set beautifully to music because they mirror, in a sense, her speech.
JS: Your treatment of text in your vocal music is so varied, and it seems that the meaning or mood of the text doesn’t necessarily determine the tone and color—or the emotional thrust—of the music. Would you agree with this? Can you shed some light on how text influences or drives your decision-making when composing?
NM: That’s a complicated question and I think that perhaps looking under the hood isn’t the most useful in this instance. The music—the emotional thrust, as you say—is derived from the text, of course, but sometimes setting is literally about making the material different from the text so that the text itself shines. Word painting works for some things, but other things need to be surrounded by dark felt to make the diamonds shine, if you know what I mean. I am deeply mistrustful, actually, of vocal music where the accompaniment doesn’t work in counterpoint to the text, but rather in lockstep, because it feels redundant, or like having those ghastly museum audio-guides following you around while you shop for vegetables.
JS: Do you read contemporary poetry? Are there any other modern or contemporary poets whose writing you especially admire?
NM: I read very little contemporary poetry, which is actually a source of great shame. I have, however, an almost obsessive love for Ashbery. As I said, I’m deep into those Mendelsohn–Cavafy things, which feel blisteringly contemporary. I get really intimidated and sometimes binge-read all the poetry from the New Yorker. You should assign me some reading lists.
[Readers, what poetry would you assign Nico Muhly? Please place your recommendations in the comments section after this post.]
JS: You recently tweeted that you were reading pioneer women’s diaries while listening to “Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing” by Herbert Howells. Interesting mix! Is this research for a composition?
NM: Isn’t that Howells lovely! [Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing is also known as the Motet on the Death of President Kennedy and is a setting of lines from Helen Waddell’s translation of Prudentius’s Hymnus circa exseqieas defuncti (The Burial of the Dead), which can be found in her Mediaeval Latin Lyrics.]
JS: Can you recommend any indispensible books on music?
NM: I very rarely read books about music; I am deeply suspicious, actually, of the whole thing. With the exception of Alex Ross’s two books [Listen to This and The Rest Is Noise], I’m not sure I’ve read anything about music that hasn’t made me want to bash my head into my desk.
JS: What else have you been reading lately?
NM: Right now I am reading those Knausgaard books—sort of on a dare with a friend—which feels severe and virtuous.
JS: In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon quotes you as saying that when you were growing up, your musical interests were “early, early, modern, modern” with not much in between. Please explain.
NM: My main resistance to Romantic music (and that’s really the hole—it’s from kind of late Beethoven through early Stravinsky) is about the forced emotional synchronicity. It’s like the composer is saying THIS is when I want you to feel this specific thing—these moments of singularity. You don’t find that in Bach, and you certainly don’t find it in Byrd and you don’t find it in Glass or Reich. For me, as a teenager, the romantic project seemed like one of forcing emotions out of structure: you build this huge mountain with these classical proportions and then the music is a kind of relentless tour guide.
JS: Have your tastes broadened in recent years?
NM: I’ve softened in my old age, of course!
JS: Can you share any early music gems that our readers might like to track down? Who are your favorite contemporary interpreters of early vocal music?
NM: For me, there is always great joy to be derived from listening to the works of William Byrd; I don’t go a day or two without at least a motet snuck in, sometimes with the score. There is enormous virtue in taking the time to track down Mundy, Tye, Sheppard… there are Tallis Scholars recordings of all of these, which are great, but then you’ll find other gems from Westminster Abbey, or New College Choir, Oxford. The English are in a near-constant state of rediscovering these works and recording them, and now you can just get them on iTunes. When I was younger, it was such an ordeal to find recordings of this stuff; I literally wrote to choir directors in England and sent cash in the mail.
JS: Would you care to comment on the Klinghoffer opera brouhaha?
NM: Ugh, I mean, I’m not sure I can say anything that hasn’t already been said, but it does distress me how angry the protestors were, all based on a fundamental reading comprehension failure—and I use reading in the more broad sense. Antisemitism is a real and tangible problem in a lot of places, but this opera is not one of them. The humanity of both Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer in the opera is so resonant and clear that it seems absurd to claim that the piece has any other agenda than to honor LK’s memory through a ritualistic series of reflections. Then when you get the likes of Richard Taruskin saying that there’s a “halo” around the music that the terrorists sing, it’s a reading comprehension failure of a much more serious nature, because it gives license to these poor people to think that they have something even resembling a legitimate argument derived from the text. The other thing that was kind of amazing, though, was the tone of the online arguments. It was always this specific facetious tone with bizarre syntax: “Oh, I guess next there will be a so-called ‘opera’ at the Metropolitan Center that ‘gives voice’ to the killers of MLK??!?!?!” and you think, you know, that’s not a bad idea!
JS: You’re involved in Black Mountain Songs, an evening-length multimedia collaboration of eight composers, a filmmaker, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, upcoming at BAM (Nov. 20–23), and you have a new piece, Our Present Charter, being premiered next month as part of the Temple Winter Festival at the Temple Church in London.
Last fall, you achieved what one Web site called a “mind-blowing quinfecta” of premieres: Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera, a score for Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie on Broadway, your collaboration with choreographer Benjamin Millepied, Neverwhere, at the New York City Ballet, a score for the feature film Kill Your Darlings [about the meeting of the Beats in and around Columbia University in 1944 and the murder investigation that embroiled Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs], and an expanded version of your Bright Music with Canons, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir.
Seriously, your productivity is astonishing. What’s your work routine—can you describe a typical workday? And do you possess any Ancient Secrets of Time Management that you’d be willing to share?
NM: Ha, this is a good question because I actually feel very inefficient and frenzied. I travel a lot, too, so that hampers any dedicated and prolonged routine. However, I do have a series of rituals. My boyfriend has a nine to five, so when I’m home, I wait for him to leave the house, and then I basically sit at our table with a huge pile of manuscript and write until my hand hurts, and then move to the computer, and then back and forth until nightfall. During this time there is a lot of emailing that happens in concentrated bursts designed to shock and awe the recipients. When I travel, it’s much harder. I wish I had some brilliant secret but if you figure it out, call me on my landline.
JS: What other new works or upcoming premieres are you most excited about—and where and when will they be performed or available as recordings?
NM: There are so many things I don’t even know where to begin. There is a viola concerto in February in Madrid. There is a piece for choir and twelve (!) guitars in Texas in March. There is a big new orchestra piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and probably eight other things I’m forgetting about because I’m in denial. Right now I have to finish this viola concerto in the next three days or the entire structure of my life will collapse. I also have to get these boots re-soled.
JS: Are you working on any film scores?
NM: I am totally not.
For more on Muhly, see his excellent Web site. Georgia Tucker’s review of Charles Owen’s recital is here. Concerts at The Frick Collection are recorded by WQXR (105.9 FM) for future broadcast and streaming on wqxr.org.
Jim Stubenrauch is writer and editor. He teaches narrative writing to nursing students and health care professionals at the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing.
This is part II of the Poetry & Belief Series. In this interview, Rosebud Ben-Oni and I discuss how her work directly interacts with faith and culture. She also offers a new poem.
Check out the Poetry & Belief series opener here.
Lisa Marie Basile: Your work deals largely with God and culture. I loved these poems, and thought there was a lot to unpack here. How do you approach writing about belief? Was this something you always knew you'd examine, or does it fall out naturally?
Rosebud Ben-Oni: I’ve been drawn to conflict for as long as I can recall. I struggle with the weight of the various histories I’ve inherited. Perhaps it’s also the nature of being mixed, and the experiences of living in places like Jerusalem and the U.S.-Mexican border, that I must respond to these histories and places in order to be of them.
Since I am not of one thing (and really, few of us are), I must create places and memories in verse to give myself origins as a writer. Recently, I guest edited an Imaginary Homelands feature for Winter Tangerine Review, and wrote this introduction to the series in which I proposed that hybridity has its own purity, and the idea that origins evolve and have more than one story.
Rarely is anything static, so why should our literary and religious canons be? Around a decade or so ago, I stopped attending Shabbat services regularly; I felt something was stuck. I wanted to move forward, to something greater. I can’t do this with Judaism as it is now. I do still recite prayers like the V'ahavta because otherwise I wonder, what is a Jew without practice? (For me that question mirrors this one: what is a writer who doesn’t write?) Even though I no longer belong to a synagogue, I stay bound to the idea of inherited history by praying. But it is in poetry that I engage with the cosmos, as a living thing beyond being alive, as a force that stretches towards something beyond limits. That is what I mean by moving forward.
Lisa Marie Basile: Your new poem All The Wild Beasts I Have Been is an intense examination of religious belief and family acceptance in a time of war. I sense a deep struggle in this poem, and want to know more. After all this darkness and grief - is the writing cathartic?
Rosebud Ben-Oni: I have to fight for that kind of catharsis, and it never fully comes because I’m old enough to know better. I don’t just mean peace in the Middle East; I mean admitting all the beliefs that make me a poet. Living in Jerusalem brought out something very brutal and raw that I cannot destroy. That kind of candidness that reveals the division between the soul and the brain, the secular from the spiritual, all the contradictions that make life difficult. Jerusalem, as sacred as it is held, is very provincial at the same time. While I will always love the city and at times long for its winding roads and diverse landscapes, for its place in history, it wasn’t until I left Jerusalem that I could move forward as a poet and write about it.
Lisa Marie Basile: You come from a very multicultural background and it has definitely made a beautiful impact on your work - a Jewish father, and a Mexican mother. This is a lot to ask, but did you ever figure that poetry would help you unravel, make sense of, and define the many facets of your personhood? Or do you find poetry creates more questions?
Rosebud Ben-Oni: When I was younger, I used to struggle with some Jews who didn’t consider me a “real” Jew because my mother is Mexican of Indian/Spanish heritage and a convert. Just this year I’ve finally began to explore the uglier side of faith, when I’ve brandished my teeth, when I’ve failed, when I broke from any hope for the stellar and fell deeply into the dark provincial. I recently saw Under the Skin, and it reminded me of my years in Jerusalem— the alienation, the wanting to be human when I could not be. When I listen to the movie’s soundtrack, especially to this song “Love,” to all those drawn-out, contorted, synthetic notes, I remember the fumbling, the unbearable solitude, the days closing in as I realized I could not make a life for myself in Jerusalem.
This year was a turning point in both my writing and my life. My husband and I married in two different ceremonies: a Chinese tea ceremony and dinner to honor his side, in which his 80-something grandmother flew all the way from Hong Kong to attend, and then a Jewish ceremony, which was completely in Hebrew with English translation, performed by a female rabbi, surrounded by my mother’s family on the shores of South Padre. No one from my father’s family came to either wedding.
Like my father had been embraced by my mother’s family, so was I embraced by my husband’s family. At the second cereomony on Padre Island, I was overwhelmed that so many people we loved were in one room. Some had crossed great physical distances to be with us that weekend. While I did feel sadness for the absence of my Jewish family, the unknown—will I ever see them again— rests, though uncomfortable, within me, and I give it that space. I found I could only do that when which the poet self finally connected, completely, to the human part of me.
Lisa Marie Basile: Whose poetry explores faith in a way that you've found really inspiring?
Rosebud Ben-Oni: I absolutely love the Donald Revell translation of “Zone” by Apollinaire; it is one of the reasons I decided to write poetry of faith. Of course Adrienne Rich’s “Yom Kippur 1984” inspired me when I was younger as well as Yehuda Amichai’s bilingual Hebrew and English translated collection Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems. I cannot know and love Jerusalem without reading Arab Israeli, Palestinian and Druze poets either; I recommend Samih al-Qasim (check out Sadder than Water, translated by Nazih Kassis) and Dana Dajani’s spoken word piece “Love Letter from Palestine.” Naomi Shihab Nye, of course— her poem “San Antonio” was read for our wedding. Recently, Lisa Katz named a number of new Jewish poets in her essay “Beyond Amichai.” Rattle has just published an issue on Poets on Faith(#45) that is worth checking out.
Speaking of faith, did you see this performance of Jessica Lange in American Horror Story? It’s camp, but you don’t have to see past the camp to understand the world Jessica Lange is creating as Elsa Mars. Everything is off about the performance: the blue eye shadow, the oversized powder blue suit, her off-key performance in Lange’s slightly off German accent. The glitter raining down on her as she spins, arms outstretched as if seeking some cosmic embrace. Elsa Mars really in the power of her cardboard world, as she bears something more pure than she is herself, on her threepenny stage until the end of the performance— and we are left with her bewildered, terrified expression, that world so quickly gone, as if she is alone, as if no one has heard her.
Watching this, I was reminded that my own faith is as evanescent as it is eternal. It is such a powerful performance.Lisa Marie Basile: (That is one of my favorite scenes from AHS! I love when camp & kitsch is used to sort of play with the actually quite serious implications of faith, isolation and meaning. But that's a whole different conversation!)
So what are you working on now? What would you share with our readers?
Rosebud Ben-Oni: My next collection explores conflicts of all sorts, including a series where I reimagine both Biblical and pop culture figures as “the younger sister.” It started with a poem called “If Cain the Younger Sister”, which was reprinted in this interview; I’ve always had great sympathy for Cain and felt that he has often been misunderstood.
I’d like to share a new one that I’ve dedicated to poet J. Michael Martinez; it’s called “If Delilah the Younger Sister.” It’s a response to Amichai’s “Wildpeace,” and pays homage to Delilah from the Book of Judges, as well as the film Roadhouse and heavy metal, especially Guns N Roses. I am the bride after all who sampled Metallica’s “Wherever I May Roam” in her vows under a chupa between Hebrew prayers.
I suppose this poem, like others in the series, is a prayer in which the poet poses the questions to her faith, for the sake of uncertainty and not in spite of it, because one of the greatest questions ever asked was: where do we go/where do we go now?
If Delilah the Younger Sister
You say peace won’t come from one person
Or poems it isn’t
Wildflowers and plowing wilderness
No it wouldn’t come if we let it
Piety isn’t a bright blue sky but its absence
The other side the same
Seven days and seven nights you say grinding
In the prison house no where do we go
Where do we go now
Where do we go
String skipping I’m making faces
With j michael martinez conjuring
The bands the wrong times those glam
In the grunge era
where we exit
The ramones catch it on j michael late night
Arsenio there’s a revival kip winger headlines twisted sister
Skipping rope on torn j michael
Halos there’s a revival my dear dear dead ones hanging out
In the roadhouse is that you samson here’s one last fight
Sweep the leg ehud the left-handed BE NICE until it’s time
Converse and gideon
Pluck from your bowl and wool this
I I I I I
Reborn a mercedes on feeder roads I’m the big man
Filling vacancy I’ve possessed patrick swayze
Shaved heads and brass fettered the monster
Trucks driven to this j michael
Eat world where all the boys and girls
Belong to a j mötley michael crüe
The last tour last exit to the wake raving raving
Where do we go where do we go now
Marilyn j michael manson of mine yes
Drunk in heart-shaped burlesque yes
The mosh pit oh the accidents
A cracked skull a copped feel fickle hands
Carrying us off if not a busted strobe
If not a ring-ripped nose if cracked
Concrete beneath now where do we go
The hills are alive with michael van
J halen where do we go now
The rattail in hand
Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, ROSEBUD BEN-ONI is a CantoMundo Fellow and the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013). She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where she earned her MFA in Poetry, and a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her work is forthcoming or appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. In Fall 2014, she will be a visiting writer at the University of Texas at Brownsville’s Writers Live Series. Rosebud is an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (vidaweb.org). Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org
LISA MARIE BASILE is the author of APOCRYPHAL (Noctuary Press, October 2014), and the chapbooks Andalucia and Triste. Her poetry and other work can be seen in PANK Magazine, Tin House, The Nervous Breakdown, Johns Hopkin’s The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Huffington Post and Prick of the Spindle, among others. She is the editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine and a co-curator for Diorama, a NYC-based collaborative poetry/music salon. She is a graduate of the New School’s MFA in Writing program, and works as a content director. Find out more about Lisa here, read a review of APOCRYPHAL here, and follow her on twitter @lisamariebasile
When I set out to write APOCRYPHAL, my first full-length poetry collection, I knew very little about what it would be, but I knew there was something pushing me to do it. It was a feeling, an almost-thing, a belief. It was this banging internal knowledge that though my body would die, at least my words could reincarnate in their reader's view. I am an atheist who wrote an entire book around the concept of the Apocrypha, those non-canonical non-stories, the hidden documents, the dirtied bits. I wanted to say, 'here is my reality,' in fragments and half-remembered memories, because whether or not their foundation was entirely the truth, or whether I not I could accept them as true, they were mine and they were acknowledged. I suppose a portion of why I write comes from shame and fear. When I write, the words somehow leave me and just are, in some way removing my ownership. I enjoy the writing and rewriting of my own personal myth. I like turning bad people into characters whose mythos I can manipulate. I like sending lovers to heaven.
When I was a child my Italian grandparents put me into Catholic School -- meaning, they paid for the schooling. One lunch day, the nun asked us what Jesus' love meant to us. What? I was eight. "I don't know what it means because I can't see him," I told them. I then was brought to the bathroom to have my mouth washed out over the sink.
This 'rebellion' marked the early formation of my observational personality, but it also left me feeling shameful. If everyone believes -- if I don't believe -- who am I, and why do I still find the grandiose beauty of Catholicism so intriguing? Was I wrong? Am I searching hard enough? Maybe he can't see me? How could my heart still want for God when my mind had never really been there?
I suppose I write to find my own God, or to explore that loss and shame. I get to create my own playground of paradise and punishment. I get to ask and answer questions.
I was told once in my first MFA course that God just isn't subject that could easily be explored. Actually, I was told to basically drop it. So of course I didn't. I kept at it, and kept reading the work of other poets whose personal beliefs were or were not synonymous with their verse. I am fascinated with contemporary poetic notions of reincarnation, death, myth and religion and atheism.
And so in this series, I will interview poets about how their work intersects with belief.
To kickoff, I interviewed Lisa A. Flowers, whose poetry is as rich as myth itself.
Lisa A. Flowers is a poet, critic, vocalist, the founding editor of Vulgar Marsala Press, and the author of diatomhero: religious poems. Her work has appeared in The Cortland Review, elimae, Tarpaulin Sky, The Collagist, and other magazines and online journals. Raised in Los Angeles and Portland, OR, she now resides in the rugged terrain above Boulder, Colorado. Visit her here or here.
Lisa, your poetry - as well as the poetry you're drawn to as a reviewer and curator - share one thing in common: a sense of grandiosity, always on the edge of the profane or sacred. You're written the book, "diatomhero: religious poems" (whose title you call an anagram of the bible’s “I am the door”). What attracts you to myth and god as a contemporary poet? Why has poetry of god and myth has long captivated poets? What is it that continuously haunts us in modern times?
Myth has always defined the times in which we live, in that it is rooted--whatever its subsequent incarnations-- in fear of mortality and nature. It's around this fear that religion and cultural value systems, which have always been present, spring up. So, that fact alone makes it a perpetually contemporary factor. However, of the two (mortality and nature) only death remains as impenetrable as ever.
Nature is now widely assumed to be "understood", even though Lars von Trier, in stark contrast to Thoreau, Keats, et al, called it "Satan's church." Is mortality always primitive, no matter how many millions of years have elapsed, like Kaspar Hauser ushered eternally into the drawing room of a great estate? It's an interesting question. But the truth is that the wilderness is just as wild and uncontrollable as the knowledge that we're going to die. It's just that death cannot (ostensibly) "report back", like a hurricane or a catastrophic earthquake can. I think this, in a crude nutshell, is the conundrum that enthralls poets, whether they're Romantics or hardcore realists.
The other aspect that's riveting (and far more important, I think) is transformation, which I talk a bit more about in this interview at THEThe Poetry. If myth can provide an historical template for the ingenuity of fear to build on, it can also provide an ever-accessible template by which one can find their way out of just about anything. So many people are obsessed only with entry points, as if they alone define the outcomes that science is continually searching for.
So, "I am the door" is about entrances and exits. I like to think of the structure of myth as a sort of OCD like system in which specific actions are calculated to produce results. Someone washing their hands obsessively or having to take two steps back every time they take two steps forward isn't that much different to me than the genesis of the most beautiful and transcendental myths on earth.
I am attracted to your work because the body of it is one long poem, really, always expanding on itself. You play with notions of rebirth in all of your work, as though death does not really exist. For example, I sometimes feel there is a real disparity between my true beliefs and my writing (which almost always centers on some sort of Lynchian, pseudo or strange paradise).
I constantly try to resurrect everything because I'm afraid of loss, and so divinity becomes default. In reality, I am an atheist. I'm so fascinated and excited by poetic explorations of heaven and hell, especially when the writer has complicated religious views. Do you write what you want to believe or what you hope is true?
Great question. It would be easy to say that there is some wish-fulfillment there, but I also believe that creation can produce tangible results ... like a ghost who strains to become perfume, or something like that. I have pledged never to abandon the people I loved who have died, and diatomhero is largely about honoring that commitment. So, in that sense, to call the writing fantasy would be a sort of betrayal. I do write about what I want to be true, of course. But I prefer to think of my own desires as entirely secondary to the work itself. Also, I love your description of God as a default. It reminds me of an article I read recently, which touched upon the body of Christ, itself, as the center of time.
Because religious and mythic poetry is surprisingly commonplace in the contemporary sphere, how do you think, as a reviewer, poets can successfully explore this area without sentimentality, predictability and sloppiness?
I can probably best answer that question by quoting one of your own statements (which I loved) back to you. In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, you said: "from a poetic perspective, I would like to say that it is not my responsibility to write what is clean and free from bullshit. It is my responsibility to write what I want to write." I think that's really the main caveat ... the bottom line being that, as long as something is expressing itself effectively, there are absolutely no rules.
As a reviews editor, I see so much pedantic nonsense, so many "carefully structured", paranoid, academic explanations that are afraid of pure, channeled, sensuous response. My friend CA Conrad likes to quote Mina Loy, who said: "If you are very frank with yourself and don't mind how ridiculous anything that comes to you may seem, you will have a chance of capturing the symbol of your direct reaction." Therein, indeed, lies the road to originality.
LISA A. FLOWERS is a poet, critic, vocalist, the founding editor of Vulgar Marsala Press, and the author of diatomhero: religious poems. Her work has appeared in The Cortland Review, elimae, Tarpaulin Sky, The Collagist, and other magazines and online journals. Raised in Los Angeles and Portland, OR, she now resides in the rugged terrain above Boulder, Colorado. Visit her here or here.
LISA MARIE BASILE is the author of APOCRYPHAL (Noctuary Press, October 2014), and the chapbooks Andalucia and Triste. Her poetry and other work can be seen in PANK Magazine, Tin House, The Nervous Breakdown, Johns Hopkin’s The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Huffington Post and Prick of the Spindle, among others. She is the editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine and a co-curator for Diorama, a NYC-based collaborative poetry/music salon. She is a graduate of the New School’s MFA in Writing program, and works as a content director. Find out more about Lisa here. Follow her on twitter @lisamariebasile
Words on a Wire is KTEP's show about fiction, poetry, the writing community, the publishing world and whatever other issues concern literary writers and readers of books. On October 26, Daniel Chacón spoke with Emma Trelles, whose 2011 poetry collection Tropicalia won the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize. Emma also happens to post here regularly about literature, art, and other subjects that capture her wide-ranging interests.
You can Emma's blog posts here.
Poet and activist Jen Fitzgerald in part two of an interview about what motivates her to work on behalf of others.
LM: Would you talk about diversity: it seems to go beyond gender and race for you. What other elements of people’s lives would you like to see noted in the larger literary conversation?
JF: There are no varying degrees to which I am not a grapefruit. By which I mean, if you differ in one way from the “ideal” white, straight, Christian male, you differ in all ways within our historical system of divisions. I know, this isn’t easy stuff to digest or to create a tangible problem/solution dynamic that we could just march toward. But this is the lot we’ve been left with so let’s do what all great problem solvers do: start from the present and move backwards as far as we can until consistent patterns emerge. Unfortunately, we are stuck in the present a bit because we are denying the realities of our own realities!
To obtain a complete understanding of our current situation, maybe we shouldn’t argue with folks who feel they’ve been left out of the literary world (or any social sphere). It seems that our knee-jerk response is to explain to them how they are wrong about their own experiences. Especially when their experiences mean that we may have had an easier go at things, that the equitable “meritocracy” has some gaps and cracks, and that we’ve been duped by a hierarchy of difference that simply does not exist outside of our social construct.
My hope is that if we let literature do its job of making human connections, fostering empathy, and illuminating the macro by using the micro, we can forever alter the flow of information and art. We writers hold the key to future generations’ understanding of this place and time. And we are taking it seriously. Let’s listen carefully.
While I am entirely open to all aspects of difference, what I hear from our community and what is omnipresent for me right now are:
Geography: I wanted to represent writers from all around the United States and then eventually international.
Gender: I wanted to speak with folks who identify throughout the gender spectrum.
Race/Ethnicity: I want to present all the various, glorious, and sometimes terrifying ways in which our respective races and ethnicities guide us through this life.
Sexual Orientation: LGBTQ Representation
Ability: I am currently interested in the ways with which we deal with ability and how it translates into our reception of literature.
Class: I still can’t get folks comfortable enough to talk about Class. But we must. It is the undercurrent for almost every surface ripple we see. American society has never been free of a class system and it is dangerous for us to disillusion ourselves into believing differently.
Class is a lens through which we view one another; it fosters preconceived notions and shame. Race and class are two of the hurdles that modern feminism has yet to bound. To say that a Park Slope mother of two with a nanny has the same concerns as a single mother who works 10 hour shifts at a chicken processing plant is to do both a disservice. It returns to the fallacy of “hierarchy of difference;” we can’t heal one without healing all.
I am eagerly awaiting the time when our literary community is ready to have a frank, honest and open conversation about class. We’re getting there.
LM: Why spend so much of your time working on behalf of other writers? Couldn’t you get more writing done if you concentrated on your own career?
JF: I most certainly could! But I am writing, all the time. Even when I’m not at the keyboard or scratchpad, I am making connections and filling my well of experience. My work ethic is such that I can’t sit still, will go for 15 hours a day sometimes.
My first collection of poetry is forthcoming in Spring 2016 with Noemi Press. It is titled, “The Art of Work” and is the result of a two-year journey with poet and photographer Thomas Sayers Ellis to the retail, wholesale, processing plants, slaughterhouses, and killing floors of UFCW Local 342, New York City’s Meat Cutters Union. The poems were born of my experiences at these job sites and the true stories of documented and undocumented worker exploitation. The collection features Thomas’ photographs of the actual job sites and members.
While this collection is getting itself ready for the world, I am at work on essays about Staten Island, my family’s home for two centuries now and a memoir which focuses on a vein of psychopathy that has run through my family on multiple sides for many generations.
And yes, I have a paid job to supplement all my unpaid ones! Maybe it’s the curse of growing up poor— I am never going to settle into my skin enough to relax.
LM: Who are your models and heroes?
JF: The people I admire most fall into two groups:
1) Those whose soul moves them to the arts, but their familial reality is such that they must work long hours and/or multiple jobs, yet they find ways to incorporate their artistic drive into their everyday lives. Like the mechanic that turns old car parts in sculpture or the bus driver that buys oil paints and canvases one by one, waiting for the moment of retirement. Even those who do not have the means to do this, but never let go of that part of themselves inspire me.
2) Those who transcend negative or traumatic situations and use those experiences to enrich their own lives and the lives others— who let those events propel them forward. That is bravery. They are the ones who continue to see the realities of large and small-scale human interaction clearly, even when it pains them to do so.
A poem by Jen Fitzgerald, forthcoming in THE ART OF WORK (Noemi Press, 2015)
(previously Featured by New York Writer’s Workshop for National Poetry Month, 2014)
What comes before is sludge, we seek
surfaces clean as Bakelite, unrelenting
as the bricks forged on soil’s back.
Strip mined shorelines, red clay
pounded with German work ethic;
toil to create the new Black Forest.
Chuck Clovis artifacts to shatter
in industry’s pit. I gave seven years
to that town, sat in the mud
of its history. 18th Century
boarding house; slinging schnitzel,
pouring steins of German import
in a dirndl that choked me
with my own breasts. Pretended
to remember R & H Brewery,
the recreation of our rumored
ancestry; but we are in it
for the novelty, culture
of the second-hand store variety.
Arthur Kill winds a past of division—
young, black caretakers sweep
the steps of the their church.
A monument to the first reverse
of ownership, Sandy Ground
settlement sits silent as a grave
against the backdrop of our collective ruin.
That was five years ago. In the years since, Fitzgerald’s name has begun to appear regularly in the literary news that arrives in my inbox. And not only for her poetry, which has a distinctly direct and morally clear voice, but for her work on behalf of literature.
A few months ago when my chapbook BY THE WINDPIPE was newly published, I answered Jen’s call to feature new poetry chapbooks on New Books in Poetry, which is part of the New Books Network of podcasts. She offered to feature my chapbook in a brief interview-cum-reading as part of “Chapbookapalooza”, a month-long celebration of the format. Jen was well-prepared, knowledgeable and a very good interviewer. I learned afterwards that she’d organized these interviews not for a paycheck, academic credit or a personal favor, but because she felt they were necessary. Necessary. Not a word I associate with much of the business of literature at this point. It seems almost old-fashioned to labor alone on behalf of the literary community. I became curious about what motivated Jen Fitzgerald to work so hard, both on the page and in her life. What follows is a casual interview with Fitzgerald.
LM: What led you to become not just a writer but a social activist in the literary world?
JF: Books saved my life. I would read first thing in the morning, throughout lessons in school, while walking, during meals, and until I fell asleep. My record for a single day was eight books (YA, of course). When I was a kid, if I hadn’t had those realities to escape into, I might not have made it.
Books raised me. Literature gave me an unshakable, empathetic moral center. The words of strangers offered a solace I could get nowhere else. It is with gratitude that I put back into the pot from which I took so much.
I’m not sure how someone could be a writer and not a social activist. We are imparting our ideas to the world, we use persuasive language, surrealism, and entirely invented narratives for our own ends. We study people: their tones, inflections, mannerisms, and personal histories.
The impulse that drew me to the page is the same impulse that compels me to act. A writing life is one of constant learning and expansion. I seek first to understand, then to learn, and ideally, to share. I was (and still am) new to the system and social structure of the literary world. Fresh eyes easily see the cogs and gears, they aren’t yet entrenched. I saw a lack of equitable representation. I saw that groups of writers were fighting two or three times as hard for the smallest acknowledgement. And I saw that the composition of the community creating art today was very different from the composition of those with enough recognition to sustain a creative life. If writers raise the volume on suppressed voices, how could we tolerate it in our backyard?
LM: How did your work with VIDA become a gateway into a broader kind of activism?
JF: While I have taken part in grassroots activism throughout my life, VIDA gave that impulse an intense focus. The task was much larger (the VIDA Count is an enormous undertaking) but the response was commensurate.
VIDA helped me figure out where I could be most useful. Coming from a long line of engineers, I have a natural proclivity for systems, applied mathematics, and data interpretation. I eased into the task somewhat seamlessly. Co-founder, Cate Marvin saw this, and entrusted me with the reigns. My desire to act had constant nourishment and as VIDA grew, I grew with it.
LM: Would you describe the New Books Network?
JF: The New Books Network is a series of literary podcasts that focus on new collections throughout all genres and sub-sections of writing. Each one has its own channel and platform. The whole network is run by Marshall Poe. He is like a demi-god of audio editing and formatting who also runs his own channel.
Each of the 80+ channels has one or more hosts who have complete creative control over their content. It’s kind of a dream in that respect. Various channels promote one another and it feels like a big disjointed family that has a minor obsession with literature.
LM: You’re now in charge of New Books in Poetry after having worked with John Ebersole, who has moved on to other projects. What led you to focus on poetry chapbooks? Is there something that a chapbook can do differently from a full length collection?
JF: Not all collections will extend to 70 or so pages. Sometimes the poems say they are done and no amount of coaxing will budge them. This is where the chapbook comes into play; just as the novella is still a respected medium, so too should be the chapbook.
By dedicating an entire month to them, they are made into an event—hopefully something that people will look forward to in upcoming years. This is where I got the name “Chapbookapalooza,” after the yearly music festival, “Lollapalooza.” And why not celebrate the chapbook? They are absolute works of art; the attention to aesthetics and detail is astounding. Visual art is often interspersed with verse and it adds an entirely new dimension.
They are a joy to read because sometimes the smallest poems and collections contain the largest worlds.
LM: How do you select the work to be featured?
JF: I love startling language, I love when a title subverts a poem’s content, I love when prosody kicks out the wall of a stanza, and I need to feel an exhale when the poem’s dust falls to coat my bones.
Although I had a pretty broad knowledge of the contemporary poetry scene going into this, I spent the first month or two familiarizing myself with poetry presses and asking fellow poets for lists of presses that were putting out collections they enjoyed. As I browsed catalogs, I pondered the key elements of our literary community that make it so awesome.
The conversation surrounding the VIDA Count data has lead our community to request that editors be conscious, aware, and proactive in their representation of those creating literature today. I was handed the rare opportunity to implement the very thing I was asking others to do.
Once put into action, it proved that to diversify is not to lessen, but to strengthen. With each group of folks that feels welcome and included, this platform only gets wider and stronger— it grows to meet the demand of the bodies it holds.
(Read Part II tomorrow)
THIRSTY: Was the poet Shelley correct that poetry can be a source of knowledge and power?
DAVID LEHMAN: Yes. I agree with this statement and with most of the claims for poetry that Shelley makes in his "Defence." He does, however, argue that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," and here I draw the line. W. H. Auden expresses my view when he contends that this phrase describes "the secret police, not the poets."
THIRSTY: What role does the poet play in a mature, democratic society? Can a poet in today's world awaken people to change their opinions or even their institutions? Can a poem inspire and move people to rethink their reality?
DAVID LEHMAN: Poetry can change the world one mind at a time. There are faster ways to get your message out, but poetry isn't a matter of "messages." Poetry is strangeness, is beauty shrouded in mystery (or mystery shrouded in beauty). Poetry is meant to give pleasure, to inspire, and to help us as, in Frost's phrase, "a momentary stay against confusion." Poetry keeps the chaos and madness at bay. It is something we need not because it can change our social reality but because it allows us to escape from it.
THIRSTY: How effective are the dead poets of past centuries in informing contemporary life?
by guest blogger Karen Schiff
Left (& elsewhere in the article): snapshot by the blogger; images of artworks are from the Sargent’s Daughters website.
Right: James Siena, “Non-Slice,” 2005. Enamel on aluminum, 19-1/4˝ × 15-1/8˝ (48.9 × 38.4 cm). Photograph by Ellen Labenski, Copyright James Siena, Image via Mary Boone Gallery, New York / Courtesy Pace Gallery. This work is on view in "Spaced Out: Migration to the Interior,” at Red Bull Studios in New York, through December 14, 2014.
I walked into the opening at Sargent’s Daughters gallery, on the Lower East Side, expecting to see some of the carefully hand-wrought, rule-based abstractions for which James Siena is world renowned. Most iconically, he paints on modest rectangles of aluminum (see above, right), using signpainters’ lettering enamel. (Might this medium already link his work to writing?) But I knew that “Orly Genger and James Siena: New works on paper” would be a drawing show. (It continues through October 26, 2014.) What I didn’t know, & what threw me back on my heels (though I don’t generally wear heels), was that I would not immediately recognize which drawings were Siena’s, & that he'd be “drawing” with a typewriter.
Siena is not the only major-league artist to use a typewriter: Carl André typed “poems” as artworks, & displayed them in gallery exhibitions for decades. How does Siena think about this precedent? Simply: he was “really loathe to step on anybody’s toes.” He didn’t use a typewriter until he thought of something of his own to do with it, in part because of “having so much respect for André’s typings.”
Typings? Now there’s a curious term: it refers solely to the medium, without declaring a genre. Art vs. Writing -- why take sides? Well, sometimes it clarifies things. André called his works poems, but Siena thinks of his own works as drawings, “not as poetry at all...& I don’t think of myself as a poet. But I love poetry.” (He reads Charles Bernstein, Clark Coolidge, Doug Nufer, Mónica de la Torre, & Mark Strand in addition to the many other poets he hangs out with.) I can see why: Siena’s language in his typewriter drawings is only palindromes. He chooses phrases whose letters reverse, midway through, to yield mirrored sequences. (Though I’ll eventually concentrate on the palindromic drawings, for the readership of this poetry blog, Siena also types drawings from either punctuation marks or number sequences.) He focuses on the palindromes’ letter patterns, not on their linguistic meanings. Still, Siena chooses his palindromes carefully, as you’ll see in our interview. There is content here; could it qualify as poetic content? The words do struggle & dance with the rectangular images they create...
James Siena, “Untitled (is it I? it is I),” 2013 (& detail)
Through our conversation, Siena’s shift into word-based art came to seem much less abrupt. He talked about decades of his earlier work with words, including pun-filled political performances, a libretto, lists of verbs in columned accounting books, & even poems. He has provided images -- and sometimes words -- for books by his dear poet friends Kenneth Goldsmith, Marjorie Welish, & Geoffrey Young. A “voracious reader,” he turns deeply dreamy when he talks about languages -- he speaks French, some Italian & Spanish, & reads Catalan. But while all of this context informs the typewriter drawings, Siena sets it aside to meet the challenges of the artmaking itself.
KS: Why did you start making typewriter drawings?
JS: I remember playing with some e-mails...I’ve got a very funny e-mail from my friend, the artist Paul McMahon. He would sign his e-mails with weird punctuation things to make a little concrete portrait of his face, & I thought that was very funny. A bearded, older guy, using punctuation for emoticons...
Left: Paul McMahon's punctuated signature
JS: I sponsored an evening of music with Paul, & I said, “I’ll do an e-mail blast for your concert.” I made a very typographic e-mail using parentheses to symbolize sound. I put “Paul McMahon” & radiating from his name were all these parentheses going out, in waves. Then I forgot about it.
When I was transcribing this last part, I made a significant error: I typed that Siena “wrote a very exciting e-mail” when he had actually said that he “made a very exciting e-mail.” The difference cuts to the heart of this project: Siena speaks about that pivotal e-mail message as a hand-wrought thing, an art object, & not primarily as a text for utilitarian, verbal communication.
Reconstruction of James Siena's
original e-mail blast for
Paul McMahon's concert,
JS: A couple of months later, we [Siena & his wife, artist Katia Santibañez] went to Rome, for a residency at the [American] Academy, & I didn’t take any painting supplies. I took toothpicks. I had a very serious injury in my right wrist, so I was doing sculpture...I couldn’t paint very easily. And something just clicked -- I thought about the Paul McMahon announcement with the parentheses! So I went down to the flea market & got an Olivetti typewriter.
KS: Is an Olivetti a special kind of typewriter -- like an Italian classic?
JS: The Olivetti is THE Italian classic. I have five or six, including Sottsass' Valentine, a landmark of 60's design. And I love the font: the lowercase has a little Italian vibe. The thing about an Olivetti is that it has a half-space ratchet, going vertically, so when you turn the platen you can go half a line instead of a full line, & you can overlap things... I love typewriters. They’re all around here.
KS: How long have you collected typewriters? (I had also seen “Artist’s Artists,” an exhibition of artists’ print collections at the International Print Center, where a fraction of Siena’s typewriter collection is on display; the exhibition ends tomorrow: October 15, 2014.)
JS: Since about...’97?
KS: Wow! How many do you have?
JS: I have a whole wall of ’em.
These photos don't do justice to the collection's enormity.
JS: So, it started with punctuation. There’s such a richness of association that comes out of these things, that I was immediately enthralled. I thought that if I could stick to a kind of rigor, & type them carefully & make them really edge-conscious -- as conscious of where the image ended as in my other work -- then I would consider them really mine.
In some pieces, the empty space of the margin is even on all four sides. In others, the margins are uneven with respect to the length of the palindrome or numerical pattern. Siena is not compelled to make centered images, & he notes that to cut out & frame a typed area, which could make each finished piece be a different size, would make the pieces “more like drawings & less like typings.” (Still, he says he’s “not against that as a possibility.”) The pieces retain strong ties to writing by beginning at the top left of the page, & by using writing papers (with American dimensions...but why do writers say 8½ x 11”, while artists list the vertical measure first?). Siena says that while it was “tempting to play with the large format [of his wide-carriage, all caps Remington typewriter], I really wanted to respect the ordinariness of that smaller format.”
Right: "Untitled (0-9, ten, eight, six, four, three, two, one)," 2014
From the field patterns of punctuation, the drawings moved to sequential patterns with numbers. Though some of these recall number-sequence artworks by Jasper Johns, Siena says “I didn’t think of Johns one bit, not for a second.” The shift into numbers -- and on Italian machines, typing numbers requires using the shift key! -- does have its own logic here: numbers are like punctuation in that they have no specific references. So, using numbers adds only one variable: sequence. What captivates Siena is the challenge of figuring out the typing procedure that will yield the sequences he wants to see, along all four edges of the patterned field.
Soon, Siena figured out that his patterns of ascending & descending numbers were “symmetrical number clusters,” structured like palindromes. Given the similarity, he felt “obligated to try it with palindromes.” It was nearing the end of the Academy residency, & Siena was “sad to leave: I had fallen in love with Rome.” So he found a palindromic ode to the city, in its native Latin: Roma tibi subito motibus ibit amor (“Rome, to you love will come, with sudden passion”). The letters read “east-west, north- south, west-east, & south-north,” as in the ancient Latin Square:
Left: "Untitled-Lower Case-Red (Rome, to you love will come, with sudden passion)," 2013; Right: Latin Square
Here, Siena’s visual intrigue derives mostly from the interactions of the letterforms. In other drawings, variation arises from the pressure of his keystroke, or from the key’s position in the typewriter (which affects where, & how hard, it strikes the ribbon). Siena finds palindromes on the internet, & loves the fact that Oulipo writer Georges Perec wrote an entire short story in a palindrome.
KS: When you’re looking at palindromes online, what kind of note does it strike to make you say, “Ah, that’ll work”?
JS: I want them to sound a bit...puzzling, or not easy to answer, & little bit...naughty, but I don’t mean as in, “A slut was I, ere I saw Tulsa,” which is the variation on “Able was I, ere I saw Elba.” For example, “Devil never even lived” is just a fantastic line! And the “even” pounds it home. So, “naughty” in a provocative way, not in a sexual way.
KS: I did start thinking about God & sex & death.
JS: There is that...& “devil” & “lived” is a fantastic mirror, & “God” & “dog” of course, so “God lived as a devil dog”...
KS: That was hilarious!
"Untitled (God Lived as a Devil Dog)," 2013, and detail
JS: If I could find an anti-religious, erotic palindrome, I would be a happy camper! (Blog readers, there’s a challenge for you!)
KS: The devil was associated with the printshop when printing first started in medieval Europe...
JS: Oh? I didn’t know that!
KS: Yes, because they thought...
JS: Too many people would learn to read?
KS: [laughing] That is dangerous... They thought that scribes had divine energy in their calligraphy, & if the hand was taken out of the process, the printed text must be the work of the devil.
JS: That’s very interesting, because when I was in Rome I did look at a fantastic book on printing. I don’t remember the devil reference so much as I remember ‘a great discomfort swept the land’ when the printing presses came out.
KS: Workers in printshops are called “printer’s devils.”
JS: Oh, that’s true! But this book went even farther. It laid out a two-step process [of writing & then printing]. It said that when people learned to write, or read & write, it damaged the general population’s ability to discourse eloquently off the cuff, & posited this notion that long ago, people could speak in greater complexity. They could visualize paragraphs. They didn’t visualize them as physically written, but they had a different mind towards language. Writing something down is so different from speaking...& we’re in this horrendous crisis of language now, because of all the devices we have glued to our everything...
How might people have related to language before writing, indeed? How do we relate to it now?
(We talked for a while about text messages, voice recognition software for foreign languages, & games with accents & musical genres, as well as art projects that involve language & technology.)
KS: So, is there some aspect of this project which is like you’re saying, “Let’s see how much we can get language to bend to our will”? As in: can it fit in all the directions, while still doing its palindromic thing, so there’s the glee of besting language?
JS: That’s very well put...I guess I’m doing that, but I’m not conscious of doing that. I want to rule language, but I also want language to rule me. I’m not inventing new spellings... But by imposing a limitation on my way of forming the shape, I’m forcing the viewer to look at things in a certain way that they hadn’t before. To use visual pattern recognition of a letter pattern or a numerical pattern, to see a shape they’ve never seen before. And the reason they’ve never seen it before is that it’s made up of a kind of geared system...the drawings are about structure and procedure. A procedure builds a structure, & the structure determines the procedure.
"Untitled (rotator double cross)," 2014, and detail
JS: I’m trying to make something very complex, seen all at once, & it has to be done line by line, using percussive, manual activity: space bar, letter, counting the number of space bar hits. Like the plus symbol and the space bar, in alternates, & if you get a little out of rhythm...
KS: So, it is musical!
The “percussive” keystrokes & “rhythm” had made me think of the musician’s sound waves that inspired the first typewriter drawings -- sound waves are both audible & palpable. (This gives all of these drawings some common ground with poetry, which sounds metrical & feels rhythmic even when its verse is free, or if its words are incomprehensible or Jabberwockian. Even just placing the frame of poetry around ordinary, sampled language intensifies its sensible properties.) When I mentioned music, Siena took out his iPad & showed me a video of him typing in Rome.
[please click < HERE > to watch the video]
KS: I see you slowing down at the end...
JS: ...because I don’t want to go past the edge.
KS: Do you ever misstrike?
KS: And then...throw it out?
JS: Yes. Sometimes I can make it go away with gouache, but if it catches my eye I have to toss it; I have to retype it.
Often when something “catches my eye” it’s a good thing: I find it attractive. Or maybe a person “catches my eye” to tell me something -- in a whisper or a gesture -- that will keep me out of trouble. But here, the “catch” is a fly in the ointment, something that interferes with the ability to experience the visual field altogether. Not all of Siena’s mistyped characters disqualify the drawings: some of them add visual intrigue, & others escape his detection for weeks.
KS: The medium itself has a variation built into it. So to try to be too perfect is going against the medium.
JS: Yes. And I don’t want to be known as the strictest guy in the world...
KS: At first I thought your process here was like that of Sol LeWitt’s books, where each page adds a color, or a direction of line, so the pages contain all the permutations of those elements.
JS: I don’t know if I have the patience to be that “permutative.”
KS: It seems like you’re more responsive, playful.
JS: My process is more like branching, from one idea to the next. LeWitt never switched the rules. He said that even if it’s a bad idea, you carry it all the way out. I’m envisioning this thing, & building it line by line...or discovering it!
KS: Yes, like this one, which intrigued me in the show because the pattern changes in the middle, a few times.
JS: I realized something was oscillating within the structure. And so I decided to accentuate the oscillation, as a worksheet. There are a lot of worksheets -- tests of what I could possibly do before I embark on a drawing.
KS: It felt like like a progressive discovery, tweaking the rules as the paper went along.
A lot of the interview session consisted of looking closely at drawings & figuring out the rules that generated them. Rules are a conundrum, in poetry as well as in artwork: there’s no form without them, & yet they often shape a work most successfully when they are not followed completely. The attraction of the “pushback” comes from both directions: the “freedom” of our culture makes us glorify defying the rules, yet the experience of “being ruled” (as Siena says) can also be a revolutionary defiance of that cultural value. And following an external set of rules -- that is, allowing oneself to "be ruled" by them -- can occasion a breaking out of one's own habits, which form an unconscious set of rules.
I think of St. Francis, who created a “rule” or “order” for women & for laypeople, as well as for cloistered monks...& the ritual “rules” of, say, fasting on diverse religious holidays. but why do rules for artwork so quickly call to mind religion as well as rebellion? Maybe because rule-based art envisions an absolute (=divine?) perfection of form or behavior which is ultimately impossible (& I find such perfection undesirable, besides).
I like art “rules” best when they are less mathematically precise. The history of “rules” suggests some support for this view: many historic wood & metal “rules” or “straightedges” -- now called “rulers” -- didn’t have numbers on them. They were only used for “ruling” or making straight lines (also called “rules”)...but still by hand. (To rule manuscript inscriptions, for example.) And can the “specialness of the scribe,” as Siena called it in our conversation, include the energy that animates these ruled lines?
While an artist might not be channeling divine energy, the way the medievals believed (because who can really know about that?), there may yet be some special role for artists’ rules. The word “ruler” can also mean a king or a queen! Now, Percy Bysshe Shelley claims (in his canonical 19th-century essay, “A Defence of Poetry”), “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” So I will venture that artists -- in their rulings on the page -- are the world’s uncrowned royals.
* * *
P.S. Maybe the type-writers themselves are the royals. (And I mean not just the typists, or the typewriter artists, or even the writer-types: Siena says that his Royal KMM typewriter is “such a beautiful, well-adjusted machine. It’s such a joy to type on. No errors, no skips...”)
Since our grad school days at NYU, no one has inspired or supported me more than Joseph O. Legaspi.
He’s the author of Imago (CavanKerry Press) and two chapbooks: Aviary, Bestiary (Organic Weapon Arts), winner of the David Blair Memorial Prize, and Subways (Thrush Press). These days, he inspires me as a co-founder of Kundiman, a non-profit organization serving Asian American literature. This month, Kundiman will celebrate 10 years as an organization.
Kundiman is the classic form of Filipino love song—or so it seemed to colonialist forces in the Philippines. In fact, in Kundiman, the singer who expresses undying love for his beloved is actually singing for love of country. For an organization dedicated to providing a nurturing space for Asian American writers, the name is an inspiration to create and support artistic expression.
JGO: Congratulations on celebrating 10 years of poetry with Kundiman. How are you commemorating this milestone?
JOL: Thank you. Where has the time gone? It has flown by, yet so much has happened, often leaving myself and Sarah Gambito (Kundiman's co-founder) dizzy with amazement. I'm tremendously proud of Kundiman, how we endured for this long through sheer passion, hard work, volunteerism, partnerships, and determination. To commemorate we are throwing a party: our 10th Anniversary Kundiman Gala on Oct. 15 in New York City. It'll be an elegant, fun evening with open bar, chocolates, and dessert tasting. Moreover, we are honoring Vijay Seshadri, the first Asian American to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Come join us and support Asian American literature. Tickets are available at http://kundiman.org/gala.
JGO: What has been your biggest joy with Kundiman?
JOL: Hands down, the Kundiman fellows. They are the most talented, generous, kind-hearted, intelligent and courageous souls I've ever encountered. They have taught me so much.
JGO: What's the value of an organization such as yours in today's current poetry climate?
JOL: I view Kundiman's initial value in assisting and supporting its primary constituents: Asian American writers. We serve and build this community, which, in turn, branches out to other communities and into the general sphere. By empowering writers, they give voice to our Asian American stories, cataloging our cultural significance, signifying and validating our presence, chronicling our histories. By providing mentorship, workshops and other resources, Kundiman fellows are better at navigating the literary landscape. They are publishing books (35 by the end of 2014, with more slated for publication in the next two years), chapbooks (33 and counting), and in journals; winning awards; doing activist and grassroots work; pursuing graduate degrees; and holding academic posts.
JGO: What's Kundiman's biggest challenge?
JOL: As with most nonprofits, literary and otherwise, Kundiman's biggest challenge is funding, and with that, sustainability. It angers and frustrates me when celebrities pay thousands of dollars for a pair of shoes, while that amount of money can fund a Kundiman summer retreat and nurture twenty-four emerging writers. So, yes, funding and tied in with that is manpower/personnel, and organizational bandwidth and resources. We know our programs work, our mission is strong. But we're often trying to figure out ways to sustain the organization--beyond grants and fundraising events.
JGO: Flip side of the same question. What's in store for the future of Kundiman?
JOL: Kundiman hopes to implement a summer fiction retreat for emerging Asian American writers. Proceeds from the 10th Anniversary Gala would go toward that goal. Of course, we will continue with our usual programming: the poetry retreat, the book prize, national readings, and the KAVAD oral history project. We hope to be around serving and championing Asian American literature in the next decade. And the next.
I hope you can make it.
You can find Joseph’s fine, fine poetry at Poets.org, jubilat, The Journal, Painted Bride Quarterly, BLOOM, and the anthology Coming Close (Prairie Lights/University of Iowa Press), among other publications.
Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Ach. What a week. Raced back from NYC, jumped off the plane, and made it barely in time to see my son’s city championship cross-country meet. Jude did great—and where he got the hummingbird bone structure —much less the stamina and discipline to run for miles and miles through the boiling heat—I do not know. But he’s glorious to watch. Like, so beautiful I get weepy just standing there on the sidelines. I’m such a dope.
But a lot of my poet friends have babies due around now and I wish I could bottle that feeling for them and give them a little sip ahead of time as they’re anxiously contemplating all the energy they’re about to give up to something other than themselves.
It makes sense that for poets particularly this is so nerve-wracking—paying detailed attention to our interiors is the bread and butter of what we do—and yet, at least in my case, having one of the little beings who compel you to complicate that exhausting state of self-absorption has been nothing but a gift. I mean, sometimes a weighty gift, but a gift nonetheless.
The other highlight of the evening happened when we parents crowding the edge of the running trail realized we were standing within a few feet of the GRANDADDY OF ALL WATER MOCCASINS coiled up at the trunk of a nearby tree. He was all like, “Hey, Girl. Just chillin’ here, figuring which one of you imunna eat.” Really, even by Florida standards, this snake was HUGE.
And what is it about iPhones that make people think they’ve got some special force field around them while they’re trying to take a picture? Adam refers to the iPhone as a tool for natural selection. You wouldn’t believe the number of idiots who kept scooching closer to frame a better shot. But this is actually one of the things I like best about where I live: you get the strong feeling that nature is always one second away from staging a well-deserved coup on our invasive asses. That seems fair to me.
A statement with which I know Dana Levin would agree (see how I did that there?). Just recently I passed a delightful half hour staring at a sea otter with Dana. This is because we spend a lot of time in Port Townsend together (where I am the artistic director for the most wonderful summer writers conference in the world), and you can’t walk a mile there without bumping into deer, coyotes, eagles, otters, porpoise, raccoons, orca, etc. etc. It’s truly one of the most beautiful places in the world. Dana and I met there years ago when we were both invited as faculty for the conference.
I already knew Dana’s poems and admired them immensely—these being three much praised and influential collections of poetry from Copper Canyon Press. The poems have such a cerebral, critical intensity, are filled with such profound feeling and shattering expressions of elegy—that I was nervous to meet her. I worried that my “I Love Lucy” state-of-being would seem frivolous to such a penetrating mind.
But it turned out there was the most pleasurable cognitive dissonance when meeting Dana in person--she of the huge, easy laugh and sneakily ribald sense of humor. Dana is always the first person to suggest that a little bit of chocolate would make the dinner that much better. And that we’ll need a good bottle of wine to go with it, of course.
Perhaps it’s because of her close encounters with grief that Dana makes extra certain to enjoy this life. She has a gift for friendship, for directness and connection. She lets the stupid stuff roll off her back, because, you know, people. And in her new poems since 2011’s mind- blowingly good Sky Burial, it seems Dana is urging us to gather our rosebuds post haste, as chances are shit’s about to get extremely real in this world we humans have made. Like me, I think Dana is not-so-secretly on the side of the water moccasins.
I was reading a new poem of yours in Poetry magazine the other day—the terrific, eerie “Banana Palace”—though, because I hadn’t had coffee yet, I thought the poem was called “Banana Hammock.”
This really changed what I thought the poem was about.
Have you considered writing a poem called “Banana Hammock”? Maybe a companion piece to the original?
Y'know, a banana kinda looks like a hammock. I want you to know / how it felt to lay on it / deep in the curve of its hopefully unripe skin / because if it's ripe, you don't want to lay on it
...wait, did you mean that to be sexual?
(A pause while Erin finds the Urban Dictionary definition of “banana hammock” for Dana.)
A man's speedo swimsuit.
Look at all of the banana hammocks in Fort Lauderdale.
But you go ahead and handle your banana hammock the way you see fit, Dana.
And look at yooou! Whipping off that poem revision all spontaneous-like. You’re as good as Wayne Brady on What’s My Line! Jude really loves that show.
And speaking of shows, what’s your "I hope no one catches me watching this” show? Or are you one of those poets who pretend not to own a TV and spend their time rehabilitating one-pawed raccoons, or staring pensively at invisible art installations in Berlin?
I *love* television -- we're in a golden age of television, yada yada yada. Okay: I watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer over and over. Currently I'm really into Hemlock Grove. Gimme as many vampire/werewolf/endangered teenagers as you can.
But don’t you find all the brain-melting machines—TVs, phones, computers-- disruptive to making poems? I mean, the world is exponentially nosier than it was even ten years ago. How do you stay focused? I feel like a hamster on Adderall most of the time with all my devices binging and whooping and making me feel guilty for not responding to someone within thirty seconds of contact.
I dunno, distraction really saves me. I can't sit with a poem for more than 20 minutes without having to get up and wash the dishes, pull bugs off plants, text you...
At AWP Boston I had this incredibly numinous experience of walking into the book fair and being *assailed* by pings and swooshes and tinkles and old telephone rings -- I just stood there listening to the cacophony of thousands of phones going off and it felt like "the now" or "the future" or a city of mechanical birds or the deeply human and the deeply technologized sautered together in some new way for humans to alert and alarm each other.
I didn't move for about five minutes (and got a lot of quizzical and dirty looks -- y'know, people were trying to *get in* to the book fair completely disrupting my numinous experience...)
Seriously. The AWP hotel acoustics get so intense that one year I found myself sprinting back to my room in order to to hide under the bathroom sink for about 15 minutes.
This really is the worst part of AWP for me. The din of 12,000 writers aerobically networking is deafening. Well this, and my complete inability to remember which faces and names go together. And why the hell do they give us nametags that require looking at someone's crotch to figure out who they are? Makes sneaking a peek very dicey. Christian Teresi, if you’re reading this, please stuff that in your suggestion box. Longer lanyards.
On a different subject, you seem a bit obsessed with morning glories. Lotta lotta pictures of morning glories on your FB page. Like, daily.
Given that morning glory is both my birth flower AND a noxious invasive weed, what symbolism are you trying to project with this monomania of yours?
It's all for you, Erin. I'm just trying to get your attention. You're so *busy* all the time.
But seriously: I've loved them forever. And I grew up in the desert, y'know, 110 degrees in the shade summer desert, so there weren't that many classic flowers that flourished there. Morning Glories are so ephemeral -- you have to catch 'em before Noon, when they fizzle, at least in Santa Fe. And they have this strange light that emits from their centers. Someone on Facebook asked me if they produce it or if it's reflected -- and I have *no idea*. I'd like to keep it, as with most phenomena, mysterious, so I won't look it up.
Plus everyone on FB who cares seems to like the morning glories best. I can't get no truck of likes with the less purple flowers. What is that? We're so "Oooh, purple, lemme give that a thumbs-up---"
I live for likes. Don't you?
I have a complicated relationship with likes. My vanity is certainly fluffed like a porn star when people feed me thumbs on Facebook. And yet, I get irritated that most of the content I actually care about—the political content, trying to get people to vote in mid-term elections, posting feminist articles that are VERY IMPORTANT TO THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY—these get a big “meh.” Or people feel sorry for me so I get a couple tepid, no comment likes. It’s as if I’ve just emitted a terrible noise in public and people politely look away until the smell passes. Then I put up a link to “Vegetables That Look Like LOL Cats That Look Like Hitler" and suddenly 250 people hit their buttons.
I’m at that point where I may try and get off Facebook. No doubt I’ll need a residential rehab program for empty-attention seekers.
Yeah, Twitter's like that too -- Patricia Lockwood tweeted something about eating Fozzie the Bear and got 675 favorites and 163 re-tweets (I just looked that up!) Brenda Hillman saying something serious about drone bombing in Iraq? 1 and 1. We're living at the decadent end of Empire, that's for sure.
Also, regarding AWP, don't you mean "shorter lanyards"? I mean, if we're trying to avoid crotch staring. How about AWP hats? Temporary tattoos displaying name and institutional affiliation across everyone's foreheads? The AWP Mark o' Cain...
Oh, right. I was seduced by the alliteration in “longer lanyards.” I meant shorter. Much shorter. Or maybe individual heralds to just follow writers around trumpeting their CVs and carrying their jousting poles. Sounds like a good MFA internship program in the making.
Here’s another thing I’ve been thinking about in relationship to you, Dana Levin: back in the day, there was a well-known posse of Hair Poets in the 90s and early two thousands. But it’s my impression that you—with your silver mane of Disney-princess-meets-Medusa curls--are one of the very last of the Great Hair Poets. I mean, Lucie Brock Broido is still rocking it with that hair she can wrap twice around her body, but the hair herd has sadly thinned.
Has the hair/poetry connection disappeared into myth? Have you ever had short hair? Would cutting it off have a Samson-like effect on your poetic output?
I *did* have short hair once: 1986, Junior year of college. I had one of those weird New Wave cuts: short in the back with two long tendrils on either side, bangs flopped over one eye. I must have looked like a Hasid with a bad haircut and gender issues.
The Samson effect...well, I had a bodyworker once tell me I should cut off all my hair to get rid of "old vibes" --- I looked at him with immense alarm...
A “bodyworker"? Wait, this is some kind of hippie Esperanto you’ve learned living in New Mexico, right?
Also, I challenge you to a competition for Worst New Wave Haircut. Mine was a crunchy-permed, asymmetrical mullet. I was transitioning from a Pat Benetar, trying to grow it into a Chrissie Hynde. It was so bad that I’m actually proud of it.
And no, I absolutely do NOT want to talk about drone bombings. Though, speaking of signs of the apocalypse, this brings me to the final question:
Your next book definitely has shadings of the apocalyptic in it. If you were to let five poets into your fall out shelter—NOT based on your personal affection for them—but based entirely on what survival/community skills they will bring to the Mad Max future--which contemporary poets would you choose and why?
Whoa! Survival/community skills? Okay: Derick Burleson, because he's burly and bearded and lives in Alaska and seems like he'd know how to do things like skin a radioactive deer for dinner; Gabrielle Calvocoressi, because she's so damned *nice* and can find the spiritual lesson in just about any trying experience and deliver it to the rest of us with charm and open-heartedness; Mark Bibbins *and* you, because between the two of you there'd be a secret cache of fine wine stowed somewhere, which seems like it would be *very necessary* in the fall-out shelter; then I'd save a spot for the first poet who finds him/herself dragging alone through the post-apocalyptic horror and happens to come upon the fall-out shelter and bangs and bangs and bangs to be let in -- I wouldn't be able to stop Gaby from opening the door.
Thank you, Dana Levin. This has been a very edifying conversation. I'll be happy to crawl inside the bunker with you and share my packest of dehydrated scrambled eggs.
Another quick and impertinent Interviews With Poets before scrambling off to more reading gigs. I’ll be schlepping around for my about-to-be-released book Slant Six from now till December (Columbus, St. Louis, San Antonio, Austin, Miami, etc.). I just read the first review--which was very kind--but the reviewer also seems to think I'm a recovering alcoholic based on a satirical poem called "12 Step." (The poem is written from the point of view of a writer vowing never to write another "personal" poem again). I'm always gobsmacked by what people get out of my poems. A total mystery. But mostly not an unpleasant one. I mean, nice of them to care at all, right?
Speaking of poets we care about, today’s is Matthew Zapruder. Matthew is another poet I’ve known for as far back as my adult memory goes. But I didn’t come to know Matthew well until he invited me to join the Wave Press Poetry Bus Tour that he and Joshua Beckman organized in 2006.
Part Electric Kool Aid, part Bataan death drive, the tale of that two month tour with a clown car full of poets (actually, a biodiesel-fueled motor coach)--reading in bars, bowling alleys and barns all across the US and Canada--is one of those rare moments in poetry history that I believe will be remembered (“They did what?”).
My most emblematic story about Matthew comes from that bus tour, when we’d stopped in Salt Lake City to do a reading. The night before we’d had a raucous gig in Boise, Idaho and everyone on the bus was shagged out, content to make an early evening of it. The fine poetry citizens of Salt Lake had another idea.
We were at a bookstore called Ken Sanders Rare Books. The name conjured a gentleman collector of foxed, 1st editions. We imagined a small audience of well-behaved poetry aficionados and then to bed. What we got was the hairy inch from a bacchanal—heaps of amazing food, wine flowing, 60s era, socialist chanting, singing, and guitars. There were also other “refreshments.”
It was after these that I found myself squinting slack jawed in front of a large, framed illustration hanging on the bookstore wall. Made in the 1940s for a pharmaceutical company, the picture is titled “Germ Isolation In Dingbat Land,” and is a highly detailed cartoon of an adorable germ creature being tortured by a gang of tiny space trolls. It is, to use the parlance of the day, deeply fucked up.
Matthew wandered over to me while I was staring (and staring) at it. We had an intense conversation about how very IMPORTANT the picture was, containing ALL the metaphors for EVERYTHING. It seemed obvious that “Germ Isolation In Dingbat Land” was the “Key To All Mythologies” and Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud” rolled into one.
Then Matthew said, “Erin, you must buy this. You have to. You were destined to have it.”
I do not remember purchasing “Germ Isolation In Dingbat Land,” nor do I remember paying $300 for it (though the signed receipt that arrived with the package does make my case harder to prove). But it now hangs on my kitchen wall, a permanent reminder to Adam that I may not be trusted with the debit card.
Which is to say Matthew has a genius for transmitting his deep enthusiasms and passions, both in his poems and in person. I think part of his gift lies in the fact that he’s not pushy about it. More that Matthew offers gentle revelations, as his poems show us this moment, this thought, this scientific theory, this can of Cocoa Cola, this sound that this bell is (not) making—all of these compel our fullest attention.
The world of Matthew’s poems is shadowed with the unheimliche, though his recognition of these disturbances doesn’t forget what is also charming, sly, humorous, and even sweetly wistful. It is this uncanny quality of attention, the exact gradations in shades between states of human being, that make him an irritatingly difficult poet from which to steal. Lord knows I’ve tried.
And knowing his four, critically-admired, award winning poetry collections well, I am simply left with a strong sense of Matthew’s generosity, his willingness to risk sincerity for the sake of meaningful connections, and the potential for adventure he offers if we’re willing to go on the trip.
So, Matthew, I can tell if someone actually knows you based on whether or not they refer to you as “Matt.”
Why do you hate being called Matt? Don’t you think it’s kind of a sporty alternative to the original, like the ultimate frisbee playing version of yourself?
Also, what’s a nickname of yours that you do like? Please share it with us.
I was called Matt in high school, for some reason. I never liked it, and in fact do hate it. It just sounds so ugly when I think of it in reference to myself. Which is strange, because one of my best friends is a Matt, Rohrer. I like it on him. So to answer your question, if someone calls me Matt it either means they don't know me or knew me in high school. Which is kind of the same thing actually.
Maybe I just like the you in Matthew, it seems communicative, and makes me feel slightly less lonely.
When I went to college, there were a few guys there who were from the greater NY area who seemed to enjoy calling me Mattie, which seemed endearing, like I was their pal from hockey practice. That nickname by the way was solely endemic to that region. I have a few friends who call me "Z" which is fine. I want to say you can call me whatever you want, but that seems potentially dangerous. Nicknames are way too revealing, I don't ever want to actually know what people think of me.
Well, that’s reasonable. I think those of us with non-contractible names suffer from a little nickname envy. Though a number of my grad students call me “Tiny E” after the mini Elvis character on SNL. So my jealousy has been assuaged.
But this made me think of Cate Marvin’s essay about being chosen for a prestigious residency, and when they found out she’d just had a baby, some on the committee were concerned she’d waste her time writing “terrible mother poems.”
Are you concerned parenthood is going to make you write “terrible father” poems? Or are dude poets safe in that regard?
Tiny E. That is awesome. I shudder to think what my grad students call me.
And thanks. Your confidence is much appreciated. I am currently surrounded by baby gear as I'm writing this. I have recently been introduced to the existence of many items that address needs I had no idea existed, and I'm sure this is just the beginning.
You know, in fact I am a bit worried about that. Not because of poems by others I have seen, but because I have a tendency to write out of my own experience, and to find the language within it that seems most potentially electric and luminous and to follow it wherever it goes. That's how I write, and it requires a delicate balance of attention to feelings and weird objectivity toward those feelings, if that makes any sense. Sometimes though I have found that the stronger and more immediate the feelings surrounding the experience (particularly with death), the more difficult it is to have the necessary distance to follow what Stafford called "the golden thread."
In other words I agree with Keats when he wrote that in a great poet a sense of beauty obliterates all consideration. And I get the feeling that having a kid is an intense dose of consideration, and mattering. Which is good. I'm sure there will be nothing I will care more about than the baby and his mother and our little family. So I wonder what that will do to the objectivity of my relation to language in balance with said feelings. I want my experience, however personal, to be representative through the mechanism of our collective consciousness (i.e. language) to as many people as possible. To my mind that happens for poets through the pursuit of "beauty," though of course that term means something very different to each poet.
On the other hand, as I think Montaigne wrote (not that I've read any Montaigne), most of my life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened. So odds are I'm as usual worrying about the wrong thing.
Yeah, well it’s probably just as well Keats didn’t have any kids, saving us all from his “Ode On A Diaper Genie.” But I think kids actually do heighten one’s sense of negative capability, as it certainly puts you in a position of GREAT unknowing. You figure out quickly that grasping after fact and reason is an entirely pointless exercise when it comes to infants.
I’m not sure if you remember this, but there was a time when we were reading together years ago and I had a panic attack on stage—wobbling legs, squeaky voice, some hyperventilating—and from the corner of my eye, I saw you reposition your chair near me at the podium in what looked like preparation to break my fall if I did in fact collapse. (This is by far the most gallant gesture anyone has ever made toward me, and is the root of my great affection for you).
But you NEVER seem to sweat behind the podium. Never. Is that because you’re incredibly confident deep down in your soul?
Also, why do you think so many poets are such terrible readers? I mean even poets that you like on the page, and then see them in person and they use the horrible “poetry voice" and mumble, and their poetry patter sucks. Or they natter on for 25 minutes and then read a two minute-long poem. What’s the key to putting on a good performance?
Wow, I totally remember that! We were in Montana, if I'm not mistaken. That was just the insane beginning of what turned out to be a truly insane two months on that Poetry Bus. I can't believe you decided to come along; you are a truly adventurous soul.
It's funny, I think of you as a great reader. You seem to be attentive to the fact that you are in front of an audience. I used to get very nervous when I read, but I did it so many times I think I just got used to it. I still get that feeling of despair and why did I ever leave my house woe, but now it manifests more as a kind of almost total enervation, a desire to sleep for a thousand years that comes on in a very strong way about an hour or so before the reading. Recognizing the feeling and knowing what it is when it's happening helps.
To tell the truth, I think it's natural to have an internal resistance to reading poetry aloud. I think it's a big risk. At first, when I started reading, I was worried about what people thought of me. Now I'm worried about something else. I want something from a reading, a kind of experience, it is probably completely unreasonable, but I want to feel a sort of collective attention, not to me (and in fact when I am reading well the attention really is mostly away from me) but to possibility and to language and to lucid dreaming. And if I am reading and I don't feel that in the room, I have a deep sense of failure. That's a personal thing, it's not really oh they did or didn't like me, but more, I have organized my life around creating this kind of feeling not just in myself, but in others, and if it doesn't work, often for reasons beyond my or anyone else's control, then I get very sad, almost completely depressed.
You are right, a lot of poets are terrible readers. Often they just go on too long, and choose the wrong poems to read. Almost any reading is ok if it's not too long, at least it's interesting. In your example in the question that is a 27 minute reading, which to my mind is pretty long even if there's just one reader. I want there to be a collectively accepted sign to make when someone has gone on too long. Something that starts out gentle, so if someone has just lost track of time they can get a warning and can gracefully call it to a close. Maybe we can work that out at a future AWP. Here's what I suggest: time your reading, and then multiply it times the number of people you are reading with. If the number you get is something horrifying like 190 minutes then you should rethink your set.
As far as negative capability and kids, I think my main task is going to be to minimize the amount of internal irritability with which I reach after fact, reason, and butt wipes. But again, what I think I'm going to have to worry about and what I'm actually going to worry about are surely very different things.
Ah, you are wise to know the difference. And thank you for the compliment on my readings. Once I gave up my last vestiges of personal dignity, it got a lot easier.
And regarding useful signals, I know a writer who ran a reading series who came up with a sure fire solution for willfully long winded readers--she put plants in the audience who’d simultaneously jump up for a standing ovation when blowhard writers went well beyond their allotted time.
It worked pretty brilliantly. Few audience members can resist the social pressure of the standing O. If you wanna try it out at AWP this year, I promise to be the second person on my feet.
Final Question: One of my favorite books of yours is Come On All You Ghosts. Did you watch a lot of Ghost Hunters to prepare for it? Tell us a real life encounter with a ghost you’ve had.
That is a brilliant idea that writer had, passive aggressive standing ovations. And sad that it was necessary to come up with.
I just want to say, I know you are being funny (which you are!), but that thing about giving up personal dignity ... I think there's a deep truth to that. A reading really isn't about the writer. It seems like it is, for a lot of social reasons, but in the end I just don't think that's what makes a really great reading. It is, in a way, about giving up one's own dignity, becoming somehow transparent to the language and ideas. I know that when I have given my very best readings, I feel as if I am just a bit behind the words, almost physically pushing them into the audience, and they arrive there in the room as if they have their own materiality, which of course they do, as sound and then as idea/electrons in the minds of the listeners. I hope when I am reading aloud to be completely forgotten, if I am then I am doing my job well.
I don't watch Ghost Hunters. I've never seen a ghost. I've very occasionally heard voices, which is how I wrote that poem, the title poem of that book: a voice kept saying that phrase in my head, it was as if there was another consciousness with me for several weeks, insisting that I be attentive to something, it took me a while to really listen but when I did the poem came pouring out, not dictated, but as if something had finally been released. That is not how it usually works for me. Which is probably good, because it was more than a little crazy making when it happened. The only other supernatural thing that has happened to me, many times (I would say at least 15 or so) is, I think I see someone on the street, someone I have not heard from or spoken to for many years. Or they come to mind. It's completely unexpected and random, and if I think I've seen them it always turns out it's not them, usually it couldn't be, they live far away. I think huh, that's strange, I thought that was Ben or Olena. And then that person will call or email or something else. It's like a little living pre-shadow, so maybe the opposite of a ghost. As usual, a completely useless power! But a nice one actually.
Thank you, Matthew. This has been a very edifying conversation. And I can’t wait to meet the Li'l Z and see you sporting a BabyBjorn! Very fetching.
Soon to come, as promised, Dana Levin.
Back with a few more impertinent Interviews With Poets. I’m in New York for a few days, getting up with friends (and thank you to the collectively lovely John Deming, Melinda Wilson, and Cate Marvin for their comfy spare rooms and fluffy pillows), and doing a reading for the KGB poetry series tonight (7:00, should anyone like to join us). I’m reading with Josh Bell who is by far one of my favorite poets writing today. Andhe KGB series is my favorite reading series. Two for two! Held on Monday evenings in a former soviet men’s club, the place still has the iron curtain memorabilia behind the bar and a loose, funny vibe where folks can have a cocktail and listen to some poems. It’s always a rollicking good time.
In other news, today we have James “Jimmy” Kimbrell and Kerry James Evans, two poets I love in equal measure. Since these two spend half their time at my house anyway, I reeled them in for a two-for-one deal.
Jimmy Kimbrell is someone I’ve known since we were hired as visiting baby poets together at Kenyon College in 1998. Kenyon couldn’t decide between us and had the good sense to take us both. Being smushed together in the Brigadoon of a bucolic, Amish village in Ohio is what you call a bonding experience. Pre parenthood and tenure-track responsibilities, we had vast oceans of time to drive around aimlessly looking for any movie theatre within 50 miles (and you wouldn’t BELIEVE the movies you’re willing to see when the options are desperate). Then Florida State arrived at the same conundrum—Jimmy? Erin?--and solved it by hiring us both permanently, back-to-back.
We’ve been there for each other’s family weddings and funerals, and I can’t remember a decade when Jimmy wasn’t stuck reading my latest poem. He’s also distinguished by being the quickest, funniest, most effortlessly erudite poet and thinker I know. Jimmy’s one of those people who makes you laugh so hard you end up puddled in a chair gasping for him to stop. Luckily, he uses his powers for good and not evil.
As a poet, over the course of three, major-award winning, truly enviable poetry collections (The Gatehouse Heaven, My Psychic, and the forthcoming in 2015 Smote, all from the estimable Sarabande Press), Jimmy’s taken the venerable tradition of the lyric narrative and injected it with his own high octane juice, reconfiguring the shapes of narrative with a tactile, restless quality of mind and soul that reminds us again how much we readers will always crave a story. How much we need a story. His new collection Smote takes up issues of race and class and family connection for a cavalcade of characters, along with the often-brutal and revealing constructions of masculine identity.
Kerry James Evans, on the other hand, feels like someone I’ve known forever, but technically he showed up about 7 years ago when he started in the Ph.D. program here at Florida State.
KJ is one of those charismatic human beings who can’t help but take up space in a room, even when he’s trying very hard not to.
Which is what he was doing on the first day of the first workshop he took with me. I remember folks in that class competing hard for gold medals in the “Who’s Most Invisible!” games. But try as he might, KJ is simply not capable of being invisible. He’s always springing forth from the bosom of himself, to misquote Frank O’Hara. But once workshopping commenced, KJ speedily crushed the competition for best poem of the night. You could feel the bolts of the grad-sanctioned pecking order begin to slide into place.
But I wanted to see what KJ was really made of, so I gave him some friendly grief, snipping here and there at the poem (which was indeed remarkable) just to see what he’d do.
I recall the irritated determination that settled into his face, though he didn’t say much more than “Yes, ma’am. That’s a good point.” Two weeks later, he came back to me with three poems jammed into his back pocket that all took my criticisms into account, each one astonishingly better than the last.
KJ is like that. Beyond his natural born gifts--a strange leaping quality of image and thought that sounds like no one else, his willingness to scale the grand lyric gestures of poetry, tethering them to his own earthy locations and weird observations--KJ’s secret is that he is prepared to work twice as hard as you. Ok, actually, ten times as hard as you. You ask him for a ten-foot ditch and KJ will not stop until it’s fifty feet long. KJ is the T-800 Terminator of American poetry.
Which is why his first and recent book, Bangalore, was chosen for publication by Copper Canyon while he was still in classes here. This is a book you should definitely order right now.
Here’s what we talked about on a recent evening:
Given the number of times I’ve shooed both of you from my porch at 2 am to keep the neighbors from lodging noise complaints with the cops, I’ve determined that Southern male poets are really loud.
The booming, Tudor-era voice seems to be a feature of your species, along with a gift for the luminous, elegiac line.
Why do you think southern male poets evolved into creatures of such magnificent volume? Is this a mating call or more of a courtesy alarm?
JK: If you got it, flaunt it!
But in the most social sense of the question, it comes down to competitive story telling. Three guys start telling a story at the same time in a large group of people, in our case that means relatives. At some point, it becomes collectively clear that everyone’s really listening to Uncle Tommy’s story, so Jimmy and Kerry James go ahead and shut the hell up. To do otherwise would be rude.
Volume, however, is only one of the more crude means of achieving the Uncle Tommy status. While I have to agree that there is a heightened sense of rhetoric in a good many Southern male poets, there is also a heightened sense of silence (consider Charles Wright). Think of it this way—if you want to be heard across a wide field, you need a good measure of the silence that occupies that field in the absence of your rhetoric, no matter how loud.
KJE: At the end of the meal, there's always one biscuit on the table. Who wants it most?
Jimmy, you’re presently goofy on pain meds while doing this interview. Which ties nicely into the motif of poets and their terrible habits that I’ve been mining throughout this series.
Beyond your back spasms (from trying to move a duck blind by yourself, which I mean, maybe not the best idea, Jimmy), how do you feel about people “altering" themselves to write?
And KJ, you gave up drinking last year—you even made it through the Sewanee Writers Conference without drinking!--there should be a plaque dedicated to this--they can hang it next to the liver I left there—which leads me to ask, what do you two see as the advantages or disadvantages of greasing the creative wheels with mind-stomping chemicals?
JK: I’m sorry; I’m waiting for my horse tranquilizer to kick in. Ok. It’s really just Ibuprofen 500. And it was a deer stand, not a duck blind. Actually, it was a blow up mattress, but that’s another story.
As for as drugs go, do them if you want, but there are no short cuts and many obstacles, so why make things more difficult for yourself, dumbass? I have to go now, my beer’s on fire.
KJE: There's no advantage to quitting drinking. I go to bed earlier. I wake earlier. I'm a rock star’s nightmare. I feel like I'm constantly awake, which gives me more time to reflect on why I'm not drinking. I'm like a snowball in hell.
Look, I like whiskey, but it kills my iambic pentameter. Now I'm learning guitar, which is terrible. At least I was good at drinking.
Ah yes, your mutual affection for guitars. Nothing bonds writers like playing guitars around a writers’ conference campfire for a good 7-8 hours at a time (*yawn*).
But you two started out first in a mentor-mentee relationship and I know Jimmy is a demanding taskmaster. He actually puts on a tie and jacket for class and can whip out a pretty handy, old school-style lecture on British Romanticism.
What are the pros and cons of the mentoring relationship? For instance, Kerry James’s recent book Bangalore is a big critical success. Jimmy, wouldn’t it be a lot smarter for people like us to stamp out the young ones in the nest?
JK: Pros to mentor-mentee relationship: friendship is one of life’s greatest pleasures, especially when it involves Kerry James. Cons: it tends to get hyper professional, especially when it involves Kerry James. Did I mention I have new book coming out with Sarabande?
KJE: I love two part questions, because that's two questions I can avoid, rather than one. Let me tell you a story about the time I was kicked by a mule. I was twelve years old hanging off the back of a cattle gate, when WHAM! The mule kicks me in the chest. Jimmy is a lot like the mule. It hurt for a while, but I learned my distance.
Speaking of your new book, Jimmy, it’s titled Smote. What’s that about? I mean, I like it, it’s intense and suggests the trials of Job, but it’s also a funny word. Smote. It kinda sounds like the new hipster fish everyone is eating. Like, “I’ll have the bacon-wrapped smote with frisee and saffron couscous.”
Did you pick the title when you were hungry?
JK: My aforementioned Uncle Tommy sends a bible verse to everyone in my family early every morning as a way of making us all feel guilty for sleeping late. Anyway, “smote” was there one morning (afternoon) when I woke; I believe it was a verse from Samuel. The word brought to mind all the things that can, and have, gone wrong, namely the death of people I love.
Also, there’s something lovely about the word—feels like a smooth, cool, skippable one syllable stone on the tongue. You have to love the long ‘o’. Mostly though, it became a kind of lens through which to focus on a recent past that came on so fast I couldn’t possibly process it in real time.
Poetry time, however, is a different clock altogether. As Whitman says, “I am the clock myself,” and Bergson, and Proust. Also, there was rash of nightclubs opening in Los Angeles that were all one syllable: Pure, Sweat, Lust, etc. Jimmy Buffet has Margaritavillle, not one syllable, but still a club based on a song, so with “Smote” I have a whole world of entertainment / marketing possibilities in the Los Angeles area.
(The interview pauses as the crushing humidity and carnivorous mosquitoes drive us off the porch. August in Tallahassee is not for the weak).
Ok, last question before the West Nile symptoms kick in, riddle me this: if Yeats, Auden, Dickinson, Whitman, Frank O’Hara, and Elizabeth Bishop were characters on recent TV shows, which characters would they be?
JK: By recent, I assume you mean the past thirty years? Yeats would be Matlock for obvious reasons. Auden would be President Frank Underwood in House of Cards. I’d cast Dickinson as the nerdy but brilliant forensic specialist on CSI Amherst.
Frank O’Hara may well be too cool for any TV show, but say he was in a TV show, he’d have to play Bruce Willis’ character in Moonlighting, opposite Cybill Shepard. No flies on him, that’s for damn sure.
Oh wait. I skipped Whitman. Whitman would, if only by virtue of his beard and staunch opposition to anything remotely homosexual, be the senior member of the Robertson clan on Duck Dynasty. Happy happy happy. Elizabeth Bishop—all patience and vision--would have been a great junior mob boss on The Sopranos with Marianne Moore as the senior boss of all-operations Brooklyn.
Wait, maybe Whitman would have been Moses in The Ten Commandments, which was never made into a TV show to the great loss of our entertainment pleasure. Think of all the other seas that might have been parted! Every week a new law, or a new revision of an old one, so long as one keeps one’s eyes on the bush all aflame and very much in need of an audience.
KJE: Auden as Tony Soprano (The Sopranos). He's got problems, but he's willing to fix them.
Elizabeth Bishop as Cersei in Game of Thrones is a no brainer. She's calculating. She's smart. She's beautiful.
Whitman may be a bit overweight, but it's obvious that he makes a great "Sonny" Crockett from an older show called Miami Vice. He gets it.
Dickenson as Lagertha from the hit show Vikings. It doesn't always have to make sense.
Frank O'Hara has to be Don Draper from Mad Men, since they’re clearly both in love with Frank O'Hara.
Thank you Jimmy and KJ, this has been a discombobulated but very edifying conversation. And it’s your turn to bring the bug spray next time.
The Chicago School of Poetics survived the “terrible two’s!” According to WebMD, this is a milestone in our cognitive development, even if it feels like we’re sometimes running out of energy. At age three, kids tend to let their imaginations run absolutely wild, and we’re no different. That’s why you should join us for our current master class with CAConrad on Saturday, October 18! Your writing will absolutely benefit from a jolt of imagination with CAConrad as your guide. Plus, educators get a 20% discount!
Description: Study with CAConrad in this one-day online class, RADICAL INSISTENCE: A (Soma)tic Poetry Workshop. (Soma)tic poetry rituals provide a window into the creative viability of everything around us, initiating an extreme present where we learn how even in crisis we can thrive through the poems, as well as learn to collaborate in unexpected ways with other artistic disciplines. In our Chicago School of Poetics workshop we will take notes together for the poems, but we will also talk about how to always be able to see the poems around us. We will discuss the places that seem to prevent us from writing, and we will build rituals within those very places, because if we can write there we are free to write anywhere, whenever we want. A poetics of autonomy is a poetics of RADICAL INSISTENCE, and it is for all of us.
Class Date: Saturday, October 18, 2014
Time: 1 p.m.– 4 p.m. CST
Duration: 1 day (class meets once, for 3 hrs.)
Thanks to all who have helped us reach our mini-milestone!
Here’s a brief Q&A about the School's mission and format with the School’s founder/director, Francesco Levato.
Larry Sawyer: What makes the online instruction at The Chicago School of Poetics so different?
Francesco Levato: I think there are a number of aspects of The Chicago School of Poetics that work toward differentiating our programs. Our instructors are all publishing poets who are also very active in the literary community as editors of literary journals, curators of reading series, and as performers themselves. This allows us to offer our students insight into, and advice for working with, publishers and the larger literary scene. Our video-conferenced classrooms allow students from anywhere to work with instructors they would not otherwise have the chance to work with, and to do this in a face-to-face setting. This system also allows us to provide students with access to poets like Charles Bernstein, Eileen Myles, Pierre Joris, Ron Silliman, and CAConrad, through our Master Class series. We have had students attend these and our regular classes from all over the world. It’s a unique experience to be able to work with a poet like Bernstein from my own home while sharing my work with classmates from Japan, Australia, and Morocco. Also, for what students are getting from the classes, it's much more affordable than instruction found elsewhere. We go beyond critique and allow students to see inside the writing process of the instructors in a truly collaborative environment. We’re happy to be celebrating our three-year anniversary. It's been a team effort.
How have students responded to the classes so far?
The response so far has been great, with students returning regularly for both core courses and master classes. In particular, students have commented on: the breadth of our instructors’ knowledge; the variety of in-class writing exercises and how these are both accessible to newer students and challenging for more experienced poets; on the surprise at, and importance of, being exposed to poets and poetic strategies not usually found in other programs, especially MFA programs; on the collegiality, richness, and depth of discussion with classmates and instructors, and how such has led to rewarding collaborations between students that carry on beyond the classroom; and also on the excitement at being able to participate, from a distance, in performance-based courses like Pulse Poem Pulse where students explore poetry through aural, visual, and musical performances.
How is a typical class structured?
Our instructors design their courses to best suit both the needs of their students and the particular needs of a course’s thematic arc. Because we’re independent we have that flexibility! However, all courses typically include: a combination of short lectures to introduce poets, poetry, and poetic strategies that are unfamiliar to students; readings and discussions to expand on those concepts; writing and/or performance exercises designed to allow students to experiment with those strategies; and in-depth discussion of student poems in a workshop format. Have a look at all of our Fall course offerings by clicking here.
Chicago School of Poetics Core Faculty: Barbara Barg, Kristina Marie Darling, Steve Halle, Francesco Levato, Sharon Mesmer, Larry Sawyer, Laura Skokan
JGO: Cave Canem was formed in 1996. What was the inspiration for creating “a home for black poetry?”
AM: Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady recognized that African American poets were profoundly under-represented in the literary canon, academia, workshops, the world of publishing and literary awards, and elsewhere. Though the Dark Room Collective, founded in 1988, made a historic impact, in 1996, most African American poets were still writing in isolation. In her introduction to The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, editor Nikky Finney writes, “Derricotte and Eady wanted to bring Black poets of all ages, abilities and backgrounds together under a planned and organized umbrella. They were clear that Black poets needed to lay eye and ear on each other.” Thanks to volunteer services from several key individuals, including faculty members Elizabeth Alexander and Afaa M. Weaver, Toi and Cornelius’s first effort, a week-long writing retreat with 26 participants, was successful. The retreat inaugurated Cave Canem’s fellowship and community-building model, and also demonstrated the critical need for such a program. Today, the retreat remains our flagship program.
JGO: You’ve been with Cave Canem since September 2006. How did you come to be a part of this organization?
AM: Before joining Cave Canem, for over six years I served as Poetry Director and Director of Marketing & Communications at Hill-Stead Museum, CT. As gratifying as it was to deliver the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, a national chapbook competition, poetry on public radio, and education-through-the-arts initiatives for youth, eventually I felt that working for a literary organization would better match my experience, temperament and goals. Leading Cave Canem presented itself as an opportunity, and after strong urging from my good friend Kate Rushin, a Cave Canem fellow, I applied for the position of executive director. While at Hill-Stead, I’d curated festival readings featuring Sonia Sanchez, Yusef Komunyakaa, Tim Seibles, Major Jackson and Kate Rushin; and Marilyn Nelson, Patricia Smith and Lucille Clifton had read in the series before my tenure. I was already aware of the extraordinary community of poets that Cave Canem attracted and nurtured.
JGO: How did Cave Canem get its name?
AM: When Toi shared with Cornelius and his wife Sarah Micklem her vision of starting a writing retreat for African American poets, the three agreed to work together to make the dream a reality. While vacationing in Pompeii, they discovered a fitting symbol for the safe space they planned to create—the mosaic of a dog guarding the entry to the House of the Tragic Poet, with the inscription, "Cave Canem" (Beware of the Dog). In designing Cave Canem’s logo, Sarah introduced a visual metaphor by breaking the dog's chain. Since inception, Cave Canem’s name and logo have stood for the culture-shaping role that the organization plays: a protection for poets and a catalyst for unleashing vital, new voices into the literary world. Again, Nikky Finney: “What these brilliant, passionate poet-teachers pushed out, via Pompeii, was a new planet; but what they also touched was an heirloom."
JGO: For me, the weeklong retreat was a source of strength as an emerging black poet. What’s been your experience putting it together year after year? Also, how many fellows have been a part of the weeklong retreat?
AM: Many functional aspects of the retreat stay fairly constant, such as arrangements with the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg’s Conference Services—routines that reduce everyone’s labor over time. For me, the excitement year to year is the unique brilliance of participants, from fellows to faculty members, to guest poets, to staff. The poetry saturation I experience at readings and fellow-led workshops re-energize me for the rest of the year. The program has benefitted from Amanda Johnston’s leadership as Retreat Coordinator and Dante Micheaux’s as Interim Retreat Coordinator, and from the terrific work of retreat staff. Nicole Sealey’s contributions as Programs Director as of June 2014 is allowing me to focus less on nuts-and-bolts. So my role has evolved over time, as has the role of fellows, currently numbering 379. Now, very many see themselves not only as fellows and Cave Canem community members, but also as stewards of the organization.
JGO: Tell me about the book prizes?
AM: With 13 individual volumes in print, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize has jump-started the careers of such poets as former U. S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith, and Major Jackson, a Whiting Writers’ Award winner. This first-book award for African American poets continues to expand the portfolio of American literature and helps disrupt received notions of what makes a poem valuable. Rotational publication by Graywolf Press, the University of Pittsburgh Press and The University of Georgia Press propels each winning collection into the field with the highest imprimatur, ensuring a robust readership. We’re excited that F. Douglas Brown’s Zero to Three will be released later this year and Rickey Laurentiis’s Boy with Thornin 2015.
The Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize is a second-book award for African American poets, offered every other year. The award celebrates and publishes works of lasting cultural value and literary excellence. Launched in 2009, three books have been published to date, with Jonathan Moody’s Olympic Butter Gold forthcoming in 2015.
In addition to publication, both competitions confer a $1,000 cash prize and a feature reading.
JGO: At the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, I heard co-founder Cornelius Eady describe Cave Canem as a foundation. Could you elaborate on the foundation aspect?
AM: A 501-c-3 non-profit, Cave Canem is a literary service organization. Unlike such foundations as Jerome and Lannan, which award direct monetary grants, Cave Canem serves Black poets and poets of color by delivering a robust program of services intended to advance their artistic and professional growth. A key secondary goal is permanently inflecting the literary landscape, so that space for all writers and all literatures will continually expand.
JGO What have been the milestones in Cave Canem’s history? (Feel free to include links.)
- Cave Canem Poetry Prize established.
- Carolyn Micklem hired as Director.
- 10th Anniversary Celebration held in New York City.
- Alison Meyers hired as Executive Director (as of August 28).
- Lannan Foundation awards three-year grant of $150,000 for general operating support.
- Poets on Craft series inaugurated at The New School.
- Cave Canem moves administrative headquarters and establishes programming space in Brooklyn, NY.
- Cave Canem becomes a Literary Sponsor at the 2010 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair.
- Cave Canem becomes a Program Partner at Brooklyn (NY) Book Festival.
- University of Pittsburgh renews $140,000, five-year grant in support of the retreat.
- Graduate fellows’ class gift: record-breaking 100% participation and $3,795 raised over 12 months.
- Graduate fellows’ class gift: 100% participation and $5,000 pledged.
- Yale University’s Beinecke Library acquires Cave Canem Foundation organizational papers, 1996-2012.
JGO: What do you think is the biggest challenge for Cave Canem in the future?
AM: Resource development. The funding environment grows increasingly competitive and challenging with every year that passes, especially impacting our efforts to secure new sources of foundation, corporate and government support. Sustainability over the long term is Cave Canem’s key priority.
JGO: And the flip side of the question—what do you think is the organization’s biggest opportunity moving forward?
AM: Resource development! There is good potential for growth in individual giving among Cave Canem’s expanding community of fellows, workshop poets, friends and supporters. Fellows’ many significant accomplishments, including major awards and fellowships, continually raise the organization’s visibility and enhance our ability to attract new audiences and donors.
Alison Meyers is a poet and fiction writer, twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Executive Director of Cave Canem Foundation , NY, previously she served as Poetry Director and Director of Marketing & Communications at Hill-Stead Museum, CT. www.alisonmeyers.com
January Gill O’Neil is the author of Misery Islands (fall 2014) and Underlife (2009), both published by CavanKerry Press. She is the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (masspoetry.org) and an assistant professor of English at Salem State University. January blogs at poetmom.blogspot.com.
Good morning again.
I have so many poets I wanted to interview that I’m going to have to scramble to get them all in. Too many worthy subjects…
(Update: the kind wizard behind the curtain at Best American Poetry just extended my week blogging to get to them all. Thank you, Benevolent Wizard!).
Today is Cate Marvin.
I can’t remember exactly when I met Cate: a misty recollection--something about us sitting on a bar banquette maybe 12 years ago, with Kevin Prufer as a vaguely alarmed buffer wedged between. I do remember deciding I was going to actively befriend Cate in the most full contact way possible. I loved her attitude. I loved her sunglasses and her “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt. In the face of my determination, her resistance was futile.
But before the person, I loved the poems: Cate’s dense, sinuously interwoven stanza structures. The precise, often formal syntax pushed up against subjects full of surprise, startling observations, and dramatic energy. I loved the changeling tension between her poems’ black humor and vulnerability.
Cate’s first book, World’s Tallest Disaster, announced one of those voices you feel is suddenly thrust upon you fully formed, like a late 20th century Athena popped up whole from Zeus’s brain-splitting headache. Cate’s forthcoming collection, Oracle, due from Norton in early 2015, takes that undeniable quality of voice and sends it into hyper drive. Can’t wait to have it in hand.
The following was done in the moments between trying to finish the long lists of things we’re both on deadline for. Cate and I share the attention disorder of habitual over-committers:
Cate, you are known in the poetry world for what some have called “The Marvin Death Stare.” I know your daughter Lucia has inherited this, too. Actually, Lucia’s death stare is even more intense than yours, which is a disconcerting thing to see on the face of an adorable kindergartner.
Where does the death stare come from? How many generations of death-starers are there in your family?
What you refer to as “The Marvin Death Stare” is actually descended from the VanKirk family line. My daughter and I got it from my mother, who can freeze you out with a single look that’ll make your very blood cells tremble. She used to shoot it at me when I was a kid to let me know I'd fucked up. After a while I began to think it was funny. When she tries to use it on me now, I just laugh.
But now that I think about it, my father is capable of giving a pretty evil stare himself. And that makes me recall the very appalling and deadly stare of his mother, which I'd later see in the eyes of my cousin's daughter. So I guess it is in fact genetic.
Half the time, I’m not even aware I'm giving the death stare. I'm probably just in a state of concentration, trying to remember which groceries I need to get. I guess my face takes on that look when I'm concentrating, even when dwelling on the mundane.
It comes in handy, however, if I want to kill someone with a look, someone I deeply despise, and the latest someone was a kid at a birthday party my daughter went to. She was watching my daughter (who was admittedly acting like a total freak) and turned to her friend to mutter, "She's WEIRD." Overhearing this, I focused hard on this child and tried to pour molten lava over her through beaming rays of hate from my eyes. The kid did end up looking a little uncomfortable.
It became apparent that my daughter had inherited the death stare before the age of two. She gave one of her daycare teachers THE LOOK, and then actually rolled her eyes. Total stink-eye. I couldn't believe it. I would have been embarrassed if I hadn’t felt so proud.
This takes me to another thing I wanted to ask you about, i.e. intensity—there’s a dude who a few years back admonished both you and me for turning what he saw as Plath’s influence in our work into a kind of (insert sneer) competency. He was using us an example of writers whose work is promoted by the MFA universe, which is apparently populated by zombies. I got the sneaky feeling he doesn’t like our poems.
As for myself, whatever else anyone may fairly say sucks about my work, stylistically, thematically, I don’t have much in common with Plath, other than having been born with the same set of parts, a willingness to own anger as a thing human beings feel occasionally, and a female subject position that is sometimes apparent in my work. I’m gonna say it’s a superficial comparison.
But you, Cate Marvin, do recognize Plath’s influence, especially in your forthcoming book Oracle (due from Norton is 2015). You’re definitely having a chat with Sylvia in this next book.
Beyond irritation, how do you respond to the suggestion that we’re both boiled-down Plath made safe for academia?
You know I think that being compared to Plath is a compliment, and I think she would have admired the certain stringency in your work. But you're too pokey and too interested in the daily to be readily compared to Plath. It's funny to find you and me (and Plath!) boiled down in a statement, because this is just the sort of thing you see happen all the time to Sexton and Plath. (Though I am proud to boiled down with you, Erin, in any literary pot, and perhaps this is a recipe Carl could attempt one of these days.)
Now, if you are going to make those kinds of statements, you might just want to sit down and read the work, and maybe think a little bit harder, because it is straight-up obvious that while Plath and Sexton are working some similar angles (along with the other Confessionals) they are VERY DIFFERENT writers. They both get slammed. Plath "strong-arms" the reader. Sexton is "indecent." Basically, these ladies are not very lady-like, and so it seems their work somehow doesn't deserve to be read outside the context of their lives and/or gets thrown into some kind of moral stink-tank where people get their knickers in a twist because someone's writing toward a newness some don't wish to recognize or comprehend.
But I never read the piece you're quoting from. It doesn't actually bother me a whole lot, if at all. I mean: who cares? I guess I have to admit I'm not interested in defending myself from what I guess is maybe an attack, and this is not due to laziness, but rather because I ALWAYS find the whole MFA PROGRAM = BAD conversation really pointless. This is what I think of MFA programs: THANK GOD THEY EXIST. I was a secretary for a year and a half after college, had zero time to write, and was so grateful after that to spend a few years in a place that valued my work and existed as a space specifically created to nurture writers.
I think the term "confessional" is lobbed against women writers in a very predictable manner. If you write something "personal" and it happens to be from a female perspective, it's somehow not "art." Go read Sexton's amazing poem "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Inquire Further." She makes a clean argument, and levels the ground: "My kitchen, your kitchen."
I wasn't aware I'd been boiling down Plath into a "competency." Maybe I have been! All I know if I'm trying to write the best poems I can write. They're not all going to be good. I mean, come on. I'm doing my best here! And I hope my work will continue to test itself and transform over the next few decades as I finish out this here life. I think the thing a poet can most hope for is to be challenged by his/her/their work. I try to be open to what comes, and not worry about the fashions and criticisms that surround me (the living, breathing me)-- as such, I read mostly dead poets. Which may be why I did not know this guy cared about me so much as to detest me. Le sigh.
The truth is I’ve held off from reading Plath deeply over the past decade or more because I’ve recognized that she’s an all too substantial influence on my work. However, there are poems in my forthcoming book, Oracle, that pay homage to her. Some of this is due to a congruence of events that occurred over the past couple of years. First, I went to a Plath Symposium of the U of Indiana in the fall of 2012, and it was thrilling. I felt very connected to her, and to those who love her work. Second, I was teaching her work during the time the Steubenville rape case was so prominent. It then so happened I was asked by the Academy of American Poets to write a poem for the 50th anniversary of Plath’s death. I had a lot of mixed feelings about doing this. But in the end I came to (I hope!) weave together her narrative with the Steubenville case, because I think the scene in The Bell Jar in which Esther is nearly raped feels very contemporary. Oracle also houses a suicide, that of a girl who has been sexually compromised (though this narrative very much lurks at the baseline of the book). Finally, there are poems in the book that I like to think would have cracked Sylvia Plath up. She was one funny motherfucker.
Leaving aside the fact that you just referred to my poems as “pokey,” (LEAVING THIS ASIDE, CATE), I imagine he would say his critique wasn’t intended to be personal. But it does hit me as lazy, in that too many critics feel comfortable having a frame of reference for all of about five to ten women poets throughout history in total. And to actually know Cate Marvin is to like Cate Marvin, of this I feel certain.
Though, it is true, when we first met back in the day, it was me who hit you amiss. (I won’t bring up the touchy subject of the AWP sternum jabbing incident again, though I have Mark Bibbins as a witness if it comes to a deposition). You definitely found me to be an acquired taste.
I find a number of my good female friendships in poetry have started with this thankfully short-lived but wary dynamic. Do you think the business of poetry and publishing pits women against one another? Why or why not?
For the record, I never poked you. You and Bibbins made that shit up. I was raised as way too much of a WASP to even consider touching a stranger, much less poke them in the sternum. (Even while drunk at a bar at AWP.)
But it is true I did not care for you at one time. And that's because people told me you didn't like me! And I was threatened by you, saw you as a rival after you got a job over me, and I really needed to get over myself to recognize that you and I actually had quite a bit in common.
I suspect women can be inclined to hate one another in the manner they hate themselves. I mean, is it not obvious that we are trained to hate ourselves? I used to have the luxury of time to spend a great deal of it depressed, and I would solemnly slog over to Walgreens to buy a stack of women's magazines and a pack of smokes. Then I'd spend the evening reading through these magazines and feel even worse about myself and my entire fucking life. I stopped reading these mags at some point, mostly because they no longer published good articles (it used to be you could find great articles by super smart women on topics like skin creams-- I always loved to see language artfully weave itself around these seemingly inconsequential matters).
So, even prior to having my baby, I opted out. I had this reckoning with myself as a woman in her thirties, and I made myself come to grips with the fact that vanity would not serve me well into my future as an older woman. It had come time for me to recognize I would no longer be the __________ -iest woman in the room. And when women compete with one another we do not serve to improve our situation.
When I had my kid, I was forced to give up my customary evenings of indulgent melancholy. And it was at that time that I saw myself in a larger context, and that context was WOMEN. I saw I had way more in common with women, everywhere I went, as they too were dealing with trying to get the goddamned car-seat snapped into the stroller, they too were sleepless and raccoon-eyed and covered with spit-up . . . and I got over myself. I recognized that the female poets I was most threatened by were exactly the ones with whom I wanted to be in conversation. So, yeah, in that way, I guess, I came to love other women because I finally made peace with myself. I no longer had the time or energy to inwardly project the deep-seated loathing that’s continually funneled through all of us by the media.
Yet I think we're now living and writing in a time in which women just are not as interested in bringing one another down. That we recognize we all have to deal with the same shit, and that by sticking together and talking about it we have a real shot at making the changes we want to see actually happen.
Speaking of women’s magazines, despite you having chucked in the patriarchy's gym towel, you really are the most idiosyncratically stylish woman I know. With the sparkle clogs and boots and the leather jackets and the hyper animated socks paired with really excellent jewelry.
How do you square this with your feminism? Why don’t you do as many other women intellectuals in academia and buy boxy, faux Guatemalan jackets at Chico’s that make your hips look disproportionately wide and be done with it?
Are you, to use the phrase of the moment, a bad feminist?
One of the nice things about being a “woman” is the fact we have so many options available to us as far as fashion is concerned. It’s for this reason I love having a daughter. She really has fun expressing herself through her clothes. And she is an outrageous dresser.
It is part of my feminism – on a purely personal level – that makes me uncomfortable with the idea of wearing skirts, dresses, and any clothes that are “revealing.” I don’t want my body on display. It makes me uncomfortable to attract attention that way. Like I said, that’s just me.
[*Heteronormative Statement Warning*] My boyfriend recently told me he’d like to see me in something other than jeans. Later, he made a suggestion that implied he’d like to see me wear a skirt. And I reacted kind of violently, telling him (true to our times, in a text message): “Okay, I need you to understand something. I don't wear skirts because I don't like them. I don't like wearing them. I don't own any. I don't want to own any. If it's my legs you want to see, you can see them whenever you like in private.”
Then I realized I was being really unnecessarily cranky, so I followed up by saying: “Okay, why don't you show me what you have in mind? I'll try to be open to your ideas.”
And here’s why I love this guy. He says in response: “I don't give a shit what you wear. More teasing than anything. I'll wear the skirt if I can find a nice one.”
I can’t help but appreciate a man who refuses to take his “masculinity” too seriously.
Now, Erin, you’re going to think I’m cranky (and you know how I tend to get cranky about these matters) when I say it is in fact bad feminism to criticize women for shopping at Chico’s. My mom likes to shop there, and there are tons of super badass female academics I know who rock those clothes. So I won’t lower myself, Erin, by taking a cheap shot at that particular genre of fashion, especially because I rather admire it. Wearing clothes that don’t aggressively flatter the body in the way that’s expected strikes me as quite a natural choice. Plus, I’ve been known to shop at Chico’s.
There. I said it.
But there have been times when I have thought that I might want to consider dressing differently, as if it might be in my best interest to consider donning a sort of disguise, so as to be more respected in the workplace. Because I tend to wear a pretty “young” look (jeans, and more jeans): because, yeah, these are the clothes in which I feel most like myself.
The fact is, I’m not terribly imaginative when it comes to fashion. A friend of mine once opened my closet and, on seeing about twenty pairs of matching black clogs, said, “I’m worried about you.” I say, figure out what works for you and buy twenty pairs of it. Buy it in varying shades so no one suspects that you just can’t be bothered to do your laundry.
Simplicity is the key. My first fashion idol was Batgirl. She of the black suit and red hair. All covered up, but shapely, and not to be messed with. Nothing frivolous about her.
Though one thing I love about poets is despite how serious they are about their words, they love THINGS. Show me a poet who doesn’t have some odd collection of brik-a-brac, whether it’s books, jewelry, or furniture. Poets are all about thingyness. We love most the details. And I love that about us.
As for being “good” or “bad”—don’t binaries suck? What’s so goddamn great about Literature is that it resists such categories, as does humanity, inherently.
Feminism? I think one is strongest in their sense of FEMINISM when s/h/ze allows his/her/their idea of it to take different shapes, that is, is willing to allow it to be redefined in conversation with others. The meaning must be shared and, thus, continually altered, to retain meaning. That’s what keeps it alive and necessary for me as just another person trying to navigate this fucked up world on a day-to-day basis.
Wow. That is an incredibly smart, nuanced response, Cate. The only thing I can say at this point is:
HAHAAHAHA, YOU SHOP AT CHICOS!!!
Thank you, Cate Marvin; this has been a very edifying conversation.
I don’t even know who’s up tomorrow. I think Dana Levin. So please tune in because Dana always has a lot of interesting opinions to share.
So this is turning out to be the most fun ever. How do I get my own radio show? If I got to spend my days just asking people I like ridiculous questions I could die perfectly happy.
Speaking of people I like immensely, today we have Adrian Matejka. Adrian is a newer friend. I met him along with his wife, the poet Stacey Lynn Brown (more about her tomorrow), last year at the Miami Book Festival. Do you ever meet people and have that HUGELY affectionate reaction to them in seconds? I developed a crush on both of them equally and instantaneously.
We were trapped with a motley collection of wet poets in a semi-busted restaurant (Miami’s twice-daily monsoon having driven us inside indiscriminately), and I started having that awkward, “introvert trapped in an extrovert’s body” reaction I have that rarely goes well for me socially.
But some part of my mind was also paying attention to who Adrian Matejka actually is. Having been in the po bidness a long time, I find it very revealing to watch how poets react to suddenly being anointed the Baskin Robbins flavor of the year. Because poetry, as Hayden Carruth once said to me, is a looooong distance race.
At that time, I knew Adrian’s most recent book, The Big Smoke, which had most well deservedly caused an admiring ruckus in the poetry universe. The Big Smoke, focusing on the life of the boxer Jack Johnson, is indeed a first class book, with The Boston Globe declaring that Adrian’s poems illuminate the heavyweight champion’s life “so boldly” that “one almost wants to duck.” The previous evening Adrian had been one of the featured readers for the book festival which meant being in some fancy company, and there was sunshine aplenty available to him in the flattery being dished up hot by his throng of admirers.
Which is to say, sitting at the dinner, I wasn’t going to be caught off guard if Adrian turned out to be full of beans. Even the best of us can end up accidentally drinking our own Kool Aid when the shots are free.
But I am happy to report that Adrian, besides being a crazy gifted writer, is an entirely bean-free human being!
This is not a man who has any interest in having the UV rays blown up his backside. Adrian is open, funny, smart, down-to-earth, interesting and most importantly, interested. I left the dinner dearly wishing we lived nearer each other.
Here’s what we talked about yesterday:
The titles of your three excellent poetry collections, Mixology, The Devil’s Garden, and The Big Smoke, suggest you are a person with a large number of vices. Do you drink and smoke a lot? Do you recommend this to other writers looking to improve their poetry practice? It seems like it’s worked well for you.
Also, as self-proclaimed mixologist, please share with us your favorite cocktail recipe. We’re counting on your expertise.
What's sad about this is I never realized I was putting my business on the street through my titles! Yes. I used to drink and smoke with vigor and sometimes it was attached to writing. But mostly it was attached to playing pool or avoiding writing, which are both sometimes more enjoyable than the act of writing can be.
I was a bartender for a while, too, back in the 90s when you could still fog up public places with secondhand smoke. I started questioning all of my behavior when I was at work one day and there was an old timer sitting at the bar, eating a salad with French dressing, and he would take a drag off of his cigarette between bites of iceberg lettuce. It was an intricate study in vice.
I'm going to admit now that I was a terrible bartender. I couldn't make anything past a Tom Collins. At the bar where I worked, it was more likely that a fight would break out than someone would order anything more complex than a Long Island Iced Tea. And I could pour a mean Miller Lite.
The crazy thing is I wasn't even thinking about mixing drinks when I titled Mixology. It was one of those great moments in the echo chamber of my own cracked-outness. I was thinking of the art of DJing and the art of being of mixed races—there should be a degree conferred for making it through these things. I thought I had come up with something revolutionary until I did a title check online and found all of pages of cocktail recipe books. That's when those sad trombones played and I made myself a drink.
So I don't have a good recipe, but Stacey does. She makes a malicious mojito. You should ask her about it.
Ah yes, fighting. Good segue. In this trilogy of debauchery you’ve created, the most recent book The Big Smoke, which was nominated for (insert all major prizes, including the Pillsbury Bake Off and Fields Medal for mathematics), centers on the life of the heavyweight champion Jack Johnson.
Beyond your innate licentiousness, Adrian, what attracted you to Johnson’s story very particularly? And more importantly, why not a UFC fighter? Wouldn’t that be more relevant to kids these days? Do you see yourself doing a sequence of poems in the voice of Tito Ortiz or Fedor Emelianenko?
First, thanks for the kind words. It's been a wild ride for this book, to say the least. Jack Johnson is such a compelling figure for me because he is different from me in almost every way other than the gambling and carousing. That most definitely includes his fight game.
I'm a complete lightweight when it comes to brawling in the real world. I lost a fight in 3rd grade when this guy punched me in the nose. I was standing in the pocket, wailing away. I was a boxing fan back then, too, so I was talking trash while I was punching him. But as soon as he hit me in the nose, I was like, "It's cool. You win." Other than a few bar scuffles, I haven't been beyond posturing and pushing since then. So the opportunity to study Jack Johnson became an opportunity to explore a kind of courage—or maybe, just an absence of fear—that I haven't had since I was a kid.
Boxing is an action that's more like dancing than hand-to-hand combat. MMA is the opposite of that for me. The beauty in the motions leading up to and following the punches in boxing is largely absent in MMA because the dimensions of the fights are different. All of the contact in boxing happens vertically and above the waist, so there's a premium put on maximizing range and motion from the waist up when throwing punches. MMA allows for all dimensions, so fighters get arm barred on the mat and things like that. The action is horizontal and vertical.
You are right that most American audiences are more interested in MMA, especially since there are so few American title-holders in boxing. But what's missing—at least from a poetry standpoint—is history. Boxing is ingrained in all of our histories, regardless of nationality, race, or culture. It was on once someone figured out a fist could be as much of a weapon as a rock. Can you imagine what the first person to take an uppercut must have felt like? It was probably like that scene from Friday with Debo. Now that I think about it, the guy who punched me in the nose in 3rd grade was about the same size as Debo.
There is no doubt in my mind that you've been in some brawls, Erin. When was the last time you got in a fight? Have you ever written about that experience?
Yeah, I took a decent uppercut in 8th grade. Before that, I was identified as a jock and was taller than most kids for a brief, shining moment in grade school. I was never required to prove myself much on the playground. The tough girls frequently considered punching me for my smart mouth, but they weren’t certain that I couldn't handle myself.
Then one day getting off the bus in junior high, a girl named Marcia--who I discovered 20 years later was angry at me because she had a closeted lesbian crush on my best friend Teri--picked up my trombone case and clocked me upside the jaw with it.
Talk about injury to the insult of playing trombone for 7 years. But I look back on it now and feel terrible for her. That must have really sucked for her, being in love with Teri and not feeling she could tell anyone. I hold no grudges.
But I am glad you’re leaving the MMA to me as I have my heart set on writing poems from the point-of-view of Aleks Emelianenko's brilliantly awful tattoo; you know, the giant one on his back where the Grim Reaper is cuddling a baby? Very promising, I think.
This conversation reminds me of the homosexual panic often visited upon straight guys watching MMA fights, which makes me think of the heterosexual panic visited upon straight male poets when considering the idea of dating a female poet. You, on the other hand, are married to a beautiful woman (the aforementioned Stacey Lynn Brown) who’s also a terrific poet.
Don’t you worry that she’s stealing all the poetry juju out of your house? How do you guys negotiate the unavoidable dark energy of competition when making art right next to one another?
Aleks Emelianenko's tattoo is straight out of Sons of Anarchy, so that makes me happy. You should definitely write that persona poem. Especially since Emelianenko is 6'6, which would make his tattoo the size of a small child. Make it happen!
I'm sorry to hear about the trombone to the face, though. It's not like those cases are light to begin with. I'm going to say it: playing trombone is pretty awkward in most ways unless you're J.J. Johnson or someone like that.
Of course, I played the French horn and that's a whole other level of band-geekdom. At least the trombone has an occasional solo. The French horn just makes those long honking sounds in the background. And there's the matter of how you have to mute the thing. I used to get cracked on all the time about that. By trombone players, no less. That's one of the reasons writing is so great—there's no one there to see what you have to do to mute things.
Way back when I was in workshop, my friends and I had two rules: don't date anyone in workshop and don't date a memoirist. We didn't have a contingency for hanging out with a poet from another place. We were very regional. When Stacey and I got together, I knew we would get along socially, but I wasn't sure how things would work in relation to writing. We had very different introductions to and educations in poetry. We're the same age, but she was in graduate school while I was on the five-year plan in undergrad and then I took 3 years off before graduate school. So by the time we met, she had been thinking about poetry in a very complex and imaginative way while I was just figuring out what I wanted a poem to be.
I've benefited from her sophistication over the years, though I'm not so sure I have been all that helpful to her. I generally stay on my poetic grind—always writing even when most of the verse is terrible—while Stacey has a more metaphysical approach to the text. The two approaches don't often line up and I think that is one of the reasons things have worked well for us. Also, we have different aesthetic needs and different poetic neurosis. Which helps us to look for poems in different places, I think.
The one time there was overlap happened back when we lived in Oregon. Stacey went into a KFC to get something to drink while I waited in the car. The next thing you know, KRS-One was in the drive through, ordering a bucket of extra crispy and 8 biscuits. I heard him through the loudspeaker of the drive through before I saw him. He was in this green van with gold 5-star rims. Stacey was bugging out when she back to the car and the first thing she said after confirming it was KRS-One was something to the effect of "I call this for a poem." What? Now, this is when I was working on Mixology, which is full of hip hop culture. In my mind, seeing KRS-One at the KFC was a natural fit for my project. She called it, though, so I was out of luck.
I can't be the only person something like this has happened to, though. Have you ever had a squatter's rights conflict with someone over a poem subject?
Dude, pretty boy bikers would pee their pants if confronted by the raw magnificence of baby-holding Grim Reaper. That’s some real deal, Russian prison artwork he’s sporting, after doing a stretch for armed robbery. IN RUSSIA.
Also, don’t try and sell me on the equality of the French horn’s dorkiness. My older brother played French horn specifically to avoid having the family spit valve passed down to him.
Second also, yes, my partner Adam has recently starting stealing poems out of the house again. He’d been writing prose for a while, but recently turned back to the superior genre. I’m very careful not to point out anything good that he might swipe. He’s ruthless. No moral compass whatsoever.
Final question: don’t think too hard, but give me three books that are helpful to an emerging poet. Or three movies. Or three albums (do albums still exist?).
Someplace in Russia, the man who inked Emelianenko's back tattoo is nodding along with you. The guy who plays Jax Teller is nodding, too.
Erin, that's a brutal question to end with. How about 1 of each?
1) Lunch Poems, Frank O'Hara. Every beginning poet should read the gorgeous book that's been imitated more often in the past 10 years than any other collection.
2) Ghost Dog, Jim Jarmusch. An African American samurai who reads Mary Shelley? Old mobsters talking about Flava Flav and rapping “Cold Lampin’”? Jarmusch shows anything is possible in film and in poetry if you get after it.
3) Maggot Brain, Funkadelic. It’s impossible to look at the world or language the same after listening to Eddie Hazel on the title track.
Perfect! And two out of those three would have been serious contenders for my list, too (Lunch Poems and Maggot Brain). I don’t know that Jarmusch film but intend to Netflix it this evening.
Thank you so much, Adrian Matejka, for this very edifying conversation.
My goal is to get you and Stacey down to Tallahassee to eat wings at my place while we watch a UFC fight. I used to watch them at Hooters with my friend Jared, but I felt like the co director of VIDA hanging out at Hooters sends the wrong message (though they really do have decent wings and the best televisions).
Tomorrow is Cate Marvin on her family's death stare, the snares of influence and poetic style (fashion, that is. Like, clothes).
Good morning (it’s morning here). How are you?
I’ve got a case of the coffee manics as I went to bed at 1:30 (Adam started a late night conversation about popular misreadings of the Daoist gender binary. Sexy!), then woke up at 6 AM as Jude had to be at Cross Country practice because shared suffering and sleep deprivation make you run faster.
Continuing my poetry interviews, today we have Carl Phillips. I’m feeling good about wrangling him into this. Carl’s plenty opinionated, but when the mic goes on he may choose to bound into the forest like the ghost stag of myth and legend.
I met Carl in 1992 when we both began at the Boston University’s poetry program. We’d been hauled in for a mandatory TA meeting, one of those deals where they make you sign in at 8am on a Saturday and hold you prisoner for 6 hours while telling you what a grade book is and going through the sexual harassment policy a syllable at a time.
At some point, after a series of telepathic exchanges, Carl dropped from his seat at the end of a row and signaled in SWAT team fashion that I should follow. I remember this as one of the best afternoons ever—hopping the train (I hadn’t lived outside of Nebraska long and found riding the T to be the height of urban sophistication), and wandering around the Back Bay until settling in at the Ritz Hotel bar to kill four hours. We drank multiple martinis after the established practice of Plath, Sexton, Starbuck, and Lowell, our BU Program poetic elders. We’ve been fast friends ever since.
Carl is a prolific writer, which would be tolerable if the books weren’t individually and collectively brilliant. As a poet and essayist, it’s no exaggeration to say he’s one of the very most influential, critically admired, and important poets of his generation. No one but Carl sounds like Carl. Imitators wash up on the shore of his distinctive extended syntax, his uncanny concretizing of abstract states-of-being, as well as the usefully obsessive, sacred/erotic conundrum that underpins both the poems and the essays (and if you haven’t checked out his brand new essay collection from Graywolf, The Art Of Daring: Risk, Restlessness and Imagination, do yourself a favor and order it now. It’s hawt).
Carl now lives in a beautiful, multi-storied old house in St. Louis. It’s the kind of house that has an inordinate amount of teensy, hidden powder rooms. Apparently a lot of discreet powdering was required of people at the turn of the century. A Cape Cod Yankee at his core, Carl is a ruthless bargain shopper and recently purchased (on deep discount, of course) yet another perfectly distressed leather couch, a testament to his fraught relationship with what he calls his “inner Hemingway”:
So the other day when we were texting (and I still maintain that a transcript of these exchanges would rival the scandal created by Taylor and Burton at their peak), you signed off to go pick up the rotten pears that had fallen from your pear tree.
As I said at the time, even when you’re performing a disgusting yard chore, it still seems sooo exquisitely LYRIC in some ineffable way. I mean, “Ah, the sweetness! The Beauty and Ruin! The bees humming drowsily in the golden nectar…”
Please tell us why your life is more poetic than other peoples’ and how you achieve this effect.
Ha, it only seems more poetic to you because you didn't have your fingers sliding through the rot of pears that looked solid, nor did you see me trying not to scream around all the drunk bees, and then there's the rank smell of a man cleaning his yard in 102 degrees. It's sexy in the movies, but you can't smell the movies...
Eeenteresting. Though if you could smell a movie, which movie would you choose and why?
A Streetcar Named Desire. Marlon Brando.
Yeah, early 50s Marlon Brando. That choice seems pretty self-explanatory. No follow up necessary.
Instead: you have a potentially death-inducing food allergy (which I will not name here to prevent your enemies from slipping a mickey into your jug wine), and I’ve also seen you throw yourself out of a moving car.
Do you think this predisposition both genetically and spiritually leads to the strong sense of duende that runs through your poems?
I'd forgotten about the car...what's duende?
(A pause while Professor Belieu finds Professor Phillips the Wikipedia entry for ‘duende”).
"In his brilliant lecture entitled "The Theory and Function of Duende" Federico García Lorca attempts to shed some light on the eerie and inexplicable sadness that lives in the heart of certain works of art. "All that has dark sound has duende", he says, "that mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain."
So glad you sent that to me before I went to the doctor. All these years, and that dark sound in my head is nothing to worry about, just duende...
Hmmm. An artful dodge. Ok. Let’s try this: you, Carl Phillips, contain multitudes. You are an excellent chef, a daring interior designer, a virtuoso accordion player, a gifted roller skater, and a former high school Latin teacher. You are also a man the world identifies as African American. But I know there have been times in the past when you’ve gotten the message from some in the poetry world that you don’t seem “black enough.”
What makes people have those kinds of (as I think of them) totally asinine responses? What’s at the heart of such a response do you think?
I think it comes from an insecurity about identity. And a blurring of identity and the concept of trademark or brand recognition. Insecurity makes people want to narrow the definitions down, when it comes to identity. If there are two many definitions, how is one to choose? The bolder and more intellectually imaginative alternative is to broaden the definition and consider the idea of identity as textured, multi-valenced, various, and to see that variety as exciting rather than intimidating. But the insecure are easily intimidated. We are all of us insecure in our own ways, but that doesn't mean we have to live there...Meanwhile, by narrowing the definition, the definition becomes a label, like a trademark. Gay poetry. Black poetry. Etc. What's too bad is that we minorities already have the problem of being thrown into a single category by the so-called majority. Why compound that by doing it to ourselves?
That is an eloquent answer. Thank you.
But back to my impertinent questions: I have a theory about poetry as self- portraiture based on the movie 101 Dalmatians. You may remember in the opening of that movie, the dog Pongo and his master are sitting at a window watching people walking their dogs in the park. The visual joke is that the dogs and their owners look suspiciously alike, though the people clearly don’t realize this.
Given that you look very much like your dog Ben, and that a strong “The Pets of the Poets” motif is developing through this interview sequence, I think this is an especially good question for you: do you believe that every poem, no matter how close or far way the subject matter appears to be from a writer’s experience is just another self portrait? I wonder because we in contemporary poetry seem awfully anxious about the idea of what the appropriate amount of distance is for a poem to take from the autobiographical.
I think all poems are necessarily and inevitably autobiographical, inasmuch as they come to us only after having passed through the various facets of our own experiences of the world. So everything we write is marked by our sensibility, which itself has been shaped by our experiences, whether lived or read about. Why all the anxiety? Having a poem reflect who we are isn't the same as confessing things we'd prefer to keep private.
Yes, but people still rank on the supposedly “confessional" mode frequently, as if that designator means something in an age when you can google most celebrities’ genitals or your neighbors' amateur porn sites anytime day or night.
So the anxiety about the autobiographical-appearing must come from somewhere outside of this quaint, now mostly absurd notion of confession. I suspect that it’s actually code for “personal-seeming” and it gets used especially to dismiss poems assigned to a “feminine” way of writing. Do you agree?
I don't know if I've noticed it being a way to dismiss poetry by women in particular. It seems to me that there's a general aversion in the last ten or so years to feeling in poetry. To human feeling. The result is a lot of poems that distance themselves from feeling by being entirely conceptual, mechanistic; I don't know what word is right, here. There's a lot of bloodlessness, I guess, when we are blooded creatures with feelings. That's a general observation...I guess I really don't pay a lot of attention to the noise...
Uh huh. Sure you don’t….
Anyways, final question: so you and I both know you’re kind of obsessed with soup: making soup, eating soup. Today’s soup was Portuguese kale soup. Ninety percent of the time you’re doing something soup-related when I ring you.
I'm not kidding about the noise. I follow news, via places like Poetry Daily. And then there's just what I hear from friends. Seriously. I think I value day-to-day peace too much to get caught up in what ultimately just distracts from getting work done...
Gordon Ramsay, there's another example. I didn't know his cookbooks or show until the other day when you mentioned him to me. Truth. Anyway, I'd probably go with. Crab linguine with lemon gremolata...but I can't claim to have invented it, I found it on a food blog. That's how I spend a lot of my time, not on poetry sites, but in food blogs. Food's a lot more essential in the world.
You really didn’t know who Gordon Ramsay was? Jesus, Carl, you really are Emily Dickinson.
But the food question was just a ruse to find out your fanciest recipe so I can wheedle you into making it when I come to town in October.
And thank you, Carl. This has been a very edifying interview. You’re a peach!
Thanks Erin, I'm so happy to be a peach rather than top banana in the shock dept., to quote Holly Golightly...
Tomorrow tune in for my interview with the delightful Adrian Matejka covering such scintillating topics as the best tattoos of MMA fighters, his failed career as a French horn player, and the deal his workshop once made not to date women writers.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.