Book launch and reading from Paul Violi’s Selected Poems: 1970-2007 (Gingko Press), edited by Charles North and Tony Towle.
Wollman Hall, Eugene Lang College
65 West 11th Street Room B500, New York, NY 10003
Hosted by Laura Cronk and David Lehman, of the New School MFA Writing Program. Lehman and Cronk will join Charles North, and Tony Towle, editors of the Selected Poems, in reading from the new book. The winners of the first four Paul Violi poetry competitions -- Alex Crowley, Justin Sherwood, Alexandra Bennett, and Carson Donnelly – will also read.
Paul Violi, one of the major New York School poets of his generation, was celebrated for his inventive wit, his ability to find the poetic resonance of nonpoetic language, and his ability to get serious ideas across without didactic earnestness. An inspiring poet and beloved instructor, he wrote more than a dozen collections of poetry, including Waterworks (1972); In Baltic Circles (1973, 2011); Harmatan (1977), which was based on his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria; the groundbreaking Splurge (1982); Likewise(1988); The Curious Builder (1993); Breakers: Selected Poems (2000); and Overnight (2007).
Find out about the Paul Violi prize here.
KSK: Ah, well. That is quite personal, actually. Before there was Accents Publishing, there was (and still is) the Accents radio show. I speak English with a foreign accent; I will always have it, since I was born in Bulgaria and lived there until age 24. So I was to be on the radio, and I thought that since I couldn’t get rid of my accent, I could at least try to really own it. You know what software designers say—it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. So, on the first episode of Accents, I publicly announced that I love accents so much that I developed a fake foreign accent to use on the radio! That was in January 2009. A year later, in January 2010, Accents Publishing was formed, and I never considered another name.
KS: Tell us about Accents Publishing’s newest title, Mother, Loose by Brandel France de Bravo.
KSK: Mother, Loose is the winner of our 2014 chapbook contest. Brandel’s manuscript was selected as the Judge’s Choice by Patty Paine. Let me quote a sentence from her intro: “These jewel-like poems—both in their precision and beauty—are as dazzling and intelligent as they are entrancing and enthralling.” I am in complete agreement with Patty’s words, although I feel that some of the brilliance of the book is probably lost on me, because it works with childhood rhymes and tales that I am not as intimately familiar with as someone who grew up in the United States would be. But I still love the work! I was proofreading (again!) the typeset book last week and (again!) kept gasping at the beauty and the depth of the poetry. But don’t take my word for it; let me offer you a poem:
I Regret to Inform You
I regret knowing, the way it changes
everything and nothing. I regret
cell death and its absence. I regret I am
the person you think I am. I regret
the days turned years waiting
and the luminous arriving
always eclipsed. I regret having
no sense of humor, feeling like Haiti
when I’m Liechtenstein, just as tiny but,
thanks for asking, fine. I regret
showing you what I am unable to see,
my wattled profile, baldly appraising gaze.
I regret leaving the back door open
and I regret closing it. I regret the odor
of obligation, being the small hair
that will not budge and the tongue
that must protest it. I regret
the tumor’s intelligence, the way
it dodges the needle, pretends
to swallow poison. I regret this broken
mask and I regret your looking.
I regret waiting until now
to wait on you, not anointing your feet
with oil sooner. I regret the raspberries
I failed to feed you with a spoon.
I regret that after our meal
I will be left to clear the table.
KS: That’s a great poem. So many shifts and so much at stake.
It’s interesting that you and Patty Paine are both poets and editors of presses and living in countries you didn’t grow up in. Poetry seems particularly challenging to translate or comprehend, more embedded with connotated meaning and conflation of tradition.
Over the holidays I began reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, and just read the passage about the Turkish journalist living in exile in Germany who begins writing poetry. He’s aware that his poetry is understood by the other ex-pat Turks, but not by the Germans, and he seems to feel a kind of wall of silence around him in Germany.
Does poetry and publishing poetry serve to deepen your connection to your chosen community? Or does it remind you that there are an infinite number of details to learn about an adopted culture and language?
KSK: I feel a lot more fortunate than Orhan Pamuk’s character. I write poems in English for the English-speaking readers, I write in Bulgarian for the Bulgarian audience. I translate everything I can between the two languages. There are some occasions, very irritating, when I write something that is both untranslatable and written in the “wrong” language. For example I have poems in English that address life experiences that are understandable only to a Bulgarian audience and not as relevant to the American reader. Luckily, many Bulgarians know English, my own language and poetry community. A friend summed it up once as he was introducing me to someone : “This is Katerina Stoykova. She is a poet, but you haven’t heard of her because she lives in America.” Things changed for me, though, because during 2012 and 2013, I edited and (largely) translated an anthology of Bulgarian poetry. This project put me in contact with hundreds of authors, I became closely familiar with what Bulgarian poets write at the moment, and in the process, I established new friendships. I think the most productive way to feel connected to a community is to work to serve it, to give of yourself. Along these lines, yes, publishing absolutely deepens my connection to my chosen community.
But (call me a Gemini) I want to serve both the Bulgarian and the American literary communities. I want to help them be relevant to one another, and at this point, I don’t want to choose one over the other. I can’t.
KS: Your own book How God Punishes has just won a prestigious Bulgarian award. Congratulations! Tell us about that book, and the award.
KSK: How God Punishes was published in June, 2014 by a new, boutique press called ICU. This is a book about truth-telling, regret and ego, and it walks the reader through poems about several stages of personal development. It’s organized in seven parts and an epilogue. The tone is self-ironic. All poems are untitled, and each refers back to the title of the book. I have the poems in English as well, and I hope in 2015 to be able to finish the manuscript in English.
For the past twenty years, Bulgarian publishing house Zhanet 45 has been sponsoring the Ivan Nikolov National Poetry Award. It is considered the most prestigious annual poetry prize, and a jury selects the winner(s) and distributes the monetary award of 10000 leva.
I was overjoyed to see How God Punishes among the finalists, and then winning really made my year. The first place was split between my book and Poems by Vasil Balev. I was happy for myself, my book and my publisher. I don’t live in Bulgaria and cannot connect to the Bulgarian audience on a regular basis, so winning gave my book a level of publicity that I couldn’t possibly have achieved on my own.
KS: Accents Publishing released 8 titles in 2014. What are their commonalities?
KSK: I’ve always thought that our books differ quite a bit from one another, but now that I’ve really thought about your question, I have to say that they have a lot in common.
Two of these are anthologies, which reflect the personal tastes of their editors. All the rest of the books are poetry collections that carry a single, clear and well-explored theme. Beloved Kentucky poet Jane Gentry, whom we lost in 2014, says that all poems want to tell a story, and I agree with her. I think many poetry books are in fact short story collections. Each of the books we’ve published this year operates much like a linked short story collection. For each book you can immediately describe in several sentences what it is about, at least on the surface.
For example, Square Feet by Lori A. May explores the marriage and domestic life of a childless couple. Pendulum by Eric Scott Sutherland focuses on the social issues of poverty and homelessness in the setting of a downtown public library. And Childhood by Emily R. Grosholz explores adopting and parenting of young children. Incidentally, Childhood is our first and only (so far) book that includes color images. Several paintings by Parisian painter Lucy Vines interact with Emily’s poems and, IMHO, make for a richer experience for the reader.
KS: The covers are impressive, as well. What goes into creating a cover composition?
KSK: We all have different tastes in art, and even what we call art differs from person to person. When we were creating the concept of Accents Publishing, one my guiding principles was to build a press that I would want to be published by—a press that is compassionate to its author. It is important to me that the authors we publish like (if not love) their covers, so we work with them. They have input on the images we select, and our designer takes over from that point on to build a complete cover that says “This is an Accents book.”
KS: Tell us about your current project translating Bulgarian poets.
KSK: Ah! Well, this was a totally spur-of-the-moment idea that just took over me, and I announced it publicly before I could talk myself out of it. What can I say—I love translating poetry. I think it teaches me a lot—about language, about my own personal tastes, about culture, about poetry in general. I do it almost daily anyway. I translate poems by Bulgarian poets and then submit them to magazines for publication. A few get picked up, but as you know, submitting and publishing is a time- and effort-consuming endeavor. I decided that I’d rather spend my energy and time on selecting and translating the poems and posting them on my own blog. So far it’s been a total blast. I pasted a little calendar on my wall and started scratching off each day I’ve posted a translation. So far—12 days—I have 100% coverage! I think keeping the translations together on a blog makes reading them a more special experience—something like an evolving online anthology of translations. I did edit and publish an anthology of Bulgarian poetry already, for which I translated 29 of the 32 included authors. It was an extraordinary amount of work, my most difficult project to date. It took two years, one of which was consumed almost entirely by translating and editing the translations. This time I want to take a more fun and leisurely approach to translating Bulgarian poetry and making it available for English-speaking readers. If anyone is interested in reading the blog, here is a link: http://katerinaklemer.com/ownaccent/
KS: Do you think American readers have a good amount of access to work in translation?
KSK: I’m not sure. The decision on what gets translated is a function of many variables. Some are political, some financial, some a matter of taste. But I feel that Americans read less translated poetry than they actually have available. For example, during the first several years of hosting the Accents radio show, I asked each guest to spend some time talking about a foreign poet—a poet who is not American or writes in a language other than English. The guest was supposed to mention someone they admire, read a poem and say a few words about why they like this particular poet. After the first several months of doing this, I had to explicitly ask guests to avoid mentioning Anna Akhmatova and Pablo Neruda, because they were very nearly the only ones selected. Many guests even declined to participate in the segment because they weren’t sure whom to pick. Eventually I stopped doing this segment.
I think that university libraries have a lot of translated poetry books that one can look through. Small presses take chances on anthologies with contemporary translated poetry. My mentor Molly Peacock once said, “There is nothing more exciting than the work of your peers.” Poets who work outside the US are also your peers—see what they write!
KS: Let’s get the conversation started. Name five poetry books in translation American readers should read this year.
KSK: I don’t dare tell the American readers what they should read. I’m afraid I’m neither that well-read, nor sophisticated. That said, I can mention the five poetry books in translation that have been personally important to me and have inspired me to either translate or to publish translations. In alphabetical order, these are:
Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women (Zephyr Press, 2006) By Ch'oe Sung-ja, Kim Hyesoon, and Yi Yon-ju. Translated from Korean by Don Mee Choi.
Cry of a Former Dog (Ivy Press, 2000) By Konstantin Pavlov Translated from Bulgarian by Ludmilla G. Popova-Wightman
Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation (Alice James Books, 2011) By Amal al-Jubouri. Translated from Arabic by Rebecca Gayle Howell and Husam Qaisi. Foreward by Alicia Ostriker.
Homage to the Lame Wolf: Selected Poems (Oberlin College Press, 1987) By Vasko Popa. Translated from Serbian by Charles Simic.
Talking to My Body (Copper Canyon Press, 1996) By Anna Swir. Translated from Polish by Czeslaw Milosz
Every one of these books has given me something to aspire to and has shown me what is possible. I admire every one of these poets, translators and publishers.
KS: Thank you!
Two more questions before I let you go: Tell us about Proud Citizen. And also, what is the Lexington-Louisville area doing so right that fosters such a dynamic literary arts community?
KSK: Proud Citizen is a feature-length narrative film, shot almost entirely in Lexington, Kentucky, with a local cast. It is a film about human connections, forgiveness, friendship and family. It is a very writerly film, because it tells the story of a playwright’s visit to Lexington, and the lead actress recites about a dozen poems as voiceovers. Now, I happen to be the lead actress and these happen to be my poems, so that makes the film so much more personal. Film Director Thom Southerland had a vision of creating a film that shows Kentucky through the eyes of a visitor. He invited me to work with him, and we jointly developed the story. Being able to participate in this kind of project gave me the opportunity to be creative in a different way and showed me the true creative power of collaboration. It has been an unbelievably awesome experience that I will cherish for as long as I’m able to remember. Since July, 2014, the film has been screening at festivals and has even won a few awards. If you are curious to see a trailer and further information, please take a look at our website: http://proudcitizenthemovie.com/
Literary life in the Lexington/Louisville area is thriving, and everyone seems to be enjoying it! Neil Chethik, Executive Director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, was first to claim Kentucky as the Literary Arts Capital of Mid-America, and now other voices are joining the chorus. We have so much to be proud of and to celebrate—award-winning writers, innovative literary presses, institutions, organizations, reading series, universities, MFA programs, enrichment grants, conferences, adoring audiences. So we have the infrastructure and a critical mass of intelligent people who are devoted to the arts. I think that to a large extent, the impetus for this creative boom is the literary community itself enjoying the realization of its own potential. Certain things have no substitutes and cannot be funded—true friendships and the sincere support that writers give to one another, the genuine care and interest they show for each other’s work. During my radio show, I ask all my guests who teach creative writing what the most important thing they teach their students is. I’ll give you the answer from writer Brian Leung, who at the time taught at The University of Louisville. He said,
I teach my students that their interest in their pursuit in their writing and publishing is necessarily coequal to their interest in serving and assisting other writers. And that can manifest itself in varieties of ways .... There are a lot of ways that I teach them to be of service to other writers … anything to encourage the idea that the creative writing enterprise is not just about serving one’s creative ego.
(The complete sound clip can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/accents-publishing/brian-leung-writer). And I think this is what seems to be happening in Kentucky on a larger scale than ever before. It is a beautiful moment, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Katerina Stoykova-Klemer is the author of several poetry books in English and Bulgarian, most recently The Porcupine of Mind (Broadstone Books, 2012, in English) and How God Punishes (ICU, 2014, in Bulgarian), which won the Ivan Nikolov National Poetry Prize. She is the editor of The Season of Delicate Hunger: Anthology of Contemporary Bulgarian Poetry (Accents Publishing, 2014), for which she also translated the works of 29 of the 32 included authors. She hosts Accents – a radio show for literature, art and culture on WRFL in Lexington, Kentucky. In January 2010, Katerina launched the independent literary press Accents Publishing. Katerina co-wrote the independent feature film Proud Citizen, directed by Thom Southerland, and acted in the lead role.
Karen Schubert's most recent chapbook, I Left My Wings on a Chair, wasa Wick Poetry Center Winner (Kent State Press, 2014). Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Louisville Review, American Literary Review, diode poetry journal, and Extract(s) anthology. Awards include a 2013 residency at Headlands Center for the Arts and 2014 Pushcart Prize nomination. She is a founding member of Literally Youngstown, a center for the literary arts.
I should never have stayed here
in this cold shieling
once the storm had passed
and the rain had finally eased.
I could make out shapes
inside, the occasional sound:
a muffled crying
which I took for wind in the trees;
stuttering there at the windowsill.
I listened. What looked like
a small red coat
was dripping from its wire hanger.
There was a shift and rustle
coming from the bucket in the corner
by the door;I found, inside,
a crumpled fist of balled-up paper, slowly
On the hearth, just legible
in the warm ash, my name and dates,
and above that, in a shard
of mirror left in the frame,
I caught sight of myself, wearing
something like a black brooch at the neck.
Then I looked more closely
and saw what it was.
from Sailing the Forest: selected poems (London: Picador / New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014)
Robin Robertson, editor and publisher, is one of a gifted generation of Scottish poets now in their fifties.He lives in London, but grew up on the north-east coast of Scotland, and something of its glinting granite and cold seas underlies his poetry.
Mark Doty has referred to Robertson’s ‘rich and briny atmospheres, the burr and bristle of a fine ear, an eye restless for exact and searing detail’ – all of which are evident in ‘The Shelter’ – urging readers to explore the ‘dark and lustrous landscapes’ of his poems.
Robertson’s recurrent persona is that of a displaced man: undone by sexual relationships, and often lost in a haunted landscape. He uses classical and Scottish myths of change and shape-shifting to powerful, sensuous effect, and I recommend ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’ and ‘At Roane Head’ as compelling examples. Robertson's collaborations with musicians, and his translations, have reinforced his attention to the precise shape of a line, to the detonating effect of one unusual word.
He has won a number of prizes for his collections, including the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Find out more about Robin Robertson’s poetry here.
and hear him read at:
There are readers, and, I suspect, editors and agents who see the first line of a mystery metaphorically, as an anecdote is used. The line is both different from other lines but emblematic of them just as an anecdote is a unique experience in a person’s life but ironically also revealing of the whole life. A great first line uses language in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, with a sense of rhythm much in the same way that a song’s lines might. And, like a reverberating line from a Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen song, a first line can be aphoristic and therefore memorable.
A great first line sets up the whole story or novel. Consider this opening line from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” The story, not routinely listed as one of his mystery stories, is an extraordinary study of the motive and strategy of a murder. Here is the line: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” Look at what this line contains. It has both of the principal characters in the story, the narrator and the tragically misnamed Fortunato. It contains the speaker’s motive: revenge. And it has anticipation through unanswered questions: what will the revenge be? What was the insult that triggered the desire for revenge? We learn the chilling answer to the first question; the second remains a mystery.
A mystery in part provides the intellectual pleasure of a puzzle, but much more importantly it provides an exploration of issues involving our own life and inevitable death. All this has to be contained in a single line. No wonder some writers agonize so painfully over that line.
Of course, it is agonizingly difficult for a writer to construct a first line that contains all of these elements. So most first lines settle on their most crucial task, which is getting us to read the next line. Consider the first line of Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca: “The last camel died at noon.” As a perfect title does, a good first line provides readers with a picture. We can see that camel dying. We have a sense of the setting. There’s a lot of information in those six words. Consider the single word “last.” It’s a crucial word, for camels provide transportation. If the last one has died, will a character or characters be stranded?
Many popular first lines overwhelm us with charm or bowl us over with the power of their imagery and language. Consider, for example, the well-known first line from James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss: "When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon." Now, that’s a line.
My favorite Dashiell Hammett first line is this famous one from Red Harvest: “I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.” The first-person narration Hammett uses, so typical of hardboiled detective fiction, eventually brings us right into the face of the violence. The use of first person prevents us from moving further back from the violence. Hammett’s slang, often borrowed from the underworld, is used by people like prisoners who want to create a special code so as to give themselves power when in fact they are subservient to the prison authorities and, for them and all the rest of us, to the society and world in which we live. Hammett’s detective, the unnamed Continental Op, can size people up quickly using almost a shorthand. First lines need to have a fast delivery.
Here, randomly are other great first lines:
From Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye: "The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers"
From James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice:“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”
From Richard Stark’s The Mourner: “When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.”
Please feel free to comment on your favorite first lines.
Kristina Marie Darling: I have always admired the way that your texts exist in spite of, beyond, and against traditional genre categories. Your work has the denseness and lyricism of poetry, with gorgeous and fractured narratives surfacing and resurfacing. In many ways, you question genre boundaries while appropriating the conventions of existing literary genres, a project that's wonderfully ironic and subversive. To what extent do you see genre categories as gendered? Are there larger power structures in the literary community, and in the academy, that dictate genre boundaries? Is writing against them and beyond them a feminist act?
Molly Gaudry: I’m wrapping up my coursework now as a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, where I’ve been spending a lot of time interrogating everything I thought I knew about genre. Is it multi-genre or mixed genre? Are these different from hybrid texts? Or non-genre texts? Do generic boundaries even exist, and, if so, where do they most rigidly appear and why? Is a crossover an invasion, a breach, a misstep, a test? Is it always transgressive? Or is it an attempt to erase, blur, break down walls? To what extent can the common reader learn to accept and appreciate that these boundaries and borderlines are, and have always been, invisible? I am struggling to answer these questions for myself.
I read something interesting recently in an anthropology essay about liminality. “Vermin” was used as a metaphor for boundary crossers. Rats and other critters that sneak into our homes, where they don’t belong, have breached the social contract. They are pests that must be taken care of, must be returned to their place. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with regard to so many invisible boundaries socially constructed around us. The metaphor works for just about any marginalized individual, group, or social structure that attempts to move. I’ve only just begun to wonder about the broad-spectrum potential of what more play in literature might mean, what might come of more widespread generic boundary crossing, because if we can learn to be more willing to allow these shapes and forms to shift and mutate then perhaps we’ll be less rigid in other areas of our lives, too.
I’d like to continue to talk about "feminist acts.” When did you first begin to recognize, in your own work, your feminist investments?
KMD: I definitely agree that writing against genre embodies many forms of resistance, since it is often those in power who delineate genre categories. And it's frightening how these generic categories shape cultural production and the ways that we inhabit language.
I first began to recognize my feminist investments as an M.A. candidate in continental philosophy at the University of Missouri. Many of my colleagues were working within the analytic tradition, and their work drew heavily from logic and the sciences. I was immediately struck by the strict genre conventions that bound their work, and as a result, their thinking, and what was possible within their writing. Research papers always came in preferably five sections, with a clearly worded claim, a tripartite argument, and extensive footnotes. Either that, or the papers didn't make it to conferences, didn't get published, and couldn't be used as writing samples. I admired the mental discipline of these philosophers, but it was difficult not to notice one thing: out of twenty or so students in my year, I was one of two women enrolled in the program. It became cognizant of the fact that one must have access to training, and forms of writing, in order to take part in this particular conversation. And women were frequently denied access to those academic forms of writing, and the training needed to inhabit them with confidence.
In part as a result of my work in philosophy at the University of Missouri, I became interested in rendering these academic forms of writing more inclusive. My work often takes the form of footnotes, appendices, and indices, which are often filled with decidedly non-academic content (including autobiographical writing, aestheticized language, etc.). It seemed problematic to me that these academic forms of writing privilege what have always been hailed as masculine values: logic, rationality, and a scientific mindset. In many ways, my work is a small effort to carve a space for the feminine within academic forms of writing.
MG: I’m really interested in your desire to carve space for the feminine within academic forms of writing. I like to think that my own writing is “feminine,” and I feel that it is (in a Marguerite Durasian kind of way, which is quite complicated and problematic in many ways). Still, I would like to have a better idea of what I actually mean when I say, or feel, that the “feminine” is part of my overall project. I love how you say that you’re claiming the spaces of footnotes, appendices, and indices, and feminizing these constructs. I wonder how you feel about the body of the work, traditionally privileged as the primary space of the text. How important is it to you to claim it for yourself? Or, conversely, to what extent would you want to reject it? What does it mean to you to rethink and reenvision these secondary spaces, like footnotes, which traditionally function to support the primary text, or even tertiary spaces, like appendices and indices?
KMD: That’s a great question. For me, the desire to privilege the body of the work over marginalia reflects many of the implicit hierarchies within language. I’m very interested in what happens when the hierarchies are reversed, when the margins become the main text. In this sense, I suppose I am claiming the main text for myself, but in other ways, I’m trying to redefine what we think of as the main text, to shift the reader’s attention to things that currently only occupy the periphery of their field of vision.
Some readers could certainly see this use of form as a feminist statement about women’s voices being pushed to the margins, but I’m more intrigued by what is possible within those marginal spaces. When the individual subject is (socially and formally) marginalized, they have nothing left to lose, and there is a kind of freedom in that. They are not burdened by the pressures of inhabiting the main text, as they do not have to create a narrative arc, a logical sequence of events, or speak in a way that we recognize as legible. For me, this reversal of main text and marginal text affords the possibility of working outside of accepted ideas about logic, coherence, and narrative structures. It is a subversion of not only hierarchies imposed upon language and various types of cultural texts, but it is a subversion of reason itself. I think this is why I’m so drawn to academic forms of writing. They represent our definitions of logic and legibility, but also the structures of power and authority, and the social inequities, that our ideas about reason give rise to.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about the relationship between your life as an academic and your wonderfully experimental work. In what ways do your scholarly interests intersect with your creative work? To what extent do you find your creative work resisting, or reacting against, aspects of academic culture? I'm thinking of the strange genres one must learn and make oneself fit into (like the job letter), as well as the connection (even though we all try to deny it) between these academic genres and structures of power and authority....
MG: I love what you said there about being intrigued by what is possible within marginal spaces and not being burdened by the pressures of inhabiting the main text. There really is a freedom in that, isn’t there?
I’m about to begin my last-ever semester of being a full-time student. I’ll be taking Lance Olsen’s Experimental Forms, and I’ll be sitting in on Melanie Rae Thon’s Narrative Theory and Practice. Both of these professors used the word “liminality” in their syllabus, and between now and the end of the semester I hope to have a much stronger grasp on what this means and how it might be applied to the literature I’m most drawn to as a reader, and how it applies to my own work, which I hesitate to call “experimental.” It’s interesting, actually: before the PhD, I would have used the word “experimental” quite freely, but I’m a lot more cautious with it now. This is a result of Michael Mejia’s fiction workshop, during which I began to wonder to what extent we might generally think of “innovation” as the goal or successful outcome of “experiment” (and perhaps it is the experiment, then, that is our most valuable practice). I’m not sure, though, that I’m ready to call my own work experimental (and if it’s not an experiment, then it’s not by this logic innovative), because although it may look illegible on the page, it still privileges characters’ psychological logic-making abilities, and, as a result, it is concerned with overall legibility and accessibility. In short, I write novels. I inhabit the main text. I work hard to create narrative arcs and characters with deep psychologies. All I am doing is reshaping the novel form, which is nothing new, if we consider the novel’s history to be monstrous and all-devouring, and so to turn to poetic forms that predate novels and recall even older traditions seems in some ways backward-looking as opposed to forward-looking. I don’t know. What do you think?
KMD: I'm fascinated by your definition of the experiment as a text which strives for innovation. So much of the time texts are lauded as experimental when they simply reproduce familiar structures of thinking and writing. But I think that there's more to innovation than just the text. For me, part of innovation is the relationship a text creates between the artist and his or her audience. Many of the books that I consider the most innovative, or the most experimental, imagine the story, or the poem, or the novel as a collaborative endeavor, in which the reader participates actively in the process of creating meaning from the work. This collaborative relationship between reader and writer, text and audience is something that the Lit Pub represents for me (and of course, your novels represent this as well). I think that your work is especially fascinating in that it prompts us to re-imagine the boundaries between text and reader, and between self and other. The text, or the magazine, or the press, represents not just a message or an overarching narrative, but a community. This is innovative, in my opinion, because it privileges process over product, allowing one to exist in a constant state of becoming.
In this respect, I think that we have a lot in common as publishers and cultural producers. I see my small press, Noctuary Press, not as a group of texts, or a project with an overarching message, but rather, as a forum for a dialogue. Noctuary Press is a starting point, a touchstone for conversations about what constitutes genre, the dangers of genre categories, and the gender politics inherent in our definitions of genre. I love being surprised by reviewers' interpretations of Noctuary Press books, as well as creative responses and collaborations that our books have given rise to. Pank Magazine published a wonderful creative engagement with Carol Guess's F IN, a review by J/J Hastain, which is a wonderfully innovative text in its own right. And I'm always happy to hear about our texts being taught in creative writing classes.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about your work with the Lit Pub. How did you envision your contribution to the publishing landscape initially? How did this vision change shape after you had started publishing?
MG: I’m interested in what you say about the relationship between writer, text, and audience. I’m thinking of Iser’s field of play, and where we as authors attempt to position readers, from page to page, or even from line to line, particularly with ergodic texts like yours, privileging rhetorical metalepsis, paratext, and even parody (or reclamation) of paratextual spaces. And texts that, in both of our cases, play with readers’ desires to fill in narrative gaps, what’s left untold and unsaid (and where, and why). So even as focalization may not be first and foremost on my creative agenda, it’s definitely there in the process of struggling with the creation of a text that problematizes both overreading and underreading, even as I (think I) privilege voice.
As for Noctuary Press and Lit Pub — actually, let me just jump in here first and further praise j/j hastain as an inspired writer and critic — I see Lit Pub, as you see Noctuary, as a starting point. Where you say Noctuary offers up a starting point for dialogue, I add that Lit Pub is a starting point for authors, a launching pad for careers on the rise, a place for mostly first books to emerge. Previous titles do influence what the catalog has room for in the future, which means I’m always looking for something new, something the catalog doesn’t yet offer. In this way, there is room for dialogues about the texts, but what those conversations may be surprise even me from book to book, author to author.
Actually, this brings up another point I’d like to talk about — you are a powerhouse in terms of your own academic and creative achievements alone, but add to these your literary citizenship, your press’s and authors’ contributions to the contemporary literary scene, and the countless awards, residencies, and fellowships you’ve earned, and I have to ask you a question I’ve often been asked: How do you do it all? And a followup I’m rarely asked: How do you balance your public and personal lives?
KMD: Thank you for your kind words about my work and Noctuary… It definitely means a lot coming from a writer as accomplished as you! I think your questions are great, too, and professionalization is something that definitely doesn’t get talked about enough in graduate school.
I do get asked from time to time how I’m able to go to residencies, publish books, etc., especially at a relatively young age. My answer tends to be very anti-climatic and unpopular. Most graduate students enter an MFA or a PhD program and feel an intense pressure to professionalize once they start the program. But I started sending out work when I was in eighteen years old, and started applying for residencies and fellowships when I was an undergraduate. In retrospect, this was a good thing to do, because once I entered a graduate program, I didn’t have to learn the forms of academic and professional writing (like artist statements, cover letters, and project proposals). I already had application materials ready to go. Now applying for residencies, fellowships, and other opportunities seems manageable, since it’s a fairly familiar process. The practice I had early in my career really helped.
But this doesn’t mean that I’m a good planner, or that I look ahead. I took a poetry workshop when I was an undergraduate at Washington University and it just ran away with me. I loved everything about it and couldn’t wait to be part of the poetry community. I wanted to start reviewing books, going to residencies, and meeting other poets right away. I’m still very engaged in the literary community, and it’s out of sheer love for what I do every day. And how many doctors and stock brokers can say that?
In terms of balancing personal and professional lives, I don’t think the two can really be separated. Many professional opportunities have led to great friendships. For example, I met Carol Guess when I was promoting my book, Melancholia, and now consider her a friend and terrific mentor. I met my friend and collaborator, Max Avi Kaplan, at a residency at Vermont Studio Center (something that I saw as a purely professional opportunity at the time). I really believe that if you love what you do, you will love the people you encounter, so it’s never really been a challenge to balance personal and professional lives. I do wish, though, that I had a few more hours in every day.
While we’re on the subject of literature and community… I’ve always seen you as someone who is an exemplary literary citizen, contributing exciting work while giving back to others and supporting projects you believe in in multiple ways (publishing, promoting, collaborating). How did literary citizenship begin for you? How did you see yourself in relation to a larger community when you began writing, and how did that relationship you envisioned change over time?
MG: That’s a really nice way to look at the intersection between the professional and personal. As for my own literary citizenship, it really came into focus for me in 2008, when I read Blake Butler’s blog post, “Where did Lucy purchase her new vagina?” Overlooking the problematic title, I offer that the post itself is a call to action, a list of to-dos anyone can do. I’m not sure if I was already editing online journals before that post, but I know I felt empowered when I read it, and I always trace my own service back to Blake’s. He served as a model for me, back in 2008, and inspired my own writing and my ideas of why I should be engaged with others’ writing.
And, to answer your question: when I first began writing (as a creative writing major at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, the nation’s only public K-12 school of the arts), I wasn’t even thinking about publication, for instance. Even as I made my way into an undergraduate English major, I was pretty intensely focused on the work (arrogantly so, at that), and I’m not sure I even knew a larger “writing community” existed. I probably had some conception of the “publishing industry” existing solely of Cheever types, and that, if lucky, maybe a young writer would get a story in The New Yorker followed by a Random House book deal. It really wasn’t until after my early interactions with Blake and others in the online community that my perception of what writers, and writing, and publishing could be — truly, an interconnected network of readers and writers of all ages everywhere exemplifying the best attributes of the spirit of from-the-ground-up, community-focused, Internet-enabled grassroots culture-shifting movements.
(Ed note: This is the third post in our Ready to Serve series. You can find previous posts here. sdh)
In 2009, my Saturdays began like this— I’m bobbypinning my hair into a bun, tying my tie around my neck, positioning my Relais & Chateaux pin on my vest. My cuff links I borrowed from the woman next to me who is tucking a green collared shirt into her suit pants. In this locker room, there are other women around me doing the same. Some are buttoning chef coats and slipping their feet into Crocs. Others are sharing hairspray and shoe polish, pocketing wine keys, unwrapping freshly dry-cleaned suit jackets. It is 3:30pm. Most of us woke up only an hour ago.
Anyone who has worked in the hospitality industry knows the special energy reserve tapping that is preparing for a dinner shift. And anyone who has worked in a 4-star restaurant in New York City knows just how intricate this preparation is. The perfect pleats in one’s tailored pants represent sharp and accessible menu/wine/spirit/area history/etc. knowledge. The shiny finger-print-free Alessi crumber, the pocket-sized torchon, purse hooks, and several black Pilot G-2 .07 pens… stand for all the bits of the emotional, mental, and physical groundwork necessary for a successful night in the dining room. In culinary kitchen terms, we call this preparation mise en place – “putting everything in its right place.”
In the women’s locker room at Eleven Madison Park, we put our gear and uniforms in their right places. But the emotional groundwork was a bit more complicated to lay (as it inevitably is anywhere).
This level of fine dining comes with its own unique set of extremely high standards. Management, of course, expects a great deal from their dining room staff – dedication, knowledge, positivity, character. And guests do too. At EMP, we took pride in creating truly comfortable and comforting experiences for our guests. We wanted them to feel as though they were coming home for dinner. We always strived to – as the large poster in the EMP kitchen says – “MAKE IT NICE,” no matter what it took. (This is one reason for pristine uniforms and precise service points— If everything has a particular place, the guest doesn’t need to worry that anything might be out of place.)
And although it was our guests and our managers who motivated the service staff’s level of excellence, everyone who worked at EMP was there because they first held themselves accountable for greatness, because they were solid and honorable. It was important to us to always open-hand serve, to be able to explain the origin of a Pimm’s Cup, to be able to say “yes” to any request, to never skip a beat. We wanted to make it nice. All told, that’s a lot of pressure, especially when you’re trying not to disappoint yourself.
So how does one negotiate this emotional mise en place before a shift? How many inches from the edge of the table should the base of the bread plate rest? (i.e. “table”/”bread plate” = “heart”/”soul”?)
In 2009, for us, it was the Black Eyed Peas.
I got a feeling… One of us starts singing. …that tonight’s gonna be a good night. The rest of us chime in with the ooo-hoo’s. We’re all smiling because we mean it. We’re in this together. We’re there because we believe in what we’re doing, and because we happen to be surrounded by a bunch of people who have become our best friends. Our “anthem” is a sort of plea, an attempt at convincing ourselves that tonight truly will be great – even though this is really exhausting work we’re doing. It doesn’t take a lot of convincing though when we realize our emotional mise en place has already been prepared for us simply through the nature of the business. EMP attracts remarkable staff who put each other first before anything, who support each other like collar stays.
In his bestseller, Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, Danny Meyer (founder of EMP) says, “Well before our staff members can extend any kind of meaningful hospitality to our guests, they need to first understand the primary importance of being on each other’s side. Mutual respect and trust are the most powerful tools for building an energetic, motivated, winning team in any field.” I’m not sure Danny had it in mind that his staff would translate “mutual respect and trust” into an all-out a cappella Black Eyed Peas locker room dance party. I think he’d be pleased though, because everything is, in fact, in its right place.
Lindsay Daigle is a PhD candidate in poetry at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, where she also teaches undergraduate writing and literature. She holds an MFA from The New School. She’s interested in the poetics of place, space, and melancholy; the ekphrastic process; as well as the intersections between creative writing and composition pedagogies. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barn Owl Review, Quarterly West, The Laurel Review, and elsewhere.
Julie Babcock's stunning first collection of poems, Autoplay, offers spare, carefully crafted lyrics that are as familiar as they are uncanny. By invoking the seemingly tame imagery of Midwestern cities, the poems in this striking collection lull the reader into a sense of complacency, only to skillfully undermine this expectation that they will encounter a familiar narrative. As the book unfolds, Babcock excavates violence, discontent, and enchantment from beneath an unremarkable exterior—marked by "the green hills of the gold course," "baby-sitters," and "breath against the mirror"—restoring a sense of both danger and wonder to everyday life. In doing so, Babock offers the reader a perfect matching of form and content, particularly as her stylistic dexterity illuminates and complicates the content of the work itself.
With that in mind, Babcock's use of received literary forms to deliver unexpected content is particularly impressive. She draws a parallel between inherited modes of writing (of which couplets, tercets, and quatrains are only a few examples) and the Midwestern cultural landscape, suggesting that both have been made to seem inhospitable to creative endeavors, but can give rise to stunning imaginative work if we allow them to. She writes in "Ohio Apologia,"
A twin can never divide her wealth.
I planned to go where I'd never melt
into a mold of virgin or slut.
I wanted to love you to love myself.
I crossed the rivers with my bag of stealth
my story line revised and trussed,
but a twin can never divide her wealth.
Here Babcock simultaneously inhabits a traditional literary form and received ideas about femininity, suggesting that one can work within these bits of inherited culture to expand what is possible within them. In much the same way that the speaker herself is "twinned," her story line is "revised and trussed," suggesting the inherent instability of both literary traditions and narratives of identity. Autoplay is filled with beautifully crafted poems like this one, which offer a carefully constructed relationship between style and content.
Along these lines, I found Babcock's use of domestic imagery compelling and provocative, especially as she suggest the violence inherent in being confined to a given place. She creates a wonderful tension between the confines of formal poetry and the volatility of the images contained within these formally pristine edifices, suggesting the inevitable discontent with one's origins. Consider "Autoplay,"
I am the baby-sitter. She
is snuggled so close
we might be one.
We hear a noise
and flee the house.
"We're safe," I say, as we jump
on the outdoor trampoline.
For Babcock, a particular place entails not just mere surroundings, but specific gender roles, modes of communication, and narratives of identity. In much the same way that the speakers' voices are contained within neatly presented tercets, couplets, and pantoums, the violence inherent in narratives of place is also subsumed within these orderly forms. What's fascinating about this tension between style and content is the way that Babcock subtly suggests that conflict, and contradiction, can reside beneath a seemingly un-rippled surface. Like many of the poems in Autoplay, this piece is as beautifully crafted as it is self-aware. This is a stunning debut, and Babcock is a poet to watch.
Good writings happen to those who wait. Children’s author Enid Blyton told Peter McKellar—who was doing research on the imagination—that she has “merely to open the sluice gates.” With her portable typewriter on her knee, she waits with a blank mind: “The story is enacted in my mind’s eye almost as if I had a private cinema screen there . . . I am in the happy position of being able to write a story and read it for the first time . . . Sometimes a character makes a joke . . . and I think, ‘Well, I couldn’t have thought of that myself in a hundred years!’ And then I think, ‘Well, who did think of it then?’”
The answer, of course, is: she did.
Sometimes you don’t even need to wait at your keyboard. Rather than putting nose to the grindstone, you merely need the fortitude to put nose to the pillow: Mayakovsky tried for two days to come up with an image “to describe the tenderness a lonely man feels for his only love.” He went to bed on the third night with a headache. During the night he “leapt out of bed half-awake” with the image of how much a crippled soldier “cherishes his one leg.” In the dim light of a match, he wrote on a cigarette packet: “his one leg.” When morning came, Mayakovsky puzzled for two hours over the phrase, wondering “how it had got there.”
The answer, again, is: he put it there.
Unconscious material can rise to the top even when you are not waiting or sleeping, like an evasive song lyric or the dog’s name in the Thin Man movies (I’ll spare you: It was Asta). Mental knots often loosen spontaneously when you step away from the task. I was grappling with the title of a story, and the best I could come up with was “God’s Work,” which was close but no cigar—it didn’t illuminate the entryway into the story. I closed the file on my computer, and, while checking the five-day weather forecast for a place I was to visit in six days, it came to me: “God’s Will.” Cigar.
Writers spend countless hours looking for the precise word, the transcendent image, the felicitous turn of narrative. And doesn’t it feel good when these things just come to us? The rub is that the chance of a spontaneous solution (while asleep or awake) can be in direct proportion to the amount of conscious work we have been doing. In getting your writing to soar, there is no such thing as a free launch.
The surrealists’ notion that art and literature stem directly from the unconscious is quite appealing: just remove the lid of conscious effort and let your “automatic” pilot take over. For me, Vicente Huidobro was closer to the mark when he wrote about reason’s role in organizing poetic delirium: “If reason and imagination do not work in unison, one or both will suffocate.”
Baudelaire writes about “genius” as being childhood recaptured with “the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed.” And Max Jacob states it eloquently: “Lyricism belongs to the unconscious, but an unconscious under supervision.”
With the unconscious doing so much of the work, the least we can do is supervise.
The admixture of hard work (laboring over one’s writing) and dream work (reveling in poetic delirium) may sound contradictory, as does much advice you hear about writing. It serves well to embrace these contradictions in the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” (A note of caution: Fitzgerald wrote this in an essay titled “The Crack-Up.”)
adapted from The Writing Workshop Note Book
KMD: I've truly enjoyed reading all three of your books, and was intrigued by the dream-like quality of the poems in Arco Iris. They seem at once ethereal and carefully grounded in concrete imagery, rendering everyday things (like coffee, used electronics, and the sky above) suddenly and wonderfully strange. Along these lines, many of the poems take place in an unnamed tropical location, which for the reader, is both anywhere and nowhere, a tangible place place and a psychological one. With that in mind, I'd love to hear your thoughts about the relationship between travel, the literary arts, and the human psyche. What does travel make possible within your writing practice? And within conscious experience?
SV: That's interesting. I don't think of Arco Iris as dreamlike or unspecific. It's actually named a few times as South America-- many regions in South America-- a continent my partner and I traveled for a few months about nine years ago. The book is, in my experience of it and my intentions for it, a kind of anti travel-poetry. Or a rejection of the trope of travel (especially of the white traveler going to a brown place to have a "writing experience" or to buy themselves an authentic transformational experience or etc.). It is a book in which I can't write or think myself out of a scenario in which my movement in the world (as a white American, especially) is not complicit with neoliberal violence and/or globalism and its many layers and types and shades of (economic, racial, political, physical...) violences. I wonder if the ethereal experience you had of it was what I felt to be the spellcasting of capitalism--you try to say something against capitalism, it is immediately appropriated as a product of capitalism (and neutralized?), ad infinitum.
But along those lines, after having read your Music for another life and Vow-- I'd love to ask--what do the ethereal, the dreamlike, the bride, and the book mean for you in those collections? And perhaps related, do you understand or do you think through your work on a book-by-book level, or a poem-by-poem level, or as a group of books together, or...?
KMD: That's a great question. I've always thought of reading as a kind of travel, in which one is carried from consciousness as we know it into a kind of dream state. For me, the physical object of the book facilitates this transformation, this dreaming as much as the work itself.
As much as I hate to admit it, it all begins (for me at least) with the book's cover, as well as its size, texture, the way it feels in the hand. It is for this reason that I love to be very involved in the design of my books. When Max Avi Kaplan and I co-wrote Music for another life, we actually typeset the entire book, designed the cover, and selected the cover image from within the collaboration, presenting it to the publisher as a finished, fully-realized product.
My approach to the book as a physical object emerges, in a lot of ways, from my approach to poetry manuscripts. For me, each manuscript is really one long poem, an entire world unto itself. With both Vow and Music for another life, the book as object was merely an extension of the project, the world I had envisioned within the text itself. I think that we tend to overlook the many ways that poetry is physical, that writing and even publishing are embodied acts.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about your process, since your books always read as fully realized, cohesive worlds, the kind I strive for (and at times fall short of creating) in my own work. I'm intrigued by the relationship between the individual poem and the larger manuscript. How do you negotiate the poem and the project, the larger vision? Is it possible to have one without the other? Lastly, how does a given project or manuscript begin for you?
SV: When I was first writing things for the world to see (by which I mean: in my MFA program), I thought on a poem by poem, or even line by line, or word by word level. At this point I think I might feel how you do-- that my books are equivalents of long poems, or, more to the point, are a single word-centered project versus a "collection of poems." I think the word "poetry" is the best thing to call what I am writing these days maybe only because it's not anything else. (Not a story, not an essay, not an article, not straight scholarship, not journalism, not....). I admire that poetry can hold so much, is being asked to hold so much, and that it seems to be easy for it. I am extremely interested in what is often called hybrid or conceptual within the outstandingly elastic abilities of poetry-- these efforts that pose a challenge to the other categories of writing (scholarship, journalism, coding, etc.), asking them to also expand their abilities and considerations and concerns and ways. To democratize, as I believe you said in another interview.
I'd love to hear you speak more about the democratization of writing (scholarly writing about writing), if you're so inclined. I'm also like to know how the instinct to democratize enters your work/career/etc. (Mirzoeff's phrase: "democratizing democracy" is something I've thought a lot about.)
KMD: I love this question. Most of my poems are a (very small) effort to make academic forms of writing more inclusive. Scholarship in the most traditional sense is frequently predicated on acts of exclusion, since most of us can name many things that don't fit within an academic essay: personal experience, aestheticized language, an interrogation of received forms of discourse, experimentation, and the list goes on. In my opinion, many of these things that are excluded from academic writing appear much more often in contemporary women's writing. It is most commonly women's writing that is othered, excluded as non-academic, even irrational. I'm deeply invested in creating a way of using academic forms that is not hostile to women, but rather, allows lived experience, poetic language, and experimentation to compliment and complicate what we think of as rational discourse. In my new book, Fortress, especially, I drew from academic texts like Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain, and presented much of the work in footnotes, but my own experience proved central to the discussions of empathy in the book. I think that academic writing is often very personal, whether we like to admit it or not. For me, it's more productive to acknowledge and deal with the ways that different categories of writing, different types of language blur together, rather than trying to maintain a false semblance of clear boundaries.
This interest in democratizing academic writing has shaped most of my career choices, as you suggest in your very perceptive question. I'm active in the small press as a volunteer editor, and have a small press, Noctuary Press. With Noctuary, I try to carve a space for texts that don't fit within the traditional modes of dissemenation, distribution, or even established submission categories. I hope that by publishing uncategorizable texts, I'm playing a small part in expanding what is possible within our thinking about what a text, publisher, or book object can be.
I think that my interest in democratizing academic writing is one of the many reasons I'm so drawn to The End of the Sentimental Journey. It's also beautifully crafted, witty, lively, and engaging. I teach the book in my poetry workshop and my students find it wonderfully refreshing. They often express their surprise that critical writing can be as much fun as poetry, as beautifully written, and as innovative in style. To what extent did you see this creative approach to literary scholarship as a feminist act? How does gender shape the ways that we inhabit academic forms of writing? Is academic writing (and the interrogation of academic forms) linked to larger issues of social justice for you as writer?
SV: I think dismantling anything at all, these days, is my first instinct toward social justice or feminism. I'm also interested in the building--but, cyclical nature of my brain etc.--I've been in dismantle mode for a long time and therefore the dismantling of categories of thought, of writing, of understanding, of power--that is all I seem to want to do. Academic writing is ripe, ripe for implosion and expansion. There is no reason why it shouldn't do more than it does, and do it in more kinds of ways, and there is every reason why it should. Academia, if it is to remain relevant, simply put: needs greater inclusion of women, people of color, queer people, people from different socioeconomic experiences, and people from more parts of the world. This is a longish way of saying that to stay relevant academia needs also to be/think less white, less rich, less male, less heteronormative. Obviously, obviously: what is "academic," what is considered worthy of our study, should be vast and dangerous and offensive, and the language we use to speak about it should not be tamed, not be simply rule-following, and not be simply traditional. If academia can't accommodate this kind of inquiry then it's no longer relevant--just wealthy and self-congratulatory. (Thus, yes, End of the Sentimental Journey-- and everything else I'm reading and working on these days.) This is part of what is interesting to me about the recent wave of creative writing PhD programs-- I have a lot of faith in creative writers' potentials to contaminate academia.
That said, I think journalism and investigative reporting and history, or what we've been calling journalism and investigative reporting and history for a while, are also areas that feel like ours for the taking. Call it documentary, call it political, call it hybrid, call it researched, call it academic-- I've been reading almost exclusively poetry that is engaged with social justice issues of there here and now, and social justice issues as they have resonated historically. And by social justice issues I mean race. I mean gender. I mean capitalism. I mean war machines. I mean oceans dying. I am reading everything I can find in this vein (and there is a lot). Personally, I think these are exciting dismantlings and exciting times for writing (but really bad times for most other things). I can't wait to get old and see all the crazy-good shit this next generation is going to do, but also I don't want to rush it because probably the world is going to end in environmental disaster.
Speaking of which: what crazy-good shit are you working on right now?
KMD: Speaking of feminism, expansion, and social justice... I'm working on a feminist response to/erasure of/reframing of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. The book is a collaboration with visual artist, photographer, and costumer Max Avi Kaplan. The fragmented, elliptical poems in the manuscript recast the narrative from Lo's perspective. As we worked on the book, Max and I also became very interested in themes of disembodiment within Lolita. More often than not, the reader is given only tiny fragments of Lolita, never the full person. We are presented with "a honey colored limb," "knobby knees," a pair of sunglasses. Max's magnificent photographs present their female subject in small fragments, frequently showing her hands trying to escape from rooms, unlocking doors, or dialing a rotary phone. We wanted to call attention to the way Lolita is frequently disembodied, fragmented within the book, but also to empower Lolita, giving voice to a character who is frequently spoken for (in much the same way as Petrarch's Laura). The book, In love with the ghost, is forthcoming from Negative Capability Press in 2015. I hope you'll check it out.
And I'd love to hear about your current projects as well. What can readers look forward to?
SV: I'm working on a few things-- the final revisions of Viability, coming out in 2015 with Penguin; and I've been working on something I imagine will take me years to finish that takes as its center, well, I guess I'm not sure how to talk about it yet-- it's in that long, silently-loud part of becoming something. I'm neck-deep in a few things, I guess. And reading and reading and reading. Researching fetus images in literature and visual art-- so if you know of any....
John Gallaher's finely crafted poetry collection, In a Landscape, reads as an exercise in blurring boundaries, an effort to challenge the received models of writing, reading, and authorship that we have become accustomed to. Presented as a book-length sequence of linked lyric pieces, which appear in long, Whitman-esque lines, the work in this stunning new book asks the reader to consider the myriad ways that poetry overlaps and intersects with memoir writing, particularly as Gallaher strives to eliminate any distance between the speaker of the poems and the author. In many ways, Gallaher's work gestures at the artifice inherent in the lyric "I," offering instead poems that allow the reader to observe the inner workings of memory and consciousness experience.
Gallaher's work is perhaps most impressive in moments when he creates an expectation on the part of the reader that the work will read like prose, then proceeds to undermine that readerly expectation. For instance, the work is presented in long lines that look, at first glance, like prose, leading the reader to expect a linear narrative, filled with exposition, that creates an orderly progression from one event to the next. As the poems unfold, one is surprised and delighted to discover the poems' elliptical and associative logic. By creating this provocative relationship between form and content, Gallaher suggests the artifice of the narratives we create to lend a sense of order to the world around us. He writes,
I just forgot how to count Roman numerals, and had to look it up.
I used to be good at them, and would always wait for the end of T.V. shows,
where I'd get to count the date. The game was: figure out the date
before it blinked away...
Here Gallaher presents us with lines that look like prose on the page, but remind us that consciousness and memory are inevitably fragmentary, no matter what narratives we construct around them. In many ways, Gallaher prompts the reader to see the beauty inherent in fragmentation, suggesting that these brief episodic narratives and associative leaps remain closer to the truth than the clear linear progression that one finds so often in prose. In a Landscape is filled with poems like this one, which remind the reader of the artifice inherent in the creation of narrative, which offers only an illusion of wholeness and coherence.
Along these lines, Gallaher's associative and elliptical narratives suggest that consciousness itself is fragmentary, and memory represents only our efforts to lend a sense of continuity to our experience of the world around us. The poems in this carefully crafted collection frequently use the style of the work to make this ambitious philosophical argument, offering the reader a perfect matching of form and content. Consider this passage,
The other night we drove downtown and something was on fire
somewhere. We could smell it and see smoke, but
we couldn't tell exactly where it was. A little to the east and south
of the parking lot, I think?
What's most intriguing about this passage is Gallaher's use of enjambment. By breaking the line after "fire," and beginning next line with "somewhere," Gallaher suggests that the uncertainty and subjectivity of narrative increase as it's made more and more elaborate. This idea comes across most noticeably in the phrase, "A little to the east and south...", which evokes a sense of certainty through its specificity, a sentiment that is undermined as the sentence unfolds in the next line ("of the parking lot, I think?"). I find Gallaher's use of style and technique to convey to evoke the subjectivity and artifice of narrative to be artful and compelling. In short, In a Landscape is a finely crafted book, and a wonderful addition to this writer's already accomplished body of work.
Kristina Marie Darling: Your new book, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1, offers readers an extended engagement with 1960s mass culture, exploring the myriad ways that television and radio shape the individual consciousness. This idea that culture determines what is possible within thought, and within the human mind, is gracefully enacted in the content of the poems, which appear as pristine couplets. I'm intrigued, though, by moments when the form is broken, and the poems deviate from the pattern that has been established. As the writer, how do you know when a form should be broken? What does breaking form make possible within the content of your work?
Tony Trigilio: Thanks so much for your detailed reading of the book. My hope is that, as you mentioned, readers can identify with the ways mass media and individual consciousness shape each other in the book. As I get deeper into Vol. 2 of the Dark Shadows project (about half-finished with the second volume now), I gain a deeper appreciation of mass media's roots in the verb "to mediate." I realize the connection is obvious: but it's one thing to experience media/mediation intellectually, and an entirely different thing to experience it psychically and viscerally. Like all of us, the development of my own psyche was mediated by electronic communication—for me, it was television and radio, and for folks growing up now, it's digital media. It just so happens that the mediating force for me was a kitschy vampire and all the nightmares he caused me (though I was way too young to understand he was kitschy). As scary as the continual nightmares were, they did introduce me to the power of dream and to the idea that dream-reality is as vital and real as waking-reality.
I appreciate your remarks on the symmetry of the couplets, and, perhaps more important, your remarks about those moments when I break the couplets. For me, the breaking of the couplets creates an asymmetry that speaks back to the formal boundaries I've deliberately imposed on the project. The accumulating couplets lead, for me, to a weirdly discontinuous feeling of finality in each segment of stanzas. By "discontinuous," I mean that each segment of couplets sustains itself until eventually reaching a resolution (the one-line stanzas that break the couplets) that is really not a resolution at all, because, ideally, it resists the expectation for continuously symmetrical couplets. It resists the desire for resolution. My hope is that the one-line stanzas lead the reader to the next segment of couplets as part of an ongoing chain of formal buildup and formal collapse. This dance between structure and collapse offers, for me, an ongoing chain of speech (form) and silence (collapse) always mediated by the white space of the page and the horizontal lines that break up each segment of the book. I'm working with the same couplet structure in Book 2, but I'm also starting to feel like I need to break into a different formal constraint for Book 3. I don't know what form will suggest itself for Book 3 yet.
This tension between speech and silence seems vital to your poems, too. Your work often brings me back to John Cage and his urgent sense of the musicality of silence—really, his adoration of silence as a phenomenon that's just as powerful as sound (and, in the same way, his adoration of noise as a phenomenon just as powerful as music). Whether you're elevating footnotes and indexes from the margin to the center, or whether you're writing haunting silences into the abstract lyric or prose poem, it feels like you want to enact the limits of speech at the same time that you're urgently speaking. Your work reminds me that even though language never gets us to the real thing-in-itself, we absolutely have to keep speaking, because language is our ticket into the cultures we live in, and is our vehicle for re-envisioning the cultures we live in. Can you talk a little about the writers and artists who've influenced your interest in silence? In literary terms, your work evokes Jenny Boully's writing, among others, but the way Cage comes into my mind when I read your work makes me curious about who your influences are from other art forms, too.
KMD: Thank you for your generous and thought-provoking reading of my work. I appreciate what you said about the importance of asymmetry in a text, particularly the ways that such an imbalance (whether formal, visual, or sonic) leaves room for the reader to imagine, speculate, and participate in the process of creating meaning from the text. To forge connections between different elements of the poem. We definitely seem to share an interest in fostering a more active reader, prompting them to inhabit the text and help construct it.
In my own work, I strive for asymmetry of all kinds. This can range from formal imbalances (like footnotes to an absent text, or footnotes that become the main text) to pairings of very different types of language, taken from vastly different registers and discourses. I feel that this kind of asymmetry in a literary work almost always involves silence, a gap between what the writer has articulated and the connections that the reader must forge himself or herself. For me, this silence, this gap in a poem or story is where the reader's imagination lives, it's the aperture where he or she enters the work and begins to interact with it.
My most recent book, Fortress, uses silence perhaps more than any of my other collections. The book begins and ends with erasures of Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain, in which I erase human suffering from the book. As you can imagine, there wasn't much left, only "the fragile blue thread," "the small arc," and "hands placed on a piano...remembering a song as though it were another form of breathing." The poems themselves are confined to the margins, made to inhabit the book's least habitable spaces. I'm very interested in the effect that this unwieldy amount of white space has on the reader. I hope that the visual imbalance of the book, in which text is overwhelmed by white space, and sound by silence, prompts the reader to consider the myriad ways that we are coaxed to fill silence, to eventually find beauty in what most would call an absence.
I would have to say that the text that most piqued my curiosity about silence, white space, and erasure was Yedda Morrison's Darkness. She erases people from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, leaving only the natural world in all of its threat, ruination, and majesty. I love the fact that the gesture of erasure becomes as meaningful as the text itself, illuminating and complicating the small fragments with which we are presented. In many ways, meaning resides in what isn't said, in what is taken away. In my own work, I certainly emulate this use of white space and silence to spark the reader's curiosity, to prompt their own imaginative work. Along these lines, Ronald Johnson's Radi Os and Janet Holmes The Ms of My Kin are also favorites, along with Jenny Boully's The Body: An Essay.
While we're on the subject of erasure, silence, and white space, I'd love to hear more about the moments of rupture within your poetry. The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) is wonderfully cinematic in its presentation, as the poems are presented in discrete episodes, almost like scenes of a television or radio show. I admire the way that the transition from scene to scene, the break in narrative continuity, invites the reader to speculate and imagine in much the same way that incompleteness, white space, or asymmetry would in a literary text. What possibilities does a rupture in the narrative thread open up within your work? By challenging received narrative structures, and the reader's desire for continuity, what other ideas, hierarchies, and assumptions can a poem challenge?
TT: My sense of textual rupture is, I think, much like the excellent way you describe your sense of textual silence—operating as a “gap” in the text “where the reader’s imagination lives.” A ruptured narrative thread offers the reader a chance to participate in shaping a narrative rather than just passively receive the text. My hope is that, as I challenge the reader’s desire for continuity, I’m highlighting the artificial linearity of traditional narrative structures. I’m trying to foreground the constructed-ness of narrative in order to allow maximum space for associative leaps within sections (and between lines and stanzas) of the poem. I really like how your remarks on asymmetry are encouraging me to reflect on the assumptions about narrative and non-linearity that simmer between the lines when I’m writing (not just writing the Dark Shadows poem, but, really, as I write anything). I’m often trying to negotiate new kinds of narrative structures that tell stories through gaps in meaning. I guess I like to take what looks like traditional narrative and reveal—and revel in—what is non-linear and not always rational about the way it unfolds. In my ekphrastic response to the Dark Shadows TV show itself, for instance, I absorb the slow, interminable, episode-by-episode crawl of soap opera narrative (a crawl I enjoy, all the same, as a fan of soap operas) while simultaneously re-imagining this linear narrative crawl in a poem where fragments of autobiographical detail frequently irrupt.
I’m drawn to how this approach disrupts traditionally received hierarchies of narrative. My discontinuities are an effort reveal the seams produced by narrative threads, rather than conceal them as part of a fantasy of wholeness. In doing so, I’m trying to re-think the assumption (a hierarchical assumption that puts the writer above the reader somehow) that narrative only functions as a force that shapes the chaos of experience into digestible linearity. We don’t experience the narratives of our everyday lives this way, and I’m drawn to work that reflects our actual experience—work that allows narrative to emerge as messy, associational, in-progress, and sometimes ruptured.
The roots for this approach to narrative date back, for me, to my discovery of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor comic books, especially how his seemingly mundane, quotidian storytelling becomes associative and moves by implication rather than declarative exposition. But Pekar’s work moves this way only if I’m attentive to the gaps in meaning between panels (like the way white space functions between stanzas in a poem, or the way white space deliberately “imbalances,” as you described it, the written word). I’m drawn to much the same in entirely different writers like Lydia Davis, too. In form and structure, her work unfolds in mini-narratives, of course; but, as one reads her work more closely, the narratives actually emerge in crisply accumulating roundabout moments of thought. I’m drawn to how much her work might look linear on the page, but how her commitment to psychological and phenomenological detail produces narrative momentum that is recursive rather than linear.
I see this same sort of recursive movement in your work, especially in the new book, Fortress, with its sly “minor plots” swerving around, while also propelling, the major plot of the unfolding margins and blank pages (“the book’s least habitable spaces,” as you put it so well in response to my previous question). But the blank pages aren’t just a representation of absence or loss—too much is happening in and around that so-called blankness. The seemingly ancillary text and footnotes instead allow a rich narrative to emerge through distinct objects that function as vital social and psychological markers in the narrative.
I’m fascinated by the weight placed on what could seem like marginal relics or curios in your work—photos, keys, discarded gloves, jewelry, empty bottles, forgotten photos, among others. Amid the silences and textual traces, the actual physical phenomena represented in the poems are intellectually and emotionally crucial to the dramatic situation and to the reader’s experience. I’m especially drawn to what the domestic objects in your poems evoke and reveal about the psyche, and what they permit the psyche to hide. You take mundane, everyday objects and invest them with radiant intellectual and emotional meaning. As I deepen my own commitment to those objects in your texts, and as those objects then become more and more psychologically resonant, I begin thinking of the vital curios that mark the boundaries of the psychic spaces I inhabit myself (those spaces that I inhabit happily, and those that unsettle me). This isn’t just an autobiographical tangent for me, as a reader of your work: instead, it’s a moment when, as you mentioned earlier, the reader becomes an active agent encouraged “to inhabit the text and help construct it.”
Also—and I guess this is related to what domestic objects both reveal and hide—I’m struck by the rich textures of the rooms and homes in your poems. As you write in a particularly tense moment of physicality in Fortress: “the room is multiplied into a house of rooms and the house into a city of houses, the body is carried forward into / civilization” (68). I remember interviewing Nick Twemlow last year, and, during a discussion of how our childhoods influence us, he remarked that every house he remembers from childhood has a unique “tone” of its own. I feel like this could be a description of how you approach rooms and houses in your work: your work sounds out the tone of each space, and it does this through an intense dialogue between silence and speech. Can you talk more about the generative potential of objects, houses, and rooms in your work? I hear the echo of Stein’s cubist-influenced attempt to render the physical world from as many angles of vision as possible—and to make a new kind of coherence from the messy collision of these frames of reference. But I imagine the scope of what you’re doing is wider, and I’d love to hear more about the poetics of space in your work.
KMD: First, thank you for the incredibly generous reading of Fortress. I really appreciate the way you described Lydia Davis's work, suggesting that her "mini-narratives" read as an "accumulation of thought," an effort to create coherence from the disparate (and often very strange) phenomena with which we are presented. I really admire the way Davis calls our attention to the artifice of these narratives. And I agree wholeheartedly that narrative offers the illusion of wholeness, that it feeds into a fantasy of coherence and orderliness that simply doesn't exist in the (often very random and disconnected) world around us.
I see the poetics of space in Fortress as an effort to suggest the myriad ways that the creation of narrative, and the stories we construct in order to link disparate experiences, are much like building a cathedral, a beautiful house, or a room in which to keep various artifacts and mementos. In Swann's Way, Proust describes this as the "enormous edifice of memory," and I love this comparison between the individual's search for order in the world and elaborate architectural structures. We often build beautiful shrines around experiences that are important to us, and more often than not, we use narrative to do this. The creation of narrative becomes an act of both homage and preservation, much like building a sacred architectural space.
When writing Fortress, I was also intrigued by the ways in which objects, mementos and artifacts accumulate much like the narratives we construct around events. In many ways, these objects, these keepsakes are the accumulation of thought that you so eloquently describe in Davis's work. For me, thought and memory are embodied and physically palpable, and I love exploring the implications of memory manifesting in this very tangible way. Because these objects, these mementos are a kind of language unto themselves. They serve as beautiful and emotionally charged signifiers, which represent something purely internal, a memory or emotion that is housed inside the individual subject. When memory is externalized in this way, narrative becomes the link between interior and exterior, between self and world, between internal language and shared culture.
I think this is why I'm so drawn to scholarly forms: the footnote, the glossary, the archival fragment, etc. These fragmented, marginal forms of writing resist the fantasy of narrative cohesion in a way that I find fascinating. But perhaps more importantly, the reader is implicated in this the process of creating a narrative around an event that isn't theirs, a memory that is part of a consciousness other than their own. I love thinking of fragmented forms as bridging the gap between interior and exterior, but also, between self and other. And this is what scholars do so much of the time. They create magnificently cohesive narratives around diary fragments, notebooks, and texts from another temporal moment, artifacts of another consciousness. I'm very interested in the ways the relationship between reader and text doubles back on itself, is mirrored and refracted.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about your literary scholarship and the ways in which it informs your poetry. I certainly admire the way you've pursued both very different forms of inquiry with equal precision and dedication. What does your background as a scholar make possible within your poems? Would your poems be possible if you had never written or published scholarly writing? And most importantly, is possible to separate poetry and scholarship? After all, your poems read as gorgeously rendered deconstructions of much of the literary and cultural landscape.
TT: Your excellent description of the poetics of space in Fortress really captures the experience of reading the book—the architecture of narrative functioning as an extension of the architecture of physical space. And I love how the Proust quotation speaks to this relationship between the mind and the tactile world. Thinking of writing in this way makes narrative an experience of fluidity—of “exploring the implications of memory,” as you put it so well. It’s a compelling argument for the generative potential of narrative, where, as readers, we co-create from what is implied, fragmented, and/or absent.
I can see how the process of finding a language for absence owes a debt to scholarly forms, especially considering that contemporary scholarship is understandably skeptical of assertions of self-presence. Thinking more about your question on the influence of my scholarship on my poems, I work from an initial premise that creative writing and scholarly writing are not in opposition to each other. The research and shaping of an argument in a scholarly essay or scholarly book is itself, I think, a creative act. I’m grateful for your kind words about how my scholarship and my poetry overlap each other. My scholarship and my poems are inseparable, even though they almost always work in different registers of language and levels of diction, and they are modes of creation that make each other possible. My background as a scholar helps me understand where intellectual and affective energies can feed each other. While my scholarly training helped me become a better, more complete reader of poetry, it also encouraged me to complicate poetry’s traditional lyric “I” and to challenge, for myself, the primacy of this “I.” Scholarly work on subjectivity creates, for me, a middle-way between contemporary poems that resist selfhood and contemporary poems that celebrate selfhood. I don’t want to abandon the “I,” but instead want to dramatize it within the social and cultural contexts that make it a speaking subject and not a static “I.” I’m most drawn to poems that create a stage for a self whose speech is constructed from a web of complicated, interrelated political and historical forces (my debt to Foucault oozes from every pore of this sentence, I know). Poems such as “Special Prosecutor” and “Autoresponder@whitehouse.gov,” from my first collection, The Lama’s English Lessons, definitely wouldn’t exist in the same way if not for my scholarly research on the way power circulates in written language and speech. Also, my poetry collection Historic Diary might not have been possible without my scholarly background in New Historicism. The book’s title came from the name Lee Harvey Oswald gave to the diary he kept in the USSR. Just the fact that someone might call his/her diary “historic diary” is, for me, a cipher for the productively messy relationship between poetry and history.
I’ve enjoyed our collaborative dialogue, and I’ve learned a lot—especially about the experimental potential of silence, speech, and narrative—from the give-and-take of our discussion of our shared interests. As we approach the end of the interview, I find myself coming back to a question that reaches beyond our specific, individual projects and, more generally, talks about the ways we approach our work. We are both writers who seem to thrive on juggling multiple projects at once, sometimes in multiple genres. I always try to keep in mind that if I don’t work hard to create the day-to-day consistency of a sustained writing practice, I’ll be juggling projects but never actually finishing them. Can you talk a little bit about your work habits—where you write, or how often you write, or maybe what kind of environment you need to write in? I’m drawn to this question, I guess, because I always like to hear fellow writers talk about how deliberate they have to be about carving out writing time. The wonderful paradox I’ve found is that I need disciplined regularity—writing as much as possible in the same location and sometimes at the same time every day—in order to experiment and take wild leaps in the writing itself. It’s something I learned many years ago, when I was a professional musician, and I realized that the discipline of rehearsing several times a week was a requirement to making the kind of music that was constantly full of surprise and that swerved from predictable song structures. The work habits required to make and record music translated naturally to writing habits, even though writing is such a solitary and quieter mode of art-making (of course, it’s noisy in our heads, but I mean that the physical space around us is quieter than, say, a music studio). The process of learning how to create productive work habits as a musician, then, led to a kind of lightbulb moment for me in learning how to create productive work habits as a writer.
I also want to add a final note about how great it is to be a part of the same press as you, BlazeVOX Books. I often say to friends and colleagues that BlazeVOX publisher Geoffrey Gatza has built a press that reminds me of the old SST record label. SST Records took chances with risk-taking music that other labels were too tradition-bound to touch, and their track record with such music was so good that I had to check out everything the label put out. Whether or not I knew the band, I wanted to pay attention if their album came out on SST. As a reader and writer, BlazeVOX means to me what SST once did as a musician.
KMD: I've enjoyed our collaborative dialogue as well, and appreciate your description of scholarship as a middle-ground between "contemporary poems that resist selfhood and contemporary poems that celebrate selfhood." I think this is why I'm so drawn to scholarly forms of writing in poetry, as they allow for a polyphonic text, allowing the same speaker to try on various discourses and registers. For me, scholarly forms, when used in a creative way, can complicate the lyric "I" in a way that I find thought-provoking. Jenny Boully's The Body: An Essay is a great example of this.
And thank you for asking about my work habits. Most of my books wouldn't exist without artist residencies. These literary arts fellowships encourage me to deliberately carve out time in exactly the way you described. This is also where I meet many of my collaborators. What's more, the opportunity to work alongside artists from other disciplines is great for challenging the limitations I tend to impose on my own practice. It's difficult to say something is impossible in poetry when one is surrounded by painters, composers, installations artists, and sculptors, many of whom use text in interesting and surprising ways. For me, all of writing is a collaborative act, and consciousness is essentially dialogic. I think this is why I'm so drawn to working in collaborative, communal settings like Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale, and Yaddo.
BlazeVOX Books has created a kind of community too, and it's been so much fun collaborating with other writers who publish with the press. What could be better than a literary press that not only publishes experimental, innovative, and challenging work, but connects its authors to other writers around the world? It's an honor to be published by the same press as you, and I've also been able to connect with several other writers I admire through BlazeVOX: Susan Lewis, Leah Umansky, and Carlo Matos, to name just a few. I love the sense of community that BlazeVOX creates for its writers.
Let me just say that it's been a pleasure conversing with you. I feel like I've learned so much about your work, my own practice, and the larger literary community. Thank you for a great conversation!
Belinda Jack examines the growing field and considers the therapeutic effects of poetry.
I’d like to consider poetry and its less obvious role within the medical humanities. Like the novel, poetry can tell us about human experience, but it does this in its own language and not the more straightforward language of prose. It works by suggestion, but this doesn’t mean that it cannot console, teach, amuse, enlighten, mimic, disconcert and so much more. It can capture – or cause us to reconstruct – experiences and feelings that we might otherwise not be conscious of. Poetry’s use of language is at the furthest extreme from the self-help book, which is often dogmatic, insistent, reductive, bullying even. Philip Davis, in his excellent 2013 study Reading and the Reader, describes Wordsworth’s poetry not as providing “ideas”, but rather as providing places from which our own ideas – which were Wordsworth’s too, no doubt – may come into being.
This week we welcome back Kristina Marie Darling as our guest author. Kristina is the author of over twenty books, including Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories 2007-2014 (BlazeVOX Books, 2014). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She was recently selected as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.
In other news . . .
Save the date: Wednesday, February 11, 2015, 6:30-8:00 PM A book launch and reading of Paul Violi’s Selected Poems: 1970-2007 (Gingko Press), edited by Charles North and Tony Towle.
Wollman Hall, Eugene Lang College
65 West 11th Street Room B500, New York, NY 10003
With David Lehman, faculty, MFA Program, and the winners of the annual Paul Violi Poetry Prize established in Paul’s honor in 2011. Lehman will join Charles North, and Tony Towle, editors of the Selected Poems, in reading from the new book. The winners of the first four Paul Violi poetry competitions -- Alex Crowley, Justin Sherwood, Alexandra Bennett, andCarson Donnelly – will also read.
Paul Violi, one of the major New York School poets of his generation, was celebrated for his inventive wit, his ability to find the poetic resonance of nonpoetic language, and his ability to get serious ideas across without didactic earnestness. An inspiring poet and beloved instructor, he wrote more than a dozen collections of poetry, including Waterworks (1972); In Baltic Circles (1973, 2011); Harmatan (1977), which was based on his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria; the groundbreaking Splurge (1982); Likewise(1988); The Curious Builder (1993); Breakers: Selected Poems (2000); and Overnight (2007).
it wis January
and a gey dreich day
the first day Ah went to the school
so my Mum happed me up in ma
good navy-blue napp coat wi the rid tartan hood
birled a scarf aroon ma neck
pu'ed oan ma pixie and my pawkies
it wis that bitter
said noo ye'll no starve
gie'd me a wee kiss and a kid-oan skelp oan the bum
and sent me aff across the playground
tae the place Ah'd learn to say
it was January
and a really dismal day
the first day I went to school
so my mother wrapped me up in my
best navy-blue top coat with the red tartan hood
twirled a scarf around my neck
pulled on my bobble-hat and mittens
it was so bitterly cold
said now you won't freeze to death
gave me little kiss and a pretend slap on the bottom
and sent me off across the playground
to the place I'd learn to forget to say
it wis January
and a gey dreich day
the first day Ah went to the school
so my Mum happed me up in ma
good navy-blue napp coat wi the rid tartan hood
birled a scarf aroon ma neck
pu'ed oan ma pixie and my pawkies
it wis that bitter.
Oh saying it was one thing
but when it came to writing it
in black and white
the way it had to be said
was as if you were posh, grown-up, male, English and dead.
from A Choosing: selected poems (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2011)
Liz Lochhead, who lives in Glasgow, is the current Scots Makar (poet laureate) and a gifted playwright, her best-known play being Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. That title suggests the way she challenges accepted power relationships, whether in history, art, or domestic life: with verve, curiosity and defiance. Success for a Scot in British society after the Act of Union in 1707 often entailed losing all trace of Scots vocabulary and grammar, but this is not a story particular to Scotland: Lochhead's poem touches all those accustomed to speaking one language at home and another in society.
She published her first collection in 1972, in a very male-dominated literary environment, and went on to write dark re-tellings of myths and fairy tales, as well as humorous and touching performance monologues. As Carol Ann Duffy has written, Lochhead’s poetic voice is ‘a warm broth of quirky rhythms, streetwise speech patterns, showbiz pizzaz, tender lyricism and Scots [which] liberated a generation of women writers’.
Hear Liz Lochhead reading and interviewed in this Scottish Poetry Library podcast:
And find out more here:
Khavaran cemetery, located in southeast Tehran, is a place where religious minorities bury their dead. Jews, Christians and the Baha’is are not allowed to be buried in other cemeteries on the grounds that "they are apostates and must not contaminate the resting place of Muslims.”
In February 2009 the Islamic Republic of Iran announced its plan to demolish the cemetery and run a highway through it. By this they intended to erase all evidence of the massacre. However, the cemetery still stands and every September on the anniversary of the massacre the authorities have blocked and harassed Mothers of Khavaran, a group consisting of the families and supporters of the executed, to visit the cemetery. On May 18, 2014 Mothers of Khavaran received the 2014 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights.
"The Poem" by Mohsen Emadi is a short film about Khavaran; it is about human brutality in the name of religion and ideology. The film has been screened in Spain, Brazil, Mexico and Portugal. Emadi is a poet, literary translator and filmmaker.
I believe in the power of empathy, the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes without having to necessarily agree with her or him. I believe that seeing the world through another person’s eyes forges an inner shift towards an ever-expanding movement and that poetry, too, can precipitate such change.
I drew this diagram years ago for a class I was teaching at Walnut Creek, California. I called it the Shift-Circle. It begins small, like a pebble dropped in a boundless pond. The first circle is miniscule but it sets in motion ripples of ever-expanding breadth. I suppose I would need a physicist to draw it for me properly. However, here it is as a one-dimensional drawing.
You can enter the cycle at any point and begin a journey that appears to be circular but is in fact ever expanding and never the same in content or depth. Movement leads to a shift in perspective, which leads to empathy. Empathy is an agent of change. If you enter at a moment where a shift in perspective is taking place, then you continue your journey to the next step, which is empathy, and from there, to change, which creates movement towards another shift in perspective. By that point you have created and moved into the next layer of ripples.
Similarly, a poem begins with that first pebble in the water. It creates the first circle at any of the points the poem enters: change, movement, shift in perspective, or empathy. The circle must be completed before the poem can continue to the next level.
An exercise: Take a favorite poem and ask at which point does it enter the Shift-Circle? Does it complete the first round, and if so, does it move on to the next rung of the ripple?
Authors were the people who had the greatest influence on me. They weren’t the people I loved the most. That group includes my wife, children, grandchildren, and extended family.
The authors weren’t even the people I necessarily admired the most. Many of them made morally repugnant political judgments. The America First Committee was a pressure group founded before World War II that urged Americans not to intervene as much of Europe was conquered, British bombed, and Jews, among others, rounded up for what would become systematic murder. Sinclair Lewis, the first American writer to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, was a member. So was the poet E.E. Cummings (or, if you prefer following his own example e.e. cummings). A young Gore Vidal, then a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, was a member of the student chapter there.
In 1937, the philosopher John Dewey headed a commission. It included the novelist James T. Farrell. The Commission was inquiring into charges against Leon Trotsky at the show trials Joseph Stalin had set up. A year earlier sixteen well-known Bolsheviks “confessed” to having plotted with Trotsky to kill Stalin. The defendants were sentenced to death as was Trotsky in absentia. There were four show trials; they ended in the death of every member of the Politburo Lenin had set up except for Stalin. Of course, Stalin ended up purging millions of people, including many writers and intellectuals.
A month before Dewey left on his inquiry, a group of Americans wrote an “Open Letter to American Liberals.” In the letter, this group attacked Dewey and his Commission for questioning the assertions of the Soviet Communist Party that the Bolsheviks convicted at the trials were traitors. Signers of that Letter included Nathaniel West, Dorothy Parker, Henry Roth, Lillian Hellman, Malcolm Cowley, and Theodore Dreiser.
Of course, Celine, Ezra Pound, and Knut Hamsun (who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920) were notorious racists and anti-Semites. There are, sadly, many other examples of authors with repugnant political views. But it is not for political guidance that I admire authors.
What authors have done is not provide social or political guidance, but a guidance that is much more personal. Many people like to point to a parent, a friend, or a teacher who changed their life, and pointed them in a direction that proved decisive in the definition of their lives. Such writers provided those directions either through an epiphanic insight, what Edmund Wilson termed a “shock of recognition,” or a reasoned argument or the emotional sway and linguistic dazzle of a well wrought novel.
What is interesting in the author-reader relationship is that the two participants rarely meet, and when they do the meeting doesn’t go so well. Their intimate relationship involves authors providing a road map to the bottom of our souls and readers taking the tour of that soul and learning from it as they continue their own journeys.
The last line of the Leonard Cohen song “Stories of the Street” is “and lost among the subway crowds I try to catch your eye.” This is a striking image that perfectly describes the author in the modern world, a thinker surrounded by noise, by people rushing to their next stop, by being part of what David Riesman called “the lonely crowd.” The author, in the middle of all that, tries to find a human contact, tries to look at us, and get us to look back.
As for me, I like to go where readers congregate, to bookstores and libraries and classrooms, to literary blogs and websites, to lectures, and I also like to sit in the corner, quietly, and hold up a book or my iPad and make my way to another person’s imagination.
And so, thank you Sinclair Lewis, for writing Babbitt, the book that introduced me to adult literature, made me realize that it was possible to get at truth, and allowed me to escape the mundane world I lived in as a thirteen year old. And thank you to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel for writing God in Search of Man and for rendering the search for wonder and awe in such poetic prose. And thank you to the untold hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of writers I’ve read since I began. And thank you to the teachers to showed me how to read more intelligently than I could have on my own.
And thank you, the readers, for allowing my words into your minds.
(Ed. note: This is the third post in our Ready to Serve series. Find previous posts here. sdh)
For nearly three years in the ‘80s I waited tables at a waterfront steak-and-seafood restaurant in Southern California. It was popular with the boat crowd for serving up large portions of red meat and copious amounts of liquor. The job taught me worlds about human behavior. There was the customer who had his seven year-old son smell the wine cork before sending the bottle back. The drunk who bit into his wine glass. The couple who sat through their entire dinner listening to music on their headphones. I earned enough in wages and tips so I didn’t need loans to attend the nearby public university. I always had loads of cash. And I’ll admit the untouched food that customers left behind kept me well fed on many a day. My social life revolved around the restaurant, as I spent nearly every weekend night there. I knew it wasn’t work I’d do forever, just a way to get by until the next better thing, but looking back I realize it was more than a job. It was where I began to make my adult self.
I started in the usual way: as a hostess, shepherding hungry people through the dining room as the sun sank behind the boats docked in the marina—the din of alcohol-tinged conversation and laughter rising as the evening deepened. Hostessing was dull and didn’t pay, so several months in I decided to try my hand at cocktail waitressing. It looked easy and fun. I lasted one night. Having not grown up around booze, I couldn’t keep track of who had ordered which amber-hued drink (Was it bourbon? scotch? whiskey?). The servers’ complex code of colored swizzle sticks and dog-eared cocktail napkins baffled me. And I didn’t care at all for the skimpy uniforms they were required to wear. So I switched to food service.
After the required initiatory weeks of bussing tables, I was taken under the wing of the paternal and ever-meticulous Arvin, a Filipino-American headwaiter who took his work very seriously. Arvin was the first person ever to teach me that if you want to master something in life, there are no shortcuts—words I’ve not forgotten, but have at times struggled to live by. To watch him open and pour a bottle of wine tableside or to tend to his customers—all with seamlessness and grace—was to observe a consummate professional in his element.
Once on my own, I discovered I was no Arvin. Waiting tables was unglamorous work; lugging heavy platters laden with steaks, lobster, and slabs of prime rib, up and down a narrow flight of stairs several times a night, was a workout. I’d be sweating an hour into my shift. It was a male-dominated environment and my sister servers and I suffered our share of "honey" and "sweetie" and uninvited advances from customers who'd had one too many bourbons. Diners were alternately demanding, indifferent, and occasionally appreciative. A few snuck out without paying their tab. Summer weekend dinner shifts were the most intense: a cacophony of voices, dishes and silverware clattering in the kitchen, the broilermen yelling out orders over the sizzle and smoke of grilling meat, bodies milling and colliding. Somehow in this charged mayhem hundreds of meals were prepared and served, leftovers were doggie-bagged, plates were scraped and washed and dried and stacked, until it all wound down to clearing last tables, balancing cash drawers, scrubbing grills, and hosing down floor mats. Then we’d unwind for an hour in the bar before hauling our exhausted selves home.
I don't miss the work, but I do sometimes wonder about my co-workers: Arvin, who I imagined would be there forever—or Bob, who taught high school English and had an ill wife and a coke problem. Jim, an aging surfer who had been there forever, and was kind to me. Single mom Cathy, who supported me after a particularly stressful shift. And Gary, who teased me mercilessly and called me Shtanky, but with love. I was young and just beginning and they looked after me.
**All names have been changed for privacy reasons.
Born in Kobe, Japan to a Japanese mother and a French Canadian-New Englander father, Mari L’Esperance is the author of The Darkened Temple (awarded a Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and published in September 2008 by the University of Nebraska Press) and an earlier collection Begin Here (awarded a Sarasota Poetry Theatre Press Chapbook Prize). Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine, co-edited with Tomás Q. Morín, was published by Prairie Lights Books in May 2013. The recipient of awards from the New York Times, New York University, Djerassi, Hedgebrook, and Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, L’Esperance lives and works in the Los Angeles area. You can visit her website here.
In the 1960s, they are commonly known as bums or panhandlers, and most have a story to sell for some spare change. A panhandler in Times Square tells me how bad I am and that’s how—by inflection and context—I learn that bad means good. Another, on the Lower East Side, tells me about buying a pair of white shoes for his old friend Billie Holiday, and the two of them hanging out with “that trumpet player, another Billy, you know who I mean….Billy Eckstine.” I am skeptical of the whole story because I know Eckstine only as a vocalist, but on my next visit to Colony Records I learn that indeed Eckstine started out as a trumpet player, and he hung out with Billie Holiday (who—I am now sure—once received a pair of white shoes from a friend).
Here’s a story I tell a lot: “There’s this bum asleep under a tree in Washington Square Park while I’m eating my lunch. I quietly put half of my corned beef sandwich next to him, go back to my bench, and wait for him to wake up so I can see the look on his face. He unwraps the sandwich, peeks under the bread, and scowls. He reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a jar of mustard.” Everyone enjoys the story, though no one believes it is true. It is.
In the 1970s, courts rule that patients in state mental hospitals who are of no imminent danger to themselves or others must be released. Some of them wind up roaming Broadway on the Upper West Side, including one gaunt man in his thirties who wears a gabardine trench coat no matter the temperature, skulking from block to block, getting kicked out from store to store. He disappears during the winter and somehow reappears in the spring, an avatar of survival.
In the 1980s, I notice street people who are not bums or former mental patients: some of them are apparently victims of the Reagan Administration systematically denying Social Security disability applicants until they reach a third-level evidentiary hearing—if they have the stamina to get that far. My mother, with advanced cancer, was turned down twice; she "won" a month after her death. My father sent a note back to the government: “You are too late. I lost my Pearl.” In her memory, I give to beggars who appear sick or disabled.
In the 1990s, while walking from my apartment on 104th Street up to Columbia, I pass the familiar faces of a small-town. On the corner of Broadway and 106th Street one man says over and over, “Spare-some-change-appreciate-it?” in one William-Carlos-Williamsian American beat. Occasionally, I see him give money to someone even less fortunate. On 107th and Broadway, the guy with the brown corduroy jacket chants: “Spare some change for a container of cawfeee?” I tell people that one day I actually gave him a container of coffee and he laughed. Everyone enjoys the story, and believes it is true. It isn’t.
One summer afternoon, the sky blackens instantaneously and rain comes down in torrents, sending people scurrying for shelter. I wind up sharing an awning with three street people, including one I haven’t seen before. The “spare-some-change-appreciate-it” guy—whom I’ve come to think of as the Mayor of the Street People—says to the newcomer, “I haven’t seen you around here. What’s your name?”
“Eddie,” the newcomer replies.
“What’s your last name?”
“Oh, I lost that a long time ago.”
One time I respond to a plea for money with, “I’m sorry I can’t give you anything,” and the man’s face balloons with rage. “Don’t you ever, ever say you’re sorry for me.” Another time a young man asks for change then adds, “I hate myself for asking.” He looks healthy but it is freezing and I can only imagine what it feels like to be sentenced to an outside prison. I give him a dollar, and continue on my way. He follows, and I wheel around, prepared to admonish him for breaking the unwritten law that you never stalk, when he implores: “You’re not angry at me, are you?”
Sometimes I go for days or weeks without giving anything, partly so I don’t have to decide who gets and who doesn’t, careful not to make eye contact unless I am prepared to give. I reach the point where I don’t feel bad about not giving, but always feel good when I do.
Then on a frigid night in 1998, I meet my match:
A beggar on Broadway and 115th Street asks if I can help him out, and I give him a quarter. He thanks me and holds out three subway tokens. “People give me tokens, but I got no place to go. Will you buy them?” I excavate the crumpled bills and change from my pocket and separate four singles and two quarters. I give him the money, and he spots the ten still in my hand. Without giving me the three tokens, he says, “Let me have the ten and I’ll give you more tokens.”
I’ve got plenty of places to go and can always use tokens. I give him the ten.
“Thank you,” he says. “You’re a good man.”
“What about the tokens?”
“Oh no, you said you were giving me a gift.”
I am furious and sputter for my money back, but he keeps shaking his head. Finally, I say, “Look, just give me back the ten. Keep the rest of the money.”
“I’m sorry, I just can’t do that,” he says, clutching my money.
Blood rushes to my face, and I snarl, “Then I’m just going to have to get a cop. Do you want all that trouble?” I have no intention of getting a cop, but maybe the idea will intimidate him into returning the money.
“You do what you have to do. But I just can’t give you this money back.”
I skulk down Broadway freezing, defeated, and broke.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.