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 Sikelianos’ book The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead (Coffee House). Recorded August 5th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: I’ve enjoyed reading this collection in manuscript form, with the relative lack of paratextual information, like a table of contents or section breaks. Yet given your history of producing book-length poems and expansive projects, I’ve projected a good deal of continuity here. Could you talk a bit about the book’s experiential contours—its spatial and temporal shapes, as you envision those coming together? For example, one-line pages will repeat or anticipate phrases found elsewhere. Do these serve to establish a multi-directional, refractive text, one that incorporates Aymara conceptions of time, situating both past and future before/behind us?
Eleni Sikelianos: I first tried to resist developing a project here, feeling somewhat exhausted from. . .almost every book of poetry now, by myself or others, seems some sort of project. For a while I’ve wondered what has happened to the discrete poem, especially in experimental poetics. I keep gesturing toward that though then can’t help stitching together some fabric, thinking of the book as a fabric, I guess. I’d also thought of this as an installation with those one-line pieces both puncturing the density of individual poems, and weaving a thread through so that all becomes connected at the same time. I pictured the one-line passages as breathing holes, where a seal might poke through ice, gasping for air, and so yes, in that sense, occurring more spatially then temporally. My last three books contained visual elements, whereas this one barely does, with those occasional moments that seem not non-languaged but less-languaged—like little pooling places, little eddies.
AF: That model of installation art seems to hold for your previous books as well.
ES: Right, I feel it strongly in The California Poem, where different parts function almost as different rooms you wander through—with visual data set alongside language data, echoing Olson’s conception of the page as a field but incorporating images as much as text. Robert Smithson’s ideas about sites and non-sites also play out here.
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 de la Torre’s book, Four (Switchback Books). Recorded July 10th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: When FOUR came I tried to slip a booklet from the pack, but couldn’t do so without breaking the seal.
Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Williams’ book Howell (Atelos). Recorded August 21st. Transcribed by Maia Spots.
Andy Fitch: Normally I’d start with more general questions, but I last interviewed Evie Shockley, and we discussed the complicated legacy of Black Arts Movement poetics—how BAM seems quite generative yet also quite constrictive in its impact upon subsequent writers. And I remember, in the past, you citing BAM’s personal importance. As a poet suspicious of stable identity formations, of instrumental language, your career could seem antithetical to what BAM advocates. But have you found space for your work under the BAM umbrella, and can you describe this space? Can you trace a perhaps convoluted trajectory in which BAM’s liberatory struggles help to produce your own liberatory aesthetic practice?
Tyrone Williams: Absolutely. I began taking myself seriously as a poet during high school, the early ‘70s, in the middle of BAM (depending how you cite the movement’s historical trajectory). Again, this is high school, so I thought of myself primarily as writing love poetry, occasionally some political poetry. I remember trying to address what seemed an absence in both fields. I admired what I saw from BAM, to the extent that I knew about it, but conceived of myself as trying to complete this other project, defined by traditional love poetry. Then as I went to college and beyond, reading and thinking more about BAM, I began to sense its contradictions, its gaps, how I could contribute in my own way. I didn’t have to restrict myself to one tiny sector of romantic poetry based on the faulty premise that BAM already took care of all social and political and economic issues. Some of these same problems needed to be addressed from a different angle. And I still see myself as operating (though you’re right that much of my work could seem antithetical to certain reductive formations around identity politics and so forth), as following in the wake of BAM and with BAM’s spirit—trying to create new spaces for African-American culture and people, not just in terms of a popularized embrace of African-American music or whatever, but every aspect of what it means to be black in this country.
Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Place’s book Boycott (Ugly Duckling). Recorded June 18th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: I have questions about the book’s origins. That might seem counter to conceptualist emphases upon reader reception, but could you give some background on your preceding engagements with (or provocations by, or responses to) these canonized feminist source texts? Do you see Boycott crystallizing tendencies latent within these texts? Did the decision to replace female-gendered terms with male-gendered terms simply start as an intuitive gesture that happened to work out well, or did you arrive at this plan over time? If I seem to be searching for an originary myth to a form of writing that precludes one: for me the pleasures of reading conceptual books often do involve this triangulated apprehension/projection of what a specific poet deliberately has done with a particular discourse or idiom or anterior project. So feel free to intervene in that triangulation however you see fit.
Vanessa Place: In terms of this specific manuscript, I don’t know if you could call it intuitive, as much as I had absorbed Lee Lozano’s fascinating Boycott Piece—executed at the same time as second-wave feminist texts were being promulgated right and left. Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone and Angela Davis published celebrated books around that time, even as Lacan delivered his Seminar XX, where he says la femme n’existe pas (the Woman doesn’t exist). To my mind, if you combine these contemporaneous claims, taking Lacan at his word while reading those iconic feminist texts, you can’t help but understand their main topic was men. They don’t address women. They address the male imaginary. So to literalize this operation. . . for her part, Lee Lozano literalized the operation by refusing to speak to women, refusing to recognize them, which produces its own revelations. Likewise, my first Boycott intervention, Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M. Manifesto, seemed to reveal both more and less than the original text. That became fully clear when I started working with de Beauvoir. I felt thrown into some kind of ontological abyss by the easy essentialism, the easy gender constructs. As an undergraduate I had minored in gender studies, so I had read these books over and over, yet suddenly they became unfamiliar. I couldn’t tell if I considered certain sentences true, even provisionally. When I would read, in de Beauvoir, for example, “it’s the dream of every young girl to become a mother,” I could accept some part of that sentence, at least historically. But when this sentence became “it’s the dream of every young boy to become a father,” suddenly the gendered aspect seemed thornier. Reading about puberty as a male trauma raised related questions. Of course, I still could default to the notion of pure constructivism you’ve described, throwing questions back onto the person encountering my Boycott text, such as: do I believe this assertion? Did it originally refer to a woman rather than a man? Why do I care about that? What part of ontology (everybody’s biography) is simply the failure of symbolism, the failure of the Woman as such? S.C.U.M. Manifesto has this great line: “Women don’t have penis envy, men have pussy envy.” Through my Boycott that became: “Men don’t have penis envy, men have dick envy,” which sounds much more accurate. Latent intimations and revelations kept bubbling up, but these don’t come from Solanas’ text. They completely derive from my reception. They remain, like gender, interior to me. An older male poet has called this project a feminist screed, yet I consider it quite the opposite—not because it’s anti-feminist, but because it reopens basic questions of gender.
Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Beachy-Quick’s book Wonderful Investigations (Milkweed Editions). Recorded July 6th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: In your first essay’s first sentence you identify yourself as a “nature poet.” Could you give a condensed sense of what you mean by the term, both within Wonderful Investigations and within a broader ecopoetics context? In doing the reading for this interview project, I’ve been struck by the diverse range of contemporary poets who adopt that potentially fraught (because perpetually contested) self-definition.
Dan Beachy-Quick: That essay’s initial draft came out of a panel talk on ecopoetics, for which I’d been invited to participate. I still don’t feel particularly associated with ecopoetics, although I feel real sympathy toward it. The panel just provided an excuse to think about how my poetic concerns, and hopefully my poetic practice, address the world in a caring and protective manner. I had been reading much about initiation rights, early mythology, heroic cycles. I’d wondered how poetry might offer itself as an initiatory experience—not only to the poet, but to the reader, amid a kind of liminal space where assumed writer/reader relations get undermined. Initiatory processes move a person, from a profane relationship to the world, to one in which, through a symbolic death, they are reborn into a sense of the world as a sacred place. Similarly, to engage a poem risks a rewiring of one’s nervous system, one’s perceptive ability. This suggested to me a way of attending to the world on the world’s terms and undermining subjectivity in any normal sense.
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 Carr’s book Surface Tension: Ruptured Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry (Dalkey Archive Press). Recorded June 20th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Could we start with the concept of surface tension, as borrowed from physics and applied to Victorian-era poetry—specifically in terms of how a purported aesthetic of surface can be read for its participation in broader political discourses?
Julie Carr: Surface tension explains why molecules at a liquid’s surface bond with stronger energy. They do so because, with no molecules on top, fewer molecules surround them. This creates a horizontal surface density, which became a useful metaphor for describing what can happen in a poem when you read for (let’s say, just using familiar terms) content. You’ll try to understand a sonnet’s argument, but various sound associations play out among the words as do visual patterns. Surfaces also can become dense with invented languages, or borrowed languages, or pastiche, or collaged language. This density at the textual surface complicates our absorption of narrative or message. And of course these issue arise often in contemporary poetry or in modernist poetry, but most readers of Victorian poetry don’t understand the work that way. Specialists do. But for the average, semi-informed reader, if you ask about Victorian poetry they’ll think of somebody like Robert Browning or Tennyson. They’ll recall some long narrative poem or poem of deep feeling—one which doesn’t seem to engage language’s materiality. So reconsidering the Victorian-era interest in surface, especially amid a poetics engaged with ideals of transformation or sudden ruptural change, drives this book. Here I focus on three poets invested in the aesthetic surface as a redemptive space but for different ends. They are not, all three of them, Marxist or revolutionary poets. William Morris does engage a Marxist discourse. But Gerard Manley Hopkins remains focused on some kind of conversion or Christian ontological . . .
Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Halpern’s book Music for Porn (Nightboat). Recorded July 1st. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: As I work through these interviews I’ve found myself tracking a resurgent interest in New Narrative—a sense that New Narrative poetics have not received their fair share of critical attention, have not been thought through sufficiently by a broad enough range of contemporary poets. You of course have helped to encourage this interest. Can you place Music for Porn in relation to several exemplary New Narrative poets, texts and/or concepts? Does it make sense to speak of a second-generation self-consciously consolidating inherited insights, experiments, practices? Or do New Narrative’s deft evasions of conventional literary categorization preclude such distinctions in the first place?
Rob Halpern: Where to begin with my relation to New Narrative? I’d been out of school seven years before I found myself in Dodie Bellamy’s writing workshop in 1996. One crucial forum for nourishing young Bay Area writers is this network of writing workshops that take place in writers’ homes. Finding myself in Dodie’s workshop (with Kevin Killian participating) allowed me to realize that my writing actually might be legible. After the death of my first love, James, in 1995, I’d lived in a state of terrible doubt and uncertainty—not only about the readability of my work but whether a writing community existed for me. Yet by then, forces of attraction already had taken over. In the late ’80s, when I arrived in San Francisco, I’d looked up three writers who I knew lived here and with whom I felt a sense of affinity and desire for apprenticeship. I actually looked up, in the phone book, Robert Glück, Aaron Shurin and Kathy Acker, and just by way of a cold call I sent them each a naive fan letter, together with what must have been a crappy piece of writing. I dropped these cold calls into the void of the U.S. postbox. After several months, I received generous, encouraging responses from both Aaron and Bob. Never heard from Kathy. Perhaps she’d already left San Francisco. But the fact that I received positive responses from Bob and Aaron was incredibly important. It offered a departure point of sorts, a permission-giver, though it would take five more years before I’d actually meet Bob through Dodie’s workshop (I met Aaron sooner). Bob also ran a workshop out of his home, and I began to attend that in 1997. He became a crucial mentor, a teacher and now he’s a dear friend, as is Bruce Boone, who makes a cameo early in Music for Porn, in the first sentences of “Envoi,” which serves as a kind of introduction to the book. Bruce’s Century of Clouds and My Walk with Bob remain classic New Narrative works, and my “Envoi” invokes Bruce’s writing, in part because I fear Music for Porn betrays New Narrative values. So “Envoi” rehearses a moment from a walk I took with Bruce, when he asked about my book’s obsessively recurrent figure of the male soldier. For Music for Porn to pass as New Narrative, that soldier would need to be a person in my life with a nameable name. Instead, the soldier feels more like a negative imprint of all my social relations—a feeling I announce by citing this conversation with my friend Bruce. Of course the soldier, sadly, will never become my friend, which helps suggest the stakes in this book, and why friendship remains so crucial to its structure. In “Envoi” I write, “This would be the place in the story where Bruce asks me about the figure of the soldier in my book, and whether it has some bearing on my intimate life, or whether the soldier is merely an abstraction is the flesh real? and I’m struck by his manner of asking.” Bruce’s question contains serious implications for my writing, and I want to foreground this while simultaneously introducing the soldier as a cornerstone in the architecture of a fantasy. This departs from early New Narrative works such as My Walk with Bob or Robert Glück’s Elements of a Coffee Service, both of which were formative for me. I can’t imagine myself as a writer without that work. At the same time, I feel as though I’ve departed from both texts’ writerly values, insofar as Music for Porn privileges a critical fantasy over the narration of living relationships. That said, Music for Porn’s soldier fantasy seems inseparable from my lived social relations. And here I could point to a tension I feel I’ve inherited between New Narrative practice (developed among primarily gay writers in the early ’80s) and a politics of form that one might say characterizes Bay Area Language writing, if not Language writing in general, whose rigorous critique of conventional narrative values also has shaped my poetics. I don’t want to reproduce familiar generalizations, though. New Narrative shares an equal investment in form yet proceeds from a different political stance and probes distinct formal problems. In my own talks and essays such as “The Restoration of [Bob Perelman’s] ‘China,’” I’ve attempted to rethink this relationship between New Narrative and Language, for example, by way of Soup magazine’s second issue, edited by Steve Abbott, who christened the phrase “New Narrative.” That prescient journal issue articulates and illustrates what this “New Narrative” project might look like. Most impressive about that issue of Soup is Steve’s decision to include a wide range of writers representing divergent literary practices—creating conditions for what Jacques Rancière calls “dissensus,” or the perceptible presence of two worlds in one. Steve’s expansive editorial vision provides new possibilities for presenting tensions among various poetic approaches within a complicated early ’80s Bay Area writing ecology. Similarly, in early issues of Poetics Journal, Barrett Watten and Lyn Hejinian adopt practices of inclusion, again to make legible productive tensions and differences. Only in the afterlife of such projects, amid what often go by the name of the “poetry wars,” do we think of these dynamic, syncretic, symbiotic writing communities as discrete, segregated, sectarian schools. So here I’ve offered a circuitous response to your question. I too find those historical tensions outlined above quite productive. I’d like to think that my work engages and complicates the relationship between both projects—through its movement toward narrative, certainly, but a narrative as indebted to Lyn Hejinian’s and Carla Harryman’s mode of distributive narrative (or non/narrative) as to forms of storytelling that I learned through my apprenticeship to Bruce’s and Bob’s work.
Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Lasky’s Book Thunderbird (Wave). Recorded June 22nd. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Your title could seem goofy, but doesn’t. That poise amid potential vulnerability makes it smart and charming. And you’ve never been shy about your admiration for Plath. So can we start with this title, Thunderbird? Do you enjoy picturing thunderbirds? I personally do.
Dorothea Lasky: A confluence of ideas made me decide on that title. First, I tend to write from the ground up. I finish individual poems without necessarily possessing some book-length idea. Then as I collected these poems, I noticed themes of airplanes, flight, large mechanical birds and different demonic forces—also death and the transference between life and death. My mom’s a professor of Native American art, so I grew up around Native American imagery. The thunderbird of course connects to a Plath poem. But once I decided to call this book Thunderbird, many thunderbirds started popping up. A murder story happened at the Thunderbird Motel. My parents drove Thunderbird cars. There’s the liquor. And some readers make comparisons to the search engine, though that seems less of an inspiration.
Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Tiffany’s book Neptune (Omnidawn). Recorded June 13th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: In Neptune Park’s epigraph, Strabo, the Roman geographer, declares, “I shrink from giving too many of the names, shunning the unpleasant task of writing them down—unless it comports with the pleasure of someone.” I’m interested in the role preemptive or productive apology plays in your poetics. Who are some of your favorite apologizers? Robert Walser comes to mind, perhaps Joe Brainaird.
Daniel Tiffany: I haven’t thought this through carefully, whether Strabo’s statement suggests strategic calculation or an embarrassed admission. I like the way he doesn’t just apologize for the obscurity of certain names and places but acknowledges his hope of “comporting” with someone’s pleasure. I appreciate an apologetics qualified by the hope that someone out there just might want to hear terribly dull things. I also love Strabo’s way of cataloging obscure places, tribes, peoples he has heard or read about—almost as an obligation, from a sense of duty.
Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Schwartz’s book At Element (Talisman House). Recorded June 9th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts
Andy Fitch: Could we start with your title page, which identifies these works as “prose poems”? Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but the phrase “prose poems” makes me think of Max Jacob, James Tate, John Ashbery’s “Three Poems.” Your long, serialized, Adorno-esque pieces feel more like essayistic meditations. Though can you outline a prose-poem tradition in which projects like “The Sleep Talkers” fit? Do Edmond Jabès and Francis Ponge count as prose poets?
Leonard Schwartz:At Element combines lineated poems and prose formats. The long prose poem “The Sleep Talkers” almost passes over into a kind of lyric philosophy or lyric essay, departing from Baudelairian or Rimbaudian prose poetry. I read a lot of Nathalie Stephens, the contemporary Canadian writer, while developing this piece. I even obliquely addressed parts to her. Jabès long has interested me, though I didn’t read him much at the time. But Jabès constructs a textual form that allows him to think, specifically to engage in poetic thinking—which skirts oppositional binaries to plumb the richness of metaphor. And I do take Adorno quite seriously as a prose stylist, though At Element lacks the philosophical density or ambition one finds at the level of the proposition in Adorno.
Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Kim Stefans’ book Viva Miscegenation (Make Now). Recorded June 25th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: For readers most familiar with Brian Kim Stefans the practitioner of digital poetics, could you outline your early development as a poet—specifically in relation to this manuscript’s playful, art-savvy, personal-without-the-person aesthetics reminiscent of the New York School? Reading Viva Miscegenation I thought I recalled the jocular tones of some John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett maybe; the sentence-based propositions of Lewis Warsh; the serial constructs of, in different ways, Kenneth Koch and Ted Berrigan; and then the subsequent, reconstructed lyricism of Eileen Myles, John Yau, David Trinidad.
Brian Kim Stefans: I’ve certainly read most of those poets. The younger poets you mentioned, such as John Yau or Eileen Myles, have interested me, yet none of them captivated me the way Ashbery and O’Hara did. Those two, like Ezra Pound among the modernists, presented this fantastic way to learn about an era’s artists. Reading Ashbery’s art criticism, you discover a bunch of authors and painters and cracked idealists you might not otherwise have come across. But I first began writing poetry very much under the sway of Pound and Arthur Rimbaud and Sylvia Plath. Prior to coming to New York I’d read anybody—both Robert Creeley and Robert Lowell, for instance. Language poetics didn’t stand out until I’d moved to New York. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein baffled me at first, but soon I was drawing quite a lot of ideas and inspiration from their work. When poets first got to know me that’s the kind of writing I seemed to do. Nobody sensed how much I borrowed from Lowell or Philip Larkin or John Berryman. Viva Miscegenation does have one poem that I consider “after” Elizabeth Bishop. I try to remain open to all writers I’ve engaged with some seriousness in the past (Hopkins is another example). And now that I’ve moved away from New York, I’ve started to see my poems as texts that circulate in a broader culture with no idea who I am or what my literary circles are. Though part of why I took to Language poets was they appeared to follow through on what most interested Pound—innovation. Pound categorizes (I can’t remember exactly) three or four classes of poets. After innovators come those that exploit the innovations, say Robert Browning.