Best American Experimental Writing is an anthology series focused on dynamic literature from both emerging and established writers. The most recent edition, BAX 2015, was released in January of this year by Wesleyan University Press and included work by Bhanu Kapil (“Monster Checklist”) and Ching-In Chen (“bhanu feeds soham a concession”). They (virtually) sat down with BAX managing editor Michael Martin Shea to discuss dreams, threads, fungus, marigolds, soft-tissue sites, and writing as a form of pilgrimage. Michael Martin Shea: Hi Bhanu! Hi Ching-In! One of the things that’s striking about both of your texts–and part of the reason we wanted to interview the two of you together–is how they’re in conversation with other texts: Bhanu’s quasi-syllabus mentions a variety of other books and thinkers, while Ching-In’s is, in part, a response to Bhanu’s Incubation: A Space for Monsters. Do you see your work as a form of conversation?
Bhanu Kapil: I wrote the “handwritten preface” to Incubation in a cafe, with my friend, the poet Melissa Buzzeo. I put my head down on the table; in that time, she wrote or sketched her What Began Us (Leon Works.) I woke up, ordered some toast and coffee, and wrote the preface as she was completing her book. She took what I wrote back to Brooklyn and pinned it to her fridge; I had to get her to mail it back, a year later, when I realized what my own book could be. This, in fact, was not a conversation, but dreaming, what it is to feel so safe you can fall asleep while your friend is writing a book and to also dream your own book as they are writing their own.
Caleb Beckwith: First of all, congratulations. Your first full-length poetry collection, Oil and Candle (Timeless Infinite Light 2016), has gotten a significant amount of attention lately. I truthfully can’t remember the last time I was able to talk to a young writer about their first book with so much of the foundational critical apparatus already in place. Thanks to places like Entropy, Adroit Journal, and Apiary, we can cut right to the chase.
In another recent spotlight from Philly Mag, you describe writing Oil and Candle “during and after the climax of controversies around race in poetry in late 2014 and throughout 2015 . . . These debates were about white poets who were using the bodies of people of color, especially black people, for their art and poetry in violent and racist ways.” I think we all know to which controversies you’re referring, but could you unpack your involvement in a bit more detail? How did these controversies affected you as a QPOC attending a university in many ways at the epicenter of these controversies? And how do they continue to inform your creative practice?
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague: Well, let’s name them. We’ve got: Kenny Goldsmith’s performance and edit of the autopsy of Michael Brown, Vanessa Place’s Gone With the Wind twitter, Marjorie Perloff’s defense of KG, Ron Silliman’s defense of VP. More recently you’ve got those two poets making Mexican jokes and a Fence editor projecting the n-word at a reading. The list obviously goes on but that’s what I can remember right now. You are right that the University of Pennsylvania was sort of an unspoken hub for these controversies and debates. KG is a professor there, several of the Language poets (Ron included) are professors there. And a lot of those Language poets there were professors of mine. Some I’d even be willing to admit are the reasons I became committed to poetry. So yeah it was an awful time. Awful because what I saw then were people that I respected and even admired vehemently defending each other’s racist practices and performances. And then also many of my colleagues and current or former students of those teachers defending them by saying “Oh! But they’re such amazing teachers! I learned so much from them!” And I guess you could say the book starts from the realization that those things aren’t mutually exclusive, that the different mentor systems, support systems, and more generally poetic networks can also be toxic, discriminatory, racist, violent, elitist, etc.
We could say our conversation starts on the page: the pages of our new books Ford Over and Stereo. Island. Mosaic. We could say we started our conversation on the phone. Or we started off our conversation some years ago at Macondo where we worked together conducting a writing workshop for young people on the Westside of San Antonio at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Or the conversation started somewhere between South Texas and New Jersey on the phone lines, or somewhere between Puerto Rico and Coahuila y Tejas. Like true digital denizens, we continued our conversation in a shared document online.
John Pluecker: So we just got off the phone and I thought I would go ahead and write a bit into this document so that we can get things started. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about stakes. I just looked up the word “stake” or “stakes” in a dictionary and I’m struck by the double meaning of the word. On the one hand, it is a pointed stick or post embedded in the ground to mark a place or to support something. It is also what might be lost in a wager or an undertaking. You have a new book out that I’ve been reading and enjoying getting lost in: Stereo. Island. Mosaic. So I’m thinking of a double question: What is your book staking out (as in the place it might be marking or what it might be supporting)? And what is at stake in your book (as in what might be lost in that wager)? (4/4/16, 2:45pm C.T.)
Vincent Toro: I love that we’re starting with discussing an ambiguous term, as ambiguity is the modus operandi for poets. I suppose I’ll cop terminology from your book, Ford Over, to answer this one: I think I see the book as an “un-staking.” My collection is unabashedly anti-colonial in that, if anything, the work seeks to rip out and dismantle the flags and forts that have been staked by invaders for the last 500 plus years. I have what might be considered an obsession with attempting to expand the fields (of access, of territory, or thought) that I inhabit. There’s a track on one of Bill Laswell’s “Material” records that is titled, “My Style is I Ain’t Got No Style.” I think that is what the book, and my work in general, is reaching for. You know how at the bank or at the DMV or the airport, there are those poles with expandable ribbons they use to mark the path of the queue for customers? I live with a colossal urge to pull up those ribbons and undo the lines that have been predetermined by officials who won’t reveal themselves. Throughout your book, there is use of another ambiguous term: ford. You use it readily as the commonly underutilized verb form, which means to cross over a river or stream. But where rivers and streams are natural geographical dividers, colonization creates artificial ones. The book (to personify it) wants to ford the artificial dividers of the colonizers in an attempt to expand and unify until there are no more stakes plunged into the ground with flags on them.
In this conversation we explore the way capitalism crafts the forms we write through, how capital shapes embodiment and the matter of who we love / how we love them. Zaher’s sixth book, The Consequences of My Body (Nightboat Books), lyrically examines the postmodern condition and lays its flaws bare, open.
Christy Davids: You write: “I am a descendant of ‘Udhri:’ Arab love poets; these are the ones I read as a teenager. More problematic than their poems are their stories, their myth about love without consummation. This idea entrenches the body – soul duality beyond repair.” I’d love it if you could speak to the relationship you are establishing between yourself and the Udhri love poem tradition, specifically what declaring and practicing that linkage means for The Consequences of My Body.
Of his work, critic Julie Marie Wade describes, “It would be redundant to ask if Simmonds plays an instrument when his voice is an instrument, a conduit of incomparable depth and range.” This embrace of the semantic musical phrase and the traumas that call them forth is what seems to bind Kevin and I as confidants. Although our friendship began as a cyber introduction turned to workshops and readings, it solidified through the online correspondence we’ve continued for six years, a compassionate but often thorny banter in which we discuss everything from poetics and publishing, family and death, to race and sexuality. I’ve sought to mirror the raw urgency of our cyber encounters in this interview, revealing what motivates Kevin’s mercuriality in both his poetry and his life.
Alexandra Mattraw: Every critic who’s ever written about your work has said something about your careful concision. One called it “condensed linguistic play.” Sean Singer says of the poems in Bend to It, “he does not favor pyrotechnics, but prefers simplicity and clarity.” Others might compare your lines to the sharp but playful image condensation of Lorine Niedecker. Do you see your work as condensed in any of these ways, and if so, what draws you to such?
Kevin Simmonds: Words are not equal. Choose them carefully and poems will be, more or less, concise. That’s what I’m after because I often compose poems at the word or phrase level. That’s how I build. It has to do with sound. I’m drawn to this as a practice amid the too noisy, too busy, too sprawling world around me. And all the verbose writing, even among poets, regrettably.
Brittany Billmeyer-Finn is a poet and playwright living in Oakland, CA. She is the author of the full length title, the meshes from Black Radish Books. During her 2015 residency at SAFEhouse Arts in SF she directed her first play, the meshes an iteration in 2 acts. Her work has been published locally in Where Eagles Dare, Elderly, in the anthology; It is Night in San Francisco but It’s Sunny in Oakland, 580 Split, Hold: A Journal & her chapbook geraniums is published by Mondo Bummer. She has a forthcoming chapbook, Slabs coming out with the Tract Series from Timeless Infinite Light. More of her work can be found online at The Poetic Labor Project & Dusie #15.
Born in Manapla, Philippines, Cheena Marie Lo is a genderqueer poet based in Oakland, CA. They coordinate a youth art program at California College of the Arts, and co-edit the literary journal HOLD. A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters is just out from Commune Editions.
Kate Robinson is a writer and book artist living in Oakland, CA.
Leif Haven’s Arcane Rituals From the Future was published this spring by 1913 Press, selected by Claudia Rankine for the publisher’s 2014 Prize for First Book. Mia You’s I, Too, Dislike It is forthcoming this year from 1913 Press. Leif, based in Oakland, Calif., and Mia, based in Utrecht, The Netherlands, met for the first time and conducted this conversation via Google Drive.
Mia You: Hi, Leif! I really enjoyed reading Arcane Rituals From the Future, and I was especially struck by your pervasive use of the imperative. This makes sense, in thinking about your collection as “instructions” or “procedures” for rituals, but it struck me especially because the imperative, counterintuitively for me, doesn’t feel imposing, nor aggressive, through your truly remarkable handling of tone. Why did you feel that the “tense” of the arcane future should be the second person?
Leif Haven: With these Arcane Rituals, I’m glad that you didn’t feel that it was imposing or aggressive. Rather than be prescriptive or directive, I think they are something closer to recipes for magic, and they can be read and interpreted as needed. This especially applies to the “Instructions” poems (some here and here).
The People with Insert Blanc Editor and Publisher Mathew Timmons and Insert Blanc Artist Ben White, features the voices and ideas of The People that make up the cultural landscape of Los Angeles, the west coast, and beyond on KCHUNG 1630AM every 3rd Sunday at 3pm and podcast on iTunes as The People Radio. The People is me, The People is you, The People is we, and You Can Too! … like a Broken Record magically repaired. In this issue of The Conversant, we feature episode 38 of The People, with Catherine Wagley and Dan Suess
On this episode our guests are Catherine Wagley & Dan Suess. Catherine Wagley writes about art in Los Angeles. She has written for the LA Weekly, CARLA and Art News among other venues. Dan Suess is an Inorganic chemist. He is currently a post-doctoral scholar at UC Davis and he’s looking to start his own lab soon.
This episode in our Notes from The People we’re featuring a piece by the writer Divya Victor. Her book UNSUB is available from Insert Blanc Press and you can find out more about her work at divyavictor.com. The piece she’ll be reading here, Paper Boats is from her forthcoming book Kith which will be available in 2017 from Fence Books.
And we close out the show with a piece by Los Angeles artist and musician Corey Fogel. You can find more of Corey’s work at knitdrums.tumblr.com. This piece was recorded live at the Center for the Arts Eagle Rock on May 3rd, 2014 as part of the Terra Firma art show.
Thomas Fink: At least five poems in Shorthand and Electric Language Stars (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2015) traffic in insistent linguistic repetition. For example, in “You know anything can happen.” The reiteration of “happen”/“happened”/“happening,” along with slightly less repetition of some other key words, indicates, I believe, the range of possibilities between certainty about the assessment of significance and/or insignificance of an event or scene, such as in the opening sentence, “I’ll tell you what really happened—you tell me what didn’t,” and admission of thorough bafflement: “I can’t even begin to tell you what happened.”
Ed Steck: Hello, Robert. Thanks, mate, for agreeing to be interviewed on my new book, Far Rainbow out now on Make Now Books.
Did you read my book? If so, did you like it or hate it? I was told recently that it’s important to voice one’s liking or hatred of an object. Please only indicate whether you liked it or hated it.
Robert Fitterman: Wait a minute… I’m confused… I was supposed to read the book! Hmm, gimme a few days…
OK, I’m back. I like it. Though I totally disagree with the like/dislike importance that you refer to. My reason for liking largely has to do with borrowing: Can I use any of this? How did they do that? Oh, that’s such a good idea! And, then there’s pleasure, which is sort of like liking but sexier.