Leonard Schwartz with Andy Fitch

image of Leonard Schwartz
Leonard Schwartz. Photo courtesy of Star Black.

Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Schwartz’s book At Element (Talisman House). Recorded June 9th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts

Andy Fitch: Could we start with your title page, which identifies these works as “prose poems”? Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but the phrase “prose poems” makes me think of Max Jacob, James Tate, John Ashbery’s “Three Poems.” Your long, serialized, Adorno-esque pieces feel more like essayistic meditations. Though can you outline a prose-poem tradition in which projects like “The Sleep Talkers” fit? Do Edmond Jabès and Francis Ponge count as prose poets?

Leonard Schwartz: At Element combines lineated poems and prose formats. The long prose poem “The Sleep Talkers” almost passes over into a kind of lyric philosophy or lyric essay, departing from Baudelairian or Rimbaudian prose poetry. I read a lot of Nathalie Stephens, the contemporary Canadian writer, while developing this piece. I even obliquely addressed parts to her. Jabès long has interested me, though I didn’t read him much at the time. But Jabès constructs a textual form that allows him to think, specifically to engage in poetic thinking—which skirts oppositional binaries to plumb the richness of metaphor. And I do take Adorno quite seriously as a prose stylist, though At Element lacks the philosophical density or ambition one finds at the level of the proposition in Adorno.

Brian Kim Stefans with Andy Fitch

Photo courtesy of Tim Davis.
Photo courtesy of Tim Davis.

Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Kim Stefans’ book Viva Miscegenation (Make Now). Recorded June 25th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: For readers most familiar with Brian Kim Stefans the practitioner of digital poetics, could you outline your early development as a poet—specifically in relation to this manuscript’s playful, art-savvy, personal-without-the-person aesthetics reminiscent of the New York School? Reading Viva Miscegenation I thought I recalled the jocular tones of some John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett maybe; the sentence-based propositions of Lewis Warsh; the serial constructs of, in different ways, Kenneth Koch and Ted Berrigan; and then the subsequent, reconstructed lyricism of Eileen Myles, John Yau, David Trinidad.

Brian Kim Stefans: I’ve certainly read most of those poets. The younger poets you mentioned, such as John Yau or Eileen Myles, have interested me, yet none of them captivated me the way Ashbery and O’Hara did. Those two, like Ezra Pound among the modernists, presented this fantastic way to learn about an era’s artists. Reading Ashbery’s art criticism, you discover a bunch of authors and painters and cracked idealists you might not otherwise have come across. But I first began writing poetry very much under the sway of Pound and Arthur Rimbaud and Sylvia Plath. Prior to coming to New York I’d read anybody—both Robert Creeley and Robert Lowell, for instance. Language poetics didn’t stand out until I’d moved to New York. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein baffled me at first, but soon I was drawing quite a lot of ideas and inspiration from their work. When poets first got to know me that’s the kind of writing I seemed to do. Nobody sensed how much I borrowed from Lowell or Philip Larkin or John Berryman. Viva Miscegenation does have one poem that I consider “after” Elizabeth Bishop. I try to remain open to all writers I’ve engaged with some seriousness in the past (Hopkins is another example). And now that I’ve moved away from New York, I’ve started to see my poems as texts that circulate in a broader culture with no idea who I am or what my literary circles are. Though part of why I took to Language poets was they appeared to follow through on what most interested Pound—innovation. Pound categorizes (I can’t remember exactly) three or four classes of poets. After innovators come those that exploit the innovations, say Robert Browning.

Nancy K. Miller with Jeffrey Williams

Nancy Miller
Nancy K. Miller

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Nancy K. Miller took place on February 10, 2007 in Miller’s office at the CUNY Graduate Center. Transcribed by David Cerniglia.

Jeffrey Williams: To start, I want to ask about the trajectory of feminist criticism in the US. It seems that you were at key places at key times—you studied French at Columbia in the early ’70s when structuralism was in its heyday, but you were part of a cohort that developed if not invented feminist literary criticism. How did you come to do the work you did?

Nancy K. Miller: I went to graduate school for a PhD in 1969. It was really the beginning of the widespread development of feminism in the United States, and I started a women’s group with my friend Hester Eisenstein in January 1971. By then I was getting ready to write my dissertation, and there had already been the March for Equality. Sexual Politics was published in August 1970, and the first issue of Ms. Magazine came out in New York Magazine in ’72. So there was this sense that something was happening. It wasn’t particularly happening at Columbia, but it was happening in New York, and I felt that I was part of something. I certainly did not take any classes that had anything to do with feminism or women writers.

In any event, there was almost nothing recognizable as feminist criticism. When I told my advisor that I was very excited about Sexual Politics because it was a model for reading men’s writing, which is what I was going to be doing in the dissertation, he said—I will never forget—”Don’t be a second-rate Kate Millett. She wasn’t first-rate to begin with.” She was a Columbia PhD and had gotten her PhD, I think, in ’69 or ’70, so that certainly set a tone.

Karinne Keithley Syers with Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Karinne Keithley Syers
Karinne Keithley Syers

Nature Theater of Oklahoma talks to Bessie Award-winning choreographer, playwright, instigator and new parent, Karinne Keithley Syers, about crossing disciplines, changing names, and genuinely embracing experiment as a part of living and making work.

[Flash 9 is required to listen to audio.]

To download this podcast or subscribe to OK Radio podcasts on iTunes, click here.

Matthew Cooperman with H.L. Hix

Matthew Cooperman
Matthew Cooperman

This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Matthew Cooperman’s Still: of the Earth as the Ark which Does Not Move (Counterpath, 2011).

H. L. Hix: Your book Still includes many lists; in a certain way, it is itself a list. Many lists in themselves have an oddity to them that makes me shift my perspective slightly (I’m thinking, to choose an example almost at random, of “Pain Reliever” on page 51, which starts as I’d expect, with Tylenol and Advil, but then begins to include items I wouldn’t normally classify as pain relievers, such as PlayStation and Oakley). In other cases, it is the juxtaposition of two or more lists that jolts me (here I’m thinking, for example, of “American Facts” on page 66 and “World Facts” on page 67, with their lists of facts about eating disorders in the U.S. and malnutrition globally). This is the “information age,” in which we have access to more facts and more lists than a person could possible digest; what, from your point of view, is the importance of the kind of gathering and arrangement you have undertaken—and offered your reader—in Still? 

Matthew Cooperman: The work of Still: of the Earth as the Ark which Does Not Move is archival. Something of the present moment—or more accurately of the last decade, as it is a book of a decade—seemed to require an accounting. A list, to be sure, but also an index, a frame, a capture. The gathering you speak of is a belief in occasional poeticsIt’s really been a duration piece, a document project. The first poems were written in the late 90s, as far as I can tell 1998. The latest are from 2010, so the book’s had a long slow arc, if you’ll pardon the pun. I found the poems an effective place to dump all the “unpoetic” thoughts I had of the world. I mean, so much shit happened from, say, the late 90s, late Clinton, to now, mid (or late?) Obama. And so much of that information seemed more forceful than lyric utterance. I’ve always been attracted to the political poem, but I wanted some place where the information itself, the data, could reside. And equally, some place where the heroes and criminals of that period could actually speak.

Camille Dungy with H.L. Hix

Camille Dungy. Photo courtesy of WideVision Photography/Marcia Wilson
Camille Dungy. Photo courtesy of WideVision Photography/Marcia Wilson.

This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Camille Dungy’s Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011). 

H. L. Hix: The “way we carry on” appears in the book at least twice (pages 6 and 19), and in both cases it sustains a double entendre: carry on as in act out and carry on as in continue.  Then there is a lot of other carrying: at 21, 23, 31, 37 and perhaps others I didn’t catch. Plus holding on (44) and going on (69).  Even if I didn’t have other grounds, I would know from your Black Nature anthology of your attunement to sustainability as an ecological issue. Am I way off base to read Smith Blue as drawing on, and drawing out, an analogy between ecological and emotional sustaining?

Camille Dungy: No. You are not off base.

Paisley Rekdal with H.L. Hix

Paisley Redkal
Paisley Redkal

This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Paisley Redkal’s Animal Eye (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).

H. L. Hix: Two things I notice about these poems seem related to one another. One is that they make important distinctions such as respecting a thing for itself and respecting it for our imagination of it (3) and the head versus the heart (17). Another is that betweenness seems regularly present (again, just a couple of examples out of several: between the real and the imagined [31], and “the brief air between us” [82]).  Are such contrasts and “betweennesses” important to the poems, and are they related to one another?

Paisley Rekdal: If I had to point to one theme that I think I return to, in one form or another, it’s our understanding of what comprises intimacy, whether it’s between people or between people and the natural world. I think our general imagination of intimacy is fairly limited: we tend to think of it as meaning the sexual or emotional connection between people in a defined relationship. The result of this is that we also tend to think of our attempts to become intimate with others in limited, physical ways, rather than in harder to define ways, such as artistic, philosophical or even legal representation. I think the particular problems of representation—of the self, of the “other”—really haunt most of my recent work. In particular, I’m interested in how the ways in which we get represented in the world often become the basis for how others around us become familiar or intimate with us. There’s always a gap between what we appear to be and what we are, a gap that—as a biracial woman—I think has been literalized for me in my life due to my shape-shifting appearance. Depending on who sees me, for instance, I am either Asian or white, something instantly “nameable” (thus made familiar) or further and further exoticized. I don’t think this is only or even primarily about race, however, but about the ways in which all humans have to choose to represent their identities and their ideas, in art and in language. This, to me, is the essential “betweenness” in which we all live: between a “real” self and a socially imagined self. This is why issues of art and artistic production are everywhere in the book. Also, obviously, images of animals, because I think that the ways in which we imagine and respond to animals really get at the heart of our problems of representation. I have three dogs, and I’m constantly amazed by how they have been bred to essentially fit into our human world, often with “human-like” attributes without ever being human. Reading the work of philosophers like Peter Singer, I’m struck again and again by how difficult it is for us to imagine how we might treat animals in a moral or “humane” way without having to make them human. Essentially, are we willing to give rights to creatures not based on our successful anthropomorphizing of them but based on the fact that they are their own beings? And how do we make that kind of argument without, at some level, anthropomorphizing them, making them more and more like us in our imagery? But if we see ourselves in animals (or try to see ourselves in animals), we also see animals in ourselves, which often gives rise to some of our worst and most racist language and imagery, something else I explore in one of the poems in this collection. But the “betweenness” we experience living and caring for animals is, I think, an intensely captured microcosm of the “betweenness” we experience living with each other, and I think it was one of the only analogies I could use to help me begin to explore the costs and consequences of our representations of ourselves.


Paisley Rekdal is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee, a hybrid-genre photo-text memoir that combines poetry, fiction, nonfiction and photography entitled Intimate and four books of poetry: A Crash of Rhinos, Six Girls Without Pants, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope and Animal Eye. Her work has received the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Village Voice Writers on the Verge Award, an NEA Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, the University of Georgia Press’ Contemporary Poetry Series Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, inclusion in the Best American Poetry series and various state arts council awards. Her poems and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from The New York Times Magazine, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House and on National Public Radio among others.

Cathy Park Hong with Andy Fitch

Cathy Park Hong
Cathy Park Hong

Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Hong’s book Engine Empire (Norton). Recorded June 26th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: Could we start with the title, Engine Empire? Placed one on top of each other, those words look like a reflection. I pictured hood ornaments and vaguely assumed a book about cars or Detroit would follow. Instead we travel to the mythic/historic American West, to contemporary (yet industrial age) hybrid-city China, then finally to virtual, cybernetic spaces from a computer-driven future. Chronology contorts as places and times get combined and conflated. Though does your book trace something like the material genesis, evangelical spread, imminent internalizations of a rapacious capitalism?

Cathy Park Hong: Yeah, I didn’t want it to sound like an editorial on rapacious capitalism, but, of course, capitalism was on my mind. The title actually came much later. It riffs on John Crowley’s Engine Summer, this beautiful sci-fi novel, and it definitely produces a mirroring effect—both words beginning and ending with “E.” At first I’d thought of the title as “Engine West” but that felt so fixed, so located, overemphasizing the book’s first section. “Empire” you can interpret any number of ways. And “Engine,” yeah: you think of cars, Detroit, but it also fits with the final section’s search engines and so forth. I should clarify that though I called capitalism one of this book’s buzzwords, I never had that deliberate thought while writing. I didn’t set out to provide some commentary on Western imperialist/neo-imperialist expansion. I tried to stay attentive to the present, beyond the interior self, tracking the individual’s relation to community, to the city, to family, to one’s civic duty. When you think about such topics you can’t avoid the ramifications of corporate life. Likewise Manifest Destiny kept popping up. All three sections. . .well the first two happened accidentally. I’d lived in California. I started watching lots of Westerns and writing Western poems, then it spiraled into thinking about the frontier, about expansion. I wondered where does expansion now occur, once we’ve completed our geographic mission? But I also want the book to feel intimate. It also explores individual lives.

Zachary Schomburg with Andy Fitch

Zach Schomburg
Zachary Schomburg

Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Schomburg’s book Fjords Vol. 1 (Black Ocean). Recorded June 22nd. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: “Fjord” is one of the best words. But do you think of a fjord’s sheer surface as somehow analogous to these compacted prose poems? Also, from what I remember, fjords now have disappeared in some places and popped up in others. Do you envision a Volume 2 following this one? Or does your title Fjords Vol. 1 make just as much sense on its own? Should there be more room in life for Volumes 1, just Volume 1 of something?

Zachary Schomburg: That title has little to do with literal fjords. I love the word’s sound, and wanted to say this word for the rest of my life when I talk about my poems. A fjord emerged in one of the manuscript’s earliest pieces. That poem appears first in the book. I wrote this poem knowing its first-person subject would experience death, but unsure where this death might come from. I think I wrote it late at night, and wanted to finish, and the phrase “from the fjords” sounded funny to me. It seemed such a strange place for this death to come from. So I first titled the book “From the Fjords.” Then the concept of fjords became much more interesting—not for those fjords actually receding across the world, but as this word that means “from where the death comes.” I listened to a lot of black metal at the time, and “fjord” seems like a part of the metal dictionary. It also sounded analogous to how poems, or prose poems, look and feel to me. I wanted to say, these poems are fjords. A chapbook came out called From the Fjords, and I liked already knowing that the full manuscript would get titled just Fjords, straight up. The idea of adding Vol. 1 came right before publication. I didn’t want to stop writing fjords. I knew for my whole life I could write these kinds of poems. Unlike my first two books, Fjords offers a distinct formula. I wrote each poem in one sitting. I have several ways to plug in information to make these poems exist. They resemble each other. So when we added Vol. 1 I definitely thought I would write a Volume 2 and a 3 and 4. Or Volume 3 could come next or whatever. It interests me how books fit together and accumulate and fulfill their own role within a catalog. I have this fantasy of putting out books in volumes.

Amy Lawless and James Gendron


The Conversant has invited some of our favorite journal and book publishers to curate interview series focusing on their authors. Octopus Books here has Amy Lawless and James Gendron to talk to each other about their new releases.

James Gendron: If I could choose one word to describe this book, it would be “deathy.” The sequence that opens the book is called “Elephants in Mourning.” The sequence that closes the book is called “The Skull Behind My Face,” and for those just joining us, the book is called My Dead. Did you set out to write a book-length meditation on death? Did it happen by coincidence? Or has death been a fixture in your poetry from the very beginning?

Amy Lawless: I did not set out to write a death-y book. Jonathan Lethem writes in his essay “The Beards,” “Someone once said that every good poem’s true subject is death, yet to write more than one poem you’d better find a way to forget you heard that. If life itself is, after all, only a beard for death, why couldn’t the reverse be true as well?” In other words, living is a beard for death and death is a beard for living. I am concerned with death and dying because I want so deeply to live, to keep living, to have more and more and more human experiences, to fall in love, to use my words to express something and I do that with all my heart even when I’m writing about penises and am acting totally full of shit and joking around—which is often. We are all going to die. I don’t want to think about this. If I keep writing about death, then I must still be alive, right? Death is the big unknown, an X that some are solving for. I’d prefer not to solve for X. I’d prefer to avoid the X, crash parties, listen to music, live, live, live.

Chris Martin with J’Lyn Chapman’s “Mind Moving” Class

Chris Martin
Chris Martin

In this series, my writing students from Naropa University interview professional writers whose work we’ve read in class. Each student composes one or two questions, which I then send to the writer. While neither this pedagogy nor its publication is unique, the immediacy of online publishing as well as the interviews’ course-specific context is. Because students’ questions are anonymous and reflect their individual concerns as writers and scholars, rather than gauge the interests of an audience, these interviews are simultaneously communal and personal. For this reason, I call the series, simply, Questions for Answers.

In the Fall 2012, I assigned Chris Martin’s Becoming Weather to a creative writing course offered to low-residency MFA students in the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University. The course, entitled, “Mind Moving,” explores contemplative practices in prose and poetry. After reading Stephani Nola’s review of Becoming Weather in the spring 2012 issue of Bombay Gin, I felt Martin’s book would offer an ideal juxtaposition with the spiritual texts we were also reading, including J. Krishnamurti’s Freedom from the Known.

Krishnamurti writes, “To divide anything into what should be and what is, is the most deceptive way of dealing with life.” I assigned Becoming Weather because, like Krishnamurti’s thought, its vision eschews the supernatural, which parses sacred and profane, for a sometimes staggering faith in the integrity of “being here.” Becoming Weather is as much spiritual as it is somatic and philosophical.

In November 2012, Martin generously responded to questions from the class that ranged from concern of craft to contemplative practice to the writer’s life. Jack Kerouac School MFA students Katelyn Rubenzer, Alicia Lewis, Denise Kinsley, Rachel Newlon, Virginia Teppner, Peggy Alaniz, Lara Beaulieu and Bobby Taylor participated in the interview, which took place on November 28, 2012.

Class: What weather pattern would you say best describes the writing process of Becoming Weather? The book itself? The aftermath of the book?

Chris Martin: I can identify six different weather patterns. The first (pre-writing) was a tremendous gusting wind where I had to huff and puff myself clear of staggered tercets. The second (section 1) was a controlled tornado, destroying a little city called “Fantastic Autopsies” only to reconstruct it as “Disequilibrium.” The third (section 2) was dancing weather, a firm and agile breeze leading everyone off the margin. The fourth (section 3) was a blanket of thick fog with gaping holes where we could see each other and confirm that things were nowhere near right. The fifth (coda) was the most pleasant weather imaginable. The sixth (prose sutures) held it all together, like light were a kind of glue.