Dikembe Press authors Julie Kantor and Jesse Nathan recently had a conversation. The contents of said conversation are below. Among other things, they discuss types of landscapes, the need to write, Google, and America. This conversation speaks to what drew us to their work, so we are excited to share it.
Jesse Nathan: How do you not get sad every day?
Julie Kantor: Oh, I’m sad every day. Sad is resting position. It’s probably not good to think that anyone who is happy is faking it. And I think that’s what I might think now that we’re getting down to it.
JN: Do you read books?
JK: I read a ton. Non-stop reading.
JN: The act of reading a book tends to dissipate sadness for me, no matter how sad whatever I’m reading is. Screens less so, but I guess reading is reading. But with varied attention. Hierarchies of attention.
JK: Do you have something you read over and over to fend the sadness off?
JN: Rereading is the reading I really love. Reading internet articles makes me feel panic. Wikipedia makes me feel drunk. Slow-brained, but better informed.
JK: I am skeptical of all things internet-related, the whole of it. It makes me feel crazy.
JN: It approaches the infinity end of the spectrum, and the human brain—mine anyway—approaches the highly finite end. And I dislike how the internet privileges outwardness.
JK: Time becomes nothing.
JN: I have to forget about most things in order to be functional and present, in an everyday sense. To write anything. To read anything well. Focus asks me for some temporary amnesia, or blinders, or something. Your chapbook, by the way, pulled me right in, I forgot myself.
JK: Did it ever make you tired?
JN: Actually there were certain poems that made me feel some form of internal acceleration, almost the opposite of tired.
JK: I’m pretty obsessed with the way you deal with time in your chapbook. It becomes a force, acknowledged as a force, corporeal, as if it’s always been but never once acknowledged before the moment. Before that exact moment, and in the moment, time becomes other things, possesses different agencies.
JN: Time has corners and caves and boulevards and arms. One way I conceive of poetry, I think, is as the art of time. More so even than music. Because poetry, in one sense, is silent. And meanwhile I can’t remember if I’m in the future or the past. The present is a fuse, says my friend Allan Peterson.
JK: I felt that intensely when reading your book, the simultaneity of time. I wrote in my notes, “all times are concurrent, we are w/in and w/out time at all times.”
JN: Have you ever felt particularly at home in a landscape?
JK: I never feel like I’m home. It’s something I’m always striving toward, but never achieve. I just purchased a home and I’m trying to come to terms with it. It feels like I live against it, instead of inside of it.
JN: What kind of setting does your mind cast, by default, when you start to write? I guess there’s a more pretentious way to ask the question: What is the landscape of your imagination?
JK: My setting is a replication of reality, but a reality that’s being dug out, that doesn’t have a bottom. What is yours?
JN: The prairie. Probably the fields around the farm I grew up on. A land of wheat fields. Pastures. Enormous sky. That’s where I begin, unless I’m beginning somewhere else, if that makes any sense. Poems are always beginning. Do you think they ever finish?
JK: They are the process. I never see a poem as an end. I have the worst writing habits. If a poem doesn’t come quick, and right, it’s a goner.
JN: Your poems seem like anti-thing poems, they resist objectifying beautifully. They are all approach.
JK: To be gentle, you are present without having to be present, without having to say, “I am here and here I am.” To be gentle, you’ve already approached beauty. You’ve already found it. If I knew something to be sure, if I were gentle, I wouldn’t be writing. There is always the awareness that the body is in a place. That the mind always starts from somewhere. That there are things pushing from within and up against, and all this time, in all this time. There are distances and proximities not to be escaped.
JN: Do you try to write poems? I mean, do you sit down and say, I will write a poem?
JK: I never sit down and say I will write. I need to write, the need dictates.
JN: Writing poetry seems like a process that can’t brook willpower, that overthrows it. The will gets harnessed, at its best, as the consciousness operating the apertures through which the unconscious moves. The better poems seem to overtake me, from inside me. And my job is to not let myself not let them out. I sometimes worry, though.
JK: What about?
JN: That the composition process is so volatile, that it has its way with me, instead of the other way around, that the poet in me is some kind of outlaw who holds up the rest of me, makes off with the money, and spends it on a bender through the Wild West. With the law hunting him the whole time. I exaggerate. But I like it when poems sometimes come from places of everyday permission in my life, not gunslinger dramatics. I like it when I sit down at some appointed hour and wait, and lo, something happens. But mostly it doesn’t work that way.
JK: I think of it as magic. And magic is outlaw. As it should be.
JN: I always basically wanted to be a magician. There’s a magic shop near my house called Misdirections. The guy who runs it is skeptical of everyone. For a while he directed me to the easy tricks, and the knick-knacks and the pranks. You have to convince him you’re a real magician before he’ll sell you the crazy stuff.
JK: Not many people are serious about magic. I get him.
JN: He showed me the trick where an entire book goes blank. It suddenly loses all its words and images.
JK: What did you feel after seeing it?
JN: Unconvinced. But I liked his attitude. I wanted to see the hats that can house birds, the boxes for cutting people in half.
JK: Even after I learn how they fake those tricks, I never remember. I know they aren’t real, but there’s still awe because I can’t remember how it’s rigged. Words have a similar effect on me sometimes.
JN: Language is really my only homeland.
JK: I never feel quite right with it.
JN: It is an island. A prairie on an island.
JK: Music is my home.
JN: It’s true that words are woefully inadequate and tricky vessels most of the time. They make a fool out of me. Words—the right word—it’s never the right word.
JK: I still believe in saying the right word, though.
JN: Oh hell yes.
JK: I still believe in the magic of a line. That I will write this line, and then you will read it, and you will know you are home, but you’ve never been there before, might never again.
JN: Was there a time in your life when you didn’t?
JK: No, never a time when I didn’t. Even if I couldn’t get there. Can I ask you, how long did it take to write your chapbook?
JN: The oldest line in Cloud 9 is around ten years old. The newest poem, the title piece, I wrote for this selection itself, not that long ago.
JK: I wrote LAND in a year. Then didn’t write a poem for two and a half years.
JN: Years go by, and then a moment of synthesis. The actual writing is just a few seconds sometimes, but I suppose you’ve actually been “writing” the lines in some deep part of your brain for who knows how long.
JK: As if all that time they were in you, moving around. Yes. What kind of relationship do you have with America?
JN: It’s a pretty good idea. It disappoints. It befuddles. America is the result of a dream.
JK: I always warn my students that American Studies is depressing and will make the world seems worse, even if you don’t think it’s possible to think it’s worse: Cloud 9.
JN: America plundered this land, plundered the black body, plundered the people who were already here. Somehow I hold onto the idea that there’s something singular about this thing we’re trying here, this long experiment, something singular and pure that’s buried in those layers of brutality, something both dangerous and innocent. I mean this sense that you might be able to change your fate. That birth may not be destiny, though of course it has been and is for all those held outside the dream.
JK: You are attuned to the slipperiness.
JN: There’s no escaping it, even if you wanted to. I guess I am so weary of America that I think I must love it. It wears me out like a lover. Does that make any sense?
JK: It’s exactly how I feel. Do you think living in San Francisco has anything to do with this, in light of its growing inequalities, the way the dream is so intense and present, and simultaneously so absent?
JN: I’ve been moving further and further west to afford the rents. Soon I’ll be living just off Ocean Beach, in a little blue boat. Or under a bower in the park. And that’s not a joke for so many people already.
JK: Google scares the shit out of me.
JN: Some of their employees travel in these ominous unmarked behemoths, careering around the city, squatting in public transit stops. Tinted windows. Ick. It’s such a beautiful city, so full of contradiction and paradox, which is cliché to say at this point. The city is breaking! The city is alive and well! I live by Golden Gate Park, and I am out there wandering around as much as possible, loving the smell of sea air, the shapes of the trees, the sweet cold fog, the people doing their different things. But one day you may truly have to be a millionaire to live anywhere in these precincts, or have to have started renting in 1985, with the benefit of rent control.
JK: The new American City. Not for the poor or working class anymore.
JN: Artists have an especially confusing relationship to all that. I feel artists have to be in a stance of reception. Receive the blows.
JK: I’m currently gentrifying East Austin. I try to be as conscious as I can with the little power I have. I am a consumer. My heart just sank. That never doesn’t make me sad.
JN: Your poems emanate a sense of complicity. There’s a feeling of How did we get here? How did it happen? Can we at least know what happened? It doesn’t feel like a wish for a history, but a wish for an emotional accounting, an understanding of what language led us here, led us like sleepwalkers through these dreams.
JK: Even when we are making choices, being individuals in a world where individuality rules all, there’s a denial, purposeful even, we engage to get through. The only thing that exists, that’s meaningful to me, is how we treat each other and the world around us.
JN: Who are the people in your poems? Who is that “we”?
JK: They’re partners. Somewhere in America, moving around.
JN: Sometimes your poetry seems to stand for the unseen, and therefore to see it, or to catch the afterimage of it, or the feeling of its having just been seen.
JK: Witness. That these things are seen, that someone’s eyes are seeing them.
JN: You witness, but you also sing. Is witness without song just … information? Maybe sad information? More sad information. Inflammation.
JK: Yes! In the afterspace where there are only symptoms, and the symptoms are misleading. But there’s song there. The songs hold the affects that hold the echoes, which are the frequencies of witness.
Julie Kantor is a PhD student in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin where she works on affect, cosmetic procedure, and reality television. Her poetry has been published in Boston Review, A Public Space, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal and elsewhere. Her chapbook, LAND, was published by Dikembe Press in September 2015. Her work is being translated into Ukranian for a new modern American poetry anthology.
Jesse Nathan’s poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, jubilat, and elsewhere.