Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Compton’s books Brink and The Seam (Bloof). Recorded July 7th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: I try to save potentially stupid questions for later, but have you seen Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia? Did that shape this project in any way?
Shanna Compton: I’ve seen some Lars von Trier. No, we haven’t watched that one yet.
AF: I’d asked because as I progressed through your cataclysmic, asteroidal diptych, and underwent its proleptic process of meaning-making (like how the New Testament rewrites and recodes the Old Testament), I kept picturing . . . Melancholia ends with Earth destroyed by an asteroid. But mostly I’m just curious about a second half recoding the first.
SC: I think of my Brink section as a “before” and The Seam as an “after.” Though it’s not a perfect fit. In fact the editors have convinced me to separate those sequences a bit more by putting them in physically distinct volumes. I couldn’t fully explain how they fit together. I wrote them at the same time, addressing interrelated themes, but they definitely differ in style and approach. Brink comes before The Seam’s disaster. Brink consists of shorter poems and linked sequences, whereas The Seam offers one long work. This asteroid, end-of-the-world apocalypse idea certainly did come from various films and science fictions.
AF: So if the manuscript pieces I saw won’t be a single volume, could you describe their status now?
SC: I’d planned to publish these two sections as a single volume called The Hazard Cycle. But now we’ll just do Brink as a volume and The Seam as a volume—available together, yet as two separate books. We’ll design them somehow to fit together.
AF: I didn’t reread Brink once I’d started The Seam. But I remember, during Brink’s last 15 pages, sensing the intimation of a break-up, perhaps Romantic intimations of mortality, though did I miss obvious indications of Earth’s imminent demise? Or does Brink open various possible registers, which only later get channeled into meteor showers? Did Brink ever exist as something else, other than a precursor to The Seam?
SC: Brink contains individual poems I’d gathered as a working manuscript, randomly putting pieces together. Then I started to notice repeated themes, and The Seam emerged from those. The poem, “The Argument” probably came first, from several years back. I’d completely forgotten about it then found it on my hard drive and realized it fit. One of my readers said this poem sort of splits the two sections. Though what you’ve said about romantic dissolution and the second half’s apocalypse . . . with poems like “Rare Vagrants,” I purposefully mix all that stuff together. This makes the disaster scene both intimate and larger—shifting from a small fight to a big catastrophe involving world climate. I didn’t want to produce something matchy matchy, but to play with registers and see what happened. Brink also has a different ending now, a long sequence called “The Deeps.” Sorry about that.
AF: When I said “Romantic” I actually meant with a capital R. Still both could fit with general reflections on disaster and mortality and how, in our culture, the romantic love story allows more people to focus. I like how that all gets conflated as a general momentum takes us over the edge.
SC: Both romance and Romantic, even those words, appear. At The Seam’s end, Celo says “Good morning, Romantics,” which I’d used as the title for an early chapbook.
AF: I probably should clarify, following my Melancholia question, that any number of literary affinities come to mind: the fluid, semi-opacities of vintage Lisa Robertson; the enigmatic equipoise of Susan Wheeler lyrics; the quant colloquialisms of James Schuyler; also Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette and recent dystopic quasi-narratives by Danielle Pafunda and Cathy Park Hong; then epic evocations and archaic elocutions and campy newsprint, as well as the pop nonchalance of Brian Eno or “1999” or the Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi.” Did any of those provide for generative thinking? Did you have compositional procedures you wanted to try, narrative and lyric forms you wished to fuse, refuse, split apart?
SC: Some of those came up while writing. Danielle’s a good friend, and we’ve shared work for years. I always admire Lisa Robertson’s mythic narrative-making, and had reread Debbie: An Epic. Also a bunch of Alice Notley and Engine Empire by Cathy Park Hong. I didn’t start The Seam thinking about those things, but basically just challenging myself to write something other than short, individual poems—something different than what I’d done before.
AF: I love the fractured sci-fi idiom here, though of course we don’t need extraterrestrial interference to prompt the planet’s demise anymore. Do you often imagine the world’s end? For me, it can feel cleansing to adopt a retrospective, end-of-the-world vantage on certain parts of life. I love how your book describes “rumpled want-ads perpetually seeking / whatever.” Perhaps some fascist part of me likes to purge. But can you discuss how this particular apocalyptic scenario plays out in relation to global warming, post-9/11 New York, discourses of girlhood, everyday fantasy?
SC: A few of the poems disappoint me for expressing irritation and constant frustration without necessarily going further. Still a lot of this book grew out of such feelings, figuring out what to do about those feelings (and the situations that cause them). I think in one poem the speaker says, “I’m putting my hair up because I’m sick of this.” She means the constant intrusion of the world and the news—everything being shit all the time. So in a fictional sense I wanted to exaggerate and move beyond that by making up some crazy story. Everything you’ve mentioned gets included. Brink contains a 9/11 poem and definitely lots of environmental topics. I cut some animal rights stuff because it sounded too . . . I get pissed. But pushing that all into a fictional setting through which one main character moves seemed somehow more positive than just bitching—letting her act, seeing what she creates of situations.
AF: Of course the fabular, the fairy tale, sci-fi all have undergone a rehabilitation in contemporary poetry. And I’ll think of Freud’s work on folk tales—how these get so gruesome in part because the deaths enacted allow adolescent audiences to work through their own growth and development and departure from the only world they know. Does it seem appropriate to place current interests in the fabular alongside some sense of ours being a “late” culture? Could we make a connection (as you seem to make) among fantasy and YA idioms and apocalyptic narrative scenes all tracking some broader developmental stage’s end?
SC: The Seam definitely addresses parts of that. Celo enters the tunnels and makes her confessions and moves away from the broken town and so on. This narrative depicts young people and indulges in their characteristic gruesomeness. Especially after I’d begun the story, I started letting its pitch get highly emotional and a bit melodramatic—again, just to see what happened. Some passages emphasize this emotional content more than any narrative event. Those traits of contemporary poetry you mentioned appeal to me and I can’t tell whether I’ve processed them consciously or not.
AF: I thought here, for example, about Gurlesque poetics re-valuing a mode of discourse often considered illegitimate, not serious, unworthy of attention—returning us to the repressed. From that a couple other models came to mind, such as John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run, based on Henry Darger’s The Vivian Girls. Does The Seam present something like the story of a solitary Vivian girl?
SC: I know that book. Those girls seem younger. Again I do read lots of science fiction and Grimm’s fairy tales and John Ashbery. But I’d forgotten all about his book and how it might relate to my project.
AF: I can’t remember why that came up. It had to do with colors you mentioned.
SC: I probably echo him and don’t realize it. As for the Gurlesque: I know and love much work by poets classified under that description, a couple of whom we’ve mentioned. I don’t know if I participate so much as I absorb something from their presence. My position when writing this felt quite open and receptive. So all sorts of material might have gotten in.
AF: Well I’ll think of some of your early work as celebrating jumbled vernaculars, myriad forms of vernacular speech. The Seam embraces its own formal and informal idioms. Once you became apocalyptically focused, and began drafting The Seam, did you start to notice end-time discourses all around—in books, the news, overheard on the subway? Do intimations of apocalypse circulate through our daily lives without us recognizing it?
SC: I’ve always mixed different registers of language. I basically don’t know how to stop. I’ll get bored by a real steady tone in anything. You’d said something about the New and Old Testaments, and I definitely don’t want to get Biblical, though did want a more . . . something about those cadences and that language to feel ominous here. And this gets hard to articulate, but I attempted to make nothing seem causal—with the exception of some of Celo’s speeches, where she starts to tell her backstory. Otherwise, bits and pieces come at you all the time in forms of atomized language. Then more generally: I think I’ve purposefully tuned into some menacing discourses because I felt I’d been a bit irresponsible and flippant. I sensed I hadn’t reacted appropriately to everything I should react to. I still don’t know that I have. But I’ve tried.
AF: That comes across clearly. And just to bring in your publishing efforts, can we talk about how this Hazard Cycle sequence fits amid your broader poetic practice? Could you describe the drafting/design/publishing process here, since that seems unique, given your admirably unapologetic decision to publish the book through your own press, Bloof? Had you decided on this publishing route from the start? Did it free up your writing to know that no (or so I had thought) editorial board, no commercial calculations, would impede your progress? We could even discuss little things—like in Brink’s manuscript form, many poems look exactly one page long, as though you’d already laid out the book.
SC: For this particular project, I knew early on we would do it with Bloof. Each book has an editorial board, and I do much of the editing myself of course. The decision to do these books with Bloof did free me from worries about making them suitable for someone else. I’ve gotten to where I prefer to work this way. I absolutely do conceive of the design and layout and even the typesetting and cover as I write. I automatically think about each poem as an object. I feel lucky to be in this position where I can ensure that the finished book represents what I’d wanted. Of course some drawbacks exist. Since nobody imposes deadlines and structure, some timelines get a bit loose. Because of the open way I preferred to work on these, I also wanted that uncertainty to be all mine. I didn’t want to have to make it all OK or acceptable for someone else.
AF: Again this especially interests me in terms of the book’s proleptic process—how the second half changes our understanding of the first. Because who knows? If you sent this manuscripts to contests, to a publisher who’d only consider the first 10 pages, could you risk something like that?
SC: I can’t imagine sending out ten pages from this with a query letter. Again, to me, the writing, the design, the publication all become one project. Most sections of The Seam won’t wind up in magazines. Excerpting felt too difficult. Brink seems more conventionally shaped, magazine shaped. But The Seam foregrounds an intention not to worry about such things.
AF: I appreciate that you don’t just skip certain stages of editorial evaluation—you do something you couldn’t have done otherwise.
SC: I seek out lots of input. I’ll have good friends who are great poets give honest feedback—not always the feedback I want, either. Bloof works like that. Even when I edit Jennifer L. Knox or Danielle Pafunda or Sandra Simonds, I’ll give editorial suggestions. Still these always remain only suggestions. The idea is not for me (as editor) to make the book mine, but to assist the poet with its presentation. I’d hate for all the rough edges to get cleaned up. I’ve worked in publishing for a long time, and know how my favorite writing occurs. Other people have other approaches.
AF: You’ve mentioned before the long, illustrious tradition of DIY and micro-press publishing—however we want to define these historically. Could you give some specific examples, ancient or contemporary, that you find particularly inspiring?
SC: I can think of so many.
AF: How about an early personal influence?
SC: Well I put my first chapbook together in third grade, for a class project. Then I did a zine in college, and other chapbooks. Then once I got to New York and started reading about the New York poets, their little pamphlets and chapbooks, that all became endlessly important. It felt like learning after the fact: yeah, this is OK to do. Also Buck Downs provided a great example—both as the first poet I saw read at St. Mark’s and for producing whatever the hell he wants. So I’ve always worked this way. Whenever I write something I want physically to make it. Those don’t seem two separate processes.
AF: I do want to clarify for readers (since you’ve been quite modest) that your poems get published all over the place. Just as impressive as your self-publishing project is Brink’s long list of publications. But you’ve said you don’t imagine many publishable excerpts from The Seam. Do you, as a reader, take particular pleasure in reading isolated fragments from larger, uncontextualized manuscripts? I’ll love when short, inexplicable units sound like lyrics from outer space. And I ask because you’ve always impressed me by coming up with clipped, catchy phrases. Here, for example: “core rare” in Brink, “blisterhot tektites” in The Seam. But then I also love elaborate, elastic constructions of yours which seem to take pleasure in how they keep going. We could look at, from “Timetables & Humble Pie,” this long question: “What do I need with cuspids, or limbs
/ to walk and fondle, a talent for speech, // as one typifying solace-less-ness, a wimpy biter / and squanderer of those trillion misplaced swans / in the reservoir by the highway, each curving // its legendary throat to query what dared I do, / and at such tizzy speed, hurtling as I was, flanked / by peeling fields, oblivious of the terminal stop long past?”
SC: For that I wanted to continue as long as possible. That happens a couple times in Brink, such as in “One More Favor.” During a particular phase of writing I’d purposefully take a thought or question or sentence and wrap it around and around and around. This seemed to provide a productive contrast, an intensified sensation of maxing out the sentence. Though I like the short, punchy bits too. I don’t think I answered your question—but yes, un- or recontextualized fragments attract me, here and in my previous book. They’re why I’ve had so much fun with Flarf.
AF: “Various Natural Objects All Heaped Up Together” has these different “People who” constructions, then ends with a really long one: “People who believe / in weird things like uprisings and the potential / purity of sweat socks? People who believe / that Unseen Forces Control the World / from towers so realistically painted on the canvas / dropped flush with the horizon that they move / with the desert’s breath, in and out, / modeling a living semblance for us, the people / who look so hard for the evidence in the crappiest fossil, / like the broken shell of an Oriental Hornet, / no longer converting the sun into its / lately discovered electrical buzz?” So here’s my question: you seem drawn to and very good at both short, memorable phrases and longer associative trains. But did it seem harder to “get away with” such devices as this work veered toward fiction? Did you fear they might sound too tangential? Or does the narrative scaffolding call them forth from you? Do they just pop out?
SC: Again The Seam purposefully works against what I’ve done in other poems. Brink and The Seam push against each other. Also I don’t know much about writing prose, and didn’t want The Seam to become too prose-y. I prefer it to feel somewhat fragmentary, leaving space between sections instead of forcing them together—but all to let them spark. For the shorter space of Brink’s short poems, the maxing out and extended runs seemed OK since their end always stayed in sight.
AF: Well could we discuss what gets left out of The Seam’s formal structure? I mean how it resembles trauma, for example, how it feels retrospective, and repetitively so. We keep returning to the start of this crisis, one that never gets processed emotionally or…a break occurs. And no build-up precedes the crisis. We hear vaguely about before the crisis, then experience in detail after the crisis. This whole time I keep wondering what you’ve left out. Why omit the asteroid scene then constantly recall it? Again, I love those parts of the book. I just hope to hear you discuss them.
SC: I deliberately don’t provide anything beyond an archivist’s introduction. Even that felt perhaps too much. Given this apocalyptic, dissolution-of-the-world-type story, an omniscient narrator didn’t make sense. So whatever understanding Celo assembles of that scene only comes from scraps and pieces. The characters themselves don’t quite know what hit them. Most remain passive observers, but Celo feels compelled to explain (to story-make) even without having all the answers.
AF: Could you describe the “Jacks” to close?
SC: The Jacks are mutant jackrabbits. I don’t know what else to say about them. I can say they tried to take over the book and I had to wrestle with them. At a certain point they started to sound silly. The rest seemed more interesting. I still include them, but didn’t want the focus to be, what the hell’s going on with these mutant jackrabbits, you know? They serve as emblems or symbols of the ruptures and uncertainty and blendings throughout this book. They stay uncanny, strange, creaturely. I like them. I didn’t want to abandon them completely.
Shanna Compton is the author of the poetry collections Down Spooky, For Girls (& Others), and several chapbooks. She is also the editor of a collection of essays on the topic of video games, Gamers. Her work has been widely published, including in the Best American Poetry series, Poetry Daily, Poem-A-Day/PoemFlow by the Academy of American Poets, the Awl, Black Warrior Review, and the Poetry Foundation website.