H.L. Hix and Stephen Burt

H. L. Hix and Stephen Burt. Photo of  H. L. Hix by Nancy M. Stuart. Photo of Stephen Burt by Alex Dakoulas.
H. L. Hix and Stephen Burt. Photo of H. L. Hix by Nancy M. Stuart. Photo of Stephen Burt by Alex Dakoulas.

On Belmont

H. L. Hix: Let me start this side of our conversation by taking your advice. The welcome you extend, in Close Calls with Nonsense, to prospective readers of new poetry includes a “How to Read Very New Poetry” section that begins: “The most important precepts are the simplest: Look for a persona and a world, not for an argument or a plot. Enjoy double meanings: Don’t feel you must choose between them. Ask what the disparate elements have in common. . .”

I take that as good advice to a reader of your own very new poetry, since your latest book, Belmont, offers a world that is two worlds at once: The book’s back cover informs readers that you live in Belmont, Massachusetts, and its epigraph tells us we are entering the Shakespearean Belmont of The Merchant of Venice. In fulfillment of your advice, I don’t feel that I must choose between them, but since I have this chance to quiz the author, let me ask you what the disparate elements have in common. Why was it important or inviting to inhabit both worlds at once, the “literal” or “real” Belmont in which you live and the “mythic” or “poetic” Shakespearean Belmont? What does one learn, or what pleasures are offered, by not choosing between those two worlds, but dwelling in both?

Stephen Burt: Thanks for asking. I think we all need to inhabit at least two worlds, because this real world just isn’t enough for anybody, as marvelous as it is; because any adult life, and any child’s life (though not for the same reasons) includes wishes that cannot be fulfilled for real; because the imagination is amazing and should not be limited to what’s probable, or even possible; because there are more things in heaven than there are in Earth.

HER KIND with Amina Cain and Veronica Gonzalez-Peña

Amina Cain and Veronica Gonzalez-Peña
Amina Cain and Veronica Gonzalez-Peña

The Conversant republishes excerpts from HER KIND, a digital literary community powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. An earlier version of this present conversation can be found here.

HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out, / willing prisoner / inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?

Amina Cain: My mother tells me that when I was two years old, she couldn’t keep me from the water. She would set me down on the beach and before she knew it, I was in the waves trying to go further than a two-year-old should. I had very few fears as a child, and I loved the water, as many children do. I love it still. I am always trying to decide which I like best—ocean, river, or lake—but I can’t. The ocean is immense, yes, but you can float down a river for a very long time, and in a cold climate a lake’s waves freeze in winter. Today, on the first day of summer, I think I would choose to swim in a river. The Yuba, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Joshua Marie Wilkinson with Julie Doxsee

Julie Doxsee
Julie Doxsee with her sons, Julian (left) and Ata (right)

Joshua Marie Wilkinson: First off, you’ve been living in Istanbul for the last five years. Can you tell us what you know is happening there now?

Julie Doxsee: Actually, I have been in Istanbul for six years. I am not Turkish, though I feel connected to Turks through friendships, colleagues, lifestyle, and through my Turkish-blooded children. What is happening right now is something Turks own, and as an “inside” outsider, I feel proud to be connected to this outing of the Prime Minister as he rockets about on his power trip. Sometimes his public speeches are so baffling I just laugh, stunned, but when I realize he is serious, the gravity of his power really affects me (for three weeks, off and on, I have been on the verge of vomiting). Last week one government authority claimed that the police water cannons were not laced with chemicals, as evidenced in photos, but with “medicine” that is good for the people! For now, the exhilaration that comes with the protesters’ resilience outweighs the gas bombs and water cannons the police are pummeling them with. The government henchmen are shooting themselves in the feet over and over again. They have created protesters of people who wouldn’t normally get involved: mothers, grandmothers, residents of Taksim, business owners, tourists—anyone whose daily lives have been upended by the chaos, anyone who has been horrified by the police violence. This man is thrusting so much hatred and violence into the faces of beauty and love that make Turkey so amazing—calling his own people enemies and “chapullers.” Now that the worst is over (I hope), only good can come of it. Turkish culture has been through a lot; the past 90 years have been an unprecedented trial for a new kind of secular Republic. Turks have grown and become empowered by standing up to a disillusioned megalomaniac, and they are winning with intellect and honor.

Robert Yune and Rosebud Ben-Oni

Robert Yune and Rosebud Ben-Oni
Robert Yune and Rosebud Ben-Oni

Novelist Jessica Lott prompted this conversation between Rosebud Ben-Oni and Robert Yune with the following question:

“Both of you live in and write extensively about cities—Rosebud in Jerusalem/NYC and Robert in Pittsburgh. You’re both very sensitive to language as well as heavily exposed to it in your daily lives: its cadences, speeds, rhythms, the multiplicity of voices—also its purposefulness in helping us to process and navigate our urban environments, its variations from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood. How does that overwhelming exposure to language tie into your poetry and fiction, the urban landscape you are both responding to and creating within your work?”

Robert Yune: That’s a great question. I had to think a lot about this one because language is so common that I often take it for granted. As David Foster Wallace once said, fish don’t know they’re swimming in water.

David Tomas Martinez and Ruben Quesada

David Thomas Martinez and Ruben Quesada
David Tomas Martinez and Ruben Quesada

This is the first of a three-part series featuring conversations on poetics, identity and writing among CantoMundo poets. I first met poets Ruben Quesada and David Tomas Martinez at the CantoMundo Fellowship Retreat this past June. After a weekend of readings at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, some of the fellows went out to a bar for our last night; Erika L. Sánchez, David and I, along with author Brian Kornell, piled into Ruben’s car and we continued a discussion we’d been having all along at the retreat: Latin@ identity and poetics. Over beers later at the bar, we discussed everything from Hitchcock to basketball to code-switching (I also might’ve accused David of being a clandestine bullfighter, but that’s another story) At the end of the night, running across a busy street in the rain back to Ruben’s car, the banter that had developed between Ruben and David became a sort of incantation that led me to think more deeply about what it means to be a Latin@ poet in 2013. It is with great pleasure that I introduce Ruben Quesada and David Tomas Martinez to start off this series. —Rosebud Ben-Oni

Rosebud Ben-Oni: What led you to poetry?

David Tomas Martinez: The honest answer as to why I got into poetry? Because I didn’t know any better, because going to college was as improbable as making a living through poetry, and my parents, who were not college educated, didn’t have the authoritative stance they normally have. Honestly, as a teenager, I didn’t think I was going to live past 23, so why not take a chance? Also, I had what all writers have, a strong sense of ego coupled with crippling bouts of self-criticism and doubt; in other words, I wanted to prove myself to others, but believed I was special enough to prove myself. I look back, and I have done a lot of crazy stuff, but it was by far the craziest.

Nature Theater of Oklahoma and Oskar Eustis

Oskar Eustis
Oskar Eustis

Nature Theater of Oklahoma talks with Oskar Eustis, director of The Public Theater in New York City about leadership, ethics and idealism. How does Oskar navigate the economic disparity he encounters every day running an arts institution that has to both market itself to wealthy backers and nurture an often very impoverished community of working artists? What are the possibilities he sees in the future toward making a better, more sustainable working environment—and ultimately better art—in the American theater?

Thomas Fink with Jill Magi

Image from Jill Magi's Slot
Image from Jill Magi's Slot

Thomas Fink is a frequent contributor to The Conversant. The subject of this interview is Jill Magi’s SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011). You can read part I of this interview here. 

Thomas Fink: Please tell me about your development of a relation between some of the photos in SLOT—especially those of the expressive hands—and the poetic text.

Jill Magi: You ask about the photographs. I recently wrote an essay on poetry and photography for Poetry Northwest. Here is a snippet:

As I worked on SLOT, I intuited that page after page of text only was not ideal, even if that text contained the visual via description and self-reflexive language on the act of looking. SLOT is about resisting landscaped memory in the post-disaster experience. Looking, including looking away and not picturing, is key in this work that asserts the importance of the personal gesture (incorporated memory) amid official versions of an experience (inscribed memory). The photos in SLOT attempt a turn away from received images of the World Trade Center disaster while refusing erasure.

I note the presence of my hands in the photos: untangling string and uncovering veiled museum brochures. I think of the common Estonian greeting my father taught me: “how does your hand go?” where “how are you doing?” is indicated by how well you are making, working.

Tim Shaner with Nick Piombino

Nick Piombino
Nick Piombino

This interview with Nick Piombino started roughly five years ago as a project for Wig, a magazine devoted to writing work: poetry that appropriates time and/or materials from the job for its own purposes. As it turned out, we (Kristen Gallagher and I) never produced the third issue of Wig as planned, and so eventually the project fell by the wayside. Nick and I, however, continued our correspondence over the years, periodically reiterating our desire to continue on with the project, with Nick reassuring me that the questions I had sent to him regarding his career as a psychoanalyst and its relation to his writing were still very much on his mind. The Conversant has offered Nick and I this opportunity to pick up where we left off. Part Two will follow in the coming months.

Tim Shaner: As for the questions, I’m thinking of starting with some practical ones, like: What is your average work day like and how does your writing fit into your working schedule? Do you write on the job? You mention having a number of different notebooks going at the same time. I’m interested in how your notebooks fit into your work schedule. In other words, I’d first like to deal with the material aspect of your writing, as it relates to the rhythms of your everyday life.

Nick Piombino: As far as I can tell, my writing has little to do with my schedule as a therapist. But it has much to do with my experience as one. Right now I am seeing patients three days and nights, but for over 20 years I did that plus work at an 8:30 am to 4:00 pm position as a school social worker in New York, and for years before that as a social worker in clinics, hospitals and agencies. I wrote around this schedule somehow, plus went to readings quite often. Nine years ago I retired from my work for the school system. The fact is I have no writing schedule and never have had one. I carry a notebook around with me and write as the feeling hits me. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and deliberately chose to become a psychoanalyst rather than go through with formal literary training. I started as an undergraduate at CCNY where I did honors work in literature. The idea of writing according to some plan, or having a literary career, did not appeal to me. But right now we’re talking about mechanics. At one time I kept several notebooks but stopped doing this after I found it disorganizing. When I found out about blogging (from Ron Silliman and Gary Sullivan) I remembered I had many boxes full of unpublished material, mostly notebooks, but also some lined pads from the 1960’s. I started my blog fait accompli in 2003 in order to get those notebooks out there. I blogged from these notebooks every day for a couple of years, finally over a thousand pages. What I tried to do was create synchronicities by finding passages that corresponded in some way to how I felt the day I was posting the material. One of the synchronicities that happened was that I received the first copies of my book Contradicta (with illustrations by the artist Toni Simon) on the seventh birthday of the blog! The Contradicta started when I found I did not have time to blog and also work on the book fait accompli, which was based on the first three months of the blog. The fait accompli book was published in 2007 by Factory School and the Contradicta book in 2010 by Green Integer.

Jeffrey Williams with Jonathan Culler

Jonathan Culler
Jonathan Culler

Jonathan Culler is a leading expositor of contemporary literary theory. His book, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Cornell UP, 1975; Routledge Classics, 2002), brought the terms and concerns of the Continental theory to an Anglo-American audience. It won the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize and has been a standard work in the field. He followed it with two books of influential essays, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Cornell UP, 1981; enl. ed., 2002; Routledge Classics, 2006) and On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism (Cornell UP, 1982; 25th Anniversary ed., 2008). Alongside those, he published several books focused on particular figures, including Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty (Cornell UP, 1974; rev. ed. 1985; Davies, 2004), Roland Barthes (Oxford UP, 1983; rev. ed. Roland Barthes: A Very Short Introduction, 2002) and Saussure (Fontana, 1985; rev. ed. Ferdinand de Saussure, Cornell UP, 1986).

Beginning in the late 1980s, Culler turned to more general statements about literary study, considering its institutional context in Framing the Sign: Criticism and its Institutions (U of Oklahoma P, 1988) and providing the guidebooks, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 1997) and Literary Theory (A Brief Insight) (Sterling, 2009). He also published On Puns: The Foundation of Letters (Blackwell, 1988) and The Literary in Theory (Stanford UP, 2007), which gathers essays on narrative, the fate of theory and the future of comparative literature. In addition, he edited, with Kevin Lamb, Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Stanford UP, 2003). This interview with Jonathan Culler took place on August 27th, 2007, in Culler’s office at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York). It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, then editor of the minnesota review and transcribed by Heather Steffen and Marisa Colabuono.

Jeffrey Williams: One could see you as a kind of a personification figure of contemporary theory. I came across a line in your recent book, The Literary in Theory, where you talk about becoming fascinated with the New Criticism when you first went to college. How did you first start in criticism, and what was the scene like?

Jonathan Culler: I guess my interest in criticism started after I graduated from high school. My father was on sabbatical in England, and I went along. I went two terms to an English public school, and in the spring went across to Paris. During those two terms we were concentrating on a handful of books that were set books for English A-level exams. We read Othello and then Henry IV, Part II and Donne, and there may have been another collection of poems, but what I especially remember was the Donne. We were reading, for a whole semester, a small group of poems, and we also read criticism and arguments about them. It was the sort of thing that most people would have done only in college, but I got a taste of it before I entered college. I hadn’t thought about criticism before; as a high school student, criticism was something you read in order to get an idea for a paper, but you weren’t interested in criticism as such.

And then when I came to Harvard. . .