Sarah Gridley and Michelle Taransky

Sarah Gridley and Michelle Taransky
Sarah Gridley and Michelle Taransky


Sarah Gridley: I am currently reading a book by woodcarver David Esterly, The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making. Esterly apprenticed himself to a Dutch-born 17th-century master limewood carver, Grinling Gibbons, after coming upon Gibbons’ carvings in a London church. “I wanted to do something physical,” he writes, referencing Yeats’s “A Prayer for Old Age”: “God guard me from those thoughts men think / In the mind alone; / He that sings a lasting song / Thinks in a marrow-bone.” Do you ever desire to make something by hand? Is poetry a physical enough occupation for you?

Michelle Taransky: While writing Sorry, I thought a lot about different kinds of woodworkers: bodgers, fellers, wood carvers, carpenters, cabinet makers—about the tools that may be in their hands, the machines they may need to use to get the job done. I rarely pictured or wrote out a woods without a human who had acted on, or would act on, the landscape. I researched wood working and wood crafts, woods in the home, what each tree’s wood is best used for. My father gave me my great-grandfather’s wood-burning tool. The poet Emily Pettit gave me a tin box that had housed a child’s wood-burning kit. I didn’t visit the Redwood forest.

Cristiana Baik with Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang
Kao Kalia Yang

This interview took place at the home of Kao Kalia Yang, on July 25th, 2013, near dusk, in Minneapolis.

Cristiana Baik: You start your memoir, The Late Homecomer, by saying, “The feeling that she was Hmong did not happen until the preparations for America began as her family was being processed.” The memoir seems to be focused on that fractured, internalized space created by the negotiations of identity making, one that can be argued as particular to experiences shaped by diaspora.

Kao Kalia Yang: For me, that statement makes a lot of sense, as I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand; it was all I knew. Everyone who lived within that fence was Hmong. We lived within the restraints of Thailand’s “humane deterrence” policy. All of these lines in my life . . . you’re born into it, so it’s natural and it’s normal. But the adults around me kept saying that this wasn’t the world we belonged to, that Laos is across a raging river and that America is this place across the earth. So the feeling like you’re home was being told continually that home is someplace else, a place beyond your imagination. And I only had my imagination, because I didn’t have books when I was growing up in the camp (Ban Vinai). So for example, when I was young, I’d hear so many stories about tigers, yet I didn’t encounter my first tiger until I visited Como Zoo, right here in Saint Paul.

Jim Goar with Johan de Wit

Johan de Wit
Johan de Wit

This transatlantic interview series, “The Slow Boat,” provides a setting for poets to engage in occasional conversation over the course of two months. It strives to be an invitation to further inquiry into the methods and complexities of a particular composition. The aim is not to be conclusive, but, in tandem, to further explore what it is to make a poem. 

Johan de Wit is a poet whose project is to create an absolute poetry of unalloyed language, acting as a rigorous detoxifier to the language centers of the brain. He is a truly avant-garde figure, a genuine explorer of language continents others don’t even know about. He has been published since the 1980s, with a large number of books and pamphlets to his name.

Our correspondence took place from late 2012 into early 2013.

Jim Goar: When I read Gero Nimo, I hear a multitude of voices vying to complete a shared sentence through a shared mouth. There are no lines at random, but in trying to talk about this book, I’d like to start with a sentence from the first piece:

The idea that time is an absent landlord more interested in lining his bed linen than pampering his bank manager is as absurd as sending your name ahead when preparing to meet your maker.

Time as an absent landlord is a “poetic” metaphor attacked by the sentence that surrounds it. While this image is static, that which follows makes apparent the passing of time. The eye cannot hold and needs to move through alliteration, assonance and haunted images. There are shadows behind the phrases. For example, what do we do with “more interested in lining his bed linen” besides roll around in it as the spectre of money in the mattress hovers nearby? And further, the hierarchy of authority from landlord (notice the “land,” the “lord”) to the bank manager and finally to “meet your maker” moves into and through some debris of eternal truth. Now to a question: Could you talk about your sentences in Gero Nimo?

Johan de Wit: Yeah, how do I write my sentences? It’s not so much that one image or metaphor (however mixed) leads to another one: My mind goes from phrase to phrase.

Susan Gevirtz and Benjamin Hollander

Susan Gervitz and Benjamin Hollander
Susan Gervitz and Benjamin Hollander

This “script” documents a recent poetry reading/reading of one another’s work, conducted by Susan Gevirtz and Benjamin Hollander, at Moe’s Bookstore in Berkeley, on May 22nd. An audio record of the event can be found here.

Susan Gevirtz and Benjamin Hollander reading from their new books and in response to one another’s new books:

Gevirtz’s Coming Events (Collected Writings)
Hollander’s In the House Un-American and Memoir American


We will each read a brief piece on translation before we introduce each other and read from our books. You should know: neither one of us are translators although we do have this perverse instinct to watch—and then write about—translation. So much so that we wanted to introduce ourselves tonight as the voyeurs of translation—that’s Susan’s phrase:

Maybe even have Moe’s lovely in-house dancers introduce: now appearing, in their first Bay Area appearance, the voyeurs of translation . . .

But there’s a good crowd here and such lures were not necessary.
So we decided against such nonsense and will now give you the serious portion of the evening.

Susan talks:

About Ben’s translation piece and a bit of history about Ben and translation:

Ben claims that “being translated is a personal story,” so he’s encouraged me to take his writing about translation personally. And yes, since Ben and I circulate in our writings around the question of what can possibly stay put as an origin story, and in both books he keeps returning us to the question of (impossible to locate) origin, he tangles the “personal.”

Angela Buck, Leonard Schwartz and Victor Reinking on Abdellatif Laâbi

Victor Reinking and Abdellatif Laâbi
Abdellatif Laâbi and Victor Reinking

This monthly series will feature highlights from the Cross Cultural Poetics archive. Cross Cultural Poetics is one of the longest-running radio shows in America focused on contemporary poetry and poetics. Based at The Evergreen State College and hosted by Leonard Schwartz, the entire archive, running from 2003 to the present, can be accessed on PennSound.

As I select installments, I’m not only listening for interviews that speak to the present moment, but I’m hoping to revive conversations that could add new dimensions to our ideas about poetry’s role in a global society.

This month, I’ve chosen an episode from 2003, the radio program’s first year, which features an interview between Leonard Schwartz and Victor Reinking—translator of one of the best-known living Moroccan poets, Abdellatif Laâbi. Laâbi was imprisoned from 1972 to 1980 for “crimes of opinion,” and later sought exile in France. At a time when the Arab world seems to offer the greatest cry of resistance towards oppression, this interview serves for me as a reminder of the political possibilities that poetry can create. –Angela Buck

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Victor Reinking teaches French and African literatures at Seattle University. He edited and translated a volume of selected poems by Abdellatif Laâbi entitled The World’s Embrace and is currently working on a volume of Laâbi’s prison writings.

Poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, translator, storyteller and human-rights activist, Abdellatif Laâbi is one of the most prolific and critically acclaimed of contemporary North African writers. He was born in 1942 in Fez, Morocco. In 1966, he founded the avant-garde literary and artistic journal Souffles, which helped spark a literary and artistic renaissance throughout North Africa. Sentenced in 1972 to 10 years imprisonment for his political beliefs and his writings, he was released in 1980 after an international campaign in his defense. He has published 14 collections of poetry, four novels, a collection of plays for theatre, three children’s books, 10 collections of essays and profiles of artists and a book of letters from prison. Laâbi has also been active as a translator, and his French versions of major contemporary Arab authors (at last count, sixteen books) include, among others, works by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Moroccan poet Abdallah Zrika, Iraqi poet Abdelwahed Al Bayati, Syrian novelist Hanna Mina and an anthology of thirty-six contemporary Palestinian poets. Laâbi has received numerous prizes and awards for his work, including the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie in 2009 and the Grand Prix de la Francophonie of the Académie française in 2011.

Jon Curley with Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Jon Curley: Can you envision what kinds of poems, whether structurally or thematically, you might consider writing beyond the realm of your past practice? Are there elements of poems outside your usual patterns and activities you might try to integrate into your work?

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: The easy, straight-forward answers are “yes” and “yes.” But all the interest would lie in what these “yeses” might plausibly mean. So the answers might also be “no” and “no.” Let’s see what all this means.

Jeffrey Williams with Michael Bérubé

Michael Bérubé
Michael Bérubé

Michael Bérubé regularly crosses the divide between academic and popular spheres. Bérubé launched onto the scene in the early ’90s with a Village Voice article debunking charges of political correctness in the academy. Just out of grad school, he had already earned an academic reputation with articles in places like PMLA and a book on the reception of contemporary literature, Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon (Cornell University Press, 1992). But through the ’90s he came to serve as an informant of matters academic to the literate public, publishing at a brisk pace in the Voice, Harper’s, The New Yorker and The Nation. He also did early work defining disability studies with his book Life as We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child (Pantheon, 1996), which teases out the theoretical nettle of the nature/nurture argument, as well as recounts parenting a child with Down syndrome. He staked out the blogosphere with American Airspace, which comments on politics as well as on more specialized pursuits like literary theory. His 2006 book, What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education (Norton), defends the humanities and higher education.

Following Marginal Forces, Bérubé’s second book, Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (Verso, 1994), calls for a more publicly relevant criticism. Responding to attacks on the university, he also co-edited the collection Higher Education Under Fire: Politics, Economics, and the Crisis of the Humanities (with Cary Nelson; Routledge, 1995). After Life as We Know It, he published a collection of his essays, The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies (NYU Press, 1998), which continues his commentary on cultural politics and focuses on the academic job crisis. It appears in the NYU Press series, Cultural Front, for which he serves as general editor. Alongside Liberal Arts, in 2006 he published a wide-ranging collection of his essays on the Sokal hoax and the science wars, the state of academe and the academic left, Rhetorical Occasions: Essays on Humans and the Humanities (University of North Carolina Press). In addition, he edited the collection The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies (Blackwell, 2005). Since this interview, he has continued his commentary on cultural politics with The Left At War (NYU Press, 2009). Among his most notable journalistic pieces, see “Public Image Limited,” Village Voice June 18th,  1991; “Discipline and Theory,” Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messages from American Universities, ed. Edmundson (Penguin, 1993); “Life as We Know It: A Father, A Son, and Genetic Destiny,” Harper’s, Dec. 1994; and “Public Academy,” New Yorker, 1996. His blog archive can be found at

Born in New York City in 1961, Bérubé attended Columbia University (BA, 1982) and the University of Virginia (MA, 1986; PhD, 1989). Beginning in 1989, he taught at the University of Illinois, where he ascended through the professorial ranks, and he moved in 2001 to Penn State to take the newly-created Paterno Family Professorship in English, which he has since resigned. Now he holds the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and is Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities there. In 2012-13 he served as the president of the Modern Language Association.

This interview took place in Jeffrey Williams’s apartment in Pittsburgh, on August 11th, 2006. It was conducted by Williams, then editor of minnesota review, and transcribed by David Cerniglia.

Jeffrey Williams: This year you have two new books on cultural politics and the academic left coming out, and you have a blog that is one of the more noteworthy ones for those of us in the humanities. It seems to me that your role now, or one of your roles, is defending liberal education. Certainly in What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts?, you mount an even-toned and good-spirited defense of liberal education.

Michael Bérubé: Thanks for the kind words. I actually think of What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? as continuous with the same project of Public Access. There’s a line somewhere in Public Access about how the first job is to scrape off the nonsense that has been said about us, then get around to explaining what it is we really do. I actually didn’t start Liberal Arts with that in mind; I started with a Chronicle of Higher Education essay I wrote on dealing with a disruptive student in a seminar. It turns out to be incredibly difficult to try to describe entire courses. The amount of labor that goes into a course comes to hundreds and hundreds of pages when put into prose, and at first the book was just going to be something like that, more along the lines of  “this is what teaching undergraduates actually looks like.”

Tony Trigilio with Sandra Simonds

Sandra Simonds
Sandra Simonds

In his monthly poetry podcast, Radio Free Albion, Tony Trigilio interviews poets about their recently released or forthcoming books.  Always informal, each interview is a conversation—two poets talking about the work and play of the creative process, and showcasing some of the most innovative new work in contemporary poetry.

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Sandra Simonds is the author of Mother was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012) and Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009), House of Ions (forthcoming, Bloof Books, 2014) and The Glass Box (forthcoming, Saturnalia Books, 2015). She lives in Tallahassee, Florida and is an Assistant Professor of English at Thomas University in Georgia.

Andy Fitch with David Lazar

David Lazar
David Lazar

As The Conversant continues its merger with Essay Press, we offer a 2012 conversation between Andy Fitch and Essay board member David Lazar concerning nonfiction publishing. This interview first appeared in Bookslut.

Andy Fitch: Amid the ongoing economic crisis, one neglected tragedy has been the postponement (?) cancellation (?) of your Transgenre series with University of Iowa Press. Can we start with you describing the types of work you’d hoped to include in this series, the creative/critical/hybrid discourses in which you’d hoped to make an intervention?

David Lazar: That experience was terribly disappointing for me. I had worked with editors at the press to create a series that would publish projects difficult to publish, works that didn’t have any obvious generic category, that perhaps included elements of clearly defined genres (prose-poem, essay) but also combined elements from other genres: fiction, poetry, any kind of nonfiction. Writers I’d talk to, whose work I’m especially interested in, were frustrated that, with manuscripts that weren’t easily identifiable, publishers (even small publishers) were loathe to take a chance. So I put together a board of writers who represented the full scope of what I was interested in doing: Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Phillip Lopate, John D’Agata, Wayne Koestenbaum, and set out to identify works that I thought might be an amenable first group in the series. I was also interested in re-publishing work by women, especially essays that had disappeared or were absurdly out of print. I had been working, in the magazine I created and edit, Hotel Amerika, to publish works I call transgeneric. I’d hoped that the Iowa series would help such works see the light of day. I’ve always promoted work that I thought represented exquisite displays of writing from clearly defined genres as well, especially prose-poetry and essays. In any case, it didn’t happen. I’d be happy to re-locate.

Thomas Fink with Chris Pusateri

Chris Pusateri
Chris Pusateri

Thomas Fink is a frequent contributor to The Conversant. The subject of this interview is Chris Pusateri’s Common Time (Steerage Press 2012).

Thomas Fink: Though we will soon talk about “content,” certain formal components of Common Time are remarkable, and they have to do with titles. In “The Lost Golf Ball,” David Shapiro meditates about the function of titles: “The title could be an inducement like a lost ball/ though it never appears in the final painting/ though anything might… /but the title is not a can opener or a handle for a pot/… The title itself is a ceiling for/ stars that shine at night, will not fade, and stick by themselves/ like a slogan…”

As the Table of Contents seems to reveal, and as Eileen Tabios surmises in her review of Common Time, each poem’s title is neither above or on the first line, but somewhere lower—and not at the end. (Pages 40, 42, and 43 flirt with being exceptions. I believe that there’s one poem per page.) Are Tabios and I basically in line with your intentions? And was the Table of Contents itself a poem serving as beginning point for the poems written later, the rest of the book? Or is this one long poem—with the titles being of minor importance? Or are you trying to orchestrate “that pause again, the one that reminds us/ at three removes, that nothing” about the blueprint for the application of these structurations “can be explained, nothing/ can be vicarious,” in the sense that different possibilities are competing with each other? And if so, then could you please confirm or deny that some of the possibilities discussed above are operative and maybe identify others?

Chris Pusateri: As a person with a background in literature and librarianship, I consider both the literary uses of a title and how a title functions as a piece of information—in other words, I’m always thinking about how the formal elements of literature give rise to a whole host of assumptions that condition the compositional process and our habits as readers.