Andy Fitch with Joel Craig

Joel Craig
Joel Craig

Last summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Joel Craig’s book The White House (Green Lantern). Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: From talking to you in the past, I know music metaphors come easily, that we could call the progression from poem to poem an arrangement, could consider it a macrocosm of the meticulous mix within any individual piece. I hope we get to all that. But first, The White House seemed to offer several basic types of poems—the long sequences of indented prose blocks, the testimonial projects suggesting unauthorized biographies or autobiographies, and then shorter, more emotive and/or opaque lyric flourishes. Variety abounds in how you put these types together, with distinctive uses of lineation, speech-based idioms, elliptical juxtapositions. So here’s the question: did the different types appear over discrete spurts, during the many years that this book came together? Did you develop all three types simultaneously? Do you feel further drawn to working within or among those types?

Joel Craig: That makes sense to describe three rough styles. I think of the indented pieces as travelogue poems, sometimes mixed with real elements of travel. When traveling I tend to concentrate on physical spaces I visit and people I meet, and therefore voices I hear. Then other poems get born more out of my past—the dense little jewels that reflect my love for surrealism. They can seem, as you say, kind of opaque and dark-humored. And the diffuse, biographical-style poems share with these first two types the fact that multiple voices make up their lyric “voice.” Both the travelogue style and the biographical/monologue style I hope to keep expanding and exploring.

AF: On this topic of multiple voices, I recall a recent Danny’s Reading Series event you put together, with Lewis Warsh, Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian. I hadn’t realized before, but should have, how your work engages New Narrative. Could you discuss New Narrative’s legacies and contemporary practices, and what you hope to do alongside or in response to them?

JC: Could we define New Narrative first?

AF: Here I’m thinking of specific people like Dodie and Kevin and Bruce Boone and Chris Kraus, of prose with less a cumulative thrust than a perspectival diversity—though different from a “New Sentence” or collage-based focus on the textual surface. Not pure syntactical innovation. More affect. More performed intertextual inquiry. More embodied queerness. More rhetorical depth, but in an abstract way.

JC: I’ve thought of my book in relation to Lewis’ work more than the others, but I can try to speak to what you’ve mentioned. All of that excites me. That voice of experience and immediate (yet evolving) emotive connection seems lacking in much recent poetry. Kali, my girlfriend, says when we go on a first date with someone we send our very best representative. Quite often I feel that poets send a representative who somehow isn’t their best representative at all. Though Dodie and Kevin stand out as poets not afraid of the scatological, not afraid to share a scene we might consider off-putting but that can evoke an immediate relation, or can introduce an intimate or wide range of friends and acquaintances—whether or not we as readers actually know these people. That blend of voices attracts me.

AF: How does this blending relate to a poem’s length? Could you discuss further what you’ve described as the evolution of an emotional connection?

JC: An immediate situation grabs us, with which we want to continue, which we sense could expand into an ocean of reflections or questions we want answered. Rudimentary levels of experience often open up my mind that way. All of our experience contains so much abstraction. So I love work that slows me down and gets me to reconsider these basic mysteries.

AF: One of your book’s first poems, “Street Dad,” presents what I called the indented-prose type and produces a phenomenon I note throughout the book. I’ll track discrete sentences, which I associate with prose but also sense broader rhythmic movements reminiscent of Lewis Warsh’s The Origins of the World.

JC: I read Lewis’ book while writing “Street Dad” and “California Poem.” I immediately wanted to steal the indented-prose structure, but also to aggravate it—to pay homage while making it my own.

AF: Could you describe how your form differs?

JC: First off, I had to learn how to write a long line to contain these sentences. Just by imitation I discovered that the indentations increased my comfort with longer lines. The stanzas allowed me to make jumps while maintaining a prose-like tone that could provide a calm or continuity. At least that’s how I heard it. One key experience shaping my poetics is that I’ve spent years DJ-ing records, many different styles of music. I’ve learned not only how to put together an arrangement, but how to bring a room along with it. The long poems internalize this sense of when listeners might want to sustain something or need a break—or what might seem to me a natural place to end, but I’m obligated to keep going since people came for a certain durational experience. Those considerations helped the different voices to emerge and the different pacings of the prose sentences and the poetic sweeps. I’ve strained against these tensions and pushed with them as well.

AF: So does a story exist in advance, behind your poems, which then gets split into different voices, different utterances, different sentences? Or does the overall narrative emerge and evolve bit-by-bit as pieces get placed and layered?

JC: Definitely the latter, though this might include kernels of lived or imagined experience. The impetus for “Street Dad” came from talking with a homeless man in San Francisco. We only had a short conversation, but he obviously struggled with some kind of mental illness and had a massive story to tell, which continued to morph as he went on, yet stayed engaging whether or not true. Initially I wanted to recreate his fusion of imagination and memory, but as I began to build the piece of course my own memories of past conversations came in. I built up these multiple components and wrote and wrote—not thinking in terms of shaping a poem, just pushing the ideas. That all resembled creating a DJ set. You bring some specific raw materials which need to evolve decisively into their own arc as an experience unto themselves.

AF: Some poems here, such as “Rational Rational,” emphasize anaphora—repeating lines that begin with “add” or “plus.” An alternately light/heavy sense of accumulation takes place. Or “California Poem” offers “A clear vision of big cities as actors in their own right.” You’ll foreground these loose, aggregate sums (such as the Paterson-like city as actor), yet also provide cramped, more menacing references to pervasive new construction projects, or to the growing powers of “the state.” Does The White House, more generally, track various means by which circumstances accumulate—staying vigilantly concerned with recording such processes, though uncertain what might turn out good or bad?

JC: Much of my personality seeps into the work. For that line about cities I bastardized a sentence from the book Dead Cities, by the California historian and social critic Mike Davis. Reading him got me thinking about the many ways we experience a heavily authored place like California—a state that presents quaint or glamorous versions of itself, even as less ideal realities occur. The military-industrial-complex money and the technology-complex money so vastly outweigh those comparatively puny figures Hollywood throws out. This suggests such a strong diversion that, to my mind, it can’t seem anything but intentional. So after traveling I tried to sift through each experience and how it relates to diversionary habits in the lives of people I know. Not that they’re dishonest, but they’ll display one thing while something else happens in secret. Of course we all do this, and observe it in all people, depending how well we get to know them. Here I don’t try to connect every dot, just to work through some, again as an exercise (to see what they reveal).

AF: Well often your lineation, indentation, visual structure complicates the forward march of a sentence.

JC: It will look like a hatchet sawed down the page.

AF: Does that hatchet scene again point toward a staccato musicality lurking within the utilitarian sentence? I wasn’t an English major and never really understood this term, but I read your poems and often felt my mind undergo a mental caesura.

JC: Oh wow. I work as a designer and, as I like to do in design, I found a simple concept then tried to aggravate it and stick with it and see what it forced out of me. My training in poetry, if you will, treats the line as the most important thing—that each line should provide a poem unto itself in some way. A poem’s structural strength resides there, and so these hatchet marks provide a very jagged, rough and imperfect model. Still I spent much time reciting these poems aloud, editing to make them musically subtle. I wanted them to relax then expand and promote different types of physical movement. I want to provoke a physical reaction with each poem. So I thought, I’ll present both a kind of uniformity and a visual challenge. This felt at times quite natural, and at other moments became such a pain in the ass. But the music helped resolve that.

AF: What about repetition in general—the repeated words such as “level” (which keeps appearing in “Street Dad”), or the repeated lines in “Instructions for Building a Paper House,” or other phrases that circulate throughout the book? How does your work in design and in music shape these conspicuous structures?

JC: I’ve listened to much techno music, which I find similarly limiting yet expansive through its limitations. Basic constructs will form a kind of symphony out of rudimentary sound and sound designs. And from a design perspective: to brand something always requires repetition. Ideally, you direct a style of image so that someone can have a specific emotive response to what they see. Then when they see something else you did, they recall that previous experience and build upon it. Whether this really happens I don’t know. But that logic from other parts of my life worked its way into these poems. A repeated line provides a launch pad, though each time this launch pad changes. I try to direct that process.

AF: Does your own experience as a reader elicit strong cognitive/bodily responses?

JC: I certainly remember, say in my twenties, reading John Ashbery’s Flow Chart, how he could make music out of anything, and how potent and narcotic and formative that experience felt—although I don’t read him much anymore.

AF: A long poem like Flow Chart returns us to questions of scale, of the part’s relation to the whole—questions that play out in your short lyrics as well. You’ll foreground a quick inversion of tone or perspective. “Chairs Missing” seems to present itself as an elegy or in memoriam, though then ends with this enigmatic, valedictory salute: “The wonder of the world is ever present. / Tell me when you get there.”

JC: I love that kind of play. I’ll find endless potential there. Of course this can become too studious and practiced to seem truly experimental, so I always try to tether those experiments to something real. I did write “Chairs Missing” in memoriam, to someone I could picture quite vividly. Still at the same time, given the sense of loss, the inability to resolve that relationship, I wanted to acknowledge this person’s spirit. So that last line gestures at an opening.

AF: For “Structured Settlement,” which I can quote in full (“I love the smell of sauerkraut / in the morning. It smells like sauerkraut / in the morning”), perhaps because I’m in Japan right now I appreciate the haiku-like equanimity, with everything riding on that ambiguous “it.”

JC: Yeah I hope to keep experimenting with this form. I just had reviewed Star in the Eye, James Shea’s book heavily rooted in haiku experience. Also, I ride my bicycle to work every day, and for four years had ridden past this sauerkraut factory. I wrote that poem in my head on the bike. I just figured, OK, it’s a joke, but I need to put it down and acknowledge it as a poem. It’s a joke because it riffs off a line from Apocalypse Now: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. . .It smells like victory.”

AF: Do you know the Basho poem “Even in Kyoto / hearing the cuckoo’s cry / I long for Kyoto”?

JC: I don’t. But that’s beautiful.

AF: Your embrace of the passive voice also interests me and stays quite prominent throughout the book. For one example: “So far it wasn’t at all like my fantasy. The kitchen was comfortably large, / with a linoleum floor so old its original pattern / was lost in a general brown-ness.” Here the passive voice allows you to shift quickly from one vantage to another, constructing a kind of big-tent present. But at the same time, many of your still-life descriptions hint at drama or action or revelation, such as: “Something was taking shape across the room. There was a sense / of gold somewhere in the red. The legs / of the red-painted kitchen table glowed, / and the room was alive with a soft light.” Present moments seem to crystallize then dissolve throughout this book. Personal, embodied experience will drift toward more detached reveries or recollections or synesthesiac abstractions. Could you describe your poetic and/or personal relationship to the present?

JC: I guess I’m an observant person, but can get lost in the present—very much so. I tend to rely on detailed spatial impressions, especially when anxious. But I generally stay aware of what happens, or maybe hide from what happens, or maybe just contemplate what’s happening. That passive voice can reflect a passive me, for sure. But I don’t sense any specific poetic intent beyond loving those moments or feeling quite comfortable with them. The word “comfortable” often recurs in these poems. Perhaps such pauses in a poem force me to consider some kind of action. Because I know they often do in life. Now I’m contemplating, see?

AF: In terms of design and DJ-ing, ekphrasis and synesthesia, both very important to early-20th-century poetics, get reinvigorated in your book. Here the poem “Penguin” comes to mind, which deploys visions, rainbows and prisms in order to invoke the making of a Fleetwood Mac album—all from the perspective of an “I” that, in a final twist, becomes Stevie Nicks, not you. Do these studies of music, of simultaneity, also then become studies of the dynamic, refracted, ever-charged and ever-changing present? Does densely textured music offer some analogy for how you (or we) experience the present?

JC: Absolutely. Often we have to focus on specific tasks, even as so many points of view and contexts collide and overlap. That chaos fascinates me. To try to shape that simultaneity into something linear excites me. I doubt I’ll ever find any single, over-arching purpose, so just to delve into waves of experience (as opposed to the static idea of an experience) motivates me.

AF: Most well-textured pop music presents no clear narrative through lines that we could paraphrase. Still a strong emotional identification occurs from nuanced moment to nuanced moment, which provides for a coherent passage of time. And your diffusive, sentence-based structures allow for something similar to happen. But to close on a more singular detail: “green” appears throughout the book, again often as a point or place of solace. Can we end with you discussing “green”?

JC: I most obviously mean nature in all forms, something I never get enough of and don’t seek out enough, but which remains always on my mind. Though more generally, what does green as a representative color suggest? I hope to leave that open, so anybody can latch onto it however they prefer. I’d rather not to define it that much. Pop music, for example, gets built out of regurgitated components subtly reshaped by the individual artist, yet still offering a familiar formula we know we can count on and relate to pretty efficiently. Perhaps we can think about “green” like that, as a chord or note or even a progression, a place to latch onto for the moment—providing imaginative expansiveness until the next change comes along.


Joel Craig is the author of The White House (Green Lantern Press, 2012), and the chapbook Shine Tomorrow (Lost Horse, 2009). He co-founded and curates The Danny’s Reading Series and edits poetry for MAKE: A Literary Magazine. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.

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