In April, Jack Kerouac School MFA students in my “Documentary Poetry” course read Brenda Coultas’ A Handmade Museum. At this point in the semester, students were completing their own documentary poetry projects, so one will notice that the questions relate to craft as well as to the role of the poet as documentarian or archivist.
Interview with Jaclyn Hawkins, Janelle Fine, Shitu Rajbhandari, JH Phrydas, Angelica Maria Barraza, Caitlan Mitchell, Ashley Margaret and Katharine Kaufman.
The Class: In “The Bowery Project,” how did you make decisions about structure and organization? For instance, the dates reveal it was not a method of linearity but perhaps one of item associations or the opposite, a panoramic diorama.
Brenda Coultas: As the project developed and became clearer, I began to add the dates and to take a weekly roll of photos. Once I had enough data, I began to shape it, but I didn’t want to be wedded to a timeline, so the narrative is based on balance, of creating a portrait, and of beauty.
TC: In “The Bowery Project,” you don’t reference your gender. How do you think that plays into your investigations and your experiences?
BC: I mention a husband, and this is before same-sex marriage became a norm. Good question, because the speaker or actor in a poem is not necessarily the poet; she/he may be a persona. Gender was extremely important in my first book Early Films, in which I play slight of hand with sexual identity.
TC: Similarly, throughout the book, you refer to yourself, and the poems are obviously very personal, but the speaker remains at a distance, at least at an emotional distance. How do you feel you situate yourself within this text?
BC: I try to stay out of the way, to keep the focus on what the narrator sees.
TC: How do you think of the book, in general, as a curated space? By that we mean, what is your methodology when it comes to revision? To sequence?
BC: Yes, it is curated to a degree, for the sake of beauty and music, then truth. “Sense,” as John Yau says, “is overrated.” You only need one entry about shit or puke to paint the picture. Allen Ginsberg said, “Notice what’s vivid. What’s vivid is self-selecting.” I follow that dictum in all of my writing.
TC: How, if at all, has your relationship with trash evolved since the release of this book? Since climate change has become a more pressing, acknowledged issue?
BC: In The Tatters, to be published in 2014 by Wesleyan University Press, there is a return to landfills and other debris, pigeon feathers and battered telephone booths. The Tatters is not a documentary project—it is rather an elegy for the end of paper and print, for what remains, the papers, the tatters of a scrapbook, receipts and other documents a survivor goes through after a loved one’s death, a sifting through of the remains of a life.
TC: In “The Bowery Project,” you write about The Cooper Square Development Plan. When thinking about the construction/destruction of buildings, how do you factor graffiti into the beautification process?
BC: The organic origins of graffiti, a big f-you to corporate powers, but also a way to make a literal mark for control of public space, tagging (for me anyway) to have a say in public conversation. In one case on the Bowery, a luxury hotel paid artists to deface their new building to give it cachet and street cred. Bogus.
TC: Can you answer these questions that derive from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil: Can you make a list of things that quicken your heart? Do you write a web that has been broken?
BC: Hawks in roadside trees, pink horizon as sun sets on the west side of Manhattan, Economy Candy store on Rivington and Essex, Century 21 department store, Zucotti park (even though its empty and super-policed, I see as sacred), ferry boats to Staten Island, walks over the Williamsburg Bridge, free books on the sidewalk, original Veselka restaurant, Orchard St. on Sundays, New Year’s Day Poetry Project Marathon, 12th Street Poet’s building (home of Simon Pettet, John Godfrey, Richard Hell, formerly Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Russell, Luc Sante and more).
Brenda Coultas is the author of The Marvelous Bones of Time (2008) and A Handmade Museum (2003), which won the Norma Farber Award from The Poetry Society of America and a Greenwall Fund publishing grant from the Academy of American Poets. She has received a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship (NYFA) and a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council residency (LMCC). Coultas recently served as visiting poet at Long Island University in Brooklyn New York. Her poetry can be found in The Brooklyn Rail, Witness and Court Green. In 2012, she competed an artist’s residency at the Emily Harvey Foundation in Venice Italy and at the Millay Colony in Austerliz, New York. The Tatters, a collection of poetry, is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2014. She teaches at Touro College in New York City.