Nature Theater of Oklahoma talks to world-renowned choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker about dance, language, thought, intuition, irresponsible ambition, and living life with the possibility of losing everything (with also some side discussions about whole grains and mayonnaise…)
This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993).
Poet and theorist Vsevolod Nekrasov (1934-2009) was an important figure in the Lianozovo circle, a group of underground experimental artists in the 1960s, and one of the crucial founders of the “Second Russian avant-garde” and Moscow conceptualism. His work began to appear in samizdat (self-published) in the later 1950s, and continues to impact a younger generation of experimental poets.
I met with the poet Vsevolod Nekrasov in Moscow in 1993 and interviewed him about his life and poetry. In the text that follows, I have interpolated Nekrasov’s poems and my translations of them. Thanks to Jacqueline Orchard for her editorial suggestions in revising this interview.
Vsevolod Nekrasov: I was born in 1934 and began writing seriously in 1956 when I became involved in a literary association. I got into the “Potemkin” Moscow City Pedagogical Institute in 1955 during the cataclysmic change of power. 1956 was the year the 20th Congress addressed the legacy of Stalin, and the year I first became acquainted with [Marina] Tsvetaeva and [Osip] Mandelstam. Tsvetaeva’s poems were sharp, unusual, not customary and gave off a strong impression. It wasn’t just for the shock, but enough for one to ask seriously: “What exactly is this? How do I feel about this?” I say about it now: I became that question. But then I just had the feeling that one ought to write like that.
Scrub was my contribution to a downtown gay zine scene that I found seductive and sexy, but was also conflicted about. So much of it seemed self-promotional and insular. I wanted my version to tell the stories of an underrepresented New York, whose stories are just as fabulous if one takes the time to listen. Scrub ended up being a one-off response. There was only one issue printed, mostly because I didn’t have a business plan. Printing is costly but I wanted the satisfaction of having a tangible artifact. Now, seven years later, I’m happy The Conversant has resurrected these interviews in an online format. It’s interesting so see how they hold up in a new context.—Justin Yockel
In December 2005, Justin Yockel invited Frances Rodríguez—his Jamaican-born, deaf, transgendered neighbor—to converse in Scrub’s Harlem office (pictured above). Conversation flowed from Frances, through Erick (an interpreter who is also deaf), through Edwin (a hearing interpreter), to Justin, and back.
Frances Rodriguez: What happened to the fish?
Justin Yockel: There was an accident, a mishap, and the whole thing fell on the floor face down. I can rinse it off if you want. I just washed the floor yesterday.
Edwin: That wasn’t me that said that. He’s asking: Do you want me to clean it off? Do you want him to do that?
JY: [returns with the Zabar’s nova pack] OK. It seems fine. I was disgusted with myself for having dropped it. I’ll even have some to prove to everybody that I have no fear. I just rinsed off the top of it. So help yourself. Do you guys want anything?
Paul: Oh, I’m just going to have a muffin.
JY: Now that you have your family photos, Frances, do you want to use them to talk about Jamaica? This is your mother, right?
FR: Yes. She died 14 years ago. She was 52. I’m 60 right now. She was young. She was younger. She had no white hair. Full, full black hair. Black mixed with gray on the top, like blue-ish. All the black people here had all white hair. They were weaker but she was strong. She had strong, black hair. Most people really fell in love with her. She should have been black but her skin tone was more tannish, so they were attracted to her. She had the most light-colored skin, like glittering diamond skin. How is that possible? I guess God had blessed her. Her mother was white. Her father was black. She knew that she had a beautiful body and smooth skin. The people—the white people, Spanish people, black—no matter what they were—they all had deformities on their bodies, wrinkles on their faces. She was beautiful. They were jealous.
This interview focuses on Paty and Schoonebeek’s collaborative poetic project Torch Songs.
Kristin Maffei: When did you begin working on Torch Songs together? How did the idea first come about? And how did you decide on the form the poems follow, with two complementary poems of five lines each?
Danniel Schoonebeek: I’ve always been prone to antagonism. One of my few childhood memories is writing nonsense on a wall with crayon in the house where I grew up. So it follows, I think, that I want to aggravate forms. “Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.” Camus wrote that. And nowadays when I look at a wall I think, how can I undermine this with language? How can I take my own body, my own name, and aggravate it with words? I remember reading the first poem in Cummings’s 99 Poems when I finished grade school. Here was language, a poem, that couldn’t be read aloud. I loved that, a way of undermining the voice. Or the way Beckett uses “[silence]” not as a pause or lack of sound in his plays but as a beat. I suppose I also owe something to Magritte’s pipe. I was writing these poems that assumed the form of the fortunes found inside fortune cookies. They were each three lines. I think I was trying to combine the brevity of haiku with the voice of the fortunes. I was compelled by the way those pieces of paper undermine us. It’s a very antagonistic voice. You will have many friends. Doors will be opening for you. So I was trying to write poems that tell you what will happen to you, whether you like it or not. The first one stole a detail from Melville’s Bartelby, who is, to me, the great undermining and undermined character in American fiction: “Fired from love this year / you will feed / the furnace at the dead letter office.” Not too shabby, but I considered them failed poems insofar as I felt like the form was still dictating the terms. I was talking to myself when I needed to be speaking across a chasm to another person. So I abandoned them for a time. Over the next few months, I was reading the aubades of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu and listening to a lot of Nina Simone and Patsy Cline, both legendary torch singers. I’ve always loved the aubade as a form in poetry because it begins with a fundamental misrepresentation: This song is a poem. What it shares with the torch song is urgency. And I was fascinated by the misrepresentation of calling a song a “torch.” Ceci n’est une chanson, if you’re Magritte. So I felt I’d found two forms that aggravated each other well. I pitched the idea of a collaboration to Allyson about three years ago and she said sign me up. And I realize now that the form needed that second voice, with its own experiences of womanhood, geography and loss, to speak to and undermine and aggravate my own voice.
Allyson Paty: As Danniel mentioned, the aubades of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu were one important point of departure. These are five-line poems. They tend to be very direct and implicate a reader. At the same time, they are aubades, poems of separation. While the presence of a reader is keenly felt, it is felt as silence. Here is one of Ono no Komachi’s poems, for example: “How sad that I hope / to see you even now, / after my life has emptied itself / like this stalk of grain/ into the autumn wind.” That one comes with an inscription: “Sent to a lover on an empty seed husk.” I love the way the husk frames the poem as a practical form of communication from one person to another. I think of it as a stand-in for Komachi’s body—the physical entity that delivers her words. But when the husk is animated in the poem it is as a display of emptiness. In the end, it’s the absence of the body that the husk enacts. With Torch Songs I think we wanted the same kind of tension between urgency and distance. We knew we needed brevity such that nothing that happens in one half of the poem has a chance to become so established that it’s impervious to whatever happens in the counterpart. At the same time, each half needs to be enough of a distinct entity that there is something at stake when the counterpart exerts its influence. Likewise, I think the silence between the two halves needs to be palpable. The five-line Komachi and Shikibu poems exhibited that balance between autonomy and vulnerability, so we used that length as a model.
Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013.This interview focuses on Carr’s book Surface Tension: Ruptured Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry(Dalkey Archive Press). Recorded June 20th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Could we start with the concept of surface tension, as borrowed from physics and applied to Victorian-era poetry—specifically in terms of how a purported aesthetic of surface can be read for its participation in broader political discourses?
Julie Carr: Surface tension explains why molecules at a liquid’s surface bond with stronger energy. They do so because, with no molecules on top, fewer molecules surround them. This creates a horizontal surface density, which became a useful metaphor for describing what can happen in a poem when you read for (let’s say, just using familiar terms) content. You’ll try to understand a sonnet’s argument, but various sound associations play out among the words as do visual patterns. Surfaces also can become dense with invented languages, or borrowed languages, or pastiche, or collaged language. This density at the textual surface complicates our absorption of narrative or message. And of course these issue arise often in contemporary poetry or in modernist poetry, but most readers of Victorian poetry don’t understand the work that way. Specialists do. But for the average, semi-informed reader, if you ask about Victorian poetry they’ll think of somebody like Robert Browning or Tennyson. They’ll recall some long narrative poem or poem of deep feeling—one which doesn’t seem to engage language’s materiality. So reconsidering the Victorian-era interest in surface, especially amid a poetics engaged with ideals of transformation or sudden ruptural change, drives this book. Here I focus on three poets invested in the aesthetic surface as a redemptive space but for different ends. They are not, all three of them, Marxist or revolutionary poets. William Morris does engage a Marxist discourse. But Gerard Manley Hopkins remains focused on some kind of conversion or Christian ontological . . .
Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013.This interview focuses on Amaranth Borsuk’s and Brad Bouse’s bookBetween Page and Screen(Siglio Press). Recorded August 30th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Since it probably requires a new form of physical effort from most readers, can you first describe our experience encountering this book?
Amaranth Borsuk: Sure. When you encounter the book, you find a square-shaped object with a patterned, red-white-and-black block printed at its center. When you open the book, you don’t find printed poems but more black-and-white symbols. The only text you can read provides author names, mine and Brad Bouse’s and instructions to go to betweenpageandscreen.com, where you can “hold the words in your hands.” When you arrive at the website and click on a link, you receive instructions to present one of these black-and-white markers to your webcam. When you do, a live image appears on the computer screen. You see your hands holding the open book, and once one of those printed markers becomes visible to the webcam, a poem pops vertically off the page. This part resembles a pop-up book but with text instead of shapes or images. This text stands vertically with respect to the plane of the page. As you turn the book’s pages, the projected digital text also turns, so that it seems to hover above a page like a hologram. As you flip the book’s pages, poems explode and their letters fly in all directions. And in between epistolary poems (consisting of love letters between P and S) you find concrete poems, anagrammatic or paragrammatic poems, each of which provides a different animation for how it disappears from view.