Greetings, O Lovers of Contemporary Poetry!
When I was thinking about writing for this blog, I was trying to imagine what I’d want to read.
I’d heard pedagogical issues go over well, but the word “pedagogy” makes my legs fall asleep like I’m sitting on a folding chair in a church basement rec room. Also, my students affectionately (?) make fun of my poetry “prompts,” which usually require a 45-minute lecture to set up. There’s a lot of arcane context and emphatic hand gesturing.
So I thought, “What resources do I have for such a blog? What are my skillz?”
Frankly, I have few skillz beyond an early, useless career as a springboard diver, and a gift for finding objects disappeared into the hovel of dog hair and remodeling dust that is presently my house.
But I realize I am rich in friends—accomplished, irritatingly smart and talented poetry friends to be specific. If I could figure out a way to monetize these friendships I would. I’d be the Warren Buffett of poetry.
I decided it’d be fun to have some conversations with these guys in the next few days (so far I’ve pestered Carl Phillips, Dana Levin, James “Jimmy” Kimbrell, Kerry James Evans, Adrian Matejka and Stacey Lynn Brown into plopping their bottoms on the hot seat). Terrance Hayes has sorta committed, but given that our communications typically consist almost entirely of the disturbing, weirdly specific text emojis he sends me, we’ll have to see if that happens.
The only rules I set for the interview are that I would only talk to people I know well enough to ask vaguely pokey, forward, or inappropriate questions. Also, that they should try their hardest to answer spontaneously. No sitting around editing for hours. It is understood that all are poets I admire because how can you be actual friends with a writer if you don’t respect their work? You’d either have to wear your love goggles all the time, which ends up strangling your brain, or else you have a friendship based on lying and that’s too uncomfortable.
First up is Mark Bibbins, whose recent book, They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full (Copper Canyon), is one of the very best poetry collections I’ve read in years. The book is both generous-hearted and critically astringent, full of saber-toothed wit and language play paired with a deeply ethical, empathetic political consciousness that never belly flops into polemic or preaching. Seriously, you should read this book.
In person, Mark, despite turning up with the odd, not-really-explained broken bone from time to time, is the guy who arrives at his elegance without you ever seeing the gears of the machine whirring. He’s a man who really knows how to wear a shirt. When he makes you lunch, it appears that he’s doing nothing for two hours but farting around with the stereo and chasing his affection-harassed cats up and down the apartment. Then somehow, miraculously, he sets the most perfectly dressed, chilled lobster salad with little buttery slices of crostini in front of you, paired with a bottle of wine you’ve never heard of but that makes your life better in every way. I have known Mark since about 1995 when we met at a gay writers conference in Boston. We have been AWP roommates annually ever since:
One of the things I’ve always noticed about you, Mark, is that while you are a person with a clear sense of aesthetics, a person with opinions, a political person in your own way, and you’ve been in the writing world for a long time, you still manage to be well regarded and liked by pretty much every writer I know. With this description in mind, what are your rules for living in the Lit world, which can be such an understandably insecure, gossipy environment. What is your personal ethic about the business and life of writing?
Excuse me: "pretty much"? You sure know how to twist the knife, Erin. It's otherwise a sweet and generous question, but I'm afraid answering it will undermine the last twenty years of coldhearted strategizing and furtive betrayals upon which my empire rests.
There, maybe I've stumbled on my first rule: Try to maintain a sense of humor. I don't know that some of the other rules I've (often inadvertently) followed—be patient, don't imagine anyone owes you anything—even amount to good advice these days. It certainly seems like advice fewer and fewer people are hardwired to heed. And I admit I don't know what "the Lit world" is/means; from what I can tell there are many such worlds, usually coexisting, sometimes competing. Is that your sense too, or does it seem more monolithic to you?
To me the contemporary poetry world seems a bit like a fire ant pile, where you can see the single dirt mound at the top, but beneath it there are tons of separate little alleys. I mean, if some fascist regime were to take over, and assuming poets would still have the honor of being the first ones up against the wall, I have a hard time imagining the men with guns going, “Ok. So are you more of an alternative poetics type? Flarf? Confessional? Newly Gnostic? Did you go to Buffalo or Denver? How do you feel about Mary Oliver? Were you ever a fellow at Sewanee? Tell us which one of these three quotes is by Yvor Winters...”
Which is to say I think we all have a lot more in common than we like to let on. But camps create ever more opportunity for hierarchies and “branding.” I mean, there are obviously real aesthetic and intellectual issues people care about, too, but I can’t ever imagine fighting over them. Fighting over poetics feels like putting Nair in the shampoo bottle of a girl some boy you like has his eye on. It’s not going to make him like you more if you screw up her wig. I guess I just go to the mattresses over other issues.
NEXT QUESTION: Every time I tell you how much I love the final poem in your new book (They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full), which is a brilliant, political, meta rule-smashing, funny, finger-wagging manifesto of a poem, you get uncomfortable and sheepish and kind of half disown it while struggling with the pleasure of the compliment. Beyond your fetching modesty, why does that poem make you uncomfortable?
Good point about the anthill; my sense of our variety is most likely a delusion. Part of what makes me apprehensive about "A Small Gesture of Gratitude" is that it reminds me that I am ridiculously fragile—I can't watch TV news for five minutes without my blood pressure spiking (with Fox News it takes ten seconds, if that). There’s a flaw in my constitution that keeps me from participating in certain kinds of activism, so I avail myself of the more homeopathic possibilities that poetry affords. I frequently write in response to things that provoke or annoy me, but the sense of irritation seems rather high-pitched and raw in that poem—less transformed than what I usually aim for. In a lot of ways I'm a private person (another delusion, I realize), so seeing my thin skin stretched across several pages makes me anxious.
Don't you experience a similar uneasiness with some of your own work? I'm thinking of "Poem of Philosophical and Parental Conundrums Written in an Election Year," which is one of the powerhouses of Slant Six, and which you've referred to as a "rant." In the Venn diagram of our poetic projects, I think it and "A Small Gesture of Gratitude" are partying together where the circles overlap.
That sounds about right. I love to see poets put their consciousness on the rack and give it a good stretch. Not so comfortable to be the one doing it, of course. Though I have come to sort of enjoy that form of spiritual masochism. I remember seeing Vito Acconci, the early, groundbreaking performance artist, when I was a kid in college, and the powerful sense of attraction/repulsion I experienced through his art’s illusion of truthfulness and vulnerability left a very lasting impression. I like art to be excruciating generally, no matter what the subject.
With “Poem of Philosophical and Political Conundrums Written in an Election Year” I struggle with all the voices that frequently come into the room when I sit down to work. As in, “Who fucking cares about parenting issues? Serious poets don’t write about parenting.” Which is not how I feel when OTHER people write artfully about children and parenting, but after all this time I still feel afraid that I’ll be dismissed for my subjects. A case of “Physician, heal thyself,” I suppose. Do as I say, not as I do.
Speaking of parenting issues, and segueing like an eighteen wheeler, you have an inordinate fondness for pets, and for cats particularly. Like, I remember coming back to the room at AWP a couple years ago to find you lying in bed, watching cat videos online just to calm yourself in the maelstrom. Are cats your totem animal? Whence your obsession with kittays?
Oh my, if excruciating art is your thing, you should definitely check out the documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. It's as touching as it is harrowing, and should put some of those faculty meetings in perspective—or maybe vice versa. (I haven't been to any of your faculty meetings.)
If I remember that AWP correctly, I had broken my wrist a couple of months prior and was emerging from a haze of painkillers; cats facilitate various kinds of reentry. I grew up in a very creature-friendly household, and with the exception of a couple of grim years in the late ’80s, have always lived with at least one pet. Cats and dogs I adore equally, but when I first moved to Manhattan in ’91 I was going to school and working full time, so keeping a doggie seemed unfair and impractical, not to mention against the terms of my lease. Some buildings allow no pets whatsoever—who would want to live among all those petless people? If I'm ever around someone who says "I hate cats," I get away from them immediately and stay away, although I guess I can sympathize (begrudgingly) with people who are terribly allergic and have thus been denied the pleasures of feline company. It's old news, but you can gather a lot of useful information about people when you see how they treat animals and waitstaff. I could be remembering it wrong, but I think there's a scene in Jurassic Park where, even as the raptors have been merrily ripping half the cast to shreds, one of the characters says something like, "You still don't see them screwing each other over for a buck."
You probably saw this thing recently where some asshole CEO lost his job when footage of him kicking a dog wound up all over the internet. People were outraged—rightly so, and fuck that guy forever—and yet the even greater horror of factory farming continues apace. The vile abattoir owners and their lobbyists have also been getting our craptastic politicians to pass "Ag Gag" laws to criminalize the activities of investigative journalists and other whistleblowers.
Maybe here I can swerve to a question about the dumb prohibition against political poetry. Does it function as a kind of literary “Ag Gag” rule? Do you think poetry would be better off if poets ignored that prohibition, as they seem to be doing more and more successfully, or should everyone just stick to trees and urns?
I think American poets were oversold a bill of goods with the whole “art for art’s sake” notion. I understand this was an overcorrection for past aesthetic crimes that didn’t honor the poem for the artful, mysterious construct in language that a good poem always will be. But we as a country have often enjoyed the lucky, relative isolation of our geography, and our military and economic dominance have insured a kind of “What? Me Worry?” approach in mainstream poetics for many years.
But then the political poem may be one of the most difficult poems to write well. To have it not turn into propaganda, to avoid preaching to the converted. Hard row to hoe. But more folks seem to be taking up this task in recent years, and there were always American poets who ignored the memo about political poetry. The tradition was a smaller but important one.
Last question: You’re kind of a club kid deep down in your wee heart. If you were to put a super group of poets together, based on how their poems would translate into music, who would be in it and what instrument would they play?
I like that question, and I'll use it as an excuse to bust out the phrase "Mina Loy on keytar" at long last, but I'm sort of going to dodge it—maybe people will rise to the challenge and leave their own answers in the comments!
When you mentioned all the wee tunnels under the poetic anthill earlier, it reminded me of the labels for subgenres of electronic music that critics/bloggers have come up with during the last fifteen years or so—IDM, minimal techno, progressive house, drum and bass, dubstep, big beat, glitch, electronica, etc. etc. etc. If none of this music is your bag, it's easy to dismiss it all as "techno," just as you can remain blissfully oblivious to the distinctions between New York School and New Formalism if you don't care about poetry and/or are fixing to execute the poets.
When you talk about assembling a band, I'm reminded of how prickly we can get concerning affiliations and allegiances and communities—I feel like a lot of poets are in favor of the idea of community until they spot one that they feel excludes them. Poetry, the cliché goes, is art that people make on their own; a lot of us would secretly prefer to be in rock bands, although I don't know what this proves about poets, because so would a lot of bankers. Perhaps it speaks less to an interest in community per se than to an interest in groupies, leather pants, and having one's wildest catering demands fulfilled.
As technology (the internet in particular) has enabled poets to branch out and collaborate in new ways, it's also made it more practical and affordable for musicians to record and produce things by themselves. Projects by artists like Burial and Kathleen Hanna and Peaches are instructive concerning the value of privacy and autonomy in a business that typically demands the forfeiture of both. So here we all are, as ever, greening after someone else's grass.
Can we end with a poem, as well as a reminder that we have elections coming up in two months, and that it's important to register and vote? We were talking about your "Poem of Philosophical and Parental Conundrums Written in an Election Year" before, so I'm going to request that one.
What a terrific politician you would be! Rejecting the premise AND flattering the interviewer! Well done, Mr. Clinton.
Thank you for your time, Mark Bibbins. A very edifying conversation.
Next up tomorrow, Carl Phillips on race, Gordon Ramsay and yard work.
Note: due to the fact that the technology gods hate me, the link to “Poem Of Philosophical Conundrums…” is not yet functioning. I know. I know. You wonder how you will sleep tonight. If I can fix this, I’ll post it later…