Caleb Beckwith: I’m eager to dive into individual poems from your new collection, I Love It Though (Nightboat 2017), but I thought it might be helpful to open our conversation with some reflections on the genre and conventions of book-length poetry publications. I think we’d all agree that poetry is not measured in volume, but, nonetheless, we’d probably also agree that the book-length manuscript functions as the dominant unit of measure (not the line, poem, series, etc.) among many poets today. This decision makes a certain amount of sense; for example, the publication of I Love It Though is the occasion for this conversation between the two of us. However, I notice a tendency among many writers (myself included) to aspire towards the book-length benchmark at the expense of the work it contains: expanding projects that feed on brevity, sustaining prompts long after the writer tires of them, or simply instituting an organizing concept upon of series of poems that are, in truth, only yoked by the writer’s life.
I Love It Though seems different. Rather than changing its content to suit the book form, your book modifies the book-length form to fit its content—as if book-form were never more than an extension of content. At 5.5 x 6.75 inches, its dimensions are remarkably smaller than most book-length poetry collections, which tend to range from 6-7 x 8-9 inches. The abstract figures of this difference may seem negligible, but it results in approximately 20-25 pages worth of material spread out over the course of your book’s 112 pages, rather than vertically on the page. While I know that design decisions often lie with the publisher and book designer, I can’t stop thinking about how the formal dimensions of your book frame the poems inside.
Do you think of book-length publications as a sort of benchmark? Were you able to keep the idea out of your mind when composing I Love It Though? How about about when writing in general? And has anything changed for you in this regard after the publication of your fist book, Here Come the Warm Jets (City Lights 2013)?
Alli Warren: It’s nice to talk with you, Caleb, thanks for launching this thing.
To be honest, it didn’t really occur to me that a smaller book format would mean poems that were a single page in manuscript form would be made to extend over a series of pages in printed book form. I wonder if this extension helps to create a more contemplative reading experience by not allowing the poem to be eaten up by a quick scan of the eyes over the page? But any of us could probably invent any number of theories about the relationship between design, form, and content, and I’m sure many grad students are working on that very thing right now! I’m sure they would have more to say about this than I do.
The physical form of I Love It Though was my request to Nightboat, and I’m grateful they were flexible and generous enough to make it happen (shout out to designer Margaret Tedesco!). I’ve always loved the shape of the City Lights Pocket Poets Series, and those 33 ⅓ books – they feel welcoming and intimate. I don’t have a hard and fast rule about it, but I enjoy being able to hold the whole of a book in my two hands, to envelop and cradle it, so that the book feels like part of my body, rather than an object I have to awkwardly approach and manage. I know I’m not spending uniterrupted hours reading poetry books under lamplight at hardy oak library tables, and I assume the same is true for most, so the portability is adaptive – one can read a book like this one-handed on a crowded subway car. Maybe I like small books simply because I’m an uncoordinated commuter?
As to your question about the publication benchmark, I’ve never written towards that. I wonder if this will change if I publish more books more consistently? While writing the poems that became my first two published books, I wasn’t thinking about how the poems might fit into a larger book project, I was engaged in writing itself, which as you know can be a slow and difficult process – why add publication pressure to the mix? I typically work in terms of individual poems, rather than larger projects, and I’m not always sure how it is that I write poems, or how they happen, or what to do to make them happen. I try to focus my energy on being receptive and attentive, on waiting and working and listening, and then editing and reworking and listening some more. I’m fearful or superstitious that if I think too much or much at all about where the poems belong in a larger series or conceptual frame or, worst of all, whether and when and where the poems will be published, I won’t be able to write at all. This way of producing writing does have its faults. When asked what I’m working on, I can only ever say, “Oh, you know, some poems, I have five or six new poems,” or, “I wrote a poem yesterday morning,” or whatever. It’s probably more conversationally interesting to be able to refer to a coherent project and to have some conceptual frame around it. So I apologize to my friends who ask me this question and find themselves utterly bored by my answers. I do hope someday to be more self-directed in my writing process, to not have to sit around and wait for the muses to visit. But until then, I don’t want to interfere with my writing process. Writing and publishing are very distinct modes for me. I know that I’m lucky to have two full-length books and numerous chapbooks published by great presses supported by generous people who have thanklessly given their time and resourcess to produce and promote my work – for that I am really grateful. But I’m pretty avoidant when it comes to publishing—I try to think as little about it as possible.
That said, I did notice a change after my first full-length book was published the week I turned 30 years old. I’d spent my 20s living a poetically luxurious life unconcerned with the pressures of publication. I read, wrote, attended readings and talks, met poets old and young, danced and partied, and published poems and chapbooks when invited. There wasn’t this question of “the next book,” or the forthcoming new project, or that kind of market logic. But after Here Come the Warm Jets, those kinds of questions did start to become part of the conversation. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should have ideas and plans about my next book, or indeed that I would necessarily have a second book at all. There does seem to be an unexamined expectation that once one has published a perfect bound book length collection, one will unwaveringly continue on that trajectory. I guess it makes a kind of intuitive sense, and I know that asking after “the next book” indicates genuine interest in what someone is currently writing, and god knows poets need to support each other, but I do ponder at why we often fuse writing and publication in this way. I wonder if it was always this way…
CB: Your trailing off raises a question I think about a lot. I found my way into poetry when I encountered Jack Spicer’s then newly-released collected poems, My Vocabulary Did This to Me, as an undergraduate in college. To this day, I sometimes feel so influenced by that early obsession that nearly all book published before I was born feel complete to me, as if they were written and conceived in a single dictation. Clearly this is not the case, but it makes me wonder if this sense of completeness is part of the aura of the perfect bound poetry book—the way it augurs an object of historical importance.
Maybe it is because I know you personally that I feel capable of asking about the difference between writing and publishing that you mention. Though they avoid the flattening of striving, the poems in I Love It Though feel intentionally grouped and structured with a number of leitmotifs: recurring concerns, images, and sonic refrains. The politics of work, for instance, is a subject that I know you think about a great deal, and I read it all over these poems—most notably in “To the Fledglings.” Lines like: “I could demand the leisure to make love and laugh//I could cultivate a work centered identity.” Ears and mouths are occur even more often, as if the poems were themselves somehow their own authors and audience. And eroticism in a regular charge, from Whitmanic references to glory holes to more revolutionary aspirations: “lapping what starts/tonguing what parts/any possible other world than this.”
How do you see the poems in I Love It Though interacting as a collection? Since the book is not a “project” nor a collection with a single conceptual frame, what holds these poems together other than the perfect binding? I’ve made some tentative efforts toward charting the connections that I see, but I am curious to hear more about how they appear to you. Do the poems feel yoked to the events or preoccupations that you thought through during the time they were written? Or do they feel more other, mysterious gifts from the muses who visit while you sit waiting.
AW: While I am often at a loss to explain exactly how or why I wrote a poem, or to accomplish that grim task of trying to explain what a poem is “about,” it is in editing poems that I feel most like a writer conscious and directive of my choices. In order to enter an editing mind frame, to slice and cut, to radically alter, to have an editor’s unsentimental eye, I need some distance from the embodied and emotional experience of having written the poem. And I need to strike the delicate balance between working hard at getting the poem right, and not letting my rational mind suck all the energy and buoyancy from a poem. This balancing process, which incorporates the dynamism of time, space, and experience as it acts on me, is the structural backbone of the book.
Once I’d forgotten or forced myself to forget the setting and specifics of the origin stories of the individual poems, I could then organize a larger book, by feel and tone, without paying too much myopic attention to individual pieces. For me it helps at this stage to no longer really think of the poems as mine, as poems that I have written.
While I know that some (most?) people don’t read poetry books from front to back, cover to cover, I did structure I Love It Though as a kind of score, with something like an opening, a middle, maybe a bridge, and an ending. I did this by feel, and with an intuitively loose sense of structure, rather than by named sections or known chapters. I wanted resonance and disjunction between and throughout what you could call the book’s movements. I thought about the way one might structure a reading performance, or a comedy routine. I wanted to welcome a reader into the world of the book, to sort of coax them by opening up avenues, trails, pathways, possibilities. From there I aimed to expand scenes and settings (various forms, syntaxes, subjectivities, voices, tones), and then I tried to move towards an ending which would be informed and resonant with the variousness of what preceded it, hopefully leaving the reader energized rather than depleted. That said, there is an array of feeling and thought in each poem as there is across the book, so it doesn’t seem necessary to read the poems in any specific order to access the experience I was hoping to produce—it should be there in each poem discretely. The book’s order might be nothing other than my own internal monologue with myself, and likely not palpably apparent to a reader.
Of course, after publication a book takes on a life of its own. If I’m lucky I get to hear about and be affected by others’ reactions and interpretations and experiences with the poems. This is the second and much longer piece of the book’s ongoing life. Thankfully this public process turns what was a more stilted and individualistic relationship (in terms of authorship) at the point of composition and revision, into something charged, dynamic, and communal. Through others I discover in my writing nuances and possibilities and even problems I hadn’t dreamed of. I appreciate this kind of community construction of meaning through readership and dialogue. I should also admit that I have a horrible memory, and many of my poems have forgotten histories, so I don’t feel any righteous ownership or privileged relationship to what they may or may not be doing. I may disagree with an interpretation, but that’s just because I’m a scorpio, not because I believe there is one true interpretation.
In that light, Lauren Levin recently told me that I Love It Though makes her feel that the whole world has a body. I think that’s an insightful way to get at where I am writing from in this book, and a perspective that touches on the concerns and refrains you mention. And as I’ve said elsewhere, the poems in the book are attentive and attendant to desire, among intimates platonic and romantic, and to a larger socio-economic longing. The poems are curious about and struggle with how our everyday lives are implicated by and integral to our experiences as political, historical actors. The poems address the financialization of language and daily reality, and are attentive to how everyday experiences and fugitive acts of resistance color the larger material present, and the future.
CB: As an act of co-creation in this second life, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind delving into a specific poem from I Love It Though, the earlier-mentioned “To The Fledglings,” that I find central to the backbone you describe. This poem comes just after the midpoint of the volume, and I read it as a climax preceding the falling action of the final thirty pages. In addition to being the longest poem in the book, it also boasts some of the longest lines and makes the most regular use of non-justified lines (or “COMPOSITION BY FIELD”).
While it now feels super odd to make an Olson reference in relation to a contemporary, he functions as a helpful point of departure as I think through the always-provisional expansiveness of the “I” in that poem. Instead of a masculine/imperial expansiveness of Olson or Whitman, this “I” feels as though it rests in negation, not sublimation. The repetition of conditional “could” statements leads the reader through a number of possibilities—from the bewildering to the radical—before finding a space to comfortably assert its own (and seemingly the poem’s) desire. (“I want to rest in the self-same place where my fellows/strike a bunt against the night//I want to be in the lazing camp surrounded by unirrigated wilding/aligned with alliterative pattern and inordinate demand/confounding the anthropologist and the academic)
I read these lines as articulating a politics of desire for both the subject and the poem that runs throughout the entire collection: that desire can be a radical force and and of itself when it leads the subject to refuse the larger objectifying forces of work, objection, and capital for the affections of community, friendship, and connection. Likewise, the poem seems to find a similar agency in the space between an outright refusal of clear, objectified meaning and an impenetrable wall of sound or sensation. I’ll stop here, as I’ve done my best to paint with the broadest strokes possible.
How do you consider the significance of “To the Fledglings” in relation to the overall structure of I Love It Though? Is there another poem you consider more central or pivotal to the networks drawn across the entire book? And do you care to read this particular poem any more than I already have?
AW: “To The Fledglings” was written for Open Space’s third issue. Curators Claudia La Rocco and Gordon Faylor invited me to “meditate on such themes as letting go, the ephemeral, meditation, relaxation and ritual. The possibility of not doing, of being still, of resisting the oppressive seriousness of the canon.”
I wrote the poem procedurally by accident. I was happy to receive the invitation to contribute to Open Space, but the short deadline gave me some anxiety (I consider myself a slow writer who does not do well quickly producing towards pre-determined themes). One morning I woke up with the line “I could clean this shovel” on the tip of my dream brain. It was such a ridiculous sentiment that it rattled around with me throughout my morning routine and on into the office. I wrote it down in my little notebook and later that day realized it might be the start, or I could force it to be the start, of something for Open Space. So as to meet the deadline and to reproduce the feeling of the first line, for about a week I woke up an hour early, and before coffee and self-cleaning, in that half-awake state, with Open Space’s prompt in mind, I improvised with the repetitive conditional (“I could”). I enjoyed the irony of laboring to write a poem (for which I would be paid) against production and labor while in a pre-work robe in the dawn light of my rented studio apartment with the inevitable dread about the compulsory workday slowly rising through the dirty blinds.
The only other poem in I Love It Though which was written following a rule or procedure is “Protect Me From What I Want”—this poem is also long and makes use of repetition (these poems seem like two sides of a coin, and relational cousins to “Acting Out” and “Personal Poem” in Here Come the Warm Jets). While formally distinct from the rest of the book, “Fledglings” touches on familiar themes. In addition to your perceptive descriptive of the poem as a politics of desire, I’d add that it also aims against the not so hidden violence embedded in “fulfilling careers,” self-mastery, the heteropatriarchal household, and the daily rat race of self-entrepreneurship. While the poem is interested in following the body’s desire against capital’s demand, I hope it avoids uplifting a commercialized individualism.
In addition to its vaguely procedural composition (putting myself in the same space, at the same time, every morning), “Fledglings” is also one of the newest poems in the book—I composed it more recently than most of the others. I wonder if this means it has incorporated into its body (corpus) the poems which came before. Does it have more in its belly, affectively and formally? Seen from this spooky light, its placement within the book makes sense. The poems which precede it in the book produce what I see as a variousness of perspectival and affective shifts and forms, whereas the long lines and length of “Fledglings” are the result of a kind of welling and release, such that the poems which follow it in the book make use of more intimate tones and addresses, a kind of post-coital pillow talk.
“To the Fledglings” could also be read as the book’s climax of breathing. I composed and experience each long line as a single breath, with each line accumulating and building into a rhythmic breathing song. In performing the poem, I’ve become conscious of how physically difficult it is for me to enunciate and project the long lines in one strong breath. I’m not sure I have the lungs or is it the diaphragm for it, but it’s an interesting problem given what the poem wants: a whole new set of lungs, a whole new untainted body.
Alli Warren is the author of I Love It Though (Nightboat Books). Other recent publications include Moveable C (Push Press), Don’t Go Home With Your Heart On (Faux Press), and Here Come the Warm Jets (City Lights Books), which won the Poetry Center Book Award. Alli has lived in the Bay Area since 2005.