This is a journey without a departure, which makes it endless – an expedition through the space between grief and trauma, an unwieldy terrain that aching with hunger.
Last night the poets Luke Bloomfield, Brian Foley, and Wendy Xu passed through Cleveland, OH on their Moonbucket reading tour in promotion of their books Russian Novels (Factory Hollow Press, 2014), The Constitution (Black Ocean, 2014), and You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State Poetry Center, 2013), respectively. Below are three short video clips of each poet performing at the event, which took place at Guide to Kulchur.
Here’s Luke Bloomfield reading his poem “Fisticuffs”:
Here’s Brian Foley reading his poem “Acumen”:
Here’s Wendy Xu reading here poem “Nocturne”:
Their tour, which has also taken them to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Akron, will continue tonight in Buffalo, NY.
Elisa Gabbert lives and writes in Denver, CO. Recently, Black Ocean released her second book, The Self Unstable; Birds LLC published her first book, The French Exit, four 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.
For many, many reasons, I’m unable to review a lot of the books I read. Instead of putting together a “Best of the Year” list, I thought it might be more interesting to create a “Books I Didn’t Review But Really Liked” list. Below, then, are a handful of titles I thoroughly enjoyed, along with an excerpt of a poem that I thought was particularly swell:
Blaser, Robin. The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006.
from “Image-Nation I (the fold”
the participation is broken
fished from a sky of fire
the fiery lake pouring itself
to reach here
that matter of language caught
in the fact so that we
meet in paradise in such
times, the I consumes itself
the language sticks to
his honey-breath she is
the path of a tale, a door
to the perishing moonshine,
holes of intelligence
supposed to be in the heart
Gridlley, Sarah. Loom. Richmond, CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2013.
from “Shadows of the World Appear”
It isn’t difficult to remember
how it went.
A wordless world would be a relief
until it expects you to see a horse.
Try to sing and stand where the aspens quiver.
The breeze will always
be almost there. Go back those few steps:
it isn’t difficult to remember:
the wind will always shine as if
it loved its armored riders.
Hall, Joe. The Devotional Poems. Sommerville, MA: Black Ocean, 2013.
from “Trailer Park”
In an algorithm of trees exploding in your face, shaved from soap
in a prison cell, in a pair of yellow finches
alighting from high power lines over all these dudes
lying on their beds, palming their cocks, waiting for me
leached from circuits in a baroque array of evolving graphical
representations of a black economy, cancer, subverting process,
O Beast! O Christ!
in the mother fucking sound and the mother fucking light
the iterations of thunder, the bass so high
it hurls you into the grass, Beast!
Hass, Robert, ed. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, & Issa. New York, NY: Ecco, 1994.
from Bashō’s “Learn from the Pine”
Learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.
Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets, seek what they sought.
The basis of art is change in the universe. What’s still has changeless form. Moving things change, and because we cannot put a stop to time, it continues unarrested. To stop a thing would be to halve a sight or sound in our heart.
Wieners, John. Selected Poems: 1958-1984. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1998.
from “Poem for Painters”
but that two parallels do cross
And carry our soul and bodies
together as the planets,
Showing light on the surface
of our skin, knowing
that so much of it flows through
the veins underneath.
Our cheeks puffed with it.
The pockets full.
Wilkinson, Joshua Marie. Swap Isthmus. Sommerville, MA: Black Ocean, 2013.
from “Upholsterers’ Moon”
so then the moon
drifting way too close
going through treeline when
a voice in the radio
accidentally says your name
Xu, Wendy. You Are Not Dead. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State Poetry Center, 2013.
from “We Are Both Sure To Die”
Clutching a tiny molten piece
of someone else’s life. I tried sleeping
in a bed made of heavy light. I tried moving
out into the forest where everything
was a deer. Say you will be nothing or
beside me. How best do you correspond
in the darkness of a year? But look the year
rolls over and gives me a new face. Now
you go toward the ocean with a terrible
spirit of discovery. There is getting to know
your body and disowning it. The ocean says you
are not dead. What else did you want
it to announce?
Zukofsky, Louis. “A.” Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978.
Together men form one sky.
The sky is a man,
You must know this to understand
Why places are different
And things new and old
Why everywhere things are different,
You cannot find out
By looking at skies alone
But from their effects.
One sky is rich in each of us,
When a child is conceived
It gets a sky for a gift.
I would suggest checking out all these books if you already haven’t. Each one will melt your face in their own special way.
The second sentence of “Lightning,” the first poem in The Next Monsters (Black Ocean, 2013), reads: “I drag you to a little room to show you 116 photos” (3). To some extent, I think, this is a productive way to conceptualize the prose poems that comprise Julie Doxsee’s third full-length collection of poetry: as “little rooms” a reader can enter so as to view the strange “photos,” images, ideas, and language that reside within them. Like the rooms of a house, each one is a discrete space with its own furnishings; yet, when regarded collectively, they work in conjunction with one another to form a complete residence. Take, for example, the poem “Mountain and Monster”:
A hailstorm comes out of the monster’s mouth and I spill my coffee with a jolt. We laugh and laugh as if we had come together for the only time and place when and where split coffee is funny. You are the only monster I know who wears a pink sweater I say to it as it pretends to offer me some cashews. We are on top of a jagged mountain, fingertips inches from the clouds. (47)
This example, like many throughout the collection, offers readers a rather fantastical image; in this case, it is that of the speaker and a “monster” spewing a “hailstorm” from his mouth while laughing, eating cashews, spilling coffee, and touching clouds on top of a mountain. To this end, it is a bizarre little room with an odd and somewhat surreal painting hanging on its wall. You enter the room, look at the painting, momentarily lose (or escape) yourself in its strangeness, then move on to the next little room.
Of course, not all of these little rooms are furnished with images. Others are more abstract and fill themselves with ideas. To wit, here is the poem “Lion Touch” in its entirety:
Something important is nothing. To be inside people teaches us inwardness, doesn’t it? A certain kind of me falls inside like an assumption. A certain kind of prayer finds a newborn you. Three days of water-only leaves a great pain in your chest without should to cover it.
Something important is wow. Perhaps we are coloring the bravery its takes to make love, to stay anesthetized outside. I think so. I think most people live in our chest without a way to get out. To feel them there is zoo-ish.
I’m glad people stay alive. I’m glad I am naked. (35)
The poem contains, primarily, a series of declarative sentences that focus on subjectivity and the complicated manner in which both internal and external forces work to create it. “To be inside people,” or to extend outside of ourselves, paradoxically, “teaches us inwardness.” Likewise, the Other lives “in our chest” and we “feel” them in this corporeal petting zoo. Yes, this little room is a far cry from the image-based surrealism of the previous example.
But, as mentioned before, these rooms work in conjunction with one another—not in opposition to one another—in order to create a larger, habitable structure. And in this structure, as Doxsee writes in the appropriately titled “Mansion”: “There are 22 rooms here your words inhabit—the twisted serifs I spiral up and corkscrew down and spiral up and corkscrew down every day. Wear my dizzy skin, please” (63). Indeed, as we walk through the mansion that is The Next Monsters, we enter each room so as to “corkscrew” through and around their “twisted” words. In doing so, we become “dizzy” with linguistic vertigo, as the poet designs a strange architecture of poetry.
In some respects, then, the rooms she constructs while building this house function also as a monument to language that is both poetic and utilitarian. In the poem “The Key to Moving Correctly without Running into Obstacles,” the speaker says:
I like words because they do anything right up front. I am a black cat with engorged nipples. My two babies are bats with goat legs. A third was born with white eyes—totally white—so it never saw my nipple and starved. For example. (55)
In this room, Doxsee manages to fuse what most critics find to be antithetical: functionality and the autotelic drive toward l’art pour l’art. Accordingly, “words” have the capacity to “do anything right up front”; but, at least in this poem, what they “do” is create a self-contained world wherein goats and bats suckle an “engorged” cat. Yes, the content of the poem maybe devoid of utilitarian value, but we can relate the act of creating that world to building a private study or den in which a home-owner can relax, meditate, or simply escape the anxieties stemming our daily quandaries about food, the rent, and bills.
That, to my mind, then, is the beauty of The Next Monsters: each poem is a constructed space in which we enter, so as to take leave of the world around us, and let words “do anything” to us they (and we) want. In the poet’s own words, it is “language that makes an apple an apple,” but it is “up to us to say that it is” (77). In other words, when we enter these rooms, we also enter into a symbiotic relationship with language; and such a relationship, when in assisted by a poet like Doxsee, has the ability to produce wonderful little rooms that contain beautiful furnishings such as: “I can’t shake the image, I can’t shake the full moon. It is the permanent, not the fleeting, that hurts” (41). Yes, the little rooms The Next Monsters offer a permanence that will leave you hurting in all the good ways.
The opening stanzas of Louis Zukofsky’s “A-22” read:
Other letters a sum owed
ages account years each year
out of old field, permute
blow blue up against yellow
—scape welcome young birds—initial
transmutes itself, swim near and
read a weed’s reward—grain
an omen a good omen
the chill mists greet woods
ice, flowers—their soul’s return (508)
Written in counted verse (each stanza contains five lines, each line five words), Zukofsky winds his way through the natural world’s fields, birds, weeds, woods, and flowers in an alliterative, idiomatically dense, syntactically circuitous, but formally rigid structure. As line after line and stanza after stanza unfold, each word “carves a breath” (509) into form, shaping the poem into a linguistic landscape via its musical and grammatical elements. Certainly, “A-22” pushes toward the upper limit of Zukofsky’s poetics, an “integral” he defines as “Lower limit speech / Upper limit music” (138), in order to engage the natural world in a visceral manner that “speech” by itself cannot achieve.
It’s no wonder, then, that Joshua Harmon prefaces his book Scape (Black Ocean, 2009) with a fragment from the opening stanza of “A-22”: “—scape welcome young birds—.” Just as did Zukofsky, Harmon creates a landscape in a similar fashion, focusing on alliteration, complex syntax, and a lush idiom. Likewise, Harmon composes Scape’s first poem “Wither” in counted verse (each stanza contains two lines, each line four words). The first seven stanzas read:
—heelprint and halter, halfway
heard: before mean back
then, to know before
it breaks it lurches
so in the snowfield’s
stalk- and stem-broken
edges a rosehip bends,
reddens at its tip:
halfway across, near dusk,
to know snow before
this is nothing to
naming this unread surface
defect of drifting lines:
snow breaks back (3)
Phoneme after phoneme echo each other through alliteration and rhyme for another ten couplets, all within the framework of a single syntactical unit. The experience is not unlike walking through an expansive “snowfield” at “dusk” while “drift lines” dust over one’s path to shelter, the journey home made difficult by the unforgiving conditions. Yes, it’s easy to wander off and get lost within the landscape of the poem.
And this, I believe, is the joy of Harmon’s Scape: we can walk “step by step” through and “toward the form of a field” (7) within the poem, wherein “sound alone” (9) causes us to experience a particular type of “vertigo” (8). Indeed, our senses disorient as we travel through a poetic “landscape” that appears as “an open system, a naïve word’s wound, a trick made of…waiting breath” (13), while we journey to “the elided spaces / inside [our] head” (20).
To further highlight this point, I’ve excerpted the opening and closing lines of the poem “Escape”:
Torque of tongue
when you run
the wind follows
you, falls blistered
and burnt: hand-
such green timber
to ruin knife-knit
beyond a briarneck, lapse
turns light: turl and sumac-twist
how this stretch bees
race to pattern it
These scabbed leaves loosely north,
landslipped: otherwhorled in vacancies
of bough-bladed stripling—
Lonesome intention, riven match:
boon of brazen dismantlings takes
amid later light: underwinged (56)
As with the previous excerpt, the “rooted redundancies” of alliteration build a sonic “pattern” and “torque” the “tongue” so as to cause the mouth to “sumac-twist” within Harmon’s landscapes. But, in addition to this sonic strategy, the poet creates linguistic “dismantlings” through creative slippages. To this end, “landscape” becomes “landslipped” (my italics) and “otherworld” becomes “otherwhorled.” These playful techniques allow us to whirl in Harmon’s whorled otherworld of words.
Yes, just as Zukofsky wrote “A-22” in a manner that “uncompassed” the directions “north south west [and] east” (513) in linguistic dislocation, so too does Harmon immerse us in a “landscape [that] can no longer / hold itself to together” (42), at least to the extent that its musical and syntactical structures unravel our senses and dizzy us into an ever expanding soundscape.
On Friday 10 May, Corey Zeller, Jeff Alessandrelli, and Joe Hall descended upon Akron, OH and read their poems for The Big Big Mess Reading Series. Below are a few videos from the event:
Corey Zeller reads from his recently released full-length Man Vs. Sky (Yes Yes Books, 2013):
Jeff Alessandrelli reads from recently released chapbook People are Places are Places are People (Imaginary Friend Press, 2013):
Joe Hall reads from his recently released full-length Devotional Poems (Black Ocean, 2013):
My futon’s favorite people: Matt Bell & Brian Oliu, Amber Sparks, and Tyler Gobble.
Favorite Dance Party: Lit Party @ AWP- duh!
Amber already did a fantastic review of this shortly after AWP, but I can’t contain myself. It needs to be reiterated that this is a book worth having and owning . So:
Schomburg constructs his hundred little deaths as word games; as the reader you are his toy, and he will haunt you.