I’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
that can resist
it is only
that can withstand,
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
that can resist
it is only the imagination
that can withstand,
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.