Take your vitamins, drink plenty of fluids, and be patient with those who make legitimate demands on your time. “Be to their virtues very kind, be to their faults a little blind.”
Take your vitamins, drink plenty of fluids, and be patient with those who make legitimate demands on your time. “Be to their virtues very kind, be to their faults a little blind.”
On Saturday December 8, John Ashbery, hailed by Harold Bloom as “America’s greatest living poet,” read from his new collection of poems Quick Question (Ecco 2012), released this week, in front of a filled-to-capacity auditorium at the New School. Now 85 and with as much wit, perspicacity, and knack for le mot juste as ever, Ashbery started with the first poem from the book, “Words to that Effect,” an inquisitive, inviting poem, and went on to read over a dozen more. After reading the title poem, he read “The Short Answer,” which has the wonderful line, “Because if it’s boring in a different way, that’ll be interesting too.” Ashbery disclosed that the line had been said to him by Susan Sontag more than thirty years ago while the two were in Warsaw. They were discussing the prospect of going to a Japanese opera one evening. He added in deadpan, “It’s something I think about almost every day when confronted with something that might be boring. Which happens.”
After the reading, Ashbery and David Lehman conversed on such topics as Sir Thomas Browne; the German Romantic poet, Friedrich Hölderlin; their mutual dislike for the word “unpack;” and how the hero of Ashbery’s poems might be characterized as the English language, particularly the American version of it. And indeed, on this last point, Quick Question is no exception. In this collection, Ashbery’s poems are infused with a talkative—sometimes remembering, sometimes wondering—but always sharp and engaged tone that is deeply concerned with, and interested in, what it’s like to be alive in the twenty-first century, “somewhere in America.” And it is precisely this voice, brought to life in the language of Ashbery’s poems, that ends up speaking so much to the ceaseless, un-capturable present—the right now—Tom Healy had pinpointed as crucial to Ashbery’s work in his illuminating introduction of the poet.
The event also offered an opportunity for Robert Polito, who directs the Writing Program at the New School, sponsors of the event, to display a montage of images from the extraordinary ASHLAB project, which entails the digital mapping and annotating of Ashbery’s house in Hudson, New York. Ultimately, the night belonged to the release of Quick Question, a collection of poems that, as one of the poems’ titles suggests, resists arrests of all sorts, yet at the same time invites the reader to “not dwell on a situation, but to dwell in it.”
Sam Amadon and I have known each other for over a decade. We have much in common, particularly Connecticut. I had a few questions for Sam about his second collection, The Hartford Book, published this spring by Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Sam is also the author of Like a Sea, which won the Iowa Poetry Prize in 2010. His poems have appeared recently in American Poetry Review, Better, The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Ploughshares. He teaches in the MFA Program at the University of South Carolina. We conducted this interview via email from our respective homes in Vermont and South Carolina.
What was the process of composition for The Hartford Book? How did it relate to your first book, Like a Sea?
I wrote the bulk of the poems that now make up The Hartford Book in 2004. It was my first semester at Columbia and I was working with Richard Howard. About once a week, I’d go to his apartment in the Village and I’d bring him three or four of these poems. He really showed me how to write them, but more than that he showed me that I could write them. I had thought of poetry as something careful and cool, and my poems didn’t sound anything like me (as in the “me” sitting in the diner opposite you). Richard changed all that. He was so excited by these poems; it was a motivation to write them. We’re obviously quite different people, Richard and I, and I think this was part of his fascination—it was like I was bringing him the news.
Anyway, I found a method for the poems: long, funny circles of talk that make shifts via association, and continually find their sad way back to where they started. That line also works as a fair description of most of my friends from Hartford. That’s part of what I was after: to bring out this way of being that feels local to the place, to the people, to me. After a long process of weeding out (I cut the book in half over seven years) and changing forms, I think I got some of that. In Like a Sea, I was trying to do everything but write The Hartford Book, not because “I wanted to get away from it,” but because I wanted to see how different I could be and still sound the same. Even the procedural poems in that book, like “Foghorns” which is drawn entirely from A Long Days Journey Into Night, feel to me as if they fit in a wide circle drawn around The Hartford Book.
Like almost everybody, I get really frustrated with the idea that half of poetry is off-limits. Or with the idea that you don’t have to read my poem, you just have to figure out which column it falls into on your aesthetic spreadsheet. So to some extent, I was happy to be publishing The Hartford Book after Like a Sea just to confuse matters. The best thing that came out of it, I think, is what it did to Andy Axel’s brain, evidenced here. With readers like him, I don’t think we have to be quite so afraid of the future.
How has Hartford/Connecticut as a landscape/place affect your development as a poet and the language in your work?
Well, Michael, as you might recall, it can be incredibly lonely. That’s partly what I think of when I think of Hartford. Driving in circles through empty streets and listening to the radio. Sitting by myself at the coffee place. Big empty parks. I didn’t do a lot of writing there, and I didn’t do a lot of reading. But for the part of being a poet that is about being alone, Hartford taught me how to do that. It’s not surprising that I grew up four or five blocks away from Stevens.
Tom and I had been searching for a way to do something collaborative together for a long time, but whatever we’d come up with seemed half as good as what we could’ve written on our own. In Controversy, we figured out the trick was coming up with a project that needed two authors, that couldn’t have been done by one person alone. Essentially what we did is a blind erasure. One of us would provide the other with sentences from a text that the other would erase, but we never told each other what they were erasing. And we added other constraints: if I took a sentence from the thirtieth page of the third book on my fifth bookshelf for Tom to erase, then Tom would take a sentence from the thirtieth page of the third book on his fifth bookshelf for me to erase. We picked the sentences ourselves, but chance had a role in choosing the pages. I really like how it turned out. It’s like a box of broadsides. Which is something I don’t think either one of us would’ve made on our own.
Does that process fall anywhere in what’s
been dubbed the Conceptual poetry spectrum?
I don’t know if I would call it conceptual exactly. I tend to think of conceptual writing as work that plays out a meaning that’s made off the page. Like Jackson Mac Low’s “Ridiculous in Piccadilly.” When you run through that poem, you “be poor always and unkempt”; you “be ridiculous in Piccadilly.” I don’t think that’s the case with what we did. I’d file Controversy under Procedural Epistolary. Because we were really erasing as a way to write to each other.
Do you consider the Hartford Whalers to be the 2006 Stanley Cup winner even though they won it as the “Carolina Hurricanes”?
No. But I did watch some footage of the end of the last Whalers game the other week, and wept a bit while looking for my dad and me in the crowd. Look I know that teams get moved, and the Whalers going to Durham is nothing like the Dodgers and Giants going to California or anything, but it has to be one of the stupidest and most wasteful thing’s that’s ever happened to a franchise. Rowland thought he’d move the Patriots to Hartford, so he let the Whalers go, and years later I drove by him walking his dogs on the street (when he was getting impeached) and shouted, “Governor, you’re an asshole.” If I saw Bob Kraft, I’d do the same thing.
We can both reconcile poets like John Berryman and Gertrude Stein in our own work, even though some consider them to represent disparate branches of poetry. Do you see these distinctions becoming more and more unnecessary for others?
Well it’s easy for me to do that with Berryman and Stein because we have so much in common—the three of us can’t shut up. Really, I think the idea of “disparate branches” is more to blame than the differences between any two poets. That’s the deception: all the long-drawn lineages. There’s no master plan that we’ll finally figure out, thank god. I don’t to mean to say that conflicts and influence, schools and rivalries don’t offer us anything, but that can’t keep us from reading these individual poems by these individual poets. We have to try to keep remembering that. Anyway I don’t think you reconcile Stein and Berryman—I think you put them in the same room and let the sparks fly.
What was it like to be published in The New Yorker for the first time?
Not to say that poetry hasn’t given me a lot, but it did feel pretty good to pay the last part of that month’s credit card bill with “the money from my poem.” It was unexpected. I sent into the slush for years. Turns out they actually read it.
Tell me a little bit about your current manuscript, Tourism.
With Tourism, I tried to play against myself section to section. Most immediately, this is visible in formal changes. There are poems in rigid syllabic patterns without punctuation. There are poems in received forms: Petrarchan sonnets and heroic couplets. But I also created difference by taking on subject matter that doesn’t quite fit with who I am. I never knew about the original Penn Station, the one they blew up to build MSG. And when I read about, I thought there’s a certain kind of poet who does research on something like this and then writes about it. Then I tried to do that myself, and by the end, I dropped the “there’s a certain kind of poet” part. The manuscript’s a departure from the first two—the word “Hartford” never appears—but inside, it’s full of these departures from itself.
You recently received your PhD from the University of Houston and are now teaching at the University of South Carolina. How have you found the experience?
I think if the MFA students I’m teaching weren’t generous and kind people who write interesting and daring poems that it would be a lot harder. For that I feel really lucky (beyond how lucky you have to feel just to have gotten a job.) I felt ready to make the move. I’m writing new poems now, after a bit of a drought, and I think teaching has a lot to do with that. Doing the PhD really gives you a chance to figure out what you think about workshop. You see how you think it should run, how you don’t think it should run. To my mind, it’s about being the best audience for the work. The idea that having someone waiting to read it—to really read it—has a lot to do with it getting written.
Jacques Barzun, intellectual historian, legendary Columbia professor, mentor, essayist, man of letters, has passed away at the age of 104. Perhaps in an effort to point to his great versatility, the NY Times obit calls him a "cultural gadfly," which seems to me tonally wrong. No gadfly, he did not sting and fly away, in the manner of a satirist; his knowledge was as deep as his range was wide, and he brought the resources of an encyclopedic mind to the least of his endeavors.
No one else could have written -- and published at the age of 93 -- a magisterial cultural history of Europe, with a driving thesis embedded in the very title of the book: "From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present." As a professor he crossed disciplinary boundaries with enviable ease -- if he taught you Romanticisim you were exposed to history, music, philosophy, art, and literature; you put in time with Berlioz, Rousseau, Delacroix, Shelley, Coleridge, Goethe, Carlyle, Stendhal, and the world historical individual personified in the emperor of France -- and you understood the ways the 19th century deviated from the classical and swerved into the modern.
For many years Barzun and Lionel Trilling team-taught Columbia's senior "great books" seminar, which met one night a week and was arguably the crowning glory of a Columbia education. Trilling and Barzun were different in temperament and taste. As writers and scholars they used totally different strategies, rhetorical and methodological, to attack a subject. Yet they were able to air their intellectual disagreements with civility founded on fondness as well as respect. They complemented each other beautifully in dialogue and had a shared penchant for off-the-cuff wordplay. One evening Malthus's dire predictions of runaway population growth were under discussion. Trilling ventured, "honi soit qui Malthus pense." To which Barzun replied without missing a beat, "honi soit qui mal thus puns." Students lucky enough to have taken the Colloqium on Important Books, as it was called, still spoke about it, with ardor and awe, thirty or forty years later.
When, working as Trilling's research assistant, I decided to make the prose poem the center of my doctoral thesis, Trilling suggested I meet with Barzun and he arranged the interview. Not only was Barzun encouraging; he pointed me in so many fruitful directions -- from Macpherson's "Ossian" to Leigh Hunt to the prosopopoeia as a rhetorical device -- that I walked away in that state of intellectual agitation that bodes well for a critical undertaking even as it vastly complicates it.
I turned again to Professor Barzun when, a decade later, I set out to write a book on murder mysteries. At Cambrdge University, I had written my master's essay on detective novels. Now, in 1985, I wrote a Newsweek cover story on the subject and landed a book contract. Long a fan of Jacques' great "Catalogue of Crime," done collaboratively with Wendell Taylor, and containing thousands of annotated entries on detective novels and stories, I wrote to him, and met with him for a luxuriant hour of conversation in his midtown office. The single-space, two-page letter he sent me touched on Voltaire's "Zadig," the relation of detection to science, the development of the Surete in France, the reason for the genre's highbrow appeal, among other things. Barzun said that criminal anguish was something that could be done well by Dostoyevsky but was usually fatal in lesser hands. The first-person murder mysery, he smiled, "must be a foresight saga." It was quite a session. "The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection" owes much to Professor Barzun.
Though Barzun in "Meditations on the Literature of Spying" (1965) reveals that he has little affection for Cold War developments in the espionage genre, he makes a number of observations that I find suggestive, impressive, and useful. For example, he connects the success of the genre at the time of his writing -- the time of James Bond on one hand and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold on the other -- to "the multiform attack on privacy" that causes vast amounts of anxiety in the populace. Barzun goes further:
Psychoanalysis has taught even the common man that he is in some ways an impostor; he has spied on himself and discovered reasons for distrust and disgust: in all honesty he cannot turn in a good report. Nor do his surroundings help to restore his confidence. The world is more and more an artifact, everywhere facsimiles supplant the real thing -- the raucous radio voice, the weird TV screen. Just to find his bearing he must fashion a computer simulation of his case. So mimicry, pretending, hiding, which are part of the child's first nature and used to be sloughed off as true individuality developed, now stay with us as second nature, and indeed as the only escape from the bad self and the bad world.
This is brilliantly put and one has to rub one's eyes a little recalling that the essay, so predictive of intellectual conversation to come, appeared back in the Spring 1965 issue of The American Scholar. While Barzun broadcasts his irritation with the espionage genre, at least he pays it the compliment of calling it, in his title, "the literature of spying," which is no mean thing in his book. -- DL
interview here between Jennifer L. Knox and Alan Michael Parker was conducted
on the occasion of the publication of Long
Division (Tupelo Press, 2012), Parker’s seventh book of poems [and this just in: 2012 North Carolina Book Award winner]. His six
previous collections are Days Like Prose, The Vandals, Love Song with Motor
Vehicles, A Peal of Sonnets, Elephants & Butterflies, and Ten Days (with
painter Herb Jackson). He has also written three novels, Cry Uncle, Whale Man, and The Committee on
Town Happiness (Dzanc Books, 2014); and served as Editor of The
Imaginary Poets and two other
volumes of scholarship. His poems have appeared in The American
Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The New
Yorker, Paris Review, Pleiades, and The Yale Review; his
poem, “Family Math,” appeared in The Best American Poetry 2011, and was awarded a Pushcart Prize, his third. Parker’s essays
and reviews have also appeared widely, in journals including The
Believer, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker.
He is Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Davidson College,
and a Core Faculty Member in the Queens University low-residency M.F.A.
JK: I’ve noticed all your books are very different, one to the next.
AMP: The work changes: I’m interested in reinvention, and in the possibilities of new impossible problems. For example, there are a number of “list poems” in Long Division, a poem I used to believe wasn’t possible for me to write (beyond what I tried to write in junior high). So, because list poems seem so hard to write, over the last few years, I’ve been trying to write them—and I’ve discovered that they’re surprisingly elastic, and liable to turn into dramatic monologues when I’m not looking.
by book, if I’m repeating myself, we’re all in trouble. I’m just not
interesting enough to repeat myself. Naturally, there are higher-minded ways to
think about reinvention; in this, Yeats remains my model, given how his work
changed so profoundly in various periods of his life. (The Yeats of “The Tower”
may well be the Yeats I re-read most, of late. . . .) But he’s still Yeats.
What I hope is that a reader will recognize my concerns no matter the volume,
and yet find the new work new.
JK: Speaking of the list poems in Long Division, you said you eventually found them, “surprisingly elastic, and liable to turn into dramatic monologues when I’m not looking.”
How does a list define a character? How would you personify the speakers of the dramatic monologues that your list poems are sneaking towards? Are all of the Long Division list poems spoken by the same character?
Reading through them, my emotions ran from, “This is fun,” to “I’m watching someone lose their mind and I’m worried about that,” to “We’ve all lost our minds—don’t hold on to the illusion of control.”
you think of any poem in which the voice is not a construction?
AMP: List poems are so deceptive! Think about those awful ones from when we were eleven-years-old, my god—when competitive social interactions were all we felt. More recently, I’ve learned that the form of a list lends itself to broader neuroses, and to demonstrating the futility of ordering a universe, in light of emotional upheavals or psychological pressures.
As a result I think that we learn a lot about the speakers as the evidence accumulates in a list, in part because of how the data doesn’t especially compute. That makes them all constructions, no?
Irreverence is a list poem’s friend.
By way of persona, think about the somewhat hysterical voice of “Eighteen Ways to Consider a Neighbor Whose Holiday Lights Stay Up All Year.” I hear that voice as a version of my own voice, but altered too, and belonging to himself. I think of persona this way: some combination of Self and Character that is and isn’t both, or is and isn’t either. The persona in that poem may well recur in others, as a couple of the list poems in Long Division can be attributed to a specific, associatively minded poet-speaker. (Reading Russell Edson and Mary Ruefle helped me hone that voice.) Ultimately, that one speaker’s paranoia is strategically deployed as a narrative device.
What I learned: if I decided at the outset that a poem would have eighteen items, or twenty-three, or whatever arbitrary number, the poem would become a closed form.
I found hard: trying not to out-joke myself, item by item, so that the list
poem would read as more than a collection of punch lines, some punchier than
JK: Your “voice” is so distinct from book to book. It feels as if each of your books has its own singular speaker. Even The Vandals, where the voice is in third person, there’s still the impression of one person speaking. The commonality is that all the voices obsessively—but not in a manic way, the effect is far more elegant—turn over every angle in exploration, like a Rubik’s Cube, opening up possibility after possibility. Yet, with all those surprises, all the zigs and zags, you stay in the voice. And that’s safety.
Are you conscious of creating that simultaneous chaos and cohesion?
Does the idea of letting a poem fall apart appeal to you?
AMP: Cool observation! So here’s my challenge—and please do note that it’s a personal challenge, and neither a self-righteous claim nor an attempt to justify my own aesthetics. . . . I want to write poems that are relatively approachable, by way of their surface tensions and linguistic difficulty, while maintaining philosophical and conceptual rigor, that is, cohesion from the more disparate elements presented.
I love big ideas: it’s possible I’m a member of the Reverse Williams School of Poetry, for I believe that there are “No things but in ideas.” Sure, that’s not very Platonic of me, and maybe a little grumpily abstruse, but Ideas are really important to me: good, hard ideas.
And now I’ll answer your question: book by book, I’ve read different philosophers, and different poets (in a previous book it was Ludwig Wittgenstein and T.S. Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop, for example, while for Long Division, it’s been Søren Kierkegaard and Larry Levis, with a dash of theory related to the practice of geography, and a pinch of Alan Dugan, a soupcon of Wislawa Szymborska, and some chopped chervil from Pablo Neruda).
All reading changes the poems, I’m sure—and yet the speakers of a book may well come together in a way, correlating to a certain perception of humanity.
As for letting a poem fall apart specifically… while the idea appeals, and I do assume poems always fall apart,I¹m more interested in the work of art as a stay against entropy, no matter how futile the act. I think that this interest may be inferred from my obsession with forms, new and nonce and otherwise., new and nonce and otherwise.
JK: You touched on how you turn the list into a closed form. Is that “closedness” good, bad, or just a technical consideration?
One of the themes I perceive in Long Division is that freedom is an illusion (closed), but one should aspire to be of this world (open), to connect, to love, and to accept—even embrace—the illusory nature of our lives. What do we have beyond acceptance?
That’s adult thinking. I’m looking for a response on this, rather than an answer, I suppose.
AMP: Ah, the acceptance of aging combined with fear . . .
I am very much interested in the “illusory nature of our lives” as well as the illusory nature of things, philosophically.
Ideas endure: that’s what I think. Art matters. Love’s it.
JK: You say that you want to write poems that are “relatively approachable, by way of their surface tensions and linguistic difficulty.” Me too.
I think you can only explore those big ideas effectively through crystal clear writing. You can pretend to do it through convolution, and no one’s going to call you on it, because they can’t actually follow your line of thought. That’s like adding fog to rain to make it sunnier.
Without naming names, I see the style in contemporary poetry as moving away from approachability and instead embracing, well, nonsense. For some, it’s word salad. For others, it’s a series of seemingly random, disconnected statements. Sometimes it’s funny. I find it, at most, maddening, and at least, stupefying. Why would anyone want to spend so much time avoiding the heart of a matter? Maybe it’s always been this way, but I don’t think so.
Does this resonate for you? What do you see as “the style” in poetry these days?
AMP: I hoped you’d be dangerous! Without naming names, Senator McCarthy...yes, I’m suspicious of one particular trend in contemporary poetry, which is to substitute a certain kind of abstruse or difficult language for craft. My gosh, my suspicions probably classify me of the order poetisaurus obseletipus, but I want my poems to communicate first, and be an experience the reader can have rather than watch.
As for style, my interests as a reader tend to be catholic—by which I mean that I hope to like any poem—even as I suspect that style itself is something bought in the Used Poetry store, and accessorized accordingly.
JK: Do you begin with the big idea, and look for a way to exemplify it through a poem, or vice versa?
AMP: Words first.
JK: When I was reading the book, I wrote down this: “a mathematical soundness to life’s absurdity.”
AMP: Well, hell’s bells, thanks!
The naming of the world that poets do seems to me related to the naming of the world mathematicians do; in this volume, aside from giving in to my mild obsessive-compulsive disorder (that is, how I count everything near me), I’m also trying to excavate formal equivalences between grammatical structures and various kinds of equations.
I’ve always loved math—you should hear about my new system for winning at roulette (which is damnably futile, of course, but to me a lovely idea)—and I tally syllables and scan speech and ad copy and . . . well, pretty much any unit of language nearby. So I decided to see in this book how poems and proofs were at least analogous.
Yes, writing poems and thinking about math both provide me with ways of refuting the darkness.
The math led to a kind of breakthrough, too: I’m seeing myself differently in relation to things, which has become my little bitty version of Martin Buber’s Ich-Du.
Buber had a great beard, by the way.
JK: What are the concerns that have stayed with you from book to book?
AMP: I’m concerned that the world is too literal a place: I would call that fundamentalism.
I’m concerned that people believe the imagination isn’t real.
I’m concerned about poetic lines that don’t have a couple of types of sounds interacting.
I’m concerned that I not fall into predictable modes of understanding.
I’m concerned that I don’t read enough. I’m concerned that I don’t laugh at myself enough.
A new concern: compassion.
A passing if not past concern: childhood.
But what’s with this: these weird
sentences bifurcated by colons? A new concern: these colons.
Alan Michael Parker will read from Long Division in New York City, this Sunday, October 7, 5:30 p.m. for "Writers Read," with Zsófia Bán, CM Burroughs, Joel Hinman and Lucinda Holt. Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker Street.
Jennifer L. Knox’s latest book of poems, The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, is available from Bloof Books. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and four times in The Best American Poetry series. She is working on her first novel.
I am more than half the age of my father,
who has lived more than twice as long
as his father, who died at thirty-six.
Once a year for four days
I am two years older than my wife,
until her birthday.
In practical terms I am three times older
than the Internet, twelve times
the age of my obsolescent computer,
five times older than the new century
and only now a half-century old.
I have taught for more than half my life.
Most afternoons of teaching
follow unfinished mornings.
Yesterday I held a book seven times older
than I am. Twenty-eight hours
and a few minutes later, I still recall the smell,
a leathery, mildewed tang.
Seventeen and one-half years ago, my son
was born, which took twelve hours.
His delivery came two weeks late.
The smell in the delivery room
seemed primordial, iron in the blood,
and shit, and another kind of smell—
more abstract, if that’s possible.
Twenty-six years ago I studied
abstract ideas in school, and I still don’t know
what’s possible. Now I teach.
My mother taught for twenty-nine years
until she retired to read.
My friend remembers all he reads—
so when does he finish a book?
I can’t remember when I stopped counting
on my fingers: where was I in language?
I feel older than all the wars going on,
but I’m not, some are very old.
Sadness remains the source of my politics.
In my home, very few items I own
are older than I am, and almost none I use.
We say “the wind dies down.”
Is that what we mean? The wind has lived?
When babies are born, they don’t know
either night or day. We teach them.
Tomorrow is not my birthday
but all the math will change again.
More to busy me, more to figure and record.
More to have. More to let go.
Eighteen Ways to Consider a Neighbor Whose Holiday Lights Stay Up All Year
A few years ago Cal Bedient and David Lau started publishing the incredible journal, Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion. I asked contributor, Joshua Clover, to say a few words about the journal and he told me the journal is one that “recognizes we are in a proto-revolutionary moment, not yet knowing what direction or character it will take, uncertain, anxious, but full of go-for-broke commitment. He went on to say that Lana Turner is not a journal “for those who wish to stand on the siding judiciously watching the trains rush by, discussing their character, imagining the best possible train. It is not a train for everybody (and I hope it stays that way!) and it is wildly imperfect. But it is happening.”
Each issue of Lana Turner contains almost 300 pages of poetry, essays, artwork, experimental fiction and reviews that carry on the tradition of the left-wing avant-garde. One of the things I most like about the journal that many of the pieces are extremely opinionated so much so that I’ve found myself throwing a copy of the journal across my living room in exasperation (which is, in my opinion, a rare thing for a journal these days.) I sent David and Cal a few questions about the magazine and the following are their responses. At the end of the interview, you will find both editors’ bios and a sample poem from each. Enjoy.
One of the things I most enjoy about Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion is that, while there’s a diversity of work, there seems to be an editorial direction that really unifies the journal. What are you looking for when people send you work to maintain, from issue to issue, this unity?
Cal Bedient: We look for work that is alive, rare, difficult, arresting, you know the list. There are no new criteria and the old ones have been rehearsed ad nauseam. So let that be.
We do not like work that says, “Like me; I’m human and unassuming just like you. I ask only a little of your time, a bit of appreciation for my hip intelligence, my sentiments, my (you may be pleased to discover) clever way with words and sounds. I ask for passive acceptance.”
Strong poets want to discover how much can yet be asked of a poem—an inexhaustible question. Which is to say, how much can be asked of the author and the language. Terrifyingly, everything. The art is cruel, like all things excellent. No magazine of any length can be brim full of masterpieces but we feel we have been fortunate not only in the work we’ve solicited and work that has come to us unbidden. Much of the poetry in each issue is poetry, in Yeats’s plain, simple sense, of “the whole personality”—wholly engaged if not unified. We are somewhat elastic, however, when it comes to partial poetry if it is experimental or political: not that it can’t be both. The first, the experimental, is crucial, because the art must be periodically radicalized, kicked about in order to stay alert; and the second, the political, just as crucial, because “the state is an extraordinary machine,” as Badiou says in his new book, The Rebirth of History, “for manufacturing the inexistent.”
To elaborate a little: the turn to head poetry in the 1960s (evolving from Oulipo to Conceptualism), followed the Modernist poetry of the whole personality and some avant-garde physical poetry, as the next step in the dialectical movement of innovation. Okay, so we have seen what the manipulative head can do on. The result, in that quarter, is a severe paring down of the art, a rejection of its many resources on the grounds that some are naive and complicit with believing something, taking it seriously, failing to be safely ironic, above the fray. Head poetry has been interesting—“provocative”—but I, for one, do not accept it as a compelling new (but by now old) direction. Still, we have included some examples of it, not mere “samples,” work that we really like; and no doubt will continue to do so. Then, too, we love, for instance, Derek Beaulieu’s irrational visual poetics, an implicit critique of gainful capitalist-compatible art, and Amaranth Borsuk’s visual and digital experiments. As for poems with a political scold or scald, we expect them to be brilliant pieces of writing. Geoffrey O’Brien’s “Winterreisse” in the forthcoming issue (no. 5), Joshua Clover’s “Spring Georgic” in the last issue—these long poems, just to name two instances, are second to no other recent poems in creative difference and intensity. As the editors of a magazine of cultural critique—of “opinion” —as well as of poetry, we welcome, and attract, poetry with a critical kernel or blade.
In each issue we have several compartments of poems, some easy to label, others more difficult (they may go unlabeled). As the material comes in and, as it were, self-sorts, some of the poems naturally band together with the prose critiques (in issue 4 and 5, essays by, for instance, Tariq Ali, Bernard Stiegler, Joshua Clover, and Alain Badiou) to compose a block set square against the capitalist and technology exclusions of self-reflection—a culture without conscience. (David would throw a stronger light on all this. He’s a polymath, and one of the things he knows and cares a lot about is politics.) Another division will inevitably be made up of poems deriving from, at whatever distance, the romantic and Modernist poetry of a subjectivity ventured upon the world and its entanglement with the passions. And still another distinguished by a tense eccentricity of language, some of it edgy and either openly or subterraneously linked with the politico-economic and cultural disillusionment of the poems of critique. And still other divisions may appear—for example, the group of poems by and about women in the “Queen to Play” section of Lana Turner no. 4
Not all your readers will know that we also publish experimental pieces of fiction (an astonishing short story by the notorious author of Babyfucker, Urs Allemann, leads off no. 5) and essays on movies, music, and art; color-plates of such artists as Peter Sacks, Howard Hodgkin, and (in no. 5) the great Iris painter Barrie Cooke; numerous poetry reviews; and still more.
David Lau: Our journal tries to be independent of the more ossified codes of poetry discussion, the various camps or program mentalities. This sort of partial “autonomy” makes us a lively venue for the poems and essays we print. We represent a formally interested terrain of poetry what in Matvei Yankelevich recently called the “gray area.” We’ve given space in our pages to very established poets and younger poets, poets in their 20s (when we started the project I was still in my 20s) and poets in their 80s. We want work that has critical content and I think that means political content. Anti-imperialism, the crisis of capitalism, the current communization tendency—some of the historical developments of our time are significant if not dominant in our pages. We also try to develop and maintain discussions of contemporary poetry, painting, art, music, film and other topics across and between our different issues.
Lana Turner (both the print journal) and the blog are particularly political. How do you see a literary journal fitting into the political or as a force of the political? Do you have any historical models that have inspired you?
Cal Bedient: The old Partisan Review, when Philip Rahv was still an editor, and more recently Salmagundi and The Boston Review are models inasmuch as they look outward toward the public sphere as well as spy inward via poetry—the latter a looping arrow of a move, since the inward refers us back to the outward, through whatever scrims of the passions. One could say that there are two great fields of investigation for poetry: the social (the made world) and the natural; and that the latter has been the greater one for poetry, and will continue to be so, despite every arrogant attempt to it (reject the senses, the passions, the lyrical thrust of the human being toward the extra-human (and Conceptualism does reject it). But the first is just as crucial as the second. If the societal set-up swings an ax at your shins, it is only natural to protest. Vallejo: “It is time, then, to groan with the whole ax . . . and everything is owed to everyone.” In the most “relevant” poetry, I think, the inside is continuous with the outside, the lyrical with the critical. It isn’t necessary to have two separate bins. There can be a sliding scale in a poet’s output—whether in single poems or in the large; a traveling this way then that. Or why not attempts to get at it all in one jump?’
David Lau: I’m not sure how a literary journal can’t be political. We’re inextricably political animals. In our imperial society, where politics is reduced to economic management and a few “issue” debates, there’s a tendency to lose track of Aristotle’s famous point.
Lana Turner doesn’t have a line, or a specific political position, like Endnotes, a collective of communists writing some important work. Lana Turner has mainly an aesthetic politics, focusing on radically different approaches to the form—differences made possible by the modern and postmodern transformation of the poetry. Our first issue’s editorial statement pointed to precursors like Blast or The Sixties. I’m inspired by journals from recent decades like Hambone, o•blék, Temblor, or Sulfur. These were journals in the mix during our initial conversations about Lana Turner in 2006.
Many literary or cultural publications have political dimensions. On the explicitly conservative establishment or cultural counterrevolutionary side of things, The New Criterion has long nurtured a polemic directed at the legacies of the 60s or the postmodern turn in progressive art. Other journal politics are more implicit: there’s been a lot of work done to show just how much of the old liberal anti-communist literary scene and its journals were in part funded by the CIA as part of the cold war’s cultural front: Partisan Review, The Paris Review, etc. Such journals often had a depoliticized or aestheticized perspective in their pages. It was also a “scandal” when this funding was revealed. Today the situation is quite different, where everyone largely accepts the enormous amount of corporate money at the heart of things like the Poetry Foundation. Even leftish people just aren’t that critical of these things. Such are our depoliticized times.
But aesthetic politics aren’t the only part of Lana Turner’s politics. In the tradition of a left and experimental small publisher, Lana Turner’s just as interested in plain old politics: the affairs of cities, the question of social justice, the possibility for today’s social movements to challenge the power of globalized capital. So when it comes to politics and poetry we have to struggle on two fronts. The journal is a place where I continue those struggles. The blog on our website has offered me a way to address more immediate politics from a journalistic perspective. When Occupy was going full force last fall, I had connections to poets in various cities and started to solicit work on the developments in Oakland, Kansas City, Portland, Detroit, and New York. It was an interesting time for Lana Turner Online.
Much has been made, recently by the organization VIDA, of the disparity between men and women being published and reviewed in journals and magazines. Do you count the numbers of men and women you publish?
Cal Bedient: Where the poetry is concerned, no counting; at most a readiness to detect a serious imbalance. But it hasn’t needed to come into play. A good deal of the best work we receive is by women. One could add “of course.” On the other hand, the journal isn’t a parliament. It’s dedicated to talent, not to equal representation.
Going by memory, I would say that roughly half of the brief reviews are by women and roughly half are reviews of women’s books. But the majority of the longer prose pieces (not that there have been many; they are actually hard to acquire) are by men. Why? We have had valuable essays by C. D. Wright, Catherine Wagner, and Vanessa Place, among others, but men have seemed more ready to commit to writing essays; more ready to scrimmage. I would like to have more essays by women, but it isn’t a mission. People have to be willing—better, eager—to write.
David Lau: We don’t have a programmatic position about this question of representation as other magazines have had and do still have. We talk about it when it seems to come up in our practice of editing. We might receive work we like but we may talk about trying to solicit work from women if we haven’t received enough quality submissions from women. But there are so many incredible women writing today, we don’t have this problem too often. (I don’t have time to go into it here, but in passing I have to be careful about using this word woman. As Denise Riley and many a militant or radical feminist has asked: “Am I that name?”) As editors we are happy to have printed challenging work by women, people of color, minorities, as well as writers from foreign and distant lands. These are voices that have been underrepresented in the pages of many experimental North American magazines.
I want to associate myself with Cal’s comments. I affirm the idea that much of the most compelling work written today is written by women. This is particularly true in North America. But of course it’s true elsewhere. I once wrote that the 20th century in American poetry is the feminist century. I still hold that view.
Editors’ Bios and Poems
Calvin Bedient has published five books of literary criticism (most recently, The Yeats Brothers, with the University of Notre Dame Press), and Omnidawn will publish his fourth book of poems, The Multiple, in September. He was a co-editor of the University of California's poetry series, New California Poetry,
and currently co-edits Lana Turner.
Some men are like the bees
they want a destruction
the historical male decays,
so difficult now, mother,
in these Capitalism will eat you days
Like bees that crawl on an egg hot from the hen’s ass
(they do not know what’s inside
they will kill this thing hot from the hen’s ass),
they are quite toxic,
with just a little delicacy in the sensory department
Area 51, Groom Lake, composition by field—
is that what you want, to spread the radiation around?
The soul sits up looks about like a rabbit
expecting probably a thing of youthful blood
but the west is old
Belief, we gave you all our heart, didn’t we, daddy?
Look, the mother is walking aside
in what I call “transcendental ontology,”
the “tall” part sticking its head up
over the trench (well, you cannot say I have not warned her)
If she were Marx’s mother, would she be sorry?
Even Venus could not be so sorry
Where have all the revolutions gone?
Invisible hooks pull at the poets’ mouths
Is there a new art? You wander the desert,
looking for the new art
Who now will hum the undollared basis of all comparisons?
The imagination isn’t capitalist, you know,
it rabbits in phenomenalistic little hops —
easy to pick off
(oh be cured of that)
Back in Area 51 the F-117 Nighthawk
nicknamed Harvey after Harvey the rabbit
got down into the hole and exploded
the fucker wrote up the paperwork
we need to take out more targets on a single sortie
David Lau’s book of poems is Virgil and the Mountain Cat (UC Press). He co-edits Lana Turner. Recent poems and essays have appeared in A Public Space and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Santa Cruz.
Crave you Exarchia chromed up with Koukoulofori?
Syntagma sipping on slurry?
Do you like banks?
Neither contest nor demand constitute force.
Prisoners or farmers. No flaneur.
(Lost this precarity
given newfangled “security.”) Don’t desertify,
don’t propagate liberalism
with the urgency audible to power.
Dodge fares, steal / practice escape.
Seed trade the total submission called legal.
Communize the simple lands of the old world.
Crave you the subject / simultaneity early and lake.
Time ceased waiting life linked thought.
Give up desires without intensity, democracy.
Crave you sectarianism, particular truth.
Not afraid / forming gangs—we are
what has cubicle isolation,
squat scene, criminal origins,
field work, 80s purge.
Scrape out the inside, the false differences,
flight facilities. (Exhaustion.) Don’t give in.
We are in a civil war, irremediably there.
Multiply and consolidate the fly artwork.
Deep cogitations then sleep.
Normality subsidized this lingo.
In London police struck and nearly killed
a young man called Alfie—dripping in gold.
Recently, a lot of attention has been paid to the fact that more men are being published than women. Because my sense is that there’s also a lack of women writing about poetry, I wanted to explore this topic in more detail with a number of women critics I admire. The following is the lively roundtable I moderated over the last few months between Sina Queyras, Elisa Gabbert, Shanna Compton, Juliana Spahr, Vanessa Place and Danielle Pafunda.
Sandra Simonds: For years, much was made of the male-dominated blog comment fields. I’m thinking particularly of Ron Silliman’s blog. It seems like currently group-run blogs are very popular—HTML Giant, Montevidayo and the Rumpus immediately come to mind. The comment fields still seem to be the “front lines” of poetry engagement. Are they still as male-dominated in these forums as they were during the “Silliman-era”? If so, can you hypothesize as to why?
Elisa Gabbert: It really depends on the blog, who runs it and the kind of environment they create. I’ve seen plenty of blogs/websites that create a “safe” atmosphere for women, mostly by being quite obviously by, for, and about women – see The Hairpin or Jezebel. Her Kind, the new VIDA blog, seems to be an attempt to create a similar space for women writers specifically.
The problem here, such as there is one, is that comment fields turn into a middle-school dance, with the girls huddled in one corner and the boys on the other. The “boys” don’t want to read and comment on the “girl” blogs because they’re either not interested or know they’re not supposed to be; the “girls” don’t want to comment on the “boy” blogs because the “boys” do their best to scare them away. The comments on HTML Giant, for example, are still dominated by young men, though the regular crew seems less aggressively aggressive than they used to be. Even on my blog (I’m the only author, I’m a professed feminist, and I am very welcoming to women who comment), I probably get two or three comments from men to every comment I get from a woman.
I’m ambivalent about this reluctance of women to speak. On the one hand, I understand that they don’t want to get caught up in online arguments (it’s easy to fall into a hole and let it ruin your day) or risk being attacked, which is a very real risk. (Identify as a feminist online and you will be called stupid, whiny, boring, irrational, a bitch, a cunt, a dyke, a man-hater; you will be accused of being on PMS and needing to get laid; you may even be outright threatened with assault, rape, or murder.) On the other, if nobody speaks, then people remain ignorant. Speaking up to asshole idiots in comment fields is tough work and often pretty thankless, but I’m so grateful when I see someone else doing that work – it sets an example, it reminds us that everyone and everything doesn’t suck. I’m not always up for it, but when I am, I try to be that person who points out the logical fallacies and (conscious or unconscious) bias in dumb sexist arguments, knowing that someone out there will be silently thanking me.
There’s also, of course, the fact that women on average work more hours than men for less pay, so, a lot of them probably just don’t have time for the Internet, or can’t justify spending their Internet time in such a manner.
Sina Queyras: I don’t find comment streams at all interesting. I never did. If anything they get one’s blood boiling, but what’s the point of that? To unearth the most robust voice to hand over reviewing power? Don’t laugh, this happens.
I understand that it’s the comment streams that are supposed to democratize blogs, but I don’t buy that. A corresponding post seems a better response. Something more reasoned, with distance. Comment streams are too up close. We can link as much as comment. And yes, I could say yes, that it seems a very male gesture, but I don’t want to assign the notion of excitable discourse to one gender. I want the discussion--I just don’t find the comment stream a productive place for that to happen.
Vanessa Place: I don’t read those blogs.
Sandra Simonds: Can you tell us what you do read?
Vanessa Place: Lemon Hound. Harriet. Ubu. Twitter. Facebook. Books. Kindle. Milk cartons, menus. Despair in the eyes of others.
Juliana Spahr: I almost never read comment streams voluntarily. And I don’t do a lot of regular reading on those particular blogs. That said, I am somewhat interested in trying to figure out what sort of work the comment stream does or might do or what it is likely to do. I keep trying to understand the move from the newsletter (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Poetry Flash, Poetry Project Newsletter sort of stuff) to the discussion list (poetics list and others) to the blog with open comment stream (Silliman pulling away from poetics list to start his own blog and many of the poetics list commenters following him over there) to the blog with the regulated comment stream to the blog with the no comment stream to the development of these group web portals that seem to exist for the comment streams mainly. Or the move from the newsletter listing with a public invite to the reading group or the reading to the email list invite to the semi-public/private facebook invite. I don’t think it is a linear progression but it is a series of engagements around questions of access. I realize this is a question about gender and I haven’t answered it. But it would take some work for me to answer and to begin to answer it I would feel I would have to do some counting to understand how gender shows up or not in the comment streams. And yet this work might be impossible because it is often difficult to determine gender from comment stream names/identity claims.
Shanna Compton: OK, Sandra: I think the interactivity of blog comment streams and Facebook and Twitter could be considered the front line in the sense that it provides speed and dailiness, but I don’t know that it provides as much depth of engagement as it used to. It’s hard to determine, though, whether my fading interest in engaging in those fields is mostly the result of the unpleasantness of the “hard work” Elisa was describing, or because I simply have too many other poetry-related things to do these days, like editing books, and writing my own. There’s something to be said for not having an audience (comment stream) constantly piping up when one is trying to do the rest of our “hard work.” And though interesting conversations do tend to get going in an open field (like the blogs and Facebook), one also needs time and space that’s more protected. I suppose it’s like what Elisa was saying about justifying the time. It’s about balance. I think Vanessa may be getting at that too with her refusal. If we’re always out there, who’s in here? Anyway, most of what’s in the comment streams isn’t even about poetry. The dynamics on display are not limited to poetry. I guess we all just get tired.
Sina Queyras: SC, is there an audience outside of social media? That’s the question. Do we feel we need to keep up with Facebook and Twitter because if we don’t we don’t exist as writers?
Shanna Compton: Certainly there’s an audience for the readings we give and the work we publish, but social media makes it a lot easier to feel/hear the response of our own audience, and I’m gonna admit that’s important to me. And it also gives us more access to other writers we want to interact with, to participate as their audience. I may be on the fringe with this one--I’m socially isolated in a very small town more than an hour from anywhere with a poetry scene (between Philadelphia and New York) and have been for the last five and a half years. That’s a position I chose, obviously (and I do get more work done and am less distracted), but without the internet it would be very difficult for me to feel connected to what is happening, and that’s important to me to. I go months without speaking in person or laying eyes on another poet (and often a few days without speaking to anyone except my husband too, very hermitlike) and my access to libraries and bookstores with the work I want is also limited. At the same time, after my move I let my blog languish nearly to death, so that now when I write on it hardly anyone is looking--and I’m finding that public-but-not-really sort of space useful too. I guess I could just delete it or close it when things feel too claustrophobic, but I try to resist the deletion impulse as best I can. I don’t want to erase myself. This all constitutes attempts at space-claiming (in which to work, in public) and wall-building (to keep the whole damn public from overwhelming) at the same time.
Danielle Pafunda: There’s an interesting convo going on about “ladyblogging.” Check Molly Fischer at n+1 and Kate Zambreno’s response at her Frances Farmer is My Sister. I think comments streams can be dynamic, productive spaces, but rarely are. Before Facebook, the comments stream was a place to meet other poets, to share resources and ask questions, but that was so often overwritten by pissing contests and troll antics. I’ve admired from the get-go the efforts of others (Elisa!) to graciously, formidably point out logical fallacy, to refuse baiting by trolls, and to kick open an otherwise constricted conversation. I’ve tried to do the same myself, and have been called names, lazily critiqued, or dismissed because, of course, some folks want to hang around hurling insults at each other. It’s not always worth the effort. Ruins my day, makes my heart race, dispirits me. Plus, I’m busy. Now, I have Facebook for the more casual interactions and info-trawling. If I have something particularly pressing and complicated to contribute, I write my own blog post. It’s what we used to say when some crank commenter would get up in our grills: if you feel so strongly, do your own research, develop your own opinion, and write your own post (or essay or edit your own anthology, etc.). I do follow the comments streams on my own posts. At Montevidayo, things are fairly gracious and friendly. I know a lot of the commenters, and I’ve also got the contributors’ authority to say “I don’t participate in conversations like this,” when someone goes all ad-hominem or literacy-resistant on me. I can block an irrelevant and hostile comment. I will also say this for blogs: they’re fast. I don’t have time to produce gobs of carefully constructed critical essays, but I can pin up my burgeoning ideas and responses to other thinkers in public. I don’t want to be closed out of the discussion because I’m too busy or too sick. In that way, perhaps blogs themselves democratize the field. I think it took us awhile to understand that a free-for-all in the comments stream would just reproduce all the common, mind-numbing, gross out disparities. It’s not the invitation to respond that makes the blog a potential site of destabilization, but the fact that anyone can host. When a commenter responds to my post, s/h/ze is in my house. Readers can rely on me to be fair, but also to establish boundaries, guidelines for discourse.
Sandra Simonds: Does anyone want to add anything about what they think about the intersection of social media (Facebook, Twitter etc) and poetry?
Vanessa Place: Happily self-congratulatory by proxy. Everyone looks good in the mirror.
Elisa Gabbert: I’m not on Facebook. (I never tire of saying that.) I do think there are some interesting writers and thinkers on Twitter. It’s not really a good format for “discussions” per se though there is room for some call and response. But I find Twitter to be the perfect format for aphorisms, tiny essays, theories, flashes of insight. See Sina and Anne for good examples.
Shanna Compton: And I don’t do Twitter. I like Facebook because it’s been better than email for announcing things for the press, and I enjoy the kind of trends in poetry news I can pick up there via the feed. There’s also room for different kinds of engagement (longer wordcounts, visual elements), as well as links out. So I use it as sort of an aggregator that often leads me back out to the blogs, commentary or articles elsewhere. Twitter does the same thing I guess, but I really don’t have time for both, so I chose the platform I found more flexible for my various purposes. (I am suspicious of unidentifiable URLs leading who knows where. I dislike the gnomic brevity; I feel tricked. And I prefer graphics in my mix, even if they are sometimes pics of a poet’s child or lunch. There’s something too about “following” vs. “friends.” Oh look at all my biases!)
Elisa Gabbert: Shanna, that’s exactly why I prefer Twitter to Facebook -- I can follow Sina whether or not she knows or cares who I am!
Sandra Simonds: Sina doesn’t follow me, but I follow her :)
Shanna Compton: You can actually do that sort of thing on Facebook now too, by subscribing to people instead of friending them. Folks you don’t know can subscribe to your posts, and only see the ones you mark “public.” (I liked Google Plus too, and would use it more if more poets went over there.)
Danielle Pafunda: I also like the tacit, surely wonky contract of friends better than following. I like the Facebook platform, and I love how much information I get from my feed (including everyone’s Twitter posts!). Headlines, book announcements, another dimension of the writers I love, funny dinosaurs paired with e.e. cummings lines! Though you can still find a ‘roided-out pissing contest in the comments threads, the space-time continuum of Facebook doesn’t really lend itself to the kind of troll who likes to dig his heels in. It’s more a field of exchange, less a field of hyperbolic dominance. It allows for a slight disruption of our normative modes of discourse.
Sina Queyras: Ha, well, I will follow you both immediately on Twitter, and thanks EG, I agree, I love a good aphorism. But also the range of Twitter: as William Gibson says, Twitter is the street. My Twitter feed is diverse, and it reflects my interests and thinking way more than Facebook could. Facebook is the mall. A very small mall. A corporate space. Very disconcerting to be in a mall filled with poets. All posting about poems, next books, and I’m thinking, wait, we’re in a mall, and it’s a Poetry Mall so there is no one outside of poetry looking at your posts...which may of course be a good thing for some, though not for me.
Sandra Simonds: I guess like Elisa, I find the blog comment streams interesting because they tell us something about the outflux of gender dynamics / forces in the poetry world and it’s interesting to think about where these voices are coming from (MFA programs? Magazines?) VIDA has brought to the attention of many the disparity in the numbers of women who are being published versus men. Let’s say, in a magical world, that tomorrow the numbers change and that everything is equal in terms of who’s being published. All magazines now publish 50% women, 50% men. Have we solved the problem?
Juliana Spahr: No.
Elisa Gabbert: Yeah, no. Because those numbers are just a symptom (“subjective evidence of a disease”). In general it’s easier to treat symptoms than cure an underlying disease.
Shanna Compton: Ha ha, let’s try that and see.
Danielle Pafunda: Word, y’all.
Vanessa Place: But we love our symptoms--why would we ever cure them?
Sandra Simonds: So that we can make room for more?
Vanessa Place: That’s a matter of rearranging the furniture.
Sina Queyras: The problem hasn’t even been understood let alone solved. I did an interview for CWILA, a Canadian version of VIDA, and it, or I, was a little burly, mostly because I don’t even think we’re asking the right questions yet, and I am unconvinced that these organizations are the answer. I don’t know what the answer is though I’m certain it won’t be any one thing, so moving forward I will support them.
Sandra Simonds: I was recently asked to do a talk on poetry and politics and I wasn’t surprised that I was the only woman on the panel. In fact, any time I’ve taken part in a discussion or conference on poetry and politics (a subject I enjoy thinking about), I’m one of the only women involved. Is there something particularly “male” about the intersection of these two subjects? If you have had the experience of being the only woman on a panel, do you ever feel that you were asked because you are a woman?
Vanessa Place: Yes. I am very grateful for this, as for all opportunities to be a signifer.
Elisa Gabbert: I am never asked to be on panels, unless this one counts.
Juliana Spahr: When asked, I suspect I am often asked because I am a woman so it is fortunate that I am ok with being a woman. I have also in my life received significant affirmative action benefits for being a woman (i.e. undergraduate scholarships).
I am trying to think if I have been asked to speak on a poetry and politics panel and I feel I must have at some point but I can’t remember when. That said, my general feeling, again somewhat unquantified, is that at the level of the panel at the smallish conference or the poem in the small somewhat ephemeral journal or the first book prize, women do okay and are often “over” represented numerically. I recently counted the listings in the Poets and Writers “Recent Winners” column for 2010 and 2011 and realized from this that women are getting a bigger slice of some sorts of pies. In terms of overall prizes women got 974 compared to 827 going to men and 1 going to a person who was identified as trans. But at the more “excellent” or “established” levels, a large number of women drop out. So with anthologies and big prizes over $25,000 and book reviews in mainstream publications and stuff like that, women tend to be under represented.
Danielle Pafunda: I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to participate in something where I’m the only woman. What up dudes? Don’t I make a nice enough token?
Sina Queyras: I have no idea why I’m asked to do anything, but I do get very miffed when I am asked to read, and really am there to do feminist lifting. I don’t mind my work doing that, but I do mind being asked to then give a talk, or have to represent feminist issues. My work, I think, should do the talking.
Vanessa Place: What do you consider your work?
Sina Queyras: Good question, Ms. Place. My poetry? My prose? My critical work? My curatorial work? My grumpiness is about having to represent something, or speak for a movement. I can’t. Shouldn’t. Sometimes I just want to read my poems and have a laugh and say hello.
Sandra Simonds: This is a silly question! What do you think of James Franco? Particularly, I’m thinking of this “A Dude’s Take on Girls” which can be found here. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-franco/girls-hbo-lena-dunham_b_1556078.html
Vanessa Place: I never think of James Franco.
Shanna Compton: I haven’t seen Girls. I don’t watch a lot of teevee. I do watch movies though. Sometimes they have James Franco in them. I’m glad he was not in my MFA program, I guess. It would have been pretty distracting.
Danielle Pafunda: Ha! Shanna, if Franco had been in our MFA class, we’d surely have derailed his acting career! I love television. Maybe Franco should watch more. I’ve seen enough of Girls to say that whatever one thinks of its cultural relevance, race politics, performance of privilege, etc: this critique isn’t nuanced enough. Though I would definitely ask James Franco to be in my Steel Magnolias reprise.
Sina Queyras: James Franco has proven himself to be less than an interesting thinker. He may want to consider getting a real job.
Sandra Simonds: Who are the contemporary female poets you feel are writing the most interesting poetry?
Elisa Gabbert: Will I ruin this question for everyone else by saying I find long lists of poet-names tiresome? I’ll just name one person: Kirsten Kaschock is probably my favorite poet right now. I find almost everything she writes stunning and thought-provoking.
Shanna Compton: I publish some of my favorite ones, naturally! But I have a list of others to tire Elisa. I’ll keep it short and top-of-head: Susana Gardner, Jennifer Tamayo, Nada Gordon, Cathy Park Hong.
Vanessa Place: Present company is of course excepted. Otherwise, Kim Rosenfield, Divya Victor, Trisha Low, Mette Moestrup, Ryoko Sekiguchi, Cia Rinne. I was recently introduced to the conceptual work of Swantje Lichtenstein, and it is enticing.
Sina Queyras: I am in an extremely frustrated phase with poetry...what do I want out of it? I am feverishly tearing through stacks of books and not finding whatever that is, so I go back to what has stuck with me: Lisa Robertson, Juliana Spahr, Anne Carson, Alice Notley, Erin Moure, because the thinking is so well formed with these poets. Because I believe the thoughts. There is writing that knocks me out: Vanessa Place, many of the women in the Conceptual Writing anthology, but there is something I am longing for that I’m not finding either, and I guess I want to acknowledge that. It’s a longing for the world, the body, the emotive, the quotidian, intellect, play...and an expansive canvas, but also a sense of place, and an accurate representation of the moment. The complexity and terror of our moment. I may be identifying for myself a frustration of nostalgia.
Sandra Simonds: If you are a mother, what is the relationship between your being a mother and being a poet? Did becoming a mother change what types of poems you read or write?
Shanna Compton: I am not a mother, but many of my friends now are and even that has changed the types of poems I read and write.
Vanessa Place: None and no.
Danielle Pafunda: Like any intense subject position, mama gives me a new line of flight in the poem, a lens through which to operate, a distortion-construction through which to project language, a set of emotional cocktails unnameable and simultaneously eradicating and productive of (the illusion of) self. It gives me some specific material on which to draw. It doesn’t radically alter my relationship to poetry (either as poet or reader), though it does alter my daily schedule and my priorities. Girl, mother, and chronically ill, the three markers that often inform my speakers, are mutually constituitive in surprising ways.
Juliana Spahr: Being a mother has had a significant impact on the amount of reading I can do.
Sina Queyras: I echo Juliana Spahr on the amount of reading, or a certain kind of reading. Less time in general. And exhaustion. I may in fact have temporarily lost my mind and any relationship with my body. People assure me mind and body will return. Men and women alike. I am not so certain.
Sandra Simonds: Did you read this? http://karacandito.com/im-a-rabbit-and-this-is-my-owl-on-beauty-and-the-female-poets-body/
The woman who wrote it, Kara Candito, went to my PhD program at Florida State University. I think that it’s interesting that she talks about the highly stylized, beautiful female poet and her potential success within writing communities. I wondered if you had any thoughts about our culture which is so highly visual and sexualized and the intersection of this with the poetry world?
Juliana Spahr: I didn’t read it until you asked me to. And I sort of wish I hadn’t just because I find the discussion about the pains of being beautiful by the beautiful personally painful and have a tendency to want to dismiss them by going first world problems. That said, no bad feelings towards Kara Candito. Or even Alex Dimitrov. Both are beautiful. It works. And I will read both of them seriously despite (as Dimitrov requests) and because. (But this where I resort to a representational politics. I would prefer to get my discussion about the unsexy minds of older female poets’ bodies and beauty elsewhere. And if I am allowed it, I hope that Candito is wrong, that there are some, can I hope for many?, out there who find older female poets’ minds sexy.) It might be true that “female writers are more likely to be judged based on their appearance” but it also might be true that they are more likely to talk about it and use it. I sometimes play a game with a friend where we ask--when looking at female poets representations of themselves on covers of books, on blogs, on facebook, in poems--“caught or not.” And Dimitrov’s continual posting of his uber handsome mug on his blog seems notable because he is a man doing something that women poets do way more frequently than he does (one more example of how it is a man’s world?). In other words, as Candito notes, looks matter some. I wish more women attempted to walk away from this rather than attempt to counter it by indulging it. Because we, or many of us, could all easily agree to not represent ourselves--thinking of some of Vanessa Place’s photos and work here--rather than give in to it.
Sandra Simonds: This is one of the reasons I got off of Facebook. I was so sick of seeing myself Honestly, it made me want to barf. But what would this mean to “walk away from it”? What would that look like? What would it look like to not represent oneself?
Vanessa Place: Like this.
Juliana Spahr: Ugh. This is going to dissolve into me saying even dumber and more unsupportive things about women in about two seconds. I think all that I’m saying is something along the lines of yes looks matter (to men and women) and yes everyone knows this and yet the close up of the pretty and youthful face on the cover of the first poetry book is something that women tend to do way more than men (unless the series does it, as in Green Integer; and credit to Green Integer for putting a lot of faces of older people on their covers). I get that we, women, probably feel more forced to engage these questions than men because of various sexisms. We are probably more aware of how our body comes with the poems than men are. And I also get that we tend to get slammed more for this when we do it (as in the term “hair poets”). But also we have the agency to not contribute to this series of conventions and yet we often willfully indulge in them. But I am probably also talking about 8-10 books of poetry when there are literally thousands a year and all of this is probably nonsensical.
Sina Queyras: I think an awareness of this question in one’s work might be enough for me.
Elisa Gabbert: I had not seen it either, though I did hear about some of the discussions that inspired it. I was actually thinking about this topic (beauty and success, beauty and exposure) this morning, after seeing a post on Kate Zambreno’s blog about the Jezebel 25 (which some readers felt was slanted toward the youngest, whitest, prettiest feminists rather than the most inspiring or important).
This line of Kara’s resonated with me:
In short, female poets might feel damned (by ourselves and each other) if we do care, and damned (othered or excluded by some of the male gatekeepers of diffused writing communities) if we don’t care.
Not just in terms of beauty but in general. As women (and I’m sure it’s similar for any underprivileged/oppressed group) we’re constantly encountering these double-edged swords and having to choose between two shitty situations.
I highly recommend this post from The Pervocracy (“Why I didn’t just call the cops”) which explores the many reasons that women may not report rape or sexual assault. It’s a good framework for thinking about shitty choices in general. Even choosing whether or not to identify publicly as a feminist is a shitty choice (but an easy one for me, once I understood what feminism really was).
Also: I think the Internet has made everyone’s looks more important. Most writers have some form of Internet presence that involves pictures of their face/body, and once you know what someone looks like it’s next to impossible not to let that affect your opinion of them and their work in some way.
Shanna Compton: I have nothing against looking, or beauty itself. Both Juliana and Elisa have touched on the conventional, the expectations, and I see the truth in the damned-if-you-do -if-you-don’t-bit in the quote Elisa pulls above. Still, I’m not immune. On a side note, I loved that Nada Gordon put herself on the cover of Scented Rushes, though she strikes a somewhat coy pose with her face partially hidden. She’s framed, literally in a large ornate frame (in a cemetery?!), but also by her own arms and her lovely long curls. It’s a striking image, perfect for the book, and I thought a rather bold move, considering. Kate Durbin works this territory pretty hard too, obviously. I think poets are as subject to physical beauty as anyone, but also things like fashion and style--and in those cases maybe even more so, because fashion/personal style is a creativity, a performance, an expression. For instance, I remember the first time I met Sina, admiring her suit, her bob, and her lipstick. One night at a reading, she admired my shoes, which had little flowers on them. Sandra and I have done this sort of admiring of each other’s style too. Oh, I’m off track now. Back to the more general question of appearance and it being a sort of cheat or currency or somehow handicapping, well yes, that can all bite both ways and is a touchy subject, but poets have no corner on it. I guess it’s lucky appearance less of an issue for poets than it is for movie stars or even other kinds of writers who move in more commercial spheres. (I don’t know what some poets I read look like. Think of romance writers or other novelists whose entire back book jacket is sometimes a large photograph.) And absolutely women poets are caught in it more than men, and poets of color even moreso? I hope I can say I am also capable of limiting my enjoyment of someone’s beauty to its appropriate sphere...but I guess sometimes I’m not. I’m seduced as easily as anyone. At the same time, the most beautiful/admirable/seductive things are in the minds of poets and in how those things get expressed. I don’t know, this is difficult to talk about, isn’t it? I think what we would like is not to have to deal in superficialities. We are wishing it really could be only about the poems. Sure, that would be great.
Elisa Gabbert: Shanna, I’d argue it’s never “only about the poems” even if you leave aside the question of physical beauty. There is still fashion, the “cool,” affecting what we think we like.
Shanna Compton: Elisa, we’re agreeing about that. Wishing don’t make it so.
Danielle Pafunda: I hear what Juliana says about the privilege of such a problem and our complicity, which is why a lot of us benefit from examining it. I’m a product of white bourgeois notions of gender, and to that end, I find Kara’s post a good point of inquiry. As feminist-grotesque as I might be in the poem, as much as I might seek to horrify the male gaze, in my material life I costume (subtly) and perform (subtly) in the pretty matrix. Susan Bordo says this thing (I paraphrase) about how critiquing the culture doesn’t free us from its standards. Critiquing it doesn’t keep us from enjoying its problematic elements.
Vanessa Place: Because way deep down, I am nothing.
Sandra: So what happens as we age, as beauty fades, as we become less “cool”? I guess this question assumes that one is initially beautiful and cool and then it goes downhill from there.
Danielle Pafunda: In a vain and predictable fashion, I keep saying to my partner: I’m going to be like Kim Gordon, right? I want to age with rockstar cool more than Hollywood beauty. But it’s a crap equation, anyhow. The beauty ideal is unattainable, and the closer one is to it, the easier one forgets this (this is perhaps some kind of casino effect--the house always wins). I hope I don’t stay such a dumbass. Cool can and should be unhinged from beauty. Cool can relate intimately to ugly, unexpected, destabilizing, etc. When I think about the music, literature, film, fashion, etc. I consider “cool,” it’s often that which works in opposition to conventional notions of beauty. Beauty in its stabilized, reified, most commodified forms isn’t cool. In fact, I’m saying beauty can and should be unhinged from Beauty. Will the patriarchy want to fuck me when I’m older? Does it even want to fuck me now? Does that make me beautiful? As I age, I’ll feel the loss of something I never really had, though something I had more privilege to assume than some bodies (less than others). I’ll feel the loss of something that was only digging me deeper into a system that hurts me/us/itself. I’ll still buy dresses that are manufactured in blood. I’ll retain a complicated, ethically questionable relationship to beauty and its sway. None of that sounds very cool.
Elisa Gabbert: Mark Wallace once said to me that one is never established, as a writer; one is always starting over with every book. Perhaps as we get less beautiful and cool -- assuming we do the work required to start over and over -- our audience gets better, more refined, because people aren’t going to keep reading you just for the hipster afterglow. This is an optimistic answer. Also, some people clearly get cooler as they get older.
Juliana Spahr: Can we stop talking about aging as making beauty go bye bye?
Vanessa Place: And more as an opportunity to cultivate one’s performative style.
Danielle Pafunda: I’m looking forward to watching all your performativities evolve.
Sina Queyras: I keep a photo of Louise Bourgeois on my desk. Above my desk a very withered looking Georgia O’Keefe, Isaac Dinesen, George Eliot...you get the picture.
Shanna Compton: Ha, Sina. This is the first image to flash in my mind when I read Sandra’s question:
Louise Bourgeois with “Fillette” (Robert Mapplethorpe, 1982)
Sandra Simonds: Chris Nealon and I read together a few years ago and we were talking at lunch and he said that he thought how important it is that women write about poetry and his sense that there were far more men writing about poetry than women. Why is it important for women to write about poetry? (If you agree with this assertion).
Elisa Gabbert: Because, as Chris says, there are far more men writing about poetry than women. Let’s not let them dominate the discourse.
Danielle Pafunda: It’s important that writers from a wide range of subjectivities write about poetry, of course, and also about everything. There’s plenty of smart stuff to be said about power and parity, and I’m happy to talk about that, but first I want to say: dynamism. Let’s get some productive friction, some unexpected germination, some variety going in the discourse! Let’s contaminate our long-held givens and see what happens. Isn’t it more exciting this way?
Sina Queyras: Why are there not more collections of essays by women? Why are there not more female reviewers/thinkers? Why are there not more women assigning reviews and taking that breezy, authoritative space that so many men feel absolutely born to occupy? I have spoken so much and so often about this I am nauseous just thinking about it...
I am about to announce a small prize on my blog for the best piece of critical writing by a woman in Canada. I have to work out the terms, but yes, I feel the need to provide a public target for women to write to, a way to showcase women’s thinking. I was hoping to get a bigger fish to fund the prize so that whoever wins can have a flash of spotlight, but I haven’t had time to make that happen. I can make this small thing happen though.
Why it’s important? I don’t feel that one really has a grasp on an art form until one can argue it. I think in some way the “buy-in” to the poetry buffet (such as it is) ought to be an essay, not a collection of poetry. In my classes I don’t let anyone talk about a poem until they can adequately describe it. This causes a good deal of furor on occasion but really, what are we doing in these MFA and MA programs if not asking people to understand and respond to their art form?
Shanna Compton: Women do a lot more editorial work than men--is this true? It used to be the case, but I haven’t kept up. When I worked for a huge industrial publisher, probably 80% of the editors, editorial assistants, publicists, and publicity assistants were women. I don’t know how to run the numbers on that these days, or if the trend holds true in small press and university press publishing, but I’ll guess that it does. But editorial work is often background work. So even though editing and publishing are also critical activities, they aren’t as foregrounded or quantifiable in the same ways as reviews and essays? Working as an editor/publisher (even for a very small press) doesn’t leave a lot of time for additional critical work in the form of reviews or essays, especially if one also teaches or works some other kind of day job, and especially if one has children, and especially especially etcetera. So what Danielle was saying about blog posts being quicker than essays or formal reviews, and so more accessible to us in terms of available time, maybe comes back in here. I guess we’ll all keep doing what we can. I’m not disagreeing with Sina though: I would like to see the Huffington Post run reviews by Elisa Gabbert (even though she has professed a dislike for HuffPo)...but I think their sort of provocative editorial style is not all that attractive to women either, just like the comment-stream sparring. I feel the need to do more (formal/published/not just blog or FB posts) reviewing myself. But I never seem to get the balance right and when something has to give, that’s usually the thing. I’d have to give up reading time and writing time somewhere else.
Elisa Gabbert: I would say that I would I do more poetry reviewing (in a formal way, as opposed to tossing off a blog post when I read something that inspires me) if someone showed up with a check. Money trumps whimsy.
Vanessa Place: And whimsy trumps chance.
Paol Keineg published Abalamour this past May. Abalamour: in the Breton language it means “because”, but when you say it in French, you hear the phrase à bas l’amour—down with love. When I tried to press Paol on the purpose of this double meaning, he was serene: “The whole purpose of poetry is to have a multitude of meanings. These poems are in a sort of perpetual hesitation between “because” and “down with love.”
We thought we would try to see what some of this poetry sounded like in English, and as we worked on the translations, I asked Paol to talk about how this newest book of poems came about. The genealogy of Abalamour reflects Paol’s lives as a Breton poet and playwright, a French poet, a professor of literature in the United States (at Brown and Duke Universities) and a translator of American poetry whose own work has been translated into many languages.
Two of the texts had already been published under different names and I didn’t know what to do with them. Not pseudonyms, where you hide your real name from your editor, your public. Instead I was inspired by Fernando Pessoa who invented the idea of the “heteronym.” Pessoa published poems using at least 100 different names. I wondered if I would write differently if I had a different name, but the result wasn’t very convincing since anyone who knew my poetry recognized it right away.
This was around 2004. When I came back to Brittany from Duke three years ago, a friend took me to a reading in Brest. There I met Alain le Saux (‘le Saux’ in Breton means ‘the Englishman.’). He wanted to publish my poems, and I wasn’t enthusiastic at first because these small editors can be unreliable. But I was won over by the quality of his books. The next year I took out a lot of poems I had been working on in the US—I thought I’d find about 40 and in fact I found 100 poems that I was able to rework. They became the part of Abalamour book called “Quatre à quatre” [four by four]—99 quatrains:
A few pages by Walter Benjamin
On the power of imitation,
a new dispute among the blue jays
whose cause I will never know.
The individual poem Abalamour was inspired by a letter I found—a letter in Breton written by my great uncle to his father in 1905. He criticized his father’s drunkenness, which was destroying the family. He didn’t want to be a peasant, he wanted to be a priest. I was overwhelmed by this letter, by its length and by the quality of the language—beautiful literary Breton in the style of the period. No one could explain to me where this uncle learned how to write in Breton! This was at a time when the whole of European peasantry was supposed to be illiterate and yet here was this boy writing a long letter in Breton to a father who was going to be able to read it. And the letter ends with three words I never heard during my own childhood—
Me ho kar
Je vous aime
A declaration of love. Whereas I never saw my parents so much as kiss. There was an extreme reticence in our world, a refusal of any emotion.
This great uncle’s name was Dennielou, so Yves Dennielou was the name I took for my poem, which I wrote following the death of my own father. (Yves Dennielou died very young, in 1913, when my mother was only a year old).
there won’t be any ghost, in the minority language there is no concept of minority, in the language of the majority people want to be loved, all the love songs talk about terror,
the huge noise of insects outside, the big, the marvelous North Carolina insects call out to one another in the night, a roar of judgment day, pressing my forehead against the window, I try to see through the multitude of sounds,
the telephone rings, and it’s Dublin, London, Paris calling, it took time to learn to live alone, where you say: that’s life, don’t know what that means, is it kiez ar bed*, one hell of a life,
probably you can hear it, a fluke, an accident, since every life is a failure how unrecognizable the faces are of all the women I’ve loved, they hide their faces in their hands,
the tracks we keep within are the marks of a creeping in the dust, a long green snake crossing the trail ahead, with one hop I avoided him, the sound he makes of dead leaves in the woods,
the little I have left of life, what can I make of it, no fear of death, no storm, no need to forget, no saintly wisdom, no fancy words, no exegesis, no agreement.
Durham, September 15 – October 5, 2005
*bitch of the earth
The second heteronym I took was Chann Lagatu. Chann is a Breton version of Sean. And Lagatu is the name of a family who lived near us in Quimerc’h; two of the daughters were great friends of my mother. They were a very very poor family with many children, some of whom went off to work in Paris. One of those girls, Catherine Lagatu, became a communist senator for the Seine, the region that included Paris. My father hated the communists, but he always spoke of her with the greatest respect.
From “Diary of a Hike Along the Southern Shore of the Bay of Brest in Winter” by Chann Lagatu:
“I’d like them to write on my grave: He Loved Potatoes.”
Finistère: Editions Les Hauts-Fonds, 2012
Translations by AK with PK
MMC Da Click’s sound isn’t easily classifiable. They remind me of the Weeknd or Frank Ocean, which is to say theirs is a somewhat psychedelic, poetic cast of hip-hop and R&B, but they also go toward pop and have elements of funk and even, as one commentator on YouTube notes, dubstep. Their “Philophobia,” linked below, is as haunting an elegy as I’ve heard in a while. MMC Da Click’s sound is also optimistic, celebratory, a bit utopian: they’re after that “universal feel,” that “good sound”; they’re concerned with “Peace and Blessings” (a valediction to their emails echoed by Jinxo’s signature peace chain). Poised to take off, the guys were kind enough to answer a few questions for me.
RF: Can you tell us a bit about who you are, where you’re from, and how you got started?
MMC: We are MMC Da Click (JinXo, PeeZaY, and SunnySoulstice) a Miami-based group, drawn together through our love of not just music, but our passion to create it and be among the greatest names.
RF: How has the culture and/or environment of South Florida had an impact on your music?
MMC: Growing up in Miami had an impact on our music by giving us the idea that the best way to attract someone to our music is not by letting them hear it but feel it.
RF: Can you talk a little about the concept behind your video “Philophobia”? About the stylistic decisions and the mood?
MMC: Both the video and the song are about love lost no one grieves perfectly sometimes you get angry and cast everyone out sometimes you sleep around and try to pass it off as love sometimes you drink till you pass out. It’s all about human emotion the real human emotion.
RF: What does style mean to you?
MMC: Style is a lot of things it’s life it’s food it’s music but most of all it’s interpretation and expression it’s your ability to gather all the things that inspire you and transport it to the world.
RF: Do you see any trends in hip-hop and/or R&B lyrics these days? In terms of lyrics, what are your obsessions and preoccupations?
MMC: Yes, we do notice trends in this new era of hip-hop as well as R&B, but we’ve become preoccupied with creating our own, expression has become our only obsession.
RF: What's next?
MMC: Our ultimate goal is to blur the lines of music and to bring back the universal feel, that good sound that isn’t so easily categorized by genre so hopefully in the coming future hip-hop will absorb a lot more genres and explode into an array of different sounds, we’re already starting to see that happen.
More about MMC Da Click can be seen here.
Robert Fernandez is the author of the poetry collections We Are Pharaoh and the forthcoming Pink Reef. He lives in Iowa City.
The following interview with film-maker, poet, and editor Nick Twemlow took place in mid-June of 2012 in Iowa City. Nick’s first poetry collection, Palm Trees, is forthcoming (along with the poet Joel Craig’s first book) from Green Lantern press in fall 2012. Nick has generously provided a poem, “The Twenty-four Complications,” from Palm Trees, along with a link to the video piece, Richard Prince, around which part of the discussion below revolves.
RF: Can you say a little something about how you work on poems or video?
NT: I pretty much work every day on something. Usually, it’s an image that I come across and want to respond to or…deform. That’s the strange thing: the fact that you go back, that you return to these images. My brother-in-law is a blues guitarist, and practices all the time. Whenever I visit him and my sister and their family, he’s most likely to be in his studio, practicing. He has gigs most nights I’m around. Throughout the day, I hear him practicing chords; sometimes he breaks into a recognizable tune, but usually, he just repeats chords. It’s like he’s just making sure that he is still able to play. And I wonder if sometimes the impulse to write or cut video or whatever is also the need just to stay practiced. I wonder if constantly doing whatever it is that you like to do—constantly practicing—also creates the need to do it in the first place, and then also that’s how you arrive at the works that you want to see. Maybe it’s a matter of temperament: there are some poets who seem to produce work at a rate that would suggest that there is little editing going on, poets who say, I have to not only write constantly, but publish it. Then there are others who don’t work like that at all—poets who don’t churn out work, for whom work doesn’t come out easily and quickly.
RF: My question has to do with those moments in which, after diligently staying practiced and alert, you find yourself responding to something. Can you describe what happens, in either film or poetry, in that moment—how you’re drawn in, how work comes out of that?
NT: Recently I made this piece, Richard Prince, which is a seven-minute study of Brooke Shields, primarily using footage of a eulogy she delivered at Michael Jackson’s televised memorial. I had been thinking about MJ and Shields off and on for some time—largely because my wife, Robyn Schiff, had written a poem featuring Shields—the Calvin Klein poem in her book Revolver—and had also written a poem considering MJ, a few weeks after he died. I watched a good chunk of the memorial live—this was an entertainer who may have been the most gifted showman of his time, a figure who imprinted on me at a young age. I can still do the moonwalk, which I practiced for hours upon hours as a child. I was sad, as millions were that day, and awestruck by the raging escalation of spectacle that he left in his wake.
Some time later, I found myself watching YouTube clips of the various eulogies from that day (I came across these clips while looking for footage of MJ doing the robot, for another video piece). Brooke Shields mesmerized me. There was a gesture she made, and I noticed—and it was really a function of the main camera’s set-up, which was the standard medium-shot where you see the subject from the chest up—I noticed she’s moving her head in such a way that I wanted to really consider these movements. It occurred to me that she is quite striking. She’s also a pure cultural product: Her mother, a famous stage mother, made her available to the public at a very early age, and she has had all of these problems and career reboots…not unlike MJ. It makes perfect sense that they were friends.
And as someone pointed out to me who saw a draft of this video, it seems like MJ saw, in Shields, the ultimate form; perhaps his own interior and exterior metamorphoses were pitched toward this ideal. If you look at her closely—and I think I was thinking about this when I was watching this video—watching her face and upper body in slow motion, you start to recognize the similarities, because you’re looking at shapes; it’s geometric. I think that, at some point, this video hit an undercurrent of all these different ideas, and I let it go for a little while, but it stuck with me. I didn’t articulate any of that to myself at the time, but in the end what I thought was, there’s all this mirroring going on between the subject of the eulogy and the person delivering the eulogy in terms of ideologies, cultural baggage, etc., and it just seemed right to press on…
Ish Klein’s poems are a synthesis of imagination, virtuosity, and feeling the likes of which I’ve never seen before. For this post, I asked Ish to write a poetics statement and asked if I could include her poem “From a Book of Changes.” Ish also sent along her poem “IN THE BEGINNING.” My thanks to Ish for her generosity and her efforts.
I’m writing this for you. I see you as my brother and I like your poetry. Here is an account of how I wrote “From a Book of Changes”. What precipitated the writing of it was just me trying to impose order on me. So I will give you the circumstance and some notes on form. This will include what some numbers mean to me.
In spite of everything, I like the poem; it was what I did at that time. I was still me then and a decent person even though I was troubled.
When I was writing “From a Book of Changes” (2009 through early 2011) I was struggling with intrusive thoughts. I’d be shocked by a thought and then it would get stronger. It was like mental Tourettes. I would think something filthy then I would think, why am I thinking this filth? That can’t be me. Like the worst thing you could imagine—with knives in genitals, and other things. Since I knew I didn’t want this, I figured someone must be doing these thoughts to me. Implications spread. Things on the radio, things people said, I took very personally. As a result I lost trust in most other people and was alone most of the time.
To protect myself , I intensely imagined the strongest man in the world. The idea was that my need would make a sort of scream that he could hear and then he would come here and help me. The poem was the happening after the summoning.
The ‘you’ in the poem is a strong man. He takes many different forms (like Odin). In fact, the “you” probably is Odin. We get into a sort of wrestling match for control of the book. The book is my brain. Maybe I am not the best one to be in control of the book and yet I can’t seem to help myself from trying to exert influence. Well that is human; to want Odin and not want Odin. He probably isn’t really bothered; which is why he’s him.
The form is in tercets because three is the number of spirit. The third thing. The first thing is me, the second is you and the third thing is the thing between us: spirit, or our relationship.
That there are 22 tercets was determined by the number of turns the poem took; more or less. Two is the number of wisdom. Yes it is this and yes it is that. Two equal halves. Finally that there are 66 lines is because as I wrote the poem in anger, so it remains angry; energy circling low. The poem is stuck in the physical world. I’ve attached a relatively new poem to help the old one out.
Thank you for being interested. I would love to know what your process is. Do you like Raul Zurita? His poem “The Sea” is one of the best poems I have ever read in my life.
June 30, 2012
p.s. about the fourth dimension which is maybe an area where time is simultaneous though distinguishable by different rates. Rates manifested as colors (the wavelenghts). I think it might look like colored string on fast metal. Or moving metal. My relationship to it is like everyone’s.
Please welcome the scholar and translator Diana Thow, who for today’s entry has generously provided poems from her translation of Amelia Rosselli's Serie Ospedaliera (Hospital Series) in addition to some illuminating and insightful Rosselli context and commentary.
From Serie Ospedaliera (1963-1965)
Amelia Rosselli/translation Diana Thow
Lifting of weights and particularities of fate
little doves eyed my strength
taken from your take-off like
candy, the vocation melted into
a semantic revision of our quarrels
and birds. None of the soldiers who really
wanted to remarry was able to tell me
who is it that really marches.
….solitary in the didactic regions
I held the brigantella disappointed by
such a miserable fate, oh
see I’m exploding, don’t run away, the
piano’s machinegun subtracts
sensations, metro, camphor, the curved
red lips bricks of the safe.
A thin little voice: enough to open the shutter
of the little window, that changes the world
and its surfaces are a part of your
migraines. Enough to barely open, open, your
sleep measures itself against the sky, where
a tragic image stays.
You open a wall: another appears, to take
your pulse. You can’t razor the wall, you don’t want
to save yourself those few spirit hours, forcing
its mysterious cells. And still, you feel like
a fallen pine between the new pine groves,
straight end to rotten pity.
You scare yourself with all your heart
with the air that shakes and sheds you;
dreams radiate down through the
illiterate facades, you count
blood in fat drops
falling full into your hands
withdrawals from the anguish of knowing
where the air is what does it move why
it speaks, of ills so watered down
to seem, so many things together
but not one you forget, your
dragging night and blood
through immense days.
[Note: “You scare yourself with all your heart” first appeared in the estimable THERMOS]
RF: Who was Amelia Rosselli?
DT: In her words:
Born in Paris afflicted in the epoch of our fallacious
generation. Laid out in America among the rich fields of landowners
and the statal State. Lived in Italy, barbarous land.
Fled from England land of the sophisticated. Hopeful
in the West where nothing now grows.
—from “Contiamo infiniti morti…” in Variazioni Belliche, translation Cinzia Blum and Lara Trubowitz)
Amelia Rosselli (1930-1996) was a dynamic, idiosyncratic and intensely lyrical presence in postwar Italian poetry. She was in a category of her own: not only multilingual (she grew up speaking English, French and Italian), she was often the token female in the largely male dominated field of Italian literature at that time. Rosselli was born in Paris in exile. Her father was the famous antifascist leader Carlo Rosselli, and her mother was British. Her very name bore the scars of Italy’s struggles to liberate itself from the fascist regime in an era that was trying to forget its fascist past. After her father’s assassination, she spent formative years in upstate New York with her extended family. During this time her grandmother read the children Dante in Italian so that they wouldn’t forget their Italian language and heritage. Amelia finished high school in London, and moved with her grandmother to the family home in Florence in the 1950s, eventually relocating to Rome, where she would live for the rest of her life. Her voice was as distinctive as her poetry: she spoke Italian with a hint of a French accent (most noticeable in her French pronunciation of the letter R). In addition to her work as a poet, she also worked as a journalist, editor, and mentor to younger poets.
NA: I love your description of BlazeVOX: “We are an independent publisher of weird little books.” Would you elaborate on the weird little books you publish?
GA: Hurray, I am glad you like our description. It started out as a descriptive joke but then developed into the best abstract of our mission statement.
BlazeVOX [books] Mission Statement
BlazeVOX [books] presents innovative fictions and wide ranging fields of contemporary poetry. Our books push at the frontiers of what is possible with our innovative poetry, fiction and select non-fiction and literary criticism. Our fundamental mission is to disseminate poetry, through print and digital media, both within academic spheres and to society at large.
We seek to publish the innovative works of the greatest minds writing poetry today, from the most respected senior poets to extraordinarily promising young writers. We select for publication only the highest quality of writing on all levels regardless of commercial viability. Our outlets of publication strive to enrich cultural and intellectual life, and foster regional pride and accomplishments.
BlazeVOX [books] consciously acquires a collection of titles providing focus, continuity, and a basis for the development of future publications. Through the publication of works of significance, BlazeVOX [books] is committed to the dissemination of knowledge.
NA: How long has BlazeVOX been in existence? How has it evolved over time?
GG: BlazeVOX started off as a college project while I was at Daemen College, Amherst, NY in 1998. The school is near Buffalo so our contacts with poets and poetry are vibrant. I wanted to start a creative writing journal but we only had a budget of $100. I took that, bought a copy of Dreamweaver and learned how to design web pages. I used this format for the college journal and it was a great success. In 2000 I started BlazeVOX as the online journal was gaining momentum. The goal of the journal is to present innovative fictions and wide ranging fields of contemporary poetry. Our main goal is to provide good quality poetry. The technology allows for a very low overhead in our operation. We moved into book production, as there was a real market for us to expand our horizons, and once the Print on Demand systems began, we hopped right on board. The technology had been awful up until 2004 but now is fantastic. We have published 280 books and over 1000 writers in our online journal and other outlets. Our family of fine writers includes Kent Johnson, Bill Berkson, Anne Waldman, Clayton Eshleman, Lee Ann Brown, Tom Clark, Ray Federman and Gloria Frym and many, many more. I do think that I have succeeded in our aims. Through publishing hundreds of books and poems online we have been able to make a huge impact on the poetry world.
NA: Have you always been the editor?
GG: Yes I have, but I have had a lot of help along the way. We have a few volunteer staff members that help in the choosing of books, ebooks and pieces for the online journal. Most of the actual editing of the books is a collaborative process between the author and the press. We work together to make the best book we can and I am very happy with the way that I am able to engage on each book. I am more of an open spirit when it comes my editorial style. I hesitate to put myself into the poet’s poems, or a fiction writer’s realm. I have a trusting intuition in our authors and I believe in them and their work. We have a very small operation so in many cases I am also the overall book designer, photographer for many of the book covers, web manager of online content, blogger, manage the accounting and any other job that needs doing. It is a wonderful life and I am thrilled to be a publisher.
NA: How does one become a BlazeVOX author?
GG: It’s a very simple process; one sends his or her work to us by email. If the work fits in with the audience we have cultivated then we look to see how viable that work would best project. We have many outlets of publication, an online journal, ebooks, kindle books and printed books. So there are many ways in which we can promote poets and writers. We do have one guiding philosophy; the work must not suck. We are open to established writers as well as emerging voices and for one to feel that one’s work is of quality is an important step in being a writer and we want to support that. But we also get work that just does not fit into our scope of publishing and in many cases I forward those writers on to presses that concentrate on their specialty. As of right now we have over nine hundred good quality manuscripts on hand and we continue to receive more. It is very exciting that there is so much great writing going on right now.
NA: You publish authors from around the world. Can you talk about the International aspect of press?
GG: We have published poetry and fiction books from many countries including Japan, Scotland, Ireland, England, Greece, France and Canada. We now have distribution to many of these countries through their local Amazon.com; which will help increase our exposure to these countries. So the press, through the wonders of the internet, has made leaps and bounds across the English speaking world. It is exciting to reach such a vast audience of readers and writers and I am looking forward to what can happen in the future. It has been a wonderful experience to work with writers from so many countries and I have learned a great deal. But one aspect is the same, writers have the similar concerns regardless of country; they all want a well designed book that reflects who they are as a writer and that their writing conveys in print what they envisioned in their mind.
NA: I am a huge fan of one of your authors, Tom Clark. How many books of Tom’s have you published? I was wondering if you could say a few words about him.
GG: Tom is awesome. We have just finished up on his fourth BlazeVOX book, Distance. We have also all available, the Tom Clark Set which includes all four of his titles, including At the Fair, Canyonesque and Feeling for the Ground. I am fond of all Tom’s books of poetry, novels, essays and biographies. He has embodied the literary life and it was a real honor to publish his new works, poems that seem to get stronger and stronger. He is on an incline right now and it might be time for a major retrospective of his life’s work. This is the reason I so enjoy being a poet and publishing poets, one can get old, is allowed to age with dignity in their field. One gets wiser, more refined in one’s talents and how one is able to achieve in a poem the lessons learned over a lifetime. It makes me look forward to what the future holds in store for us all.
NA: I am also a fan of Tom’s blogs, both his personal blog and the BlazeVOX blog. He does such a beautiful job of linking poetry and art and photography. How helpful is it for the press to have these blogs?
GG: I too enjoy Tom’s blog. Just today he has mixed wonderful black and white photos of downward facing staircases with a poem by one of our new authors, Beth Copland. There is a considerable readership of Tom’s blog, 2000 page views on a normal day. It is an excellent, non-traditional form of advertising, announcing, and directing to those who are interested in this kind of writing. Our blog is also the best form of announcing new publications and other bits of BlazeVOX information. Social media is in its heyday now and blogs are very much in the public eye. Our recent imbroglio, you can read about fully here in a recent Huffington Post interview. The whole event erupted and subsided in the blogosphere and on Facebook. It then took on a life in newspapers, essays and more traditional forms of media. Thankfully that has all been resolved favorably. But to actually answer your question about how helpful our blog is, I would have to say that our blog gives us an outlet, the ability to add a face, or rather a personality to the press. We are able to address visitors to the BlazeVOX site and deliver our latest information about new books, new reviews, book-tours and readings of our authors and other tidbits of data that might be of use. This way we have our web presence as a destination, a place to read and be current with all that is going on.
NA: Could you say a few words about your newest authors? Is there any one thing that might categorize them as BlazeVOX writers?
GG: Here is a brief list of ten new and forthcoming titles that give a good idea of what we enjoy publishing. You can read a preview of these books in the new section of the BlazeVOX Journal – Book Preview. They are all available on Amazon.com, SPD and in our own online shop.
A N A N A T O M Y O F T H E N I G H T by Clayton Eshleman (Poetry)
Comma Fork / Moving Parts by Ted Greenwald (Poetry)
“now, 1/3” and thepoem by Demosthenes Agrafiotis
Translated by John Sakkis and Angelos Sakkis (Poetry in translation)
Distance by Tom Clark (Poetry)
Transcendental Telemarketer by Beth Copeland (Poetry)
Mylar by Eric Wertheimer (Poetry)
Circles Matter by Brian Lucas (Poetry)
to go without blinking by Aimee Herman (Poetry)
Continental Drifts by Cheryl Pallant (Poetry)
Selected Prose of Bobbie Louise Hawkins
Edited by Barbara Henning (Fiction and interviews)
One aspect that binds these books together might be that they all push the bounds of what one thinks of as a poem and prose. That frayed area of what is possible is still an open frontier, one which we enjoy exploring. In picking books for publication we try to choose the best manuscripts available at the time. We try to not choose a school, or movement or any one aesthetic that would categorize the authors. That is a bit unfair to them and their work, as they write as individuals and their work stands independent of any one book. But there is overlap; communications between books and authors tend to develop in both positive and negative ways, this is unavoidable and we try to incorporate that as a form of serendipity. It is an unusual moment for poetry and it's production, but it is a glorious time as well and I am thrilled to be a part of it.
NA: Can you talk to me about the fiction you publish?
GG: We have an exciting list of great fiction titles from some of the best experimental voices writing today. You can see the list here, but some authors are Mark Wallace, Dennis Barone, Tom Carey, Christine Hamm, Norma Kassirer and coming out in the fall is a collected edition of fiction and interviews with Bobbie Louise Hawkins.
NA: A lot of presses are funded by universities and/or contests, but I believe BlazeVOX is an entirely independent press. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an independent press?
GG: We are an independent press and it is wonderful. Right now we are working on getting our not-for-profit status and we will be ready to meet the future with a bit more certainty and foundation. There are many advantages not being associated with a university. We have the absolute authority to publish any book we want while avoiding committee think. We have the ability to publish the ill-advised as easily as work from promising writers. We navigate blithely through political and artistic/theoretical differences so that the many voices of the innovative poet can have a safe refuge. There are as many disadvantages to being on our own that revolve around the instability of life. It is a precarious situation with no real salary, university grade health insurance, a form of tenure, and so on. But I wouldn’t trade this situation for anything.
NA: Could you describe some of the happiest or proudest moments for the press? Feel free to provide links to reviews, events, readings, etc.
GG: The happiest moments of the press have been quite recent. Our survival through rousing support of writers, reader and scholars may be categorized as one or two of the saddest, bewildering, discouraging, resounding, glorious, hope-filled moments in my life. I am thrilled by the quality of work we publish and are able to live up to the standards we have set for ourselves in our mission statement. We have had over 50,000 books sold through several outlets and that is fine number of objects to place into the world, considering we are Print on Demand, there is a big demand for poetry and alternative forms of literature. I also base our success in how well respected and beloved BlazeVOX has become. It is a wonderful feeling to work with such talented writers, and I have been able to work with my literary heroes.
NA: I was thinking it would be nice to end the interview with a quote or excerpt from one of your books to give us a taste of what BlazeVOX has to offer.
GG: You can read a preview of ten new and forthcoming books in the new section of the BlazeVOX Journal – Book Preview. And here are two poems from two new books by Tom Clark and by Aimee Herman.
From: Distance by Tom Clark (Poetry)
Again, and again
to the rock
of the mute
long, then? And
From: to go without blinking by Aimee Herman (Poetry)
go get yourself loved
Ninety milligrams of side effects will not remove his lisp. On a Friday, he slathers Federico García Lorca over vocal chords like controlled cologne that reeks of Granada. Calls his tongue a Communist, as it slurs war into his teeth. Beside him, a girl grabs his knee and squeezes an erection off his taste buds. The swelling distracts his s’s; suddenly he is cured. She took off her socks and climbed her way through stinging nettle and curious ivy. It was the histamine that took notice of her triangular bones jutting, the pull of skin, the color of cockleshells or plaster. Twenty-minutes later, she brought peeled fingernails toward ankles and itched the irritant away. She was not ready for a relationship at this time. What happened is this. She closed her eyes, which she pretended were moss—not the color but the plant—knees bent in the only way they could and found Braille between her legs. Upon further examination, she attempted amputation. Pink wigged man intrigues red haired lady at basement bathhouse. She drips oiled wax along the seam of his arm, which is veined like skirt steak and dotted with drops of hair. It is his birthday and buttercream-covered penguins decorate his cake. Her pale pink fingers press into his bleached and blotted forearm, his wrist, above his elbow. She nods when he asks her, “Do you like men who dress as women?” She shakes her head when he offers to tie her up like Christmas or roast beef.
Geoffrey Gatza has received awards for his poetry from the Fund for Poetry and a Boomerang Award. He is the author House of Forgetting, Secrets of my Prison House (BlazeVOX) Kenmore: Poem Unlimited (Casa Menendez 2009) and Not So Fast Robespierre (Menendez Publishing 2008) and HouseCat Kung Fu: Strange Poems for Wild Children (Meritage Press 2008), He is also the author of the yearly Thanksgiving Menu-Poem Series, a book length poetic tribute for prominent poets, now entering it's eleventh year. His visual art poems have been displayed in gallery showing. Recently, OCCUPY THE WALLS: A Poster Show, AC Gallery (NYC) 2011 occupy wall street N15 For Ernst Jandl - Minimal Poems with photography from the fall of Liberty Square. And in, LANGUAGE TO COVER A WALL: Visual Poetry through its changing media, UB ART GALLERY (Buffalo, NY) 2011/12 Language for the Birds. He lives in Buffalo, NY with his girlfriend and two cats. Find out more about Geoffrey here.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books including The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum. She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort was published by CavanKerry Press in 2010. Follow Nin's blog here.
The Other Latin@: Writing Against a Singular Identity is an anthology of 20 essays that, according to its co-editor Blas Falconer, aims to counter a narrow perspective of Latino/a writers and honor their diversity. In his own essay, Falconer writes, "When Spanish enters the poem, it is often done because it is part of the memory, not because it is the language of the reader or of the audience."
This idea of how Spanish is mysteriously fused to the neurons of Latino writers resonated with me, and I wanted to hear more from Blas. He and co-editor Lorraine Lopez will present the book this Thursday, April 26, at noon, as part of the Books and Beyond series at the Library of Congress in partnership with Letras Latinas and the University of Arizona Press. At 6:30 p.m., both Falconer and Lopez will read selections from their own work. For details, visit here.
ET: What was the source of inspiration for this anthology, for the idea that Latino writers are more than a globbed together demographic or a brightly colored (I'm guessing red) wedge in a pie graph?
BF: The book began, in part, as a presentation on an AWP panel I wrote in 2008. The acquisitions editor from University of Arizona Press was in the audience and came up to me afterwards and suggested we do a whole book. I told her I was thinking the exact same thing. We wanted to open it up beyond the Latino identity that's been seen through a small lens.
The book also originated from the fact that I didn't really understand my own relationship to the Latino community or to Puerto Rico. I had traveled there a lot when I was younger, but after my grandmother passed away I stopped going. I also knew that there was this rich Puerto Rican community in New York that I didn't feel quite in sync with because I grew up in Northern Virginia, and there just weren't a lot of Puerto Ricans there. As a writer, I kept asking myself, ‘Am I Latino?’ ‘What does it mean to be Latino?’ I have a white father and a Latina mother, but I have an estranged relationship to Puerto Rico. What does this mean? Then I realized that I saw two of my dearest friends as Latinas - Lisa Chavez, a Chicana from Alaska, and Helena Mesa, who is Cuban and grew up in Pittsburgh - even though they too felt disconnected. I thought, ‘Let's explore this.’ I realized that many writers were challenging the term of Latino in various ways, and I thought reading about their experiences might be interesting.
Another source of inspiration is that sometimes I just don't want to write. I'm on empty. But I'm still fueled by great poetry or writing, so I want to be involved somehow. Editing kind of satisfies that need. Seeing how different people write, how their work or books come together. It's inspiring.
BF: The press asked me to widen the scope to include fiction writers, and I asked Lorraine Lopez to be my co-editor. We started thinking about the Latino experience and the Latino identity, and we wanted writers that subverted stereotypical topics -- food, grandmothers, estrangement and exile, urban life. We wanted to push beyond this and see what was next. (at right, Blas Falconer)
ET: What's funny is that all those topics are in the book!
BF: It's totally true. But Lisa Chavez, who's from Alaska, isn't writing about the expected Chicana experience. In his essay, Steven Cordova basically says, ‘I'm Latino, but I'm HIV positive and gay, and it doesn't mean I'm not Latino or addressing issues of otherness, but I'm doing that through this other aspect of my identity, through this other narrative.'
In terms of aesthetics, Carmen Gimenez Smith and Gabe Gomez call on Latino poets to explore what might be considered experimental methods of articulating the Latino experience, which often relies heavily on narrative. So those topics are there, but they’re approached in many different ways.
ET: As an editor, do you find it challenging to reject work?
BF: I do. To be honest, we did have to pass on a few essays because there were a couple of times where they were redundant in subject matter. Another one was more for an academic journal in terms of what the press wanted for our imagined reader. No one submitted a bad essay, but some of them just didn't fit. It was hard because we didn't invite anyone to submit that we didn't really admire as writers.
ET: The tone of the essays in this book varies widely: "Latina Enough," by Stephanie Elizondo Griest is witty as well as reflective. In "When We Were Spanish," your co-editor Lorraine Lopez offers a kind of personalized scholarship. Did you both deliberately attempt to include a gamut of styles or did it just turn out that way?
BF: It kind of did just turn out that way. We were interested in not only the ideas in the essays but also in their craft. And we weren't just asking anyone to contribute; we were asking writers. So we encouraged them to write in the manner they felt best addressed their subjects. Gina Franco's essay is much more lyric, for example. It's a stunning essay and very complex in the way she addresses issues of identity.. Some were more academic, such as Peter Ramos’ essay, which had more of a rooting in the American cannon, more of an academic slant. And that was good too.
ET: In "Coyotes," Alex Espinoza writes about speaking at community colleges and remembering how he also sat at a workshop, at University of California, Irvine, and at the same table as Gary Soto and Helena Viramontes. What is the role mentorship plays in understanding identity?
BF: In my own essay, I kind of address this. When I started reading Rane Arroyo and Judith Ortiz Cofer, I thought, ‘Oh these writers are like me in some way.’ But they were able to find their own voices and incorporate their cultural influences. They were doing what I wanted to do, and I saw them as legitimate Latino writers. It was a way in for me. I realized I am also a part of this community. In that sense I saw them as models.
When my first book came out, I felt an incredibly nurturing response from the Latino community that I had never expected. Even today, five years after my first book was published, I still feel welcome and there's no question I'm part of this community. It made me feel as if my own experience was legitimate, and it's resolved this kind of conflict of estrangement I've had. I’m grateful to the Latino community for embracing diversity within itself.
ET: How do you as a Puerto Rican and Latino poet feel or do not feel marginalized?
BF: You know, I don't feel marginalized. I feel like everyone has had that experience of being "the other." I don't care if you're a straight white man; you've felt that sense of otherness. I don't feel any more marginalized than other people do at different times in their lives. I don't think I'm going to be denied a job or not be published or be dismissed because I'm a Latino writer. I don't think I'm going to be ignored. Maybe it's a testament to the strides the Latino writing community has made in publishing. Of course, I've experienced bigotry in my life as a gay man and as a Latino, but I'm not looking over my shoulder or waiting for the next person to shut a door in my face. But other people have had, and still do have, that experience, and I know that it happens.
Natalie Diaz, 5’11, played point guard in NCAA March Madness for four years at Old Dominion University, a storied women’s college program. Diaz reached the NCAA finals as a freshman in 1997 and to the Sweet Sixteen the other three years. After college, Diaz played professional basketball for several years in Europe and Asia. Writing got her full attention after a career-ending knee injury during an unlucky, no-look practice pass in 2004. Diaz returned to ODU for a MFA in poetry and fiction. In early April, the week of the NCAA championships, Copper Canyon Press will publish Diaz’s first book of poetry, When My Brother Was an Aztec.
Diaz, 33, is a Mojave and Pima tribe member and the director of a language revitalization program on her home reservation, Fort Mojave on the Colorado River in Arizona. Which means she is the point guard and coach for transmitting the Mojave language from the last four fluent Elder speakers (two in their 90s) to rising elders, the youngest in day care and all ages in between. Diaz credits her college basketball scholarship to opening many possibilities in her life, including writing.
The first half of the interview is with Diaz, poet and fiction writer. The second half is a Q&A with two Diaz poems, Two Things You Need Balls To Do: A Miscellany From a Former Professional Basketball Player Turned Poet and Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball. Game goes to overtime with your comments.
CW: What’s basketball got to do with what you do now?
ND: Basketball is my core. It made me who I am.
ND: Basketball gives you a mental and a physical strength to navigate things. You discover the body in a new way. You learn the body’s limits and then you learn you can push further. It opened up a part of me that I wouldn’t have accessed otherwise. It shows in my writing; the physical world that’s how I know how to situate myself.
CW: Your role as the head learner-teacher strikes me as requiring very complex coaching and teamwork. You are racing against time to keep a language alive and growing. What’s the most rewarding?
ND: With the elders, we’ve learned to read each other and trust each other. Like basketball, it’s the same goal of supporting each other and pushing each other until you just become one mind. Like being a point guard.
CW: You say you’re in love with the sound of dribbling a basketball on a wooden floor. Does that relate to your writing?
ND: There is a kind of music in it. Is it the touch or the sound of it? You’re just so connected to it. It’s like a line of poetry when I know it’s the best I can do. Right now I’m pretending I’m dribbling the basketball.
CW: Your basketball coming of age was coming off the bench your freshman year in the regional finals for seven key points and five rebounds, including the one that clinched the victory that sent ODU to the Final Four. Do you have a writing equivalent?
ND: The final year of the MFA, I started writing – and reading – in a more focused way. And the next year I won the Nimrod International Journal poetry prize. (The journal’s Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize came with publication, a $2000 prize and an all-expense paid reading.)
CW: What do you hope readers will carry away from your first book of poetry, When My Brother Was an Aztec?
ND: These poems weave together a cultural and personal mythology from numerous threads of identity. They struggle with the violence of brothers, reservation, body, hunger, and other types of love. At the core, a sister fights for or against a brother on crystal meth, and everyone from Antigone, Houdini, Huitzilopochtli, and Jesus are invoked and invited to hash it out at the dinner table. These poems illuminate dark corners of the heart, revealing teeth, tails, a million pinto beans, chiming and hands beneath a red dress, and Custer in an ambulance, reducing the violence to beauty or hilarity, to something bearable.
2nd Half: Q&A with two Diaz poems
CW: Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball was written in November for a basketball fund-raiser to endow a scholarship for a Native American MFA candidate at the University of Idaho. What are the top two reasons?
ND poem: 1.The same reason we are good in bed.
2.Because a long time ago, Creator gave us a choice: You can write like an Indian god, or you can have a jump shot sweeter than a 44 ounce can of commodity grape juice—one or the other.
CW: Why is basketball popular on reservations?
ND poem: 10. Really, though, all Indians are good at basketball because a basketball has never been just a basketball—it has always been a full moon in this terminal darkness, the one taillight in Jimmy Jack Tall Can’s gray Granada cutting along the back roads on a beer run, the Creator’s heart that Coyote stole from the funeral pyre cursing him to walk alone through every coral dusk. It has always been a fat gourd we sing to, the left breast of a Mojave woman three Budweisers into Saturday night. It will always be a slick, bright bullet we can sling from the 3-point arc with 5 seconds left on a clock in the year 1492, and as it rips down through the net, our enemies will fall to their wounded knees, with torn ACLs.
CW: You’ve described your sentences as hungry lines. What do you mean by hungry?
ND poem: 8. On the court is the one place we will never be hungry—that net is emptiness we can fill up all day long.
Questions for Two Things You Need Balls To Do: A Miscellany From a Former Professional Basketball Player Turned Poet, published in Southeast Review
CW: What’s a foul in writing?
ND poem: Traveling: (a) in poetry is encouraged, (b) in basketball will land you on the bench.
Fouls = Rejection Letters BUT in poetry, you don’t have to keep track of the # you accumulate, which is a good thing for some of us. (In the event there is a rejection letter limit, please, I’d rather not know.)
CW: Can the basketball court be compared to the blank page?
ND poem: Buzzer-beaters and miracle shots are non-existent in poetry—every poem I’ve desperately heaved into the mail with more prayer than craft or confidence has been off the mark.
CW: Your worst poetry and basketball injuries?
ND poem: The Matter of Rejection Letters: Sure they hurt. They bruise the ego a little. This is where basketball comes in handy—remember ‘No Blood, No Foul,’ and, ‘You’re either hurt, or you’re injured.’ If your fingers aren’t broken, if your nose isn’t bleeding, get out there. Plus, getting your 3-pt shot blocked (a.k.a. rejected, stuffed, packed, denied, shut down, faced, etc.) into the 3rd row by Chamique Holdsclaw in the NCAA Finals, in front of over 30,000 people, and on national TV, is so-much-worse than having the New Yorker reject you quietly, politely, and over the privacy of your email.
Another thing, in basketball, no one will give you cryptic pointers about your shot, like ‘Memorable, but needs culling.’
Injuries: I tore my ACL, meniscus, and MCL (the unhappy triad), fractured my leg and wrist, severed a blood vessel under my eye socket, had numerous concussions, many jambed fingers, dislocated a shoulder, gritted through IT-Band Syndrome and cortisone shots, pulled muscles, sprained ankles that I still have nightmares about—all playing basketball. Vs. Once, I was rushing to the post office to make a post-mark deadline and I stubbed my toe on the curb out front.
CW: Compare the finances of basketball and poetry.
ND poem: Similarity: The cost of basketball shoes, which need to be replaced every 3 months, is equal to the amount you’ll spend on contests.
CW: Which is more thrilling, basketball or poetry?
ND poem: I know I can’t fill the void that basketball has left, but some days when I rise from my desk chair and feel shooting pain in my knees (which are not yet thirty in poetry years, but in basketball years are ancient) and creaking in other joints, I recognize these aches as close to what I once had. And every now and then, I let go of a line or an image and know instantly, as soon as it rolls from the curve of my mind or my gut, that it’s going in, that it won’t rattle around the rim, it won’t brick-up and fall short or bounce too hard from the backboard, that it won’t fall flat on the page…and it’s smooth and sure and turns the net to flames, and as much as I want to stand and watch it, and pat myself on the ass for how beautiful it is, I know I have to keep moving on down the page.
Catherine Woodard has played coed, pick-up basketball in New York City for three decades. Her poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, RHINO and other journals. In 2011, Woodard was the featured poet at UnshodQuills.com, co-published Still Against War/Poems for Marie Ponsot and was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She will be a 2012 fellow at the Hambidge Center in Georgia and is a board member of the Poetry Society of America. Woodard is a former president of Artists Space, one of the nation’s oldest spaces for emerging visual artists. Woodard has a MFA in poetry from the New School University and MS in journalism from Columbia University.
NA: Tell me a little about the press. Who started it, how long has it been in existence?
JP: I founded Brooklyn Arts Press (BAP) in 2007, partly in response to watching modern dancer friends, artists, and filmmakers successfully establish their own companies, and partly out of frustration of having my own book get short-listed for a few prizes while continuing to shell out contest entry fees unsustainable on a copyeditor’s budget. So I started BAP with my own book, with hopes of publishing 4 or 5 new poetry books a year. I’d published some of the poems in my collection in lit journals and had the rest generously picked apart by peers and professors at Iowa, so I felt like I’d paid my dues in terms of editorial scrutiny; plus, starting with my own book, I was free to make the mistakes I couldn’t afford to make with the works of other writers. I picked up book design pretty quickly, having worked for ad agencies, and blindly inched my way through the troubling, shifting terrain of printing, distribution, and marketing. It was great to have total control over my words and the final product, and the responses I received from writers I admired, to whom I sent copies, were well-worth the time, effort, and money. That winter, after recouping the initial investment with sales, BAP opened its doors to poetry submissions. About that time I took a gig as a Co-Director of an art gallery, and while making studio visits around New York, stumbled upon some amazing artists, which is how BAP began publishing art monographs. In 2009 we halted publishing because the stuttering economy killed sales. Since then we’ve bounced back. In 2010 the sheer number and quality of submissions jumped dramatically. In 2011 we started a poetry chapbook series and began generating revenue, gaining recognition in the community for the quality of the books we publish, both in terms of writing and overall aesthetic. Several of our books eventually found their way to “Best of the Year” lists. And 2012 is looking to expand upon that awesomeness. We attended AWP for the first time, and will be at conferences and book festivals here in New York.
NA: What makes your press unique?
JP: In terms of small presses, not much. We’ve had years with income and years without, like most independents, though Small Press Distribution, whom we signed with last year, has done spectacular work in getting our books noticed. Our first chapbook, Joe Fletcher’s Already It Is Dusk, hit their bestseller list, as did Carol Guess’ Darling Endangered (our first foray into lyrical fiction). Sales overall have spiked. As a distributor SPD connections are as varied as they are valuable. They have access to libraries and universities and secondary buyer channels.
A few things that differentiate us from other presses might be that we don’t hold contests or charge for submissions. If you charge a contest fee, you’re beholden to choose a winner. We never want to put ourselves in that position. BAP is less a business venture than a love affair. If I’m going to spend 6-8 months reading, editing, designing, publishing, and marketing a book, it’s because I believe in the author and the work. By the end, I feel as if the book is partly my book, too, and can’t imagine engaging in a process, in a relationship, that from the outset I suspect will lead to a hapless marriage.
Our motto is Pay It Forward. The profits from each book, minus shipping costs, royalties, and promotion, get put into producing the next new author’s book or a subsequent print run of the original book. I don’t pay myself anything. Our editors do it for the same reason I do, and many of our readers and designers are former BAP authors and artists giving back. We compensate them with copies of the books they work on. Most of our authors and artists get an honorarium plus copies, and we split the eBook proceeds with them 50-50. For future print runs, we work on a sliding scale, so if a book sells out and we enter a subsequent run, the author receives another batch of author copies and an equal or larger paycheck than the first. If we’re lucky, one big seller pays for the publication of two or more new books. It’s usually the costlier art monographs that contribute the bulk of this service.
NA: How many books do you publish each year?
JP: Last year we published 4 books. We have 3 lined up for summer 2012 but our submission period just ended a few weeks ago and the batch of full-length manuscripts we’re reading now is promising. We receive between 100 to 250 manuscripts per reading period, January and June, and choose 0 to 4 for publication.
NA: How do you promote your books?
JP: The best form of promotion is self-promotion. One of the tragic ironies of MFA programs is the lack of classes devoted to the business aspects of managing your art. When I’m writing, I’m not thinking sales. When I’m sitting across a café table with my agent, I’m thinking sales, I’m thinking marketing. If I’m not, I run the risk of publishers taking advantage of me. Remember, not so long ago big house publishers were offering writers 5% royalties on eBooks being sold for $9.99 per unit. I’ve recently read a blog post that suggests 35-45% should be the rate, if the publisher and writer are meant to split costs and profit equally. We settled on a 50-50 split because the math is easier, and because writers deserve more for their efforts.
So we encourage self-promotion, be it on a blog or with Twitter account or Facebook or by a shouting maniac on a street corner. We bring to the table print availability via our website, SPD, and Amazon, and eBook availability through our website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Sony, the iBookstore, and anywhere else we can place them. We email-blast a newsletter and update our Facebook profile. We send out review copies, asking our authors to provide 10 to 20 places that might be amenable to reviewing their work, so that authors can sort through the aesthetic camps themselves. We distribute to ocal bookstores and to any bookstore where the author is doing a reading. Readings sell books. As do book parties and book launches. When we launched Jonathan Allen’s art book Superstructure at the Lu Magnus gallery in Manhattan, the lovely owners let us hang his work for a night. I brought a keg of beer and we invited everyone we knew and we sold books. But the biggest asset we have is the writer. Even an agoraphobic germaphobe has access to the internet, and some days I’m not too far off that description myself. In the end, word-of-mouth is our best resource.
Ed note: During AWP, Dancing Girl Press will participate in an open studio event with book signings on Saturday, March 3, from 1pm-8pm at our studio space just up Michigan Avenue in The Fine Arts Building, 410 S Michigan, studio #921, Chicago.
NA: Tell me about Dancing Girl Press.
KB: The dancing girl press chapbook series publishes a yearly schedule of handmade chaps devoted to work by emerging women authors. We are also particular interested in the intersection writing and visual arts, so the studio as a whole produces a number of book, paper, and ephemera related arts. We have been housed in the historic Fine Arts Building in Chicago for the last 5 years.
NA: What inspired you to start a press?
KB: In 2001, I had started an online poetry journal, wicked alice, so the press was a product of both a desire to put something a little more tangible than html out into the world, as well as a personal interest in art and book design. Once I had given it a trial run with producing a chapbook of my own, it was no time before I had lined up our first author (the late and fabulous Adrianne Marcus) and secured a saddle stapler, some cardstock, and a decent printer. There were a lot of great micropresses proliferating around that time (Effing Press, Big Game Books, also lots of journals entering the physical book realm Diagram/New Michigan Press, Tarpaulin Sky), so I decided to throw my hat in.
NA: Why do you only publish women-poets?
KB: My background as a reader, writer, and scholar has always been women’s writing, so when I founded wicked alice, it was my intent to focus my publishing efforts there, mostly just as a way to define the endeavor. Over time, it became more of a political act, as again and again, statistics showed the dearth of writing by women in the poetry world and in the general poetry conversation, and not just historically. I feel like my role, as an editor and publisher, is to get those books out there, to increase the number of women poets taking part in that conversation, particularly emerging writers at the point where their work is taking off.
NA: How many books do you publish each year?
KB: Over the years we’ve grown from publishing around 5 books to around 30 each year. Our publication list is usually a mix of submissions and solicitations. We’re pretty lucky in that we’re pretty much self-sufficient, each book funding the next and so on. I sell artwork and accessories to maintain our studio space, but the books are pretty much keeping each other rolling. I hope to continue to grow as large as finances and time constraints allow, since I feel like the more we get books out there into the world, the more people there are reading them, talking about them, sending us amazing work.
NA: How do you attract and promote writers? How do readers find out about your books?
KB: Mostly, it’s all word of mouth. A lot of our poets wind up sharing news about their books, or touting other books we’ve published, which leads to more people taking an interest and sending us work. Social networking is increasingly a big part of it. As with most poetry publishing, the author does the bulk of the work in promoting and we’re lucky that so many of our poets do it so well. We’ve also built up a good following of steady readers who purchase our titles quite regularly.
NA: What kinds of work are you particularly interested in publishing?
KB: I have a pretty open mind when it comes to styles of poetry, ranging from more innovative and conceptual work to traditional lyric and all things in between. The only requirement is that it interest me in some way, be it subject matter, style, format, use of language. As I mentioned, I also love books that engage with the visual arts in some way, so we occasionally publish manuscripts that include drawings, photography, diagrams, charts, etc. (either by the writer or in collaboration with a visual artist.) Also, books that engage socially and historically or with other texts. I also like surrealism, dreams, logical illogic.
NA: I would love to see a poem or two from one of the books you have published that somehow exemplifies your aesthetic.
When I was a wee bairn in the seventies, a mass-market paperback called The Poetry of Rock was often to be found among the macramé and marijuana seeds. This anthology was a weird little bible to me, its concordances the records that were always lying around with their mystically resonant titles—Aja, Slider, Sticky Fingers, Dixie Chicken—and glorious gatefolds. I’d pore over lyric sheets the way Harold Bloom claims he immersed himself as a child in Blake and Hart Crane. My earliest act of literary exegesis was attempted when I was eight or so, as I listened again and again to a secondhand eight-track cassette of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, trying to understand what it could mean to know “how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.”
Paul Muldoon writes of Leonard Cohen, “his songs have meant far more to me / than most of the so-called ‘poems’ I’ve read.” The list of artists of whom I could say this seems long until I remember why “most” of the “poems” I read are “so-called.” Popular music—rock and roll at first, soon followed by pop, country, jazz, disco, R&B, the blues, soul, hip-hop, metal—has been for me less a passion or obsession than what Kenneth Burke said poetry was: equipment for living. I remember listening to “Tumbling Dice” as a teenager and wondering whether even the Stones themselves understood what perfection they had achieved. I didn’t get people who simply put music on in the background as they talked or read or ate. You had to, yes, immerse yourself in it, like a religious mystery. In college, before I quit drinking, I rarely got laid, in part (only in part) because the end of the night would inevitably find me pressed against a stereo or jukebox, trying to filter out the sounds of a party or bar so I could concentrate on the Ramones. It was ridiculous. I was ridiculous. Rock and roll is, among other things, our profoundest celebration of the ridiculous.
NA: Silverfish Review Press has been a press since 1978. Have you always been the editor? How has the press evolved since then?
RM: I’m the founding editor. Silverfish began as a literary magazine publishing three issues a year. One of the issues was a poetry chapbook. The magazine published, poetry, prose poetry, short fiction, translations, and interviews. The last issue was released in 1997. Around 1996 Silverfish began to shift its focus to full-length poetry titles.
NA: What inspired you to become an editor of a press?
RM: When I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon (1976 - 1978) I had a work-study job at Northwest Review. My job was to pick up the daily mail, log in the submissions and distribute them to the poetry and fiction staff. I had the opportunity to eavesdrop on staff meetings and conversations between the editors. When I was about to graduate it occurred to me that starting a literary magazine would be a way to keep in touch with the writing community. I thoroughly enjoyed graduate school and was concerned about being swallowed whole by working just to pay the rent. What I really wanted to do was to learn the ins and outs of book publishing.
NA: How many books do you publish each year? How does one become a Silverfish poet?
RM: The press releases two titles a year, three if the financial support is available. Silverfish sponsors the annual Gerald Cable Book Award for a poet who has yet to publish a full-length collection and there is a second series which is generally by invitation only though Silverfish will read unsolicited manuscripts.
NA: You began as a chapbook press and then began doing full-length books. Do you still publish chapbooks?
RM: Silverfish no longer published chapbooks. I love everything about the chapbook format. I’ve hand sewn a few which is a fun learning experience. I’ve also had a few printed with spines. Selecting endpapers is challenging, and fun. But because the format is physically small, bookstore owners are reluctant to stock chapbooks. They simply get lost on the shelves. I’m also enamored of the pamphlet format.
NA: A lot of presses are funded by universities, but Silverfish is an independent press. How do you stay afloat, especially in economic times like these?
RM: Over the years I’ve learned how to network with our distributor --Small Press Distribution in Berkeley. Silverfish is a nonprofit c 3 501 tax exempt literary organization. And though fund-raising is more difficult than I had anticipated, Silverfish has been fortunate to have had generous patrons and a few donors who give small, annual donations, some year after year. Author readings and reviews help get the word out about new and backlist titles. It also helps that Garrison Keillor has read several poems by Silverfish poets on The Writer’s Almanac and that reviews have appeared in publications such as Library Journal, Booklist, and The New York Times Book Review. And the press has been fortunate to consistently receive grant support.
I first heard of Anthony Madrid when we were on the same "local poets" bill at the University of Chicago in May of 2009. I read before he did. When I got to a line that riffs on Roethke, I noticed a tall goofy-looking guy in his late thirties or early forties nodding with recognition and pleasure. A few poets later, that goofy-looking guy stood up and read some poems that shook my confidence but good. I emailed him the next day, he wrote back immediately, and thus began one of the most important friendships of my life.
After a few disastrous title misfires, Anthony's book I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say will be published by Canarium Books this summer. It's the book of your dreams, if you know how to dream.
Here's "Rhymes," the poem that made me want to go back in time and publish it under my own name before he could write it. Our interview begins after the jump.
To my ear, Ange Mlinko is about the most painstakingly
elegant poet around. Her first two books, Matinées and Starred Wire, are whiz-kid graduates of the New York School. Without seeming derivative, they work the Ashbery-O'Hara-Schuyler tradition as if it were a form—especially Starred Wire, which, Stephen Burt wrote in The Believer, extends “into a kind of imagined aerial realm, a Technicolor urbane pastoral, bigger and stranger than what we see with unaided eyes.”
So her poems have always been "layered and loaded up," as she once put it. But with Shoulder Season (2010), Mlinko has become a full-feathered, info-soaked Byzantine, her language as far from the plain style as Paul Muldoon’s or Marianne Moore’s or Geoffrey Hill’s at its loopiest. But it remains almost as far from grandiosity as Frank O’Hara at his most laundry-listing. This is where I note that she has, nevertheless, a sensibility all her own—and she does, but it seems parsimonious to say so. Read a few of her poems and you might wonder whether anyone else has a sensibility at all.
You can start with “Shoulder Season,” quoted below. Our interview begins after the jump.
On the strength of the light in the southeast
I could surmise this isn’t the time for poinsettia.
Snowflakes hard as schoolyard jacks
fall from a cryogenic layer of air
eagles use as lorgnettes. It’s unseasonable
judging by the light in the southeast.
The poinsettia has been delicately
loosening the bolts locking velvet bracts
in attitudes of warm jouissance
so that a cuticle of dried blood hue
encroaches on the edges of a lively red,
then altogether drops to the ledge a corpse.
On the strength of this I could prise
piccolo jonquils out of April edemas.
Let’s not waste words: Oren Izenberg is one of the smartest people I know, and if I were compiling a list of the most interesting thinkers about contemporary poetry today, he’d be a sure bet even in a group small enough to fit around my dinner table. A Visiting Scholar in the English Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the poetry editor at nonsite.org, a peer-reviewed journal of poetry, art, and scholarship in the humanities, Oren is currently at work on a new book tentatively titled Lyric Poetry and the Philosophy of Mind.
Our interview, however, concerns Being Numerous, the study of W. B. Yeats, George Oppen, Frank O’Hara, and Language poetry that Oren published with Princeton University Press in 2010. A brilliant synthesis of literary criticism and philosophy, Being Numerous is one of the most convincing demonstrations I’ve read of how literature might be said to accomplish the kind of first-order thinking that Michael mentioned on Tuesday. (For further discussion of the book, see the symposium at nonsite held last September.)
RPB: Being Numerous makes an argument about two kinds of poetry—or perhaps more accurately, two attitudes toward poetry. These are not, however, the two kinds or attitudes we might expect to find, meaning you're not much interested in the divisions that get mapped as mainstream vs. avant-garde or traditional vs. experimental. Describe for us the distinction that does interest you.
OI: Yes; two traditions, or two attitudes. I should begin by suggesting that It isn't quite right to say that I'm not interested in the split between the "traditional" and the "experimental" that so deeply marks so many writers' conception of poetry's history and its present. I came to write Being Numerous precisely because I was intensely interested in it—at once attracted to the way that that distinction seemed to get something right about certain poets' work (and also to license tremendous poetic ambition and energy), and repelled by the way that the distinction produced embarrassing dismissals of poets and poetry every bit as remarkable. (I strongly believe that self-empowering dismissal is what this distinction is for; I am thus not persuaded that the new spirit of detente that has taken hold of the contemporary scene under the auspices of "hybridity" or lyric postmodernism or what-have-you is anything other than the latest form that the division takes. Such terms are simply a way for poets to reorder the terms of praise and abuse in order to claim Stevens as well as Stein, or Traherne (Traherne!) as well as Trakl.)
One of the things that thinking about what I have come to regard as an unproductive distinction caused me to notice more acutely was the powerful disjunction between the kinds of claims that some poets make for poetry—that it might remake consciousness, purify the soul, foment revolution, found an alternative social order—and any reasonable practical account of what can and does happen in an encounter between a reader and a poem. Let's call this disjunction between the boundlessness of desire and the act's enslavement to limit a formal wish; because it represents the attribution of powers and energies to poetic form that are real in the domain of wishing and willing—a domain that cries out for interpretation and explanation every bit as much as any poem. So: the division I became interested in is the division between poets for whom the poetic ambition was directed at the making of a poem, and for whom the sense of what poetry can do must be tied to what can be expected of human-made objects and human perceptions, and poets for whom all the labor of poetic making was undertaken in the interest of something else; something to which the poem as an object was, it often turned out, not simply incidental, but inimical. That something else I have called "personhood."
Fair to say that Michael Robbins has been on something of a tear recently. He’s had poetry published in The New Yorker and Harper’s, in December he finished his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, and he reviews regularly for Poetry and the London Review of Books. Currently he’s a visiting professor of poetry at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.
This April Penguin will publish Michael’s first book, Alien vs. Predator. Anyone who’s read his poems in magazines or online knows they can be brash, ecstatic, scary, and fun, the bastard offspring of Lil Wayne and Frederick Seidel. In the mixed metaphorics of blurbspeak—not my native idiolect, alas—I guess you could call AvP a free-fire zone where moral outrage and wretched excess meet to outblast each other in the frantic light of a dying sun.
“Appetite for Destruction,” quoted below, is a fair sample of his work; other instances can be found at a search engine near you. Our interview begins after the jump.
Appetite for Destruction
You homicidal bitch. I killed the boar
’cause boar’s the game I came here for.
I clear the jungle with the edge of my hand.
I make love to an ATM. I enrich uranium.
Dude, this aggression will not stand.
I want to watch you bleed. My tongue
doesn’t know its right from wrong.
I’m uninsured. I ride the bus,
a loaded gun inside my purse.
My mouth’s a roadside bomb.
The boar’s inside the mosque and then
the RPG has martyred him.
His favorite song was “Crazy Train.”
I pity the Lord, pity the Flash,
I sleep through gynecology class.
They call me Yeti because my carbon footprint
drives the sherpas round the bend
into the village of the whup-ass can.
When I lie on my back in the ashy rain,
pigs drink from my cavernous groin.
NA: The first question I have: who comes up with your cover art? I think everyone should click onto your website to see the beautiful covers.
AR & JR: About 90% of the time, the cover art is sourced from the existing work of an artist, and so it comes from all sorts of different places. For the issues of the journal, the decision is ours and we basically go on a wild search through artist portfolios on the web until we find something that seems to make some intuitive sense to us. For the single-author titles, we always try to consult the author first—many of them have some loose idea of what they’re interested in, and we go from there. In a couple of cases—Claire Hero’s afterpastures and Elizabeth Skurnick’s Check-In, for example—the author actually selected the cover art themselves; other times—like Ryan Call’s The Weather Stations and Kim Parko’s Cure All—we tried out a number of different options before landing on the one we wanted; and very occasionally—as in the case of Ben Mirov’s Ghost Machine and Matt Bell’s The Collectors—we’ve actually designed the cover illustration ourselves.
Perhaps the best story of a cover coming together, though, was in the case of Bird Any Damn Kind. We went through mock-up after mock-up, always ending up either unable to find the rights holder or unsatisfied with the results, and it got to the point where the deadline was fast approaching, the layout was done, and we still needed a cover. And then Lucas Farrell, the author, finally let slip that his wife, Louisa Conrad, is an accomplished visual artist. A quick scan of her portfolio and we knew we were on our way; there’s a real conversation going on between his writing and her visuals which made her the perfect choice.
NA: How would you best describe your press? How many books do you publish each year? Are all of your books contest-winners?
AR & JR: Caketrain is an independent journal and press imprint run by two people out of their apartment in Pittsburgh. We champion the broadening of literary horizons and reward literature which demonstrates daring and a willingness to experiment. We publish four books each year: the winner and runner-up of our annual competition, a single-author title acquired by us outside of the competition, and an issue of our annual journal.
NA: You are located in Pittsburgh. Do you do a reading series in Pittsburgh? Do you have a local presence?
AR & JR: Our efforts to date have been concentrated entirely on the books themselves. We haven’t really done much in the way of readings, not only because we lack the time and energy for a reading series, but because there are plenty of groups in the city—The New Yinzer and Open Thread, for example, not to mention the many universities—who already build literary community through local events more effectively than we ever could. While we’re not very prominent in that community, we do feel it’s important to give attention in venues like this to the fact that one could scarcely imagine a better place to make books than here in Pittsburgh. From the very beginnings of Caketrain, we’ve experienced an outpouring of support and a feeling of shared concerns on a local level that has been instrumental to keeping us in the mindset of sustaining this project.
NA: I first heard about your press from Tom Whalen, whose book, Dolls, was selected by Denise Duhamel as the winner of the 2006 Caketrain Chapbook Competition. Have you published other collections of prose poetry and flash fiction?
AR & JR: There’s a lot of flash fiction and prose poetry in the journals, but as far as the collections go, a lot of our books blur lines in this respect. All the Day’s Sad Stories and The Collectors are novellas told in what is essentially flash fiction; Ghost Machine and Cure All both have elements of prose poetry and flash fiction in them; our next book, due in early 2012, is a memoir told in paragraphic blocks that are something like poetic flash fictions. We don’t really concern ourselves an awful lot with where these things belong in terms of genre.
NA: It looks as if you have chosen not to sell many of your books on Amazon. Am I correct?
AR & JR: Caketrain paperbacks are available exclusively through Powell’s Books and www.caketrain.org. Our growing catalogue of ebooks is available through both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as directly through www.caketrain.org.
NA: Tell me about some of highlights of the press. Feel free to provide links to interviews, events, or reviews.
AR & JR: The past year has been incredibly exciting for us. Ghost Machine was selected as one of the top 20 poetry books of 2010 in The Believer’s annual reader survey; after several reprints, it now holds the distinction of being our best-selling title to date. Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party was released last May and is presently giving Ghost Machine a run for its money. Perhaps most incredibly, just last month, Ryan Call—whose debut collection, The Weather Stations, was published by us this past March—received a Whiting Writers Award. All of this leaves us exhilarated, proud, thankful, and hopeful for the year to come.
Amanda Raczkowski and Joseph Reed are co-editors of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Caketrain Journal and Press. Their work consists of editing and publishing an eponymous literary journal, nine issues to date; and a press imprint, which has issued chapbooks and full-length titles from Elizabeth Skurnick, Tom Whalen, Claire Hero, Matt Bell, Tina May Hall, Kim Parko, Ben Mirov, Lucas Farrell, Ryan Call, Sarah Rose Etter, and Sara Levine.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books including The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum. She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort was published by CavanKerry Press in 2010. Follow Nin's blog here.
I don't think I've ever heard people having so much fun in an interview,including the host, in this case NPR's Robert Siegel, host of "All Things Considered." He's speaking with Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel about Lunatics the comic novel that they've just published.
--Wandrers Nachtlied (1780)
Over the hills
Comes the quiet.
Across the treetops
No breeze blows.
Not a sound: even the small
Birds in the woods
Just wait: soon you
Will be quiet, too.
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.