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…