Thomas Fink: At least five poems in Shorthand and Electric Language Stars (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2015) traffic in insistent linguistic repetition. For example, in “You know anything can happen.” The reiteration of “happen”/“happened”/“happening,” along with slightly less repetition of some other key words, indicates, I believe, the range of possibilities between certainty about the assessment of significance and/or insignificance of an event or scene, such as in the opening sentence, “I’ll tell you what really happened—you tell me what didn’t,” and admission of thorough bafflement: “I can’t even begin to tell you what happened.”
Additionally though, I sense that you’re playing with gestures toward a variety of potentially limiting contexts in some sentences; these might involve what’s occurring in general in the speaker’s life (and the prose-poem may have numerous speakers, not one), what is going on between the speaker and a specific but unnamed addressee, a situation involving a community, and a suggestion of empathy with another person. Lastly, I think you display effects of a movement between declarative sentences, rhetorical questions, and actual questions. What motivated you to utilize these repetitions, specifically in “You know anything can happen”? And if there’s a similar motivation in “Stick Shift * it,” the long skinny poem “No Thing,” and “One Loop, One Run on,” it would be interesting to hear what you have to say about one or more of them. What effects do you want this strategy of repetition to produce?
Stephanie Gray: It’s interesting to think of these questions as I work intuitively and also by rhythm. When working with these(this) repetition(s), I think of a couple things: that I was pulled by a subconscious type of rhythm that I hear and of course the irony for those who know me is that I have a partial hearing loss. I can hear and speak, but it’s the high pitches that are hard to hear in my type of hearing loss so I read lips to compensate. That means in noisy environments it can be hard. Of course in quiet environments, it’s easier. But getting back to the questions of repetition, I probably am working against? with? a sub-current or undertow of some connection to my hearing loss. That is not first and foremost in these poems, but probably plays a part. Usually what helps me is if people restate what they said and re-contextualize it when they repeat something I didn’t catch. So when someone says, “you didn’t really miss anything,” what does that mean? A little window of interpretation is opened there and I think I’m working with the same thing with these pieces. There’s a kind of musicality and also dance with the differing variations of the words that sound like poetry to me. They make sense of what doesn’t make sense and also of what seem to be kinds of “nonsense” kinds of phrases that we say all the time, that do *mean* something, but don’t really *mean* anything, you know? And for so much of our language to be comprised of such phrases really either 1) fascinates me, 2) drives me up the wall, 3) makes me wonder if we are always meaning what we say and if not, then what are we meaning to say?
Coming from a working class background, I still work in phrases that are more common in that background than in what at times can feel like the rarified art world here in NYC. Sometimes poems like the “happen” one you pointed out do begin or are inspired by a quote, often from what might be thought of as a meaningless pop culture line. That poem was inspired by a little line in a lesser-known song by a now famous band, talking about an evening where “anything can happen.” Well, what can that mean? In working class speech, there are so many things that need to happen and don’t happen that utilize that phrase. Together they seem to form a bit of a linguistic symphony and showcase truths in hard to see truths or untruths.
The “No Thing” poem was inspired by a little quote from the late Leslie Scalapino and I don’t know if I should call it a lesser known work or not because in the realm of the readership and fans of her work that work could be major or another work could be major. But it’s in the middle of a much longer prose passage—“Money is nothing/Jobs are nothing /Days open.” That made me think about the structure of the word “nothing/no thing” and how we use it to construe all kinds of things—which are nothing, right? What are those gaps of translation that we do in such colloquial phrases when “it’s nothing, I got it” is uttered or “I went to the store and there was nothing there” or “she said nothing about it.” Something about the musicality of those phrases and seeming contradictory nature either fascinates me or mind boggles me to the point where I end up writing it down pulled by a rhythm, gravity and beat.
For readers, I hope to open up a window that they would not have opened before by making their way through these repetitions and suddenly have a window of interpretation opened. By the continual repetition of those words and phrases, does a magic translation come to mind as to what all those “nothings” mean? How do we know how to translate the nothings, and when they are all piled together what does it mean. To know something about nothing?
TF: I’m glad you brought up the idea of “a meaningless” but not so meaningless “pop culture line,” a song lyric, because, as someone who—like you, Nathaniel Siegel in his Lyrics from Songs I Cry To, and Kenneth Goldsmith in Head Citations—is interested in quotation, fractured quotation, or misquotation of rock and pop songs in poetry, I’d like to inquire about your prose-poem with the incredibly long title that begins “(you were a theory upside down) You were a song I forgot the name of…” Sentences that appropriate Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and John Lennon appear to indicate a critique of easy idealization: “You know, for once, I’m tired of imagining all the people.” Those from Pink Floyd, The Who, Talking Heads, and the Rolling Stones seem to elaborate slightly and supportively on the original lyrics: “We did, in fact, need no education.” What impels you to make use of this kind of verbal material? What implications do you think it has for your audience and its reception of your work?
SG: A lot of those songs I grew up with in the background (and a lot of times already after the songs had hit their peak) but while I was too young to really be old enough to understand them 100%, I revisited them later as an adult solely due to the fact I remembered the chorus but not the band or the song name. As a kid, I remember sitting in the magazine aisles at grocery stores in the ‘80s reading that “Song Hits” magazine that had all the words to songs—this being before lyrics were routinely printed in cassettes or of course before the internets. When I finally understood some of the lines, partly because of my hearing, and partly because of the usual not getting the lines, I was so surprised. I had been humming with a lot of nonsense but liked the beat.
Sometimes some of those mainstream songs get bashed as stereotypical, but since I didn’t hear them a million times per se, I actually liked them. You know, songs like “More than a Feeling” by Boston or Journey’s biggest hit, that I shouldn’t have to mention the name of. I didn’t know about some of the controversies as a kid of some of those songs, like “Sweet Home Alabama,” which later I read (this is an apparent lesser-known fact) about the band thinking Neil Young meant all Southerners were not forward thinking—and that it’s been misinterpreted. As a kid, I just thought it was a song about Alabama. But many of these songs formed a backdrop of a time frame and time space of growing up delayed with these ’70s songs in the ’80s. Sometimes I get annoyed by the suggestion that to listen to what is construed as working class music (say hard rock, classic rock, heavy metal—all genres I like in addition to many experimental others) means a lesser kind of cultured person. No one will admit it but we all know that for those of us who have come from working class backgrounds and somehow found an entry point against all odds in an artistic realm—sometimes you can feel these subtle class distinctions or classism. (I understand that this could be relative to where one’s place is in relation to this music. I’m speaking from some direct experiences. It may be extreme here in NY or in certain artistic/cultural communities.) You know, like people throwing up devil horn fingers to suggest “yeah headbanger” when they are anything but and from a privileged background where they (and their parents) might have dissed or looked down on that music in the past (I’ve been on the receiving end of this). Working with all these lines was both reclaiming them and not necessarily elevating them (or maybe?) but living through them or poeticizing through them—a working class lyric becoming poetry which often times is in the hands of the wealthier. I’m not saying that’s always true, but poetry is not always available in certain economic community structures. I somehow found my way into it via a library. So to take what sounds like a slang and scrappy and intentionally wrong and bad line like “we don’t need no education” that all parents of the world at that time probably didn’t like and to make it more formal to “We did, in fact, need no education” from me, this working class raised person who still at times gets the cold shoulder when people realize my class in certain environments—seems (maybe?) subversive. To reclaim? transform? what might be a junkyard of culture according to the culture people. Right, “Imagine” is a special song that means a lot to people, but sometimes imagining for certain economic classes just does nothing, you know? We still have a stratified class system. Of course, not everyone reading that poem is going to see a class-war interpretation, but I am interested in working with expectations of class and working-classness in the realms of the art world.
And one could read that poem and not think of class. And I probably wrote it without class first and foremost in my mind. Sometimes those lines that seem meaningless mean a lot to people in trying situations. What is it about that? We make fun of clichés but when having a hard time, sometimes clichés are the only things that work for us. Sometimes that mystifies me. Of course, in certain artistic and class realms some ways of writing or thinking get criticized as “Hallmark-y” but what does that really mean?
These lines in that poem “you were a theory upside down, you were a song I forgot the name of you were a theory right side up, you were every lyric that ever stuck …” were also about the elevation that is reserved for theory and the limitations of it. I was thinking about theory and how theory doesn’t always match up with real life or is condescending to real life. At the same time, being raised working class, I hoped for additional and deeper explanations to life than just what I knew. Both of these things converged, with the songs being given to equations in a theory, with the theory being debunked with the songs, with the irrationality of remembering the words to a classic rock song without being prompted to when I would rather remember my passwords as easily — it all merged together in this work. In the end, what is the name for a lyric behind a theory, a theory behind a lyric?
TF: When I ask you about the poems involving Queens one or two questions from now, we’ll get back to your critique of classism.
Here’s a stab at a modest historical footnote: In the late ’60s, I believe (from memories of my teenage years) that hard rock (“classic rock”) was not considered exclusively working class music by most whites in their teens, twenties, and even thirties; African Americans and Latinos/as were much less drawn to rock in general, though I can’t generalize about Asian Americans. Many young white listeners were from middle and upper-middle and upper-class backgrounds. While African Americans can be quite critical of rock from a different perspective, questioning the borrowings from black American musical modes like the blues and jazz, I would have trouble finding a European-American “baby boomer” poet or theorist who exhibits a classist attitude toward a rock lover.
You say that “theory doesn’t always match up with real life or is condescending to” it, and I agree that some examples of theory exhibit that tendency in their rhetoric and posturing. What particular forms of theory do you find to be the worst offenders—and why? I want to appreciate specifically how a critique of this failure of representation and/or condescension manifests itself in poems like “Dear THE MORE YOU KNOW….” and “it would go forever unsolved,” which ends with the sentence, “Like many theories, that happens to be wrong.” And then, “Fascination(s) (s)(c)ites….” actually seems to be an homage not only to the late poet Akilah Oliver but the theorist Giorgio Agamben, perhaps indicating that his work doesn’t have the same drawbacks as that of other theorists.
SG: Tom, I agree with you about the historical footnote. That’s very true. I was looking at what could be a more specific upbringing /extreme example where spending some time on scholarships, financial aid and loans at a college where there were very very few working-class-raised individuals and my times in scholarly and artistic communities that come of these classist reactions occurred. I might be basing this more on my own specific experience though I have connected with others on this class thing. When I was going to this one undergraduate small, supposedly (I say supposedly for reasons that will become apparent soon) progressive school, most people were into alternative music and looked down upon classic rock/heavy metal as this lower thing. It was conveyed in the smallest of gestures or utterances. I also remember someone sort of poking fun at me for having a Metallica poster in my study cubicle and half-cheering, sneering, “yeah!” with those devil horns and it made me feel belittled. It’s hard to describe first learning about classism, and further, in an environment that is not very common in the grand scheme of things in this country. I realize that experience is a small number of experiences in the big picture, but it still had a big impact on me. I thought education was the great equalizer. It wasn’t necessarily. Those with less still had to work while others did not. This is very different from many urban or rural community colleges where a population may have many more low-income, first-generation or working class students.
As far as theorists—I’m probably thinking more about Sociology—when I was in a class at said school, and the topic was me, essentially “working class people” and the way the class—all very upper-class white individuals were talking about “those people”—I can remember the tone and feeling to this day. I kept thinking, “Is this really happening?” I remember finally saying something to the effect of, “look, I’m one of ‘those people’ and what you’re saying are stereotypes and in reality it’s not so easy to do some of the things you are suggesting.” The room went into a stunned silence but also looking at me like, who do you think you are to bring in the personal to this scholarly talk? It was a big no-no. But if there were no actual working class people, then they wouldn’t be having this discussion. They just didn’t expect one of them to be in the room. I was really surprised and not sure at that time what was going on but I was sitting there and something didn’t feel right. There have been other times when, even though I have appreciated the theory, I wondered about its relevance to those less fortunate. I do recall trying to share some of these theories with people like my parents or others in my background and sometimes getting the response, “it’s just a bunch of talk.” It really made me step back and think about who gets access to education and who does not. All of this is likely always playing into my poems. There were other incidents at said school that unfortunately just affected me a lot—I remember one student telling me – (precursor footnote: I had three part time jobs—dog walking, day care, and working on campus at the library)—that she really couldn’t see how I was working on my thesis if I had part time jobs. I remember looking at this person and thinking, you just don’t get it, do you? It’s what many people in this country have to go through. I was just floored and it actually made me cry and made me super mad. This was someone who said nonchalantly that she was majoring in some kind of literary theory subset that I had no clue about.
So yes, when you get to the poem “Dear …. Those Who Don’t Know Don’t Know”—and there’s a line saying that if you go to college it would mean that you would know more than other people, and besides, you people don’t know you should go—that was echoing some of these sentiments mixed in with mine when I was in that Sociology class. Why don’t the poor and working class go to college more or complete it? (as echoed by the earlier Sociology class discussion that so upset me). It’s obviously financial challenges. It’s also a lineage of what’s been done in one family, as my parents didn’t go to college. I was on my own with figuring it out. I may be an extreme example in all of this and as I said, I agree with the bigger picture historical footnote you outlined earlier about class and classic rock, etc. But when you get into different higher economic class interaction sometimes those things are flipped even more upside down. I grew up in a poor and working class area on the border of Mexico which was one of the five poorest counties in the nation when Gloria Anzaldua wrote it about in her landmark multi-genre book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. A lot of us listened to classic rock or heavy metal in that area. I have written some of these works invoking class because the upper classes in these environments have made fun of these types of music. I don’t really sit down and think, “I’m going to write about class structure, etc.” but this is what is behind it.
I also remember that time in that Sociology class where we had to do a paper on a community but I decided to critique a book on how a community was represented in a study by the Ford Foundation, in my hometown, as more of “specimens” and it really upset me. When I got this paper back it was filled with so much red I thought this guy bled his hands all over it. He didn’t get it that it could be legitimate to critique how the sociologists condescended to their subjects. It was that kind of all-knowing wording and phrasing that we probably associate with 1950s educational film voiceovers. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, this is something that got funded to say this?
It can be hard to describe all of this because some of what I’m describing happens in certain communities. I have found some other writings that have shared things that I have been able to connect with. Some of Dorothy Allison’s work on class and classism has been especially helpful and articulates the complexities of these areas. After going through all of these things and more, I read a great quote by Kit Yuen Quan in an essay in the book Haciendo Caras: Making Face, Making Soul which really exemplified how I felt: “If I want to say I’m working class I should be able to say I’m working class without having to read and quote Marx.” That is the sentiment with all of the feeling in this question. It’s interesting responding so much to this because while I don’t always sit down and explain it, it probably subconsciously drives what I write.
TF: What horrendous snobbery you had to deal with in college on an ongoing basis! Two kinds of “education” in the classroom and also out.
Let’s keep going with the discussion of class by considering its relation to geography: the borough in which you live, Queens. And let’s begin with Long Island City. You are the only poet I know of who has named my workplace of the last 34 years in a poem, as well as naming my predominantly working class “clients”:
and that’s turning the corner with your toe pointed up, a tip toe beyond the crack, a sound in your head that won’t stop, a happy day with the neon pink light looking pink through the fog, the diner everyone who’s only someone in the trucking industry goes to, they go into the Blue Sky Diner with verve, as do the students from LaGuardia Community College, as do the taxi drivers beneath the Queensboro Bridge, it was what you wouldn’t say, what you should’ve said, what you should always say all along don’t forget about your verve…. (“You just go on your verve”)
The sentence goes on for more than twice as long; it’s a one-sentence prose poem that later alludes to Sunnyside, a Queens neighborhood adjacent to Long Island City, and to the superfund site in Long Island City called Newtown Creek, which you render as “Newtown Cree(a)k,” and Pulaski Bridge. The note that sits on the top right of the page reads:
From: After frank o’hara’s personism no longer between two pages series: Each title is a phrase from his essay: this first poem was supposed to be nerve but I misread it as verve and so there ya go.
Frank O’Hara was preoccupied with the upper class, upper middle class, and “Bohemian” ambience of Manhattan island and the Hamptons. I don’t recall if the Gooch biography mentions that he ever set foot in Queens. Nevertheless, as a gay poet who was anything but closeted in the McCarthy era and the early sixties, as a New York School poet challenging old formalist orthodoxies, and as an advocate for abstract expressionism against aesthetic philistines, O’Hara brought a lot of “nerve” and “verve” to his audience and his multiple communities.
Your “misreading” seems to me to be a re-reading, an intentional displacement of what in Yiddish New Yorkese is called chutzpah, with an idea of energy and life-force possessed by hard working truckers, taxi drivers, and (frequently) first-generation college students. “It [the affirmation of naming] was what you”—poets who don’t see much representation of Queens or its people in mainstream and canonical poetry—“should’ve said,” etc. The irony of “everyone who’s only someone in… trucking” as a departure from the usual elitist cliché about everyone who is anyone being in a place speaks to this issue, too. Yes, so many LaGuardia students have the verve to push past formidable obstacles as they achieve higher education and apparently, with it, in many cases, class mobility without acquisition of nouveau snobbery. I really appreciate your recognition of them in this prose poem. Another aspect of your text is a clear sense of the economic vulnerability of working class people: “… the thousands who will replace you at your photo-processing job.”
Actually, I walked by the site of the Blue Sky Diner, whose former “neon pink light” is off, last week: no business resides there.
What is your sense of how you intend to foreground class in Long Island City, Queens in “You just go on your verve,” and to utilize allusions to Frank O’Hara in the process? Do these intentions connect with such poems about New York City and class as “What you got” and “New old list: notes on moving to, having moved to, NYC”?
SG: Well, as a poet of the space/place/urban area around us, in addition to experimentation with language, I’m also interested in landscape and the meaning of the landscape to different individuals and communities. I don’t really set out and say, “I’m going to write a poem about this part of the city today” but I do take notes like many poets do of signage, things I see, thoughts I have when passing through a certain area, moods and tones and “feels” of such corners and areas and how they might give me deja vu or nostalgia or some other kind of feeling.
With the Blue Sky Diner/O’Hara/”you just go on your verve” piece, I had been trying to ride my bike from Flushing to the East Village, to my job at the time and always wondered about the Blue Sky Diner. You never heard about it. It was never empty as there was always someone in there, but it never seemed to be full either. Passing by and seeing how it was set up right against the Sunnyside train yards almost like it was going to fall in made me wonder about it. It’s true, there’s enormous big blue sky right there, just right there due to the train yards, and yet you’d never hear about it. I ended up making a film about it, a character study of the diner. The back of the diner said Hunters Point Restaurant, in rainbow colors, an earlier incarnation. I kept wondering who are the regulars. After going by it and one time reading in the paper, I found out it was those in the nearby trucking industries and those working at the Fresh Direct warehouse—the only time I saw it in print anywhere.
I may have had that misread line in my head, just stuck there, taking a bike ride. “You just go on your verve.” And it made me think of the movement that makes the city, and also the little pockets of the city that don’t get the same amount of attention as other parts of the city. You know over here in Queens a lot of things happen so that things can go smoothly in that all-important island across the river. Somehow that kind of sentiment came to me in poetic kinds of lines. The urban dance of all pieces that make things go, but not necessarily the most famous places. I was always enthralled by that corner. The big blue sky and the words blue sky running up against it. It seemed surreal sometimes. There was a bar nearly attached to the space, but I never got to go in. For a while the diner became a more upscale place and now I don’t think it’s anything, but I don’t do that bike ride anymore. Riding my bike that far led me to see different parts of the city that you can’t see on the 7 train or LIRR from Flushing to Penn or in a car, or even on short walks on the train to your destination.
Getting more to your question, these lesser-seen pockets of the city in terms of how this city is presented to the world, are really the ones that make a lot of the heavy lifting go. The environments and areas of such places have an eeriness sometimes because they are industrial and you have to remind yourself where they are. That undercurrent of the city has always both enthralled and mystified me and of course it has to do with class because the individuals I am speaking about are more of a working class or poorer class. Perhaps through titling with O’Hara, it brought together two things that normally would not be seen together. I have read O’Hara but not as much as maybe some would expect. I do know he was obsessed with what you say and I was aware of that and at times perhaps didn’t always share the same obsessions. Maybe it was a mild subconscious protest of showcasing people and areas that might have not turned up in his poems. I probably haven’t read enough to say, but maybe that might be something.
I think there’s probably something connected in terms of the other poems you have highlighted—the ones that reference the city more like “What you got” and “New old list.” The first poem is somewhat of a chronicle of a certain neighborhood I had worked in for years and the snippets of routine life I would see—some making sense and some not, in the conventional terms, but that’s New York as we would say. Yes, it starts with a quote from the New York Times that I actually read from “Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York” blog—“every city gets what it admires, will pay for and ultimately deserves…” (from the ’60s). And that made me think, with the way affordability is going (way down? despite DeBlaz’s (as the Post would abbreviate) efforts) what does would it mean to ask how much you paid for your city? Is there a way to answer that at all? That poem has lines of observation coupled with philosophical moments that those observations lead to. It comes back to wondering how the city works like it does. It is like poetry, as E.B. White famously said in his essay “Here is New York.” Some rhymes, some clashes, but in the end it goes together.
Class does make its way into the above poem and “New old list” because it’s so taboo to talk about or I just subconsciously write with it in there. Of course I’m concerned about it and it’s just something that makes its way into the poems at times. “New old list” was about the stereotypes and lesser-known truths of moving to New York with some personal anecdotes mixed in. It’s true many people said to me “Archie Bunker” when they heard I was moving to Flushing, which was the first place I lived in NYC through someone who knew of an apartment opening. I did watch that TV show as a little kid and liked it but didn’t get any of the adult jokes. There was something about the dynamics though that was like my family and I didn’t know at the time the bigger picture issues being played out in the show on class, race and gay issues, until way way later. Apparently Bunker was set here in Flushing according to some accounts, but I found out later it’s more Corona or Elmhurst. But I thought of course, like anyone would, how ironic it was that I was moving to New York to escape the Archie Bunker kind of mindset and here’s where I end up. I joke about it but I also say it means you can’t ever really escape your class. That does permeate some of my writings. Sure you can be part of the art world, that is often a higher class, but your class will always be with you.
While I’m never sitting down saying, yeah, I’m gonna write some working class poetry, and I’m going to be class war this, and Marxist that… it just mixes in—I like mixing in experimentation with class and being unpredictable in that way. I don’t know of a lot of poets who do it, but there are some that do. I don’t think it’s something that is always expected with poetry. And when it happens I think it’s interesting. Maybe it has to do with that I was not brought up in a poetry-oriented household and who knows, this is one way to mix it up in the poetry now? In a reverse kind of way? Who knows…
TF: I didn’t realize that you made a film about the Blue Sky Diner. The Afterword to Shorthand and Electric Language Stars is Ariel Goldberg’s essay on your films, and this is followed by your Filmography. Goldberg’s essay doesn’t explore the relation between your work in poetry and cinema, except perhaps to indicate common themes and the poetic qualities of your films. But the fact that this book is replete with stills from your films, beginning with the front cover and ending with the image above the blurbs on the back cover, must be important. Do you have any guidance for readers about how to approach connections (and perhaps also disjunctions) between the verbal texts and the visuals?
SG: Yeah, I was worried about the Blue Sky Diner disappearing but, unlike my other films, I didn’t really have any “intel” about its forthcoming closure. Often you’ll read something in the paper, on a blog, and I’ll go film the place before it’s gone. But the Blue Sky Diner was different. I just had a sixth sense. Something about that grey blue sky in the winter when I filmed it, riding my bike from Flushing to borderline Long Island City/Sunnyside, with frozen hands. And yet it was not new, but was like it had been there forever. And yet I didn’t always see people in there, but it had that feeling “the song remains the same” to it. The name of the diner was just poetry with the sky and all the semi-trucks. There were no impassioned articles like those about B&H’s temporary closure or Second Ave. Deli closing and moving or DeRoberti’s just closing up shop because the owners wanted to. That made it all the more sorrowful. So that diner made its way into a film and a poem.
And so film stills have made their way into the book. I think my way of “seeing”—to shortcut/Cliffsnotes/translate—Ted Berrigan and Stan Brakhage is somehow mixed with a “seeing” that is both seeing words and filmic images as poetic, somehow resulting in poetry with text and filmic pictures. Poetry can be made with text or the moving celluloid (or pixels). I think they go hand in hand. I’m often drawn to “wordage” in the city that somehow speaks something else if you slow down and just look at it. And like, what happened? A wrangled mangled neon letter B somehow takes on some other meaning, like a poem. A cut off sign “The Algorithm Killed” somehow sounds ominous. Sometimes those images don’t make it into poems and instead are films, yet they do overlap. By including the film stills it may give the reader/viewer some sense of the magic of what is seen, and often what inspires to be written and see the images as complementary to the texts. You know how you see a sign like “Get your drink on” and there’s something about it frozen out of context. A Coney Island bar sign, seen in winter, with palm trees. There’s something about that. In my poems language is played with and utilizes, often what might be construed as more colloquial speech, but I’m obsessed with the poetry and underlying philosophy of that speech. Sometimes it’s lifted and sampled from signage or the paper. I read a line somewhere once, like how the New York Times calls up a relative after someone has committed a crime and someone said, “I’m just an old person here living” and hung up. There’s something about that that made me pause. What does that mean? We know what it means but something about the “just here living” makes me wonder.
Perhaps the textual/visual images give clues to a way of seeing that gives way to a way of writing that might usher the reader into my world of creating and maybe “see” more of where the writing is “coming from”—to use another of those colloquial phrases.
Perhaps again, if the reader sees the images, they can see maybe how I might be inspired to start a poem from something so odd, yet so everyday—that’s where it’s at. What do we call that—something that is so familiar that when isolated it becomes odd, but then pushes a creative person to write something about it? We’ve got all those books about the “everyday” that could shed some light on this and we’ve got some films and poems too to sneak in some kind of unexpected “everyday” analysis of the unexpected “everyday,” to probably be maddeningly in my explanation to some. The truth in terms of creativity is sometimes there is no perfect way to explain it. Although, we all know that don’ really fly what with the importance of artists statements, grant applications and such. But is there ever an acceptable answer of a certain magic in actuality, in the everyday? Probably not in the age of professionalism of artists. I mean we all know this. But sometimes I revert to a time when long long ago I thought I wanted to attend graduate school (and I did many many years later for more— yes—having to make money reasons, though creativity too) and I was so annoyed with the artistic statements and such, I ditched trying to apply and ended up writing a manifesto called “State Mint” about being in some minted state where I’ll state it with the mint of my breath …
But in the end I do hope the images provide clues to a way of seeing that might lead someone to see something—whether the image, text or their next walk or bike ride—in a way they never had before and they have some kind of revelation, the good kind, the kind with those eerily white lighted days where the sun peeks out in that white rose kind of color and for a moment, you think you have the answer.
TF: It’s interesting that stills of a cloudy but seemingly agitated (actress) Kristy McNichol stare across at the prose poem “What is lost in the cloud is remembering how to forget,” which ends with the last eight words of the title. If McNichol’s character is agitated there, it could be because she is confronted by a painful memory that she is struggling to remember how to forget. Forgetting is an activity that requires its opposite.
In an earlier response about music, you noted that your hearing loss has influenced some of the content in this book. In “Everything had an exclamation point,” the relation of the measurement of hearing and speech and kinesis to overall perception of environmental stimuli is raised in a group of sentences: “We are showing these pitch levels. A waiter presses onto the edge of the floor. Molecules moving like couples in nightclubs. ‘If no one is there to hear it, will there be a sound?’ Take up the language now. I am sorry I can do nothing. A vowel is a sound produced by the unimpeded passage of the breath. There are some words that have outlines of their own.” A few sentences later, we read a telling fragment: “The transmission of knowledge is not completely.” Such issues of hearing are taken up a bit later on three successive pages: “Somebody said the riffs sounded like metal,” the last two in the trio “from the Myopia-Articulation mini-mini series,” and “your control of the lower registers is flawless.” How would you characterize your engagement with or interrogation of the significance of hearing and not hearing?
SG: That’s a prescient observation about the McNichol placement and the poem—I love how you note she is struggling to remember how to forget. If you may recall, that is a film frame from the late ’70s or early ’80s film Little Darlings, which she starred in with Tatum O’Neal. And like many lesbians, I always thought she was queer. Of course when that movie came out, I was too little to understand why I was not allowed to watch it—it was always this risqué film. Later, much later, as an adult and being aware of queer icons, including THE McNichol, I found that film once and for all on VHS at Blockbuster and was so surprised by the latent/under-the-surface queer cues between the two female leads, whether it was intended or not. I ended up making a film called “Kristy” which was trying to dive deep beneath the layers of Kristy’s seeming identities to the public and yet some of her characters just seemed to belie some of her own possible traits. Putting Kristy’s face in slow-mo in that film—where she leaves for a summer camp and there’s a plot line a kind race to see which girl loses her virginity first—somehow sort of melded with public speculation of Kristy’s real identity. By working with layers of—first, the 35mm film, then the VHS, then shooting it off the screen with Super 8, then processing it then transferring to analog video, then digitizing—it was all purposeful creating the effects of her under those layers of interpretation we might have laid into her.
What you’ve noticed—her placement opposite the poem of “what is lost in the cloud is remembering how to forget” is very appropriate as there’s so much we could remember and forget about McNichol—the years when she didn’t come out—when she was more into Christianity and then when she finally came out about 5-7 years ago—it was a collective sigh of dykes everywhere: we knew. But in that film where those frames are taken from, it was a pained plot line with her being a working-class girl with a single mom, playing opposite a much wealthier girl. Something registered in those facial expressions—Kristy the character in that film trying not to remember her class; Kristy the real Kristy, maybe suppressing her sexuality? And online, with everything there forever, with the “cloud”—we forget how to forget—it’s all saved forever to see. We still see those pained years of Kristy for so long and yet, a blip in the last few years of what we always knew. Is it possible to remember how to forget?
Moving from this, a segue to the next part of your question, it may be of note here to suggest that those clips of Kristy were really honing in on her face in a very close up-micro kind of way. As one with a hearing loss, I super read people’s faces maybe more than the average person to compensate for the pitches that are harder to hear. That does lead to thinking about how sometimes hearing and sound make their ways into my poems. I think organically I’m drawn to how meaning is meant? said? enforced? stated? even when one has a hearing loss. How does that meaning get clearer or muddled or tricky? Of course I am intrigued by sound because I have to work so hard to hear it and as many may not know, I’m a big music fan and have made sound art and composed original songs, etc., all things that go against the stereotype of the “hearing impaired,” a phrase I hate but it has to be used. As a kid I always just said hearing problem and later I realized maybe I shouldn’t be so negative. I also mistakenly get called deaf, which sometimes frustrates me because I am not 100% deaf. Maybe sub-currents rumbling of these things make their way into some phrases I collect and write about philosophical undertones of hearing. What does it mean for a riff to sound like metal? Of course I went the other way with it (a partial quote from a New York Times music critic) and my brain immediately saw all the metal I was seeing in Sunnyside/Long Island City when I was riding my bike to work for a short period of time. Somehow those phrases get flipped. Yes, I like to play with phrases that suggest “correct” ways of hearing and what it means to hear and “read” people in connection with that.
With the quotes you’ve collected above, I was intrigued by reading about how vowels are really created. I did have speech therapy as a kid and had forgotten all those lessons in terms of definitions. When writing poems that confront meaning and speech, sometimes those definitions appear out of context. And do they help at all? Really? Later in life when I realized I heard less of high pitches, I became aware of this in the most unexpected way. I was down working in an office near the Seaport and after a hard day at work in terms of people relations I went to the lesser-known White Horse Tavern down there, you know, not the famous one where you-know-who poet drank to death, supposedly. And so I was just so annoyed that day, I looked at the jukebox at 5pm in this early evening and picked the most familiar songs and old songs I was aware of since the new mainstream stuff is not what I listen to. So I picked this one band that was most famous in the mid ’90s and I remember playing them at the radio station at a college where I was a DJ, a band I didn’t think a whole lot about though I liked some of the famous songs, and this singer of course has a super low voice. And all of the sudden I realized how pronounced it was and realized, oh, my hearing has gotten worse, probably from the subway since I had only lived in NYC for about two years at that point. So here I am sitting in this second floor dive, looking out a cloudy window, listening to a grunge era stadium rock champion song that makes me realize I’m hearing less because this voice is so so clear and deep. It was mini-freakout mode in the most unlikely of contexts and places. And so I went on a long internet trek of this singer and band, finding the best songs since the voice was so low, in a Deadhead way, the best versions, and I found a story that his voice was so low that the sound man at this one show, maybe CBGBs, was confounded and couldn’t deal with it on the sound board. And I was like, whoa, what can that mean to have a voice so low it doesn’t register on the soundboard? Literally and figuratively? To be that deep in the lower registers? There was something mysterious about that and so it became a poem. Registers made me think of cash registers with their high pitches and the opposite of this golden baritone voice, and that became part of it.
I am not writing these things to have the reader be, “oh, hearing impaired person writing about sound, I’m going to learn something from this” (sigh). It’s actually more of a philosophical inquisition into how sound does what it does—I work so intuitively that I can’t always place the precise road signs for the hows and whys of how the words and sentences work. Of course as someone with a hearing loss who relies more so on lower registers, I am intrigued by someone whose “control of the lower registers is flawless.” What would it mean to do be in control of such lower registers and how? That’s what I’d love to know. Would it be under the ocean? Only for dolphins to hear? The phrase itself mystifies and in my work, I’m diving into that mystifying and seeing if it pries open. And if it does, between me and the reader, what have we done?
TF: Now cash registers are so computerized that they don’t need to have a high pitch. At the grocery store a few days ago, I didn’t notice the sound that the cash register makes when it opens or closes.
If a bass player uses the lowest notes on the bass, perhaps this aspect of the music registers with most listeners kinesthetically rather than in an auditory way.
Having finished Shorthand and Electric Language Stars pretty recently, do you have a sense of what you want to explore in your next poetic project? And might it be more of a continuation or departure from what you’ve done recently?
SG: Well, there might be both a departure and continuation and perhaps arrival. I will in some ways be departing from Shorthand… in the sense that I would like to work on a series in the way I did with my earlier chapbook, “I Thought You Said It Was Sound/How Does That Sound” on Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs. At that time, that chapbook came about when I was trying to find time to write in a particularly challenging schedule. I had just read an interview/feature with the poet Marie Ponsot, who said (when she was discussing balancing being a parent and a poet) that “you always have 10 minutes.” I stopped in my tracks and read that again. And I got it. I literally took that to heart and scheduled 10 minutes right before I went to sleep to make myself write something under the rubric of a type of phrase with the word sound in it—which had recently appeared in my notebook—“under the sound.” What would it mean to be “under the sound” exactly? So a short prose poem came of that. Then the next day “Around the sound.” Well, how would we visualize that? And what does it mean? And for about two weeks, the core of those poems came out and later were edited a bit. But they were created in a bit of an awake, near sleep kind of state.
I have a similar idea with the phrase “under the surface.” What exactly does that mean? How do we get there? Who directs us to it? Who else is there? Other phrases or sequences will transpire with this phrase. There may be images involved or it may be a chapbook-size type of series.
I’m also working on a series I started some time ago, but continuing with and a bit re-jumpstarted since one in this series was just published by No, Dear (thanks No, Dear!). I have always liked sudden or flash fiction tinged with poetics and have a series that I have not shown many people that dives into a fragile or small or unknown time frame, often in the time of teenagerdom or times in smaller places, smaller towns, some of which I’ve spent time in my life in. And they are postcards mixed with the old regular 8 film of the ’50s home movies and the glare of uncomfortable truth—that is what these little sudden-flash-fiction-poems things are… They work differently than a poem, but also differently than fiction which I’m really really really picky about and never really find a lot of fiction I like (I did like Lucia Berlin’s recently re-discovered works that were just republished. I just bought one of her older books on Black Sparrow at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn). Somehow in the small depths of this block of text what really needs to happen, happens, and leaves on you a plane, of what just happened—like how it is every day—you see moments that pass you by—momentarily philosophical—you know something just “happened” there, but what was it? And you blink your eyes and the situation is gone, but for a moment there’s a golden lighted glimmer of recognition of time passing and while you blinked you almost missed, it, but not really and it saved itself in your “back of your mind…” I hope to dive deeper in that “back of our mind…”
Thomas Fink was born in New York City in 1954. He is the author of seven books of poetry, including most recently Peace Conference (Marsh Hawk Press, 2011), Clarity and Other Poems (Marsh Hawk Press, 2008), and a book of collaborative poetry with Maya Diablo Mason, Autopsy Turvy (Meritage Press, 2010). A Different Sense of Power: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth Century Poetry (FDU Press, 2001) is his most recent book of criticism, and in 2007, he co-edited Burning Interiors: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics (FDU Press). His work has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2007, and his paintings hang in various collections. Fink is a Professor of English at CUNY-LaGuardia, and lives in New York City.
Poet-filmmaker Stephanie Gray is the author of Shorthand and Electric Language Stars and I Thought You Said It Was Sound/How Does That Sound? (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs 2015, 2012); A Country Road Going Back in Your Direction (Argos Books, 2015); Place your orders now! (Belladonna*, 2014); and Heart Stoner Bingo (Straw Gate Books, 2007). Her super 8 films were the subject of a 2015 Anthology Film Archives retrospective, and she often reads live with her films. Shorthand and Electric Language Stars is a finalist for a 2016 Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry.