Jasmine Dreame Wagner with Iris Cushing

Iris Cushing

This interview focuses on Cushing’s book, Wyoming.

Jasmine Dreame Wagner: Tell me a little bit about “Wyoming”—both state and verb—in your poem “State Report.” I love how I feel both the pleasure of play and of conceptual shift when the state’s proper noun is used as gerund. A proper noun of a state names both a region of land and an organized political entity, as a gerund names an action of a verb. Can you talk a little about this kind of naming and how you came to title your collection “Wyoming”?

Iris Cushing: The idea of using “Wyoming” as a gerund originated as a private, thrillingly ridiculous thought, the kind that passes through my mind as I’m falling asleep and seems to have no meaning at all.

Some years before, a teacher in a poetry workshop said that it was better to avoid using gerunds in a poem if possible. One should change them to infinitive verbs, she said, or some other verb form, in order to strengthen the sound quality of the poem. I tried this out and agreed that excising gerunds did, in fact, file some of the rough edges off my poems. I was fascinated by this trick. Gerunds, which are so common in pop songs and other mass-marketed utterances, became a kind of rebellious no-no; to use one felt like feeding fat squirrels in the park, supporting the life of a parasitic verb form that hogs the space that other, more elegant forms deserve.

I was curious, then, about the life of a word ending in “–ing” that’s a name rather than a gerund, and therefore exempt from the imperative to avoid “–ing” words. My last name ends in “–ing”, but from earliest childhood until I was 12, I was enrolled in school with my stepfather’s last name, Morgan, and generally thought of myself as Iris Morgan. There’s even a Precious Moments Children’s Bible that my step-grandparents gave me, its cover embossed in gold with “Iris Marble Morgan.” I made the switch to Cushing when my mother and stepfather divorced. The subtle change in identity that accompanied the new name was therapeutic for me, an adolescent girl going through a major familial upheaval. But I felt funny about the name, thought it sounded too close to “cushion.” It took a long time for me to really accept it as mine. Perhaps fixating on Wyoming is my way of making peace with my name—playing with the multiplicity of what the “–ing” sound enacts, with all it is capable of doing (action, feeling, person, place).

JDW: These poems are deeply rooted in places, and yet, sometimes they feel set at a distance—spoken from a remote place. You live in New York, but you are originally from California. As a poet transplanted from West to East, do you ever feel like you’re looking back at the end of the day, penning love poems for the sunset? What are your poems love poems for? What is your relationship to place and space as poet, and to our culture’s nostalgia for “American” places?

IC: “Wyoming” is an Anglicization of a Delaware Indian word. I learned this from George Rippey Stewart’s excellent book Names on the Land, originally published in 1945, which accounts for the history of most place names in the United States. “Wyoming,” or “at the big flats” was used by the Delaware people to describe the remote and wide-open land out West, a faraway place. Several towns on the East Coast were named Wyoming long before the state of Wyoming existed as such. Scottish poet Thomas Campbell even penned a popular epic battle poem titled “Gertrude of Wyoming” in 1809. When the time came to name the territory west of Dakota, “Wyoming” was chosen, not because it had any history in that place (as “Nebraska,” “Oklahoma” and “Dakota” do in their places), but because Congress thought it was a beautiful name whose meaning suited the place it would represent. I wanted to evoke that process in calling my book Wyoming. The name transfers a romantic mythology of a place onto an actual place. The mythology, although based on ideas about the West, is sited in the East and is necessarily remote (physically and conceptually) from the real place of the West.

“A name is adequate or it is not,” says Gertrude Stein in “Poetry and Grammar.” “If it is adequate then why go on calling it, if it is not then calling it by its name does no good.” I find Stein’s entreaty to question the work that names do deeply moving. Following her claim that calling something by an inadequate name “does no good,” I can infer that doing so actually causes harm, is somehow an act of violence.

Writing these poems in New York City, longing for my Western home, I wanted to recover the true nature of whatever is lumped into the category of Western “Americana.” Behind the mythos set forth by Top 40 Country music, cowboy movies, hedonistic Las Vegas casinos and the kitsch-ification of Native Americans, there exists a very real and endlessly complex human and natural ecosystem. This ecosystem is fraught, for me, with love and dread. The pleasure I take in speeding along an Arizona Interstate, blasting Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” and guzzling Mountain Dew, transcends the aesthetic and touches the spiritual. But I know firsthand how costly that sublime personal freedom—driving, consuming, taking imaginary ownership of all I survey—has always been to the place itself, and to its people. Poetry is capable of looking closely into that tension, that double-bind that Stein writes about. A lot of writers have addressed this complexity beautifully: Rebecca Solnit, John McPhee, Alice Notley, Leslie Marmon Silko.

JDW: You’re the editor of an awesome press, Argos Books. How did you come to starting your own press and how has your editorial work influenced your own writing?

IC: Argos Books began in 2010, when I became friends with the poet/translators Elizabeth Clark Wessel and E.C. Belli in grad school at Columbia. All three of us found the idea of making books of the poems we loved just so radical and freeing. The sense of responsibility, of serving a community and being served in turn, comes naturally to all of us. I definitely had in mind the lineage of poets—especially women—starting their own presses and including editorial work in their larger engagement with poetry: Think of Lyn Hejinian with Tuumba Press, or Lewis Warsh and Anne Waldman with Angel Hair. Mårten Wessel, an architect and Liz’s husband, happens to be a very skilled book designer, and took on making the aesthetic decisions for our books. I’ve learned a lot about book design from him over the years. The activity of making books together instantly became a kind of family affair, and grows more so as time passes.

My editorial work helps my writing because I relate to all of the authors we publish. Witnessing and encouraging them is the best way to witness and encourage myself. A little while ago, I was talking with the poet Julian Brolaski about the stakes (financial, social, spiritual) of being a poet. Since writing poetry is classically one of the least lucrative activities known to humankind, what is the currency of the poetry community? Brolaski posited that it is friendship, kinship, affinity. I love that idea, and I think it’s true. The books that we make at Argos are definitely born of a deep sense of affinity for the poems, which goes on to include equal affinity for the poet who made them.

Too often, I think, publishing is seen as a “goal” of writing. It’s not. It’s one possible outcome, but there are hundreds of other equally good outcomes. My aspiration in editing Argos is to make the publishing process part of a continuum with the writing process. Poems are born in context, in the midst of a place and a time, among friends and lovers, plants and animals, grumpy co-workers and flirty bartenders; I want to take up publishing as a part of that whole. A book shouldn’t be something that is made when the poems are “finished.” Rather, a book grows out of its context and leads to further changes, further growth.

JDW: On the Argos website, your mission statement speaks of a special interest in hybrid genres, translation, collaboration and work that crosses cultural and national borders. Can you talk a bit about what hybridity means to you? I’d also love to hear about some of the hybrid work that Argos has published or has slated for the future.

IC: Hybridity, to me, is exactly like life. Being interested in histories, moments, situations and people that are multivalent (and aware and celebratory of that multivalence), it follows that we (the Argos editors) would seek out texts that engage that same sense of plurality. Each of us loves lyric poetry as a form, loves fiction as a form, loves the essay as a form—but each of us also appreciates that the hybrid text, something that skates multiple genres or contexts, is also a form unto itself, and deserves to be seen as such, rather than placed in a category where it doesn’t fit.

One of the first chapbooks we published, Marina Blitshteyn’s Russian for Lovers, captures the real-life situation of the hybrid text perfectly, I believe. In it, a Russian-speaking poet attempts to teach the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet to her American lover, and encounters the incommensurability of the two cultures that belong to each alphabet. The text is a gorgeous document of that encounter; such a text feels necessary and true to the actual experience of the poet.

JDW: I’ve had the pleasure of seeing you perform twice now, first at the Earshot NYC Reading Series, and again at the fundraiser for Furniture Press. One of the reasons I’m so interested in your thoughts on hybridity is because of your song-poem performance. At times, I felt like I was witnessing a live radio performance from the early 20th century. Is either early radio or television an influence?

IC: Yes, certain forms of radio and television—the way they tell stories—influences my desire to perform my poems in a folkloric way. My father is a poet and a radio DJ in California, and had me do little vocal spots on his jazz programs as a child, which thrilled me to no end. Growing up I was fascinated by the simultaneous intimacy and anonymity of the radio as an invisible public space, the sense that the speaker or singer is addressing you and you alone. I listened to Loveline until the wee hours of the morning on a daily basis as a teenager, and I memorized 1960s psychedelic monologues spoken over music (Captain Beefheart’s “Orange Claw Hammer,” the Velvet Underground’s “The Gift,” Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.”). These texts, as well as the radio, were transporting. They carried me into a sovereign world of the imagination.

In graduate school, I became antsy about reading my poems straight off the page. I discovered Kristin Prevallet’s feminist-trance-performance-poetics, Lee Ann Brown’s Girl Scout Songs, Helen Adam’s sung poem-monologues and Anne Waldman’s chant-poem “Fast Speaking Woman,” and felt instantly at home. There’s something ancient and generous-feeling about performing poems in the way these women did and do. I’m moved by the democracy of live performance (which happens on TV, in the children’s schoolyard, at poetry slams, on the chain gang, in the theatre and so on) as opposed to simply reading poems aloud. Performance also makes me incredibly nervous, which is a more alive, risk-filled psychic space to occupy.

JDW: When did you begin performing your song-poem hybrids with the ukulele? Why ukulele and not guitar, banjo, a full band?

IC: Around the time that I discovered all those women poets who perform their poems, I bought a ukulele and started messing around with it. It’s my first musical instrument, and is extremely simple to play. I experienced a minor identity crisis when I discovered that Zoe Deschanel plays a ukulele—that there is, in fact, a whole aesthetic category of charming young women playing ukuleles (best exemplified, in my mind, by Phyllis Diller’s psychotic playgirl character in Splendor in the Grass).

Noticing that trend, and my subsequent horror over it, forced me to face the fact that I have always wanted to be, basically, a rock star. I’m currently reading Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation. He speaks cogently about the fear of failing at some public performance of skill or charisma. That fear is perhaps what stopped me from ever learning to play the guitar or being in a band. But I would love to do those things, to sing and dance around. For now, I am going to fearlessly keep doing the best I can as a poem-song-monologue-maker. Fearlessness, the Buddha taught, is not the absence of fear; it is feeling afraid but proceeding anyway.

JDW: Do you prefer “performing” over “reading”? How are the two modes of sharing similar, and how do they differ?

IC: Performing poems from memory, playing the ukulele and singing has made me a better poem-reader, I think. It has required me to be attentive to the way poems are transferred and transformed from text into sound. Actually, I would like to bring the level of care, attention, nervousness that I bring to performing to reading. I’ve gotten used to thinking of simply reading poems as “easier” than performing, but it needn’t be so. My favorite readers of poetry—Eileen Myles comes first to mind—really put themselves out there when they’re reading, giving the moment a singular quality that is totally electrifying.

JDW: Do you have any exciting plans for the future that you’d like to let everyone know about? Books, reading tours, Argos announcements?

IC: This summer I’m taking a road trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota with the artist Adie Russell. She makes paintings and video that use found audio and mass-produced tourist imagery—such as old postcards—to brilliantly unravel the logic behind many popular “American” narratives. We’re hoping to make a film that takes up our mutual interest in selfhood as it responds to landscape, history and mythology, and how both people and places are changed in the process of being recorded. In preparation for that, I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s book about Eadweard Muybridge, River of Shadows, which Adie gave me.

Argos has some chapbooks coming out this winter that Liz and I have been looking forward to making for a while. Dagmara Kraus’s Gloomerang (translated from the German by Joshua Daniel Edwin), Mara Pastor’s Children of Another Hour (translated from the Spanish by Noel Black) and Karin Gottshall’s Swan are among them. We’re also putting together a chapbook, called Wife, of Caitie Moore’s poems, which are incredibly moving, political, smart and hilarious.

The other day I found myself unexpectedly playing the tambourine along with Gary Numan’s song “Cars,” and felt a whole new universe of rhythmic possibility open up. I think I’m going to do this some more and see what happens.

 

 


Iris Marble Cushing was born in Tarzana, California. Her book Wyoming received the 2013 Furniture Press Poetry Prize. A former resident of Arizona, she has been a writer-in-residence at Grand Canyon National Park. She lives in New York, where she works as an educator and editor for Argos Books.

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