Reading Emily Wolahan’s Hinge (The National Poetry Review Press, 2015), I’m reminded of the fact we live in “A tenable now, immersed/ in churned waterways, calling to its transient/ population. What exactly do we plan to do?” Her debut collection floats in an “armor. . .constructed from romantic movies,” ferries us past revelations in the form of hedge dew and field light. Hinge’s is a firmament that ponders the liminal as it plays out in arguments and bodies of water alike. From town planning to the Munchian scream, Wolahan illuminates the latch.
Jon Riccio: The verticality of Hinge’s poems – tighter margins, medium line lengths – adds to their reading pleasure. Was this the layout you always envisioned?
Emily Wolahan: I really enjoy a tight line and worked at honing that skill as I wrote this collection. An economic, sonic line matched the controlled tone of the speaker throughout the collection. These poems explore ideas and emotions from a very cautionary vantage point. I wanted the look and sound of the poems to match.
JR: Five of your poems have the word “Argument” in their title. What aesthetic forces must be at work for beauty to rise out of conflict?
EW: Interesting—when I hear “argument,” I immediately think of rhetorical strategies used to convince a listener or reader of your point of view. Comes from years of teaching comp, I guess.
A good rhetorical argument acknowledges conflict and finds an intellectual way through it, which is very relevant to Hinge. In the “Argument” poems, I wanted to harness an abstract idea as a strategy to conduct the discussion. That’s how I arrived at “Argument in Fog”, “Argument in Exucitasio,” “Argument in Optative.” Eventually, I start to just straight up argue with things, because eventually, I always argue. A contrarian to the bone.
The beauty for me is in creating opportunities to think my way out of corners. At the time, I found the intellect very beautiful and wanted to convey its promise and, in some way, the emptiness of that promise. You can’t think your way into action, as Hamlet reminds us.
JR: On a related note, did titling your poems “École des Hautes Études,” “Pauvres Petits en Été,” and “Vincent à Théo” in French broaden or restrict your compositional process?
EW: I have a strange relationship with French. I spent a long time learning it, some time in Paris being snubbed for not knowing it better, and am continually drawn to reading French poetry. Incorporating French into my compositional practice always broadens my thinking, though very often no French appears. I’m currently working on a project that is directly influenced by the line structure of L’excès-l’usine by Leslie Kaplan.
I believe in reading as widely as possible, incorporating into your reading poetry from all over the world. Often that’s in translations, as in Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season that Does Not Exist in the World or Tomas Tranströmer, Tomaz Salumun, and many others. I will muddle my way through French happily, however; the discomfort of not being able to whiz my eyes down the page and understand everything is enjoyable to me.
JR: “Wide: Letter to Herself” contains the lines “Within kitchen, drawer,/ within drawer, this porcelain bowl./ It will do. Will do.” which have a nesting-doll sparkle to them. How do they relate to the following page’s “indecision of paradise?”
EW: In many kinds of paradise (this one is a domestic), we may not have any worries, nor lack much, but we are also stripped of our intellectual faculties. That’s how I felt when I went from a full, New York City cultural existence to being a new mother in a small city in Northern England. I felt stripped of my brain and my ability to decide. The perfect happiness of having a healthy child and one’s kitchen in order didn’t escape me, but I felt the push against it too. Nesting-dolls embrace each other and capture each other.
JR: The above-mentioned poem concludes with “Light rain, cotton rain, cashmere rain./ Her dangerous belief in expertise.” When is novice-ness the best creed?
EW: I’d say, almost always! When are we not in a position when we are, at least in part, new to an action or situation? I’m very interested in inhabiting the position of “not-knowing”—as intellectual curiosity, but also emotional bafflement. An early title of this manuscript included the word “Acquaintance” because I was exploring the “knowledge of acquaintance” (versus “experience” or “expertise”). What results do we experience when we are somewhat-familiar-with a set of problems, but not at all expert in solving them?
There’s a palpable sense of anxiety in that, but there’s also joy in it. The energy of flying by the seat of your pants through life.
JR: You’ve lived in Britain, Hong Kong, Italy, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few of the countries listed in your bio. This, coupled with “That some solutions/ become answers, their spatial disclosure/ a forklift of readiness” (from “Sly and Unseen”) has me wondering how these travels honed your tools of investigation.
EW: That travel is the collected experience of the forced travel of my childhood and chosen travel of my adulthood. When I was an expat child, I refused to take pictures after I lost my Kodak Star 110 camera at the Trevi Fountain. I proclaimed I would rely on my memory. Alas, I am no Funes. I could observe, but not remember every detail.
What I took away from that observation of people and nature, however, is that there are multiple solutions to any given problem. A European city solves a civic need in one way, while an East Asian city solves it quite differently. One bird solves its problem of being prey through camouflage, another through strength in numbers. Designs, either industrial or evolutionary, develop over time. Some become universal, some stay idiosyncratic.
JR: You’ve melded rhythm and sound to give the best directions: “The insistent exit can be found/ in night field, short wheat/ bundled in shadow” (from “Quite Cold in Cloud”). Where best to locate a hinge’s entrance?
EW: I’d argue a hinge is not an entrance or an exit but the loose mechanism that makes either possible. While I feel liminal spaces are the most provoking of insight—what place cannot feel liminal at the right moment? Every place, and every angle of observation, can be made strange, thereby suddenly swinging open.
JR: We’re told “Some things/ are not suited for language. In the bookstore,/ you scream you want a particular fairy book,/ each fairy named, its powers afforded/ by the seasonal structures of miniature worlds.” In what ways does the fantastic serve the unspoken?
EW: What a compelling question. For a child, in particular, the fantastical and mythic can provide needed explanation of the often unspoken or hard to understand—death, betrayal, power and powerlessness.
In “Argument in Fog,” where those lines appear, I’m exploring what can’t be imagined fully (death and suicide—even our own futures) and the frustration of meeting limits. Children know that better than anyone and small children scream over it. A five-year-old’s guttural scream, the physical reaction to frustration, embodies how I personally feel. The Munchian scream into a windy terrain. The unspoken is often voiced, but in animal terms, non-verbally.
JR: If, as you say, “The only guarantee is a world/ in transition,” how do we find comfort “in the hum hee ha of a town/ that proudly cares for its pavement,/ its paths, its bridges?”
EW: The image in that line comes from my interest and admiration for town planning. There is an incredible amount of unrecognized labor that goes into our cities and towns—from garbage pick-up, to coordinating with various skilled laborers in order to paint a bridge, design a lamp post, or plant a patch of garden. I’m personally inspired by that web of human action that embraces us because our own personal lives are subject to so much transition. Nothing is certain in our lives, no matter how vastly different they might be. Change will come. The Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” defines us. We are living in interesting times.
My current project is very concerned with the insecurity of our contemporary reality. If it’s not political unrest, domestic or international, it’s terrorism or environmental collapse that we could worry about. Every day seems pregnant with insecurity. I’m working on a poem in sequences that attempts to write from within that insecurity.
JR: I was pleasantly surprised to find the poem “Hard Soft Bodies” in a book called Hinge (“Universe the universe/ imagined red and luminous./ It needs to turn.”). Do you think there’s a cosmic latch? Can it be applied to writing?
EW: Surely, we’re all in this crazy game of writing to reveal something about ourselves or the world. The primary place, I think, is curiosity and self-discovery—then the added layers of “making.” In “Hard Soft Bodies,” I was conveying the experience of delivering an infant. The universal universe—and, yes, it must turn. That experience changed everything in my world—it was the cosmic latch that opened up my life and imagination.
Emily Wolahan is the author of Hinge. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Volt, Fourteen Hills, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, and many other journals. Her essays have appeared in The New Inquiry, Gulf Coast, and Among Margins, an anthology of essays on aesthetics. She lives in San Francisco.
Jon Riccio is an incoming PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Recent poems appear in apt, Booth, Cleaver, Scapegoat Review, The HIV Here and Now Project, Hawai’i Review, and Dead King Magazine.
interview by Jon Riccio
Ginger Murchison’s is a voice comprised of narrative vulnerability that embraces the “pulpit to all our falterings.” I’m fortunate to have worked with her at various junctures over the last two years, Murchison’s brand of literary mentorship equal parts scholar and ambassador. Her collection a scrap of linen, a bone (Press 53, 2016) encompasses the archaeologies of bloodlines in tandem with the convergences and temporalities intrinsic to the natural world. Each orchid is balanced by a father’s “old friend, skin dry as the hot-sand bottom/ of that river,” each birdsong falling on the ears of women who “kept vigils and prayed at the entrance of mines.” Over the course of our discussion, she reflects on the equilibrium that transpires between writers and readers, illuminates “what art in the dark wants to become.”
Jon Riccio: There’s a compelling orchestration of the descriptions throughout a scrap of linen, a bone, so much so I’d call them a portraiture of words. Take the poem “Gravedigger:”
shouldering his way to the bottom of every grave,
his shirt black-wet either with sweat
or the slow rain crusting the dirty snow, every day
digging down to a place just like this—
another hole in another pewter-gray day
Do you prefer an accrual or a cascading of details?
Ginger Murchison: I want to be able to do both. I write most often with a formal pressure that controls the details. . . the release of information, grammatically orchestrated as it is in a scrap of linen, a bone’s “The Fish Houses,” a poem about those strings of nearly century-old shacks on pilings in Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor, built by the fishing industry as ice houses, net-mending stations or just shanties where the fishermen bunked.
Like seeds cracked open, blooming in the ooze of fish and mud
the blast of rain and hurricanes, they’re the story of wet boots, wet nets,
wet nights, outlasting the fishermen who smoked, drank, cursed and slept there—
their metal roofs stars in a galaxy turned upside-down, burning
its slow way to collapse, wordless as an offshore fog, a patience
in the wind’s rushed syllables coming forth and forth.
In another poem, “Mandatory Evacuation,” the circumstances of hurricane Charley don’t permit a controlled orchestration of detail. In this kind of poem, the details pour forth in a torrent down the page to overwhelm the reader, mimicking that swirl of the storm. It’s a 26-line sentence fragment with 17 participles—adjectives—all descriptively holding the focus in a continual present for the whirling effect, instead of the subject-verb march of a narrative.
thrown out of the water
trees piled up Tinker Toys roofs
paper airplanes households
split wide like the lightning-strike sky
blown-wet curtains flapping
where a wall had been
and even with the waves quiet again
anything living lives on some mercy none
of the reasons for staying remembered
all around drowned
keeping on being gone
and the birds complaining
in the sore air
The poem will dictate how it wants to be written.
JR: “From the Deck in Mid-November” brings us to “that safe way my sister and I had of testing/ whether the house was too nervous for noise” before reaching one of the book’s strongest lines, “Names hold sisters together like grass holds a hillside.” What empowers you in writing about the familial?
GM: A long memory, for one thing, but more importantly, the enormous emptiness I feel desperate to fill since I’m the only one of my family still living. My mother and father are in the book, too. We were one of those uncomplicated families where my blue-collar dad worked hard, proud of everything we did and anything he could buy for us, and my mother one of that first generation to work outside the home. In the case of sisters, it’s easy. While we were normal sisters as girls, and I was, she’d be quick to tell you, every annoying thing little sisters are known to be, we were best friends as adults. We grew up with the Arkansas River virtually in our back yard, in a really small house where it was impossible to have secrets. I inherited the clothes she grew out of and I tried every way I could think of to be like her. I keep writing poems, now, to leave something with the mark each of them left on me.
JR: “Gravity” features the Niagara Falls barrel traveler Annie Edson Taylor, whose sojourn occurred on her 63rd birthday. It arrives at a “relinquished equilibrium,” as if relinquishment somehow implies there was an initial option of control – something artists wrestle with from one draft to the next. When does the Annie approach work best? Did you find yourself identifying with Annie during this collection?
GM: I’ve never thought about that before. My first reaction would be to say I’m the antithesis to Annie, but I see aspects of her in me, especially early on. She contemplated every detail of her circumstance and how she would respond, even to her invented dead husband and the lie about her age. She designed her own barrel, oversaw its construction, deliberated every precise detail of her day, even to whom she would speak the calculated responses she’d scripted for herself. My earliest poems were hatched out of something like that strict control. I’d been a teacher for thirty-one years. I knew the last line before I’d written the first one. I wrote poems that carefully guarded an image I thought I needed to protect. I was good at syntax, and I screwed those poems down so tight, grammatically, they couldn’t breathe.
I read 50 or 60 contemporary poems a day, and I knew the kind of poem I wanted to write, but my finished poem was always a disappointment, nothing at all like the poem I’d hoped to see on the page. People said things like “Trust the process,” but I had no idea what that meant or how to do it. It was after I got into workshops that I realized the really good poems were open ended, while mine were shut down at the end. . .well, not just shut down but nailed closed. I started tearing the last three lines away from all my poems and left them hanging open. One by one, I discovered endings that instead of shutting the door on the reader, actually invited him in, a participant. When I got an ending right, it felt good.
After about seven years of poems, I began to see the work grammar could do, and I finally gave my English-teacher self permission to write a sentence fragment in a poem. The freedom of that was exhilarating, and I went a little wild, writing poems without punctuation, poems that didn’t behave on the page. Those, I guess, were the poems of my “relinquished equilibrium.” I’ve settled down a bit from that, but I don’t manage the poems any more. I let the poem tell me whether it wants to be a one-sentence poem, a syllabic poem, a chunk pouring down the page traditionally punctuated or not. I couldn’t have understood that in my “Annie approach” days. And putting this collection of poems together? At first, I had trouble letting go of seeing the manuscript as a strict chronology, but after throwing it against the wall and starting over at least a dozen times, it began to loosen up. Friends helped. Tom Lombado of Press 53 determined the final order, and I was more than glad to relinquish that job to him, and it was enlightening to see his vision at work, shaping it. Note: It wasn’t until the third pass through this paragraph that I spotted that word “relinquish.” There you go!
JR: You reference the future in ways thought-provoking (“on this chair, in the larger shadow/ he will one day become”) and ironic (“commercials to remind us/ what it was we used to want/ someday”). Mortality aside, why are we so preoccupied with time?
GM: I’m glad you asked this question. It gives me one more opportunity to tell poets about one of the most important books in my library, and I’ll let those brilliant author-poets answer for me. I had just finished my first semester in Warren Wilson’s MFA program for poets when I went to AWP and listened to the panelists, David Baker, Stanley Plumly, Linda Gregerson and Ann Townsend, talk about Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry from Graywolf Press. Each of these four poets contributed an essay on time in that book that changed my whole way of seeing poems and gave me a new way of talking about them.
Listen to what David Baker says in his essay, “To Think About Time.”
Time defines us. Time binds us. Yet time is not an element of nature. It does not exist in and of itself, as a material substance, like a sycamore does or a muon. It is an immaterial measurement of the relationships of material substances and—this is important—it is an entity wholly of our own making. It is a figment, a metron, a device by which we measure the elements of nature. Or, more exactly, it is a device by which we measure the changes among natural substances. The tides sweep in and out, our hearts beat, atoms fuse and decay, and all the great galaxies spin around at unimaginable speeds across unimaginable space. Space, the cosmologists remind us, is merely another word for time. . . .
(David Baker, p. 235)
Poetry is about the varieties of measuring, telling and thinking about time. Thus the nature of its stories varies from poem to poem. The interesting question is not whether a poem has a story in it, but rather what kind of time-telling the poem undertakes. Time may be suppressed, elongated, distorted or abbreviated. It may be spotty, circular or linear.”
(David Baker, p. 242)
“Time provides the subject, the story, and the style of lyric poetry. . .if. . .the temporal engine of a poem is its verb, then what happens to time in a poem without a verb?
The apparition of these faces in the crowds;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
In the place where a verb would likely reside, Pound substitutes a semicolon (originally a colon, in an earlier draft). He wants the poem to be an instant of recognition or epiphany, an instant of likeness, so he snips out the temporal marker and puts in something like an equal sign. Thus the image in line 1 is like the image in line 2. The poem doesn’t seem to advance, or evolve, without a verb to enact. . . .[and] thereby embodies Pound’s interest in a “pure image.”
(David Baker, p. 239)
And listen to Stanley Plumly in his essay, “Lyric Time.”
Time, for instance, as a measure within and without the poem: that is, the conceit of the amount of time implied or covered within the “action” of the poem; the actual time the poem takes, say sonnet time as opposed to fifty or eighty lines or the hundred-and-thirty-two lines required to cross the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn; or timing time, the rhythm, the cadence, the metrical time, the length of line time across then down the page, pacing time. Then there is the time after the poem, relative to its displacement, density and resonance, the reading and reflective time, the breadth of time necessary to absorb the time of and with a lyric poem.
(Stanley Plumly, p. 264)
Whitman’s “Brooklyn Ferry” is eternal—past, present, and future—and. . .we, its passengers, are, in the best sense, interchangeable with those who have traveled and those who will travel this well-worn path.”
(Stanley Plumly, p. 267)
And there’s the best possible answer to your question: “What empowers you in writing about the familial?” I am interchangeable with the members of my family who traveled here with me. I hear my mother’s voice when I speak. I make my sister’s hand gestures; my father is always there in his quiet moral stance, modeling who we should be.
I’m embarrassed I’ve taken so long an answer, but I actually wish I could type all of Radiant Lyre’s essays for you. I hope everyone reading this will get a copy. I taught English 31 years, so I’ve developed a heightened awareness of the verb and how it moves us in time (its tenses) and the verbals that are verb forms but perform in sentences like adjectives, adverbs, and nouns and don’t advance the story forward. Read Theodore Roethke’s “Child on Top of the Greenhouse.” There isn’t a verb in the poem, but rather seven participial phrases that freeze this moment of fear for the child, “the wind billowing out the seat of his britches,” on top of those “crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,” that “streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,” those “white clouds all rushing eastward,” that “line of elms all plunging and tossing,” and “everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting.” Even the child, the poem’s subject, is not mentioned in the poem. Mimicking the events in the poem, he’s suspended on top of it in the title. A preoccupation with time? It guided Roethke’s poem, for sure. “Mandatory Evacuation” gives a nod to Roethke with its maybe 17 participles. “Every Last Time” is another one. Its two verbless subjects, “everything” and “me,” are motionless in a swirling guilt, produced by about 20 verbals.
JR: “Asylum’s” epigraph haunts me in my tracks: “for the mental patients and the hundreds of unopened suitcases found after New York’s Willard State Hospital for the Insane closed in 1995.” as do the lines:
light laid down in a cockeyed pattern, the grain of Venetian-blind slats
a labyrinth that will swallow it, an insistent hum the numb oblivion
of naked light bulbs, where it will pay to learn to be dead,
where the living stand over the dead to make sure they stay dead.
Is tone easier when you have a specific location as your poem’s subject?
GM: For me, tone is less about a specific location as the poem’s subject, as it is about the location of the poem in the poet. I’ll need to explain that. In an interview with Billy Collins for the 10th anniversary of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NW_c_3vRcQI, I mentioned that not enough poems I read for The Cortland Review have a reader in mind. They sound like an exercise between the poet and the page. . .an attempt to be clever. . .some kind of verbal gymnastics, some attempt to appear brilliant. I’m outside that kind of poem, the kind of poem that comes out of the poet’s head rather than from some deeply human place in him that connects him to me emotionally. Billy responded similarly, that when he reads poems for a contest, he becomes impatient. “No one is talking to me! Will someone just please talk to me!” When the poet considers his reader in conversational language in an intimate setting as at a café table over coffee, everything changes. He voice will come from a more intimate place in himself. He’ll choose different words, project an authenticity I can’t help responding to. Laure-Anne Bosselaar, in an early workshop I took, said we should write the word LISTEN! at the top of the page to keep us from forgetting our reader.
The intimate place in me that produced “Asylum,” that poem you reference, was deeply affected by the fact that the Willard State Hospital for the Insane didn’t close until 1995. My husband and I have a mentally challenged daughter who, after public school special ed. programs until she was 21, went, in 1997, to live at the Stewart Home School in Frankfort, Kentucky. That’s just two years after the close of the Willard State Hospital that, at its peak, housed more than 4,000 “inmates,” with the average stay being 30 years. Most never left, and some 5,000 are buried in numbered graves on the property. Tone is inherent (not planted) in a poem that registers from this deep in that authentic place in the poet.
The tragic story of those suitcases is told in The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from A State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney, Peter Shastny with Lisa Rinzler, photographer (Bellevue Literary Press, Reprint Edition, 2009).
JR: I loved line two of the closing tercet in “Vocabulary” for its relationship between object, place and the verb that links them:
I couldn’t tell where death began and ended,
but that whole farmhouse tilted toward the casket
with the weight of my new word.
Did you write this from a micro- (beautiful connections via parts of speech) or macro- (penultimate encompassing the entire poem) perspective? Do you think current poetry favors one aspect over the other?
GM: I think this is the third poem I ever wrote. I didn’t know a thing about writing poetry, but I bumped into a poetry group online. It was 1997, and my personal computer was about a week old when I found poems online—not the kind I’d been teaching in textbooks, but contemporary poems in chat rooms, some written a whole 10 minutes before they were posted. I wanted to do that. I couldn’t have understood your question then, and in “Vocabulary,” I wrote out of my remembered 5-year old’s confusion about what the word “death” meant. I couldn’t reconcile that casket in my grandparents’ farmhouse dining room with
[h]omemade bread [rising] in the kitchen
with choruses of Inka Dinka Do
and Won’t you come Home, Bill Bailey,
my own mother louder than the rest.
Even the priest who bowed his head
beside the body grabbed a beer,
pressed its cold against his face, sang, too.
I’m not sure I can answer your question now about what I was trying to do then, but I’d have to say that my years as an English teacher would most likely have had me leaning toward the “micro- (beautiful connections via parts of speech) perspective,” but then, trying to put down that 5-year old’s recollections as an adult seems to have required that “macro- (penultimate encompassing the whole poem) perspective,” too. Endings are difficult. I love what Mark Doty said recently: “One ambition of poetry is to create a reverberant silence in its wake, one that means more or differently than the silence that preceded the poem.” I think I just deftly wormed my way out of this question without answering it, but I’m thinking every poem is the examination of our macro-humanity expressed with a micro-focus on what makes that expression art.
JR: Of the mothers in a scrap of linen, a bone – “Mid-Western Madonna” (“Little more than a child herself. . .belly-soft with new birth, her flimsy skirt/ wadded between her legs) and the matriarch from “Wartime Measures” (“Weekdays, she donned coveralls,/ rode the bus an hour each way/ to work the night shift/ in Boeing’s assembly plant) – who leads a harsher existence? Who are your favorite writers on the subject of motherhood?
GM: Who leads a harsher existence? Hands down it’s the Mid-Western Madonna in that “Kansas dust the color of struggle,” that “back-alley, brick-oven heat.” But the even harsher existence may fall to the infant daughter at her breast,
not much to suckle there
but the knowledge of breast and thigh.
All it will ever pay her to know.
In “Wartime Measures” my own mother, after her “coveralled” week of the night-shift in Boeing’s assembly plant, was full of singing. And she was (we all were) infused with the cause of World War II.
all those mason jars
labeled and lined up like soldiers
on shelves in the cellar—
every jewel color of summer preserved
head to foot berry stained,
bent to the purple boil
in the weekend-sweet kitchen heat.
The idea of “mother” I grew up with was that woman described in “River”
patiently waiting for what happened next,
the way women have always waited for hunter husbands,
kept vigils and prayed at the entrance of mines.
One of the first images of mother I discovered in a poem was in Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” where even the word “glass” connotes a cold and fixed edginess at which nerves bristle, where the idiosyncratic punctuation and line breaks make the simple words and short sentences feel like a mouthful of broken glass, where the mother offers her visiting daughter nothing personal, warm, or welcoming, but rather launches into a laundry list of concerns that, while they are endowed with highly charged emotion, they serve as small talk, pointing perfectly to the emotional distance between mother and daughter. This is not a place to come for sympathy, and the outside, just as cold as the mother, is “paralyzed with ice.” That may not be my favorite image of “mother,” but in Anne Carson’s hands, it’s certainly the most poetically artistic.
The most passionate mother poem I’ve discovered has to be Rebecca Foust’s scathing “Apologies to my OB/GYN” in her third book, winner of the 2008 Many Mountains Moving Press Poetry Book Prize, All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song.
Sorry that my boy birthed himself
too early, took up so much room. . . .
Sorry we were such pains in your ass,
asking you to answer our night calls like that. . . .
Sorry about how he defied your prognoses
skyrocketed premiums, weighted the costs
in your cost benefit analyses. . . .
Sorry he took so much of your time
being so determined to live. He spent
today saving hopeless-case nymph moths
trapped in the porch light, one matrix-dot
at a time. Now he’s asleep, blue wingbeat
pulse fluttering his left temple—there,
there again. Just like it did then.
JR: You mention the late Steve Orlen (co-founder of the University of Arizona’s MFA program and a faculty member at Warren Wilson) in your acknowledgements. What impact did he have on your work?
GM: Everyone at Warren Wilson loved Steve Orlen and wanted to work with him, especially on the essay. It was the first day of my essay semester, and I’d come armed with a subject—even a title: “ALL THE TIME THERE IS: An Interrogation into the Function of Sound, Syntax, and Grammar Across the Career of Larry Levis.” Warren Wilson students were never encouraged to request a supervisor, the idea being that the faculty knew better who should be paired with whom, but I’d decided I wanted to work with Steve Orlen for two reasons. One, he’d been Larry Levis’ friend, and I knew he’d have anecdotes to help me humanize Levis. I also knew he was famous for helping students throw open poems to digression, disjunction and surprise, something Levis was famous for, and something I still wasn’t doing in my own poems, so I wasn’t shy about dropping hints that I was hoping to work with Steve Orlen. Milling around that opening-day reception with a drink in my hand, I overheard Steve say, in that voice that kept few secrets, that he wanted to work with Ginger Murchison. I wheeled around, put out my hand and said, “I’m Ginger Murchison, and I just told three people that I wanted to work with you.”
Steve, very early on, got bored with the whole idea of reading one more sentence about syntax and grammar and suggested by the third packet that we “just work on poems.”
He called me out for the “matter of too much control” in my poems. Syntax, he said, was the only formal strategy that would help me break open my imagination and explore more than, say, two avenues at a time in a poem. He asked me to look at how Levis’ digressions did not lead him back to what he was already talking about but into new territory.
Seamlessness and perfection, he said, don’t necessarily strengthen a poem.
Avoid the grammarian’s tendency to tie the poem up in its own syntax.
Create poems out of speech instead of writing, and passion instead of intellect.
The closer to speech even a form poem comes the stronger its expressiveness.
As to repeated gestures, remember Jon Anderson: “Say it once and move on.”
In that one semester’s letters, Steve had direct influence on at least six of the poems in a scrap of linen, a bone. I still feel the easy way he coached me and coaxed me into another way of thinking about a poem, especially its ending. I just want to go down as evidence of the huge difference Steve Orlen made out here.
JR: You’re affiliated with Palm Beach Poetry Festival, The Frost Place and, in years past, Bread Loaf. What factors should one take into consideration when exploring writers’ conference options?
GM: Cost and proximity are always factors. The quality of teachers, and by that, I don’t mean “top tier poets.” We all love hanging out where those guys are, but conferences where they are regular fare are going to cost more, and the younger practicing poets are great teachers, too, and often a lot more energetic. Who else is going to the conference? Are most of the participants your age? Are at least some in graduate programs? Are they serious or part-time poets? It’s the level of discourse you’re after. You’ll likely be sleeping in dorms and eating together. It’s always best if there’s a varying demographic. Find poet teachers who come out of the aesthetic you ascribe to. If you’re an experimental poet, look for the conference where you’ll fit in best. If you want to write only in forms, look for the place/teacher most likely interested in helping with that. Ask every poet you know. Ask every teacher you know. Ask poets you don’t know. Ask me. I go to the same conferences every year and make it a point to study with someone I don’t know, someone about whom I have no previous notions or expectations. I’m always pleasantly surprised.
JR: The final couplet of “Small Craft Advisory” states “It will take both of you to untie the language/ and discover the insignificance of speech.” When did you make this discovery? Does it cast an interpretative lens over the book?
GM: I wrote that poem in one night at the Iowa Summer Writers’ Workshop where I went three successive years to study with Richard Jackson who taught at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, just up the road from Atlanta, where I lived at the time. It was a response to an “assignment,” a prompt that I can’t now remember. I made that discovery that night struggling to find an end for the poem. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any other poems that came that easily. But making it about Huck and Jim made it easy for me. I hold the (probably) unusual distinction of having read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn aloud 79 times to 8th graders and that once to my son. Those two on that raft, Huck and Jim, called in another poem in the book “those two strange shapes of grace,” communicated in a language more honest and more sincere than any conversation that happened on land, whether by the ignorant, the authorities or the righteous. I wanted Jason to know that kind of honesty in speech, but Huck and Jim communicated, too, in their silences when they drifted “solemn and slow.”
I don’t think there’s an interpretive lens over the book from that, but there is likely an influential one. I guess you’d never know it by the long-winded answers to these questions, but I’m selfish about words, in conversation. I’d rather listen. In the poem “from the Chicago Train,” the mother figure is “too tired to think all the way to words.” That’s how I feel most of the time. That’s why the poems are mostly short, the sharp syntax keeping a deliberate watch against telling and overwriting. If I have done my job with the images, the rest is insignificant. I don’t know if that’s why I love Huck and Jim, or if Huck and Jim helped fashion that in me. Either way, I’m richer for knowing them.
Thank you for these wonderfully thoughtful and smart questions, and for the time you spent with my book.
Ginger Murchison earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College. Together with Thomas Lux, she helped found POETRY at TECH, where she served as associate director for five years and as one of its Visiting McEver Chairs in Poetry. She serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of The Frost Place, is a member of the conference faculty for the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, is a regular guest at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is Editor-in-Chief of the acclaimed Cortland Review. She has two grown children, Arienne and Jason, and lives with her husband Clyde Mynatt in Ft. Myers, Florida.
Jon Riccio studied viola performance at Oberlin College and the Cleveland Institute of Music. Current and forthcoming poems appear in Carbon Culture Review, Mead, Yellow Chair Review, Bridge Eight, Cleaver, Hawai’i Review and Pamplemousse, among others. He received his MFA from the University of Arizona. A 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee, he serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.
Christopher Schmidt talks to Andy Fitch about his book of interviews, Sixty Morning Talks (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014).
Christopher Schmidt: Andy, I have so many questions about your crackerjack book of interviews with poets, Sixty Morning Talks. First I have to admit that it’s intimidating to switch positions with the analyst. (Psychoanalysis is one frame for thinking about the interview; I’m sure we’ll discuss others.)
Sixty Morning Talks straddles many genres—reportage, critical survey, long-form interview project, constraint-based writing—and I wanted to hear where you would situate this handsome volume within your own career of experimental nonfiction interventions. I don’t want to police genre, but I am curious about your book’s own poetic qualities. At first glance, the book’s inquiry seems so transparently nonfictional. Yet procedural constraints bound the project—sixty talks (more or less), on books published in 2012. I wonder about the other, less evident markers of its material production—like the transcribed whooshs and pffts in another tape-recorded project of yours.
Andy Fitch: As always, Chris, you come right to the most incisive questions. I worried nobody would care about or even notice Sixty Morning Talks’ poetic aspirations. But in my wish-fulfilling dreams and obsessional attunements, I can track at least two ways to read this book. In the present context, perhaps it makes sense for most readers to pick poets they like and to see what these figures have to say about some recent publications. I have much admiration for each interviewee, and they certainly deserve more attention than they get (I can’t tell you how surprising and disconcerting I found it that even some of the country’s best-recognized poets seemed deeply appreciative that I actually read their 80-page collection the whole way through). Still I also hope somebody, sometime decides to read Sixty Morning Talks as a maniacal probing of possibilities for prose economy amid dialogic forms. For instance, I happily will send a $10 check to any reader of this present exchange who can find a 500-page book with fewer passive-voice usages (books full of numerical equations don’t count).
And more generally, in terms of material production: for each interview I had to cut its original length by 50-75%, ideally without losing any of an interviewee’s main or subsidiary points. This meant hundreds (at least) of minuscule compressions and reformulations for each talk. Every word or phrase got moved around just to say it all more concisely/propulsively. My world-class transcriber Maia Spotts sent some pretty depressing Word files. A verbatim transcript for a single interview might run to 35 pages, and I had promised Ugly Duckling a 500-page book of 60 interviews. For a six-month period, every third day, starting from a new rough draft felt terrible.
But these perhaps frivolous editing efforts show in creating a compressed, strangely composite voice for whomever wants to find one. If you look closely, all of the interviewees begin to use the same syntactical constructions, yet hopefully still sound like themselves. None of these 60 poets says, “I had really hoped to finish last year.” They all say, “I really had hoped to finish last year.” Indifferent grammatical patterns shape this pointillist process, somewhat recalling the systematized “doughnuts” in a Chuck Close portrait (that other transcript project of mine you mentioned contains more Warholian smears). The interviewees and I become atomized, fused, choral. I’ve always instantaneously forgotten the names of most authors and artists I admire. It all gets blended into shadowy recollections prompting half-original ideas. Sixty Morning Talks tries to offer something similar. I even dreamed of, in true Warholian fashion, just making this an extended series of dialogues between “A” and “B.” But that thought came after I’d completed the first interviews, and I hadn’t warned the interviewees, so it seemed too late.
Publishers and agents and such often remark that interview books drag over time, grow too diffuse or too repetitive, don’t invite thorough reading. I tried to provide a counterexample, and I consider that gesture the book’s poetic quality. And yeah, I think we ended up including 57 interviews. I read somewhere that a title for an Ukiyo-e print series, such as 100 Famous Views of Edo, don’t necessarily mean “precisely 100 views.” It just means “a lot of views.” So the “Sixty” in my title signifies “a lot.”
CS: The absence of the passive voice—now you’ve got me on my toes! I’m thinking of Wayne Koestenbaum’s delirious Hotel Theory and its challenging elision of “a” “an” and “the” in the book’s right-hand column. The much longer Sixty Morning Talks crackles with a similar tightness and sprung rhythm.
You mention Warhol several times in 60MT. In your interview with Lytle Shaw, I was struck by your description of Warhol’s soup can paintings as both a serial production and as a fractured “lot” of individual paintings. This seems to fit with your dual ways of reading 60MT, as a reference compendium and as a virtuoso long-form serial project. Besides the travel narrative and recurring thematic concerns (such as New Narrative), subtle grace notes link the interviews, like the invocations of Kyoto bridging Joel Craig’s and Brandon Shimoda’s neighboring talks.
But I do want to ask a few pressing questions about the interview form itself. At a reading/launch for 60MT at Poetry Project, Mónica de la Torre quoted Kevin Killian disparaging the interview format, suggesting it produces nothing but bluff. Nonetheless I wonder, what does choral talk achieve that the bounded individual writer cannot? What does the interview know?
Reading 60MT, I was struck by how articulate all the interview subjects are about their work. Because of this, the book is an incredible resource for anyone teaching these poets’ writing and contemporary poetry generally. (You also interview a number of critics, I should add.) However, this fluency reminded me of a John Ashbery comment that has always worried me. He claims, “the worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about, at least I would like to think so.” On the one hand, the New York School resistance to explication could be a historical anomaly (think of Eliot’s criticism or Pound’s ABC of Reading). But I wonder if you notice a growing tendency among contemporary poets to adapt a more theoretical discourse to situate their poetry? How perceptive is the poet about her own work? Does explaining the poem profane it? Are you sympathetic to the concern, articulated by Dorothea Lasky (another 60MT subject), that the book-length poetic “project” threatens to supersede lyric’s numinous qualities? Are you saying farewell to the poem with these Sixty Mourning Talks?
AF: Thanks for the Warhol soup-can reference. That makes good sense, though I wouldn’t have noticed its relevance on my own. Anything I said about the soup cans I probably copied from Benjamin Buchloh’s foundational (for me) essay “Andy Warhol’s One-Dimensional Art: 1956-1966.”
As for the rest (and I admire you throwing seven consecutive questions at me): I have much respect and enthusiasm for Kevin’s work, and keep meaning to look up this interview take-down of his. I always assume that such a bold extracted statement first emerges amid lots of qualifying context, though who knows? In either case, I never take such bold statements seriously, but I do believe that anything Mónica (certainly one of the classiest individuals with whom I ever have shared a stage) says deserves a thorough follow-up. What does the interview know—what a terrific question. To combine this with the Ashbery line: perhaps the interview knows nothing, has nothing to say, which allows it to keep talking, and perhaps arrive someplace smart.
I can’t tell if I could characterize all poets as perceptive about their work, yet I did sense that each of these 60 books I read begged to have certain questions asked of it. I got closer to arriving at some of those desired questions than at others. I love talking to Dottie, and shamefully admit not to having read that particular chapbook of hers, so can’t respond competently on it, but in terms of your Cavellian/Schuyleresque “Mourning of the Poem” insinuations: while it would seem rash to wish for the lyric-poem’s death, especially since the lyric poem keeps providing space for vital syntactical and sonic innovations, if I saw it sprawled on the curb, looking gray and lifeless, I’d just keep walking by without thinking twice (I think I’ve borrowed this scene from Schuyler). The interview with Dottie ends with her lovely line “Hats off to death,” and, for me at least, that can include death to lyric poems, or not. The artistic form essential to my own life, based, alas, on random upbringing, remains the pop album. I don’t do (or really understand) singles, and the same goes for many lyric poems. I certainly don’t qualify as the most apt audience for some of these 60 interviewees. Other people should interview each of them. Their stellar work calls for further conversation.
CS: Some of my favorite interviews contain some frisson, an electric moment of disagreement. I think of an interview with Lisa Robertson about conceptual writing, where she gets testy with Lytle Shaw. (They quickly make amends.) Or Lauren Berlant chastising an interviewer for the “nationalist” orientation of the questions.
I love these moments, because they show how power tussles sometimes underlie an interview. I don’t feel this in 60MT—a much friendlier and more amiable book. In fact, I was struck throughout by your willingness to cede authority, to make interpretations that may be wrong, to be generally prostrate to your conversation partners—so that they can shine more brightly. Someone else described 60MT as a monument to your generous self-abnegation as a writer. (I’m paraphrasing.) Do you experience the interview in this way? And are there any side effects—psychic or emotional—of undertaking an interview project of this length?
AF: “Prostrate” seems a strange term here, one I don’t really know the meaning of, but I sense I might come across too macho if I resist it. And the generosity thing never has made much sense to me. I don’t pride myself on the generous or ethical or community-based focus of these engagements. I would rather have them judged on the merits of their intellectual and syntactical dexterity. Personally, I enjoy reading dialogues more than I enjoy most modes of discourse. So I just want to make a good dialogue, and I don’t really care how we get there and what role I end up taking. I have no strong desire in these conversations or in life to make people see my side, or hear me out. Also I secretly value questions as much as answers in a Q-and-A. So if somebody refuses to answer me I don’t mind, because mostly I just wanted to ask the question.
If I do have an agenda as an interviewer, it mostly consists in trying to make sure that the present piece doesn’t fall apart (a constant possibility). I can love a given project as long as I know that it will get completed, will amount to something. I can’t stand permanently incomplete projects. So in terms of psychic/emotional side effects: these used to arise more severely. But I’ve tried to build into the Q-and-A process ways to make use of a collapsed exchange. Undoubtedly I impose upon people’s time when I ask them to take part in a conversation. And undoubtedly some authors, some poets I deeply admire, like to torture you when they get the chance, and to endlessly reschedule an interview for trivial reasons, or rewrite their transcribed answers so that the questions asked no longer fit, or to revise a piece numerous times after you both have agreed you have finished a final draft. So lately, let’s say that I read an author’s book after we agree to discuss it, and then at some point the person flakes. Well, then I might write down my questions and publish those on their own. It seems foolish to get angry with people just for acting like themselves, so I have tried to create alternate possibilities that preclude petty flare-ups of all sorts. Likewise it doesn’t interest me much to have an interviewee react to a statement he/she finds unpleasant. I would much rather absorb, as best as I can, the present parameters of an author’s thinking on a given topic, and then to see if we together can take that thinking one step further—someplace neither of us would arrive on our own. So, in Roland Barthes’s recurrent paraphrase of Bertolt Brecht: thinking in other people’s heads; having other people think in my head. Finally, in terms of emotional side effects: I love the emotions of ending an hour of intensive recorded interviewing, pressing “Stop” and knowing I have tried as hard as I could to engage with an author’s work (on his/her own terms—which we all deserve sometimes), and have said everything I need to say. I only can compare this sensation to cramming for an exam, taking it, then stepping out of the room into the sun and forgetting everything. For most conversations, even with my favorite authors, that remains my favorite part.
Andy Fitch’s most recent books are Sixty Morning Talks, Sixty Morning Walks, Sixty Morning Wlaks and (with Amaranth Borsuk) As We Know. With Cristiana Baik, he recently has assembled the Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He has dialogic books forthcoming from 1913 Press and Nightboat Books. He edits Essay Press, teaches in the University of Wyoming’s MFA program, and directs the MA program in literature.
Heather Lang: You open your conversation with Patricia Smith on her book, Blood Dazzler, with an observation: “The metaphoric correlation between woman and weather is introduced in the first poem (‘every woman begins as weather’) and revisited regularly throughout the book.” Can you talk a bit about some of the themes that reoccur throughout the eighty interviews conducted within Uncoverage: Asking After Recent Poetry? Which reoccurrences did you anticipate, and which were less expected?
H.L. Hix: I was trying to address each poet with respect for her/his individuality, and to ask after each book with attention to its uniqueness, not to ask uniform questions; and the poets were being interviewed separately, so they weren’t consciously working together. In that sense, all the recurring themes were unanticipated! Maybe their being unplanned makes them even more revealing. In any case, there they all are.
So, for example, in that same Patricia Smith interview, she gives concise and forceful formulation of a capacity poetry has, that I think many of us want to draw on. “Throughout the book,” she says about Blood Dazzler, “I try not to put those affected directly and those not affected directly into different camps; in a tragedy as far-reaching as Katrina, no experience can be discounted.” Smith’s statement reminds me of Wisława Szymborska’s declaration, near the end of her Nobel acceptance speech, that “… in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.” A number of the interviewees explicitly make that same recognition: that heightened attention inclines, and inclines us, toward equality and respect and justice.
HL: In your interview with Mark Nowak on his Shut Up Shut Down, you mention that the “juxtaposition of voices in these poems, as represented graphically by contrasting bold, italic and plain text, creates a kind of dialogue.” This observation is intriguing to me particularly within the context of Uncoverage, a collection of interviews. May we explore the larger dialogue within your new book? In other words, what can we learn from the juxtapositions between these diverse conversations?
HLH: Thank you for asking that. It’s exactly my hope: that, although each conversation occurred on its own, putting them together, which each reader will do for herself, creates a conversation.
The juxtapositions themselves are accidental, in the sense that the interviews are arranged alphabetically, rather than by an “intentional” ordering principle such as perceived thematic commonality. Yet the juxtapositions create spark after spark of illumination. For instance, if I reflect on your question by looking at the Nowak interview along with the one that follows it, the interview of dg nanouk okpik, I notice that both Nowak and okpik are concerned to speak of and with a people, without speaking for them. Nowak declares that working people “are always front and center in my work, as well as the first audiences for its reception. Their voices are writ in bold (literally).” To me, that resonates quite richly with okpik’s will to “lend witness to the existence of my family and what changes are happening on the earth today,” her sense that “I cannot speak for my people, but I can document one account as if it is a voice from many views.”
I hope that the larger dialogue you observe in the book does indicate, even though of course it can’t replicate, the scale and breadth of the capacious conversation that is contemporary poetry.
HL: Within the genre of interview, what can we learn from what has gone unspoken?
HLH: What a beautiful and important question! To me, one element of the interview’s force is its capacity for doubling the unspoken, for matching the unspoken in the questions with the unspoken in the answers. And that element itself has a double aspect. Something might be unspoken because it is shared already by interviewer and interviewee, or it might be unspoken because it is not being shared by one with the other. In either case, though, the unspoken animates the interview.
The poets in Uncoverage seem to me consistently alert to the unspoken. I think of such moments as Jennifer Moxley’s insight that “lyric makes real the response to the social conversation for which there is no space or permission; it is the voice of the silenced interlocutor.” Or Andrew Joron’s description of sound and silence as “locked in a mutually conditioning embrace.”
HL: In your conversation with Shane Book on Ceiling of Sticks, you ask, “What is the difference for you between a first-person narrator speaking from an essentially public space (a space more others’ than his own) and such a narrator speaking from an essentially private space?” Can you talk a bit about Uncoverage in this context of public versus private spaces? Within which do you feel these interviews were conducted, and did this change from interview to interview?
HLH: In response to this question I’ll cheat, and try to have it both ways. I’m working at this very moment on an essay that takes issue with Peter Singer’s influential article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” in which he tries to argue by analogy from an instance of private responsibility (saving a drowning child) to one of public responsibility (ending a famine such as the 1971 Bengal famine that was occurring when he was writing his article). I’m arguing that reconciling public space and private space takes more work than Singer recognizes: he falls for a mistake neoliberalism pushes us toward, a mistake Wendy Brown calls “depoliticization.” I hope that Uncoverage does not fall for that mistake. There are plenty of parties who seek from poetry an Eden of depoliticization, but the poets I speak with in Uncoverage are working hard to construct and sustain a more salubrious relationship between public and private spaces.
HL: At what point did you realize that these conversations would become a collection, and how did you know when the collection was complete?
HLH: I knew from the start that I wanted them to become a collection, and I knew the approximate scale, because the project had a very particular starting point and framing question.
The very first sentence of the foreword to the first edition of Richard Howard’s essay collection Alone with America, first published in 1969, makes an astonishing claim: “In the forty-one studies which follow,” Howard says, “an accounting is made of [all] American poets who, with the publication of at least two volumes, have come into a characteristic and—as I see it—consequential identity since the time, say, of the Korean War.” Howard purported to survey contemporary American poetry comprehensively. Since Howard’s moment, though, enough has changed that no one attentive to contemporary poetry could believe that, of the countless poets at work today, 41 and only 41 are “consequential.” We know we can’t survey poetry today in the way Howard clearly thought he could survey it then. So what can we do now, about poetry? What should we do? That’s what the collection as a whole tries to ask.
Alone with America vividly manifests certain premises of a poetic world now long gone: it projects a perceived transparency about and continuity within a singular tradition, implies a sense of clarity about uniform standards of quality applicable to all poetry, and assumes uncompromised correspondence between the quality of a body of work and the mechanisms that establish a poet’s reputation (prestige of publisher and of university affiliation, connection to others with similarly prestigious publishers and universities, prizes and awards received, and so on). It contains not a single name of a poet who was not at the time widely represented in anthologies and by reviews. Those features make the book into a period piece, by today’s standards wrong in the most obvious ways: e.g., its table of contents includes 41 poets, of whom 35 are male, and all 41 white.
Howard thought it possible to identify and consider all the poets who were poets in his time and place: “these poets,” he says in his foreword, “are, simply, what is there.” Poetry for him is a strictly limited domain, so a survey incorporates everything in that domain. Now, though, it is impossible even to identify, much less to consider, all the poets who are poets, so any attempt to survey the landscape in our poetic world has to be on different terms than Howard’s survey. Howard thought he could complete the survey; he thought he had completed it. Now one must recognize that it is not possible to complete the task.
Uncoverage is after an approach to the survey that acknowledges a plurality Howard didn’t recognize. So I have contrasted this project to Alone with America in at least two ways. To signify that Uncoverage is an inquiry rather than an exposition, it is composed of interviews rather than essays: rather than delivering my words in regard to the poetry discussed here, I have asked the poets for theirs. To signify the limitlessness of the field, Uncoverage approximates a doubling of Howard’s number of subjects, 80 in place of his 41. The doubling does not achieve coverage of all the “consequential” work being done: instead, it symbolizes the impossibility of covering all the consequential work being done. The work about which these interviews were conducted is all of it consequential, but (far from exhausting the consequential poetry being written today) it only suggests how much consequential work there is, how inexhaustibly rich is the domain of contemporary poetry.
HL: I have to ask. What was your most self-indulgent interview or question?
HLH: If we were conducting this interview face-to-face, rather than by email, the transcription of my response would begin with [laughter] in brackets. Guilty laughter: I’ve been caught out! But as a form of self-justification, let me start with an anecdote.
My long friendship with the artist Adriane Herman began when we were both teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute. Once, when she and I were both in a student crit, I challenged the student with a question about whether some aspect or other of his work was self-indulgent, in response to which, rather than waiting for the student’s response, Adriane challenged me right back: “What’s wrong with self-indulgence?” Her question exposed me then, but now I’ll take cover under it. In an important sense, the whole project of Uncoverage is self-indulgent: I got to have virtual conversations with a bunch of very smart people about a bunch of profoundly consequential books. It’s almost like getting to live out Socrates’ fantasy, at the end of the Apology, of the afterlife as an endless conversation with those he admires. What could be more self-indulgent?
That said, let me fess up in the way your question means to make me. One of the interviews that comes immediately to mind for me as blatantly self-indulgent on my part is the interview of Chelsey Minnis. Her book Poemland (like the one that preceded it, Bad Bad), expresses, as my opening question to her confesses, a lot of things that “I would say about poetry and life, except that I’m too chicken.” But Chelsey wasn’t too chicken to say them, so the interview gives me a way to tag along behind her, even without my having mustered the same courage she did.
HL: Which interviews inspired you in your own poetry? For example, were there any interviews after which you rushed back to your own creative work in a moment of sudden insight or discovery?
HLH: I would describe the kind of inspiration I find in the book not so much “local” as “global.” By that I just mean that what has happened is not primarily that a few of the interviews gave me ideas for particular poems, but that the whole collection, all the interviews together, issues a reminder about the range of poetry. These poets show vividly that poetry can do many different things, not only one thing, so they give me reason to ask myself (and they suggest ways to ask myself) whether my poetry is doing what it wants to do rather than what someone else wants it to do.
HL: Looking outside of Uncoverage, which interviewers do you follow or enjoy? How have they inspired you, and what have you learned from them?
HLH: My love of the interview started early. In grad school I happened on a used copy of William Packard’s collection of “craft interviews” from the New York Quarterly: it was dated even then, but it was very exciting to me. As were the old Paris Review interviews. Terribly mainstream and old-school in comparison to my current interests, but I wasn’t in a creative writing program, so in poetry I was having to find things on my own, and everything felt like a revelation.
Nowadays, I follow interviewers who lead me to work I didn’t know about before, and who create openings for me into that work. The editor who nurtured Uncoverage into print, Andy Fitch, is a colleague here where I teach, and a dynamo who does a lot of things, but one of those things is interviewing. He’s done a huge collection of interviews called Sixty Morning Talks, and co-edited a collection called The Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He’s got a quirky sensibility that leads him to pose interesting questions that elicit interesting responses from his interviewees, and he’s looking around: his interviews have drawn my attention to a lot of poets whose work I might not have known to read otherwise. Another friend, Philip Metres, is also an interviewer I follow, for some of the same reasons. He, too, is looking around, taking me to work I might not have learned about if he hadn’t shown it to me.
In addition to following certain interviewers, I also follow certain venues for interviews. The website called The Conversant, for example, consistently posts interesting interviews of interesting writers, faster than I can keep up. Jacket2 also hosts interviews that I make a point of attending to, though there, too, I can’t keep up. I’m plenty ambivalent about digital technology, but one glory of the internet is that the number of sites for interviews is endless. Women’s Quarterly Conversation, Mosaic, and on and on.
And of course one very important such venue is the publisher of Uncoverage, Essay Press. In their series of free digital books and chapbooks, they’re creating an extensive and probing conversation around contemporary poetry.
HL: You’re a prolific writer and curator of literature. On top of your commitments with both the University of Wyoming and Fairleigh Dickinson University, how do you decide where to dedicate your time and energies? How do you choose your literary projects, and what’s next?
HLH: As a stay against the supersaturation by “information” with which we (each and all) are threatened, I believe in the importance of the curatorial role, though I find the role of curator much more exhausting than the role of writer. And I wish I were smarter and more efficient in that decision-making process you ask about. In both roles, I’m too much the “kid in a candy store,” flitting after whatever catches my attention, with the result that I waste a lot of time starting things I never finish because I get distracted by some tempting new project. If I would actually completed everything I started, then I would be prolific!
Thanks for the chance, though, to mention what’s next. I’ve just started looking for a publisher for the latest curatorial project, called Counterclaims. In it, poets and scholars from various points of view take issue with the now-overly-familiar claims that “poetry makes nothing happen” and that there is “no poetry after Auschwitz,” proposing other ways of thinking about poetry and its purposes and powers.
My next writing project is a poetry book called American Anger, due out in February 2016. It tries to think through (sing through? shout down?) the belligerence that stands at the origin, and pervades the history, of the U.S. Readers will decide for themselves whether it has any weight, but the writing of it certainly felt urgent and necessary.
Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, essayist, and adjunct professor. She serves as an editor for The Literary Review and for Petite Hound Press. www.heatherlangwrites.com
by Jon Riccio
There’s only one force of nature that can withstand you when your hurricane siblings include Emily who “whispered her gusts into a thousand skins,” Maria whose “thunder skirts flew high,” and Philippe (“flailing on a wronged ocean”), and that’s Patricia Smith, her 2008 collection Blood Dazzler a clarion container of persona and received form embodying the shockwave that was Katrina. Smith reflects on Blood Dazzler’s origins, provides an update on one of her subjects, and sings the praises of the 31-syllable tanka form. She makes us wonder whether the passage of time has salved Katrina’s “throbbing like a new-torn wound/ under August drape.”
For anyone about to title a book, there’s wisdom on that too…
Jon Riccio: You’ve stated that “34,” a persona poem recounting the “thirty-four bodies…found drowned in a nursing home where people did not evacuate” served as Blood Dazzler’s genesis, the deceased given their due with such lines as “What makes the dust of me smell like a dashed miracle,/ the underside of everything?” and “I’m cold/ and I’m strapped to this country.” Why are those last five words as horrifying as they are apt?
Patricia Smith: Many people have asked me why I took on the storm, especially since I’m not from New Orleans and have no ties whatsoever to the Gulf region. It’s because I didn’t see Katrina as purely a regional event, but a human one. I think the disaster made it all too clear just what our country is capable of—the blatant dismissal of poor, mostly brown, people in a time of crisis. And there it was, blaring from our TV screens for everyone, finally, to see. The truth, and the horror, of those five words lie in the fact that the people considered disposable in our society are those forced to be most reliant upon what that society deems as “just.”
JR: How did the personification of Katrina as a woman contribute to Blood Dazzler’s impact? What were the pros and cons of gendering a hurricane in the draft stages of your work?
PS: This line in Blood Dazzler is one of the first lines that came to me: “Every woman begins as weather.” I never considered NOT giving the storm the ability to be vulnerable, fierce, remorseful, arrogant, weary, and vengeful. Katrina’s voice is what eventually gave the book its shape. When I write poems, I always look for an unexpected entry point, and crafting this book was no different. I knew no one would expect to hear the storm to speak, and I needed her to help make sense of the chaos.
JR: The fatalities in “Tankas” – “I have three children,/ but only two arms,” “I found my sister/ whirling in the peppered blue,” and “—God’s hands smothering/ your heart. And the thumps/ grow slower, slower, until/ He takes back your name. Lifts you.” – shed light on a death toll estimated between 1,245 and 1,836 (source: Wikipedia). Why do the 5/7/5/7/7 tanka syllable constraints work so well here?
PS: You can’t look directly at death unless you can contain it. It’s horrific in its undefined edges, and the idea of it unleashes a fear that blurs both its reality and inevitability. The tight control of the tanka is somewhat sleight-of-hand—it’s a taming of what refuses to be tamed. Working in such a terse, controlled form didn’t change the truth, it just slowed my approach to it. It helped me rein in rampaging emotion. Concentrating on the syllable count gave me a way to confront the body count.
JR: “Siblings,” a roll call dedicated to names of past hurricanes, maintains its modified abecedarian form through the letter W (“Wilma opened her maw wide, flashing rot.”), the final lines diverging: “None of them talked about Katrina./ She was their odd sister,/ the blood dazzler.” Was this the intended destination of your title all along?
PS: No, not at all. When I wrote the poem, relatively early in the process, I reached the last line and put the words “blood dazzler” in as a placeholder, intending to come back and replace them with a more suitable phrase when the right inspiration hit. They didn’t mean anything at the time. I came back when I considered the book done, and by then those two words had stretched to fit. They bellowed and mystified, all wrong and yet perfect against each other. So they stayed in the poem, becoming what was whispered about that bad girl.
Then came that terrible moment when the book needed to call itself something. I’m terrible at titling, it’s something I’ve always struggled with. And those two words wrapped themselves around everything—the phrase was just wide enough to encompass the narrative without defining it. It was darkness and sparkle. It was menace and the memory of a clear, untroubled sky.
JR: Blood Dazzler also contains a sestina and a ghazal. You close your book Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah on a Motown sonnet crown. Why has received form been such a good fit?
PS: I dedicated my MFA study to mastering the language of form and metrics. Blood Dazzler was my MFA thesis. As I worked, I tried to be receptive to the poems, to listen to what they were asking to be. Katrina, as persona, helped me with the direction of her voice and the voice of the story surrounding her. Form is a device in my toolbox, accessible to me when it’s needed. Chaos becomes something other when it’s controlled. I love how it’s possible to take a sprawling, unwieldy story and give it lyrical boundaries.
JR: I keep returning to “Ms. Thang Sloshes in the Direction of Home,” as you’ve built an empathy around this character, fierce in her fuchsia suede: “She thought that being a woman meant filling/ the body with rain,” “Old muscles swell, beg her to dive and push/ like a man, master the water,
swim/ like a bitch with an Olympic agenda.” What’s she up to these days?
PS: She smoothes rampant muscle
and silkens errant hairs
with a sung southern syllable.
Ask her where the storm went
when she chased it away, and she’ll
tell you her new name, spitting
the hard K in homage…
JR: There’s a series of eight voodoo poems in Blood Dazzler, each “available for the following magickal purposes…” including love and passion, healing, spiritual cleansing, and blessing. Which of these holds the most significance for you?
PS: That would be healing—healing wounds, healing rifts, healing ruptures. The prospect of being able to recover from any depth of hurt.
JR: The back cover features praise from Mark Doty, Carolyn Forché, Terrance Hayes, and Yusef Komunyakaa. How would Hurricane Katrina blurb your book?
PS: You mean Blood Dazzler? What a weird question. I suppose: “Patricia Smith dared to lock eyes with a storm—and thought she saw me.”
Coffee House Press (2008): $16.00
Patricia Smith is the author of seven books of poetry, including Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the 2014 Rebekah Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress, the 2013 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the Phillis Wheatley Award; Savannah was also a finalist for both the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and the Balcones Prize. Patricia also authored Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the National Book Award, and Teahouse of the Almighty, a National Poetry Series selection. Her most recent book is Gotta Go Gotta Flow, a collaboration with the late Chicago photographer Michael Abramson. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The New York Times, TriQuarterly, Tin House, The Washington Post, and in both Best American Poetry and Best American Essays. Her contribution to the crime fiction anthology Staten Island Noir, which she edited, won the Robert L. Fish Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best debut story of the year and was chosen for Best American Mystery Stories. She is a 2014 Guggenheim fellow, a 2012 fellow at both MacDowell and Yaddo, a two-time Pushcart Prize winner, recipient of a Lannan fellowship and a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, the most successful poet in the competition’s history. Her next poetry collection will be released in 2016; she is also working on a volume combining poetic monologues and a collaborative novel with her husband Bruce DeSilva, the Edgar-Award winning author of the Liam Mulligan crime novels. Patricia is a professor at the College of Staten Island and an instructor in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.
Jon Riccio received his MFA from the University of Arizona. Current and forthcoming poems appear in Yellow Chair Review, Stickman Review, Pamplemousse, Mead, Bridge Eight, Cleaver, Hawai’i Review, and After the Pause, among others. A 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee, he serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.
Sarah, with friend Alice
by Jon Riccio
Sarah Sarai’s poems remind us to savor the esoteric in tandem with the “true real.” As to the prognostic, The Future Is Happy (BlazeVOX [books], 2009) relieves our guesswork-addled culture through such seers as Jack Kerouac, Emma Bovary and Bill Knott, each delving into a chronology that transitions from a sky’s hindsight to the “stew of snowflake christenings.” “Every fate has rotations,” Sarai writes, her work espousing how best to adjust the knob when happiness crosshairs onto the safe deposit’s dial.
Jon Riccio: The titular poem tells us to accept connection. Is serendipity the key to a happy future?
Sarah Sarai: Serendipity is a word born in a fairy tale. The Three Princes of Serendip’s characters were, according to Horace Walpole, who coined the word in 1754, “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Serendipity is a blender-drink of fortune, happenstance, toy parade, fresh pineapple, ice, and vodka. However, you, Jon, ask for the “key” to a happy future. While I have considered becoming the sort of person able to respond to such a question, I am still in training to be a guru. Though I observe that making oneself available – open – to beneficent fortune, good luck, kind fates, the occasion of a good thing is serendipity. I heard someone say, “the future is happy” as a motto to keep himself going and knew it would be the title of my collection. Some misunderstand—think, assume or pretend to assume it is sappy. Those are the same people who start singing songs containing my first name when we meet. Don’t bank on anything but the now, although it wouldn’t hurt to put money aside for a vacation.
JR: Per your poem “The Brave One:” “Humanity’s an abrupt artform, tolerated / by the pageant and caught, a filigree in / the pretty scrapbook, amber, held to / sparkling effulgence.” Are we in more of a draft or revision stage?
SS: That’s a subtle distinction. Isn’t a revision the becoming of, or, an actualized draft? A draft is passive but certainly not dead, more like passed out on the page from the exhaustion of composition, or life. Even joy is exhausting. Even good times need the grounding of a cup of hot tea with milk. A draft is a lady-in-waiting to the writer. A revision has the daring to better itself as we writers dare to embellish, experiment with, and improve – which we do or don’t but we change the work and certainly we fail better over time. Also: palimpsest: let the word hang here.
JR: Your book features God, angels, Shiva and saints. To what degree do world religions influence your poetry?
SS: The Future Is Happy also makes mention of Jodie Foster, Spinoza, Descartes, Aristotle, Denzel Washington, Count Basie, Ingmar Bergman, Jimmy Carter. By “your book features” I take it you mean that The Great Else, the Cosmic Lunacy, God, are given a greatest weight in the collection, something I like hearing yet which makes me nervous. I’ve more or less always been a believer in The Awesome Power. Alas, being a believer is like loving a career criminal, or being one of those women who takes up with the incarcerated. Do dykes do that? You are giving me ideas! Sometimes I am disinterested in poetry that doesn’t reach for wisdom and sometimes I am annoyed with myself for falling into a pit of cleverness. Once a Swedenborgian, on hearing my mother was a Christian Scientist and my father was Jewish commented, “You were released to wander.” Nailed me, in life and writing.
JR: “Mirage or not, tales of healing palms/ lure pilgrims to our vastland./ The springs of Baden Baden?/ Miss Piggy Bubblebath soothes as good.” is a planful pitch for the shrine-inclined who occupy “Monarch of the Desert.” What happens when pop culture and the organic meet?
SS: Pop culture and the organic don’t meet so much as speed date. They have been acquainted with one another since forever. Poetry is drawn from the organic insofar as emotion and lived experience are organic, which, organic, I may be confusing with real. Who knows what will continue to sound authentic and compelling in a hundred years. Some lucky guesses but no one knows. Right now all contemporary poets are pop (is a theory one could postulate). Segue. Do you think little kids re-enacted the battles of the Iliad and/or designed costumes for the pageant? Play turns the classic into pop. Who was the Grecian Athenian action figure mfg.? Another response is simply that art is a synthesis or mash-up. By the way, Miss Piggy Bubblebath is a bathing-my-niece-and-nephew memory. And it is Miss Piggy. And it is bubblebath. A perfect storm of soap and poetry.
JR: Who are some essential poets for remembering the less-than-commendable moments of our past, moments collective memory needs, nonetheless?
SS: Right now I’m reading Ernesto Cardenal’s Golden UFOs: the Indian Poems (Indiana Univ. Press). He takes on the task of remembering the before of colonial empire without missing the post-colonial. Swinging back to your question on spirituality, here is a Cuna sage on Euro-religion, from the title poem: “‘Nobody has seen God. We know nothing about Him.’” And a garden of Eden that was lost: “The traditional here is revolutionary.” The oft-touted ‘economy’ of poetry, and some presupposition of our knowledge of history, allows Cardenal to describe a group of people, now; in the near past (of the poem), such as when Hilton tried a landgrab for a hotel; when Columbus and his band of sickos landed; and before Columbus. Before Columbus. Fifteen pages and it’s all there. Poets right now are doing similar: Claudia Rankine, Rigoberto González, Jericho Brown, Timothy Yu, Naomi Shihab Nye, Kazim Ali. Michael Broder’s online anthology on HIV, as well as his poems. These names came quickly. There are many many others. Ai, Akmatova, Brooks, Szymborska, Kuyumaka, Doug Anderson, Tagore.
JR: Would you rather live “in the melancholy beehive” with its “hot gold and warm honey,” or remain in your current base of operations, New York City?
SS: I divide my time between the two. I do long for the beehive and beauty of its melancholy. It is without the sometimes smallness of NYC. But also without the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, which stare at me with delicious disinterest nearly every day. I check rentals in little, sunny towns around the country, looking for little honey pots to live in with a honey pot. But right now I’m here.
JR: “I have no mythology” you state a third of the way through the book. What’s the quickest way to acquire one in the social-media age?
SS: I don’t have an only-one-most-high mythology. So that’s that. The Information Age gave way to the Disinformation Age as funded by CEOs and many-star generals and politicians who rake in omni-fortunes from the omniwar. We’re habituated to seeing soldiers who adapt to use of artificial limbs because they were “serving their country.” Bless Snowden, Occupy, BlackLivesMatter, and others who helped move us towards the Age of Transparency and Accuracy and bless social media for expediting that. And for friendships with writers I haven’t met but know through the mysteries of cyber intuition. And for books I learned of through s-m (social media). Happy face. There is a lot of input in NYC. It’s good to get a more inclusive perspective through the web that is world-wide. It’s here and I make use of it and media that socializes us.
JR: There’s a passage in “Everywhere Woman Is Born Free” about your own personal purgatory serving as “a beta test for a new way of salvation/ for all mankind.” Beta to meta, what were the results?
SS: Meta is a ways off in this poet’s life, and also I am not sure of your concept of a progression of beta to meta, as if we can test our way into some communion. The new way of salvation has actually been around for a while. Be kind, feed the poor, don’t lose awareness of the gift all this is. But the new way of salvation is that the future, which is now, now being all we truly have unless we can shape shift and time warp, is, you should pardon the expression, to be happy, happy enough. The Future Is Happy Enough? No one has to seek out grief.
JR: The phrase “corporeality of life” appears in the book’s final poem. Is this the best outlook for present-day happiness?
SS: Bodies are a hell of a problem. And I’ve fought to have one. My training was “there is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter . . . matter is mortal error” – which is part of the Christian Science partyline. My mother also bequeathed great gifts of fancy and imagination, intelligence, oneness of humanity. My love for her is impossibly strong. Still I wasn’t allowed to see doctors and lived day-in/day-out with her illusions, which was like living with a Transcendentalist on crack. My father was my father. He had to leave college (Columbia) in his last year because my grandfather lost it all in the thirties. He was a remarkably interesting person. Perhaps less booze would have made him even more so. The final stanza of that poem, “Incorporeal,” answers your question. I adore “a thing as pine boughs shaken/ by burning cold winds when/ we’re all alone and looking up.” I land on the simple spectacular of life.
JR: You end “Emily Dickinson Is Jewish” with “Poems as long as one letter, rise.” Your one-letter poem? Why?
SS: Quite a while back I encountered the poet Nelly Sachs in my reading. She and Paul Celan were friends and correspondents, like Bishop and Lowell but different. Celan was forced into a labor camp, as you know, and Sachs made it to Sweden a day before she would have been swept up in Germany’s horror. I no longer have the collection of hers I’d referred to, O the Chimneys. (She was awarded a Nobel in literature.) In “Emily Dickinson Is Jewish” I reveal a somewhat regrettable tendency, and great empathy, to imagine the worst possible and then care-take whoever is in those circumstances — in this case death camps although now I am thinking of the so so many people unjustly cruelly held in U.S. prisons. While you (the indistinct you) may not have the opportunity and privilege to write a poem, still, even the thought of a poem matters. Thought artwork and ashes of the imprisoned are seen by The Vast Distance.
And there you go. And now here I go. Thank you so much for asking great questions, and asking me.
Sarah Sarai’s poems have appeared in Ascent, Pool Poetry, PANK, Boston Review, Threepenny Review, Yew, Ping-Pong, decomP, and many other journals. Her short stories have appeared in Tampa Review, Gravel, The Writing Disorder, South Dakota Review, Storyglossia, and others. She has appeared in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Fe. Her personal essay, “The Changing of the Guides,” (spirit guides, in her case) is in the forthcoming anthology of odd experience, In Case We Die (Unknown Press). She studied psychic healing in Los Angeles, the work of Edgar Cayce in New York, has an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her collection, The Future Is Happy (BlazeVOX), can be ordered through Amazon or SPD. She blogs at My 3,000 Loving Arms. And works as an editor.
Jon Riccio studied viola performance at Oberlin College and the Cleveland Institute of Music. An MFA candidate at the University of Arizona, current and forthcoming poems appear in Really System, Split Rock Review, Cleaver, Futures Trading, Hawai’i Review and Carbon Culture Review, among others. He serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.
by Jon Riccio
Rebecca Foust’s Paradise Drive (Press 53) highlights the trappings of a humanness as agonized as it is Americanized. That she conveys these struggles and their triages in a book composed entirely of sonnets is no small feat. Foust’s collection excels in its alcoves, each iteration of the 14-line form simpatico with “the limestone walks/ to houses glowing like over-lit cruise boats/ docked under old oaks.” Inspired by Foust’s “The tiles are set in cement, but we’ve seen what a few/ cigarettes or million bucks can shake loose,” Jon Riccio tours the neighborhood, the author serving as his guide.
Jon Riccio: We met at The Frost Place Poetry Seminar where you were the 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence. You won my respect right off the bat after I heard that Robert Frost’s clothesline served as your primary canvas for determining the page order in Paradise Drive. Have you always employed such creative methods in the assembly process? What’s the best advantage to the book-by-clothesline technique?
Rebecca Foust: I laid out my first few books as I imagine everyone else does: on the bed, on the floor, on the kitchen table. The table was never big enough and the bed had to be cleared at night to sleep in, so the floor always ended up being the best option. But it’s hard on your back and knees to be bending over and stooping and creeping around like that. An open door or window can have disastrous effects on your carefully-aligned piles. And you eventually have to pick the pages up to mop the floor.
When Cleopatra Mathis came to visit at The Frost Place (TFP), she told me that when she was a fellow there, she tacked her poems up all over the living room walls. I loved that idea, but I knew those walls had been freshly painted and did not think TFP would appreciate my pockmarking them with thumbtack holes. Instead, I set up two banquet-size folding tables on the screened-in back porch and laid my poems out in rows. The porch faced west, and I liked working there in the late afternoons with the sun slanting in; I’d look up now and then to see if I could catch a glimpse of the mother bear and cubs who lived in the back field. One day I looked up and noticed the clothesline hung right over my head. That’s when I got the idea to pin the poems to the lines.
Two clotheslines ran the length of the 32-foot porch, so I had 64 total feet, enough room to hang about 85 poems. The rest got spread on the banquet tables, but I no longer had to have them in piles, and for the first time I could see all the poems that might go into the manuscript in nearly one glance. I used the tables as a discard pile and the clothesline for various incarnations of the book. I could see the “pages” at eye level and move them around at will. And I could leave them up for the whole summer! I always think better and get ideas when walking, so being able to pace back and forth along the clotheslines allowed me to see connections between poems that had not occurred to me before and to imagine many, many different possible sequences. Everything was fixed in the pinned moment but also infinitely fluid—all I had to do was unfasten a poem, slide the others down, and voila!—a new order. An added benefit was that the process was much easier on my back and knees than the “floor” method I’d used before.
JR: Polident and Percocet are a few modern-era amalgamations featured in the centuries-old sonnet forms throughout Paradise Drive (Ritalin, Tupperware and d-CON appear as well). Is it me, or do our times feel sonnet-made?
RF: All times are sonnet-made, in my opinion, or perhaps I should say the sonnet is for all times. I have found it to be an infinitely elastic and highly generative form. People have been breaking the rules with sonnets for so long that breaking the rules has become part of the form. But even staying within the rules permits infinite possibilities for expression. Wordsworth’s poem “Nuns Fret Not” (a title I borrowed for a poem in Paradise Drive) makes the case for structure allowing for greater artistic freedom. In an article written for the Cortland Review, Tony Barnstone says it this way:
In the words of the great Tang Dynasty statesman and writer Han Yu, to write in form is to “Dance in Chains.” That is, the joy of writing in form comes not in slavishly following the rule of prosody, of pouring content into a predefined form, but in creatively interacting with a tradition, renewing and modernizing it.
Poet Sam Gwynn calls it “pouring new wine into old bottles,” and it’s all just another version of Pound’s idea that the poet’s job is to “make it new.”
JR: Was it harder writing about your father’s life (“I’m ready to tell the truth about Dad,/ extolled as a death camp liberator…He was false and flawed and still/ someone’s god, each 3-a.m. sobbed drunk-dial call.”), or your mother’s death (“At my mother’s wake, other gray faces/ who’d worked the looms in rooms/ so thick with thread that noon/ was dark.”)?
RF: In some ways it was harder to write about my father’s life because he was so private, even secretive, and what I know of his inner life and even of his history is largely imagined or re-constructed from going through his papers after his death. I think it was his experience in WWII that made my father turn inward, because in the photos before he was drafted, I see a very different man from the one I knew. My mother, in contrast, was open and willing to share details about her passions and frustrations, joys and griefs. It’s been easier to write about her life and death because she let me in, and the raw material for the poems is more accessible. Also, when writing about my father I feel a reticence that comes from, I suppose, a fear of violating his intensely-held privacy. I don’t have that fear when writing about my mother. I feel her blessing on everything I write.
JR: This excerpt – from “Stepford Wives Theme Party” – “stovetop Jiffy Pop, its swollen tin orb as frail/ as a paper wasp nest or spacesuit worn/ on the doomed Apollo.” has forever changed my outlook on movie snacks. What is it about lines like this and others, such as “She found the kill switch (every miracle has one),” that makes them so successful?
RF: I like that Jiffy Pop image too! It’s a very rich, visceral, accessible pop culture image that triggers several senses at once, but is not one that has been overused. And I think its comparison with those old spacesuits is surprisingly apt. Surprise and precision are two elements that can empower a figure of speech. Also, perhaps, oxymoron. The fragility of the foil torn through to get to a snack seems trivial, even fun, until you consider the same fragility as applied to space suits meant to protect the human body from harm. That kind of yoking of opposites adds tension and vigor to simile and metaphor. Something of that nature is at work in your second example as well. Miracles are large, profound things, often sacred, so it is surprising and even sacrilegious to conceive of them as being “rigged.” And since we generally think of miracles as being life-affirming, the idea of one having a “kill switch” adds another little jolt of surprise.
JR: Paradise Drive, the street of wizened sonnets. An impromptu blurb, but since we’re on the subject of wisdom, let’s jump to the second poem of “The Market” where the futures trader trades “his clogs for a new pair of Adidas – / traction against those pesky subpoenas.” Give us another item essential to residency on your book’s titular drive.
RF: I love “the street of wizened sonnets!” Can you please put that up in a review on Amazon?
I can think of a number of items one needs in order to live on Paradise Drive. A Bird Dog, apparently. A two- or three-car garage to house the SUV for ski weekends along with the requisite PC-Prius. A home gym. A plastic surgeon on speed dial. Blinders are helpful. A Rolex is good. It’s all there in the book, everything you need for the Paradise Drive survival backpack.
JR: I enjoyed the ways you incorporated other poetry forms – the list (“Three-Car Garage”), persona (“Gone to the Dogs”) and elegy (“Bourbon Elegy,” “Anastrophe Elegy”) – into the sonnet. What impact did multi-layering have on your generative/revision process?
RF: If it had any impact it was at a subconscious level. Aside from trying to follow the sonnet form (then later trying to see how much I could deviate from it), I didn’t think about form. I never thought: I’ll make a list poem, I’ll make an elegy. Once I had an idea in about 14 lines, I just kept revising to try to make it a better poem. Most of these sonnets came to me whole. I started the book in 2008, during my second semester in grad school, a time when I became interested in, then obsessed with, the sonnet form. For a year or so, sonnets were all I read. I was immersed and it was like learning a language. I eventually found myself dreaming in sonnets, making grocery list sonnets and even thinking in chunks of about 14 lines. For a while almost every poem I wrote just came out that way. I wrote hundreds of 14-liners; some became sonnets, and a few were good.
Paradise Drive began in one insomniac three-day period during which I wrote about 35 core poems without stopping, one right after the other, half filling a notebook that I afterwards carried with me everywhere. You know how it is when you are in one of those fertile creative periods, when everything—I mean everything—seems directly to feed the work? It was like that. I just looked around me and listened to what people were saying and read the local papers and there were poems everywhere. And because of my mindset and obsession at the time, the poems emerged as sonnets. It was like spitting out owl pellets—I’d take everything in, digest it, then expel these small, condensed packages of bones, teeth and fur.
JR: Your sonnets on bridges – “Romance” and the abovementioned “Anastrophe Elegy” – address suicide. One could see them as structures within structures exploring the unsayable. What do you hope readers will take away from these poems?
RF: That’s what poetry is supposed to do, right? Get as close as possible to expressing the ineffable, saying what is hard to say or can’t be said. It’s an impossible mission, and one I rail against in the poem “No Words.” But yes, I found structure very helpful for taking on really difficult subjects. The hardest poem in the book for me to write, the hardest line to write, was the one in “Don’t Talk About this” that addresses the mother’s fear that her child has used the belt of his bathrobe as a noose behind the closed bathroom door. That one, and the line about what the child says to her after she’s tucked him into bed. Thinking about form is one way I distract myself from what I am afraid to write, and I use it to trick my inner censor into looking the other way.
JR: “Death by Dodge Sportsman” contains the immortal epigraph Man Gets Six Years for Motor Home Chase. What’s your advice for writers turning truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments into poems?
RF: That epigraph was an actual headline taken from the Marin Independent Journal. You can’t make these things up, but they are everywhere if you look and listen. I wrote several poems from Marin IJ headlines but “Death by Dodge Sportsman” was the only one that made it into Paradise Drive. I had way too many “Seven Deadly Sins” poems for the book; one, “Rage Gets a Court Date” has an epigraph from a headline that read “Novato Women Guilty in Stabbing over Romantic Rival.” Most of those sonnets, like “Death by Dodge Sportsman,” combine humor with something that is not funny at all.
My advice? We always hear about Emily Dickinson’s dictum to “tell it slant,” but I guess I’d say something along the lines of “experience it slant” or even “experience slant.” We take all kinds of utter insanity in the world around us completely for granted. My advice is to look for the strange in the everyday, really look at things and really listen. The more you do this the better you get at it. And then something else begins to happen—you can begin to mis-see and mis-hear things in very interesting ways.
Then, of course, it is important to capture the things you notice. I try to carry a pen and index cards with me always, but when caught short I’ll make notes on my phone or even on my hand and all the way up my arm. If you don’t write things down in the moment, they are lost.
JR: There’s a sentence from “The Quest” that resonates, stronger every time I return to it: “Maybe the chance/ to do an angstrom of good, make beauty/ or protest or laughter.” How does Paradise Drive serve this quartet of intent?
RF: Well, let’s just say I hope the book does an angstrom of good. I love that word “angstrom” by the way, and I stole it from a poem written by my friend Roy Mash. I like how the word sonically evokes the narrator’s anxiety about whether she has the power to do any good in the world.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that old chestnut about what can poetry do, what good is it, does it matter. We all know all the various lines that get quoted when this subject comes up. I’ve pretty much devoted my life to poetry since I retired from autism advocacy about eight years ago. That’s a lot of hours spent at my desk moving commas around, and it sometimes feels more than a little self-indulgent. So the preoccupation of the narrator in “The Quest” is my preoccupation. And her conclusion is pretty much how I rationalize spending so much time on this art. I do believe poetry can do that “quartet” of things, and that they are important things and maybe the most important things any one person can do. I often think about that line by Phil Ochs, how in times like these, beauty is the last form of protest. Some poetry does outright protest and bear witness, of course, and a small subset does it well. But I agree that beauty is itself a form of protest. In an age of cynicism, acknowledging and building beauty takes courage. And yeah, just making people laugh is a good thing. Beauty, protest, laughter—these allow for hope, and hope may be the only thing with the power to make the world better. In an essay written for the Georgia Review last year, Ann Pancake talks about the obligation of artists to “dream forward”—to see the world not just as it is but also to envision how it might be. Seeing and making beauty can, I guess, be a way of dreaming forward.
JR: The Volta derives its name from “the turn in thought in a sonnet that is often indicated by such initial words as But, Yet, or And Yet” (thank you, Encyclopædia Britannica). Which volta has inspired you the most, and why?
RF: The word volta contains its own unit of electricity, and that is what you find in the best sonnets: electricity, pure energy. Urban dictionary calls sonnets “Pop-rocks for your mind. Deceptive packages that set off unexpected explosions.” Sonnets can indeed be like little bombs, with the volta where the explosion happens. Before the volta is set up (the fuse) and after it is, well, aftermath.
Voltas that are cued in obvious ways with disjunctives like “but” and “yet” are often the least interesting ones, because you can see them coming a mile away, and they can end up sounding didactic and over-explicative. These are the signals for rhetorical voltas, turns in argument or logic, but there are many other more subtle and powerful ways a sonnet can make a turn, for example by changing tone, setting, point of view, verb tense, subject, etc. Some poets, like Billy Collins (in his poem, “Sonnet”) actually employ the word “turn” to make the turn. The last poem in Paradise Drive, “Preparation for Pirouette” executes the steps of a balletic turn (“whip-pivot-spot”) in its 13th line.
Once I understood there are many kinds of turns besides a shift in thought signaled by disjunctives, I began to see that many sonnets have more than one turn. For example, some Elizabethan sonnets with strong voltas in their closing couplets also make a less obvious turn where we expect to see it in a Petrarchan sonnet, after the first eight lines. I was thinking about voltas when I wrote “Contradance,” on one level about a turn-and-dip dance move called a “Gypsy Meltdown,” and on another level about turning away from a turning away from faith, not quite the same thing as embracing faith. In that poem I tried to insert a turn in every single line; I wanted it to be continuously revolving.
So, to answer your question, sonnets that make more than one turn and whose turns are subtle are the most inspiring to me. Some poems in Paradise Drive strictly adhere to form and others bend the rules; others break nearly all the rules. What makes a sonnet a sonnet, I kept wondering, and how many conventional criteria can I jettison before the form falls apart? Two poems in Paradise Drive don’t have 14 lines, but I still consider them sonnets. I ended up deciding that if there is one element that must be retained, it is the volta. A sonnet has to end in a different place than it began; there must be compressed tension and change. So it’s great to end the interview here, on the volta, my favorite part of and what I believe to be the sine qua non of the sonnet form.
The 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence, Rebecca Foust is the recipient of the 2014 Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Award and recent fellowships from The Frost Place, the MacDowell Colony and the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. Her fifth book, Paradise Drive, won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and can be ordered at http://www.press53.com/.
Jon Riccio graduates this December with an MFA from the University of Arizona. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Qwerty, Redivider, Mountain Gazette, White Whale Review and elsewhere. He serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.
introduction by Christopher Soto
The first time that I heard TC Tolbert read was in April 2015 at the Poetry Project in NYC. He asked me (and several friends in the audience) to recite excerpts from a long poem with him. I had no clue who else was speaking with me or where they sat. As the event began, different voices from throughout the audience started erupting from wall to wall (in conversation with TC). The voices kept growing in number and frequency as the reading progressed. By the end of the reading all of the voices were overlapping one another in chorus, in community, in chaos. All of these voices in the room were united by TC and singing with him in an orchestra of pain.
TC Tolbert is the author of Gephyromania (Ahsahta Press, 2014). He is also the author of two chapbooks I:Not He:Not I (Pity Milk Press, 2014) and territories of folding (Kore Press, 2011) and a chaplet spirare (Belladonna* 2012). TC Tolbert is co-editor, along with Trace Peterson, of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry & Poetics (Nightboat Books, 2013). TC Tolbert is a genderqueer, feminist poet, and teacher committed to social justice. He currently teaches in the Low Residency MFA program at OSU-Cascades. This interview will discuss TC’s reading at the Poetry Project, his latest book, and work in the trans poetry community.
CS: Can you tell us about your reading at the Poetry Project. How you decided to organize your set and why?
TC: I like the words you used to describe it – orchestra, chorus, conversation. And a conversation is nothing if not partial improvisation and when we enter into one, we accept that we must be flexible, porous, able to be changed. I’m less interested in giving a reading and more interested in sharing an experience with an audience – a conversation. For the last 2 years or so, I’ve committed to myself that I will not give readings but I will engage in site and audience-specific collaborations. This developed as a result of working with Movement Salon, a Compositional Improvisation collective I’ve been with for about 7 years. We compose together in the moment to create dynamic, complex, and fully realized pieces without rehearsal or planning and this practice has taught me to pay attention to the intersections of text, body, architecture, and space in ways that readings often don’t. Also, I’m exhausted by the idea of “performing” and I resent any experience in which I am expected to entertain. I want to feel people with me. Also, I grew up Pentecostal and the sound of speaking in tongues has always delighted and terrified me.
The Poetry Project readings happen at a church so I wanted to bring in the experience of chorus and glossolalia, the beautiful and the unspeakable. I also think of church as the place where I’ve experienced some of the worst pain of my life and the most intense healing. The arc of the evening was built around a challenge to god, which is another way of saying it was a prayer and a wish: Here, you hear this? The sexual abuse I endured as a kid – the abuses that so many children endure – the schism of gender identity – the horror of suicidal ideation – the realization of the violence I am not separate from – the all out war against trans and gender non-conforming folks (primarily trans women of color) – where the fuck are you? All of my work is, when it comes down to it, really just a practice of trying to find god in the midst of suffering.
CS: I was particularly interested in your choice to recite the names of our trans sisters,
brother, siblings (who have been murdered). This is not something that either of us take lightly. What response do you want from the audience? Is there a call to action?
TC: YES – I WANT THE AUDIENCE TO MAKE IT STOP. I WANT THEM TO QUIT LISTENING POLITELY AND I WANT THEM TO DO EVERYTHING IN THEIR POWER (including but not limited to donating large amounts of money to TWOC orgs like Trans Women of Color Collective or any of for trans women) TO MAKE THAT LIST OF NAMES COME TO AN END.
I chose to have the names read throughout the piece because this violence is largely unseen and unacknowledged yet it is utterly brutal and endless. Because even though most people in that room are protected from this information, it is still happening. And if all of the folks in the audience are going to support a white trans guy by listening to his poems, they damn well better realize that that one act is not enough to be an actual ally. IF WE ARE NOT ACTIVELY SUPPORTING TWOC IN LIVING FULL LIVES, WE ARE COMPLICIT IN THE VIOLENCE AGAINST THEM.
CS: At the reading (which was mostly cisgender white folks) you had your shirt taken off, exposing your chest. There is a lot of emotional labor involved with being a visibly trans person (both inside / outside community). How do you prepare to be so physically and emotionally vulnerable in a space? Why might such vulnerability be necessary?
TC: I was born female and about 9 years ago I transitioned to something less visibly female. And I often need and want to declare this publicly for many reasons. Regardless of previous visible embodiments and regardless of my own psychic and emotional connection to the skin I live in underneath these clothes – I’m also a white passing trans guy and that affords me a ton of privilege I didn’t have before taking testosterone. In other words, transition, for me at least, was participation in erasure. Some parts of my corporeal text have been made invisible while other parts seem to have become more clear. And I have questions about that erasure. Is transitioning a way of killing myself? If I have ostensibly erased Melissa in order to make visible TC, what other kinds of violence am I capable of? Am I, as a trans man, degrading women simply through the acts of transition (“acts” because there are many, both repetitive and cumulative, somehow seemingly never ending)? To present my particular acts of transition as a simple resilience narrative feels insincere, too neat. And although I am ambivalent about how transitioning has not just figuratively, but literally, saved me – I don’t take either my history or my current context lightly. All of this to say: my poems and my experiences and my love for the world – all of these things come from my body. And while I spend most of my time in public trying to force that body into a version of embodiment that feels safe – it would have felt like a lie to be that protected during that particular experience.
How do I prepare to be physically and emotionally vulnerable? Honestly, I pray for an open heart. I pray to be present. Pema Chödrön says: “Our own suffering, if we turn toward it, can open us to a loving relationship with the world.” In that instance, removing my shirt was a way to turn toward suffering and open myself up.
CS: I’d like to talk a bit about the body in your work. Of all the references that you had to the body, I was most intrigued by your relationship to the knees. The knees as a site of
prayer (and penance), pleasure (oral sex), the knees as a reoccurring site of submission to rise from. It was interesting for me to think about the knees in relationship to the conversations about gender throughout your book. Can you elaborate?
TC: The knees are very important to me as a site of resistance and surrender. Multivalence. Yes – it seems to me there is something about one’s relationship to the knees that insinuates gender (or at least gendered expectations) in all of the ways you listed – penance, submission, pleasure. Who gets to feel pleasure when one is on the knees? Who has power? Who can be broken and who needs to be forgiven? Knees also indicate motion – or at least the possibility of motion. Every bend in the body, a turning. The knees also make possible the liminal space between prostrate and standing. In most of my life I feel as though I live there (and I don’t imagine this is unique to my trans embodiment – perhaps this is just embodiment, generally speaking) – in the motion of rising and supplicating simultaneously.
CS: Your book, as a tangible object, felt like a bridge in itself (referencing the title, Gephyromania). The font was constantly shifting size and shape. The book could be read vertically and horizontally. I was always traveling from one place (one experience) to the next. Can we talk about aesthetic choices?
TC: Gephyromania literally means an addiction to or an obsession with bridges. Bridges, themselves, are so many things: a musical interlude, a passage over, a joining, a contrast, a way across.
I wrote this book because I kept losing track of the differences between us. The woman I was in love with was leaving. I was beginning to transition away from visibly female to something the world would call “man.” Who was disappearing? Who was showing up? Gephyromania was written between bodies – between who I loved and who was leaving, between who I was and who I would become.
The poems started as a notebook with the word “bridge” written across it. I was wicked sad. I was so tired of talking about me/her/us. My friends were tired of hearing about me/her/us. I needed a place to put me/her/us down. I needed something else to carry us/her/me.
For a long time I’ve been more interested in the form a poem takes than it’s content. That might be an overstatement but it’s at least true that I’m as interested in the form as I am the content. So, even though I have a trans and genderqueer narrative and some of these poems are explicitly about that, most are trying to work that out through form while talking about love. And maybe the body is just love made visible anyhow.
I see the page as a body and how I have used that body, or it has used me, for experimentation, silence, shape, music, rupture, image, etc. interests me. It is, undoubtedly, experiments in poetry and with language that led me to and into and through my transition – which is something I’m still in and probably will be forever – there is no endpoint, as far as I can tell, to the transitioning body – and so even what I’m writing today (9 years into my transition), I see as a formal representation of my gender. My question is always: how to get the body in the poem, how to find my body on the page.
The writing is the body :: the freedom is the constraint.
I feel like I’m always thinking about silence and white space. At a time when I felt like I was leaking out everywhere, my breasts constantly spilling out of my shirt, my voice undermining any attempts to pass – I wrote territories of folding – and you can see how I was aching for silence – to be smaller and smaller (to have a smaller and smaller voice but, perhaps, to begin to learn to take up more space?) – and then to succumb to the page. And then take the sonnet crown. How I would vacillate between needing this expansive silence, white noise to swallow me whole, and then composing these tightly wound 3-5 page poems. How I needed the rigor, the dancing in a straight jacket of form. 7 sonnets back to back, the last line of one becoming the first line of the next until the last line of the poem curls back to the first line of the first sonnet – the form seems to evolve back into itself. I push out against that always while also willingly taking it on – so there is tension that interests me – the tension between holding and being held – sense and perhaps not sense – music and not music – the story of the thing and the embodiment of the thing and the thing itself and then the hand.
CS: Are you currently working on a second book? What should we expect thematically, stylistically?
TC: Yes, I’m working on several somethings but I’m very unsure of where or how they will bear (bare?) themselves finally to me or the world. Part of me just wants to leave it at that. But I also feel like this unknown territory – the process of risking and failing – is important, so I’ll share some of what I’m wading through.
I’ve been thinking a lot about whiteness as erasure. A culture of silence. And how when white people don’t talk about racism or transphobia, when we talk about other things, we are committing an erasure of what is always happening – which is to say violence against trans people and people of color. And I am thinking through that in my work (which isn’t limited to poetry or even writing, really). Maybe it’s more accurate to say that my life project is to work through these realities.
So, one thing I’m working on is a series of hybrid essays. I’m not a theorist, or rather, critique is just my affection in drag. Utilizing elements of poetry, research, and personal narrative, I think of these essays as embodied meditative investigations on the trans body – my trans body – and its relationship to architecture, intimacy, and public space. They are, to me, genderqueer bodies, much like my physical genderqueer body – nonlinear, dynamic, a kind of textual bricolage, sometimes awkward or halting, passing as narrative at one turn, then full of ruptures in logic, vulnerable and visible and joyously so.
Lately I’m realizing that all of the work that interests me is collaborative. I need you (the reader) to make sense of who I am or what I’m doing. This is similar, I think, to how we collaborate to create meaning from each of our gender expressions and identities, trans or not. But public space is often a dangerous place for trans and genderqueer bodies (most brutally, bodies that either cannot or do not wish to be invisible, and specifically the bodies of trans women of color). What could be collaboration, or celebration, becomes violence, oppression, and control. My hope is that reading (and writing) these essays is a practice in shifting that dynamic. That we can play, be curious, wander among tangents, delight in the previously undefined, decorate, find connections where they are not obvious, unhinge our expectations, say yes to what we don’t yet know.
In this way, I want to celebrate trans and genderqueer bodies – how we pass and sometimes don’t, how we spill over, slip, call out, miss the point. These essays don’t defend anything or even prove a good point. They bump into things. They might make illegible what was just starting to come into focus. They are rigorous but they refuse to pass. They “fail,” for sure.
The other thing I’m working on is a series of erasures of news reports about the violent deaths of trans people – news reports that show us this violence is primarily enacted against trans women of color. In the first 3 months of 2015, ten trans people – almost all of whom were trans women of color – were murdered here in the US. According to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, a trans person – again, almost always a trans woman of color – is murdered every other day worldwide. In 2014, the total number of reported murders was 226. 1612 murders have been reported since 2008. It’s also worth noting that these are only the reported numbers. In the first 3.5 months of 2015, at least 10 trans youth have died by suicide.
By erasing these reports, I hope to deal with this atrocity head-on, with a deep awareness of my own and other trans people’s vulnerability – while also acknowledging my white skin and passing privilege and how this has actually given me access to a vulnerability and resilience narrative that QTPOC may not have access to. In other words, I am suddenly a marketable trans body – often positioned as a version of trans success – but this does not mean that my trans siblings are ever, even in the most “progressive” spaces, safe. As Adam Phillips points out in an essay on agoraphobia, “James’ open space is full of potential predators, but in Freud’s open space a person may turn into a predator.” In these acts of erasure I am thinking about who my potential predators are and what kind of predator I may be.
But I also don’t think it’s enough to call out privilege and power. I want to expose sites of privilege and vulnerability while also inspiring action and connection. I also want to insist that trans writing and trans lives must be able to become more than documented suffering. Healing, I think, is too lofty. But relationship. M. NourbeSe Philip said at the most recent &Now conference: “Poetry generates relationships” and that’s really my goal. Touching people seems to be the best I can do.
CS: Lastly, you’re very involved in the trans poetry community (having co-edited Troubling the Line). Are there any poets or upcoming projects that we should know about?
TC: I want to mention two authors here whose work I was introduced to after Troubling the Line came out. Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s book I’m alive/it hurts/I love it is un-fucking-believably good. I also love Jos Charles’ poems and their thinking and I hope they have a book out soon. I feel incredibly lucky to read and learn from these two.
CS: Closing thoughts?
TC: Thank you, my friend, for these questions. And for giving me the space to continue to think carefully and critically about my work, its intention, and its reception. Lord knows interviewing folks is an invisible labor of love and I appreciate you taking this time with me.
Christopher Soto (aka Loma) is a queer latin@ punk poet and prison abolitionist. They have poems, essays, and book reviews published in print and online. They edit Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color with the Lambda Literary Foundation. They are an MFA candidate in poetry at NYU and the 2014-2015 intern at Poetry Society of America. In 2015, they co-founded the Undocupoets Campaign (with Javier Zamora and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo) to protest the discriminatory guidelines which many publishers used, barring undocumented people from applying to first book contests. They currently reside in Brooklyn but will soon be moving to the Bay Area.
Introduction by Christopher Soto
This interview is loosely transcribed from an in-class discussion at NYU with r. erica doyle on Monday August 13, 2015. The instructor of the course is Eileen Myles. Most questions in the interview were asked by students. In the transcription below, questions and answers are rearranged from how they originally appeared (in oration).
r. erica doyle is the author of proxy (Belladonna*, 2014). proxy was honored by the Poetry Society of America with the Norma Farber First Book Award. proxy was also a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. r. erica doyle’s poetry and fiction appear in various journals, including Ploughshares, Callaloo, Bloom, From the Fishouse, Blithe House Quarterly and Sinister Wisdom. She is a Cave Canem fellow, born in Brooklyn to Trinidadian immigrant parents.
[Proxy] is a very durable, moving, book that you’ve written. Do you have another book coming?
Well, I’m that person that has multiple projects, so when I was sending [Proxy] out I also had two other manuscripts floating around that were newer. And now I have a bunch of even stuff that I’m working on still. I also write prose. I have a novel that I’m working on, essays, etc. So, yea I have a few other projects. Two are finished though. So I’m thinking that I’ll revisit them this summer and then we’ll see what happens. And they’re different; they’re really different from [Proxy].
How do you decide the form of your poems?
This project started as a found poem from A Tour of the Calculus. That found poem has become the epigraphs in the book. I built everything else around that [found] poem. I started writing [Proxy] in 2001. The work really shifted [from the found poem] when I was living on Bleeker Street, when 9/11 happened, and taking an amazing workshop with Patricia Smith. She told us to write about something that’s taboo, to you. Not something that’s gunna shock my mother kind of taboo, but something that feels really fucked up to you… And that actually the genesis of this book… When I initially started writing this poem, it looked like one long stanza and then I backed away and started to chop at it and play with the pronouns.
I was thinking about the position of the “you.” Sometimes the “you” felt like a prop to the speaker and sometimes the “you” felt so intimate. I was wondering who the “you” might be?
I think that you’ve captured that really well. The you is all of that, it’s zooming in, it’s zooming out. It’s a proxy for so many things, it shifts in the book. Sometimes it shifts back and it’s more composite and sometimes it shifts in and it’s being more intimate and really as pseudonym for “I.”
Then sometimes, it actually means “us.” And one of the things that we talked about in the editing process, is what is the experience. How close is the experience of the reader in different parts of the book? And that was one of my organizing principles, as well as the journey. So it [proxy] became less linear and more about the vulnerability and intimacy.
Can you tell us more about the placement of calculus in the poems?
I’m actually a black geek. I’m really into sci-fi and fantasy. My mother was a scientist, she was an electrical engineer and so I’ve also been into scientifical explanations of the world. I was really interested in A Brief History of Time when it came out. I am constantly reading things like that by myself… So at the time [in 2001], I had started to read about mathematics and biographies of mathematicians more. Someone had then recommended A Tour of the Calculus to me and I was like, OH MY GOD THIS IS MY LIFE. So that’s when I said, okay, if I were to translate this language [from A Tour of the Calculus] into poetry. What would that look like? Because you know, mathematics is just another language.
How did you decide what to cut or keep from your book?
It was really about the strength of the language and the image. At one point I was teaching middle school in the Bronx and that started entering my work. But that does not belong in this book, those weird notes from the kids, all the things they would say. I would tell myself “Yes, this belongs in the books because it’s in the same style”. But it just wasn’t part of the integrity of the book. Those cuts were all edits that I had made, prior to having the book over to the publishers. This book had probably been around for about four years before reaching them… You know, sometimes you have lines that you like but you have to let them go. You can tell when it’s not part of the book… I had really spent a lot of time with this work and had pared it down. So I wasn’t enamored with keep work just because it was stylistically good, I had to consider how the whole manuscript fit together… As I got to be a better writer, I could start seeing what to cut. I really learned a lot from Dawn Lundy Martin, her economy. She is very economical with words, very careful, very deliberate. She edits as she writes. She would be writing and crossing out, writing and crossing out. She taught me how to be intentional and not to be so flippant.
I’m wondering, did you write this as a chronicle [in order] or how did this process come about for you?
So, it started as a chronicle and then transformed into something else. In the end, it is completely out of the order in which I wrote it. The sections really helped me manage the order and composition of the book, thinking of each section as an experience. At first, I started with five sections and then it became six. I was trying to make sure that everything inside each section fit, according to the experience which I was describing. It started chronologically but then it began to bifurcate. Then I ended up arranging it differently as a manuscript. Sometimes I’ll jump around and read the sections out of order.
What are the influences for your book?
I was interested in the ways that an intimate act, sex, can actually not be intimate. And all of the different ways that we use sex. And having that conversation about women who are having sex with one another because that was definitely taboo… One of my influences was the lesbian sex wars because there was a whole agenda about the types of things that we can talk about, the kind of sex that we can have, or even just having a conversation about the expectations around sex. There were all of these performances about what we were doing and how we were supposed to be with each other. And we weren’t, sometimes, treating each other that well. I wanted to explore the ways that we use sex and why we might be using them that way. I was mucking around in that—how when you’re in an emotional relationship with someone else. And they’re completely not there. They’re not having that experience with you. And we have to compassionate about that, in spaces with humans, we just can’t assume…
Proxy is available from Belladonna*
by Kelly Schirmann
Brandon Shimoda & Dot Devota are two poets, humans, & year-round travelers, currently living & working in the various deserts of the American Southwest. They are the authors, respectively, of The Carpenters (and Other Strangers) and Curfew, released this last fall from Black Cake Records, which releases contemporary & experimental poetry/recordings. At the time of this interview, we were haunting the same dive bars & taco stands of Tucson, Arizona, where over several months of backyard fires & midnight walks past fraternity houses, I began to understand that there was something very special about the way they looked at, talked to, & engaged with their surroundings. I cling to them because, in the desert, one must cling to something. Secondarily, & far more importantly, I cling to them because they know things: holy, ancient, useless truths. Their albums are weird things with wild blood & vice versa: the stuff of AM radio transmissions & other casual apocalypses. They are incessant, insistent, & full of secrets that exist in plain sight. Luckily for us, they are gracious with their findings. What follows is the result of us sitting down together on the Internet for a chat on what blood is, why artifacts are, & what we as poets should do about any of it.
Kelly Schirmann: First off, where are you? Who are you? How are you? How come?
Brandon Shimoda: We’re in the same desert town as you: Tucson, AZ, 100 km from Mexico. I’m grateful for this moment, Kelly, though I know it’s brief, and will soon be over. As for Tucson: DD and I have lived here off-and-on since late 2011, though have been gone ~half that time (in Taiwan, Japan, NY, Nova Scotia, St. Louis, driving; many reasons).
Dot Devota: I’m at Exo coffee shop. Writers suck at hide-n-seek. I came to center out the earth and drool. I just saw your boyfriend, Jay, here. He sliced his thumb with a butcher knife and hasn’t washed off the blood. He says blood is clean. Is it? Isn’t it sticky, I mean? Which would lead to contamination by fly paper, sweetly fragrant. The fly has to wiggle so hard it actually detaches from its own belly. The last time I got worked up was a single second ago. Right now I am in the past of that single second.
KS: I’m grateful for this shared time on the flypaper too, & I know that when we detach, my belly will remain in the best four hands possible. Your recent poetry albums are such glorious, twisting, multi-faceted things. Would you talk a little bit about them — how you went about recording (or collecting recordings), where they came from, and what they are?
DD: A long time ago the supercontinent split. Now I fly 16 hours each summer to get to Asia. A couple of these poems were recorded on the 26th floor of a highrise in Taiwan. In the middle of the night the building sways. Gently. None of these small earthquakes get recorded. I record singing while walking down the street and I record children reading their poems in the hallway of a school. The last song is by Jess Matsen, one of my favorite musicians who also lives in Tucson. I saw him at the cafe. He’d just gotten off work landscaping. I asked if he wanted to add a song. He said he was dirty and had to go home. 30 seconds later he emailed this.
BS: The poet D.A. Powell once told me that my poems reminded him of the music of The Carpenters, though what I especially remember is the shadow that was on the wall behind him when he said it—the wall was white, he was facing a window, the shadow was shadow and light, and had the shape of an enormous eagle or phoenix, or a fright wig, or an enormous eagle or phoenix wearing a fright wig: an unconquerable V-shape, victory, peace, but foreboding. I was writing short poems about my grandfather’s imprisonment during WWII, was sinking into his bifurcated self, selves, listening to the sound of him taking off his clothes, putting on his wife’s—his wife was missing, or dead, very young, not yet his wife; he was talking to himself: love poems. Karen Carpenter was anorexic. Anorexia, in the consciousness of what Doug was suggesting, became a TONE, initiatory, out of which I began to envision peace, but foreboding: trying on your wife’s clothes, withering away beneath them—but what was casting the shadow? The Carpenters (and Other Strangers) is either a misfire or unfinished. Also: when you invited DD and I to make records for Black Cake, we were staying at our friend Janet’s house in Meadowville, Nova Scotia, and the house, because it was the season, was swarming with ladybugs … remember I wrote that to you?
KS: I do remember that. It is a shame that the insects & the earthquakes don’t always get recorded. Or maybe it’s glorious, relieving, true? What happens to the things that get left out or unfinished? Where do they live? Is it any of our business?
DD: Very little, if anything, actually exists for us. Trees didn’t decide to grow because they knew we’d eventually come along. The impetus is to identify sensitivity. Whatever technical device—writing or machine—is really not the issue. I don’t even think this is what constitutes “recording”. Recording, and The Record, is something much more insane. An imprint larger than the artifact. Isolate the pitcha and look elsewhere.
BS: The insects and earthquakes recur (see below), though who knows how, or when, so there’s a series of dementia-like encounters with what we might not have appreciated in their moment, or did, but in part, or a different part than what, over time, proved to be IT. I wonder though if there’s a critical or post-critical mass (i.e. eleven thousand insects riding on the waves of eleven thousand earthquakes) and what the consequence is (i.e. implosion, levitation, vomit, or poetry, etc). I have/had the feeling that our work is MADE of the things that get left out or are unfinished. That’s why there’s making (not that it’s any of OUR BUSINESS).
KS: To me, both of your work feels very rooted in revelation, in exposure, in documentation. I get the sense that you feel a sense of responsibility in what you choose to reveal, or expose, or to document. How does this affect your poetry, & how did it affect your records? (You can disagree with me if you want).
DD: After Taiwan, I went to Ferguson, Missouri. I grew up in St. Louis. It’s still apartheid. For weeks I’m on Antonio French’s Twitter feed with the beak of a hummingbird! I go to protests for Mike Brown and march on Canfield Drive. I’m a shitty shitty activist. Overwhelmed. I’m unaware of goals, unable to focus my demands. But as a poet my job isn’t to yell at police or hold signs. It is to visit the grave. I’m a ghost myself there. After the march on Canfield, I relay the day’s images to Brandon: female pastors dressed casually, a woman pushing a stroller sings Amazing Grace, another woman goes in for a group hug but her phone falls out of her pocket breaking on the street, flowers around a road cone, a small loudspeaker at the point of death. And some white people with their cryptic signage. One holds a 1989 bar graph depicting global warming. Some other white people approach me to join a “witnessing whiteness” group (white people finding more white people to talk about how bad they have it because they’re racist). Brandon says the poet doesn’t know where they go or why…
BS: It’s true: the choice is the responsibility. “Verse should not be composed of words, but of intentions” (Mallarmé). Documentation is becoming (to me) about revelation. Exposure is antecedent, calculable time, or real, while revelation is dispersed, therefore timeless; it’s part of the responsibility (choice), trusting what recurs, even after the origins of occurrence have gone extinct. What I mean is: I don’t remember, but am remembered by what happened, as the fragmentation of what happened increases intelligence. “Happened” isn’t right; there is no past TENSE. Revelation, Exposure, Document: RED. DD went to Ferguson MO (see above), near where she grew up, marched with protesters to the police station, felt confused, overwhelmed, at a loss, full of anger and uncertainty. We realized we’ve spent the last 4+ years on pilgrimages—to graves, trees, fields, poets’ houses, internment camps, libraries, extinct towns—often finding nothing, but the embodiment of RED. Also: two of my favorite movies about looking at art, both documentary in their way, are: Pavel Kogan’s Look at the Face and Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, which has an amazing cameo by Bruegel’s Conversion of St. Paul.
KS: You both chose to incorporate outside voices in your albums — singers, teachers, friends, field recordings from protest marches, ghosts of previous selves. In what way do you see these other voices contributing to your understanding of your poetry, or of art in general?
DD: Those voices are outside? They’re voices? I’m less sure of what constitutes a voice, singular. Or how this idea of voice is so important, as I feel it is. But it’s an old idea getting over-normalized. It’s becoming cheesy, like, get your voice heard. We are in a post-voice society. Half the time I don’t know who is talking or from where it comes. But it is incessant. Too many voices got murdered in the positivist readings of the future in the late 60’s of every century, so now, the afterlife’s bluish underworld, they travel through water, deep sea-like, carried farther, true, but the currents are forever just rotating. It’s not cynical, this is how I feel. I feel like a shortwave radio, picking up static and bits of conversations. Or sound is literally bumping off of me. To stand in the middle of the symphony does what? To be part of the throbbing. I have no idea of where to go from here. Although voice becomes a direction. In the dark I usually go towards the voice. Have you seen Beckett’s NOT I?
BS: I’m not sure what contributes to my understanding of my poetry—do you know (what contributes to yours?) I feel like everything contributes to a greater LACK of understanding, because it changes, as I and it pass further down the circles. I think of two trees: an 800 year-old camphor tree in Kumamoto and a 1000+ year-old cypress in Oaxaca. Actually, two people: my grandmother dying in a convalescent home in bed at a 45º angle while her two roommates, both nuns, watch Catholic Mass on TV, and old men pace the halls with nurses, in English, Spanish, Russian, Arabic; and Hayashi Yoken, the young monk who set fire to the Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kyoto) then ran into the woods to watch it burn while attempting, but failing, to kill himself by swallowing poison and stabbing himself in the heart (he missed): the vision of the flames through the trees. In other words: I need nudity/denudation, temperamental and/or physical, to enact the sense of falling into VOICES. Monk/grandmother—I’ve sat like/as them.
KS: To me, poetry is this very squishy & elusive thing, & I think maybe my aim with Black Cake is to blur the edges of the word until it becomes something else entirely. Not the collection of voices, but any kind of container a voice could inhabit. Or is that just existence? How do you see poetry interacting with other mediums, expressions, sounds, life? What is it, & why do we (you) do it?
DD: I can’t blame poetry enough to give it a definition. Because something that can’t feel suffering is given something to suffer through–our perception. Not because poetry is elusive. I’m never trying to catch poetry or achieve it or find new forms for it.
BS: Where did the name Black Cake come from? Is it what happens to poetry when it is confected (turns black)? Or is poetry the confection? Or cake like a chemical? When my mom was pregnant with me she only ate—or so she claims—potatoes and YELLOW cake. Because of that, I only see poetry interacting with other mediums, expressions, sounds, life.
KS: I’m not sure anyone has ever asked me this. A few months into the project, a friend of mine showed me a recipe for black cake that was found in Emily Dickinson’s kitchen. This was absolutely horrifying, not because of the association exactly, but because I would never want to be speaking to something so directly & indirectly at the same time. I would prefer not speaking at all, actually, at least not in a way that leaves intentional traces of itself. Information. I don’t know if the cake is petrified, molding, imaginary, terrible, or just NEW. Do we ever know what we eat? & but shouldn’t we keep eating? Anyway. What’s next?
DD: Brandon says we’re working our way further towards and into nothingness. Reading and writing. There is always more to do away with, which makes room for more nothingness. There is a goal and its the blackness of the universe expanding.
BS: “I would prefer not speaking at all,” you said, “at least not in a way that leaves intentional traces of itself.” Me too, and yet: it’s raining, rare for the desert, though it’s rained a lot since we’ve been back (August). The dry rivers come to life—muddy, with tree limbs and trash—but will be gone just as quickly. Our friend Johanna saw a body being lifted out of the river. The man, 34, was homeless, and was murdered by two other homeless men. His name was Owen McNutt. Among the things on my to-do list (from my notebook, verbatim): Alzheimer’s threshold, Annunciation paintings, Hiroshima in Braille, suicide in Ontario, Genet’s Prisoner of Love, the sun’s journey into night.
Dot Devota is from a family of rodeo stars. She wrote The Division of Labor (Rescue Press, 2015) And The Girls Worried Terribly (Noemi Press, 2014); MW: A Midwest Field Guide (Editions19\); and The Eternal Wall, published by Cannibal and reprinted in Canada by BookThug. Recent poems and essays appear in PEN America, Make Magazine, Ancients, Aufgabe, The Volta and have been translated into French and Arabic. She travels full-time with her partner, Brandon Shimoda, and currently writes prose about the U.S. Midwest.
Brandon Shimoda was born in California, and is, among other things (friend, son, brother, uncle, grandson), a poet. He is also the co-editor of two recent books by two poets he deeply admires: Wong May and Etel Adnan.
Kelly Schirmann is from Northern California. She is the author of Popular Music (Black Ocean, 2016) & the co-author of Boyfriend Mountain (Poor Claudia). She sings in the band Young Family & runs Black Cake, a record label for poetry & other experiments. She lives in Portland, Oregon, & at kellyschirmann.com.
You can listen to Dot Devota’s Curfew and Brandon Shimoda’s The Carpenters (and Other Strangers), as well as the other Black Cake poets, for free & forever at blackcake.org.
Both poets feature in the The Volta Book of Poets, out recently from Sidebrow.
Not too long ago, I announced on Twitter that I would like to do an interview series wherein I asked people I admire to recommend an “experience.” I would then attempt that experience, and we would talk about it. I was joking, but also serious. Elisa Gabbert is an incredible poet and human. She’s also very good at Twitter. When she said she would be game for something like this, I set to work immediately.
Elisa recommend a wine tasting, which I found both exciting—an opportunity to drink for work—and curious—of all things, why a wine tasting?
I tried to attend a few wine tastings in San Francisco (by which I mean, if my wife and I were walking down the street and we spotted one taking place in a wine shop, I would say, “Hey, let’s drop everything and go to that wine tasting.”), but it didn’t pan out. Or not until we received an invitation from my in-laws to join them at a time-share in Angel’s Camp (near Russian River, CA).
Part of our visit was to include a wine and food pairing at the Kendall Jackson Winery.
We ate several little bites and drank about five glasses of wine, which we scored on little Kendall Jackson notecards.
Then I talked to Elisa Gabbert about it.
CW: Elisa, you recommended a wine tasting. I tried to go a few times in SF, but it didn’t pan out. Coincidentally, my in-laws invited us to meet them at their time-share the other week, and they brought us to a wine and food pairing. Does this count, in your opinion? Did I come close enough to the experience you were recommending?
EG: Sure, I’ll allow it!
CW: At a wine tasting, a lot gets said about the wine you’re drinking. We had five different kinds. Add food on top of that, even more words are said. Do you feel like you were able to taste everything that was said about the wine you were drinking at past wine tastings you attended? I did not feel that way, but I pretended like I did.
EG: Some people taste everything that is being described purely due to power of suggestion. Others don’t taste anything that is being described and think it’s all mumbo-jumbo. I look at it like this: different wines definitely have distinct flavors. If you haven’t tried a lot of different wines or just haven’t been paying very close attention while you’re drinking them, you’re not going to notice all the different flavors. An “expert” like a sommelier will probably be able to point out some interesting flavors that you’re not noticing. But they’re not necessarily the only flavors or the most interesting flavors, they’re just the flavors that person happens to notice (or, if they’re selling the wine in question, maybe the flavors that the marketing department has decided to highlight). So if you taste something different from the person leading the wine tasting, you shouldn’t feel like you’re tasting it “wrong.” The idea is just to pay more attention to the different flavors in the wine. A professional might describe something as grassy or “barnyard-y” while you think it smells like hot dogs. I’ve had wines that taste like hot dogs or a cedar chest or even buttered popcorn. It’s all admissible, you just have to trust your own nose/tongue/mind.
CW: You’ve had wine that tastes like hot dogs?
EG: Yes. Truly. It was a red wine with a kind of smoky cured meat taste. This was at a party and I remember taking the cup around to people and saying “Doesn’t this smell like hot dogs?” On a side note, pinotage usually tastes like bacon. (I particularly liked buying pinotage when I was vegetarian.)
CW: Is it bad form to bring a “party vibe” to a wine tasting?
EG: From the perspective of the people holding the wine tasting, probably. But from your perspective, who cares? You’re partying!
CW: At the end of our wine and food pairing, I started to think, this is basically an advertisement for Kendall Jackson wine (the winery my in-laws were able to get free vouchers for). But it’s an incredibly expensive-seeming and elaborate advertisement. Is it worth it? Is there more to it than advertising? What is the purpose?
EG: Yes, in this case, you basically experienced advertising. But this seems like a very reasonable form of advertising to me. They assume that once you taste their wine you’ll want to buy some. It’s like giving out free samples at the grocery store. It’s not really as expensive as it seems because they sell the wine at a markup, so if you buy some wine they make their money back pretty quickly, even if not everyone who tastes the wine makes a purchase.
I took a wine tasting class in college that was taught by a guy who wasn’t affiliated with any particular winery, so we tasted stuff from all different labels and there was no advertising component involved. That’s obviously the best way to learn how to taste wine.
CW: Do you think police ever park their cars near wineries and pull people over as they’re turning out of the driveway and ask, “Excuse, ma’am or sir, have you been drinking?”
EG: Wow, that would make a lot of sense. You can get pretty drunk at those things.
CW: Do you go to a lot of wine tastings?
EG: No, but I do drink a lot of wine.
CW: Do you think it would be rude to admit to someone hosting a wine tasting that were only there for free wine?
EG: I bet they get that all the time. I used to live near the Sam Adams brewery and they seemed fully aware that people only did the brewery tours to get drunk for free in the afternoon.
CW: Did their brewery tours get rowdy?
EG: Yes, but rowdy in a fun family way. I never saw any fights break out.
CW: Do you think someone who hosts a wine tasting knows that a good percentage of people who tell them they are NOT only their for free wine, and can totally taste all the cat urine and floral bouquets, and can totally get that open-mouth feel or that dry-mouth feel, do you think the host knows they’re being lied to? Do you think they enjoy making people squirm a little?
EG: As I mentioned above, I think a lot of people really do taste the cat urine or whatever – or believe that they taste it, which is effectively the same thing. I mean, a man might not want to know that his wife is faking her orgasms, but if she really believes she is having orgasms, what difference does it make?
CW: But if she believes she’s having the orgasm, who would be the one designating the fakeness the husband wouldn’t want to know about?
EG: Now we’re getting into some deep philosophical shit, but some people think you can believe you are happy but not actually be happy. Others would say if you believe you’re happy, you’re happy; there is no other measure of happiness. (I don’t know what I believe in this regard.)
CW: Do you think it is lonely-making, to host a wine tasting? With this fog of lies and fermented grape between you and the rest of the world? Or do you think there are sincere connections made and relationships formed in this setting? Or do you think the folks hosting a wine tasting look down on people who are pretending and wish they would just buy a bottle and go home?
EG: I would guess that people fall in love at wine tastings all the time. Wine country is pretty romantic.
CW: What was the last wine tasting you went to like? Who did you go with? What did you drink? What did you learn?
EG: I went to a wine tasting in Massachusetts around 2005 or so, with some girlfriends from grad school. Massachusetts isn’t exactly known for its wines, but this winery had pretty good sparkling wines. The woman leading the testing told that us that good sparkling wines often have “toast” notes. Everyone said, “Oh yeah, this does smell like toast!” I’m not sure if it really smelled like toast, but I’ve always remembered that. Maybe because of the pun.
CW: Is there any chance she was just making a joke?
EG: She didn’t seem that clever.
CW: Do you think studying wine in this way has allowed you to appreciate it more when you drink it alone at night with a sad record on? Or over dinner with a loved one?
EG: Yes, absolutely! But, luckily, I haven’t become so wine-snobby that I don’t still enjoy cheap, simple wine too. Also, though I drink wine with dinner, I don’t usually think wine and food improve each other. Every now and then you hit upon a lucky combination, but most of the time, I think food makes wine taste worse.
CW: Is wine your preferred alcoholic beverage?
EG: It’s definitely up there. I also like bourbon. And margaritas.
CW: Can you share an anecdote from a wine tasting experience in your past?
EG: In my wine tasting class in college, we tried a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand that tasted exactly like Five Alive. Remember that stuff?
CW: I’ve never had Five Alive. It looks amazing.
EG: It was delish! Way better than plain OJ.
CW: Have you ever had Kendall Jackson wine?
EG: I find KJ chardonnay to be reliably drinkable.
CW: Do you notice anything strange about this bottle of Kendall Jackson wine?
EG: Ooh, cola flavors.
Colin Winnette is the author of several books, most recently Coyote, forthcoming from Les Figues Press in January 2015. Two Dollar Radio will release his novel Haints Stay in June 2015. He lives in San Francisco.
by Jon Riccio
There’s a high likelihood Megan Volpert is the only Teacher of the Year appearing in The Volta. Much as I wanted to ask her about the faculty smoking lounges of yore, we had other matters to discuss, namely Megan’s new book, Only Ride. Any poetry collection prefaced with lyrics by Tom Petty is bound to resonate. That and the line “I pretty much have the kind of problems that a pot of macaroni & cheese can solve, except that a lot of people think I think about death a little too often.” Driver’s ed be damned.
Jon Riccio: I’m thrilled to present Only Ride in an experimental autobiographies class offered this semester at the University of Arizona. How does it feel having your book on a 2014 syllabus, as it was published in the same year?
Megan Volpert: Any time somebody wants to teach your book, it’s awesome. Indeed, it feels good that Only Ride is popping up on some syllabi rather immediately after its publication. As I was writing it, I figured it would be more of a slow burner–sort of unassuming, but then growing in favorability as word of mouth about it spread. It’s ending up more splashy though, and I can’t deny I dig that. However, the thing about your particular case of classroom is not that it’s in the current year, but that it’s an “experimental autobiographies” class. I know the class is being taught by a poet, but wow; it’s most lovely for people to understand that Only Ride is in a hybrid gray space, and is not, strictly speaking, poetry.
JR: The final sentences in your poems blew me away. They’re places where hypothetical monkeys, John Cougar and bridged infinities abound. How did you hone your talent for endings? Was there a writer whose work influenced this?
MV: Thanks! My attention to closure, and hookiness generally, probably stems most from my roots in slam poetry. When your three minutes are up, people have to know it by the sound of your voice and the sentiment of your final line. That said, I’ve always been a girl who likes to have the last word, who likes to get in the quippy and biting final remark. That’s a branch of sarcasm toward which I’ve always been naturally inclined. But also: Camille Paglia, Roland Barthes, Andrei Codrescu, Daphne Gottlieb, Nicole Blackman, and many more.
JR: The dead are “already being reborn & preparing to speak ill of you.” Only Ride offers such additional meditations as: “I don’t know the precise moment when I first looked upon my own mortality with respect. There was blood on it.” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, just not until it’s done scaring the holy hell out of you.” How did these examinations shape the book’s arc?
MV: They shape its motivation more than its arc. Since I was a kid, people have been telling me things like I have an old soul, or I’ve been forty since I was eighteen. Especially since being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis about ten years ago, and the extensive chronic pains that have accompanied that malady, I have come to some serious personal realizations about my life’s priorities. Only Ride is on a mission to share those, to make some kind of foray into humanism and to make explicit my philosophies of life. My grandpa called me up and said to me about this book that, at age ninety-three, he feels very close to death and he was shocked by how thoroughly I captured his feelings, given that I am only thirty-two years old. And that’s the thing: some people look death in the face sooner than other people, and I am just one of those people–the shadow of death is upon me. I’m not a morbid person, but I do consider daily the importance of making each day great.
JR: You mention wanting to define the living daylights in “Ankles disappear.” Here’s your chance.
MV: I just googled “living daylights.” I’ve always thought it would be a good name for a band, and there is in fact a band out there agreeing with me. It’s also one of the Timothy Dalton James Bond movies. Beyond that, I think the notion of “living daylights” is a highly personalized one. Everybody is fearful of different things they encounter in their differing existences. Who was it that said that only two things a person can be sure of are death and taxes? Only Ride gives a strong sense of my own living daylights and what I’m doing to keep on keeping on in the face of them, but I’m reluctant to declare too many aspects of my own scene as universal.
JR: “There are concave people & convex people” according to your poem “I’m not Velma.” Suppose there are two types of writers. What are they?
MV: You know where that line comes from? I ripped that idea from the movie Cocktail. There is a great bit in there where the mentor bartender is talking to newbie Tom Cruise, and the guy says, “there are two kinds of people in this world: the workers and the hustlers. The hustlers never work and the workers never hustle–and you, my friend, are a worker.” I’m paraphrasing, but fairly tightly. That’s an idea that’s been with me since I watched that movie as a kid. It was a formative experience for understanding how dichotomies operate. Now, supposing there are two types of writers, what are they? The workers and the hustlers. I appreciate your not asking me which type I am.
JR: Your publisher, Sibling Rivalry Press, welcomes all authors, artists and readers regardless of sexual orientation or identity. “Blowing up all kinds of new avenues” is how you described their trajectory during a recent interview. Please share how you came to be affiliated with them.
MV: I snookered Bryan Borland, the publisher of Sibling Rivalry Press (SRP). I’d had a press lined up for the Warhol book, but the press went under and left my manuscript in the lurch. Like, majorly last-minute in the lurch. I had to find a home for it and had heard some nice things about SRP, which at that time was just a tiny indie upstart with the first inklings of buzz. So I invited Bryan to do a gig, and then after the gig, I cold pitched him the book. He fell in love with the idea of it right away, and I had already done 99% of the legwork and everything, so it would be super easy for him to slide in and just print it. That was Sonics in Warholia, and Bryan and I have been working together ever since. Of course, he’s learned not to say yes on the spot to random writers who pitch to him in bars–I thank my lucky stars he greenlit me so easily. He has such good instincts, and watching SRP grow exponentially over the past few years has been a total delight. I’m giddy about being a part of that family, about helping Bryan to build his empire.
JR: One of my favorite passages from Only Ride is “I conjure before you the only openly queer faculty member in this public Southern high school, fully equipped to teach both English & tolerance. You are failing tolerance…” Enlighten us with a tolerance tutorial.
MV: The epilogue there is interesting: I’m currently serving as my school’s Teacher of the Year. So that’s awesome and weird. But as far as a tolerance tutorial, it really just amounts to two things: having an open-mindedness that recognizes difference, and then valuing those differences in a positive way. Valuing difference in a positive way is very difficult for most people, myself included. I think a lot of people are idiots. This year, I’ve been trying to be conscious of the ways I put people into boxes, and I’m trying to do a better job of extending grace to people I might otherwise find idiotic. Being gracious is one of my life-long challenges. I know I’m entitled to my opinion that most people are idiots, but I can still extend those people a space for their contribution to the world. If I tried to cut out all the idiots, I would face a real consequence of loneliness plus the strong likelihood that I will have myself become an idiot. Fascism sucks. Tolerance is just about clearing space for people to do their best, despite the fact that you may think their best is not as cool as yours.
JR: Your book opens riding into the sunset and closes riding into eternity. Do you think we’re more of a sunset- or eternity-driven culture? What role does poetry play in this?
MV: Well, that opening poem is titled “Only idiots ride into the sunset.” The idea is that there is still so much work to do, and so much life to live. Each of us is leaving a legacy for the rest of eternity, and if you want to exercise some decent amount of control over what that legacy is, you’ve got to deliberately go about prioritizing some things. Only Ride is a bit of a guidebook to what I’ve chosen to prioritize, and I hope it helps some people make a little more sense of their own daily struggles, gives a little fresh perspective on what each of us can accomplish in our relationship to the stream of history. So that’s the role of the book; I don’t really want to speculate on the role of poetry at large, but I guess most people would agree that the arts are one good way to share what individuals learn for the betterment of our whole culture.
JR: “Filthy lucre never sleeps” is one of most apt musings on karma I’ve read in ages. Any karma in your life of late?
MV: Oh, wow. Yep. Big time. So, my wife and I just celebrated nine years together. Her birthday is close to our anniversary and we had a little party at the house. Once a bunch of our friends and family had gathered, I proposed to her that we renew our wedding vows in NYC next year, to celebrate our tenth anniversary. She said yes, of course, and it turned up the volume on the birthday party quite a bit. And then the next day, I discovered a lump on my ribcage. Like, a huge lump the size of my fist. Overnight, there it was. So for the past few weeks, I’ve been having what we can now retrospectively refer to as a cancer scare. And the synchronicity of those two events in one weekend is pretty ugly, you know? I’ve never felt for one second that the universe was punishing me for being a queer. But I do believe we’re all on a bit of a pendulum swing, and we get some good, then some bad, then some good, and the other shoe is always going to drop sooner or later before another upswing. Well, I guess we upswung way high with that vow renewal idea, so the ham-fisted fates socked me one in the ribs the very next day. It’s funny, but in that way “the luck of the Irish” is funny, which to a lot of people isn’t funny at all.
JR: Your titles could be primers for living: “Everything still turns to gold,” “No bonus for backs broken,” “There’s a difference between familiar & recurring,” “Coming down is the hardest thing.” What’s best about the ascent?
MV: I think we’ve covered both the “primer for living” notion and the “ascent” issue. Ascent: everybody does it. Let’s make t-shirts. The Living Daylights band can sell them.
JR: You “aspire to have been not the poet laureate of rock & roll, but the rock & roll laureate of poetry.” Your first three acts in this vaunted (and Patti Smith-approved) position consist of…
MV: Only Ride is the opening volley. Right now, I’m working on a thing about the Bicentennial that is extremely gonzo and punk rock obsessed. And then I’m happy to tell you I’m under contract to write a book about Bruce Springsteen. I love music. It understands me.
Megan Volpert is the author of 5 books on communication & pop culture. She edited the Lammy finalist & ALA-honored anthology This assignment is so gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching. She is currently serving as her school’s Teacher of the Year. Predictably, www.meganvolpert.com is her website.