Caleb Beckwith with Tom Comitta

Tom Comitta
Tom Comitta

In January 2015, I sat down with Tom Comitta in Oakland, CA to discuss the role of performance in his poetics as well as contemporary poetry at large. Over this thirty-some minute conversation, we make repeated to reference to Comitta’s vocal project WARMUP and The City of Nature (Make Now 2015) as well as Philadelphia-based readings that serve as reference points for us both. An excerpted transcription is below (beginning with a discussion of Nature), and the featured audio clips include our full conversation, excerpts from both Comitta projects, and a January 2015 off-site reading for LA’s Poetic Research Bureau. 

This is the first in a series of conversations concerning performance and contemporary poetics. 

Ching-In Chen with Gregory Pardlo

Gregory Pardlo
Gregory Pardlo. Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

This conversation with Gregory Pardlo is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations with poets of color following a series of cross-community solidarity readings and panels among poets involved with organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers), Institute of American Indian Arts and VONA (Voices at Our Nations Arts Foundation).

Ching-In Chen: I’m interested in the choice to begin Digest with “Written By Himself,” which at first, felt more familiar in its music of anaphora and its lyric strategies. But that title begs a twist to what follows. It makes me wonder if such attention is called to authorship, who wrote those lines, where they came from and which speakers have been brought before the reader to witness and for what purpose(s). And when I return to this poem after reading the book, it hints towards what’s to come, with your longer sequences and variations (“Marginalia,” the Improvisations series). What kinds of conversations do you envision curating on the page for your reader(s)? Has this changed from your first book, Totem, to Digest?

Gregory Pardlo: Since Totem, I’ve gotten more self-conscious about sincerity and authenticity and the emotional range I, a person assigned to the social registries of, among others, male and black and American, am allowed to articulate before my words are pronounced false or unrecognizable by the audience, my auditors. The slave narrative genre is like a starter kit for all my obsessions in this regard. Slaves weren’t supposed to have access to the kind of subjectivity necessary to string together a narrative. And they certainly weren’t supposed to be literate enough to record their narratives by their own hands. Someone—sometimes several someones—had to serve as witness to verify the conditions under which the formerly enslaved person claimed to speak. That is, someone had to confirm that the text was indeed written by the former bondsperson him or herself. This gets me thinking about the ways my own or anyone’s work relies on various types of—usually institutional—mediation to be heard and recognized. While reading slave narratives I wonder how does the author’s awareness of the reader’s blind spots or threshold for credence influence the writing process. What performance does one have to give, what pass/words does one have to recite, to gain admission to the fellowship of intelligibility—or any institution for that matter? When I consider the word “written” do I mean arranged, curated, inscribed, mimicked, published, appropriated? And the strangely third person subjectivity of “himself”: from whose subject position is the reader supposed to enter the narrative frame? Who “authorizes” me to speak? Who licenses this “I”? (Even in this, I hear “who takes this bride,” the constant hum of patriarchy.) In some ways, my suspicion is that I can’t get much farther than the assertion “I was born” before having to negotiate with a public (however internalized) that is prepared to judge my performance of myself as implausible or unacceptable. The slave narrative foregrounds these problems of narrative authority.

Danielle Susi with Leigh Stein

Leigh Stein
Leigh Stein

In 2002, Leigh Stein dropped out of high school. In 2007, she moved to Albuquerque, where she wrote much of her first novel, The Fallback Plan, released by Melville House in 2012. In that same year her first book of poems, Dispatch from the Future, was also released. In May of 2014 the “Binders Full of Women Writers” Facebook group was established by Anna Fitzpatrick, who wanted an easy way to connect all the writers she knew. Now, the group exists as a resource for writers of all backgrounds and experience levels to connect, network, ask questions, learn from one another. As a member of this group, Stein saw a need to extend this online communication into face-to-face interaction. Along with co-chair Lux Alptraum and many other women, Stein birthed BinderCon: a symposium to empower women and gender non-conforming writers with tools, connections, and strategies to advance their careers. The first BinderCon took place in New York in October of 2014, and another is set to take place in late March of 2015 in Los Angeles. Stein and I discussed the motivation behind BinderCon, sexism in the literary world, and the power of the Internet.

Stephanie Anderson with Jaime Robles

Jaime Robles. Photo Credit: Irene Young
Jaime Robles. Photo Credit: Irene Young

This is a series of ongoing interviews with women actively engaged with small-press publishing between the 1950s and 1980s. It comes from a desire not only to preserve their accounts but also to draw wider attention to the vital role of women editors and publishers in the mimeograph revolution and beyond. In these decades “poems were bouncing off the sidewalk” (Maureen Owen), and this series traces some of those madcap trajectories.

This interview took place via email between October 2014 and January 2015. It focuses on Jaime Robles’ role as co-editor of Five Trees Press, 1973-78 in San Francisco. The Center for the Book Arts in San Francisco will host a retrospective, “Sisters of Invention: 45 years of Book Art by Sas Colby, Betsy Davids and Jaime Robles,” October 23, 2015-January 10, 2016, which will give a historical overview of the development of the work of women book artists within the SF Bay Area small press scene from the mid ’70s to today. 

Stephanie Anderson: A Stanford University Special Collection round-up of “California Printers in the Fine Press Tradition” describes the press in the following: “Three women founded Five Trees Press in a rented storefront in San Francisco’s Noe Valley in 1973. Kathleen Walkup, Jaime Robles, and Cheryl Miller had become acquainted through Clifford Burke’s Cranium Press, where Miller worked as an apprentice, and through Wesley Tanner at Arif Press in Berkeley. Each brought different skills and interests to the partnership, where they taught each other, working both independently and in mutually supportive ways. Most of the press’s energy was devoted to printing, publishing and distributing small chapbooks of poetry written by women writers, some well established, such as H.D. and Denise Levertov, and others whose work would not have been considered for publication by the predominantly male printing establishment. The press also published the work of cowboy poet Gino Clays Sky and the New England poet Paul Metcalf.” Will you talk a little more about how you, Kathy, and Cheryl met? What kinds of “skills and interests” did you each have?

Zach Savich with Andy Stallings

Andy Stallings
Andy Stallings

Zach Savich: The titles of many of the poems in To the Heart of the World (Rescue Press, 2014) invoke close friends—”To John Bowman,” “To Cassie Donish,” and so on. In the book’s notes, you say that this “to” should not be read as “for” or “about.” Could you say more about this distinction? It seems different from the mention of others in, say, Richard Hugo’s letter poems or Jack Spicer’s poems dedicated to friends, not least because some of your saluted intimates–John, Cassie–re-appear in poems addressed “to” others. This resurrection happens most affectingly, I think, in “To Missy Walker,” when you abruptly say “Cassie has asked / for a story,” a narrative involution that recalls both the work of Craig Arnold and The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night. How does this manner of address reflect what you’d consider the sensibility or gesture of the book as a whole? I’m curious, more generally, about the role of people–should one call them characters? that seems inaccurate–in the book. Plenty are present, but a sense of solitude remains, of one “walking down / any street / with books or / nothing” who is thinking tenderly of absent others. Perhaps the preposition of record, then, should be read with an overtone of a Whitmanic “with?”

Amy Lawless with Tyler Brewington and Kelly Schirmann

Amy Lawless, Tyler Brewington, Kelly Schirmann
Amy Lawless, Tyler Brewington, Kelly Schirmann

In their split book Boyfriend Mountain (Poor Claudia, December 2014), Tyler Brewington and Kelly Schirmann negotiate American geographynot mountains per sebut certainly what it means to be a person who puts one foot in front of another and keeps going. How does one go on? In one poem, Kelly writes: “whenever we drove up the mountain for sage / I knew they would be our death / the way that first cold river was / & all that money / & those things you saw / high up in the trees / that I could never spot /even when you pointed” and it’s like she’s testifying to her friend Tyler (and thankfully also to us) who testifies right back, soul-whippingly: “A skeleton wedged between boulders / But we too would pick a mountain on the map / and drive there, just to sleep with it / We too wanted invigorating mists / cross-country skiing, Bigfoot, the lodges / little gems cupped in depressions / In love and asleep” This is a firmly American book, and like walking uphill, it communicates with your body, raises your heart rate, and makes you a little bit scared because there’s no mommy or God or daddy holding your hand anymore to keep you on the path. It’s just us.Amy Lawless

Amy Lawless: Hi Tyler! Hi Kelly! What’s up? I’m drinking coffee in my bed in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. It’s my day off and I couldn’t be more thrilled for having just finished reading your collaborative book Boyfriend Mountain, which is formatted head to toe—in other words, you each have your “own half” of poems that you’ve individually written. And I’m no book, but it looks pretty cool. And I’d like to talk to you about this. I have some questions. I’d like you to start by each telling me where you are (geographically), what you’re up to!

Ivy Johnson with Robert Grenier

Robert Grenier
Robert Grenier, from Penn Sound

On December 21st, 2012, Ivy Johnson sat down with Robert Greneir discuss his drawing poems. This interview was originally published in 580 split, an annual journal of arts and literature that publishes innovate poetry, prose and art by graduate students at Mills College in Oakland, Ca.

Ivy Johnson: My first question actually comes out of the statement you gave for the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.[1] You say that the drawing poems exist in a crack between poetry and the visual arts; they come from trying to envision a true name for things, of which the physical agency of drawing is important. Do you think that the physical act of drawing gives more agency than a speech act?

Robert Grenier: No. I would never say that. It’s not really a comparative thing. One undertakes it in order to do what the form seems metrically to be capable of doing. And so if I think back, there was never any real choice to abandon speech, which is the thing in This magazine that everybody quotes: “I HATE SPEECH” . . . abandon speech. Nor, later, was there any intent to abandon the typewriter. It’s just that something was around the corner, which was another kind of capacity that one can move to attain. And you will, of course, know that and find out more about it perhaps, as life goes on. There are certain changes that one makes, and for me it was not really planned or intentional. When you look back, in retrospect, one can speak to these and inquire into them. More, the drawing poems themselves, to me, seem physically closer to that of which they speak. They seem to gesture toward it and move to incorporate and acknowledge more of what one is given to see. And it does really all come from, not so much inspiration, but from direct seeing of some funny things that show up in the environment that want to be known.

Jeff Alessandrelli with Trey Moody

jeff a.- zs portrait
Jeff Alessandrelli

TM Moody: The opening epigraph to your book, This Last Time Will Be the First, is this hilariously sad letter from John Clare to an unidentified “Dear Sir.” Clare admits, “I […] quite forget your Name or who you are,” which doesn’t stop him from trying to communicate. In your poem “Understanding Oliver Twist,” you write, “A person is considered crazy if / they only have one story to tell. / And every orphan has at least two.” So, how many stories do you have to tell? And can you talk a bit about how your understanding of audience affects how you tell stories?

JA Alessandrelli: I don’t know that I ever really think about audience. I think most writers or at least most poets don’t have those considerations in their head when they’re writing. If they want to get into The Atlantic or The New Yorker maybe some do. I guess this also depends on the framework—if you’re writing an advice column and you’re a poet or if you’re writing something on a larger scale—I guess you think about audience. But I personally don’t. And I’m friends with a fair amount of poets and I don’t think any of them do either. I mean, I want to be read; that’s the thing I want most. I don’t care about tenure or getting a job. I’d like people to read my work, so that probably means I should pay more attention to that type of stuff, but I’m also not going to change the way I write or what I want to write solely to get into this or that magazine or win this or that prize.

Joy Katz with Sarah Vap

Sarah Vap and Koy Katz
Sarah Vap and Koy Katz

Joy Katz: What’s the problem? What’s the problem with writing about our kids?

Sarah Vap: Repulsive tangles. When I write about my kids, I constantly negotiate three urges: first, unambivalent devotion to, love for, curiosity about them; second, an unrelenting FUCK YOU to the taboo or misogyny or perceived sentimentality around women (not men) writing about kids in contemporary poetry; and third, a keen awareness of the disturbing capitalist/neoliberal cult-of-kids in America. It’s exhausting and exhilarating (although over the years, increasingly monotonous) to try to figure out that tangle. I want to do it without succumbing to what feels easiest: being ironic about the kids. Reducing the kids intellectually or conceptually to make them more palatable for poetry. I do, however, want to be able to be ironic, reductive, and distanced about them for my own reasons, and among many other ways of thinking or feeling about them.