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Awful Interview: Scott Daughtridge

22 May

scott

To the left is an image of  Scott Daughtridge right after he returned to the modern era after living in Pleasantville for five years. Clearly he took the “color” thing a little too far after living in black and white for so long. What you can’t see is that his face is actually still in monochrome – well played, Scott. It’s kind of creepy, the way the whole world is in color except for his face. Scott can often be found with his face buried in a book for this reason. It is rumored that he is the actual Phantom of the Opera. He is somewhere between the age of 19 and 87 (no one’s really sure). He’ll be reading at the next Vouched Presents.

So, Scott, your forthcoming chapbook is called I Hope Something Good Happens. What do you mean by “good” per sé? Like, are we talking a really good sandwich or are we talking Team U.S.A. defeating Team Iceland a la Mighty Ducks 2? Or something else entirely?

Well I had money on the Icelanders, so the Ducks winning that tournament cost me a stack. I should have known better. I’m talking about something slightly different. Like a dog is lost in the woods and is exhausted, starving and dehydrated, then stumbles on a creek where it brings itself back to health and later becomes king of the forest.

Oh. Wow. Did you ever really play hockey? Also, I like that story about the dog. Which sentimental dog book are you a bigger fan of: Where the Red Fern Grows or White Fang?

The closest I ever came to playing hockey was skating around in circles at the Ice Forum, which was just a cold version of a roller skating rink. Why do people love skating around in circles while listening to pop music? Why has that need developed in our genetic makeup? I actually met Jack London’s ghost one time when I hopped a train from Atlanta to Athens and he told me how happy he was that Outkast named one of their songs Call of Da Wild. I agreed and we split a pint of Old Forester.

 The only thing I am worse at than skating (in any form) is golfing. So I’m not sure how to answer your question. Was it messy sharing a pint of Old Forester with a ghost? Did he get off at Athens then or keep going?

You seem like you’d be good at skating, with your low center of gravity and all. I’m bad at golf too, both standard and frisbee, but appreciate the skillful landscaping involved. Being around people who are good at golf, or even play it a lot,  makes me want to throw a bowl of salsa across the room, which has happened before, but these days it’s a little easier to restrain myself, so I just interrupt them whenever they start talking.

There was no mess, but he smelled strongly of salt water. I dozed off before we arrived and was alone when I woke up. I still have the pint bottle.

By “low center of gravity” you mean “short,” right? Thanks a lot, Scott. When was the last time you threw a bowl of salsa across the room? Was anyone injured?

It’s been a while, but I’ve thrown a lot of different things across a lot of different rooms. I try to choose things that won’t result in injury. Paper or plastic containers are preferred. That’s how you can test if you’re at a good party or not. If you can throw something (a bowl of salsa, a cup of beer, a pie) across the room and either 1) the person it hits turns but can’t tell who threw it because it’s too crazy or 2) the person it hits doesn’t even give a damn because everything is bonkers, then you’re at a good party. I never have thrown a pie, though. It’s one of my true regrets in life.

Oksana Baiul is 5’ 3”, Michelle Kwan is 5’ 2”, Tara Lipinski, Kristi Yamaguchi and Tonya Harding are all 5’ 1”. I’m pretty sure you’re in that range, and therefore in the height company of female figure skating royalty. That’s awesome!

Okay, you’re forgiven! I love Michelle Kwan. I’ve always wanted to throw water in someone’s face after they insult me. Hey – I’ve got an idea! Want to make a pledge that next time we’re at a party you can throw pie in my face and I’ll throw water in yours?

Deal. I’ll start carrying a throwin’ pie with me at all times until this exchange goes down.

Great. Maybe we should both invest in a good pair of spurs, too? You know, so we can handle this Western stand-off style? Thoughts?

I was imagining more sneak attack, ambush style. I’ll just casually stroll through a crowded room with a pie, walk up from behind you, then WHAM! Everyone will be horrified but you and I can laugh hysterically. Then, in an act of vengeance, you can throw water in my face. Maybe you should make it a bucket of water with a blue little paint mixed in.

Oooh – I like the way you think. I can’t wait! Say – what are you most pumped about for this reading? Free beers? An audience who may or may not heckle you?

I’m going to be reading stories from Strange Temple, a collection in progress. One piece from it was featured in the most recent issue of Midwestern Gothic, but the others haven’t seen the light of day yet, so I’m excited to get those out there.  Free beer is cool too.

Awful Interview: Aric Davis

9 Apr

aricdavis

To the left you will find a photograph of Aric Davis holding a keyboard. (Could we call that keyboard vintage? In a cool way – I think so.) Aric Davis is kind of a badass. Not only is he the author of seven books, but for sixteen years he was a body piercer and he’s a happily married dude and he’s a dad. Badass right? Right.

Aric is coming down all the way from Grand Rapids to help celebrate the third anniversary of The Five-Hundred by reading to us. That’ll be happening tomorrow, April 10th – more details about that here.

In February I awfully interviewed Aric in anticipation of the forthcoming reading. Here’s what happened.

So Aric, how is Grand Rapids these days?

Cold, snowy, and bleh! I love GR, and Michigan in general, but we have been absolutely smoked by snowfall so far this year. I’m used to a busy January and February when it comes to snow maintenance, but the snow started falling in November and has shown little sign of letting up. Hopefully we get a break soon.

You’re a punk-rock aficionado, correct? I’ve come to notice that some of my favorite punk tunes come from chillier climates. Would you say that, from your own experience and expertise – there’s a correlation between those two things? Also, how does one become a punk rock aficionado?

Tough call! There’s a lot of really good punk music coming out these days, and strangely, a lot of it is coming out of the northern United States. Captain We’re Sinking, Restorations, Save Ends,  Direct Hit!, Iron Chic, and RVIVR all put out amazing records in 2013, and they’re all from places where it tends to be a little colder. That said, with great bands like Red City Radio or Against Me! putting out new work recently/very soon, the south isn’t exactly in trouble. That said, I would be hard pressed to say that the north is tops for me, Hot Water Music and Avail are two all time faves of mine, and they’re both from the south.

As for the last part, I have no clue. I just like punk music a ton, and my formative years were heavily influenced by poorly recorded music made by people who give a crap.

That sounds like a really authentic punk way to become a punk aficionado. You used to pierce for a living too, correct? How has that influenced your words?

I worked as a body piercer for seventeen years, and it was and is a huge influence on my written work, even after a year of writing full time. Back when I was still in the tattoo parlor, I wrote on the same bed that I performed piercings on, taking a break as necessary to perform stabbings. It made for an odd juxtaposition, the work that I had to do to make money, and the work that I wanted to do but kept being chased from. I know there are a lot of authors with stories of incredible hardship, but I like to think that having to take breaks from writing to punch holes in genitals still sticks out as a unique situation. I don’t have any exact correlations between body piercing and scribbling, but I do know that spilling blood on a page is a piece of cake compared to doing it with a blade.

Do you feel that can cause you to be hard-as-nails in your own writing? Also – what was it like for complete strangers to trust you with stabbing their genitalia?

I certainly don’t think it hurts! The most useful my piercing career ever proved when it came to writing was when I was working on my gothic-romance-tattoo-ghost-story, A Good and Useful Hurt. With Hurt, I drew upon everything that I had learned in my years behind a needle. For the rest of my work, the tattoo shop proved to be a way to meet very-ahem-unique people, and to draw upon my experiences in working with them. Being in the shop definitely exposed me to a side of life that most people don’t see growing up, and that was definitely a good thing as far as my writing is concerned.

The trust strangers show body art practitioners is insane, in my opinion, and even the best practitioners are still human. That said, I developed a very good reputation for being the go-to guy for body mods in the Grand Rapids area, and I still can’t believe some of the things strangers entrusted me with. That said, everyone lived, so maybe they weren’t that off-base.

 So you consider yourself a pretty trustworthy guy?

As trustworthy as the next heavily tattooed former body piercer that makes up stories for a living.

I’ll mark that down as a “Maybe.” Say, who do you think would win in a bar brawl: Will Smith circa The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or Vanilla Ice?

Well, the fact of the matter is that Vanilla Ice got absolutely rolled by the world. Suge Knight’s boys hung him over  a balcony, Queen shook him down for stealing the opening notes of, “Under Pressure” and things only got worse from there. V-Ice is the polar opposite of street cred. Not only was he about as manufactured as major label acts get, he spent so many years trying to reinvent himself that he went from singing a song about, “Rolling up the hoootie-mac” to now remodeling houses on high number cable channels. Mr. Van Winkle is a straight up buster, which would lead one to believe that pre-awful movie Will Smith should decimate him, except…

Will Smith had to leave Philly because he got in a single fight. If the rest of the world had this attitude, school bullying would be a felony. Not only did Will get in one little fight that scared his mom, his milquetoast rap game inspired N.W.A. to exist in the first place. Seriously.

Yup, Will Smith’s rap career was so busted, so unrealistic, that Eazy E and the boys from N.W.A. were inspired by him to invent gangster rap, because they couldn’t believe how fake Smith’s version of the world was when compared to the life of the average African American teenager. Will was worried about parents leaving town and getting caught driving their Porsches, Eazy, Ren, Cube and Dre were worried about being able to eat and not get shot. It pains me to say it, but Vanila Ice wins hands down, and the more Will Smith tries to push his stupid wiener kids on us, the bigger the divide gets.

Awful Interview: John Carroll

8 Apr

John Carroll

John Carroll made a mistake. He has thrice awfully interviewed me at PURGE to help promote both the launch of VouchedATL and our two birthday parties. That wasn’t his mistake, it was nice of him. His mistake was the manner of which he Awfully Interviewed me. I mean, he really ‘gave me a dose of my own medicine’ so to speak. I waited for a long time for retribution.

John’s been a regular contributor at The Five-Hundred since its inception, so we’ve invited him back to read for us at the Five Hundred’s reading this Thursday, April 10th at the Goat farm.

Below you will find an Awful Interview I did with John upon the release of Slow Burn, which was released by Safety Third Enterprises just about a year ago.

What are you trying to prove?

I don’t know? 9/11 was an inside job. The Illuminati is real. Aliens exists. Social media will be the downfall of civilization. You know, just the regular macho stuff. I guess I do know.

Do I come across as someone who has something to prove(other than bald is beautiful and all the other things I just listed)?

Kind of. You seem like one of those people who has a vendetta. You know, like Guy Fawkes. HOLY SHIT- John Carroll are you Anonymous?!

Shit. I wish. I like the idea of Anonymous, not so much for their ability to fuck shit up, which I think is pretty rad, but because they remind me of Borg from Star Trek. Kind of like Legion in the Bible. I guess I just like the idea of groups that refer to themselves as one, but then again the U.S. Army does that too. Nevermind.

Aren’t you a patriot? Have some pride! I heard you like baseball, right? Don’t you like pie? Happiness? Will Smith Movies?

I like Thomas Jefferson a lot. He made his own Bible and brought French Fries to America. I can only hope to accomplish that much. I really only liked baseball when Michael Jordan was playing. Did you know that Will Smith was supposed to play Neo in The Matrix, but turned it down? I’m not sure how I feel about that. But yeah, Will Smith is solid.

Didn’t you burn a Bible once? Was that your attempt to be Jeffersonian? How did that go for you?

You know what’s probably more offensive to most people? I burned a Beatles record once as well. I dated a girl who really liked the Beatles a few months later. She told me I was stupid for doing it. We went on vacation to Virginia and she wouldn’t take me to Monticello. We broke up when we got home.

WOW you really brought that one full circle — it was like watching an episode of Seinfeld. Have you ever seen that show?

Seinfeld is probably appreciated for the wrong reasons. Larry David induces panic attacks in my life. I wouldn’t say that I’m a fan of Jerry Seinfeld, but I read his book, Seinlanguage in 5th grade. I asked my parents if I could have a Bar Mitzvah after reading it. They made me accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour instead.

 Was that a pretty formative moment in your life? What do you think the repercussions were?

I’d like to act like it wasn’t, but the older I get the more I feel the need to revert back to adolescent tendencies. You know, ride a bike, jump on beds, make fun of girls that I’d like to have sexual intercourse with. Normal ten year old boy stuff.

Have you found yourself purchasing a lot of footed pajamas as of late?

Unfortunately, they don’t have them in my size. Hot Topic does sell dinosaur and Hello Kitty hoodies though. I need to stop by there to pick up the new Marilyn Manson album, so you never know.

How does Marilyn Manson always manage to date such hotties?

I think it’s pretty clear Laura. If you bang MM you’re guaranteed at least B-movie stardom.

Good point. You forgot to mention how romantic he is though. I mean, look at him. Marilyn Manson OOZES romance. What’s your favorite 90’s teen flick?

Drop Dead Gorgeous. Two words: Rolling Crucifix.

That makes a lot of sense. Has anyone ever told you that you look like Denise Richards?

Only in the dark.

Oh wow. So. …why should people come and see you read on the 17th?

The stories that I will be reading were actually inspired by Denise Richards’ outstanding performance in the 1998 erotica thriller Wild Things. I believe that I’m the first writer to ever incorporate her influence into anything literary, outside of tabloid magazines.

Awful Interview: Jeff Alessandrelli

17 Feb

JABookI’ve written about my friend and poet Jeff Alessandrelli’s work before; but with the release of his new, full-length collection of poetry This Last Time Will Be the First Time (Burnside Review Books, 2014), I thought I’d ask him some in-depth questions about his poetry and writing in preparation for its release. Jeff was kind enough to answer my questions, via email, over the course of the past few week. (Head Voucher Laura Relyea also conducted an Awful Interview with Alessandrelli a couple years ago.) Below are the contents of that exchange:

“People Are Places Are Places Are People” is the opening section of your new book This Last Time Will Be the First Time. The title of each poem in this section either invokes the name of a person (usually an artist or writer), or employs direction quotation by them. I wonder if you could address the use of proper nouns in these titles. Likewise, what is the relationship between people and places? Finally, how do you understand these names creating a continuum or lineage of influence for you as a writer and artist?

With regards to your initial question— most of the poems in This Last Time Will Be The First’s first section were, directly and indirectly, inspired by my interest in history; I’m fascinated by the (often, but not always, traumatic) lives of the writers/artists I most admire— Evel Knievel (who during his lifetime broke 433 bones, a Guinness World Record), Lenny Bruce (who, about his heroin abuse, said I’ll die young but it’s like kissing God), Anne Carson (whose work as a cultural historian for me is as important, if not more so, than her work as a purely creative writer—although the argument could be made that both modes of her writing are essentially one and the same) and Eileen Myles (Eileen Myles rules). That being said, most of the poems in “People Are Places Are Places Are People” are 90% imagination-based, 10% history-based. In my own work the historical is the jumping off point for the creative; I’m not a historian by any common definition of the word.

The relationship between people and places and places and people— like most easy thinking members of society, I often associate people (Gertrude Stein, say) with places (1920’s Paris). But I also think that where one lives—by choice or circumstance—does become who one is; our environments are our identities, whether we relish or hate that fact.

As far as influence, specifically in terms of my own development as a writer/artist – I consider myself a reader first and a writer second. I read all sorts of stuff— fiction and poetry predominantly but also a healthy amount of history (primarily ancient, weird stuff), oral biographies and arcane “factoid” stuff. And have you been on the internet? There’s a grip of stuff stuck in there, some of it even worth reading. All of which is to say that for me influence is something that suffuses every aspect of my writing. I don’t honestly consider myself to be a particularly “original” or “groundbreaking” poet. But what I do think I’m good at is melding different linguistic particles, often found in wildly different places, into one static thing that I subsequently deem a “poem.”

One of my favorite writers is David Markson, who wrote a series of books toward the end of his life that were almost entirely composed of artistic and cultural anecdotes and quotes (i.e. “A seascape by Henri Matisse was once hung upside down in the Museum of Modern Art in New York—and left that way for a month and a half;” “Art is not truth. Art is a lie that enables us to recognize truth”—Pablo Picasso). I personally find Markson’s work to be far more interesting (and “original,” to use that word again) than a wholly fictional novel about the emotional complications parental divorce engenders in a 19 year old growing up in rural Indiana or a wholly fictional novel about ketamine addiction or a wholly fictional novel about an overweight Turkish bombardier fighting in World War I. (I’m making all those up, by the way. Although I’m sure they’ve also already been written.)

As a writer I’m far more interested in reading than in writing. But the great writers don’t let you simply read their work. They make you rewrite it.

I like that you mention “identities” in your previous answer because the concept segues nicely into a question about the second section of your book: “Jeffrey Roberts’ Dreamcoats.” How does the character Jeffrey Roberts align with or diverge from Jeffrey Alessandrelli? I mean, “Roberts” is your middle name, correct? You certainly seem to be toying with the concept of self-identification, autobiography, and confession–but, no doubt, in a off-kilter manner–given a title like “The Semi-biography of Jeffrey Roberts.” Tell me more about the partial identity inherent to the “semi” modifier. How do the poems in this section trouble our notions of selfhood and subjectivity?

Although my middle name is Robert—and, since my last name is so long (13 letters!), Jeffrey Roberts is the name I usually give at restaurants/bars when I’m waiting for a table—the poems in “Jeffrey Roberts’ Dreamcoats” are only very very loosely related to myself. The only similarities, actually, reside in the fact that both Jeffrey Roberts and I hate job interviews and once also had to work fairly diligently on doctoral dissertations. But re: identity and selfhood, both partial and not, the character (or speaker) Jeffrey Roberts is not a stand-in for the author Jeff Alessandrelli. I don’t consider myself particularly interesting, and in light of that opinion I (rightly or wrongly) rarely write out of direct personal experience. The last poem of the section, “The Same Jeffrey Roberts That Has Been Missing” begins with the line, “I was born with two wings, / one of them broken.” Broken or not, I wish I had been born with wings. Are you familiar with the Nora Ephron directed film Michael (1996)? Playing the Archangel Michael, John Travolta had wings. It wuz tight.

When Stephen Malkmus’ first solo album came out, Magnet did an exposé on him. In that article, the reporter asked Malkmus if he ever wrote songs about himself; he replied:

Not really. I’m always commenting or assuming voices about lives that would be interesting to me. I’m not particularly interested in my own feelings or my own struggles, so I wouldn’t write a song about them. But anything you write is a reflection on you, so if you are into being non-revealing, it shows your personality.

Do you feel similarly? To you mind, what does it say about an artist if he/she avoids their own life as a source of material or inspiration? Likewise, your previous answer also reminds me of when John Keats wrote that:

the poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence because he has no identity he is continually informing and filling some other body.

Again, does this quote reflect, to some extent, your thoughts as well? Generally speaking, what type of relationship does a poet or a poem have with identity and subjectivity?

I do agree/identify with Malkmus’s statement, yes. And I’d also say that identification is less about my writing and more about my personality—regardless of the situation, I don’t much like to talk about myself. (Job interviews are tough.) Which thus means I rarely find myself writing (directly at least) about myself; instead, I’d rather “make things up” or identify fissures in language that I find interesting and then exploit them to my own ends. I’m sure there’s some deep-seated Freudian shit that I should consider finding out re: why I don’t like to write about myself very often, but in the end I’d say I’m simply more engaged in fiction than reality. And I don’t find my personal reality—day in, day out—to be necessarily worthy of poetic effort. There’s more out there and poem after poem I’m hoping to find it out.

As for Keats’ quote, I’d say that I identify with it as well. Although I also find a bit sad— the fact that in order to embody something one has to, to a degree at least, reject their own idiosyncratic existence, gives me a minor case of the willies.

One of my main goals in life is to complete eradicate my own self-absorption. It’s something that I feel very strongly about. It’s also something that—as a writer at least—I think is impossible pretty much.

I like the idea of “fissures in language,” at least to the extent that is conjures in my mind an image of you (or James Franco) as Aaron Raslton hacking away at your arm with a penknife in order to extricate yourself from a deep and narrow poetry crevice. But something tells me that’s not what you mean. Could you explain a bit further about these linguistic fissures? Likewise, could you talk about some specific examples from your new book?

I simply mean parts of language that we take for granted or perhaps don’t think much about, parts that are thus apt for poetic manipulation. Like how little words are engrained in so many big words— is the art in party the art in heart the art in fart the same art in Stuttgart? Or the ass in crass the same ass in passion the same ass in association? I don’t know—maybe that’s stupid or facile, but I find it kinda interesting. In “(Sharks),” a poem in the 3rd section of This Last Time Will Be The First, I write how “I hope to be creatively satisfied// in the same manner as the windmill/ and jetstream.” Which in and of itself doesn’t say or mean a whole lot probably—but I personally find the whole concept of “creative satisfaction” to be strange. Sexual satisfaction I can understand. I can understand gustatory satisfaction and monetary satisfaction. Maybe even spiritual satisfaction. But “creative satisfaction” is something that I find alien, possibly because to be “creative” in any field means, to me at least, to be continually hungry for more. Cr-eat-ive.

Also, I am not a linguist. Obviously.

The lack of satisfaction you derive from the creative process makes me think about the repetitions in your collections. By that, I mean, there’s a passage in the poem “Simple Question” from your “little book” Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound (Ravenna Press, 2011) that states:

it is only
the imagination

that can resist
the imagination,

it is only
the imagination

that can withstand,
uphold, subvert

and resist
the imagination. (43)

And, in This Last Time Will Be The First, you have a poem titled “Understanding Barbara Guest” that contains the lines:

It is only
the imagination
that can resist
the imagination,

it is only the imagination
that can withstand,
uphold, subvert
and resist

the imagination. (19)

Does the repetition or reuse of these words signal dissatisfaction with the original permutation? Or a dissatisfaction with the context in which it was originally found? If not, can you discuss what the recycling of your own lines means to you? How does returning to your previous poems for content/material affect your poetic sensibilities at both the moment of initial conception and the moment of re-appropriation?

I mean, I derive satisfaction from the creative process, definitely—it’s just that I don’t derive the same type of satisfaction as those other kinds I mentioned, mostly because I think being “creatively satisfied” is somewhat of an oxymoron; if you’re 100% “creatively satisfied” then I think you either have too much confidence in your work or need to move somewhere else pretty quickly. A plethora of satisfaction for writers/artists/thinkers in general is a trap and one that, in my opinion, can beget some potentially boring crap. The short, more readily known title of the song is “Satisfaction” but the longer version is “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Sure, they’re mostly talking about sex, but I think if Mick J. and Keith R. had been totally content and “creatively satisfied” that (inarguably iconic) song wouldn’t have come out the way it did musically or lyrically.

As for my own personal poetic repetition/ re-appropriation—something that I do fairly infrequently— it doesn’t signal a dissatisfaction with the original permutation at all; the opposite actually. Years ago my friend Trey told me that the poet Donald Revell has, in wildly different poems, the same exact stanza (identical line breaks and everything) in something like 4 or 5 of his books. And when asked about it he (I’m paraphrasing, obviously) said, “Yeah, I really like that stanza.” I did and do think that’s great. In both of those poems I’m paying homage to the creativity of Erik Satie and Barbara Guest, both of whom, in my opinion, had pretty wild imaginations. I liked the way I said it the first time, so I thought I’d try it again. I love leftovers. I love second (and sometimes even third) helpings.

That all being said, is the recycling of my own lines an example of extreme “creative satisfaction?” I’m not sure. But probably. Forget remembering.

The penultimate section of your new book is a longer poem in parts, titled “It’s Especially Dangerous To Be Conscious of Oneself.” Did you conceive of this poem, initially, as one extend piece, or did you end up putting individual pieces together retroactively? What, for you, does the long/serial/sequential poem offer that a “regular” of “small-sized” poem does not? And, of course, why is it especially dangerous to be conscious of oneself?

I started writing that poem in early 2011 and the earliest version of it appeared in Octopus Magazine later that year; a 2nd, different version of it subsequently appeared in a chapbook entitled Don’t Let Me Forget To Feed The Sharks published in early 2012. And then there’s the version in the book, which is wildly different than the other iterations and really only loosely connected to them. Throughout, though, the main thematic “thread,” as it were, is the poem’s epigraph, which is taken from (as translated by A.C. Graham) The Book of Lieh- tz’u: A Classic of Tao and reads:

There was a man who was born in Yen but grew up in Ch’u, and in old age returned to his native country. While he was passing through the state of Chin his companions played a joke on him. They pointed out a city and told him: “This is the capital of Yen.” He composed himself and looked solemn. Inside the city they pointed out a shrine: “This is the shrine of your quarter.” He breathed a deep sigh. They pointed out a hut: “This was your father’s cottage.” His tears welled up. They pointed out a mound: “This is your father’s tomb.” He could not help weeping aloud. His companions roared with laughter: “We were teasing you. You are still only in Chin.” The man was very embarrassed. When he reached Yen, and really saw the capital of Yen and the shrine of his quarter, really saw his father’s cottage and tomb, he did not feel it so deeply.

Although each is, as mentioned, different, every version of “It Is Especially Dangerous To Be Conscious Of Oneself” takes as its primary feeling the emotionality (half ironic/half solemn and sincere) enveloped in that passage.

As for the serial poem structure, I think it can force a writer to make (imagistic, thematic, emotional, associational, linguistic, etc.) connections in his/her work that singular poems, obviously, don’t allow for. But it’s not my ideal form and in my opinion somewhat overused in contemporary poetry. I personally believe it’s far more difficult to write a long poem with direct/overt threads than it is to write a serial poem with threads only loosely woven together.

It is especially dangerous to be conscious of oneself because the more conscious you are of yourself the less conscious you are of everything and everyone else. “A gambler plays better for tiles than for money, because he does not bother to think; a good swimmer learns to handle a boat quickly, because he does not care if it turns over; a drunken man failing from a cart escapes with his life because, being unconscious, he does not stiffen himself before collision… A woman aware that she is beautiful ceases to be beautiful,” etc. Being too conscious (or aware or engrossed or absorbed) of yourself inevitably means you’re not conscious of what else is out there. Which is a lot. And the title of that poem sums up the way I desire to live and be—something I’m still working on, of course.

Awful Interview: Roberto Montes

13 Feb

Roberto Montes, as the Huffington Post pointed out, is a 25 year old poet whose first book drops on us right soon. Roberto is one part nervous joy, one part frustrated pulse, one part buoyant imagination. I was lucky enough to blabber back and forth with him over the last few weeks about the book. Hope you’re happy.

Here it comes, this first book of yours, I DON’T KNOW DO YOU, out from Ampersand real soon. A big hunk of these poems are of the prose-poem type titled “One way to be a person is…” and then smattering some quick tip like “…to fall for the environment” or “…to take matters into your own hands” or “…to orchestrate what should be orchestrated.” The poem power, for me, comes in the dismantling of expectations of what can help, what can be done, what can be reflected/refracted to “be a person.” Another thing like this you’ve done is that e-chap of yours HOW TO BE SINCERE IN YOUR POETRY WORKSHOP, as seen as NAP UNIVERSITY ONLINEidkdoyou

You like giving advice, huh? Ha, but for real, this advice-giving style seems more of a self-searching than about helping others, or at least equally so, an artifice for working through your own shit in a less obvious light (maybe that’s most poetry’s purpose). Anyhow, as the title suggests, the speaker in these poems still isn’t sure, is still looking for some help. How did these poems function to help you “be a person?” What can contemporary poems (and poem writing) teach us about being a person?

I thought of many of the “One way to be a person” titles while walking around Manhattan waiting for class to start. I find going alone to public places that demand you to sit still for an extended period of time (computer labs/cafés/etc.) to be terrifying so I’ll often pace around outside listening to music instead. I had been fantasizing about teaching a poetry class that focused primarily on preparing young people for the psychological, spiritual, and ethical damage entering poetry inevitably causes. I actually take Jack Spicer’s warning ­– “[…] the closer you get to it the worse off you get, and the more it eats into you” – very seriously.  Probably comically so. But it was during this fantasizing that the titles began to pop into my head in rapid succession and so I wrote them down. After that I was writing maybe 4 or 5 of these poems a week for a few months. Mostly I believe that poetry serves to teach us about being a person by moving us beyond our person-hood. If you run screaming down the street the first thing people do is look for what you’re running from; a kind of drawing-attention by drawing-away I think poetry is uniquely suited for.

Daily, I wait for your internet presence–the statuses, especially. Scooping back just now, I saw a pic of a I DON’T KNOW DO YOU bracelet. Are these gonna be promotional things, or is that just a lucky charm? What other promotional things are you doing? Any readings?

Thanks! The biggest compliment I’ve ever received was someone telling me that they thought I was the “best person on Facebook.” For some reason – probably the connotation of inanity FB statuses drag with them – that compliment felt more genuine than anything anyone’s ever said about my poetry. Who knows. “This is how touching a Fields medal in an empty auditorium must feel” is a thought I might have had in response.

The bracelet is something impromptu my boyfriend Justin Sherwood made with his niece’s beads. I don’t think I’ll be entering Etsy anytime soon. I hate the idea of promotion so I’ll probably be doing a lot of it and obnoxiously so. The question I’m wrestling with now is how can I maximize obnoxiousness while maintaining my alienation from the larger world. I’m passive about readings but there are things in the works. I’ll be reading at AWP when the book’s launching so I’ll get to say “I have books in the back afterwards for anyone who’s interested” and then immediately lower my eyes before anyone gets the chance to lower them for me.

idkdoyoubraceletOh I’m also still Snapchatting lines from my book to anyone who adds me. My username is “otrebor53”.

What are some AWP events, releases, and such you’re stoked for?

I’ll be reading at a reading with incredible readers from Sixth Finch and Yes Yes Books on Saturday. I have incredible love for 6F and Yes Yes so I’m really excited. Also pumped for The New Megaphone + H_NGM_N Reading and The Wave Books & Friends reading. I’ve only been to AWP once before but I plan on focusing all my time there checking out the press booths and going to off-site events again. Really stoked to make a fool of myself to Zachary Schomburg again by awkwardly mumbling how I sincerely think Octopus Books is one of the greatest presses of all time. Stoked to make a fool of us all.

Today the status was this: “I forgot how hard it is to write poetry while being beaten to death with wonder.” Will you say more?

I haven’t been able to write much at all since finishing the manuscript. It’s taking a real toll on my well-being. It’s like this: I’ve had temporal lobe seizures in the past that have helped emptied my mind of itself. But wonder is what comes after, when you barge back in and knock over the rearranged furniture, loudly inquiring who put it there in the first place. Wonder’s a symptom of what we got but it’s loud and sometimes confuses us into believing it’s all there is.

What is a poem you’ve read lately that you know is awesome? What is a song you’ve heard lately that you know is awesome? Who is a person you met/hung out with lately that you know is awesome?

I’m currently reading Christie Ann Reynolds’s Revenge for Revenge which is wonderful. In addition to that I’ve been orbiting Jenny Zhang’s Dear Jenny We Are All Find and Amy Lawless’s My Dead a great deal. Both take explicit risks against their audience in a way I find very refreshing and necessary. A lot of contemporary poetry is just being the tree but not shaking it. Both books were very significant to me while I wrote I DON’T KNOW DO YOU (and still are.)

When I write I tend to listen to the same song over and over again. I think for this book one of the songs I listened to most was “Aminals” by Baths.

I’m blanketly antisocial but Brooke Ellsworth is awesome.

So here, you mention being “antisocial,” though online and the time we met in Boston you have always been rather friendly and pulsing outward. But that label on yourself, that feeling inside you, makes me think back to your first answer about poetry being “a kind of drawing-attention by drawing-away.” Does poetry’s ability to throw its voice, and thus the attention, away from You provide the recognizable space for an “anti-social person” to be a social person, to interact with others in a less direct manner, perhaps similar to the way the internet allows that, with its artifice and theoretical walls and physical distance (Snapchat, too?)? 

Yes I remember seeing you at the Yes Yes Books/Sixth Finch reading.  I believe I was a huge nerd.

As far as poetry goes, I’m a Spicer acolyte and actively attempt to remove myself from the poem so I don’t interfere with it. I’m not interested in expressionist or conceptualist poetry, both of which originate from the inside and seek to communicate something the author is already aware of. But it’s the shreds of you that cling to the poem regardless of your evasive efforts, like a chain link fence ripping your jeans as you vault it, that speak to me the loudest of personhood. That which you can’t shake off.

The love poems in the book are a kind of prototype of this. I only wrote them when I wasn’t in love, believing that that would somehow purify their intent, or at least complicate their existence.

What’s your favorite Spicer poem?

For Russ

Christ,
You’d think it would all be
Pretty simple
This tree will never grow. This bush
Has no branches. No
I love you. Yet.
I wonder how our mouths will look in twenty five years
When we say yet.

Easily one of my favorite poems in the collection, “One way to be a person is to reach an understanding” immediately declares “History necessarily weds a political love. For example, ‘Last night you threw a vase at me.’ ‘No I did not.’ Already we have two parties and a desire to vote.” Already, I have been challenged to pick a side–in the scenario, in the poem, in the definition dungeon of love.

As it continues, I was astounded by how it developed, both poetically and politically, more importantly those simultaneously. Poetics. Romance. Politics. What’s what and what isn’t–

Recent studies have suggested that I love you is the most repeated phrase at the site of any artillery space. There are two conclusions one could draw from this: 1) Love exists. 2) Love is a sound one makes. If (1) is to be accepted, then you buy a new vase. If (2), then we return to the beginning to prove ourselves wrong.

Even if we tried, could we prove ourselves wrong about love? Even when we’re pitted against another, we’re still on the same team, right? Loving and being loved, throwing and being thrown. What sound did you want love to make in/out of these poems? 

In the final circle it’s just you and the person you love throwing stones or not. I have a strange association between missile weaponry (i.e. the ability to affect from far away) and the way love can embody and complicate a space of any size. The message and the medium and how the medium can shiver when the message is let go. Peter Jay Shippy introduced me to the idea of love as a conspiracy theory – the couple vs. the world. That seems diagram things right. When love is just a sound I think it mimics the first pulse of breathing underwater, hence the ending of that poem, which terrified me when it marauded into my head out of nowhere.

Here I won’t speculate or request a confession of whether or not you’re in love, but having a boyfriend that makes you a I DON’T KNOW DO YOU bracelet seems pretty serious. But seriously, in a relationship and such, how do the love poems written outside of love (well, I guess one is rarely if ever if possible outside of love, but you know what I mean, outside of a relationship that would “typically” induce love poem making) sit with you now? Are they more pure, or are they more complicated now?

I’m looking at (SPOILER ALERT) the last poem “Love Poem In The Shape Of Another Poem Climbing Out,” which admits “What I did just now was a trick/to get people to love each other/and eventually me.” Did it work? Could it ever? Does the reveal intensify the intent, and perhaps the result? 

Oh wow yeah I should point out that the love poems were some of the earliest written poems in the book. I wrote them before I met my boo now. (Side note: after meeting Justin I found I could no longer write love poems because they’d be about him and I felt I’d enter the poem too often to gab about how happy I am.) The poems seem a lot sadder to me now but I’m unsure if that’s the result of looking at them now from the perspective of love or the general reorientation a few years bring. A lot of them seem lonelier. Even the more jokey parts feel like they’re being spoken by a lowered head to an absent audience.

I wrote the final poem directly after reading Vortexts by Ben Mirov. I still don’t understand it but it’s insistence on appearing obvious in its desires seemed like a faulty defense mechanism, which intrigued me while I wrote it. It was one of those rare and lucky times I felt completely un-authorial in the work. I wish I could answer your question but then, if I could, I probably wouldn’t have been able to write the poem down.

When I happened upon “I Mean Botany And Then What?” My ears perked as I started to feel the kinship between this ditty and Nick Sturm’s Lettuce poem (at Sink Review).

from “I Mean Botany And Then What?”

Traffic signal flora. Physical confrontation
of flora. Teenage flora that look away
as they call you names. Flora that refuse
help like discontinued hydrants. Empathic
nod of flora. Barbarity flora. Flora circling
the pond but not because they are afraid.
Misguided disobedience of flora. Mischievous
flora mocking toddlers. Vocabulary of flora
in widening arcs of turned-away light.

Their stranglehold on plant life. Their repetitious jiving. It’s a nice thing now to read them side-by-side, elementary-style compare and contrast Venn Diagram wassup, to see how they both so well go GO and spatter along. Do you know that poem? You obviously dig repetition—in poems, in series, etc. What does repetition allow you? 

Yeah I really like that poem! I was kind of scared by how closely they crossed streams when I first read it. I’d be interested to know the impetus for the Lettuce Poem.  I Mean Botany came about when I was walking home one afternoon and passed two boys who were probably in junior high school and one of them turned to his friend and called me a faggot. I was taken aback not only for the obvious reasons but also the way he seemed to wear a guilty expression when he said it, like he was testing out being a bad person, or cursing in church. The line “Teenage flora that look away/ as they call you names” immediately entered my head as I continued walking and then more and more flora lines entered my head, and didn’t stop. I went to sleep and woke up with more flora lines. I worked on it for around a total of 12 hours I think, trimming excesses and trying to find a place for all flora. It was a very intense experience and it was all because of that child who didn’t have to say what he felt he had to.

Repetition in poetry, I think, is one of the few incantatory things we have left. When done correctly it brings with it certain powers that people try to forget about. The only way to know if you’re doing it correctly is to desperately want to stop but finding yourself unable.

If instead of Rock, Paper, Scissors they were Hands, Heart, Mouth, who would beat what? 

Hands would beat heart. Heart would beat heart. Mouth would beat heart. But no one would ever know because by the time you start it’s already over.

Awful Interview: Trey Moody

20 Jan

ttnmoodyRecently, Sarabande Books released Trey Moody’s debut, full-length collection of poems, Thought That Nature; the book explores  our relationship with nature through a deeply meditative and musically-charged poetics.

In her forward to Thought That Nature, Cole Swenson, who selected his manuscript as the winner of the 2012 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, argues that Moody’s poems imbue the concept of nature with a “tension” replete with a “historical dimension” (vii) that challenges us to more thoroughly consider what nature actually is and how we respond to it. To this end, she claims that the poems in Moody’s book exhume the “subtleties” of nature that, ultimately, “shape our lives” (ix).

I was lucky enough to meet and become acquainted with Trey Moody in autumn of 2009 when he first arrived in Lincoln, NE. As earlier as my first encounters with him and his writing, I was struck by the deft craftsmanship and simple beauty of his poems, his unpretentious intellectualism, and his generosity as a person. For these reasons and more, I’m glad to call him a friend

Trey Moody lives in San Marcos, TX where he is remotely completing his Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from University of Nebraska.In addition to Thought That Nature, he is author of the chapbooks Climate Reply (New Michigan Press, 2010), Once A Weather (Greying Ghost Press, 2011) and the collaborative collection How We Remake the World: A Concise History of Everything (Slope Editions, 2012), which he wrote with some other knuckle-head.

Last week, Moody was kind enough to answer some questions for me–via email–about his new book.

Your first collection of poetry, Thought That Nature, borrows its title from the opening line of Emily Dickinson’s poem “472 (1286).” I wonder if you could speak about the relationship between your book and that poem. Feel free to answer in any way you’d like, but I’d also be curious to hear how these poems, perhaps, address the dichotomy that Dickinson forwards between “nature” and “Human nature.”

Well, the way I read Dickinson’s poem, she’s poking fun at how problematic the word “nature” is, a notion that speaks to all the poems in my book. I’ve always thought it funny when someone (me included, at various times of my life) says something like, “I love going out into nature”; it’s not that our word choice is incorrect, necessarily, but this stance assumes that nature is something over there, not here, into which we, separate from it, must enter. I think Dickinson was having fun with people’s conceptions of these types of artificial dichotomies, preferring instead to maintain that humans—even the things they make and their spiritual inventions—were merely small parts embedded into the grand entity of nature. Of course this concept isn’t anything new—I’m thinking of some canonical haiku, Virgil, etc.—but what is interesting is how still (in 2014!) some folks resist this stance, even considering it threatening.

I like how your reading of the Dickinson poem undermines the notion that “nature is something over there, not here, into which we, separate from it, must enter”; to this extent, it imbues your use of Lewis and Clark quotes in “Lancaster Country Notebook”—which is Thought that Nature’s second section—with a certain amount of irony, at least to the extent that these were adventurers heading West to explore the wilderness. Could you describe how you stumbled upon their journals? Why did you decide to work with them? What was your process of reading and writing through their work? How do you see their journals engaging the poems in your collection?

That’s true, I think there is a certain amount of irony that goes along with including them in the context of Dickinson’s poem. Those journals are amazing, but as you read them you see how their writers’ lack of understanding their unexplored environs leads them to projecting themselves more and more upon the land and its organisms. But I love the raw earnestness in their language, steeped in (I think) a fear of the unknown, isolation, etc. There’s something energetic in imagining each explorer scribbling down his notes after an arduous day, not knowing what the next will bring, seeing where his mind drifts. And I enjoy the authenticity of their journals, especially with their preserved misspellings (you quickly learn that Lewis was a much better speller than Clark). I first started reading them in a Great Plains Lit course at the University of Nebraska, after I had been living there for about a year and a half, still learning my way around, so I think I was comforted by the writings of others as they were exploring the uncharted version of the region I was living in and trying to understand. I wanted to get even closer to their language, so during that spring, whenever I wrote a poem I grafted language from the corresponding date’s entry in 1805 into my writing. I had never really borrowed language before, perhaps for fear of some kind of exploitation, but in this case I felt like I was exploiting fellow exploiters, which seemed permissible, though maybe it’s not.

You’ve interspersed a suite of prose poems, each titled “A Weather,” throughout the collection. The first sentence of the first permutation straightforwardly inquires: “Why a” (6). This interrogation of the indefinite article reminds me a bit of Zukofsky’s claim that a poet should give “some of his life to the use of the words the and a: both of which are weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man can perhaps resolve.” So, my question to you, then, is why “a”? Additionally, I’m curious about how you understand the relationship between organized sound patterns and weather. I mean, the “A Weather” pieces are so intensely musical that the form of expression seems to tacitly suggest a deep or meaningful relationship between them.

Why a? I’ll tell you why a. If not for a, it’d be the weather, and we all know how unspecific and unrelenting that can be. But in all seriousness, I do find it interesting that we say “the weather,” as if it’s experienced exactly the same way by each individual. To my mind, “a weather” feels more intimate to how a specific individual experiences climate conditions. I like that Zukofsky essay a lot, and in a different essay he speaks to how the sounds of words themselves can’t not carry a kind of meaning: “It is this musical horizon of poetry [...] that permits anybody who does not know Greek to listen and get something out of the poetry of Homer: to ‘tune in’ to the human tradition, to its voice which has developed among the sounds of natural things, and thus escape the confines of a time and place.” This sort of meaning is certainly less semantic, though as the poet Ralph Angel said in an interview, “there are different kinds and levels of understanding.” So in the “A Weather” sequence, I wanted to largely abandon semantics to (hopefully) produce swells of other kinds of meaning, sometime random and associative and sometimes repetitive, just as one might experience weather.

OK, then, what does one achieve (as a writer and/or a reader) from accessing meaning that avoids semantics in favor of randomness or associative patterns, particularly within a poetic context? Moreover, I’m curious as to how you understand the poem (or your poems) as an engagement with a broader, public context. In Thought That Nature’s introduction, Cole Swensen suggests that your book implicitly addresses issues of environmentalism and global community-formation. Do you agree with her assessments? Do you believe in pragmatic, political, or efficacious poetry? Why or why not? Do your thoughts on poetry in the public sphere agree with or contradict your thoughts on the non-semantic value of poetry?

I think what one can achieve (as writer or reader) is the opportunity to receive language differently than the ways we have been trained to consume it in school, advertising, and politics. Of course, stripping the kind of meaning to which we are accustomed from words makes for an uncomfortable reading (and writing) experience, but such discomfort seems necessary in being able to earnestly revise our language—how we use it and how we are used by it. But poetry mustn’t always be so extreme in its stripping of semantics to accomplish this goal. To this extent, I think all poetry is, as you say, “pragmatic, political, efficacious,” though in differing ways and to different levels of effectiveness. In 2014 America, just the decision to write a poem—as opposed to an essay or Facebook post—is political. And regarding the poems in Thought That Nature, I do agree with Swensen’s assessment because things like the environment and global consciousness are important to me, so I would expect them to come up in my writing; however, I didn’t necessarily intend those things to be at the forefront of these poems at the time I was writing them. Basically, I see the poems as attempts of trying to understand the world, which is impossible and thus must include many failures along the way.

I like the notion that poems are sites of failure that act as catalysts for an impossible understanding of the world around us. Could you elaborate a bit more on this idea and, perhaps, provide some specific examples from Thought That Nature? Also, on a somewhat similar note, it seems as though the poems in your book reach for that same understanding through negation; I’m thinking specifically of lines such as “You cannot remember what your body does // but you believe your body’s not a tree, a tree not a body” (13) and “I am not the moon, nor am I the tree” (68). Could you address how, to your mind, negation functions within your poems?

I guess what I’m thinking is that poems—the ones I write and the ones I like to read—embrace the world as this giant thing filled with many smaller things, yet they also embrace how terrifying and mysterious the connections between, the sources of, and the fates for these things are. Like, as humans we experience the world by way of our senses, which may seem accurate to us, but these same senses are just such giant failures. In a section of “Backyard,” I write, “Wind blows— // I can’t make sense / of it, even” (64). Of course language itself is similar to sensorial experience, in that it feels like some kind of truth but is only another series of failures. For example, in the book’s opening poem, “We Use Spoons Mostly,” I call myself out for relying on a somewhat cliché simile.

One way to think about negation in my poems, perhaps, is as a kind of avoidance, as a kind of laziness in confronting the poems’ subject(s). Recently I’ve grown more wary of negation for this reason. But I hope that such avoidance isn’t the case in these poems, especially the ones you’ve quoted from here, whose negation of things actually implies a desire to be those things by the act of simply naming them. When I write, “I am not the moon, nor am I the tree,” I may not be saying what I am, but what I wanted and tried to say was, “I am the moon, and I am the tree,” but just wasn’t able to. The very last poem in the book, “Dear—,” addresses this as well in its opening sentence: “I said Ghost because I couldn’t / say anything better” (73).

Several poems throughout Thought That Nature reference specific locations, such as the poems “Salina, Kansas” and “Chatter,” the latter of which states: “There was once a glacier / here. How it has become / Nebraska” (11). Could you discuss how place affects your writing and/or your writing-process? How attentive are you to your geographic surroundings when you compose a poem? Generally speaking, what is your relationship to place?

Place is very important to me. When I was younger, thinking about places—their geographies, histories, weather patterns—helped satisfy some kind of anxiety I had about wanting to grasp or understand places, which to me were frightening because they seemed so enigmatic. Well, older now, I’m not any wiser (probably less so, even) but I’ve at least admitted a sort of defeat. I’ve realized that it’s pretty much impossible to figure out places, even small towns or neighborhood parks. About the park, for example, if you stop to think about it—where all the gravel was harvested from, who all was involved with the harvesting and then distributing, who drove the trucks, where each tiny part of the swings came from, how each part was made, what kind of flora and fauna frequent the park and how the seasons or even occasionally high air pollution levels affect these nonhuman visitors’ presence, the zoning and bureaucratic histories of establishing and maintaining this park, the vast history of what preceded the park at its specific geographic location, etc.—you see how no one can possibly know all of this. Yet for me (and many others, thankfully) it’s important and rewarding to think about these things.

As I compose poems, I do think about these things as well, but less steadfastly. I tend to focus on language when I begin writing, but when my attention wavers in the act of composition, I try to rely on my senses—however faulty they are—for any kind of data that might serve as a trigger, like the wind blowing tree limbs into the window or the smell the heater makes the first time it’s turned on for winter. And the heater example might make my mind wander into thinking about industry, energy policy, isolation. I imagine most poets and writers do this, too, because it’s really the most convenient way to gather material. Plus, it helps me feel more present, which doesn’t happen often enough during days filled with responsibilities.

Finally, tell me a bit about the writing you’ve been doing recently. How does it relate to the poems in Thought That Nature? Are they in a similar aesthetic mold, or have you altered your writing style or interests in any manner?

The newer poems I’ve been working on feel quite different from those in Thought That Nature. For one, there’s often much less white space in my newer poems, many of which are single stanzas or strophes with longer lines. Also, they feel quite a bit more personal—not in a Confessional sense or anything—but so far these newer poems seem to have a closer relationship to the body than those found in Thought That Nature. They’re definitely still concerned with place, but probably in much less obvious ways. But these are still so new, which makes me a little nervous to talk any more about them!

Awful Interview: Elisa Gabbert

14 Jan

SelfUnstable_low_resElisa Gabbert lives and writes in Denver, CO. Recently, Black Ocean released her second book, The Self UnstableBirds LLC published her first book, The French Exitfour years ago. She is an avid blogger, tweeter (Is that a word? IDFK.), and contributor to Open Letters Monthly.

Although The Self Unstable was published mere weeks ago, it’s already garnered much critical praise. The New Yorker listed the collection as one of their Best Book of 2013, calling it one of “the most intelligent and most intriguing” releases of the calendar year. Likewise, it has appeared on various “Year’s Best” lists at The Poetry Foundation, HTMLGiant, and elsewhere.

Last week, Gabbert agreed to answer some questions  for me–via email–about her new book.

The marketing copy for your second book, The Self Unstable, calls the writing in this collection “lyric essays.” I hoped you could address the concept of genre designation: what makes the texts in The Self Unstable “lyric essays,” as opposed to prose poems, or just plain-old “poems” for that matter? To your mind, what is the purpose of genre designations? What benefits and disadvantages does labeling a piece of writing in this manner provide for both the writer and the reader? Does categorizing The Self Unstable as a collection of “lyric essays” demand that the audience approach the book differently? How so?

I think in the case of The Self Unstable the genre distinction is almost arbitrary. You could call them prose poems or just poems if you wanted to and I wouldn’t say you were wrong, but I do think it’s pretty clearly a hybrid text. In some ways the pieces are like essays and in some ways they’re like poems. They touch on other genres too – Zen koans, aphorism, etc. So I guess you could say the genre is unstable.

From the outset, Black Ocean was interested in marketing the book as prose, and there are a couple of reasons that I agreed to that. One, Bluets by Maggie Nelson is one of the books that inspired me to write a book like this, and Wave calls Bluets lyric essay even though they’re primarily a poetry press. Two, I was interested to see if the prose designation would widen the readership and/or, as you say, change the way people read it. I think it’s too early to say if it has or will.

Regardless of where it’s shelved at the library, I expect some readers to say, “What the hell, these aren’t essays” or “What the hell, these aren’t poems.” My hope is that readers either don’t worry about that too much, or are interested in engaging with how the form “subverts” or “interrogates” the idea of the lyric poem or the idea of the lyric essay. I hope it works on both levels.

I’m glad you mention “Zen koans” in your previous answer because your book concludes with a prose block that states: “Koans are used to provoke ‘the great doubt’” (83). The internet tells me that a koan derives from the practice of Zen Buddhism and is “a brief paradoxical statement or question used a discipline in meditation.” It would appear that the writing in The Self Unstable embodies or appropriates these characteristics. Could you tell me a bit about how you originally encountered this form; likewise, what compelled you to employ it in your own writing? How did the use of it alter your writing or challenge you to re-conceive the manner in which you compose and/or think? In your own words, what is “the great doubt” of our contemporary era?

My college boyfriend used to have a book of Zen koans, which he found more amusing than profound I think, and it was our bathroom reading for a while. I am not a Buddhist, and I went many years without thinking of koans at all, but as I was working on the pieces in this book, I found I wanted them to function as koans, meaning that they are designed to provoke contemplation, not to be taken as absolute truths in themselves. And further I found (this is probably weird) that I wanted to structure the book so that it would make good bathroom reading. In other words, I wanted it to be the kind of book that you can pick up, open at random, and read a few pages, then go back to whatever you were doing. You don’t have to read them in order, and they’re easily re-readable. Like a book to be read in interludes, a little lite pseudo-philosophy. (All philosophy is pseudo-philosophy.)

That line you quote is, if I remember correctly, lifted verbatim from the Wikipedia page on koans, which of course may be different now. I have no idea what “the great doubt” is in Buddhist terms but what a great fucking phrase. For me, “the great doubt” is what happens when you suddenly stop playing the game – all the little rules we need to follow to exist in society, all the logistical distractions of contemporary life – and say, “Wait … WHAT IS THE POINT of all this?” Why anyone would want to encourage more confrontations with the absurd, I don’t know, but I suppose that’s what I’m doing here. Or if not provoking those moments, at least thinking about them.

You open The Self Unstable with the question: “What is the self?” Then, you offer a concept of the self that aligns itself with constructivist thought: “You wanted a life of cause, but it was all effects”; moments later, you forward a proposition that promotes essentialism: “Luck is a skill, as is beauty, intelligence–all things you’re born with” (3). As both a person and a writer, how do you negotiate these ideas of the self that appear to be in opposition to one another? What are your expectations—or, at least, desires—for a reader when they encounter such a paradox in your writing?

I remember reading recently that cognitive dissonance is overstated as a phenomenon, that people can hold all kinds of contradictory beliefs and experience no dissonance whatsoever. Certainly I think it’s almost impossible, if not completely impossible, to have a coherent experience of the self, considering that you have to use your selfhood to form that concept – it’s like trying to look at your own eye or taste your own tongue. Here’s another analogy – you know when people take a bunch of different photos of the Eiffel Tower from different angles and then use it to build a collage that depicts the whole tower, because when you’re close to the tower, you can’t get it all in one frame? A book about the self is similar, in that you can’t get a complete picture of it in one view or from one angle. I think that’s part of why it makes sense to label The Self Unstable as an essay – which of course etymologically means “attempt.” This is an attempt to get a grasp on the ungraspable. And I suppose I assume readers will be intimately familiar with the paradox because they are selves themselves.

In the opening prose block of the “Transcending the Body” section of The Self Unstable, you write: “Transcending the body sounds a little ’80s to me, not to mention flaky and paranormal. Even avatars have gender” (19). The statement got me thinking about a recent post at Harriet by the poet Tyrone Williams that’s subtitled “Posthumanism and Poetry.” He begins his article by referencing N. Katherine Hayles’ concept of the posthuman, which is “the disappearance of the liberal humanist subject to the distribution of human desire and will through digital technology.” As poet who tweets and blogs frequently (i.e. uses “digital technology”), how has your online presence/persona altered or informed the ways in which you approach the concepts of self and subjectivity, as well as the “poet” moniker?

I used to think a lot about post-humanism. For years I truly believed that within our lifetimes we’d hit the so-called “singularity” and become immortal via digitization. Now I’m not so sure. It’s not that I don’t think it’s theoretically possible to upload the self (in fact I think it’s possible that we’re all already living in some kind of digital simulation); it’s that I’m less confident we’ll get there before we all blow each other up or die off in some kind of mass plague.

But getting to your question: I think it’s interesting that having an online presence (in my case, on my blog and Twitter in particular) creates an automatic archive of both your experience and your own description of that experience. And what’s continually surprising to me, when I dig back through that archive and re-read things I’ve written in the past, is how consistent it feels. So either my true self is more consistent from the outside than it feels from the inside, or the online persona I’ve unknowingly crafted through language is very consistent. So I’ll read something that I wrote four years ago and be struck that I could have easily said the same thing yesterday. Another early line in the book: “The self regenerates every five or six days.” This is a reference to cell regeneration, the idea that after some amount of time your body literally does not consist of any of the same cells that it used to, but somehow your selfhood persists. For me, my digital traces are a very concrete illustration of that persistence, much more so than, say, photographs, because my body seems to change more over the years than my personality.

The notion that The Self Unstable is a “collage” pieced together by different perspectives and “angles” reminds me a bit of Benjamin and Adorno’s concept of the “constellation.” But it seems as though statements such as “All philosophy is pseudo-philosophy” and “Whatever you do, don’t start thinking about thinking” (10) express a certain antagonism toward—or at least skepticism about—philosophy. Given that large portions of The Self Unstable obliquely (or directly, depending on your viewpoint) engage ontology, epistemology, and phenomenology, I hoped you could a speak to what seems to be your (or your book’s) conflicted relationship with/to that discourse.  

It’s not true antagonism – I actually love philosophy and think poetry and philosophy are deeply entwined. In fact I’ve blogged about how philosophical poets tend to be my favorite poets. When I say something like “All philosophy is pseudo-philosophy” or “All philosophers are armchair philosophers” I mean that you don’t really need accreditation to be a philosopher. It’s like being a poet in that way, all you have to do to qualify is sit down and write some poetry. And a lot of philosophy turns out to be bullshit, but for that matter, most “science” historically has turned out to be bullshit. It’s still interesting, in that philosophy shows you the history of thinking. I’d love to be placed in a continuum with Benjamin and Adorno as opposed to, say, Stevens and Berryman. Why not?

Returning to one of your previous answers, I like that you think of The Self Unstable as a possible bathroom read, as I’m a strident advocate of them, generally speaking. Of course, my bathroom reads tend to be “Collected” poetry books; this way I can engage with a specific poet every day over the course of 6-8 months. What are some of your favorite and/or current bathroom reads? Why?

We subscribe to the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and Harper’s, and those tend to end up in the bathroom, but I don’t spend enough time in there to really get into long articles like that. For me a poem is about the right size for a bathroom session, so I throw literary journals in there, in particular contributor’s copies, because otherwise I never seem to get around to reading them. Currently you’d find issues of Crazyhorse and Denver Quarterly in among the other periodicals. I also sometimes use this space to peruse catalogues, like Dean and Deluca, and that can be pleasantly meditative.

Speaking of continuum, how do you think The Self Unstable engages, speaks, or reacts to your first collection The French Exit; likewise, how does it relate to whatever you’re writing nowadays? This second part of the question, obviously, begs the question: what are you currently working on?

I think writers tend to have a few subjects they obsess over, and my big subjects are present in both The French Exit and The Self Unstable – stuff like time and memory and meaning and death. But the form/approach is very different in The Self Unstable; aside from the fact that it’s organized into untitled prose blocks, versus titled, lineated verse poems, it’s also more idea-driven, whereas The French Exit is, I think, basically driven by emotion. That change is probably a result of the way my life has changed since I wrote the poems in my first book; I spend more of my waking hours working (at my day job) so I need to impose more structure in order to get meaningful amounts of creative writing done. When I was younger I was more naturally prolific, but now it helps me to contribute slowly and in small chunks to a longer “project.” Also, my life (ironically) got more stable so I think the move to more contemplative reflection is a result of having fewer spikes of intense emotion.

All that said I’m back to writing in lineated verse. I recently acted in a production of The Designated Mourner, a play by Wallace Shawn, and I’m currently writing a series of poems in the voice of Judy, the character I portrayed. It’s really too early to say how they relate to the other books but I’m sure my usual obsessions will find their way in, despite the filter of the character.

Awful Interview: Joe Hall

4 Nov

Goodness gracious, Joe Hall’s second book, The Devotional Poems, is one rip-roaring collection of ditties that grasp/gasp out from the cloudy parts into/for the light. I read this book after moving out of Indiana for the first time and interviewed Joe in the few weeks leading up to shoulder surgery. Read on and you’ll find out why that’s important to know. Read these poems and you’ll learn something about trying to be whole.

Here we go, your second book, The Devotional Poems, has been unleashed, again from that Black Ocean press. I love what that wild/wise man, Blake Butler, said in that blurb of his, he said your book is “[d]evoted, yes, to terror, but true too to the gorgeous black underbelly of how we’re all at once somehow together possessed.” Consistency and trustworthiness are the misconstructed pieces of poetry that often ail me with boredom, assuming wholeness and “real world” logic as their backbones, but no, no, no, the beauty comes in what happens when the spirit that speaks is broken, other, downright wild. And that’s what I loved so much about these poems: they seem apologetically ferocious because they don’t know how to say sorry for being so brutal and fucked up, they just are. Where does this voice rumble from? How did Joe Hall’s poetry get their legs?devotional_poems_web_cover

I’m with you, Tyler. Poets that do the same thing book over the course of several books lose my interest. They don’t change? The world doesn’t change? Can I live in that bunker? Can I eat that canned food? Some people, on the other hand, perfect what they’re doing. Lara Glenum’s Pop Corpse is that, I think. She commits to the narrative structures that had been lurking in Hounds of No & Maximum Gaga and just utterly kills it.

But I do want my poetry, book to book, poem to poem, to betray you–and me. To falter and rise. And to ride whatever I have access to as fiercely as possible. In my first book I was in love with Cheryl, high modernism, and a New York school that included Frank O’Hara and Amiri Baraka. Because I was writing it in school, there was the intensity of being in love but also cool seas of libraries, post-colonial theory, and uncluttered days. And that’s what you got, sort of. In The Devotional Poems, I had just turned down a great job with benefits to move to Indiana to be with Cheryl and at the exact same time found out I’d ruined my neck and back as signaled by excruciating nerve pain. I wasn’t sleeping. I was taking pain pills. I was walking around the woods a lot, with its moldering and hatching, working it out. Later, I ended up in a trailer park in a place with no insulation. The heat was at 45 during the winter to keep from going broke. Everything was fucked.

But this is not a story all about my pain. It was in this phase that I became infested with voices that were not mine but had been orbiting around me for a long time. For years I’d written sucky poems about the people I’d worked with in shipping plants, plant nurseries, and industrial printing presses. I never got them right. Having to grind away when everything was fucked, when you’d blown your chances, when you were considered waste, human trash–their voices started pounding away through me. We speaking together and against each other. And with Herbert and Hopkins and Edward Taylor and all the other dead prayers for change in poetry. It’s unstable. That was the moment of those poems.

Now I am a brain again, an intellect in school, writing things I’m studying. Which include incest and beheading. But I am not committing incest or beheading anything. My personal life is running away from these poems, so who knows what will happen.

That right there, the “ride whatever I have access to as fiercely as possible,” should be (is?) the new “write what you know,” the treacherous lull. And working through things, for you these broken times and staggering voices, is exactly why these poems achieve something, their unrelenting battling forth.

Yeah, “write what you know” is a little too simple because it doesn’t ask you to reevaluate what you know and how you know it, which alertness to the present might help you do. Heriberto Yépez says “Wisdom forgets,” so, you know….

One section is called “Two Exorcisms,” though it’s made of three poems, and the final section calls out to the book’s title, as “These Are Devotional Poems.” An exorcism is a way, that old-timey way, of getting rid of the demons, real and imagined, understood and baffling. But so, too, might we say prayers and devotions and even poems are ways to get rid of the demons, or at the very least get them to back off. How do you view these parts in the book–the exorcisms, the devotional poems, the poem poems–as mechanisms to having gotten rid of those voices? Did it work? 

It doesn’t work at all, getting rid of voices, totally, to find your voice—insert Derrida. But you can talk them to their limit, I think, as a way to open up by way of exhaustion room for other voices or ways of speaking. This may seem like I’m contradicting myself when I say, “Wisdom forgets.” Perhaps this is as close to forgetting as I can get.

For instance, the poem “I Was Living…” engages with at least two voices. One of pathetic complaint and submission, the child in pain, who needs relief and mastery, who needs to submit. The other of the man who is sorry, who claims to be suffering in that sorry-ness, who wants the other to understand “where he is coming from.”

I’ve hurt some people, that’s for sure, trying
a terrifying love though never mugged, fucked, or called out for it
crying between the rows of my leased garden, my good
arm broken, weeds choking the mustard
Tell me what’s right—the horn in the leaves
the first wildflower of the season
pushing aside party streamers like fingers and tongues, waterfalls
of newspapers, and these words decay too
placed on your stone like a lettuce wreath
asking forgiveness for being stupid and weak
Forgive me for being stupid and weak
I will offer what is healed O Christ! O Beast!
Forgive me for asking to heal

Sarah Fox puts it brilliantly–the limits of the masculine need for forgiveness in her poem–”Transitional Object”:

…It was as if
he could not stop dragging me around, he simply
could not let me out of the cage made of the bones
of my mother, until I had accepted his apology
for hauling me everywhere inside the cage
made of the bones of my mother.

The first poem, “Trailer Park,” comes from the fuck everything anger I’d heard from my father and also from the most down and out people I met working at an industrial printing press and similar places, contending also with an impulse to combine with everything by any means, sexually, violently, etc. & an end of days AM radio far right republican mentality. Basically, I cannot write “cool” poems or poems that calculate among the things they know. I do not possess that kind of firmness and lucidity. But I am also not interested in writing a systems poem that tries to account for everything. There are limits to what one can or should encompass:

You cannot
All enter me, my little body tells me

It cannot take that you are many
And changing (from “Locating”)

I am instead interested in what happens when the familiar is stretched and distorted, in the moment of its metamorphosis, and when speaking itself points to that which is below speaking, animating it.

That first one you plopped is my favorite poem in the book (whatever that means/is worth), that hefty (both in pow and in title) beast that starts the section “2 Exorcisms,” that “I Was Living in a Boarded-Up House Without Heat. I Was Still Sick and had Unpaid Medical Bills. The Record He Gave Me Was GOOD OLD COUNTRY GOSPEL.” It’s like a hapless journal entry found in a lonely, winter-beaten Midwestern woods, taken home, unfolded, typed back out—the words, but also somehow the musty stench and the hisses and the blistering wind it has brought back too—and here unleashed (and a particularly apt representation of the book as a whole). This poems transacts in that meditative way, talking beyond oneself, beyond the dangerous rubble and treacherous lulls of life and bring forth a new meaning to staggering and a new breath, somehow, to the broken self.

And this, like many other dimensions and parts of this book, borrows (or maybe it is pure adhering to) religious symbols and mechanisms for this exorcism. Even when it’s not religious, these poems use religion as a guide, spiritual symbolism and structure as a brace. How do you see spirituality and religion being needed and played here? Is it the secular sipping the holy?  Or is it a broken secularism that’s unable to escape the religious roots?

O boy. This is the music and I’m facing it. A dear friend asked me a version of this question and my answer disappointed her. Echoing back this funny refrain which contains a paradox: “This book is crazy and intense but its actually religious” (wonk wonk).

I am not writing for America because America doesn’t care about poetry. But I am writing from one American place (not the American place) of many, and in it is a half evacuated Christian religiosity, its material rituals–kneel, stand, speak, sing, drink, taste–and its impossible symbols–the sacrifice, the suffering for. Obviously there is something troubled and fundamentally wrong with these structures. But so, also, there is something wrong with a totally free floating and adaptable (and assimilating) secular skepticism that is better at using the most readily available fancy talk to justify DECLAIMING SO & SO STRAWMAN in the name of a particular formation of social justice after the fact than letting an ethical stance guide one (and one’s we) through the weather, to guide one’s (and one’s we) symbolic AND material practices (not that I do much better).

Without structures of ritual (material, symbolic)–however flexible and broad–to go crazy in, we risk being boringly sane or professional confessors of a limited insanity. This book is about the play of casting off, playing in, and surrendering to half rotten structures–one of them being my received Roman Catholicism–as that surrenders to the book, pumping each others’ tissues with mercury and lavender, becoming but not being, becoming but not being amphibian, slime electrified. It’s a first step, a hard first step.

If we find traces of Radical Alterity in the compass of the material world we loop through:

If ritual is defined not as the reproduction of meaning or catechism but a meaning making process which has the capacity to be shaped by each participant (as opposed to being monological):

If our altars are built every time we visit them from what we each carry to them on the way:

Then religion can be progressive and these are sincere poems searching towards the grounds for a vernacular spiritual practice by surrendering one’s claim to know and desire for information i.e. I am stupid and weak; I do not want to be stupid and weak; I should not want to not be stupid and weak. I need to simply attend to the being I am able to and the outward care that can sustain. I need to forget everything except the ritual which creates the space for being and new subjects to announce their coming into being to enter into relationships of care. We give ourselves away too much to stupid, abusive institutions and structures. Why not remystify those habits, relationships, communities, and counter institutions that sustain us and allow for right action? That’s the vector along which this book tries to travel. Obviously it starts in a fucked up place. I’ve been characterizing that place as a trailer park. That’s true.

Oh boy, that answer sure satisfies me! Thank you.

The album mentioned in the title, “Good Old Country Gospel,” is that a real album? What is on it?good old gospel

“GOOD OLD COUNTRY GOSPEL” is the name of the record and it’s a real record (1975 MCA Records, Inc).

Country as in the country that is honky-tonk. When I lived in that house that was half boarded up in a trailer park in Southern Maryland, I’d play this and James Brown. Memphis and somewhere in the sea is probably where we’ll all meet.

You mention Indiana. What part of Indiana? I grew up in central Indiana, a little hiccup called Elwood, 45 minutes north of Indianapolis, and until five weeks ago, I lived on the edge of my grandpa’s cornfield for most of that time. Indiana, for all its goodness, especially for a new (and debilitated) citizen, can get mundane and too open-ended with the fields and the flatness. Can you talk more about how the physical landscape affected these poems (and in turn, your ridding yourself of these demons/voices)?

Man, well, you can probably speak with more authority to what kind of screw that topos turns in the brain.

As for me, I was fifteen minutes west of West Lafayette, Indiana. We were on a twenty acre property that had a small stream, woods, and a tiny swatch of maybe what prairie looks like. Beyond that it was all corn and soy. On one hand, that property felt miraculous among what you’re describing–fields and fields of feed plants. The woods were a point of fascination that I’d circle around and deeper, more carefully, into. I found mushrooms, burdock, and walnuts and ate them. The bugs ate me. Things were circulating.

It also felt extremely precarious and artificial, as in the woods had been carved into a box called “the property.” Going to its edges at those cornfields was almost like stepping out of the house in Beetlejuice: all you can see is desert, death in the same, a negative vision of eternity. That edge is the place of these poems perhaps. Or the gap between the long, loud, outward poems and the short, quiet, introspective ones.

If there was nowhere to go but a border, there was also no getting rid of these voices, just a sitting down at the table with them.

So here you are, “an intellect in school,” again, life on the upswing, getting better it seems. Where are you going to school now? How has academia affected your recent poems? Has O’Hara and Baraka and high modernism returned?

I’m at SUNY Buffalo. It has an enormous archive of American poetry. Mostly all of it. O’Hara and Baraka and high modernism are still there. So is all this other junk, and I’m compiling more. This past semester I wrote a long paper on representations of waste flows into, through, and among Palestinian settlements. It was basically a paper about shit, excess, and choked circulations. Doing this made me want to make sure the way I made poems wasn’t one in which I was hording fragments, voices, or whatever you want to call them. My big goal right now is to figure out how to make relationships and how I make relationships with others find their way into how poems are made and what those poems deal with. Part of this has been trying to read without accumulating in my book destroying project. It’s been recording interviews with members of my family. It’s been trashing hundreds of pages of material. It’s been looking at how communities work in studying literary and historic Utopias. It’s also been doing things for people not on an exchange but a gift basis (because I love it)–editing journal issues, commenting on manuscripts. And it’s been trying to make my scholarly practice one of talking to people, having conversations. I’m not exactly succeeding, but these are my goals and academia has made these my goals because all it wants you to do is to sit in a room by yourself taking notes while taking breaks to type clever things into social media platforms. I do a lot of that too.

This past summer you went on a big hunk of a reading tour. What did those experiences–seeing those literary communities, having exchanges with new folks, building relationships on the road–teach you about real world relationship building and conversation having?

When I told people I was going on this road trip–20+ readings over 5 weeks, sleeping on couches mostly–people had one of two reactions: “Sounds FUN” or “That sounds horrible. Don’t die.” It was fun and horrible and fun. If I were careful, I would say it was just great all around, everyone was awesome, blah blah blah. The fact is, there were communities that I clicked with immediately, people who, within minutes, I knew I wanted to stay in touch with, to learn with, and do art in correspondence with. There were a lot of points where it broke my heart to leave a city, because what was going on there was good. There were other points where I was exhausted and the pace I’d set pre-empted me from having interesting exchanges with people. There were still other points where I found a scene boring, and, I’m sure, they in turn were bored by me. That just happens. I had a guy walk out of my reading at UC Irvine TWICE. My work isn’t for everyone or every community. That’s fine. To think that it should be is gross. Now I have a better sense of who I want to stay in touch with and where I want to come back to. I guess what I’m saying is, I learned that there’s no point in trying to be “friends” or “liked” by everyone, and no sense in pretending. Anyway, by trying to win everyone over, you’re spreading yourself too thin and missing the opportunity to have deeper relationships, more challenging ones. That’s what I learned. The whole experience left me feeling a little naked and nervy. I’m holing up in Buffalo right now. Slowing down, contracting. Working on picking up just a few of the many loose ends the tour created and figuring out how I can be a responsible, generous member of the local and online communities I’m a part of.

In an old interview with the Paris Review, Anne Carson’s describing her more personal poetry as failing, especially to amend or mend anything in herself, though it might work for others, reminded me of this talk about your voices. If (attempted) exorcising demons impacts readers, but leaves the poet in the same (or worse) spot, is that okay? Necessary? Even, good?

This is a question of who poems can be for. Carson, I think, is avoiding the stink of poems as catharsis or self therapy. This is a false dichotomy. Carson isn’t making it necessarily–she goes on the say her thinking is never settled and that writing doesn’t bring her to closure or solutions. Either way, I think writing a poem can and should be for the writer and that denying this is a product of a puritanical fear of self indulgence in favor of a larger, more universal utility.

What are some of C.A. Conrad’s somatic experiments (sticking something in your butt, jerking off in a museum) other than an effort at widening one’s sensory thresholds to a verge where pleasure and something else–panic? fear? a sense of the absurd?–meet at the thresholds of art in order to revise the ground from which art is produced and received–the grounds on which artistic community resides. This doesn’t necessarily speak to how I wrote TDP, but I think that through attention to the social and material practices of art making, art can be decisively for oneself and one’s readership, community, etc in legible, beyond symbolic ways.

I wrote Pigafetta to both understand the context of love, love, an ethical grounds for it. And for my fiance–a proof of my love she could hold. It was for us. I wrote TDP to think about keeping faith, masculinity, violence, sexuality, and I’ve heard back from people that the book has helped them think about what it can mean to be considered a “man,” to make that condition visible to themselves (and not just an invisible or silent and so immutable given)–to understand desires, as a man, to be mastered and penetrated. Anyway, I’m not as elegant and intentional as I’d like to be in the processes of writing and the relationship of writing processes with community. Here are some people that are: Kaia Sand, Mark Nowak, Laura Elrick, Brandon Shimoda, James Yeary.

So, like Carson, I don’t write to solve or settle, but I think saying that one doesn’t write to “improve” (as loaded and awful as that term is—maybe, simply, “change”?) one’s self in relation to others either denies any link between writing and the pressure it places on the self (how its processes re-inscribe a version of being).

The other day that big-time big thinker Junot Diaz came to Austin to speak and read and the line wrapped around the building an hour before the gig. He said something like WOW and then stood on a bench in the courtyard reading some words and then doing a Q&A for all the folks that couldn’t squeeze into the fancier box. (I applauded extra for this gracious move.)

Anyhow, I’m not particularly in-tune with Diaz’s work and aesthetic and such (of course, the stories in the important anthologies and occasional passing), but he struck me with some brain thumper thoughts that are still following me (not to mention the somehow calming fact he said “motherfucker” often.).

Where is this going? This is going back to your book, no worries. He said this thing that keeps coming up when I approach your book and this interview. He said, loosely retelling it here, that of course feminist writing and writing by/about people of color and other marginalized groups and folks is super necessary, but also, writers of masculinity, writing out of masculinity, is necessary, too, as it’s just how I can’t write from a feminine place or as a racial minority, it’s a mechanism for giving others a particular experience and perspective.

Gracious, I hope I said that right. For some reason, the quote from the fragmented sections that start your book part called The Abyss Has Nine Names And I Have Shown You Three, “building a ghost from/a body.” In that previous answer up there, you mention masculinity, and this section of the book triggers that for me—sports and violence, how to touch another and what to make of the elements, from a masculine perspective.

Like:

I want to touch you with the rough tombs of your fathers
with the wild flowering blood and wire
or a pear, rotting fish, almonds, the dock breeze
blown pixilation, thickets the eye eats

Or like later:

I believe in the Cowboys, the Yankees, and the Holy Ghost
I belong to the father, the son
Through this logo I deny the devil in Christ, God
Behind a heavy door, I etch myself in the image
of you on a promontory, a recluse collecting records
of the shape of the world, where we walk hand in hand
in a field of heather, letters scrolling up out
of theater darkness, taking turns on a one hitter
getting loose, kind of stupid

 The dealing here, with those voices and the environment, rings of a particular masculine pressure and escape mechanism, to rise out of certain influences, indulge others, and ultimately, walk on “getting loose, kind of stupid” with what one’s let the world feed you. And it ends, this little run of untitled, “How it is the stone dies.”

How do you view the poems in The Devotional Poems as “masculine poems?” What makes a masculine poem? And what’s even the point?

That’s great and gracious, what Junot Diaz did. Anyway.

Genitality.

I’m taken with Erin Moure’s idear or representation of Grosz’ idea that “lability of meaning means sexual organs might be invested in or migrate to any region of the body.” These are ideals—mights—as they propose a situational fluidity and relationality of being, a self that becomes the ideal self to participate in the erotic pleasure of the moment, to be sensitive and organized toward it. Gender, sexuality, momentary conditions in which they multiply.

Yet, yet.

When someone swings a wrench at my head, this proposes that I am a man. When I am punched in the face it is proposed that I am a man (and punchable in the face). When I was first looking for jobs as a teenager and starting on the string of idiotic working situations—industrial printing presses, portable sawmills, plant nursery hand—that would wreck my neck and back, my mother proposed that I work at a place called The Dutch Plant Farm and they started me not watering flowers but slinging heavy bags of mulch and shit and rocks into cars. A whole series of assumptions and sortings. There was and is a part of me complicit in these arrangements, that desired them, that habitually played and plays with pleasure the role of man-dude.

So that is part of what TDP does—it sets out from a marginal-prophetic-trailer-park-y-fuck-fuck-fuck masculine place: “in the motherfucking sound and mother fucking light / the iterations of thunder, the bass so high / it hurls you into the grass, Beast!”. It’s the inherited grounds of my relationships with others and self—“I want to touch you with the rough tombs of your fathers”—from which the book moves. The book wants blood. It also wants to be tender as a lamb. It wants to care, tenderly, for the lamb. It wants to inhabit wants gently.

“What Makes a Masculine Poem”

I think the ideal ‘masculine’ poem is one which is self-aware of its own masculine position so that it can swim away from and back to this position, infecting it—so it’s not working from a monological place—“I belong to the father, the son.” If a poem is of this social world, it has to see, at points, its own gender or the multiple framework by which gender is seen.

As much as I loved Phil Levine in my dumb jobs phase, his poems represent a kind of witless “masculine” poem. They try to recreate a world of oppressed and exhausted male laborers and find lyricism in those places but can’t bring them into relationship with anything else. It’s tidy and nostalgic. It lets us identify with the condition of “dad,” as if that is the most authentic position.

“Write what you know” is horseshit if you don’t use what you know to drive into your blindness.

“What’s even the Point?”

Right? I don’t write poems to make conclusive statements about gender or masculinity. I engage explicitly with masculine tropes and referents and baggage and anger as a way to open up questions of how we relate to ourselves and others and what the relationship between these two kinds of relating can become. I admire poetry that unsettles categories. I admire poetry that recognizes the in process nature of being and its own being as in progress. This doesn’t mean I don’t like procedural poetry (or conceptual poetry), because procedures and concepts certainly do structure our world and will live like saints forever in things like styrofoam. But they’re still like everything else—still caught up in the weather.

So, we’ve chatted a lot about being broken, about the attempted exorcisms and reconciliations that your poems tussle on. To end this, let’s think a bit more on how these poems got here, these particular ones.

I read your book at the same time I was reading Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking The Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon. That hefty chunk of words is preoccupied with the whys and the hows of religion permeating our modern world. Why we fucking care about our god. Why the particular stories trickled down. How we deal with the “truth” we’re told (and in essence have created). How we force our religious will on ourselves and others.

Yet we all fail, break, die, perish. “How it was the stone died” is how the little fragments mentioned before from “The Abyss Has Nine Names And I Have Shown You Three” begins. “How it is the stone dies” is the last of these. The pieces of the world that are supposed to last, be eternal—the wind, the stones, the god, our souls—sometimes they do fail, or do die, or do disappear, are somehow gone.

However, in this absence, still the stories trickle down, the poems run their course. How did these particular stories, these fragments and pieces of your particular gospel, make it here? How do you know when a poem (and further, a book) is done? What does that feel like?

Now that we’re at the end, I should say you’ve given me a lot to think about, Tyler, in these questions, because I share them. So thank you. What do we do about dying? What’s the point of holding onto anything if we’ve received most everything through happenstance? I don’t know. The threads for the book I picked up from enough different places to make listing them not interesting. But here’s one: In 2005 I was in a used bookstore in Wheaton, Maryland getting a bunch of books rung up. I didn’t know what anything was then. I just bought stacks of used poetry. In my stack was copy of Daniel Berrigan’s The World for Wedding Ring. The guy at the register asked me if I knew Daniel. I didn’t. He said he used to hang out with him. He asked me if I’d heard of the Catonsville Nine. I hadn’t. I got Vallejo there, before they closed, and Hernadez, Cha, Edward Taylor, Borges, Auster. It was some kind of book store.

I have a hard time finishing poems. I like to play in them, find different orders, rearrange. I enjoy it, so when should I stop? It’s like when you are drinking and you realize you’ve had enough and you better stop. You are that drunk. You better be careful already.

Finishing a book is altogether different. It’s a process of exhaustion. I think of Chuang Tzu lecturing a skull on the side of the road: “When he finished speaking he dragged the skull over and, using it for a pillow, lay down to sleep.” He sleeps until the skull starts speaking back to him.

Awful Interview: Mike Krutel

25 Oct

best poemsMike Krutel and I became friends by screaming in each other’s faces in an attic in Akron, Ohio. We were both believers, we didn’t know in what, but everything seemed important, now, possible. One night we stayed up late eating at Luigi’s, a famous pizza joint in Akron, making elaborate plans for reciting poems at an intersection, like with one person on each corner yelling over the traffic and going line by line around the intersection, being ridiculous, just doing something. One summer we rode a train back and forth across the country. One time we lived together while we got our MFAs. One time Mike wrote these poems called Best Poems and then we talked about them and everything was important, now, possible. Mike Krutel’s poems have been an integral part of my life since poems have been a part of my life. Raucous, tender, intelligent, uncontainable, I can’t wait for more of Mike’s work to be in the world, for his poems to get their hands in your beautiful beautiful hair.

NS: Your chapbook Best Poems is going to be published soon by Narrow House Books, the new corporate arm of Publishing Genius and Big Lucks, operated by the inestimable Mark Cugini. All of the poems in the chapbook are part of a series, “Best Exit,” “Best Car Fire in the Snow,” and “Best Sonnet,” etc. How did the concept of writing “best” versions of things come about? How did the series generate itself? What parts of the world, or kinds of worlds, were you gathering to make these poems?

MK: It’s completely odd to think about Narrow House as a corporate venture, but it’s true. It’s the version of Breaking Bad where Jessie (Mark) takes up Walt (Adam Robinson is out in the desert telling people he is the danger) on franchising the meth business. Side note: I have not yet seen the final season so don’t spoil it for me people. But I love that this whole corporate venture of writing is happening, especially for someone like Mark, who is going to nail it.

The project began about the time I was finishing up my MFA. The poems I had written up to that time, many of which ended up in a thesis manuscript, still didn’t sit right with me and I was trying to find a way out of the place where many of those poems came from, how they formed. Some of the poems in Best Poems were written before a Best concept even surfaced in my head. Then one night I was thinking about the impending death of my grandmother, and I felt like I could only write myself into the situation. I had not ever written a poem like that before and I was nervous to. Not to write something grand, but to just have the energy in the poem be right, even if the poem didn’t succeed in the end.

The basic principle behind the poems was that if I really didn’t feel like they had anything going for themselves, that made them work in bigger ways, if I’m just breaking into a ridiculous field of plants I couldn’t name though I could identify by some other means, then fuck it I’ll write the best poems that I can. Which is to say that poems can be the best of themselves while still exhibiting the things they have trouble with, or have failed to do despite their best efforts. Everything was game. And I think the poems do all this within themselves, but also in relation to each other by the fact that they exist in a collection based on best efforts.

NS: Who were you reading when you were writing Best Poems? How do think about how what you’re reading enters into your writing? You mentioned how a particular experience, the loss of your grandmother, catalyzed a kind of thinking-writing process. In light of that, I’m thinking about how my initial question here is really deceiving, as if other poems are the only models for poems. I’m hoping you answer that question, but I’m also hoping you can talk about how larger patterns (ontologically large) enter your work. You also live with another artist, so I’m wondering how that saturation (is it saturation?) becomes part of your thinking.

MK: I do find the question of readings to be a weird one, specifically when talking about what one is reading at the time of creating work. I always want to say that what one is reading can have nothing and everything to do with the creation of new work. I don’t even know how to make sense of that last statement, but it hangs on me. I eye the question with suspicion, but I’ll still take it out for a drink to get to know it a little better.

Honestly, there were a number of people that I think I was reading at the time, or that were circling my brain, and I find it hard to summon enough names to feel like I’m answering that question. Looking at the manuscript, I would like to think there are some hints that I was reading James Tate, Andre Breton, and Matt Hart, among many many others. In regards to Matt, it wasn’t only his poems, but his own performative reading of his poems that definitely makes some good tackle to go out with. That kind of charge definitely went into most of the poems in the chapbook, whether directly tied to his kind of energy or another. But maybe none of this shows very much to others and only to me, I don’t know. I’m curious to know.

So, yes. I do think the initial question can be deceiving. The poems do feed off of so much colliding material that is is hard to talk about pinpoints unless there is a more obvious modeling happening in a given poem, where the patterning of it in some way derives from a recognizable source (see: who I am/was reading, fragments of my life that were examinable for creative structural insights). My relationships with the poems, as I wrote/write them, are a sort of collision of elements and particles and larger structures–the larger structures not necessarily being any more or less powerful/magical than the smaller elements. I write a line and then react to get the next, or the next line more easily stems from the one before it, but I get halfway into the second line and think, “Oh shit!” and have to make some choice or find something in the break before or in the combination of the break and the two words after it that build into more words or just one that carries on.

I don’t have a completely good handle on who I was reading, or what I was talking about with other people, artists or not. Maybe an imprecise sense, but it all starts to bleed together a bit. And doesn’t that really become the matter? A poem doesn’t succeed based on one line that I can underline and say “Damn this beats it all, right?” Even a one line poem, one that is really really amazing, doesn’t do what it does on its own volition. There is so much space around it, and I am with it, and I am fucking around in the space with it and many other things.

NS: Why does catching the movement of the mind seem important to you?

MK: I don’t know if I believe in the statement contained in the question: “catching the movement of the mind.” If anything the mind might be more of a danger to movement than it is an instrument of it. I don’t mean danger to be a negative, either. Danger is directly related to movement and both are wonderful things to be caught in. Says Walter White: “I am the danger.”

NS: All of the poems in Best Poems are discrete poems that fit on one page, but as a series they make a larger constellation that resists the closure of any single poem. In fact, many of these poems seem to resist closure in themselves, or to present an “end” to the poem as a kind of illusion. I’m trying to describe how these poems continue after they’re “over,” how their ambiguity and syntax generate an unknowing that never fully closes, and how this happens despite the poem looking, in some ways, like a traditional “poem,” i.e., like I said, it fits on a page, is aligned on the left margin, employs normal spacing and enjambment, etc. You’ve written other series and also long poems, one of which is in this issue of NOO Weekly. The need for and experience of series vs. long poems is always something I’m interested in, like how one or the other arises or needs to happen. Are there differences for you? What are the conditions for a long poem or for a series? What does one do that the other can’t? Is that even right?

MK: I think that idea of closure, or seeming closure, is true of the poems that I am most interested in. I really value a poem when its ending is at a point during which the poem is being as open as it possibly can. I don’t mean open as in sentimental honesty or truthfulness, but more in the physical sense. Wander room and wonder room.

When I’m writing, even when I’m creating something that isn’t coming together in any way, let’s call it a poem regardless of what it is being written, I never want it to end. I keep pushing on the poem’s structure until it says “Alright, it’s ok, you’ve done enough for now,” or perhaps the poem gives me the finger. I’m pushing my self, but also the parameters of what one poem will allow me to do to it. I think this is the same for the concept of a series or long poem.

The long poem you just mentioned started on a plane ride to Boston. The title came to me for obvious reasons of air travel. I liked how I could push against the paring of the words to create different situations of language, parts of speech: whatever(pronoun) it is that clouds(verb); whatever(exclamation), you damned clouds(noun); whatever-clouds (adjective-noun). I repeated it over and over during the course of a few days at AWP. It moved around me while I was not entirely conscious of it, while I was having these amazing experiences with people. Then I wrote the whole thing in a day, as you know already. I used the buddy system with this combination I had been thinking about for days and said to it that we were going to wander into a thinkness/thickness/thinkless space.

If anything, I might say that the series and the long poem can accomplish similar goals. I think one can see where a long poem goes thin, doesn’t make a right connection, or something like that. In this way, the long poem’s immediacy, how it is forced to account for it’s wholeness, is really important because that means that a series has to do the same thing though we might be inclined to shrug off that notion because it seems like the series is made of separate parts that don’t have to answer quite as much to each other. Of course, I can also say the reverse: that the ability of a series to circle around a very similar concern and yet at times be a somewhat disparate, this can happen in a long poem as well, or in any poem.

I’m curious about your use of “vs.”

Like, right now, I am reading Ashbery’s “A Wave” for the first time of really reading it, as opposed to mere (very important) absorptions.

No, wait, let’s do this. I’m going to keep reading “A Wave” and you are going to ask your next question and we are all going to inhabit a space because of course.

NS: I’m curious about your use of “of course.” If you could fill a china cabinet with anything, what would you fill it with? Would you rather bake or boil an artichoke? Is it any use talking about poems like this?

MK: Because of course and courses. I’m in this long Ashbery poem, this one and its many assemblings of a course. The long poem and the short(er) poem are the same things just showing their magic and tensions in more and less ways (I don’t think I can say that one or the other can lay claim to more or less definitively and that is wonderful and hard and part of the course).

I have a complicated relationship with china cabinets. I’m sorry that this avoids the fun of the question, but I wouldn’t want to put anything in a china cabinet. They are heavy and restrictive of whatever is put in them. Too much. I prefer an open bar or credenza. Bookshelves are wonderfully open.

I have baked and steamed artichokes but never before have I boiled one. Really, all that matters is the eating of it with at least one other person and how ridiculous we are scraping our teeth on a plant and fumbling every time in trying to remember how to deal with the heart. So yes, it is of use, and I don’t know that I can explain it anymore than that right now.

Awful Interview: Hannah Stephenson

14 Oct

Rad gal Hannah Stephenson hosts Paging Columbus, this beautiful little reading series in that latter word, and after meeting her bubbly self there, I had to check out her poems. Her first book In the Kettle, The Shriek plopped into our gorgeous world recently from Gold Wake Press. It’s something, a real something, somehow heartbreaking and heartmending. That last bit is even a made up word. Point is, the poems do something stellar and I’m super stoked that Hannah chattered with me a bit over email about her first release. Here you go, friend.hannah

So, here it is, your first book of poems, In The Kettle, The Shriek, is out now from Gold Wake Press–a beautifully covered collection of tensed and focused poems exploring our cities, our spaces, our lives. How does it feel, to have this there in your hands, to have it unwrapping itself into readers’ hands in the world? How did it come into being–the writing of it, the home-finding with Gold Wake, etc.?

It feels joyous. I love sharing work on my site (The Storialist), but it makes me so happy to imagine folks handling this book–tossing it into a bag, jamming it into a shelf, handing it to a friend.

Before this book, I had a previous manuscript (as do many of us–hi, first manuscripts dozing on hard drives/in drawers all over the world, I’m waving at you!). Nothing really happened with it, and I can see now that it wasn’t very cohesive (some of the poems were very old, too). I decided to let that one go, and start fresh, with more current work. All of these poems were written in about a year and a half….so I had the material, and then played and organized and whittled. I admire poets who write toward projects, but I do the opposite….I try to find the project after looking at what I’ve written.

Most of these appeared as drafts on The Storialist. Because I write almost every weekday, it can be a challenge for me to separate the poems from their chronology. But once I saw the title poem as the center poem, and thought of it as a hinge, the organizing process made more sense. It took me from February-May of 2012 to organize it.

It’s a fun story about Gold Wake Press! So, I was contacted by Nick Courtright, who is an Austin-based poet (and is awesome). I run a reading series called Paging Columbus here in Ohio, and he was coming through Ohio on a book tour. He read as part of Paging Columbus last summer, and I loved his book, Punchline (published by Gold Wake Press). I saw a lot of overlap in our aesthetic/interests, and as I looked through the Gold Wake authors, I found that I identified with many of them, and already really enjoyed their work. I submitted the manuscript to Jared Michael Wahlgren, who runs Gold Wake (so very well!), and he got back to me pretty quickly saying that he’d like to publish it.

Reading this book after meeting you in Columbus, your persona in these poems and your self as a person in the world vibrate out of a similar attention to the world, a curiosity in how the world works, how it fits together. Yet, there’s a steam that wafts off these poems, a variation of skepticism and worry, that seems removed from the pep in your step.

And of course, that’s a common, good thing. But as we scuttle into the discussion of this book I want to see how you view these poems intersecting you and your life. In that very first poem, you say, “Structures answer/the needs of the people there.” How did writing this book, building these poems from the ground up, help you answer the needs of the people inside you?

What a truly fascinating question.

Recently, a prose writer friend of mine commented that he found it funny that he is quiet in conversation, yet effusive on the page. I am the opposite. I am so chatty in person, and love talking to people, and learning about them, and am not very restrained or slow to speak. And yet I write rather short poems, with short lines, and a weird, almost flattened calmness (in terms of tone).

My writing voice is not completely unlike my speaking voice….as you’ve mentioned, both come from me, but they definitely have differences.

One quality I notice in my writing is that I’m always bringing everything together. Remember that Lauryn Hill song, “Everything is Everything”? What I keep saying in my poems is “everything is everything, and everything is also something else, but that something else is part of the everything.” The kettle (something very domestic, and sweet, and nostalgic) is the shriek (a very disturbing noise, right?). And that is ok.

A lot of my writing comes from wonder and longing. As a person, I’m not afraid to reveal when I love something or when I’m having fun…I am earnest, and quick to admit giddiness. I’m not very cool. But the voice in my poems is more cool. A strange trait of mine is that I almost never end questions in poems with question marks. I’ve tried to psychoanalyze this, as many readers/friends have asked me about it. I always feel that the question mark disturbs the mood. A question with no question mark….what does that become? It’s a phrase of not-knowing disguised as a pronouncement (a phrase of knowing).

Even though some of these poems sound certain, there is often a very neurotic line of thinking just under the surface (sometimes peeking out, as in “The Outside In,” or “Alarm,” or “Telepathy,” or any number of others). I am very empathetic and sensitive to others….maybe anxiety is the flip side of this. You mention that worry is sometimes audible in the poems….I definitely worry about others (all of the animals who walk on screen in a movie….I am almost obnoxiously concerned: “Is Artax going to be ok? He’s fine, right? In real life he’s like, living in a meadow? And he didn’t really sink in the Swamp of Sadness?”).

In real life, I don’t always share anxieties. Those usually come out to play before I fall asleep (like so many of us). My poems definitely allow me to perform anxieties, and to try to get them to unravel.

I’m pleased with your comment about “steam” coming from the poems. When I drive to work in the morning, I’m always looking at the little copses of trees and ponds off of the freeway….one of my favorite ten things in life is seeing a morning fog hanging over trees/water….just hovering there, giving shape to the air. It’s easy to imagine that these are little, isolated, magical spaces–there is a layer of blurriness and mystery over something that we often overlook. I want to sustain that floaty, drifting feeling in my writing.

These brows of mine perked up when I noticed that habit of yours, the lack of question marks. In a poem like “We Will Judge You Based on Your Wedding,” this trait somehow seems to trigger a bluntness, one that’s foreshadowed by that there edged title.

We will judge you based on your wedding,
on what you have designed. How many guests
were you expecting, and how many are present.
What did you do to the ceremony. How did
you renovate it, what did you rip out and what
did you add. What century does your wedding
take place in. Is it full of thines and beloveds,
did you invite any God. Who cries. Do you
engender jealousy. What colors did you swath
your bridesmaids in, what necklines. How
symmetrical is your wedding party. Where are
the tall people…

And this particular poem works two ways, right, seen here as either antagonistic questions or breathy list of statements marking points of judgements. There’s an unsteady tension here created by that structure–the list of non-question questions about “your” wedding–and it seems to both explode and simmer down with the final line: “What kind of woman are you. This is your day.” That last sentence seems to be the only legitimate question posed, the blurry-ness of whose day it actually is.

Let’s chat a bit about that, this idea of marriage pressure on the gals. How did you come to write about this? It’s certainly an issue that’s skirted around a lot. How did these non-question marked questions function for you as you scribbled your way through it?

I’m a happily married lady. My husband and I were young when we married (just out of college), and I feel like this let us skip some of the pressure of wedding planning. Weddings have become more and more a fully-designed experience, created directly by the couple getting married. We got married in 2004, before many of our friends, and before wedding sites, iPhones, Pinterest, choreographed Youtube wedding dances, and wedding reality shows. It was a beautiful wedding, but we didn’t know what we were doing in putting together the wedding—our family and friends were very helpful, and truthfully, we didn’t feel very much stress (just so much sentimentality and emotion!).

When I wrote that poem, I was thinking of the media’s obnoxious Bridezilla fixation. It’s an odd pressure that we put on women planning their weddings—we expect that a bride should feel that everything just has to be “perfect,” has to exemplify the couple in every way. I’d say that most women, in my experience, do not have this feeling internally….but there is a lot of support (in pop culture) for the image of a woman who knows exactly what she wants her wedding to be like. And yet, we are trained to anticipate and scold that hyper-controlling instinct in a bride (at the same time that everyone is chirping merrily, “It’s your day, sweetie!”). What does this say about femininity? What does this say about masculinity? It’s interesting and creepy. There is a lot of focus on the bride at a wedding, but ideally, it should be a day celebrating the couple, right?

I can think of a few reality TV shows focusing on weddings. In writing this poem, I was thinking about Four Weddings, where brides attend each other’s weddings in order to score them (this is a real show). I saw about ten minutes of that show, and was a bit aghast at the concept and what it suggests…women are being positioned against one another, and are held accountable for how enjoyable the day is from an outsider’s perspective (and are also policing one another and themselves).

“You better obsess over the minutia of your ceremony and reception, ladies,” we hiss out of one side of our mouths, while saying out of the other, “But this is your day, you are a special beautiful flower who is entitled to feeling attention and love.”

I so appreciated that horrifying scene in Bridesmaids (the food poisoning one!), where the women in the bridal party unintentionally but systematically defile the white gowns and decor of a snooty wedding dress shop.

Yes, weddings are fun, and dresses are fun, and love is fun, and receptions should be a celebration. But what worries me is how shallow and oddly competitive weddings (especially those advertised on TV) can become, how very focused on spectacle and performance. Last summer, at a close friend’s wedding, the bride’s sister (a divorce lawyer) gave a terrific and memorable toast (shout out to Avery and Tyler, and Angela!). She said to the couple, “I hope that today is the day you love each other the least.” It took everyone by surprise, but truly, that’s a beautiful wish for any partnership. The wedding is so much less than the marriage, but we don’t always like to see it that way.

I also want to say YAY for marriage equality, for couples of any orientation (and am wincingly waiting for a reality wedding show called Say Woot to the Suit).

Place seems particularly important to you–position next to someone like a spouse, one’s town/city, even the physical box you sleep/eat/attempt to live inside. In these particular poems, you battle with how people fit (or don’t) in their space, how they settle into their place, how they give in to pressures there. Thinking here of “The Apartment,” where you declare, “A home is our own because/we decide to pour our possessions into/its pockets,” taking over for the people previously occupying that space, often avoiding that history and trying to make our own. How important do you see place in your writing? What do you see as the major tensions, for you, in inhabiting a space?

Yes, place really is so important to me. I come back to it again and again in writing (even beyond this collection).

Two images/thoughts come to mind in response to how place fits into my writing. First–have you seen Moonrise Kingdom? There’s a scene toward the end, after a large storm/flood (no spoilers, I promise!). The narrator faces the camera and recounts how very serious the storm was (while the background shifts to show us vignettes of the storm’s aftermath–high waters with a basketball hoop just peeking out, bumper cars and fragments of a boardwalk along the shore). The sequence ends with the narrator looking into the future. He says something like, “However, the crops the following year were the most abundant and high quality that the region had ever produced.”

The other is an idea in this old book that I love (I bought it for a quarter at a book sale!) from 1883 called Old Violins and Their Makers. I don’t know anything about violins, but I love the book. In particular, there is one section discussing the wood in Stradivarius violins. The author, J.M. Fleming, says, “Stradivari…selected his pine from the Tyrol. I have no doubt there was…and still is, some quality in the timber grown there which recommended it to their attention. The density, elasticity, and durability of the wood depends so much upon the soil in which it has been grown.”

These two scenes/images are so striking and fascinating to me. Both are about how place transcends time, and shapes the reality that we know and become attached to. Place is what remains when we are no longer around to see it. But it is so precious to us–important enough that we easily become homesick, or miss cities, or look to a move to a new apartment/home to bring something new to our lives.

What’s the worst place you’ve ever lived (worst neighbors, worst physical space, worst roommate, etc.)?

It’s all relative. The first apartment that my husband and I shared during college had some quirks–a tiny kitchen, very odd neighbors (one who once drove by with a duck in the backseat of his car, telling me he was on his way to the wildlife sanctuary–here’s hoping!), and flimsy construction (the closet door just fell off the hinges during one party).

But we loved that place at the time, and had been living in the dorms—so we were thrilled to have our very own private bathroom! And we got our first cat, Quincy, there….she is an insane/adorable black cat with extra toes (she has oven mitts for hands, pretty much). We had a mosquito net over our bed in that place (because we thought we were so cool), and once woke up to a tiny Quincy dangling from the top of it by one claw….it then crashed down all over us.

Actually, I love that place.

That last bit you wrote right there, the “actually” as a switch to the positive reminds me of one of my favorite poems in the collection, “You Can Do This.” About halfway through the book, this poem sprints with spirited optimism, a cheery demeanor that you yourself show, but as I’ve said, gets downplayed in a more subtle manner in your poems often.

You have parallel parked in a space
just five inches bigger than your car,
smoothly. You know Queen Anne’s lace
from poison hemlock. You are
adept in remembering names,
and people’s small quirks, you know
who has cats or dogs, who trains
them…

But here, we see, you just can’t contain it anymore, listing all these reasons to be confident, to press forward with a smile, marked at the end by the new skill where the you has realized “to call to what you love, to see it returning.” That ending is less punchline and more closing the door on the moment, the what you love coming in form and aiding in the confidence. How do you know a poem is over? How do you recognize your ending? Or, perhaps, what do you need an ending in a poem to do?

For me, the goal is always to not strangle the poem into an ending. I am always working to be less heavy-handed, less aiming for a “perfect” or “heavy” or “big” ending. A poem in the book, “Structurally Sound,” talks about this a little. One of my biggest pet peeves in pop music is when a song ends with a gospel choir and key change–the epiphany of an ending feels so forced there. The poem ends by describing a song ending as “a whole house scuttl[ing] away,/ dragging the block behind it/ like a billowing, sparkling nebula.” The end of a poem recedes, like a car driving off, as we stand and watch. The thing that is still in the ending is the reader, perhaps. Some poets use their endings as a whip, surprising the reader with sharpness. I don’t think that’s what I do (although I very much admire it in other writers). I am listening for a quietness, a calmness in the last line. A songwriter I love and deeply admire is Damien Jurado (I listened to his Saint Bartlett and Maraqopa albums often while working on poems in this book). He never overdoes it, but there is such urgency in what he has to say. The production of these albums resonates with me, too. A song that reminds me of my poems is “Working Titles.” I love the echoing, plaintive construction of this song (and those back-up singer harmonies—perfect!). The ending just kind of rattles away, fading, drifting….that’s what I’d like my poems to do.

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