Caleb Beckwith with J Gordon Faylor

gpdf-cCaleb Beckwith: In your recent interview with Tan Lin over at Harriet, you give a really helpful account of Gauss PDF’s founding. Would you mind, in few sentences, recapping this for readers not familiar with that piece? And maybe also expanding a bit on the site’s editorial agenda—that is if gauss even has one? Also, how as any of this changed over GPDF’s now four-year history?

J Gordon Faylor: GPDF was catalyzed by a desire common to many small publications/presses: wanting the work of friends and others made more readily available. I still find problematic the vetting processes and sometimes latent conservatism promulgated by publications/labels as a means of iterating a curatorially-determined set, and wanted to enable a more open platform for various cultural productions not limited to, but including poetics. Having spent a few years in New York and Philadelphia, I was fortunate to find overlapping groups and networks sufficient for getting a little Tumblr venture off the ground.

The initial fantasy was GPDF would function as a hub specifically for audio—readings, studio productions of published works (i.e. audiobooks). However, it quickly became clear that by loosening these strictures and including any kind of filetype, the site could feasibly encourage unexpected results.

The name is a pun on Gaussian probability distribution functions—a type of dither—and Adobe’s popular Portable Document Format filetype. Moreover, “dither” also means indecision, which pairs well with the indeterminate issued by GPDF.

No agenda, but maybe a haphazard pendularity between a perceived ideal—i.e., that GPDF has nothing to do with my preferences and serves as a kind of infrathin platform for the staging of submitted works—and the messy reality of taste, limitations, rejection emails, interviews, and so on. That said, I like to support work that doesn’t have an outlet elsewhere, as well as ‘entities’ that haven’t yet been published or made known. Maybe this inclination comes from spending time on Tumblr and Twitter, where the boundaries between ‘artist’ and ‘non-artist’ are unclear. GPDF welcomes the difficulties and challenges unusual or unprecedented work can reveal.

This approach has changed very little, fundamentally. I think. I feel very fortunate that the site has garnered support (and consequently, momentum) from individuals and organizations, via social media and conversation—all of which in turn has brought it to an international audience.

Also, the cover image changed once, and I started using Typekit for some of the fonts. We moved to San Francisco.

CB: Thanks for bringing up this lack of an agenda—and also the limits that such an ideal can’t help but encounter. The sheer variety of pieces housed on Gauss remains, for me, one of the most compelling aspects of the site. Looking now, around 3pm Eastern on Friday, September 5, the first three pieces I see are Aidan Holmans’ video piece “Sometimes I leave my house and feel like I’m still at home.”, Leopold Brant’s (aka Felix Bernstein) book of poems “Dandyisms,” and Rocksteady mix by Bloodfaceman. Scrolling further, I see Eric Laska’s conversation before leaving “Acting on Impulse” in Los Angeles this summer and Anna Crew’s “Smart Casual,” which I might call a “catalog” first and “poem” second. You’ll have to excuse the list here. The most recent publications just exemplify this “perceived ideal” without running into it—something that, I imagine at least, might crash the site with infinitely large files.

I guess I first wonder how you see these pieces interacting with each other? And if you even think about this at all? And I now have a better way of asking my first two questions: has the variety of material received by GPDF changed over time? And more importantly, how? Clearly exposure has broadened both your reader and contributor list, but do you feel that you’ve noticed any distinct aesthetic shifts among the Gauss pool of writers/artists that you’d feel comfortable attributing to larger cultural/aesthetic phenomenon? I imagine the sample size might simply prove too simply large/diverse here. Yet I’ve heard mention of a “Gauss aesthetic” in conversation before, and, somehow, felt that I maybe understood the statement—even though I couldn’t come close to defining its terms.

As you might imagine, the obligatory question concerning “conceptual writing” lies behind this previous one. I’ve found that GPDF—along with TROLL THREAD—inevitably comes up in conversation about that seemingly controversial topic. I guess I’m interested in knowing how, if at all, you see GPDF engaging with conceptual writing practices, and whether that terminology is even valuable for the work GPDF does?

JGF: The catalog’s progression is predicated on a rather subjective and unreliable notion of sequence. It’s unclear if this approach is legible to others or in fact goes some way toward synthesizing the catalog, but it’s been quite helpful to me in terms of plotting out a loose or obscure narrative thread between the divergences of the hosted works.

Beyond that, there’s a lot of room for interaction between the publications, whether explicit—as in the case of Tonya St. Clair’s two published works, or Feliz Lucia Molina and Reynard Seifert’s upcoming collaboration, sections of which remix some of Molina’s already-published writings—or implicit, and so resulting from social contingencies and shared compulsions.

Given that the quantity of submissions GPDF receives from ‘new’ contributors (i.e. those who have not yet appeared on the site) exceeds that of multiple submissions from single contributors, it becomes especially difficult to trace an evolutionary (or retroactive) pattern. Even more so for me because I’m ‘in it’.

I referred to a narrative compulsion above, but again, this is more the product of a temporal aesthetic or thematic resonance—a quiet strategy—than an attempt to foster ideological coherence. It seems like some other small presses/publishers take on, say, a ‘personality’ when communicating through social media; this is something I want to avoid, though maybe that is impossible.

Additionally, I will say that it seems as though the the boundaries of certain media are thankfully becoming less and less clear and cross-pollinate on a more regular basis, both on GPDF and elsewhere—the concern being not whether we might call something an “image” or “poem”, but where and how those terms might vanish into or mutate one another, or what might be gained from obfuscating quotidian reference points for such productions. A side note: in my Harriet interview with Tan Lin, I think I was a little wanton in my employing the term “genre”. While I’d still argue that genre is a helpful concept for delineating or even isolating a certain practice, I no longer think that (for instance) file type is commensurate with genre, though I’m open to that notion being challenged.

Besides, so much is out of ‘my’ control: these austere, managerial inclinations and terminological/genre-prone scramblings remain helpless against the processes of historicization, academic or otherwise. GPDF, like TROLL THREAD, has a complicated relationship with “Conceptual writing” and other strains of contemporary art, and some contributors (myself included) are socially entwined with it. This has obvious benefits, and in some way it has helped to legitimize the site in an unwieldy and densely packed American/international poetry/art milieu.

But it goes both ways: there’s always the chance for crass reductionism, and people are always ready to make assumptions based on affiliations. Differentiation drives GPDF, but such attempts at nuanced distinction may end up folded into themselves by a larger and more established enterprise. I have a lot of admiration for Felix Bernstein’s Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, which situates GPDF as a kind of ‘post-conceptual’ publication, but still admittedly do some hand-wringing over the designation.

This is all to say that, basically, I’m not sure what the GPDF aesthetic is; maybe you could elaborate? In any case, it’s important that we continue questioning the formal models that belie apparently unconsidered productions.

CB: I totally feel your first point about genre distinctions. This may prove a product of the communities I run in, but it seems like nearly everyone I know who produces writing of some sort inevitably produces pieces containing more than. Of course, the focus on writing with a particular media itself presupposes a particular attunement of attention—i.e. that we focus on the text, rather than the codex if it happens to appear in a book. or the computer a pdf, etc.

What I mean is that, as a writer working in a contemporary moment, the bounds of writing and poetry proper seem not only profoundly limited, but very quickly eroding across the board. Things like art books, websites and whatever have all contained super interesting language for a really long time, but the cool thing is that I am now noticing a critical mass of “writers” across various traditions (“conceptual” or otherwise) viewing these media as another layer of their piece. Its as if the frame has expanded not only from the stanza to the page, but the page or whatever to the desk, etc.

This is, of course, all old news to folks used to reading not only works housed on sites like Gauss/TT, but also the latter twentieth’s century’s history of innovative writing. That said, I can’t reiterate enough how much I’ve seen the influence of that supposed “Gauss aesthetic” all over the place. I think of a workshop with a poet writing about traditional concerns of the self in a way that I’m not particularly into, but incorporating things like IP address histories and email patterns as a matter of course. I’d say this sort of technological intervention leads out of where said writer wanted to go and into some—for me, at least—much more interesting places, but, the point of it is, this sort of fissure seems to be spreading across  something we might call “poetry proper.” As a writer with neither interest nor place in “the proper” (not to mention “poetry”), I find this very exciting.

I wonder, do you notice these things? And is GPDF even invested enough in subjects like the definition of something called “poetry” for you to consider it? And would elaborating on F. Berstein’s Notes get us closer to that question?

JGF: Your zoom-out (poem-to-page-to-desk) is a particularly helpful move re: the development you discuss, though it may risk ‘mere’ philosophizing (e.g. existentialism, OOO); it’s an outward grappling that emphasizes context and the incidental aspects of production, possibly a way to suggest non-production. Given the largely unexplored quality of this approach, what eventually matters is the interpositioning of a figure within a larger set of environments and concepts. And to avoid phenomenology.

This also begs a kind of negative of the holistic or recuperative reading of impelled ‘poetic’ production (i.e. the ‘poem’ absorbs or becomes ‘life’): rather, we might ask, what refuses the work? By dint of the technological framework through which a human’s poem functions, there are technical/biological/ecological limitations as well as surreptitious legal backdrops. Google owns this correspondence, to name one (though it has also been edited in Word). These questions have helped me get through this lurid swamp of so much essentialist and/or metaphysical shit related to art, much of which posits art as a kind of Romantic Dominance over world and identity, whereby conditions of reciprocal ecological conditions are subjugated to the poet’s processing technique and style. The Great Pacific garbage patch is like ‘our’ selfie against the ocean; it exhibits a very real will to power over one’s environment. On a much smaller scale—and more pertinent to this ‘scene’—consider the constant hyperbolics and flimsiness of blurbs, the purpose of which is usually to translate thematics into sales. Distinguishing releases by filetype allows GPDF in some small way to sidestep this inclination via its ostensible ‘neutrality’, though of course there is no real escape.

Also, something that pleases me about this approach is the degree to which it allows for a multiplicity/confluence of identities, as well as accident or automation. To resign oneself to an agora as expansive as the Internet may compel approaches like appropriation and duplication—if only, say, as self-immolating critique of its military-industrial origins. And these are modes that haven’t even really been formally conceptualized so much as attitudinally deployed, anyhow.

So these unexplored means of differentiation are what excites GPDF, apparently, as they dispute the mire of personality and aesthetic that constitutes so much ‘poetry discourse’ and other interfacing tactics. I’m not interested in a definition for poetry so much as the tensions its many definitions exhibit when in the midst of other forms, or when placed in a more general complex of disciplines and approaches.

As for Notes, it does seem to register these categorical breakdowns. When I first read it, I couldn’t tell whether I should be reading it as performance or criticism or memoir. Felix also really covers a lot of ground and speaks effectively to an impulse that may be fictionalized enough to run through a number of ‘younger’ writers, though I’m not sure I can verify that in any substantial way.

There is as well the consequence of staking territory that accompanies any inaugural critical investigation of a largely untouched group of writers and artists, i.e. generating academic capital. Felix is aware of this or at least makes that difficulty palpable and ironizes it. I’m not sure how much more I can say, regretfully, as I hesitate to suggest that GPDF publications (in general) are exemplary of any mode, let alone the ‘post-conceptual’. Rather, it’s like situating ‘reporting’ against ‘curation’—to err on the side of presentation rather than hermeneutics.

CB: I totally feel your imperative to “avoid phenomenology.” It both says and does a ton in the context of our conversation about the supposed challenges brought to categories like “poetry” by GPDF and others. Having mentioned it, I can’t help but also ask about GPDF’s function within a larger literary landscape. I’ve found that readers typically find a great deal of permission in the array of works hosted by GPDF, manifest in their categorization by file type, among other things. I think its wise to avoid complicating that with any direct comments on their functions for you as an editor—especially for the weighted category of “exemplary” works and the like.

I’d like to ask you, then, as a reporter, about another work. I originally conceived this interview around the time that Gauss released Steve McLaughlin’s fantastic Puniverse. For those not familiar with the work, Puniverse is a fifty-seven volume work described by Steve as:

  being the ingenuous
  crossing of an idiom set
  and a rhyming dictionary

Outside of mentioning that I have seriously considered buying all 57 material volumes from lulu, I’ll avoid getting into that work any further to avoid the common conflation of example and exemplary. However, I will ask what, if any, weight you give that work as GPDF’s 100th release?

Or, if you’d prefer, maybe just anything on that work in general. I’m currently revisiting it in all three file formats (57 pdfs, on massive txt doc and web 1.0 page labeled “nfo” that I’d somehow missed until now), and its more striking than ever. I have to admit that, upon its release, I did feel a pull towards viewing this work as not so much exemplary as exhausting the perceived trope in conceptual writing as categorically large works. Its as if Puniverse almost exhausts exhaustion, a gesture I can’t help but appreciate both as a reader and writer. But my response to Puniverse feels almost idiosyncratic at this point.

JGF: I can’t deny subjectivity outright. But I guess I also like to be dazzled sometimes. There is—I confess—a celebratory-strategic purpose in placing a work as unwieldy and beautifully executed as Puniverse in the 100th slot, but I guess it shouldn’t be construed as ‘representative’ beyond a basic grab at fleeting publicity. GPDF also gets into a kind of oblique numeromancy or numerological recurrence once in a blue moon, though this may not be the best example.

Puniverse does engender some concerns related to Conceptual writing (e.g. textual automation, poetry as informational output), but beyond the relatively simple premise that spurs the algorithm, I’d say that it manages to generate humor (macro/micro), as well as a narratological mystery, consequent to the unclear pairing of an image from Shiv Kotecha’s stunning Instagram account with each volume. Where the algorithmic output will ‘unquestionably’ perform its function across the 57 volumes, the implications of Kotecha’s images encourage questions or inferences of ‘some’ narrative, of entangled modes of expressivity and inexpressivity. Anyhow, I love Puniverse, and Steve is great in general. What’s up Steve.

J. Gordon Faylor’s work has been published by TROLL THREADbas-booksOrWorse, and Cordite Poetry Review, among others. He edits Gauss PDF.

Angela Buck on Leonard Schwartz with Nada Gordon

Nada Gordon
Nada Gordon

This monthly series features highlights from the Cross Cultural Poetics archive. Cross Cultural Poetics is one of the longest-running radio shows in America focused on contemporary poetry and poetics. Based at The Evergreen State College and hosted by Leonard Schwartz, the entire archive, running from 2003 to the present, can be accessed on PennSound.

This month from the Cross-Cultural Poetics archive, I’ve chosen an interview with poet Nada Gordon that originally aired in the fall of 2004. Gordon briefly discusses the eleven years that she lived in Tokyo, as well as the influence and subsequent reaction against the Haiku aesthetic in her work. She reads from the sonically rich and sprawling Are Not Our Lowing Heifers Sleeker Than Night-Swollen Mushrooms? (Spuyten Duyvil) and talks about the importance of cadence in this book, the desire to “beat out a pulse,” as well as to work against any set “rules of composition.” —Angela Buck


Nada Gordon was born in Oakland in 1964 and has lived in Bolinas, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Brooklyn. Her seven books of poetry includeVile LiltScented RushesFolly, and V. Imp. A founding member of the Flarf Collective, she has performed widely in the USA and abroad. Her poems have been translated into Japanese, Icelandic, Hebrew, and Burmese. She teaches English as a Foreign Language at Pratt Institute.

The Poet “Ai” and I: Dramatic Monologues Unite—Celeste Guzmán Mendoza

Celeste Guzmán Mendoza
Celeste Guzmán Mendoza (photo credit: Mari Correa)

This piece is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations with poets of color following a series of cross-solidarity readings and panels among poets involved with organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers), Institute of American Indian Arts and VONA (Voices at Our Nations Arts Foundation). Celeste Guzmán Mendoza shared an earlier version of this talk at the Intersecting Lineages panel at the 2013 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Boston.

I am not a drama queen but a drama connoisseur. I’ve always enjoyed a good monologue, a booming rant. Since I was child, I would act out monologues, or what I called back then my shows, personas I would create loosely based on a family member (or more) and characters I saw on TV. My favorite was Mae West with a dash of my grandmother, “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime, no que no?”

So when I first came to poetry, many of my first poems were monologues that I hoped to perform one day, a-la-one-woman show, I was inspired by Carmen Tafolla’s work; she was recently named Poet Laureate of San Antonio and primarily writes narrative poems. Many of her poems are written in TexMex, my native tongue, and her characters reside in the West Side of San Antonio, where I grew up, and are about people that resemble my family. Yes, my family was my first inspiration—so many characters.

However, unlike her characters, the personas in my poems mainly spoke about violence. It made sense; at a young age, I was a survivor of sexual and physical abuse. It was a constant companion in my writing and in high school began to express itself in various voices. These poems were of course connected to my experience but the voices, the characters, the narratives were not mine but those sometimes of the perpetrator of the violent acts or the mother of the victim or the father of the victimizer.

For years, I fought against this natural tendency to write these long monologues that explored violence because I wanted so much to be the lyric poet (in English only), who wrote about wheelbarrows and raindrops. I wanted to fit my imagery and unwieldy bilingual characters into trim and slim poems that barely filled a page. I had read Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton by then so knew that it was not abnormal to write about violence but the idea of outing my family or making my poems fit the stereotypes of Latinos—that we are hot blooded, etc.—did not settle well with me at all. Why couldn’t I just write about the alley-way less traveled by instead?

Fast forward to my late twenties—I was in the throws of my first year at the Bennington Writing Seminars and my teacher at the time, Ethelbert Miller, introduced me to the poet Ai. Her work emboldened me to stand gracefully alongside the characters that came to me, to let them speak their truth no matter their relationship to the inherent violence they would relay; to put aside my fears about what my writing might or might not represent about my family or any other Latino family; and not to be afraid of the poet critics who would strike down the narrative form of the dramatic monologue. She gave me the power to not give in to fear—about anything.

As a result, I embrace my monologues for what they are—an opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes and tell her or his story, straight-up, no holds barred, sin pelos en la lengua. This particular form has taken over my second book as it is a book-length poem written in three distinct voices.

The poet Ai won the National Book Award for Vice: New and Selected Poems in 1999. Her other titles include: Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate, Greed, and No Surrender. She passed in 2010; posthumously, Norton published the Collected Poems of Ai, which recently came out with an introduction by Yusef Kumunyakaa. She identified as a multi-racial and multi-ethnic poet as she was a mix of Irish, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Southern Cheyenne, Comanche, Black and Japanese.

Ai admited that she wrote in the first-person because she felt that in comparison to other poems she had written, the monologues were her strongest. She also liked taking on different personas.

In an interview with Pedestal Magazine in 2003, she said:

This approach allows me to become someone else, like an actor … stepping into other characters, creating someone from the ground up, so to speak. I try to create an entire psychology. In a sense, I’m the playwright, the director, and the actor in these poems.

I could relate. However, unlike me, many of the “scoundrels,” as she called them, that she took on had very little in common with her personal story. It was not until her second-to-last book that she began to integrate more of her personal narrative into her poems, but even then she admitted that she would fictionalize parts as well.

Yet the focus remained on the scoundrels, the flawed characters, people you would not want to like or love. Take an excerpt of her poem, “Child Beater” from Cruelty:

Outside, the rain, pinafore of gray water, dresses the town
and I stroke the leather belt,
as she sits in the rocking chair,
holding a crushed paper cup to her lips.
I yell at her, but she keeps rocking;
… It’s been seven years, but I still can’t forget how I felt.
How heavy it feels to look at her.
… I grab the belt and beat her across the back
until her tears, beads of salt-filled glass, falling,
shatter on the floor.

Stark and honest, the persona in this poem feels no guilt for her actions. She is in the right; she feels that she not only has the right to beat this child but believes she is in the right.

Though I first read this poem more than seven years ago, I discovered while I was working on this talk that it greatly inspired one of my recent poems in my second book, which I’m currently writing. The book, titled Milagros, explores the relationship among a father, mother and daughter. The father, Eduardo, who is a Vietnam veteran, exercised his violent nature upon his daughter without much intervention from her mother.

I never hit hit her. Beat her, as she said. She said, You beat me. I never beat her. Spanked her. Yes. Slapped her. Yes. Beat her. No. She does not know what a beating is. A beating is blood. She never bled. Not once. Not a single drop. Not in my house. She’s wrong. She lies. Talks back. Besides if I did not do it, she’d get it worse when she got older. Imagine? Imagine? Her going everywhere so high and mighty. She needed discipline. She needed control. She needed to be taught. Going to school like that, going out to the barrio like that, going out, out, out, in the world like that. Her mother wouldn’t do it. Couldn’t. So I did. I pushed her down so she would not try to come up in the barrio without knowing it would be hard. She’d be dead. I trained her. Thank God. She had to know. Be taught.  And maybe she hated me. I don’t have to be loved. I’m not a woose. I am a man. Father. She’s my blood. She’s my blood. My blood. Mine. Responsibility.

This poem appears alongside others wherein the father describes the violence he witnessed and perpetrated in Vietnam as a soldier and the love he tried to express and instill in his daughter. He’s clear that his actions were right actions for what he believes his daughter needs in order to survive, which is closely related of course to what he felt he needed to survive.

His daughter, Milagros, “Miracles” in English, talks about her relationship with her father and mother later in the book:

I thought everyone was at war with their parents. That all children had bruises, welts, they hid. Long sleeves and pants even in the hundred degree heat. I thought all kids ran when they heard the chink of the belt unbuckling, the slithering of the leather as it freed itself from the pant loops. I thought everyone crouched in the corner under their bed, the looped belt visible, hanging low, so like a noose. I thought all kids, my friends, flinched when the belt fell on their back, their waist, their knees or feet. Stand still when it comes because if you move, try to run, it could hit your neck or face. Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around, it could come down. Your nose, your cheek, or mouth and then they would all see it at school. I thought all kids feared, hated their parents. I did. I would sometimes daydream that they were dead and I was alone at the dinner table my second-hand-store Barbie and ceramic Jesus in their spots. But there were good times too. Yes. He would put me on his shoulders. She would give me cookie batter. We would all play cards. Black Jack and poker. They would let me win. And birthday cakes always. And a single present. Not more than one. Never new of course but one is better than none.

This poem relates very well with “Discipline” by Ai, which appeared in No Surrender.

It was Vegas. It was 1954, one hundred fifteen degrees in the shade
and my half-sister,
Roslynn, was on her knees, begging Mom not to whip her. She said
she didn’t mean it
As tears streamed down her cheeks. She was getting what she
deserved, because she had
Taken a hairpin and scratched the toes of all my mother’s shoes,
… now I was going to
pay for it, because according
To Mom, I hadn’t done what she’d told me—“Watch your sister
and don’t let her do anything.
Wrong.” Ha! As if I could control the little monster. Still, I was
going to pay in a big way, but I
Wouldn’t beg or anything else to let Mom think I was a baby
like my sister. No, I said to myself
As Mom grabbed the heavy tooled leather cowboy belt with the
copper buckle that had a
Longhorn engraved on it…I had nowhere
To go, but back to face the rock ‘n’ roll …
I was only seven and I had already learned enough.

In both of these poems, the speaker—a woman remembering her younger self—relays a single memory or layers of memories of the physical violence a parent bestowed upon her and how that violence, the repeated violence, formed her sensibilities about her relationships with her family members, and ultimately a part of her identity that influences how she relates to others now. The tone of the poems is neither self-deprecating nor hysterical but matter-of-fact, which adds to the discomforting feeling we experience in hearing them relay their situation.

The aspect of Ai’s work that I find most magnetic and charged, is how she uses the dramatic monologue as a way to pull the reader in. To have us all walk in the shoes of the scoundrel and follow that character’s emotional arc as he or she relays her experience. By doing this the work itself becomes transformative.

As she mentions in a volume of Standards:

… I’m talking about a transformation. My characters are trying—in their narration of their past lives or what they’ve done, or trying to make a case for what they did—they are, in some respects, trying to transform themselves. And, if not themselves, they’re trying to transform people’s ideas about them.

I feel that my current book project is exploring just that, as all three characters are begging to be understood, and mostly by themselves, because there is so much guilt around what they did or didn’t do with the violence they lived—absorbed or perpetrated.

I honor Ai and her work. They have empowered me to not be ashamed to speak my truth no matter how ugly or distasteful, and released my inner critic about the power of the dramatic monologue, a form which is both revealing and transformative.

Celeste Guzmán Mendoza, born and raised in San Antonio, is a published poet and playwright. Her manuscript, Beneath the Halo, was published in 2013 by Wings Press, and was named Best Poetry Book of 2013 by Marcela Landres. She recently received an Honorable Mention award from Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation. Mendoza is a Macondista and a Hedgebrook fellow. She is co-director and co-founder of CantoMundo, a national poetryworkshop for Latina/o poets.

Rachel B. Glaser with Natalie Lyalin

Glaser LyalinNatalie Lyalin’s second book of poetry, Blood Makes Me Faint, but I Go for It (2014 Ugly Duckling Press), constantly negotiates issues of scale.  The narrator has a “mild stigmata.” In another poem, “Bad things happened, but I harvested a giant pepper and ate it whole.”  The narrator is often humble and matter-of-fact, though not without danger or conflict—“terrible jokes leapt out of me,” “I was exhausted and very mean,” “something changes in my eyes and I am terrifying.”  This anxiety or unpleasantness isn’t separate from the world—it is one of the cornerstone qualities of living.  “My head in an ache from all the life I was in.”  The poems show how the experience of living is constantly changing and often horrifying. “The sun had many knives of light.” The poems find a cutting beauty within the terror and uncertainty.  This is how life has always been. “What happened in caves in still happening indoors.”  

Rachel B. Glaser: I keep imagining this book as a sort of nonlinear Anne Frank experience. The poems feel confessional and diary-like, but as if they come from a narrator who has seen her own end, and the end of us all.  The portrait on the cover encourages this reading.  It is hard for me not to see all the narrators as this young female. There is a coping and confusion that I can relate back to Anne Frank’s diary, even if the writing style and content is very different.  The lines have the starkness of truth to them.  Every exclamation mark tears the line in two ways– one, a teenager exaggerating for attention (writing sensationalist letters home?)(taking over a chat room?) and two, a woman absorbing the grief of the world and calling out, finding no one, but still calling, like someone narrating their own last words, their private worries, someone writing to confirm existence, message in a bottle-style.

Natalie Lyalin: Writing to you from a Dunkin’ Donuts in Bethany Beach, Delaware, so hopefully my answers will take on an air of sugar and horror.

The Anne Frank comparison is startling to me, in a good way. I can see similarities between the narratorsin that they want to bear witness to the present and past, and imagine a future.  I think that’s why I’m so taken with the concept of time travel. I mean, I would never want to actually do it because I’ve seen enough Quantum Leap to know that one time misstep can ruin EVERYTHING, but that time travel is one of the function of poems, or maybe just my poems. There is power in writing, and Frank’s writing is such a clear and beautiful testament to that. Same with the message in a bottle concept – there’s this insane hope that you can make contact with someone across an ocean and maybe they will get your message, physically, emotionally…what is that if not the act of being a reader and writer?

RBG: Totally!  Do you think of the narrators in the book as one mega-narrator? Or variations of one narrator?

NL: I see it as multiple voices coming from one mega-narrator. I don’t think that was an intentional choice in the beginning. But it took me four years to compile these poems, and they were written on two different continents (while I was in Israel, and then back in America), so there’s a lot of time and experience that stands between some of the poems, so it makes sense that the narrator is kind of fluid.

RBG: When you speak about time travel, are you ever including reincarnation? There were a few poems that made me think of reincarnation, especially: “Zusya, Open Your Ears,” “The New New Testament,” and “In The Future We Are Not Screaming,” all of which appear in a row in the middle of the book.

NL: Sometimes, yes! Sometimes it’s about putting myself as a witness in situations that I conjure from bits and pieces of family stories I’ve heard over the years. Sometimes it’s more of a eulogy – that’s the case with ‘The New New Testament.” I guess I’m being stubborn about not being able to be in the past or travel to the future. It just seems like it should be an option on some level, no?

RBG: It very well might be!  Have you read the book “Many Lives, Many Masters?”  The book is transcriptions of hypnotherapy sessions in the 1980’s, in which one patient is able to go back in her mind and tell of the different lives she has lived.  When the woman is deep in hypnosis and reporting about a particular life, her sentences are often stilted, like “I have a braid.  I am a woman in this life.  A slave.  I live in a hut.  My husband is in the field.  He is a good man.”  These aspects of her past life are stated very basically, flatly, and yet they are clues to an epic mystery.  I got a similar vibe from many of your poems.  Everyday sentiments and vast realizations occur in alternating lines, and some lines are somehow both.

NL: Rachel, That’s one of my mom’s favorite books! She’s told me all about it, and I think my aunt and uncle read and loved it too. I love that comparison. Writing is an incredibly powerful time travel tool. It’s the only way we can really do it, it’s all we’ve got.

RBG: Definitely!  I find reading and watching movies to be enormously transformative, and the best way to exit the confines of being oneself.  You should definitely read “Many Lives, Many Masters”!  It can be very convincing…  But moving away from the metaphysical and over to the technical—Do you often read your poems aloud when you are writing/editing them?

NL: I usually read them aloud at the very end, when the poem feels done. And then I’ll read them to Josh and see how he reacts. If he laughs and looks at me like I’m nuts, I know I’m going in a good direction.

RBG: What is your editing process? Are some of the poems in the book written in one take while others have undergone many drafts?

NL: I used to very much subscribe to the “first thought, best thought” method of editing (or not editing), but that wasn’t really possible to maintain after a while. With the “Blood”, I went back and looked over almost all the poems as I was writing them. I like to give poems a day or two just to exist, and then go in and work on them some more. I do trust that a majority of the poem will stay as originally envisioned, but there’s always room for trimming, taking away. I love doing that, but I try to be careful about it. I find that when I over-edit a poem there is absolutely no way to bring it back.

RBG: Why didn’t you put that amazing prayer-like poem that has the chorus “and you are alive and you are alive” in this book? Is it the star poem of your next book?

NL: That poem is called “Wolverine”, and you are so kind to mention it. That poem is definitely in the next manuscript. I have no idea where it came from, but I love the way it connects me with an audience. It’s incredibly fun and moving to read to people. Just reminding them that they are alive is strangely personal and uplifting.


Wool, wool, wolverine
Wolf Slonim

And you are alive! And you are alive! And you are alive!
And you are bowing in the direction of Jerusalem

And he was laughing in the bread line
And he was laughing in the milk line
And he was laughing in the soap line
And he was laughing in the meat line
And he was laughing in the flower line
And he was laughing in the shoe line

And you are alive! And you are alive! And you are alive!

And you are crying in the car
And you are crying on the phone
And you are crying at the movies
And you are crying at the sun
And you are crying at the stars
And you are crying on a mattress
And you are crying on a husband

And you are alive! And you are alive! And you are alive!

Wolf! Wolf Slonim.
That’s who. Who! Wolf. A whole wolf.
Vulf. Vulf Slonim. Vulf Carp.

And he was breathing in a village
And he was breathing out a car
And he was breathing in a war
And he was breathing out a bicycle
And he was breathing in a city
And he was breathing out a wagon

And you are alive! And you are alive! And you are alive!

And you are huffing in a field
And you are puffing out dust
And you are huffing in a pixel
And you puffing out a dot
And you are huffing in an ocean
And your puffing out sand

And you are alive! And you are alive! And you are alive!

Vulf. Vulf!

—this poem first appeared in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art

RBG: Great poem, Natalie!  Readers, I was lucky enough to witness Natalie read this poem as part of the Jubilat Jones Reading Series last year, and this poem was definitely the highlight!  The audience got chills when Natalie declared us living.  Our blood beat in agreement!  I’m glad we’ve just printed it on the Internet.  Natalie, you are on a roll!  Another brilliant and recent poem at Fanzine shares the dark humored, time-collaged visions of the “Blood Makes Me Faint, but I Go for It” poems.  “Are You Crazy” starts with G-d giving the people the Torah on the smallest mountain.  Here is a section from it:

The drones were out
humming the hymns
and we were on their radars
for sure, we were in the crosshairs
of that beautiful moment
And G-d was pissed
as always
We didn’t look right
We were flawed
Not in a moving way, either
In an annoying way

RBG: I love that one so much!  It really has it all—God, drones, flaws, beauty.  The spiritual and historical aspects of your poems are so sublime because they are never overstated.  These narrators aren’t academic scholars; they are cave woman geniuses from the future.

NL: Thanks, Rachel. I’ve been interested in the story of Moses for quite some time. There are so many inexplicably strange and scary elements to the story, including G-d frequently getting mad and, well, killing people. Which made me think about G-d being really disappointed and frustrated. So much of the wandering in the desert story is filled with these moments of confusion and uncertainty, so it was fun to imagine this exchange between the Almighty and his people.

RBG: Congratulations on your new book!  May it touch the eyes and ears of this world!

NL: Thank you, my dear! This was real.

Rachel B. Glaser is the author of “MOODS”, “Pee On Water,” and the forthcoming “Paulina & Fran.”  She lives in Western Mass surrounded by great writers.

Natalie Lyalin is the author of Blood Makes Me Faint, but I Go for It (Ugly Duckling Presse 2014), Pink & Hot Pink Habitat (Coconut Books 2009), and a chapbook, Try A Little Time Travel (Ugly Duckling Presse 2010). She lives in Philadelphia.

Asleep You Become a Continent: Philip F. Clark with Francisco Aragón

Francisco Aragón
Francisco Aragón

I came upon the work of Francisco Aragón the way the best loves happen: by accident. I was searching on a friend’s Facebook page for a review of a book he had read, and instead came across the cover image of Glow of Our Sweat. Miguel Angel Reyes’ “Glare”—that ecstatic face (a male St. Theresa!) stopped me in my tracks and I was mesmerized. I got off FB and searched Amazon for Francisco’s book. It came the next day, which I spent reading its quiet but emotionally loud poems. Few works make such an impression on me, but these resonated with me like old church bells that I remember as a child.

I never know where to begin to explain what certain poems do—how can we explain a silence that is answered for us, or that a poem so bare and honest and small as “In Secret” can light up immense sensations? I also loved that he wrote about places, films, personages that I know and have connection to—I don’t think anyone has written about the Townhouse bar! Louis Malle’s Au Voir Les Enfants had a deep impression on me. Rilke, Lorca, Madrid, Rome, Jack Spicer (a great love of mine), eroticism’s mysteries and wailings. He touched on these and other subjects, but I saw them as Aragón showed them: in the distinct mirror of his eyes. His work is immediate, true, and disarmingly familiar.

The book’s essay, “Flyer, Closet, Poem,” is remarkable for its insights; especially chilling was the passage about the young African-American man whose Favorite Poem Project video was rescinded by a famous late poet’s estate. But all of the essay’s perceptions of coming to “coming out”—from passing to covering to DIScovering—I read over and over.

What follows is an extensive interview, mostly about Glow of Our Sweat, but also about earlier, and newer, work. My hope is that our conversation might bring this small press title, which I discovered less than a year ago, new readers.Philip F. Clark

Philip F. Clark: In your Author’s Note, you state: “Glow of Our Sweat, more than a collection of poems, aspires to be a community of poems—multiple voices that mingle, converse, commiserate.” Considering that Glow also inhabits a multiplicity of forms—poems, prose, translations—the idea of a community speaks deeply to the lives and voices you gather in this collection. Can you speak to your choices in deciding to do this?

Francisco Aragón: The circumstances from which Glow of Our Sweat emerged were an indelible part of this experience.  In early 2008, I was asked to write a blurb for an anthology titled, Primera Página: Poetry From the Latino Heartland. It gathered work from the Latino Writers Collective (LWC), based in Kansas City, Missouri. I was both delighted and intrigued that such a group existed. I said Yes, read the manuscript, wrote the blurb and eventually received a copy of the book. A short time after that, Virginia Brackett, who curates Park University’s Ethnic Voices Poetry Series, invited me to the Kansas City area to read. During that trip, I met Ben Furnish, the man behind Scapegoat Press, who had published the Primera Página anthology. Ben was married to Linda Rodriguez, a member of the LWC, who had picked me up at the airport. The three of us became friends, and I also got to meet and spend time with other members of the collective, including José Faus, Xánath Caraza, and Gabriela Lemmons, among others. At the next Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, I found myself having breakfast with Ben and Linda and they showed me a chapbook that Scapegoat had published. I was impressed by what I’ll call its “book art-ness,” and mentioned that I was looking into doing a chapbook. Ben immediately expressed interest. This process, this community-building, if you will, informed the sentiment that went into the choices I made—from deciding to make this a queer book, to writing the essay that’s included in the book, to deciding to include translations. That “community of poems” I allude to in the “Author’s Note” also refers to the community I forged with the LWC during my various visits there, including an American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference in 2011, during which Ben organized a reading in which I was finally able to read from Glow of Our Sweat in Kansas City. This notion of the poems “commiserating” with one another was informed by the commiserating that took place during my visits there.

PFC: Glow exhumes, in a sense, the dead—Lorca, Whitman, Darío, Spicer—and you pay tribute to them as full presences who have inspired you, and thereby let them live again through your work. How have these poets fueled the making of this collection?

FA: These dead, yes. But also someone very much alive—the gay Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcón, who is represented in Glow with two poems, the Neruda/Lorca-inspired sonnet that I title, “Asleep You Become A Continent,” and “The Other Day I Ran Into Garcia Lorca.” These come from two books by Alarcón that I translated, and which were published over twenty years ago—Body in Flames (Chronicle Books, 1990) and Of Dark Love (Moving Parts Press, 1991). The older translations reflect the tentativeness of my writing then. I took very few risks, staying close to the literal Spanish. When Glow entered into its post-production phase—when I wasn’t revising poems any longer, but trying to come up with an order for them—I decided to re-visit these old translations with new eyes, and re-translate them.

I didn’t set out to make this collection an homage to a specific constellation of writers. My initial aim was to identify and gather uncollected poems that were in conversation with a queer sensibility. The poetry portion of the book opens (“Love Poem”) and closes (“Arttalk”) with pieces that evoke Jack Spicer. In the case of the first poem, Spicer’s biography Poet, Be Like God was key; and in the case of the second, it was a snippet of his poetry that was the crux. When I decided that “Love Poem” would be the first poem and “Arttalk” would be the last one, it didn’t occur to me that Jack Spicer had a role in both pieces. Whatever reasons prompted me to open and close with these poems had to do with the poems themselves and not because of their connection to Spicer. It wasn’t until after the book was published that I noticed that the “Jack Spicer poems” ended up functioning like bookends, which I found gratifying since he was and is such an important poet and figure to me.

As for Darío and Whitman, I thought it apt to include my version of Darío’s sonnet on Whitman since many of us view Whitman as a queer ancestor. A happy coincidence was including my version of Darío’s “Symphony in Grey.” I was drawn by how the speaker focuses in on the masculine physique of the sailor. I didn’t consider Darío gay, but I included the poem because the poem’s “gaze” felt homoerotic. Little did I know that it would be revealed, through some of Darío’s letters, that he had a secret romance with the Mexican poet, Amado Nervo, which is the subject of a newer poem of mine.

The last poem I decided to include in the book (though I chose to position the poem near the beginning of the book), was the sonnet by Lorca, “The Poet Speaks to His Beloved On The Telephone.” The poem is part of an 11-sonnet sequence. I had co-translated these with my late mentor, Jack Walsh. Given that Glow would be dedicated to Jack, I decided to include one of these sonnets. I chose this one because I wanted it to be in conversation with one of my own poems in the book, “Your Voice,” also a sonnet. In both cases, the speaker addresses the beloved, and in both cases, the sound of the human voice is key.

PFC: The ideas of masking/unmasking, revealing/hiding are surfaces beneath some of the questions you explore in Glow—how we decide when to be open, or when we decide we must not be our true selves. Glow is also your “coming out” collection. How did your personal experiences as a gay man lead to the poems in this volume?

FA: A couple of things were on my mind. It was 2009 and the sense I had was that President Obama was slow to act on some of his campaign promises, where LGBT issues were concerned. The Justice Department was still defending the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts, and he seemed reluctant to take a leading role in repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. So there was some of that frustration. But the most consequential event, which I’ve never given a full account of, was the following. Cornelius Eady was my colleague at Notre Dame and so we’d get together whenever I was in South Bend (I was working from DC by then). He had recently been appointed to serve on the inaugural committee for the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute, headed then by Kate Coles. At one of their initial meetings, he was made privy to a situation by a fellow committee member, Robert Pinksy. Pinsky brought to everyone’s attention a scenario that involved an already-produced video for the Favorite Poem Project. Apparently, a 19-year old African American man had recorded a very poignant video in which he comments on, and recites, Countee Cullen’s famous sonnet, “Yet Do I Marvel.” In the course of his commentary, he outs himself as a gay man, and said that he found a certain amount of solace and refuge in Cullen’s sonnet. When it came time to have the Cullen estate sign off on the video, they withdrew permission. Although nothing in the video alluded to Cullen’s sexual orientation, the estate, apparently, did not want an out gay African American man associated with Cullen’s poem. They were on, apparently, firm legal footing. Reportedly, Robert Pinsky was livid, and there was little he could do. Cornelius shared this story with me. I tried to put myself in the shoes of that 19-year-old man. I became livid. And so I realized two things—one, that the collection I was going to put together would gather my queer poems, and two, I would write an essay—the one which became “Flyer, Closet, Poem.”

PFC: In the essay “Flyer, Closet, Poem,” you speak of coming to the idea of “passing”—what author Kenji Yoshino termed “hidden self-acceptance” in his book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights. These ideas seem to suggest the way that we cloak ourselves in disguises in order to assimilate and be accepted. Yet it is a matter of dis-covering that helps us become true to who we are, especially as gay men and poets. Discuss how this became a fulcrum for your own experience, and also how it relates to other poetic lives you speak of in the essay who also have had to cover their lives—or indeed, as in the case of Countee Cullen.

FA: What I’ve come to refer to as the Countee Cullen Sonnet Incident prompted me to re-visit a book of creative nonfiction I had read a few years earlier when I belonged to a long-standing gay men’s book club in South Bend, Indiana. That would be Covering by Kenji Yoshino, which is part memoir and part legal essay. It really forced me to face how I had “covered” for years—muted my sexual orientation or remained deliberately silent about being gay, even among people I knew to be gay-friendly. After learning of the Cullen incident, though, I resolved to write the essay in which I would confront and come to terms with, in print, my particular story, where this “covering” phenomena was concerned. I went on a two-week writing residency at Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois. Writing the essay, and finding an order for the poems, was my project. But something else happened during those two weeks. The project, with the addition of the essay, and the addition of several translations, no longer seemed like a chapbook. As I worked on “Flyer, Closet, Poem,” added translations, and found an order to the manuscript, the project took on deeper significance for me, both intellectually and emotionally, and it began to feel—at 70+ pages—like a book, my second book.

PFC: The landscapes and the geography in Glow roam among such different cities as Dublin, Madrid, New York, San Francisco, Rome. How did these landscapes determine certain poems; how have each of these cities invested your work with particular nuance and voices? For instance, the Dublin poems were inspired by someone in Dublin you were seeing at the time?

FA: Even before Glow, my work has been described as urban. That’s an accurate assessment given that I’ve spent most of my life in cities, and feel most at home in them. I find that a lot of pieces originate from and explore public spaces, whether it be public transportation or public squares. But it’s also true that Glow includes poems that involve particular people with whom I’ve been in relationships, such as the friend in Dublin. But as much as Glow has as a major strand its engagement with cities, what distinguishes it from Puerta del Sol, my first book, is that Glow has as a springboard other works of art—mostly texts (as in the translations/versions) but also film. There’s a poem (“Ars Poetica”) that’s a response to a Louie Malle movie, and a poem (“The Tailor”) that engages a film by Roberto Rossellini. It’s only occurring to me now that these are ekphrastic poems—poems responding to another work of art.

PFC: Your poems in Glow are mostly tercets, couplets, and some quatrains. These provide a formal “air,” rather than what can be in other forms, a density. How do you choose form for your poems—do they dictate the form, or does the form come first, which then dictates the poem?

FA: The first draft of a poem I’m working on is typically not divided into stanzas. I’ll write one block of text—one uninterrupted stanza. The line lengths may vary, but it’s one stanza. And then I’ll type and print out various versions of the poem—one in tercets, one in couplets, one in quatrains, etc. And then I’ll often tape the various versions up on a wall to see for myself what each version yields, as far as stanza breaks. The results will guide my hand as the revision process moves forward. What I enjoy about this, as a reader, are the potential pleasures the different versions of the poem may produce. It’s a very organic process. A particular subject or theme will not dictate anything. Instead, it’s a process where exploration and experimentation is the order of the day—from the start.

PFC: The poems, “Arttalk” and “Love Poem” are in homage to Jack Spicer, and each have such a wonderful evocation of his character and spirit—I love that “Arttalk” takes the idea of interrupted stanzas as the form of his voice in two aspects, the loved and the lover. Can you speak of Spicer’s importance to you as an inspiration in your poetry? How did these two specific poems come about?

FA: In the spring of 2000, I had the good fortune of taking a seminar on the San Francisco Renaissance taught by Gary Snyder. The poet whose work I was most familiar with from that coterie was Robert Duncan. I’d only read a handful of Spicer poems. But finding myself in Snyder’s class felt like such a lucky stroke. I remember thinking—this semester belongs to Jack. And so I set out and carefully read The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (poems); The House that Jack Built (lectures); and Poet, Be Like God (biography), which I loved for its rich portrait of literary San Francisco in the 50s and early 60s, and its portrayal of small press publishing, particularly White Rabbit Press. I was reading all three of these books simultaneously and having a blast. I was a native of San Francisco falling in love with my native city after returning from Spain, and I was relishing the Spicer biography for this reason. I was living in Davis at the time, but one weekday I organized a field trip for myself into the city—to mimic one of Spicer’s daily rituals, his long walks to Aquatic Park via North Beach. My particular walk, strolling down Stockton taking in the sights and smells of the open air markets with a view of the bay in the distance, just took hold of me and wouldn’t let go. I too was heading to Aquatic Park. When it came to writing the poem, I decided to use, as scaffolding, the poem of another San Francisco-based writer who had been a mentor over the years. In fact, his poem is also titled “Love Poem.” Though the content of my “Love Poem” is inspired by a particular snippet of Spicer’s biography, the poem’s architecture was the fruit of a self-imposed assignment—one I learned from Sandra McPherson, in which you use someone else’s poem, structurally and grammatically, as a model or blueprint.

If the genesis of “Love Poem” was Spicer’s biography, the genesis of “Arttalk” was a brief passage of Spicer’s poetry—the italicized lines that, as you point out, “interrupt” the space between the stanzas. What I don’t remember is how I came to the loose narrative of the non-italicized portion of the poem. It’s been many years since I read Spicer’s biography, but I suspect that visual artists were among the people he hung out with, as did William Carlos Williams in New York, and Apollinaire in Paris. I like that “Arttalk” is the poem that produced the line that led to the title of the book: “—the remains/of a moment:/glow of our sweat.”

PFC: Many of the poems in the book are love poems in some respect. Yet each one is so different in aspect—the subject and the object of love. I also find that the series of poems I call your “Dublin” poems (“Earplugs,” “Words in Space,” “Your Voice”) seem specific to a particular man they are addressed to, as well as to a specific experience and location. They are wonderful portraits of that person and that particular relationship which the poems describe. Other love poems that drew me in deeply are: “Asleep You Become A Continent”; “Midtown Tryptich”; “In Secret.” How does love reveal itself to you—in retrospect or at present—in your poems?

FA: I’m glad you’ve singled out “In Secret” which, more than a love poem, is a poem about desire, desire that can be exhilarating, baffling, and terrifying all at once—especially if experienced by a twelve-year old who can’t easily identify, understand, let alone accept what he’s feeling. The specificity of one of the images begins to hint at a particular taste, where physical attraction is concerned. It’s a modest little poem that I wasn’t sure I’d include. I’m glad I did.

The thing about the so-called “Dublin” poems is that, although the beloved in the poems is, in fact, a native Dubliner, it’s only in one of the poems (“Words In Space”) that both speaker and beloved are actually in Dublin. In “The Voice,” the speaker is in Madrid and the beloved is in Dublin. And in “Earplugs,” it just so happens that both speaker and beloved are in the United States which, now that I think about it, suggests another subtext of this mini-sequence and the relationship that’s being depicted—it’s one where distance, traversing physical distances, is one of its characteristics.  The “love poems” in Glow, in addition to being set in Dublin and Madrid, are also set in New York, San Francisco, and Rome. So I guess one way to address your question is that love reveals itself as an itinerant or nomadic phenomena, one without firm roots in one place.

PFC: In your poems which are in homage to or “after” a distinct personality—Lorca, Whitman, Rilke, Darío—what are the formal choices you explore when trying to depict the subject or to evoke the style of the subject in each? This is a kind of translation, or ventriloquism, yet the voice that comes to the reader is unique to you. Is this a semblance of how you perhaps speak in voices, when writing such poems?

FA: An instructive poem in the collection to talk about, when considering formal choices, is “Walt Whitman.” On the one hand, this Ruben Darío poem is a fairly straightforward rhymed sonnet in the original Spanish. But when it came time to re-write the poem in English, I opted for long Whitmanesque lines. The other poems range from straightforward translations, to very liberal English versions. I’ve really come to believe that literary translation is very much a creative act, particularly where poetry is concerned. Although you’re having to contend with an original text in another language, ultimately you are striving to produce a new poem in the target language. It’s also the case that two of the translations (“Asleep You Become a Continent” and “The Other Day I Ran Into Garcia Lorca”) were re-translations. I was re-visiting poems I had translated many years ago, and taking a stab at improving them.

The “Rilke” poem (“Torso”) was written in the context of one of the most fruitful and stimulating workshops I’ve ever been in—John Matthias’ workshop at Notre Dame, the one which was organized around “translation.” Our assignment was to re-imagine that Rilke poem with an ending other than its famous one (“You must change your life.”) I took it as an opportunity to try and write a very liberal English version of the poem—in tercets—and use a single line as its beginning, and a single line as its end.

PFC: You alluded earlier to a newer poem, whose subject is the secret love affair between Ruben Darío and the Mexican poet Amado Nervo, “January 21, 2013.” It’s also an imagining of Ruben Darío’s homecoming to Leon in 1907, as well as the moment of his death in 1916. It felt, reading it, and in light of what we’ve been discussing, like an important long poem for you to write. It gives back to Darío his own truth-telling, even from the grave. The last stanza’s “I am / dead, and the dead are very patient” is a powerful evocation that lives cannot, or should not, be covered up or passed over or re-written to placate history’s false images. Like many of the poems in Glow, this poem focuses on illumination from self-discovery. How did this poem begin and how did it develop?

FA: In the fall of 2012, a poet-friend of mine who lives in the San Francisco/Bay Area sent an e-mail to a group of poets. Each recipient didn’t know who the other recipients were. It was an intriguing invitation. In essence, he was inviting each of us to write an “epistolary poem.” It could take any form we wished: a letter in prose, in verse, a combination of the two. It could be a letter to someone real or imaginary. It could be whatever we wanted it to be, as long as it was an epistle. The commissioned poems were to be for a new literary journal with the following characteristics: it was to have one, and only one, number. There would be a small finite number of the issue produced—one for each invitee, and no more. There would be no biographical sketches of the poets, though they would be identified. The journal would simply be photocopies of the poems sent in (with typos if that were the case, or in long-hand if that were the case). The editor in question was calling it a journal by and for this closed circle of poets—poets whose work he admired. In the e-mail, he asked us to keep it to ourselves because he didn’t want word to get out to poets who he hadn’t invited, which would have made for an awkward situation. Our deadline was inauguration day: “January 21, 2013.” Even though I didn’t have a clue what I would write, I accepted the invitation, though with some trepidation.

On November 1, 2012, Arizona State University issued an interesting press release. The first sentence read: “Arizona State University Libraries has acquired a privately-held collection of manuscripts created by Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío.” Further in, mention is made that the manuscripts had already begun to alter scholarship on Darío, referencing one article in particular penned by a scholar named Alberto Acereda. “The article, ‘Nuestro más profundo y sublime secreto: Los amores transgresores entre Rubén Darío y Amado Nervo,’ reveals for the first time a secret romantic relationship between Darío and famed Mexican poet Amado Nervo (1870-1919.)” And so I immediately thought, maybe my epistle poem will somehow take this subject on—the secret love affair between these two well-known Spanish-language poets! Though I still had no clue what angle or perspective the epistle would take.

Several days later, I was browsing down Facebook’s news feed and found that someone had posted a link to an online piece penned by the Nicaraguan novelist Sergio Ramírez—a novelist whose work I adore, and first read during my residence in Spain. In fact, one of Ramírez’s novels, which won a prestigious novel competition in the late nineties—titled (in English translation) Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea—has as one of its narrative threads two of Rubén Darío’s homecomings to Nicaragua: the one in 1907, and the other in 1916, the year he died. In his article, Sergio Ramírez disputes the authenticity of the manuscripts that ASU had acquired. It wasn’t an explicitly homophobic piece, but one couldn’t help but think that there were forces at work who simply couldn’t stomach that Darío was involved in a gay relationship. But the longer I thought about it, the more I took these developments as gifts: my epistle poem would be in the voice of Rubén Darío—from the grave—addressed to the living Sergio Ramírez.

The January 21 deadline came and went (the poet-editor had given us an extension), but I decided to simply use that date—“January 21, 2013”—as the title of the poem. That was the day Richard Blanco became the first openly gay and Latino poet to read at a presidential inauguration. It seemed apt, given the subject matter of the poem. And so I turned in a first draft of the poem, and it was collected along with a number of other epistle poems and stapled together as the first and only number of this journal for a private coterie of readers. But I continued to tweak and revise the poem, and the definitive version appeared in MiPoesías—in a number guest-edited by poets Emma Trelles and Dan Vera. The poem could have easily fit into Glow. That line you quote (“I am / dead, and the dead are very patient.”) is from an imaginary epistle from Federico García Lorca—from the grave—to Jack Spicer, in Spicer’s stunning volume, After Lorca. My poem is very much inspired by other text(s), as many of the pieces in Glow are.

PFC: In a sense, all of our poems wear the coats of all the previous poems that came before them. Puerta del Sol was the coat that came before Glow of Our Sweat. A collection which recounts a specific series of years in Spain, it is the book you decided to “translate,” and publish as a bilingual edition. And you make the fascinating point that your translation is a “hybrid”—that of an American and a Spaniard. You ask readers to consider the poems in their many “geographies.” What were some of the complex issues and choices you encountered in such translation?

FA: When I moved back to the United States in 1998 to enroll in University of California, Davis’s M.A. program in English, one of the bonuses was that I would be sharing a campus with Francisco X. Alarcón. I’d known and collaborated closely with him since the late ’80s, but now I was going to have the opportunity to spend more time with him, and one of the ways I did that was by taking his Spanish-language creative writing course. I was going to have a crack at writing—in Spanish. The net result of that experience wasn’t so much writing original poems in Spanish, although I did that to fulfill class assignments, but rather, I embarked on what became the very personal journey of translating my already-written English poems into Spanish. As someone who had grown up speaking the Spanish my mother spoke (Nicaraguan Spanish) and someone who’d lived, studied and worked in Spain for ten years and therefore knew peninsular Spanish, I realized that the Spanish I had access to, and which sounded “natural” to my ears, was more ample than someone who’d only lived in Spain, or someone who’d only lived in California. And so when it came time to decide how I would translate a word, phrase or expression, I could choose a word or phrase that my mother spoke, or a word or phrase that my friends in Spain spoke—they would both sound correct to me. But what informed my decisions wasn’t correctness, but rather, which sound better served the poem. Had I not been in Francisco X. Alarcón’s creative writing class in Spanish, Puerta del Sol would not have become a dual-language book.

PFC: Organized into three sections, Puerta del Sol is dedicated to your mother, and her presence is very evident in the book and specific poems—certainly “Tricyles,” but also “The Last Days of My Visit” and other poems in Section II. They are heartbreaking poems, but also pay tribute to a woman—all such women—who gardened creativity. How was your mother an influence on the beginnings of your poetry?

FA: I think her gifts to me were two. First, she instilled in me the importance of getting as much education as possible. And she didn’t try and steer me in one particular direction, or another. She didn’t express a strong opinion about what I should study when I enrolled in college—no privileging math and science over the humanities, for example. Her own experience with formal education was limited, not having gone to school beyond the sixth grade. When I decided to stay on in Spain after completing my New York University Masters degree in Madrid in 1990, she did begin to wonder about the long-term utility of earning a paltry wage as an English language teacher and not saving much money. And so, one of the things I lament is that her early death at age 64 in 1997—before I’d even begun graduate school in creative writing—prevented her from seeing or learning about the work I’ve done in the field, both as a writer and as a literary arts administrator. I think she would have been very pleased with my Notre Dame affiliation.

The second, possibly more germane gift she imparted, but which I neither want to over- nor understate is this—I have memories of her reciting snippets of Spanish-language poetry. Specifically, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and, as it turns out, Ruben Darío. In the case of the former, she was fond of reciting snippets of her famous “redondillas,” particularly the one that begins:

Hombres necios que acusais
A la mujer, sin razón,
Sin ver que sois la occasion
De lo mismo que culpáis

Whose English translation, roughly, is:

Foolish men, you accuse
Women without reason,
Without seeing that you occasion
That for which you blame them

And of Darío she was fond of reciting the beginning of his “Sonatina”:

La princesa está triste…¿Qué tendrá la princesa?
Los suspiros se escapan de su boca de fresa

The princess is sad…What’s with the princess?
Sighs escape her strawberry-shaped mouth.

I don’t recall feeling anything compelling about the fact that poetry, however modestly, was a part of my mother’s life. I don’t even recall asking her how or why she knew these snippets of poetry by heart. It was years later that I began to discern that the role of poetry in a country like Nicaragua, or all of Latin America for that matter, is more indelible than it is in the United States. From this perspective, I might be tempted to idealize this factoid about my mother and say that the arts were important to her when in fact that wasn’t especially the case. But it’s something I’ve always remembered—who’s to say that a seed of sorts wasn’t planted? I’d like to think that it was.

PFC: The men who populate Puerta are so remarkable to me—the bus driver who is an artist; the old man, whose voice is “a ball of twine” who speaks from his bench in Plaza Góngora; the four “fragile men managing/through an afternoon: two with/canes, though not of an age when canes/are used… “; the “firm-thighed boys from Lisbon.” These men passed through your life almost just by glances, yet struck you so deeply that these poems about them had to be written. Can you speak to some of these spirits during the time you were in Spain, who inspired you so?

FA: The odd man out on this roster of men you’ve listed is the bus driver. It’s only recently dawned on me—given the Letras Latinas project I’m currently immersed in—that “The Bus Driver” is also an ekphrastic poem, but one constructed from the memory of images I saw once, and only once, in the Sunday supplement of the Spanish newspaper, El País. All I knew about him was that he was a bus driver who also happened to be a visual artist, and who had a selection of his images featured one Sunday morning. In contrast, the other men you mention weren’t people I had substantive interaction with. They were images—ones that struck me, and resonated with me in a particular context. The “fragile men” were men living with AIDS in San Francisco in the early nineties, men who likely did not survive. They are images from a visit home. I was slated to return to Madrid at some point, and looking forward to seeing the person who’s addressed in that poem (“The Calendar”). And “the firm-thighed boys from Lisbon” were hustlers who hung out in the central public plaza in Madrid that’s the namesake of the book. When writing that poem, I was thinking of a passage in Thom Gunn’s free verse poem, “Tenderloin”:

Not poverty beaten
down, poverty rather
on the make, without being
clever enough to make it.
Smallish sums  change hands.
This poverty seeks out
stereotype: gentle
black whore, foul-mouthed
old cripple, snarling  skinhead,
tottering transvestites, etc.

I was thinking of this poem because of the subject of my poem (rent boys and their customers engaging in this subtle courtship, a circling, on foot, around the square and its illuminated fountains), but I wasn’t especially interested in spelling this out.

The man whose voice is “a ball of twine” is someone I actually sat down with and engaged in conversation. He was very generous with all that he shared. It was my very first day in Spain—in the summer of 1987. But I took liberties with the name of the plaza. The conversation took place in Plaza España, but I wanted to name the plaza after the Golden Age baroque poet, Luis de Góngora, who was the poet that Lorca’s generation rehabilitated in 1927. The final line of my poem ends with a catalogue of sorts (“his hands, his tongues, unexplored land”). It’s a subtle nod to a Góngora sonnet whose last line also uses a catalogue of sorts as a device (“to earth, smoke, dust, shadow, nothing”).

PFC: Your previous collections, Light, Yogurt, Strawberry Milk; In Praise of Cities; and Tertulia were obviously the seeds of your beginning voice and character as a poet. How did each of them come to fruition? What were some of those early journeys of writing?

FA: I appreciate this question. It touches upon something I wasn’t fully conscious of when these chapbooks came about. Unbeknownst to me at the time they were being published, they modeled what I came to value, still value, about small press publishing. I especially value when publication is the result, over time, of a relationship. It’s the publishing-as-community-building model, in contrast, say, to the contest model. A recent example I’m extremely proud to have had a hand in is the publication of the second volume of Noemi Press’ AKRILICA series, TITULADA by Los Angeles-based Chicana writer elena minor. The AKRILICA series is a partnership between Letras Latinas and Noemi Press, which is another way of saying it’s a partnership between the poet/publisher Carmen Giménez Smith and myself.  I’m not making a value judgement, though. I’m stating how these experiences in publishing have been meaningful to me.

Light, Yogurt, Strawberry Milk was #26 of Gary Soto’s Chicano Chapbook Series. I’d had Gary as an instructor at University of California, Berkeley in the mid ’80s and then I worked as his reader for an undergraduate prose class he taught. His work made a huge impact on me when I first encountered it. So to be invited to form a part of the Chicano Chapbook Series was a generous inclusive gesture on his part since I’m not Chicano. And that experience—having a chapbook to wield as a calling card of sorts—was one of the first and most important lessons I learned, and retained, about publishing.

In Praise of Cities was a response to 9/11. It was a self-published chapbook that included an essay, which served as a model for Glow, two poems that went on to appear in Puerta del Sol, both of which include a reference to terrorism in Spain (these were pre 9/11), and a third longer poem (“To a New Friend”) addressed to a friend from New York just after 9/11, and which went on to get published in the anthology, Under the Fifth Sun: Latino Literature from California (Heyday Books, 2002). And it closes with a modest essay about my long-standing visits to New York, over the years. It broke the usual rules—it was self-published, was multi-genre, had a tiny print run, and was mostly given away.  Though—to my amazement—it has ended up in some university library collections, including at Yale, Brown, and the University of Chicago. The title of the chapbook is borrowed from the Thom Gunn poem of the same name from his 1957 book, The Sense of Movement.

Tertulia was a collaboration with a book arts entity in New York called BOOKlyn, as part of a chapbook series there called “A Poet’s Quickie,” which was curated by the poet Peter Spagnuolo, who I went to school with at UC Berkeley. That collaboration involved helping design the cover and title page, which was silk-screened with the image of a map of Madrid’s subway system (Metro), and included on the title page a piece of realia—a piece of the Madrid Metro’s brochure on all 200 chapbooks. I helped Peter print the cardstock cover at a Lower East Side print stop in the summer of 2002. That chapbook is a collector’s item. All three of them are, I think. But Tertulia is probably the jewel in the crown. Like Puerta del Sol, it includes Spanish versions of every poem and was published while I was an MFA student at Notre Dame.

PFC: The term “tertulia,” you say, has no direct translation into English; it is a kind of informal gathering, typically in a café, to visit and talk, usually about art and politics. In the name of this collection of poems, the chapbook you discuss above, as well as the poem here in Puerta, I find this idea so in keeping with how all of your poems seem to gather and lead up to Glow—small connections, made deeply if momentarily and swiftly gone; and larger connections, also deeply made but lasting. It is reflective of the way the characters in Puerta relate—in community often of just two, but happily of more. And in Glow, these “tertulias” become relationships that are integral to where you found yourself. Your current coat. How did the poem “Tertulia” come about? What tertulias are ahead for you now?

FA: I love how you’ve given “tertulia” another layer of meaning, such as when you suggest that the “relationships” in Glow are versions of “tertulias.” “Tertulia,” the poem which ends section I of Puerta del Sol, is the last piece I wrote for that book. It’s a poem that relies heavily on discursive language (this is Pinksy’s influence, I think) but I’m trying things with line and stanza breaks, rhyme, and the deployment of one long, run-on sentence in the first eight tercets, to make it rhythmically interesting. It’s a piece I have fun reading aloud. It’s also a love poem to these men I met with every Saturday after lunch, for many years, at a café. It’s a poem about missing them, and Madrid, after I ended my long-time residence there in 1998.

In terms of what “tertulias” are ahead for me now, this past May, I was in Miami—for the second installment of the PINTURA : PALABRA ekphrastic writing workshops—in tandem with the exhibit, “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art.” It was a very “tertulia”-like experience. A group of people came together, and over the course of two and a half days, formed what felt like a soulful community—with the common denominator being the creation of new works of literary art inspired by works of visual and plastic art. The discussion and sharing that took place around this subject seemed to embody the ethos of the best tertulias. We were an intimate group of about ten people in total. The exhibit will next travel to Sacramento, and if all goes as planned, Letras Latinas will have a hand in organizing a workshop there. We’re partnering with a different literary journal for each workshop and striving to publish a portfolio of ekphrastic writing in each participating journal. Letras Latinas has never done anything like this before—partnering with journals in this fashion.

In terms of my own art-making practice, I’ll say this—I felt lucky to finally meet, in Miami, the poet Adrian Castro. He had a very level-headed thing to say about his practice. He said that after completing his last book of poems, he wasn’t convinced that he had anything more to do in poetry. And he said that was not a source of anxiety for him. He became interested in writing essays instead, and began to do so. But then, in an unexpected way, the poems—short poems—started coming to him again, and he cranked out the first draft of another collection in less than a year. I listened to him and identified with that sentiment. On the one hand, I’m working to assemble a manuscript for a third book of poems, poems that are mostly already written. But I’m not entirely convinced that poetry will continue to form a substantive part of my writing practice. For some time now, I’ve been getting more interested in various forms of nonfiction.

But then, on this trip to Miami, I took a moment to spend time with the exhibit for myself (I was there to oversee the workshop, not participate in it), and I managed to complete what feels like the first draft of my own ekphrastic poem based on a particular piece in this exhibit—suddenly, it felt like the poetry bug was still inhabiting me.  We shall see. There’s a painting in the Prado Museum in Madrid that I’ve been thinking about for years, ever since first seeing it in 1987, that seems to be calling out to me, “El Cristo de Velázquez.”

Postscript to the Countee Cullen Sonnet Incident

FA: After completing this interview, I decided to e-mail Robert Pinsky to let him know about Glow of Our Sweat, especially the essay. I had assumed there was still an embargo on the video alluded to earlier. Pinsky responded with a generous note. He was able to report, owing to some “excellent, idealistic, pro bono legal help,” that the video featuring Todd Hellems reciting and talking about “Yet Do I Marvel” was finally posted on the Favorite Poem Project website. He referred to the “Hellems/Cullen story” as “an epic with many chapters.” Thankfully, it ended well.

Francisco Aragón is the  author of two books, Glow of Our Sweat and Puerta del Sol, as well as the editor of The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry. His work has appeared in various anthologies, including Inventions of Farewell: A Book of Elegies, American Diaspora: Poetry of Displacement, Evensong: Contemporary American Poetry on Spirituality and Deep Travel: Contemporary American Poets Abroad. His poems and translations have appeared in various literary journals, most recently, Great River Review, Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas, MiPoesías, PALABRA, and Pilgrimage. Online publications include Jacket and Poetry Daily. Aragón is a faculty member at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies (ILS), where he directs Letras Latinas, the ILS’s literary initiative, from where he’s currently overseeing “PINTURA : PALABRA, a project in ekphrasis”—in tandem with the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit, “Our America: the Latino Presence in American Art.” A native of San Francisco, he spends fall semester in South Bend, Indiana, and spring and summer in Washington, D.C.

Rusty Morrison with Joshua Corey

joshua coreyRusty Morrison: The Barons is an epic project! I can’t say it better than John Ashbery, in his endorsement of the book: “Joshua Corey has reinvented the good old-fashioned American avant-garde epic poem (Whitman, Stein, Crane, O’Hara) and thrust it, kicking if not screaming, into the early 21st Century.” Can you speak to the scope and diversity of the project? Its history and evolution?

Joshua Corey: The Barons is a ten-year effort: I began writing the poems that eventually joined together to make this collection in 2004, not long after completing the manuscript for my last book, Severance Songs. That was a very different book, working through the possibilities of a single form, the sonnet, including that form’s Petrarchan roots in an address to the beloved and to the spiritualized dimension of erotic love. The Barons, on the other hand, is all over the place formally: there are prose poems, odes, a small epic of New York (Compostition Marble), rants, brief lyrics, you name it. I wanted it to be more of a collection than my other books, which is not to say that it lacks themes or a center of gravity. So it accreted more slowly and eccentrically than my other books. Two of its sections, Compostition Marble and Hope & Anchor were first published as chapbooks by Pavement Saw Press and Noemi Press, respectively. Some of the shorter poems represent a kind of transition out of the sonnet (I’m thinking of the “Little Land Lyrics” sequence), while others were written right up to the brink of the book’s publication (the Beuys poem). More profoundly, I feel in writing this book I have shifted my fundamental stance toward poetry: whereas before I was concerned with constructing, or trying to construct, exquisite verbal objects, I now feel that poetry has become a practice, like meditation or medicine. It is the principal spiritual, intellectual, and ethical practice of my life, and the poems have become fields of imaginative action, “try-works” (a la Moby-Dick) rather than works.

RM: As an avid reader of your blog, I happened upon this: “There is a fierce joy to be found in life on the precipice, not in stoicism but in something closer to a Nietzschean amor fati. We all must die; all must die. Let’s be alive while we’re here. Which means a commitment to the everyday, which means resisting domination and banditry with any and every means at our disposal.” I am stealing this quote from the context in which you wrote it to say that it is this sense of fierce joy and commitment to the everyday that I find in so many of the poems in The Barons. I am thinking at this moment of the end poem SÆGLÓPUR, but I could site so many other poems in the book to reflect upon the controlled frenzy and fanatically articulate delirium that you muster forth. Or, as you say yourself, this book enacts the paradox of “freedom’s law.” Can you speak to the challenge of writing lyric poetry that is darkly euphoric and compassionately demotic?

JC: The Barons is less optimistic but more hopeful than my other books. Optimism is a reflex, a fundamental innocence or naiveté untouched by experience or wisdom. Hope, on the other hand, is a cultivated sort of negativity, rooted in humility. The world may be coming to an end, but if I scarcely know the world, if I scarcely know myself, then I scarcely know what new possibilities are even now being born. More and more I try to write from this center of not-knowing, which is pretty damn uncomfortable, but which also restores “adventure” to poetry in the sense that Robert Duncan uses that word: “Homer / underwrites not adventure / but the way back home / before Odysseus may shed / a life’s disguise” (“Under Ground,” The Opening of the Field, 79). I am trying to be less careful, to stake more in poetry. Risk is knowledge.

RM: There are many sources referenced in The Barons; many are quoted. Can you speak to some of these relationships? Were some of these poems’ references more intimate in relationship to you than others? Were some more difficult to bring to fruition?

JC: In The Spirit of Romance, Ezra Pound wrote that “The study of literature is hero-worship,” which is one explanation for the habit of quotation and allusion. Elsewhere in that text he claims that “Dante is many men, and suffers as many,” as he asserts the reality of Dante’s experience: “Dante had gone living through Hell, in no visionary sense.” Nothing is more mysterious or wonderful to me than the reality, the cash value (in William James’s crass but telling phrase) of imaginative experience, which can only be fully transmitted, I think, by language—by memorable speech. And the reading and listening I have done counts for a not inconsiderable portion of my experience, so naturally the bits of speech I remember from the poems I’ve read (but also from plays, movies, novels, speeches, advertisements) wind up in the poems I write. It can work like a form of notation, as if all my poetry were a commonplace book that transforms reading to writing and back again. It can also be argument, or revision—in The Barons I quote but also quarrel with Emerson, Duncan, pretty much all of the Modernists, and even my own earlier work. But when I say something—when the “I” says something—it’s anyone, everyone speaking. Touching that centerless center of speech may be what poetry is for.

RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything about you that is not in the bio printed in the book, and that might give insight into your more personal relationship to this text?

JC: I have a six-year-old daughter; despair and cynicism are unaffordable luxuries to me. But I can’t close my eyes to how shitty everything is becoming, either. I have always been attached to Pound’s apology for The Cantos: that they were marked by “the defects inherent in a record of struggle.” These poems are my record of struggle: a struggle for the hopefulness and the spirit of Romance (or reality) that I mentioned earlier, in spite of very considerable obstacles. The defects, alas, are mine as well.

RM: Who are the authors or artists or musicians with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you currently reading, watching, hearing?

JC: Virginia Woolf’s diary has become my constant source of witty companionship, periodically punctuated by moments of discovery and moments of despair. I love diaries and journals; I love Boswell, I’m completely under the spell, like a lot of people, of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s monumental autobiographical novel My Struggle, the third volume of which has just been published in English. Proust and Melville and Beckett are growing influences, while Joyce is becoming less of one. Henry James is the bomb. I prefer music without words, or in words I can’t understand: Mozart’s operas, Bach, Mingus, Sun Ra. I love movies from the 60s and 70s: crime movies, heist flicks, noirs. On TV I’m alternating between old episodes of The Rockford Files or A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Girls. As far as contemporary fiction goes, I’m really enjoying Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and the short stories you’ll find in NOON Annual; I also like Roberto Bolaño and Saramago and Enrique Vila-Matas. My favorite contemporary poets aren’t afraid to manifest as visionaries and mystics and extremists of language: Alice Notley and Peter O’Leary and Gabriel Gudding come to mind. Martha Ronk’s new book is wonderful.

RM: You chose the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Of course, there is a poem cycle in the book devoted to the artist, but can you talk about your reasons for your choice? your relationship to this particular work?

JC: I discovered the work of Joseph Beuys a few years ago when visiting Berlin and his sheer commitment to his materials—to felt and fat of course, but also to his own body, rendered fragile by its ambiguous experience as a Luftwaffe pilot in World War II—was deeply moving to me. Of course he’s known for his ecological consciousness, which manifests in his work as a kind of animism—I’m thinking of the 1965 performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, in which Beuys, his head covered in honey and gold leaf, walks around a gallery while murmuring inaudibly to a dead rabbit that he’s cradling in his arms. There is a ritual quality to his work, and a dangerous charisma—I am perversely fascinated with figures associated with the high civilization of 20th-century Germany, a civilization of course profoundly implicated in evil. Beuys, it seems to me, represents the genuinely heroic artistic attempt to root oneself in a damaged culture, and to bear the marks of that damage—what Adorno called “damaged life.” Without exactly embracing or endorsing Beuys, I nevertheless acknowledge him as a touchstone, a point of reference.

Joshua Corey is the author of three other books of poetry, Severance Songs (Tupelo Press, 2011),Fourier Series (Spineless Books, 2005), and Selah (Barrow Street Press, 2003), as well as a novel,Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014). With G.C. Waldrep he edited The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press, 2012), an anthology of innovative contemporary nature poems. He lives in Evanston, Illinois and is an associate professor of English at Lake Forest College, where he is also co-director of Lake Forest College Press / &NOW Books.

Female Aesthetic(s) Symposium (Part 2): Racquel Goodison, Monica A. Hand, Patricia Spears Jones, Tracy Chiles McGhee and Arisa White with Metta Sáma

(clockwise from the top-left) Patricia Spears Jones, Monica A. Hand, Tracy Chiles McGhee, Racquel Goodison, Arisa White
(clockwise from the top-left) Patricia Spears Jones, Monica A. Hand, Tracy Chiles McGhee, Racquel Goodison, Arisa White

In 2009, the poet Monica A. Hand asked for definitions of “female aesthetics.” While there are no actual definitions of female aesthetics or woman aesthetics, there are working definitions of feminist aesthetics. I was intrigued by this notion of the female (vs the woman, aka l’écriture féminine and Hélène Cixous’s writing from the body) and what an aesthetics of female would like and who could who would claim this aesthetics. A bit later, I put together a panel on Twitter to discuss this concept, and I invited some of the participants from that panel as well as some additional people I thought would have something interesting to say, to have an informal symposium discussion via email. What followed was a series of questions, speculations, ponderings, and anecdotes with Racquel Goodison, Monica A. Hand, Patricia Spears Jones, Ruth Ellen Kocher and Tracy Chiles McGhee from August 13 to 20, 2009. The Conversant has agreed to publish that conversation in  two parts. – Metta Sáma

Monica A. Hand: This evening on my commute home, a woman saw me highlighting some papers and remarked that she couldn’t manage to use a highlighter on the train. I responded that I didn’t have trouble using the highlighter but was a little challenged reading backwards. I had copied all your notes—adding each new post to the preceding one but had decided I wanted to read them from the first to the last. I told her what I was reading and asked her what she thought of the question. As it turns out, she had studied Victorian Literature and recalled reading George Eliot who wrote under a male pen name and she said she fooled most people at the time except Dickens who addressed her as “madame” in a letter because he knew she was not a man regardless of her pen name. Her craft was good as any man but still he found her out.

[Moderator’s note—here is part of Dicken’s first letter to George Eliot: “I have observed what seem to me to be such womanly touches, in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me, even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began …”]

The woman on the train was hesitant, resistant to talk about there being a female aesthetic any further because “we have worked so long at not being called, told we are different why ‘do’ it to ourselves.” I really did understand her ambivalence. I have the same unsureness. We have been excluded (and worse) because of our difference(s). When I was a pup and active in the Lesbian Feminist movement, we African American women called it triple jeopardy—being Black, Female, Queer.

I am inclined to agree with Tracy when she says who we are shows up in our art. It is the same defense I use when anyone says my work isn’t black enough or queer enough (oddly enough I’ve never been accused of not being female enough).

I remember reading Memoirs of a Geisha, the book about a geisha written by a man in the voice of a woman thinking what a great job he did at assuming a female voice. What was that voice? Does aesthetic mean – what you find beautiful? As art appreciators, readers, viewers, what do we find most beautiful? I do like non-linear story telling, I do like multiplicity, I do like cycles, I do like circular movement, I do like layers, I do like feeling full and feeling empty.

Although I appreciate what has been said about claiming the full and not the empty, I gasped when I read Tracy’s message this morning on the train. It caught me by surprise. My response was audible and self-conscious.  I had to look away from it and catch my breath. The warrior queen in me wants to claim wholeness but something else in me was overcome by Tracy’s words. I have known the longing she speaks of. Something about what she had written or how she wrote it appealed to me, was beautiful.

Is there a sensibility that is female?  Does this discussion matter? I am interested in understanding how recognizing a female aesthetic may inform, enrich the reading and the writing.

Arisa White: Hello all, (aesthetics are always changing, how it is defined constantly shifts, based on who is adding to the conversation.) there is a female aesthetic because we exist and are socialized in a sexist society. because of that particular oppression, our lives get scripted in a particular way. we are engaged in a particular way. we are made visible and invisible because of this femaleness. we can tell stories that men cannot tell just by the fact that we are female.

we break the I/eye differently: we pay attention in a way that comes from the experience of being female. we have these various cages, restrictions, roles, we get to operate in—often all at the same time. when you are held in those spaces, you notice things, you pick up the language, its images, its stories and when you go to make your art, it shows. (so much of who we are has been made apparent to us by shock, how do we then discount its presence in our work? one identity may be more salient than the other at any given moment, but it remains, enacting its awareness/aliveness in subtle and conscious ways.)

the limitations we face as female give us language. gives us a body of language. the domestic, the vagina, the sexuality, the sexism, the violence, the fear (because of the bodies we are in), gives us images and language that we can constantly fuck with, rearrange, reconfigure, dismiss—we are always bringing it with us wherever we go.

no wonder George Eliot got called out (read all her books and her point of view was affected by her femaleness—she was able to incorporate a different angle that’s not experienced by men).

no wonder we may get frustrated with it because we are making art within our own female aesthetic that offend others and therefore, we are deemed not being good enough (or not what we are looking for).

because i believe that the making of the individual, in the case female, is a result of a series of personal, cultural, and societal intersections, there is going to be certain conversations we like to have in our work, certain concerns that we address—we can body it, embody it, we have a body of language for it, and therefore we can envision some imaginative ways to talk about it.

i like what Patricia said: “There is I would say more of a continuuming from mind to skin in women’s writing” for its feeling of movement, but also for its feeling of bridging, for its attempt at synthesis or translation. but mostly i like that there is no rest in this continuuming from mind to skin. that feels more like life, like humanity to me. when i think of the women poets i enjoy the most, they have a way of resisting rest in the poem.

( and maybe that search for wholeness is the search for proper translation. )

Racquel Goodison: As I reflect on all that I’ve read here, but very likely not all that’s been said, I think about the foundations and framing of my own aesthetic: my experiences (which are all too often tied to how my body is racialized, gendered, classed, sized, located on the looker’s beauty scale, assessed through the looker’s individual lens—maybe I look like a friend they haven’t seen in a while or like the bitch who treated them like dirt in high school), my languages and cultures (which shape my own looking and understanding in ways I may only begin to understand), and my individual self. I hear each of you harkening to all of these in some way, to a self that is built on the body you inhabit, to an eye and an I that is not buried in a body, and to a perception that is informed by what you’ve read, seen, heard, felt, done, have had done to you or your social grouping, and are striving to do in your lives and in your art.

I come back again and again to what makes me who I am and how much of that is nature, how much nurture. I wonder this quite a bit because I’ve felt that sense of queerness and have been called out as queer in so many settings. I didn’t “act like” the other girls on my street in Kingston 20, Jamaica—even though there were plenty of girls flying kites and running barefoot through the streets with me. I was the “queer one” in my family (prompting me to think I was adopted even though I looked very much like my parents) and this designation allowed me to shave my head in sixth form, cross-dress when out of my school uniform and behave in ways that suited me fine, but were considered strange by my folks. I was also the 15 year-old altar-girl who took to the pulpit in defense of “shacking up.” None of this seemed foreign to who I was and how I saw the world working. At the same time, the reactions to me showed me how unlike even my own flesh and blood I was.  So, what were the forces shaping my eye and the I I am? I did not want to be an outsider in my own family. And I have never found joy in being “the strange one” anywhere. So, then, with our similar familial, social, gender-based, race-based, class-rooted experiences, why am I so different than my very sisters? A simple answer is because I am me and not them. So how much of my aesthetic is some innate individual self and how much of it is constructed by the “world” I’m in?

In the same spirit, how much of what is published, and continuously referenced in our courses, in our schools, fits outside of an accepted discourse, an accepted way of laying out (or even stepping out of) the published world.

I am not suggesting some post-race, post-gendered, post-whatever-social-category-your-body-belongs-to. I am just wondering if there can be a “female aesthetic” that is not tied to the body, much like there maybe a self within us all that is not tightly encased in the skin we are born in.

Patricia Spears Jones: I think most writers—at least the ones I know—have always been “outside” on some level. And we are often the rebels. It is sort of a classic stance. You don’t have to be “queer” in the homosexual sense to have that as an essential experience. Those w/strong spiritual leanings (the Shamanic, the mystic) also have this. Almost all of the Southern writers have stories of being different; of finding a champion in a teacher (usually a great English teacher—I had three!) and a family that sort of came to either accept the scribbler (yeah Mom & my siblings) or say “you’re damned to hell.” Your personal experiences are important and your self-awareness quite admirable and a little scary. And your question is a serious one.

I guess I have problems with “the body” as the source of all of this. It seems as if we have moved from dealing with our location in space: place of birth (Kingston, Jamaica/Forrest City, Ark) and the attendant personal, family and cultural issues and experiences to simply location of body provided at birth (female). Could this be the ubiquity of the internet and the sense that we are not located on this earth, but somewhere in the cables of cyberspace? Is that why we look to the body only?

Just wondering.

RG: To clarify, I’m not for seeing the body as just gendered. When I refer to the body, I refer to the thing that is located in various social and biological categories. Is our self limited to this? Is our aesthetic? (Can a transvestite woman or a transgendered woman or a hermaphrodite being have the female aesthetic? How would this aesthetic then be understood in terms of the mind-body-spirit that makes us who we are?)

AW: if not the body then what?

i don’t think of the body as a limited space or location. the body is a means; we can start at the body but it doesn’t have to end there. and in occupying a space of “queerness” one begins to realize that more and more each day.

i just feel to take the body out of the equation is to remove the equation entirely. it’s how we navigate whatever space we are in. what is bothersome is the limitations placed on the body—that the female body can only produce this kind of story or this kind of art and that kind of story and art will be championed and recognized.

as female bodies we are noted as different and our relationship to space, other people is informed by the fact that we are in a female body.

i think that because our particular socialization as female, we got stunted. most of our lives have been spent on shaping us into proper women that some things don’t get to grow within as much. and it has to do with the hyper focus on our bodies, how to control it and how to have it controlled. the politics of our bodies are at the center of our lives. (maybe the attention toward our bodies should go away, and we can spend some time focusing on other things. our skin is constantly being activated and scrutinized.)

if we got a chance to live our bodies on our terms, would we care about the body being the source of art or anything else for that matter? if our bodies were “neutralized” would we care?

Tracy Chiles McGhee: In one of my favorite memoirs, Black, White, & Jewish by Rebecca Walker, I came across this passage: “I do not have to define this body. I do not have to belong to one camp, school, or race, one fixed set of qualifiers, adjectives based on someone else’s’ experience. I do not have to remember who, I, or anyone else, thinks I am. I am transitional space, form-shifting space, a place of a thousand hellos and a million goodbyes.”

I love this idea of the shifting self—the mind, body, and spirit and the sum total of our experiences in constant movement. I have always described myself as so many things and evolving. Basically, you may choose to emphasize any one or more of your layers or aspects in the poem or writing, but it is always you and then a new you and then another from moment to moment. There is not one group that I have been part of that I have not felt like an other. Perhaps because I am an observer, I am always watching, taking in, and
analyzing my relation to others, what makes us different and the same. So yes, beyond any aesthetic you want to talk about, there is and forever will be the “me” aesthetic.

Metta Sáma: Greetings, all. I’m sitting here having coffee with you all & remembering the times I poured wine with you all; your voices live with me in that way. I walk down the street chatting with you & engaged with you & wishing I could have you all in my living room, but happy to have you in all in my “body house.” My mind goes back to Ruth-E’s original note about “the impulse to find freedom in restriction” (a definition of jazz) and Tracy’s note that outlines the emptiness of fulfillment & the fulfillment of emptiness, the cycles of longing and needing and advancing (towards what?) and constant searching (Anaïs Nin’s letters & poems come to mind), paired with Monica’s “magic of the body” which Patricia likens to Lorde’s erotic & Ruth’s return to versatility & Arisa picking up the issue of the “eye’s I” and the “I’s eye,” & Racquel’s provocative question on who gets to own the “female” (aesthetic? subjectivity?). What strikes me is that in this (wonderful, thoughtful, productive) conversation, I keep thinking back to Ruth’s “freedom in restriction” and thinking how much this all sounds like the making and shaping and creating of jazz, and the making and shaping and creating of queer (see Judith Halberstam’s “queer time” vs “straight time”) …

In this wondering, I’m almost at a definition of a collaborative (malleable) definition of female aesthetic as “I/eye’s fluidity and its (drive/desire/compulsion) ability to “read the silences,” to draft and create and shape those silences and to recover what’s been lost and muted and pushed aside, to experiment with what has come alongside, to be in and of the body while not being limited to the body’s first note; to be caged & untethered; to redefine (Audre Lorde’s “erotic”, for example, is about redefining and reclaiming, but really about finding the original source/text and to recover/recoup the power inherent in said text, yes?) and re-inscribe power” …

I recently attended a play, Dirty Little Girls, about three domestic workers, all women, all of the African diaspora, from various parts of the globe, who spend their days cleaning and musing and making metaphors about their domestic lives and their physical bodies (as one woman says, & i paraphrase: She says they’re imported, speaking of lace thongs, and I have to be careful with them. Well, I’m imported, too, but I’m not handwashable.) The story also includes a woman, a Caucasian woman, who has a long affair with her maid; and finally, there’s a character who takes on many roles, including that of a “black demon,” a “white devil,” one character’s mother, an impish-seeming “savior” figure, etc.

As I watched this play, I kept asking myself—what are female aesthetics? Am I looking at one female aesthetic? Where? How? I saw, in this play, Ruth-E’s sense of “recovery,” and I saw Tracy’s sense of fulfillment and emptiness and cyclical nature of living (each of these characters, in some way, talked about loss and gain and the circularity of experience & wholeness), and I saw Audre Lorde’s “erotic” (in which each of the women went about their work as deliberately as they might go after a lover—I can’t recall the exact quote from Lorde, in which she talks about the making of a poem having no difference from, say, having sex with a woman she desired) and I saw much discourse concerning the body (one character says, and again, I paraphrase, that “words come and go; but what happens between/on bodies sticks” and the body of work and the body of thought/feeling). Yes, all of this was there.

The day before, I read the following short notes, from The Village Voice, about several different shows by women, and my ponderings were mostly focused on the middle note, on the show, “The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women.”

I’m listening to Esperanza Spalding these days, and wondering what distinguishes her bass line from, say, Mingus’s … is it an approach (is the female aesthetic, in part, how one approaches?) …

& I just read through this article on women artists, asking myself the same questions (thanks for sending along, Patricia!) … Are there additional artists & writers you would like for us to think about or know, whose work you see as engaged with this loose collaborative (malleable) definition of female aesthetics?

TCM: Metta, that play was chock-full and right on time. Also, loved listening to
Esperanza with my eyes open toward the aesthetic we’ve been discussing. The visual from the Village Voice article brought up a tinge of longing (clearing throat). I wanted to add another visual from an emerging painter named Brianna McCarthy. Notice the lack of arms, the closed eyes, the opened mouth but also the beauty.


I had one more visual to add in the form of a video, a representation of women through the ages by Phillip Scot Johnson. What does it say? What doesn’t it say? How does it make you feel watching it? OK in the end, I’ve got more questions than answers. Perhaps I am just sharing Patricia’s sentiment about summer. I enjoyed being a part of the discussion and will continue to think on this question as I come to art and bring art but mostly, I just plan on enjoying art. Thanks Metta for bringing us together. Peace.

PSJ: Our creativity is but interaction of despair and hope on a great cosmic scale and Schaller has the courage to show us that beauty is the force resulting. (from “Tower and Hole,” my essay on post 911 drawings by Rhonda Schaller)

Over the past 40 years or so there have been a great many artists and cultural critics who have looked at women’s art, feminism, etc. in the U. S. and globally.  If any of you saw WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at P. S. 1 or in L. A., you have some idea of the breadth of work going on around the world during the mid 1960s to the end of the 1970s.  The catalogue is really useful.

Ana Mendieta. Her art started with the body often in outline. Mendieta used all the elements: fire, water, earth and air and silence since many of her pieces were done in solitude. The Siluetas series from Cuba are haunting and amazing. The Hirshon organized a major retrospective four years ago and produced an excellent catalogue. Her death was as dramatic as her life and art.

Mickalene Thomas. A terrific painter. Her nude at the Brooklyn Museum is an extraordinary painting, particularly in its size, composition the sheer audacity of it. Love that piece.

Quoting an email I sent out earlier this year: Carolee Schneemann is an amazing artist; a real pioneer; a woman drawn to the depths of eroticism, sensuality, pleasure as well as suffering, injustice, romantic loss, longing and a deep desire for a wildness in beauty. Fur, umbrellas, motor driven combines (we talking ’60s here), the naked body, new media from the ’60s (video, film, photography), and a intense connection to paint and surface, she’s one of the world’s most daring artists.  Along with Hannah Wilke and other women artists from the mid-1960s, she foregrounded female sexuality as seen by actual females as material to be dealt with in art. We are still grappling with their courage and generosity.

Rhonda Schaller–drawings and paintings (abstract and yet so female)

Faith Ringgold.  Best known for her story quilts, I am more interested in her paintings from the early 70s based on Tantric paintings. Those paintings were framed in fabric and are unlike any of her more conventional work.  I love quilting, but those paintings from the 70s throw caution to the wind.

Janet Goldner is a sculptor working in metal.  Her vessels w/writing or figures on them are very interesting and take up lots of space, and they have a rough-hewn look that seems to contrast male polished metal work.

Louise Bourgeois, Elizabeth Murray, Martha Wilson, Loraine O’Grady, Sandra Payne, Mariko Mori, Bettye Saar and her daughters, particularly Allison Saar, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Sabra Moore. I figure you all know Kara Walker, Joan Snyder, Carrie Mae Weems, et al.

MAH: Thank you Metta; thank you, all.  I have enjoyed reading your point of view. In closing, this is what I take away from this discussion on defining a female aesthetic:

1. It is in the voice of a female, a female perception.  A treatment of themes relevant and important to women that relate historical, cultural and social situations of women.

2. The incorporation of words, images, events, sounds true to our experiences: giving birth, menstruating, menopause.

3. The female aesthetic is constantly evolving: at one time, it was important for us to write about our nappy hair, our bodies, our desire; at another time, it has been important to show our vulnerabilities without giving up our power; it has been important to say we are afraid and that we are not afraid; that we feel full, that we feel empty; that we love ourselves, our mothers, our fathers, women, men, life.

4. The point is we are the makers of this aesthetic.

5. Why is this discussion important – not to emphasize our difference(s) or to be in opposition – but so that we are visible.

Peace and blessing my sisters and thank you for the love and beauty.

Racquel Goodison has lived half her life in Jamaica and the other half in New York.  Her imagination still lives in the West Indies and her stories testify to this. For her living, she is an assistant professor of English at a CUNY campus.

Monica A. Hand, author of me and Nina (Alice James Books, 2012) is a 60-year old Queer writer who is committed to being self-determinant and free to make mistakes; otherwise, how will she ever learn anything. She has an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University and currently is in the Creative Writing PhD program at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Patricia Spears Jones is author of three collections, most recently Painkiller (Tia Chucha Press) and four chapbooks including Living in the Love Economy (Overpass Books, 2014) and two plays commissioned and produced by Mabou Mines, the acclaimed experimental theater company.  A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems is due out from White Pine Press, fall 2015. Poems are anthologized in Angles of AscentA Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (W.W. Norton); broken land: Poems of Brooklyn (NYU Press) and Best American Poetry: 2000 (Scribners) and the bilingual anthology, Mujeres a los remos/Women rowing: An Anthology of Contemporary US Women Poets (El Collegio de Puebla, Mexico). She is editor of and contributor to Think: Poems for Aretha Franklin’s Inauguration Day Hat and Ordinary Women: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women and is a contributing editor to Bomb Magazine.

Tracy Chiles McGhee is a Writer/Activist. Her writings have appeared in several anthologies and publications. Tracy was selected as a Finalist in the 2014 William Faulkner – William B. Wisdom Creative Writing Competition in the Novel-in-Progress category. She also received the distinction of “Honorable Mention” for the Penelope Niven Creative Nonfiction Award in the 2014 International Literary Awards presented by Salem College. Tracy is the co-founder of the Literacy, Empowerment, & Action Project. She attended Catholic University Law School and Georgetown University. She resides in Washington, DC.

Arisa White received her MFA from UMass, Amherst. She’s a Cave Canem fellow, and author of Post Pardon, Hurrah’s Nest, and A Penny Saved. A 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation and an advisory board member for Flying Object, Arisa is a BFA faculty member at Goddard College. She is poet, queer, living out in Oakland, but raised in Brooklyn, likes her whisky on the rocks.

Caleb Beckwith with William V. Spanos

William V SpanosConducted via email from August to October of this year, this interview with William V. Spanos discusses the long political and personal histories of the academic journal boundary 2, of which Spanos is a founding editor. It pays particular attention to the editorial shifts leading to Spanos’s ultimate dissociation from the journal as well as the evolving function of radical literary criticism within a contemporary political landscape. 

Caleb Beckwith: For readers who may not be fully familiar with boundary 2, would you mind speaking to its founding and early years to start? And also, how would you say this focus has shifted in recent years?

William V. Spanos:  I founded boundary 2 with the support of The Canadian novelist Robert Kroetsch,  who was then teaching at SUNY Binghamton, in 1970, immediately on returning to the U.S. from a harrowing Fulbright Professorship  at the University of Athens in Greece, where the military regime established by the coup of 1964 and supported by the Nixon administration was at the height of its brutal power. It was also at the time when the exceptionalist logic of the American government’s war in Vietnam was reaching its self-de-structive liminal point—a point epitomized by the assertion of one U.S. army official who said about the indiscriminate violence of the American response to the insurgent Vietnamese Tet Offensive that “We had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it.”  It was that sense of the liminal point—when the benign exceptionalist logic determining  the past bore irreparable witness to the massive indiscriminate violence intrinsic to it but could hitherto be disavowed as collateral damage—that it dawned on me that the prevailing Modernist mode of literary studies, the New Criticism—its fundamental insistence on the  autotelic nature of poesis—had come to its breaking point, and disclosed the urgent need for an radically alternative understanding of literature that attended to it worldly imperatives, a “post-modern” understanding, whatever that meant.

This leads me to the interesting origins of our new journal’s title.  In the historical context I have described Bob Kroetsch and I felt strongly that the autotelic logic of Modernism and its New Critical allotrope had run its course and, in so doing, revealed its complicity with the political world it eschewed in the name of its unworldly formalism. We felt in this fraught historical context that contemporary humanity had  crossed over a boundary that separated a dying, if not dead, old world from an uncertain new post-modern world struggling to be born. And on the basis of this strong sense of having crossed such a boundary, we decided, following the example of Transition, the British journal that had inaugurated and sponsored the Modernist literary/ critical initiative, to call the journal “Transition 2.”  On checking out a library copy of this journal, however—it’s luxurious professional format—we felt that it would be presumptuous on our part to identify our amateur and manually produced project with it. But a solution came accidental to hand. At that time I was reading the great German existentialist philosopher Karl Jasper’s Way to Wisdom, where he introduced the existentialist concept of the “ultimate situation”, which, in German was rendered Grenzsituation: boundary situation. That sense of crossing a boundary, of a liminal point of the preceding culture, immediately solved our problem: we decided to call our journal boundary 2:  a journal of postmodern literature. (It was, not incidentally the first literary journal to use the word postmodern in its title.)

The inaugural issue and the third (1972 and, 1973) were devoted to the question of the meaning of the postmodern in literature. The results were mixed but a few of those essays, such as Edward Said’s “Michel Foucault as an Intellectual Imagination,” Joseph Riddel’s “Interpreting Stevens: An Essay on Poetry and Thinking,”  Charle Altieri’s “From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics, and my ” The Detective and Boundary:  Some Notes on the Postmodern Literary Imagination”) eventually achieved classic  status in this endeavor. In addressing the question the postmodern in literature,  I and Kroetsch,  like the French existentialists, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, overdetermined the subjective implications of Martin Heidegger’s de-struction of the onto-theological tradition, his retrieval of temporal existence  from the the metaphysical thinking—thinking meta- ta-physika: from after or above things-as-they-are—privileged by this Western philosophical tradition. Following this existentialist reversal of the Western principle of knowledge production, that essence precedes existence, our primary purpose, more specifically,  was to wrest Anglo-American literature from the prevailing Modernist or New Critical  center, a center that rendered literary representation autotelic, a formal—unworldly—inclusive construct, and to return it to the realm of radical temporality: the world.

Under  the influence of the French existentialist interpretation of Heidegger’s “existential analytic” in Being and Time, we initially overdetermined the ontological and subjective implications for literature of the de-struction of the Western ontotheological tradition by way of privileging novels such as Sartre’s Nausea, Camus’s The Stranger; absurdist plays like Ionesco’s Victims of Duty, and Harold Pinter’s ( ); and anti-Modernist poetry like Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems and Robert Creeley’s Pieces, in which the writers, in opposition to the Modernists’ willful  effacement  of history and human agency, were attempting to retrieve the existential self from the oblivion to which it had relegated it. Eventually, however, we began to realize that the “existentialist” solution, however, promising, was inadequate. The determining insight into this inadequacy was our realization that the be-ing of being disclosed by the de-structuration of the Western metaphysical tradition was, in fact, an indissoluble continuum ranging from the ontological and subjective sites, through culture, gender, race, and ethnicity, to the more worldly economic, social, and political sites, that wherever a writer situated his/ her representation, he/she was also implicating all the other sites on this continuum.

This realization came to us initially by way of Michel Foucault’s appropriation of Heidegger’s de-struction of the ontotheological tradition into the realm of politics—his diagnosis of the panoptic disciplinary society—and, especially, Edward Said’s devastating critique of the panopticism of Western Orientalism. Directed by this insight, we invited a number of young scholars, deeply influenced by Foucault and Said—my former student Paul Bové, Dan O’Hara, Michael Hays, Jonathan Arac, Donald Pease, and Cornel West—to join our editorial board. The result of these additions—and Kroetsch’s departure from Binghamton to return to his Canadian roots (Alberta)—was a decisive visible shift of the journal’s emphasis on the onto-subjective (existential) site to the more obvious political or, in Said’s language, “worldly” sites on the continuum of being. Under the aegis of this worldly orientation, boundary 2 inaugurated two related projects that went against the grain of the “disinterested” editorial policies of American academic literary journals:  the publication of critical essays 1) on American, European, and postcolonial literature that were overtly critical of the Western exceptionalist imperial tradition, and 2) of essays, attuned to the American allotrope of this exceptionalism, that called its nationalist perspective into question. Following the directives of Foucault’s critique of the Western panoptic disciplinary society, and especially Said’s extension of Foucault’s revolutionary insights into the domain of the global, the journal began pursuing an editorial policy that was intended to transnationalize exceptionalist American nationalism. For me, at least, this important second editorial initiative was instigated primarily by Edward Said’s diagnosis of the post-imperial era, which, in pointing to the figure of the refugee or migrant as the paradigmatic figure of this post-imperial world, he referred to as an in-between time—what I interpreted as an interregnum between a world, the nation-state, that was dying (though by no means dead, as the example of the United States testified) and a new, alternative world struggling to be born. Following Said’s directives, the editorial board of boundary 2 inaugurated a post-national initiative that would globalize the traditional nationalist and exceptionalist perspective of virtually all the American literary critical journals. The epitome of this initiative was the two ground-breaking boundary 2 volumes edited by Donald Pease, New Americanists: Revisioinst Interventions in the Canon (1990).

Caleb, this is where your second question comes in.

In 1987, after seventeen years,  I gave up the editorship of  b2 to my brilliant and deeply engaged former student Paul Bové, who had previously been my assistant editor. My stepping down was not an easy decision. It was he result of having become tired of dealing with a university administration that, despite the journal’s  achievement of national and international visibility, was reluctant to provide the minimal financial support the publication of the journal required. So when the director of Duke University Press offered to take over its publication to Paul Bové, I not only authorized Paul to negotiate the transfer, but transferred the editorship to him, though I would continue as a member of the editorial collective that was to replace the previous single editorship.

From the time, when the journal came to combine the ontological and political perspectives under the influence of Edward Said’s call for a more “worldly” criticism to several years after Bové assumed the managing editorship of an editorial collective, the editorial  policy of the journal continued to publish literary criticism and theory that reflected its foundational commitment 1) to the indissoluble relationality of the ontological and political sites on the continuum of being, and 2) to the idea that it was an oppositional American journal dedicated to transnationalizing the long-standing nationalist perspective of American literary studies—the exceptionalist perspective epitomized by the so called Myth and Symbol school identifiable with such figure as Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, and  R. W. B. Lewis. In pursuit of this post-nationalist editorial policy, we added both young and established prestigious scholars to the editorial collective and the advisory board whose critical perspective was global in the hope that this dialogue between the local and the global would contribute to the transnationalization of American literature, culture, and politics. To register this editorial initiate we replaced the original subtitle of te journal, “a journal of postmodern literature” by “an international journal of literature and culture.”

The immediate result, I, for one, thought, was a recharging of the journal’s editorial blurring sense of identity. It was at this stage, I think, that, under the influence of the new postcolonial scholars, that boundary 2 began to establish an international reputation for publishing literary and theoretical critical essays that were at the forefront of the nascent interrogation of the Western nation-state system and the global colonialism it fostered.

In the process, however, two indissolubly related controversial issues, both having to do with Edward Said’s influence on the editorial policy of the journal, came to the fore that split the editorial collective. One was the issue of Said’s critique of the alleged “anti-humanism’ of the poststructuralists, a critique epitomized by his ground-breaking essay “Reflections on American ‘Left’ Criticism,” (1983), originally delivered at a b2 conference on “The Problems of Readng in Contemporary American Criticism” at Binghamton in 1978. The other was the issue of what Said meant by his espousal of Goethe’s concept of world literature (Weltliteratur). The newer members of the editorial collective interpreted Said’s criticism of the anti-humanism of the poststructuralists, particularly the deconstructionists, as a tacit rejection of Said’s Vichian humanist notion that humans  make their own history in the name of an unworldly textuality. And they interpreted Said’s espousal of Weltliteratur as an outright call for the abandonment of Western literary criticism’s focus on nationalist literature. The minority of the editorial collective, of which I was one, read the Saidian critique of poststructuralist anti-humanism, not as a rejection of poststructuralism as such, but as a call for its focalization of the worldly implications of its deconstruction of the Western humanist tradition. Analogously, this minority read Said’s call Goethean call for world literature, not as the abandonment of concern for national literatures, but as one, attuned to the in-between time—the interregnum, precipitated by the implosion of the Western imperial project—that perceived the nation-state system (the local) and global as belonging together. Those of us in this minority recalled the concluding chapter of Culture and Imperialism where Said pointedly wrote:

It is no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialist, has now shifted from thee settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the poltical figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages.

In the end, the first group, which included Paul Bové, carried the day. They put their “worldly” orientation in a binary opposition to the “unworldliness” of poststructuralism and, in the process, marginalized the previous focus of the journal on the dialectical tension between the national and the global in favor of the global as such. One of the most significant symptoms of this total globalizing initiative was the inordinately disproportionate space the journal came to devote to China.

As the spokesperson of the minority, I was not indifferent to the position of the majority. I, too, of course, was committed to delegitimizing the hegemony of the exceptionalist nationalism of American literary studies. But I also, felt strongly that the overdermination of world literature was a misreading of Said and disablingly premature. And this feeling was exacerbated in the wake of the United States’ declaration of its unilateral global war on terror in the wake of 9/11/01. I mean the “redemptive” exceptionalist initiative of the George W. Bush administration that justified the concept of preemptive war, regime change (the imposition of ventriloquized governments on “rogue states” like Afghanistan and Iraq), and  the indiscriminate killing and/or deracination of civilian populations; in short,  the rendering of the state of exception the global  rule in the name national or homeland security.  As a consequence, I resigned from the editorial collective and severed my decades-long relation to the journal I help to found. Needless to say, it was not an easy decision, given the fundamental role the journal had played in sustaining my intellectual life. But the fact is that I had come to feel that, in the eyes the editorial collective, I had become an anachronism, or, even worse, an anachronistic monument.

CB: In response to these first two questions, Bill, I hear you weaving several interrelated narratives. The first of which is the political motivations behind b2’s founding, which seems to have been felt so acutely by the journal’s now long line of editorial staff that it—over several phases—ultimately dissolved the original group altogether. For me at least, the second phase of b2’s history seems to evoke a very familiar academic narrative—the move away from theory associated with continental philosophy and towards transnational/world literature as the primary site of radical thought.

More specifically, You mention that b2 was founded  a)  as an antidote  to the “autotelic  logic of Modernism and it New Critical allotrope” and  b) upon an “existentialist reversal of the Western principle  of knowledge production, that essence  precedes existence,” an attitude  growing out of Heidegger and several notable interlocutors (Sartre, Camus, de Beauvois, Merleau-Ponty). With this in mind, I’m wondering if you could speak a bit to the tools with which you (very successfully, it seems) resisted the New Criticism’s hegemonic presence. In other words, what was it about philosophy/theory that made these tools seem most useful in realizing your editorial agenda? Was it simply a dialectical turn away from the New Criticism’s insistence upon the so-called text itself that drew you to these “external” discourses, or something more? I’m particularly interested in knowing if these fields’ philosophical modes of ratiocination seemed particularly apt/useful within that particular time and culture, and, if so, whether they (philosophy  and critical theory) still strike  you as the most useful tools of analysis.

WVS:  My and Bob Kroetsch’s initial revisionary attitude toward literature and American literary criticism was not restricted to the autotelic formalism of the New Criticism. It was also directed toward the older historical criticism that the New Criticism claimed it was surpassing. In the ominous context of the rapidly imploding Western global hegemony, particularly as borne witness to by the U.S’s brutal conduct of the Vietnam War, we saw the New Criticism, not as the New Critics did as a radical break with the former, but, in fact, as the ultimate fulfillment of its commitment to the traditional “realist” literature of closure. The traditional historicists privileged the Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end structure to give temporality its due. But in so doing it only obscured the fact that, in privileging the resolving End—an end that is there, present, from the beginning—it subordinated transient time to static structure. Thus, the modernist—and New Critical commitment—to autotelic structure or, in Joseph Frank’s phrase, “spatial form”—a form that transforms time into spatial structure—was not the epistemic break it was represented to be, but the fulfillment of the spatializing or structuralizing logic of the Western literary tradition, a liminal point that disclosed the hitherto disavowed  violent that this Western literary tradition has done to the differences that temporality always already disseminates. It was this disclosure at the liminal point of the imperial spatializing logic of Western narrative that enabled us to perceive this liminal moment as a boundary line that brought the end-oriented logic of Western literature to its self- destructive end and the urgency of retrieving the positive possibilities of temporality for literary production. Or, more specifically, a literary “form” that served to compel the reader into engagement with the world of time, rather than, as in the case of the Western literary tradition, enabling the reader to escape “it’s” decision-demanding complexities: the Aristotealian concept of catharsis.

What came immediately to hand for this truly revolutionary project was not only, as I said previously, the emergent de-structive philosophical discourse of Nietzsche and Heidegger that had as its purpose the retrieval of time—historicity—from the oblivion to which it had been relegated by Western metaphysical thinking . (I remember to this day a prestigious English Department colleague of mine saying to me one day in a reprehensible tone, “Bill, what has philosophy got to do with literature?”) What was also immediately at hand to provide directives  for our project  was the then emergent  literature of engagement of the French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Natalie Sarraute, and the absurdist dramatists such  Eugène Ionesco and  Harold Pinter. As Ionesco said, somewhere—I think it was at the beginning of Rhinoceros—”Every play in the Western tradition since Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos has been detective story.  .  .”

I mean, to put this complex literary initiative all too simply, a literature that was deliberately intended to draw out the reader/spectator’s deeply inscribed desire for closure only to frustrate it in the “end” and thus to compel the reluctant reader out of his/her safe distant panoptic location and into the destructive element, or, in Kierkegaard’s then resonant terms, in order to assign the reader to him or her existential self. In short, a “post-modern” literature.

CB: I’m also wondering, especially in your telling of b2’s second phase, if you see the journal  as a metonymy for a larger  academic shift away from theory and towards what you describe as “national literatures,” rather than the seemingly generative spaces located between them? The second phase of your narrative cannot help but assume this structure for me as an individual whose university education began six years after 9/11—when as you describe it, the “new” disposition was firmly in place. Regardless, how do you situate the editorial shakeups at b2 within a larger academic narrative? This question pertains to both phases of its history, though I ask it primarily of the second.

It also seems to me that whatever the immediate cause of the break around your disparate readings of Said, the division at b2 proved much more practical than ideological. In other words, clearly you all shared a critique of American exceptionalism in all its manifestations, but you seem to disagree on the preferred means of resisting this force in text. I wonder, then, if you could speak a bit more to these two approaches in radical thought? For instance, behind your description of “national literatures” I hear a lingering anxiety over the cultivation of any nationalism, even if it might ultimately undermine the American empire—specifically considering your earlier mention of China here. Is this a fair assessment?

WVS:  Yes, it’s fair to say that the split between me and the majority of the b2 editorial collective in the post-9/11 age was a matter of degree. But this matter of degree should not be seen as a minor matter. Both sides were committed to making boundary 2, an American literary journal, into an engaged post-national or transnational agency of information dissemination. But, as I said, earlier, I, following Said’s insistence that the post-imperial age was an in-between time, what I call an interregnum, a time between the waning but not yet the demise of the nation-state system  and its identitarian logic of belonging and a new alternative world struggling to be born. And the US’s unending  exceptionalist (nationalist) war on terror in the wake of 9/11 made it patently clear to me  that nothing had  changed since Said’s diagnosis in the early 1990s.

The dominant contingency of the b2 editorial collective, on the other hand, came, in my mind, eventually to believe the American Century had run it course and was over. So it shifted the journal’s editorial focus almost entirely away from the critique of nationalism to explore the political potential of the global. And this despite the US’s ongoing and seemingly unending exceptionalist war on “Islamic terror.” It was that virtually absolute separation that I found, as I have said, troublingly premature. This, I want to make clearer than I have, was not only because the American Century was far from over, as the American exceptionalist errand in the global “wilderness,” particularly the Middle East, continues to bear witness. It was also because, in abandoning the local or national concept of identity, this global orientation, like its counterpart, the World Literature initiative—I’m thinking of American critics like Wai Che Dimock, Laurence Buell, David Damrosch, and Bryant Edwards among many others, who have followed the lead of Franco Moretti and Pascale Casanova—abandoned the unfinished theoretical project of diagnosing the contemporary global occasion. I not only mean the limitations of the logic of belonging of the nation-state, particularly of its American exceptionalist avatar, but also, and, in a way more important, the related positive possibilities vis a vis the coming community inhering precisely in those marginalized others that the logic of belonging of the nation-state has perennially rendered “migrants (Said) ” superfluous,” “stateless,” (Arendt) “ungrievable”(Butler). “the part of no part,” (Rancière), “bare life,” and so on.

This leads to the second part of your question: my alleged resistance to all nationalisms. boundary2’s globalization of its editorial project under the editorship of Paul Bové, as I said earlier, insofar as it has allied itself to the World Literature movement, would seem to opt for a vision of the coming polis that erases specific identities—national, racial, gender, ethnic, and so—in favor, apparently, of one common human identical whole. In this purely global perspective, I saw, therefore, the danger of inadvertently backing into a version of the very identitarian image of the human that their worldliness would escape, a transcendent—and unworldly—identical whole that erases the very real particular identities—male, female, black, white, English, French, American, Chinese, Arab, and so on produced in and by history. On the other hand, my vision of the coming community as the editor of boundary 2 was, following the implicit directives of Edward Said’s vision of the post-nation-state as ‘ the complete concert  dancing together’ contrapuntally,” a community of identityless identities. I mean a commons in which the historically constructed identities remain but, in which, as in Giorgio Agamben’s remarkably similar vision of the coming community as Said’s, the deadly friend/foe binary—the violence endemic to this identitarian nation-state logic of belonging—is rendered inoperative. Indeed, these historical identities, these identityless identities—non-Jewish Jew, non-Palestinian Palestinian, for example—enter into a loving strife, an Auseinandersetzung, that always already deepens and expands  each pole’s  identityless identity’s perspective.  When the global perspective become total, as seems the case of the World Literature movement, it becomes paradoxically unworldly an d untimely. We humans are denied our radical humanity: that finite condition, that interesse, that always being-in-the- midst of the difference—the time of the now—that makes a difference in the world.

CB: Could you say more about what I read as your primary concern, then, the current focus on national literatures? Is your difference from boundary 2 here political (i.e. differing forms of radicalism)? Or simply aesthetic—that you simply find the said work less moving or affectively compelling in the immediate ways we all understand?

WVS:  By my concern with national literatures, I take you to mean my criticism of a critical perspective that, in its exclusively nationalist focus, is more or less indifferent to how that national focus—American exceptionalism, for example—impacts on the world beyond. At any rate, it’s precisely that anti-aesthetic “political” orientation, one inaugurally compelled, as I said earlier, by the unworldly aestheticism of Modernism which was replacing the previous nationalist historicism at the catastrophic time we founded the journal, that Kroetsch and I opted for. Eventually, as I’ve also said, our worldly editorial perspective became increasingly political. Our purpose was not, as you seem to imply, to return to the old literary nationalism of the “Myth and Symbol” school, but, on the contrary, to think the national site from a global perspective, from the perspective of the victims of American exceptionalism. Our editorial purpose, to put it in terms of your question was not only to show that both the realism of the historicism of the Myth and Symbol school and the  New Criticism that was replacing it were both not only political but politically conservative .

As far as my conflict with the b2 editorial collective in the late 1990s and particularly after 9/11/01 is concerned, it had little to do with the issue of the conflict between the aesthetic and the political.  Both my perspective and that of the b2 collective was/is political. Mine, however, as I have insistently said, was committed to the political imperatives of the interregnum. My opponents’ was, and continues to be, committed to the political imperatives of the global. It was, however, my view, right or wrong, that, in the name of worldliness, this latter global perspective, independent of the national, like the “World Literature” movement, rendered literature unworldly, if not exactly aesthetic. And in so doing it betrays Edward Said’s diagnosis of the contemporary occasion as an in-between time and the indirect form of resistance that constitutes its imperative in the name of Said.

CB: I follow your final point about Said here, and find in it an occasion to look outside b2 for different sorts of literary politics. I wonder, since the above described turn towards “the political imperatives of the global,” do you still find work dealing with the “political imperatives of the interregnum” to which you remain committed? In other words, have any additional journals taken up this cause in b2’s absence from the field? Or, by your estimation, has that critical modality become collateral damage in the conflict you describe?

WVS: No, I know of no journal in the Anglo-American world that addresses the question of the interregnun and the implications for resistance and the coming community that it entails. One possible exception is Symploké under editorship of Jeffery di Leo. Most literary and theoretical journals in the United States do not have a political agenda. Their editorial orientation, even those committed to theory, in keeping with the “disinterestedness “of the liberal democratic tradition, is not seen to be ideological; it remains informational. I don’t think the editors of contemporary American literary journals have learned much from the revolution in thinking and political theory enacted by the poststructuralists in the1970s and 1980s, which disclosed disinterested inquiry to be ideological. They still perceive their mission as informing  their humanist readers about what is current—and thus maintain the status quo—not changing  minds in a benighted world in which, as the policies of the Obama administration in the Middle East bears sad witness, mind-changing is an urgent task.

The very few journals, like boundary 2, that do have a political agenda, as I have said, are overdetermining the Weltliteratur initiative. Taking their editorial directives, no doubt, from such prestigious recent literary/critical theorists as Franco Morretti and Pascale Casanova—I am specifically referring to what Moretti revealingly calls “distant reading” (in opposition the  “close reading” he opposes)—they spatialize the historicity of the texts they examine, read  the local from the distanced global perspective, and, In my view, from that immense distance greatly minimize if not entirely efface, the immediate and local. This, it should be made clear in a way your question does not quite, is a political agenda undertaken from a left-oriented position, but, as I have said, it is one that from its panoptic perspective seems  to inadvertently re-impose  the very onto-political totalitarianism, both right and left, it was the purpose of the poststructuralist revolution at its most  perceptive, as in the case of Edward Said, to delegitimize. I mean the “evental” revolution  in thinking  that, as I have recently observed , is now being revived by post-poststructuralist theorists such a Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, Jacques Rancière, Slavoj Žižek, among others, who are attempting to think the political (the worldly) imperatives for resistance and the coming community of the poststructuralist destruction  of the Truth of the Western onto-theo-logical tradition, the urgent  task that, for whatever reasons, the latter left unfinished. What, I think, is fundamental to this promising post-postructuralist theoretical initiative is that, like the Said I have invoked, it perceives the contemporary occasion—I use this word in its resonant etymological sense:  immediately from the Latina occidere: “to go down, to set” (as in the setting of the sun) from which the word “Occident” derives, and ultimately from cadere” to die, to perish—as an in-between time. I mean, to repeat, an interregnum, in which the waning of the nation-state system in the form of an exceptionalist America that is attempting a last ditch reclamation of its determinative hegemonic status in a destabilized  global world  in which the victims of the nation-state system—the “uncounted” in a system where what counts is determined by capital (Badiou), the “part of no part” (Rancière), those who have been reduced to “bare life” (Agamben), the “ungrievable “(Butler)—are seeking an alternative  polity from that produced by the identitarian logic of belonging  that victimized them.  This is the contemporary theoretical initiative I would have pursued were I the editor of boundary 2. It is, not incidentally, this initiative that, above all,  the present b2 editorial  collective is most consistently critical of by way of interpreting—erroneously, in my mind—its emphasis on what Badiou calls the “eventality of the event” as “apocalyptic” or messianic,” a negation of history.  One of the great personal ironies concerning my alienation from boundary 2 when it abandoned the national for the global, or, rather, their relationality, is that it was none other than Paul Bové who introduced me to the word “interregnum” when I was seeking for a name adequate to Edward Said’s diagnosis of the post-imperial occasion as an in-between time.

CB: Before we conclude, would you care to further contextualize these approaches (what you term the “interregnum” and “relationality”) within the current political sphere? Of course, the present wars in Iraq and Syria grow out of the post 9/11 climate you describe earlier, but I wonder how, if at all, the latest rhetoric surrounding ISIS and the United States’ most current international invasion add to this long and developed narrative?

WVS: Caleb, I’m glad you asked me this last question, since the very raison d’être of this interview has to do with the illumination of the volatile global muddle that has been precipitated by the American Exceptionalist ethos at the liminal point of the development of its logic of belonging. What is especially striking about the United States’ most recent policy in the Middle East—it’s war on ISIS (Islamic State in Syria) terror—and the American media’s ventriloquized representation of this initiative is its continuing blindness to the catastrophic global consequences of its redemptive errand. Given the massive and decisive counter-historical witness to this perennial American redemptive mission disclosed by the New Americanist scholarship, it seems inconceivable that the American political class (both Republicans and Democrats), can continue to represent its policy in the Middle East as an errand of redemption in the world’s wilderness. Yet it is in the name of this American Exceptionalist ethos that the war against ISIS terror continues to be waged by the US.

The consequence of the blindness of the American exceptionalist insight—and this is the second point I want to make about your question—is that the US is, in fact, producing the very monster it, in its Exceptionalist paranoia, is imagining. The ultimate result: the whipping up of a spectacular hysteria about “Homeland Security” that renders the state of exception the rule, a condition in which, as the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has chillingly put it, human life, becomes bare life, life, both beyond American borders and within them, that can be killed without this killing be called murder. This bereavement of our speech and, therefore, a polity, finally, is why, for me, thinking the interregnum is an urgent historical necessity that has yet to be adequately undertaken. However weakened by its practical consequences, the “American Century,” as the intellectual deputies of the George W. Bush Administration put the US’s errand to point to its end in the Pax Americana, is by no means over. Nor has its precipitation to center stage of “the part of no part,” “the ungrievable,” the “uncountable in a world where what counts is determined by capital” been adequately thought in the name of the coming community.

William V. Spanos is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative literature at SUNY-Binghamton and a founding editor of boundary 2: a journal of postmodern literature and culture, which he edited from 1970 to 1987.  He is the author of over a hundred essays and many books on subjects ranging from modernist and postmodernist literature, poststructuralist theory, and New Americanist Studies. The books he has published ttttttthat area most pertinent to this interview are:  Heidegger and Criticism: Retrieving the Cultural Politics of Destruction (Minnesota University Press, 1993); The End of Education: Toward Posthumanism (Minnesota University Press, 1993); The Errant Art of Moby-Dick: The Canon, the Cold War, and the Struggle for American Studies(Duke University Press. 1995); America’s Shadow:  An Anatomy of Empire(Minnesota University Press, 2000): American Exceptionalism in the Age of Globalization:  The Specter of Vietnam (SUNY Press, 2008); Herman Melville and the American Calling:  The Fiction after Moby-Dick, 1851-1857 (SUNY Press, 2008); In the Neighborhood of Zero: A World War II Memoir (Nebraska University Press , 2010); The Exceptionalist State and the State of Exception:  Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011);Shock and Awe:  American Exceptionalism and the Imperatives of the Spectacle in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court(Dartmouth College Press, 2013. Forthcoming books include Humanist Criticism and the Secular Imperative:  A William V. Spanos Reader, edited by Daniel O’Hara and Donald E. Pease (Northwestern University Press, 2015) and Redeemer Nation: An Untimely Meditation on the American Vocation(Fordham University  Press, 2015).

The People: Mathew Timmons & Ben White with Janice Lee & Jared Woodland (Ep. 16)

The People with Insert Blanc Editor and Publisher Mathew Timmons and Insert Blanc Artist Ben White, features the voices and ideas of The People that make up the cultural landscape of Los Angeles, the west coast, and beyond on KCHUNG 1630AM every 3rd Sunday at 3pm and podcast on iTunes as The People Radio. The People is me, The People is you, The People is we, and You Can Too! … like a Broken Record magically repaired. In this issue of The Conversant, we feature The People episode 16 with Janice Lee and Jared Woodland.—Mathew Timmons and Ben White


The People: Janice Lee & Jared Woodland Ep. 16

Originally broadcast on Sunday, June 15, 2014

Los Angeles writers Janice Lee and Jared Woodland talk about Slowness, the novel Sátántangó by László Krasznahorkai, the film Sátántangó by Béla Tarr, and Doom Metal. Featured music by Sunn O))) and as always our intro music is the song “Ocfif” by Lewis Keller.



Janice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS, Daughter, and Damnation. She is Co-Editor of [out of nothing], Reviews Editor at HTMLGIANT, Editor of the new #RECURRENT Novel Series for Jaded Ibis Press, Executive Editor at Entropy, and Founder/CEO of POTG Design.

Jared Woodland lives in Los Angeles, where he is at work on a novel whose preoccupations are animality, narrative, and the Midwest.

Rob McLennan with George Stanley

Now retired from teaching in the English department at Capilano University, George Stanley is the author of At Andy’s (New Star, 2000), Gentle Northern Summer (New Star, 1995), Opening Day (Oolichan Books, 1983), The Stick: Poems, 1969-73 (Talonbooks, 1974), You (Poems 1957 – 67) (New Star Books, 1974), A Tall, Serious Girl: Selected Poems 1957-2000 (Qua, 2003), Vancouver: A Poem (New Star, 2008) and After Desire (New Star, 2013). Vancouver: A Poem was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Prize. In 2006, Stanley received the Shelley Memorial Award from the American Poetry Society, and in 2011, The Capilano Review produced their “George Stanley Issue.” His newest collection is North of California St. (New Star Books, 2014).

California St. is one of the major thoroughfares in downtown San Francisco, the city where George Stanley was born in 1934, and left at age 37 to move to Vancouver. Associated with the “San Francisco Renaissance” in poetry, moving in circles that included Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, Stanley had won a reputation as an exciting young poet. But it was his move to Canada, and particularly his fifteen years teaching literature at Northwest Community College in Terrace, BC that marked a profound turn in his poetic practice.

North of California St. collects 53 poems, all written between 1975 and 1999, that mark Stanley’s maturity as a poet. Originally published in four collections, all now out of print — Opening Day, Temporarily (a chapbook; Gorse Press, 1986), Gentle Northern Summer and At Andy’s — the collection includes the Stanley classics “Mountains & Air,” “Raft,” “The Set,” “The Berlin Wall,” “For Prince George,” “Terrace Landscapes,” and the 16–part poem “San Francisco’s Gone,” including “Veracruz.”

Rob McLennon: I’m very much enjoying North of California St., your new “Selected Poems 1975-1999,” constructed from Opening Day (1983), Temporarily (1985), Gentle Northern Summer (1995) and At Andy’s (2000). How did this project first come about, and who made the selection?

George Stanley: Rolf Maurer and i realized that all these books were out of print. Two of them (Gentle Northern Summer and At Andy’s) had gone OP because the back stock had been destroyed by water damage after the firebombing of New Star Books’ warehouse a few years back. Rolf and i each made our initial selections and then compared them and found there was very little disagreement between us. Sharon Thesen, who wrote the introduction, also gave us some input on the final contents.

RM: What was it about these four titles that made them feel like a coherent unit?

GS: The poem ‘Opening Day’ was a breakthrough for me; it was the first poem where i began to deal with my life in San Francisco. The book Opening Day, including that poem and the ones where i began to write poems about Vancouver, and then the North, was my first book in ten years, so it is a kind of beginning of a central (chronological) period in my writing. The books after At Andy’s relate more to my post-North years in Vancouver, and they are all still in print.

RM: You famously emerged from, in part, a workshop led by Jack Spicer. What do you think you learned from him, and how much of it still carries through in your writing?

GS: Spicer is a great poet, in the same league with Dickinson or Rimbaud. I think i knew that then. The main things i learned from Jack were a) dictation – his version of the muse – listen to the poem coming through to you (like a distant radio station), get all the stuff that you want to be in the poem out of your mind, and (2) the serial poem – which Jack always credited Robin Blaser as being the co-inventor of: ‘a narrative which refuses to adopt an imposed story line, and completes itself only in the sequence of poems’ – Blaser. In the new book, examples of the serial poem are ‘San Francisco’s Gone’ and ‘Mountains & Air,’ and one poem that is completely dictated is part 16 of ‘SF’s Gone’ – ‘Veracruz’.

RM: I’ve heard that “Mountains & Air” also had a great deal of influence from the Canadian iteration of Spicer’s long/serial poem, ie. as practiced at the time by poets such as Fred Wah, George Bowering, bpNichol and Barry McKinnon. What changed with the way you saw a poem once you finally crossed the border north?

GS: Well there are several threads in this question. Let me pick them out.

First, i don’t think i’ve really changed the way i see a poem since i began writing poetry under the tutelage of Spicer. Being open to dictation is important to me, but i also do a lot of revision. Spicer once told me there is no conflict between dictation and revision: you may have to revise in order to get the irrelevant stuff of your own that’s in the poem out of the way, so the poem can come through.

Second, i don’t think my poetry has been influenced in any way by Bowering, Wah, or Nichol (although i admire and respect all three). With McKinnon, on the other hand, we have had a close poetic friendship since the 80s – we have seen each other as fellow northerners (this is true as well of my friendship with Sharon Thesen). The relation between Northern BC and Vancouver in poetry is something like that between Scotland and England in literature generally.

Finally, crossing the US/Canada border was no big thing. Vancouver is a city very much like San Francisco or Seattle. I adapted easily. The big change for me was when i went north, and encountered a wholly new world – Canada – that i had to deal with in my poetry. Aboriginal people, bears, fundamentalist Christians, small planes, angry, militant trade unionists, none of which i had ever encountered before. And snow.

RM: What I find interesting is that North of California St. isn’t the first work of yours put together, as Sharon Thesen suggests in her introduction, out of a frustration over a lack of attention to your work. How did your American selected poems, A Tall, Serious Girl: Selected Poems 1957-2000 (2003) that Kevin Davies and Larry Fagin edited, originally come about? And how do you feel now about the collection, more than a decade later?

GS: As of June 2011, Craig Watson, publisher of now-defunct Qua Books, reported that 781 copies of A Tall, Serious Girl had been sold. I was surprised at this high figure. ATSG was a true selected, beginning with my juvenilia of the late 1950s (some of which are fine poems, however). The book as i recall was originally an idea of the late Michael Gizzi (who was Watson’s partner in Qua) and i think Fagin and Davies were involved in the early discussions. I was very pleased with it at the time, but i don’t think it has any particular relevance at present. The title came out of a stoned conversation between me and the late Goh Poh Seng – later there was the question of the comma.

RM: That’s a healthy amount of sales, I’d say. And that, paired with the new collection, make for an intriguing overview of your work. What were the arguments for and against the comma? And who won?

GS: I think one of the publishers or editors asked me if the comma was necessary. i said yes, since tall and serious are distinct, unrelated concepts – but i don’t know what rule this follows (or breaks).

RM: In the introduction for A Tall, Serious Girl, the editors describe their frustration at your lack of attention in American poetry over the past few decades, citing not only your move north, but your “inexplicable omission” from Donald M. Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960). Given that “The George Stanley Issue” of The Capilano Review in 2011 featured contributions from American poets such as Joanne Kyger, Beverly Dahlen, Lisa Jarnot, Kevin Killian and Michael McClure, you and your work have certainly maintained a series of relationships with at least a certain amount of American readers. What do you feel your current relationship is to American poetry? Do you still consider yourself an American poet, a hybrid American-Canadian or purely a Canadian poet? Does it matter?

GS: I’m certainly an American poet (or, as Bowering says, USAmerican). i’ve recently given readings in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Seattle, and just received an invitation to read in New York (which i probably won’t take up, since there’s no travel funding). i’m a BC poet – i was made welcome from the first day i arrived here by the Vancouver poets. i guess i’m now a senior BC poet. But a Canadian poet? i don’t know – what would it take? i had one reading in Toronto in 1973 and i don’t think i’ve been to Toronto since the 70s. iI read in Montreal in the mid-90s. And i received a Canada Council grant in 2011.

Here’s an anecdote, amusing and maybe revealing. Just after arriving in Vancouver in 1971 i applied for a Canada Council grant. That may seem odd, but lots of Americans were arriving in Canada at the time (mostly to escape the Vietnam war and the draft), and applying for grants. The Trudeau government was quite freehanded with grant money at the time. i was short of funds, and my new Vancouver friends said i should apply. i was turned down. Then, a few years later, i met a Toronto writer who told me he had been on the jury that had rejected me. The vote was 2 to 1, and his was the one yes vote. He told me that one of the other jurors, in explanation of his no vote, said the following: ‘It’s OK to be an American, and it’s OK to be from BC – but not both.’

RM: Your Vancouver: A Poem (New Star, 2008) is one of a long line of poetry books on the City of Vancouver, adding to an impressive array of titles from George Bowering’s George, Vancouver (Weed/Flower Press, 1970) and Kerrisdale Elegies (Coach House Press, 1986; Talonbooks, 2008), Michael Turner’s Kingsway (Arsenal Pulp, 1995), Daphne Marlatt’s Vancouver Poems, and Meredith Quartermain’s Vancouver Walking (NeWest Press, 2005) and Nightmarker (NeWest Press, 2008), among so many others. What is it about Vancouver, in your mind, that lends itself to such an array of physical exploration by poets? Were you aware of any of these works when you began your own?

GS: I’ve read all these books, as individual works of course, not as examples of a wave or tendency. i don’t think my Vancouver book is indebted to any of them – well, it’s possible Turner’s book and Quartermain’s first book (her second was published the same year as my book) may have given or awakened in me the idea of a poem that takes place on streets. Why is Vancouver thematized in so many poets’ books? i have no ready answer; it’s a question for literary historians.

The main influences on Vancouver: A Poem (apart from its following my own ‘San Francisco’s Gone’), as a poem where lyrical and prose passages are interspersed, are William Carlos Williams’ book-length poem Paterson, and also Baudelaire’s Petits Poemes en Prose, which depicts Parisian scenes in prose poetry.

RM: If, as New Star Books tell us in the press release, North of California St. marks “Stanley’s maturity as a poet,” how would you describe the work you’ve been doing since?

GS: Well maturation must be a slow process indeed if it takes till age 80 to get there!

                                And maturity

                       is getting used

                       to this scattered country.

                                                                        (‘My New Past,’ c. 1986)

Right now i’m working on a new long poem, ‘West Broadway,’ which is a sequel, or continuation of Vancouver: A Poem. i’m also working on a long poem i wrote in 1971, ‘Against the Moony Night,’ which i thought i’d lost the ms. of, but which turned up a year or so. it’s a pretty good poem. And i’m continuing to do translations (or in Robert Lowell’s sense, imitations), most recently from the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and from Baudelaire (some of these appeared recently in TCR 3.23). All of this will come together somehow to make a new book, god willing.

Rob Mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics, Touch the Donkey and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at his blog site

Tony Trigilio with Peter Davis

Peter Davis
Peter Davis

In his monthly poetry podcast, Radio Free Albion, Tony Trigilio interviews poets about their recently released or forthcoming books. Always informal, each interview is a conversation—two poets talking about the work and play of the creative process and showcasing some of the most innovative new work in contemporary poetry. In this interview transcribed by Evan Kleekamp, Trigilio interviews Peter Davis.

Tony Trigilio: Let’s start talking about the origins of your new book, TINA. It’s probably not going to surprise you that I’m drawn to what Amy Gerstler said about your work, because I’ve mentioned this before when I introduced your reading at Columbia College Chicago [on February 12, 2014]. She’s described your work in general as poetry that “puts the id through a juicer.” And I know that’s a big place for us to start an interview, but for me it’s a way of honoring how compelling, and compellingly strange your work is. TINA is no exception. With that gigantic context, that’s way too big probably, can you talk a little about how the book came about, what the origins of the book were.

Peter Davis: Absolutely. First off, Amy Gerstler is completely kickass.

TT: I agree.

PD: And saying “id through the juicer” is a beautiful phrase that I’m very happy happens to be attached to me. But the TINA book started with just the very boring idea that poetry so often is addressed to a sort of nameless no one. It’s not really addressed to anyone most of the time. At any rate, how much of it changes when it is addressed to a single person. The thing that I always say is, for instance, if you take Robert Frost, you say, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep…Tina.” And the degree to which that changes the statement is pretty fun and significant to me. That was the sort of initial idea. I say all this as if I had an idea and sat down and started writing, which isn’t really the case, obviously. At first, I was just writing and then something happened, and this idea occurred to me, and I thought what would be a good name, and I got to Tina somehow. I don’t really recall how I got to Tina. Later on, as the thing evolved, a lot of the poems I was writing were to some degree about my childhood in this nostalgic way. I wrote a poem, “Eddie Van Halen.” When I was a kid, Eddie Van Halen was the greatest guitar player anyone had ever heard of. There was no question, like with my friends, if there was a discussion of who was the greatest guitar player, Eddie Van Halen was obviously first and then any other argument was basically there for second place. And I wrote about skateboarding some, and some other things that for whatever reason were just fun for me to write about. When I was writing about these things from my past, it sort of occurred to me that Tina, the person I was addressing in some way, was my life, kind of, as an artist. I didn’t necessarily want to be a poet; I wanted to be a rock star. When I was fifteen, I said I would be some kind of artist, and it was also the same time I fell in love with a girl for the first time, who I was with for a long time. Of course, that relationship with the girl eventually ended, but my relationship as an artist has continued, and it has not always been a fulfilling thing. It’s a hard . . . I want validation from the world. I don’t know what I want from the world. I think I want what most people want. I want love and all that stuff. For whatever reason in life, I’m drawn to things like poetry and music, and things that most other people aren’t terribly interested in. And things that don’t get me too far in the material world. That can be hard, not be participating in the big culture.

TT: I laughed when you said, I was fifteen and I wanted to be a rock star. Me, too. At fifteen, I didn’t walk around and say, well, yeah, I’m going to just be writing poetry into my forties, that’s what I’m going to do. No, when I’m in my forties, I’m going to have a pool filled with vodka, and I’m going to live in Beverly Hills, and I’m going to be a rock star, and my best friend is going to be Ronnie James Dio. None of that happened, you know.

PD: Absolutely.

TT: It would have been amazing. I think a lot about how, as poets, the validation is so delayed. The best we get, the closest we get to the immediate validation of music is when we do readings, but even that might be poems we’ve had percolating for a year. But with music, you’re in a band, you write songs, if you’ve got a gig two weeks later, you perform them. You get an immediate validation. I have that same split in my head, knowing that I’m doing something that not a lot of people are very interested in—poetry. Then there is this other thing, music, and unless you’re going to win a Grammy, not a lot of people are interested in that, either.

PD: You’re talking the validation, the immediate sort of validation, that’s true, too. But there’s also this idea when you’re young, you compare yourself to the greats. This is how I was at least, too. I expected, like you were saying, by the time I’m forty, I should be a millionaire! Because I’m comparing myself to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, and I think, well gee, by the time they were 22, they already had … but those are the rare, rare exceptions. That happens to people. This is sort of the American dream they keep waving in front of you. There are people like Bob Dylan, Taylor Smith, the young people who seem to come out of nowhere and they dominate the world, and everyone else compares themselves to them. And we all, for the most part, are utter failures, if that is our comparison. Most people don’t get validation for the work that they do until they’re, say, in their thirties, and I’m not just talking about artists. It takes time to become a CEO, it takes time to become the owner of the company, it takes time to get to a place where you’re getting back what you put into it. And that’s the same for artists, too. All those years in between, though, through your twenties when you’re not getting back that kind of … you’re not publishing books, or when your book comes out, you’re not getting reviewed, and you feel bad, and nobody loves you, and no one is asking for your work. It just takes a long time to get to a point where—and I’m not even there. I mean, I’m talking about getting there, and maybe I’m not even there.

TT: There’s the gigantic American dream, you hit the lotto sort of. And then there is just the slow steady accretion of work, and your craft gets better, you get better. I have flashes of that patience and then flashes where, you know, god, this country doesn’t give a shit about what we do.

PD: And I don’t even know for sure, completely, if it’s this country or just the world in general, you know. Sometimes I just think, what’s wrong with me, that all the things I’m interested in are, in general, things that other people aren’t. Both my brothers went into a little t-shirt business for awhile and they were thinking about ideas to put on t-shirts. And my brother is like, what do you think? And I was like, why on earth would you ask me? Everything I do is for the minority.

TT: I talk to my students about this. We’re so lucky, as poets we don’t have to focus-group our poems. That means we have like 25 readers, but that’s pretty cool—we don’t have to focus-group. There’s a purity to it. And I know, we can go back and forth about how that is great for the art and then it also can feel alienating. But I know from reading your work, and knowing your work well, I know that what matters to you is writing the best poem that you can, making the best art that you can, making the best music that you can. So I know, ultimately, it’s what feels right that is making the best art, but we get all these messages from outside that can mess with that feeling.

PD: For me, this was sort of, I guess I want to say late, I mean maybe it’s not late for other people, it felt late for me. But at some point in time—ten, fifteen years ago—I just realized, that all the work that I do, that I can ask other people for their opinions, and I have teachers with their opinions, and there is the world with their opinions, but ultimately it is—do I like it. And if I like it, if I feel comfortable with it, it just really doesn’t matter after that. And sometimes I think, that’s awfully selfish, like making myself awfully grandiose, the grand arbiter, but it is my shit. And I feel like I get to do with it what I want. It’s one of the only things in the world where the person, if they want to, gets to do exactly what the fuck they want to do. Like you say, there is no board meeting, there is no committee, it’s not a democracy. It’s me, and I get to do what I want to do. I ultimately have to be happy with what I’m doing.

TT: I know it could sound kind of selfish or solipsistic. Like you said, you don’t want to sound that way, it could at the worst sound that way. When I’m teaching a beginning workshop, and there is a student who has never written poetry before, who says, “I just want to please myself,” I say, well, that’s good energy, but you have to work at it more. You have to do more than that.

PD: Absolutely.

TT: And what you’re saying comes from many years of reading and writing. I feel the same way. At some point, you reach a point where you can trust your BS detector to know that if you’re pleasing yourself, you’re probably going to be pleasing a reader.

PD: You’re absolutely right, that was after years of not necessarily consciously, but certainly unconsciously, seeking the opinions and approval of often times people above me, but also times my peers. And of not trusting myself, which is what it ultimately comes down to—is this a good poem, or is this not a good idea, and sort of being hesitant. You can’t be hesitant. As a skateboarder analogy, when you drop in on, not necessarily like a half pipe, but any kind of thing you are dropping in on, you have to stomp it with your front foot to get down. You can’t be hesitant—you’ve got to do it. It’s the same thing with musicians, too. You can’t be half-assed on stage.

TT: Your music is going to be half-assed if you are.

PD: I was recently watching The Who from ‘75, and I mean they were just incredible. I was just like—that’s entertainment. They’re going for it. You have to do that, you have to stomp that first foot down and go.

TT: And really feel it in your body. And I think that comes from unconsciously absorbing the art form, and working with the art form for a long time. For some of us, it takes more time than others, but you have to just be really absorbed by it. In a second, I’d like us to hear an excerpt from TINA, but there’s one other question I would like to ask about the book before we go into the excerpt. I’m thinking about love poems and the old tradition of the love sequence. Maybe because we are talking about skateboarding, my mind went from skateboarding to tradition—I don’t know why, but it did. The epigraphs at the beginning of the book include Petrarch, and that telegraphs, to the reader, that we are going to be inside the tradition of the love sequence. How was this tradition rattling around in your head, when you were writing the book. How was it there and how did it affect the book?

PD: When I started, I wasn’t thinking about that, but it did evolve to, again, me thinking about my first girlfriend and then somehow comparing that to the traditional muse. I hate the word muse, and hate the concept of the muse. But I get it, I know what it’s like when something pats you on the shoulder, but I don’t like that word. And so I did sort of start thinking along those lines and it just so happened that I was teaching a class, a sequence where we go through ancient literature, and then, classical, renaissance and so forth, and we were reading Petrarch. And I thought, I hadn’t read them in awhile, and there was only six or seven of them in the anthology we were reading. They were great, and so then I ordered this book of Petrarch poems just for fun. And when I got that all of it—everything just sort of solidified in my head. There’s this quote, maybe I’ll look, there is this epigraph where he says, is Laura even real, that he is obsessed with Laura. And this is Petrarch:

So what do you say? That I invented the beautiful name of Laura to give myself something to talk about and to engage many to talk about me! And that in fact there is no Laura in my mind except the poetic Laura for which I evidently have aspired with long-continued unwearying zeal; and that concerning the living Laura, by whose person I seem to be captured, everything is manufactured; that my poems are fictitious, my sighs pretended. Well, on this head, I wish that it was all a joke, there it were a pretense and not a madness!

I just think that’s beautiful because, on the one hand, everything he’s saying is, “You think I made this shit up? I didn’t make this up.” But, on the other hand, he did make it up. The ultimate catch is that it is all true, what he just said, and I can sympathize with that. I feel like I know what that’s like.

TT: I get swept up in the idea that Laura was just in his mind, it was all made up, everything is manufactured, but, of course, it’s not—it’s all real, too. That tension is really exciting. One of the questions I had in mind was, don’t tell us who Tina is, but can you tell us how you envisioned her? Maybe you already answered that when you said Tina was your way of addressing your life as an artist. She’s a real person and she’s made up too.

PD: She is both something that I love, but something that is also a great deal of trouble. Again, let’s say you do have a muse, and let’s say you do, and we all supposedly want the muse, and you have someone coming to you. That’s not all fun and games. That keeps you up writing poems in your basement when nobody wants to hear them. You have obligations that aren’t always convenient for life. And people say they think of the muse as a good thing. I’m sure lots of schizophrenics think about the muse, it’s not just, “Oh, great—the muse.”

TT: Like lightning strikes—I’m waiting for lightning to strike. Well, when it strikes, it also means I have lightning going through me, I’ve got a terrible electric shock and that’s no fun. Even though then it produces work with the lightning. Well then, let’s hear an excerpt from the book.

PD: I’ll read, since we’ve already discussed some of these things, I’ll read from this poem called “Skateboarding”:

I skate for me and my homeboys!
We grind and carve!
Let’s skate! We yell that shit, Tina.
We fucking yell it!
We’re behind this grocery store, Tina,
shredding this curb and
John Law comes up and is like
Scram! Fuckers! So lame!
And I’m adjusting my beret.
And, Tina, my skate Betty, I know you
love me, but I can’t
even explain how much
I will skate or die!

TT: I like to ask folks I’m interviewing to talk about how one of those poems in the book came about. Not really to, for example, just tell us about the formal or stylistic choices—it could be that, or what was going on around you when you wrote the poem, what made it an important poem for you. And I’m wondering if you could talk about this in terms of the poem, “The Egyptian Revolution of 2011.”

PD: Yes. Absolutely. It’s a good thing that you picked that poem only because I don’t remember how some poems came about. Let’s see—obviously, the Egyptian revolution was taking place at the time and it was all over the news. And this was obviously a big deal. And here [in Indiana], for whatever reason, it was snowy, it was cold, and my kids got off school that day, and were home from school, they went over to a friend’s house, and I was sitting here. Now that I think about it—I never—I very rarely sit down with an idea of what I’m going to write. That poem is basically a long thing about how much I love my kids. Basically, I say over and over again that I love them, which I think is fair.

TT: “I want them to be happy happy happy happy happy happy happy.”

PD: I mean, there is only so much you can say, and I say this to my students too, sometimes. For instance, a phrase like I love you is paired down to its absolute essence. You know, I don’t care what kind of artist you are or how against clichés you might be or whatever. There is no replacing those words. I mean, what can you say? This is certainly how I feel about my children, but other things too, but certainly it’s all kind of heightened with children. What can you say? You know, I love them. What does that mean? Well, pretty much everything you think it means.

TT: And you flip inside when someone says that to you. You just flip inside. That’s how fundamental it is.

PD: There’s just no escaping I love you. When I think, again, about my kids, I don’t what to say and I don’t know what to tell people. So you tell people, Well, I love them. So that poem I say many times that I love them. After I’ve said all this stuff about how much I love them, what really kills me is that many other people in this world who are humans who have felt the love I had for my kids and theirs is no different and my love is no better, and my love is no more pure, or less pure, or unequal to, in any way. When you really think about that, that’s absolutely mind blowing. When you think about that—actually I was thinking about this yesterday on Facebook and everyone is posting about their dads. Oh, my dad’s the greatest dad in the world, I love him, couldn’t have wanted any other dad. Just the fact that there can be so many different people and personalities who are perceived by their children as perfect in some sense is an amazing thing in and of it itself. At any rate, to think that’s what is going on in Egypt, when people are, and obviously—well, not obviously—I don’t feel I overtly write political poetry and I have no interest in really directing people’s ideas. I don’t know what I’m trying to say. There is this awful world out there and here in America we are awfully sealed off from it, and it’s awfully nice to have the luxury to love my kids as much as I do, and to write poems, and to sit around, and to have days off school. When, meanwhile, other people in the world are losing their children, losing their lives. I know this is an obvious point, that anyone who is reasonably aware of the world recognizes how fucked up it is, and should recognize, I hope, that if you’re living in a place where there aren’t tanks going down the street, and there aren’t people dying, and you can go to the grocery store and get food and all of that stuff, it’s pretty good.

TT: The poem, at the fundamental level of the title, the poem could be simply be, Good golly, I love my kids. OK, that would be fine, the sentiment would be true, but to call it “The Egyptian Revolution of 2011,” I think, brings in that tension of how lucky it is to be able to say, I love my kids and not have a tank coming down the street or not have somebody shooting at you. It’s a tension we take for granted.

PD: And then this just also reminds me of something else I tell students, and this is what you are saying—not necessarily craft things—but it’s amazing how much a title can flip a poem. And, like you were saying, it could have been called, “Loving My Kids.” And that’s what a lot of what my relatively young writing students want to do. They write a poem about seeing their reflection in the mirror and then they title it “Mirrors” or “Reflections.” Meanwhile, just think of how you could flip a poem like that—you could just name it “Burt Reynolds Looks Into the River.” You can turn it into something completely different—“Satan Talks to God.” No one would know necessarily what that would means, but it would be a beautiful way of adding something to the poem.

TT: If the poem is titled, “You Are Looking At the Mirror,” and the poem is titled “Reflection,” you’ve got nothing parallel there, the title is right there with the poem, announcing it in a bullhorn. If you call it “Burt Reynolds Looks Into the River,” and if it begins, not that it should begin that way, but if it begins, “I just love my kids”—I’ll want to read what follows. I want us to get to another excerpt from the book shortly, but I can’t let an interview with you go without talking about how damn funny your poems are. And they’re not just funny, they’re loopy—and I mean this as a high compliment. I know that this isn’t the most common stereotype for what a poem can do, make you laugh. It might not have been how we were taught by our instructors when we were in college. I’m wondering if you could talk about how or what drew you to this kind of poem. When you were in graduate school were you, like, OK, I want to go in this direction, or did that direction just kind of sneak up on you and find you?

PD: I do think that most of us aren’t taught poetry in terms of humor. This is something I’ve at least thought before. Where we’re taught poems can have comical moments in them or they can be witty, that they can do these things, but they’ve always got to work back—this is the way we’ve been taught or I’ve been taught—they always have to work back down to something serious or profound in the end. To have a poem that actually ends with laughter was not something that was considered. I didn’t really consider it, either. For me, a really freeing experience with poetry was discovering Russell Edson. If you show somebody some Russell Edson poems, somebody who has some “conventional” conception of poetry, and you tell them, this is poetry too, I think that—for most people, if they take that seriously, if they understand—their concept of poetry has been broadened a shitload and just with one poet. He obviously breaks the conventional rules of rhyme and blah-blah-blah by being a prose poet, but then also the steps of logic that you make are so freeing in his poems.

TT: And unpredictable. You know, in his work, it’s like I’m on a highway and I’m suddenly off on an exit that was never really there in the first place—and it’s a bizarre exit, and the trees are a different color, and there are animals I’ve never heard of in the trees, and there is no other exit I’d want to be on by the end of the poem.

PD: What’s interesting about it, at least for me, thinking like that, going off on exits that aren’t there, and so forth, is really easy to do. And I think it is really easy to do for most people.

TT: I do it all the time.

PD: They just haven’t considered that that can be part of poetry, or that that is a legitimate artistic experience that can be as fulfilling as any other legitimate artistic experience. Again, when I show students Russell Edson poems, their reaction is usually along the lines of, What the fuck. And just the night before last, when I was reading at the Dollhouse Series [in Chicago], someone said that to me. And that is always the best feeling, when somebody just says, What are you doing, what is that? I like that. That’s something that is important to me because I think that, ultimately, for me, I want to be expanding something—I want to expand what other people’s perception of poetry is so that they will let me—and other things of that nature, like Edson—fit in.

TT: And that’s the thing, if we are constantly trying to do something new with our work and be fresh and original, the What the fuck response is actually a pretty great thing to hear. If the language in a poem is something I’m familiar with, I’m not going to say What the fuck—I’ll just say, Oh yeah, this is “comic,” and this is “witty.” But then there is the What the fuck that really means, This is fucking hilarious and it’s a great poem. That’s not like what I would imagine a poem to be. What a great thing to hear!

PD: Quite awhile ago, a few years ago, I read somewhere, and—I forget how I stumbled across it—I was googling myself, and someone had put this post up that wasn’t meant to be flattering. It was just, Then this guy got up and he was reading about mustaches and 90210 and I don’t know what he was even talking about. I just felt like, wow, that is great. And I wrote that I’m so glad that you had this experience and this person wrote another blog post—apparently, he believes this a compliment—and I was like, I really do consider it a compliment. Thank you so much.

TT: Just that whole mistaken impression of, This crazy poet thinks I complimented him—it brings us full circle, which I wasn’t trying to do at all, to what we were talking about at the start of the interview. Unless you are making Hollywood blockbusters or Grammy-award-winning music, this sort of artistic life we choose is a life where you’re going to have these amazing communications with audiences that are really intense—that fantastic What the fuck moment—and then lots of miscommunications like, This guy thinks I’m complimenting him. I’d rather have that than have everyone say I sound like everybody else they know.

PD: Just to make a quick distinction, too. There are various ways to be nonsensical to people or to confuse people. You could get up on stage and sort of shout random words; you could shout gravy, turnbuckle, biscuit, leaf, you know, etc. You could do that and people would walk away saying, “I don’t get it, I don’t understand,” but that’s a different type of non-understanding than when you can follow the words and follow the ideas, but they haven’t added up the way they were supposed to. When it’s over you’re like, now I don’t know what I was just experiencing.

TT: You’re talking about those moments when you read a poem or hear a poem, and you know you are hearing a made thing, you know you’re hearing a crafted thing, and it’s like there is architecture to it, and you’re inside the architecture. It’s just that the logic, and the thinking, and the feeling behind it is quirky and strange—you end up in a place you didn’t know what to expect. That’s a What the fuck moment. It’s not just a throwing-random-words-around moment.

PD: And there is nothing wrong with that confusing moment either, per se, but it’s a different type of confusion when you feel like you should be able to get it, but you don’t. You feel—there is no reason—there are regular sentences, you know Russell Edson uses regular sort of sentence constructions, and why shouldn’t this sort of add up. I don’t know what Russell Edson’s reputation truly is in the literary world, it’s hard to say. But I certainly find him to be a really important poet, and since he recently passed away, it’s worth mentioning how good he is at being surprising and making stuff that is, to me, really important stuff.

TT: In almost every conversation with another poet about strangeness, surprise, and humor, he comes up. He’s sort of like an archetype for us. Well, let’s hear another poem.

PD: I’ll read this poem called “Emily Dickinson” and obviously, as I like to say, she was a famous American poet, but this is called Emily Dickinson.

She’s all like, “I like writing” and
“I’m good at it.” She’s, like,
“I like white and looking out
of windows,” and, like, “I like
baking bread and the Bible,” and, like,
“I like my alone time.”
She’s like, “It’s cool.”
They’re like, “I don’t know if it’s cool.”
She’s like, “It is.”
They’re like, “You’re weird.”
And she’s like, “No, I’m not. Maybe
you’re weird.”
And they’re like, “No, you’re weird.”
And she’s like, “Am not.”
And they’re like, “Are too.”
And she’s like, “nah-uh.”
And they’re like, “uh-huh.”
And she’s like “Whatever!”
And “Talk to the hand!” And
“Whatever.” And
they’re like “Whatever.”
And she’s like, “Whatever.”

Peter Davis writes, draws, and makes music in Muncie, Indiana. His books of poetry are TINA (Bloof Books, 2013), Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! (Bloof Books, 2010), and Hitler’s Mustache (Barnwood Press, 2006).  He edited Poet’s Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art (2005) and co-edited a second volume, Poet’s Bookshelf II (2008).  His poems have appeared in such places as Jacket, La Petite Zine, Court Green, Rattle, and The Best American Poetry.

David Koehn with Jim Daniels

George StanleyDavid Koehn: Birth Marks. New from BOA. We’ll focus mostly on this, your latest book of poetry, but you have a wide body of work. And Birth Marks makes book number what?

Jim Daniels: I think 14 poetry books, and then the fiction and the chapbooks and other stuff. I actually just got some news this week. My fifth book of stories will be coming out next fall, 8 Mile High. They’re stories about being on the border of Detroit. They’re linked with overlapping characters, but definitely not a novel.

DK: No novel in your future?

JD:  No.  As a poet, writing stories seems like enough of a stretch in terms of length.

DK: Who’s publishing the book of short stories?

JD:  Michigan State University Press. This will be my fourth book of stories with them. The first one was with Bottom Dog Press. I’m really comfortable with Michigan State, and at this point in my career, it’s just nice to be able to deal with people that I know already and they know me. And I know they’ll do a good job with it.

On the poetry side, BOA really came through for me at a point where I was looking for a new publisher again.

DK: They’re an amazing publisher. You must be pretty happy that they did pick the book up. I mean, it’s one of the best presses out there—across the entire industry for that matter.

JD: Yeah, I really love their list, the people they’ve published. It’s great to see Birth Marks listed with all those great BOA books.

DK: When you were putting together Birth Marks, talk through that process of  figuring out how this book was going to come together. I’m also interested in how you think of this book in terms of the next piece, the next step, based on what you’ve done before. Or if you think about that at all. I don’t know.

JD: I just did my first reading from the book back in Detroit.  My parents came, which is—they’re 85, and my mom’s health is not very good, so it’s kind of a—

DK: Big deal.

JD: Yeah.  To be honest, I don’t think they’ll ever hear me read again.

When I was putting together the manuscript for Birth Marks, I was trying to figure out what tone I wanted.  I’ve actually written a lot of poems about my kids, but very few of those poems have shown up in books.  And so I had the option of going with a kind of softer manuscript, and my wife Kristin said, why don’t you just go out and make this a tougher book, and focus on that.  Give it more of an edge. So that’s what I went for overall.  I guess I was feeling a little frustrated with what was going on politically in the country.

DK: When you say the political climate. What in particular had your attention?  Because it could be anything, right?

JD: For me, maybe the biggest thing is the disappearing middle class, and the greater disparity between the super rich and what’s becoming a larger and larger lower class. And I guess just the sense of greed that drives a lot of things that happen in this country. I was getting discouraged about that—well, I still am. And certainly back in Detroit, all this gets magnified. People—my family and friends—have suffered. Detroit seems to be in the news all the time these days—usually, for its problems. Detroit’s been in trouble for a long time in various ways.

I’ve been loosely alternating books that are more focused on Detroit, and books that are doing other things. So, Blue Jesus had all these weird ekphrastic poems about Francis Bacon paintings.  And then the next book, Night with Drive-By Shooting Stars, was kind of a Detroit book, and then In Line for the Exterminator and Revolt of the Crash Test Dummies came out close together. In Line for the Exterminator was a Detroit book, Revolt of the Crash Test Dummies moves around a lot more.  There were some Detroit poems, but it wasn’t so clearly focused.

And then Capital P Poetry has the tenured professor poems, and these crazy music poems I wrote called Esperanto poems. So that wasn’t so much a Detroit book. Then I came back, and Birth Marks is pretty much a Detroit book.

DK: Yeah. The path felt—knowing your trajectory—definitely like a return. But you mentioned that you just recently read in Detroit to your parents. This definitely had a sense of—I don’t know—prodigality to it. I know you’ve kind of returned consistently, but this felt intensely committed to memoir, to some sort of deep capture that seemed to reflect both—what has always been part of your work, but also an attitude, some new skills as a writer that have surfaced later in your career.

Whether it’s the “Religious Significance of the Super Ball” poem, or one I particularly loved, “Treaty.”  There’s just a difference—and I think the level of investigation of alcoholism, addiction, I mean, this is explicitly dealt with here, repeatedly, almost like a through line. To a degree, I don’t think addiction was so fully seamed, maybe, in the past. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my sense.

JD: Particularly near the end of the book, a number of poems deal with that sense of inheritance of addiction. It was strange at that reading because my aunt came with my parents. She was originally going along to guide my mother, who’s legally blind, and then my father ended up coming along.  He’s not big on these reading things. One of the characters in the poem, “My Two Aunts,” is based loosely on that aunt. I had thought about putting that poem in a couple books earlier, but I held back—I rarely do this because my immediate family, they’re used to it.  Used to showing up in poems, and realizing what’s true and what isn’t.  But I wasn’t sure about my aunt. But the other three people in that poem are all dead, and I thought, yeah, maybe it’d be safe to put that out there.  I didn’t read that poem that night—there are certain things like the marriage annulment, which are very specific to her situation, and I didn’t want to embarrass her.   The issue of inherited alcoholism and problems with drugs—a lot of families have it, and certainly my family did, too. I hadn’t really dealt with it so explicitly before in other books. But I started thinking about it after my mom warned my son. She told him, I don’t know if you know this, but we have this pretty serious history, and you need to be careful.

DK: And is this one of the birth marks that’s sort of this tag throughout the book? I think it makes me think about the title, in a very graphic way.

JD:  Where you’re from marks you forever. Where you’re from physically, but also in terms of family inheritance and baggage. Sometimes people say to me, how come you’re still writing about Detroit? You haven’t lived there in over 30 years or whatever.

I write about Pittsburgh too, of course. But when I drove home to the reading—to Detroit—my brother, who works for Chrysler, came over before he went into work because he’s on afternoons, and my sister came after work, because she’s on days, so I had all this family stuff going on—ideas, memories, sparking all over the place.

DK: Everybody has their place.  And for some of us, it’s that specific: it’s at the corner of this street and that street. This kind of allegorical city is where it’s anchored.  So it’s no surprise that we return to—what Hugo calls the triggering town, but—

JD: Right.

DK: But from your early book, Places / Everyone, all the way through until now, that kind of deep location, it makes sense for your work, even in Birth Marks. I do want to come back to the “My Two Aunts” poem, I want to have you read it. By my count, I think well over half the poems in the book are dealing with this particular birth mark of alcohol and drug abuse. My guess is that “My Two Aunts” is probably not a poem you’re going to read that often.

But your work is, I think, primarily associated with that place, Detroit, out of the tradition of poems in place. But also, highly narrative, I think people associate that with the working class poet motif.  But at least from my perspective, that’s only a piece of the puzzle. I think your poems are funny, sometimes darkly funny. And I don’t know if you want to talk about the function of the comic at all, to what degree that kind of is intentional or unintentional in your work.

JD: I think I have a dark sense of humor. And so, sometimes I find something funny and nobody else does. I have a theory about that, but maybe it’s full of shit, but okay. My wife Kristin’s father is an immigrant from Croatia, what used to be part of Yugoslavia. He didn’t come to the States until he was about 25, so he still has all his family there.

And when Kristin and I went to visit his family—I’ve been there three or four times, twice when it was still a part of communist Yugoslavia. And they had a fatalistic sense of humor that I connected to. Coming from Detroit, where in many of those factory jobs you really don’t have any control of your future, I could relate to that kind of fatalism. In Detroit, you could be the best worker in the world, but if the cars aren’t selling, you could lose your job. I think that relinquishing of control—feeling like you don’t have any power or say in your economic future—can result in using dark humor as a coping mechanism.

DK: Gallows humor, right?

JD: Oh yeah. Her family’s dark humor was pretty intense.

DK: And I think this use of humor is generally rare. Contemporary poets like yourself can grapple with significant aesthetic and cultural issues, but as soon as that becomes the end game, and humor and surprise are left out of the equation,  two-thirds of the possibility of a poem is left out. And to make it even—sometimes to make it even digestible, to make it even consumable. In some cases, tragedy is so terrible to get us to even feel it—you have to come at it sideways, and sometimes that gallows humor, gets us into that place without having to knock us out every time, if you will.

JD: It’s not something that I consciously think about when I write, but I am aware of it floating around, and then when I read the poems, I see what kind of reaction I get. I get silence most of the time.

DK: Yeah. I think it was at a Victoria Chang reading recently, she was reading The Boss, her new book from McSweeneys, where she said the things she thinks are funny no one laughs at, and the things she thinks aren’t funny, everybody laughs at.  So she doesn’t know what the hell’s she doing.

JD:   Yeah. I second that emotion.

DK: So relatedly, in regards to dark humor, we’re going to come back to the “My Two Aunts” poem. And quickly. let’s touch on narrative a little bit, and just for full disclosure, you were my first and mightiest teacher—early in my career when I was at Carnegie Mellon. Not that I am a narrative poet, per se, though, that’s a driver in my work, but I also felt the drive toward clarity and the drive to get really clear on the language. There was the fight to always crisp up the construction. I don’t think it’s in fashion to be so specific or to be so clear, let alone to use narrative, but for me these kind of tie together in your work.  And I wanted to push you a little bit and find out if you think this it’s just like “hey, man this is the way I write, that’s what I do and I don’t think of it beyond that.”  Or if there’s something else there.

JD: Well, I think it’s a combination of things. My writing is usually fairly clear. Part of it might be the way my mind works, I tend to be pretty direct and straightforward as a person, and I do value a certain kind of clarity in my writing as well.

My mother-in-law read Birth Marks, and she said, I like this one, but I really didn’t understand that last book. And I value her opinion as a reader–not just because she’s my mother-in-law, but because I want her as a general reader to understand and connect to what I have to say. The last book, Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry, did have some more experimental poems in it, like the Esperanto series, that might not have the same kind of clarity.  There is a kind of clarity that I don’t value: the kind where you just spell everything out, and don’t leave your reader anywhere to go.  I want to be clear enough through my imagery and details to take you to an emotional place without defining that place for you.

DK: Yes. I sense that.

JD: My enthusiasms as a reader and writer have always been geared towards work that move me emotionally, that I feel in my heart as well as understand intellectually in my head. While I can appreciate a wide range of poems, and some of the more interesting experimental work, the poems and stories I come back to are the ones that I take in physically.

The issue of clarity might even go back to Detroit again, just in terms of the environment. I think of it as a place where people tell you what they think in a pretty direct way—no subterfuge or subtlety or beating around the bush. That would be a luxury—particularly in the harsh, intense work environment, where you’re under a real time constraint. In the factory, for example, people can’t hear you unless you’re yelling at them. I remember the word ‘Fuck’ more as a punctuation mark, than as an obscenity. It also might be connected to the fact that I went to remedial speech class through eighth grade. I would get frustrated when people couldn’t understanding what I was saying because of the speech problems.

It wasn’t some big hardship or anything, but you know kids—particularly when you get into fifth or sixth grade, they start zooming in on what they can tease you about. So, I ended up keeping things inside, writing them down because people couldn’t mess with me the same way as when I was speaking out loud.  When I finally corrected my speech problems, I felt like I wanted to be clear and to be understood, both in speaking, and in writing. And I tended to be terse. I still am not a great conversationalist, as anyone who knows me will tell you. That’s one of the things I like about poetry—the compression of language. A lot of my revision process is focused on whittling away words and tinkering with line breaks to try and get the poems as packed and tight as I can without losing the clear, emotional punch I want them to have.

I tell people, for better or worse, you should be able to understand most of my poems.  There’s the issue of audience. But when I write, I definitely don’t feel like I’m trying to dumb down my poems for anybody. I’m just writing what comes, and it just happens to be that voice. Not that I’ve stayed locked into one voice in my work—I hope not, anyway.

I read this book of interviews of Vaclav Havel where he said that as a writer—I’m paraphrasing here—when you hit around age 35 or 40 (I was around that age at the time) you can either keep repeating what you’ve done to have the success you’ve had so far, or to take a crucial step into something new.

DK: Yes. I noticed this shift. Saw it in your work.

JD: And I took that to heart because I’d been consistently writing these straightforward narratives, usually about one page long, and I felt like, well, maybe I can write that kind of poem forever. But I don’t want to end up parodying myself or becoming too predictable. Some poets can riff with metaphor after brilliant metaphor, and I’m jealous of that ability. I use a lot of literal imagery, but not so much figurative stuff.

So, in order to push myself, I started using simultaneous narratives in poems. There’s more than one story going on, and readers move from story to story. The stories aren’t related on the surface, so that when it works, they can have that same kind of electric jump between tenor and vehicle in a trope, but you have it between one story and the next instead. You don’t see how they’re related, but the more you think about them, maybe they are. My work in film also made me more conscious of that kind of jump cut on the page.

DK: Yeah.  That strategy, when it works, makes frictions when the divergent narratives collide.

JD: That pushed me into writing some longer poems.

DK: When was that again?  Around which frame?  When did you read Havel?

JD: The book came out in 1991, so the early 90’s. I actually copied the page from the book and taped it above my desk as a challenge to myself. We were living in this house, I am still in the same house as when you were a student here—

DK: Oh yeah, I remember it.  Is the hoop still up in the driveway?

JD: Yeah.  My son can kick my ass now, which is a problem. But he’s 6’5”, it’s all the height.

DK:  Yeah, yeah.  It’s all the height, right?  You know, I stopped playing with my kids once they could beat me. So now I just coach them, tell them what they’re doing wrong, they love that.

JD: I still play on a softball team, but hoops? I’ve just seen too many people wreck their knees.

DK: When we were playing on the CMU intramural basketball team, that was different. We weren’t exactly a Dr. J. and Moses Malone out there. So back to Havel, and the trajectory, I’m also trying think about it from the change in production in your work. I think—a sort of watermark in your career—a career  I see in three phases. The early stuff I think reflects what you were just talking about. The Places / Everyone phase. Then once you moved into the house, had the kids, there was a set of books in there that seemed like the Blessing the House, kind of phase. And then, I think there’s been greater and greater experimentation in the later work. Even in Birth Marks, with the longer poems like you talk about, there is a deeper address, a far more expansive view of what you are doing. I think about how different a poem about family was in          Places / Everyone compared to in Birth Marks.

If you were to set up any one of those poems side by side, one looks like a stalk of corn, and the other one is the entire field. The other thing is about that compression; I think that’s something we spend a lot of time thinking about, even when I was a kid, was to what degree compression is just part of that revision process where you can get things as compressed as they can be. I tend to get too compressed sometimes, but that compression I think is true in your work.  Even in the longer work, you’re just taking on a broader scope. So I think that’s pretty cool.

The other question I had was you said the stuff you go back to is stuff that—the stuff that you remember is— and the stuff that ends up settling in your gut.  And I think people would probably be—maybe not—but perhaps surprised that when I was younger, you pushed me toward reading some folks like Ai, Li Young Lee. My lifelong affection for Kinnell came out of your suggestion that I look at The Book of Nightmares.

And I don’t think people necessarily put The Book of Nightmares or Ai or Li-Young Lee in your starter kit—few would put them on your shelf, and yet I know you read folks like them and others. So maybe we can talk about some of the folks that you read that hit you in your gut. Ones that might be a surprise to people.

JD: Let me just grab the stack of books that I’m reading right now—it’ll keep me from having to make a top ten list or whatever. I read a lot of prose, too, but when I read poetry, I tend to read a lot of books at the same time. And when I sit down to write, I’ll just read a couple of poems, from this one, a couple poems from that one.  There’s the—The Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, Jeffery McDaniel’s new book. He’s a very funny poet, kind of surreal—well, here’s one, “Pickup lines of the Marquis de Sade”—he has a great sense of humor. He reminds me of that comedian Steven Wright.  He has this deadpan intensity.

Another BOA book, by Jillian Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, it just won the Laughlin Prize. I’ve been enjoying that. And somebody who people probably wouldn’t be surprised I read is Charles Harper Webb.

DK: Yes, Charles and I were at Aspen Institute working with Pinsky ages ago. Though Charles was as interested in the fly fishing as he was workshop. Charles’ work is hilarious but often deeply felt as well. I don’t know if you read Hudgins or not, his book, The Joker just came out. Webb and Hudgins use humor in ways few can. But there are a long list of pranksters for to list from Dean Young to Jeff Friedman that deserve a tip of the cap to keeping humor in the game.

JD: I’m also reading Leanne Norman, a local poet who was involved in the labor movement. I ran into her in physical therapy after my knee surgery. And When My Brother was an Aztec, by Natalie Diaz.  And Jan Beatty’s latest book, The Switching Yard—she’s a friend of mine in Pittsburgh. Oh, and a national poetry series title, Markus Wicker’s Maybe the Saddest Thing, with Bruce Lee on the cover. And Mary Ann Samyn’s latest—I’m in the middle of that one, too—My Life in Heaven.  She writes stuff that is maybe more out there for me, but I’m able to make the jumps in her work more than I can with some other poets. We are the two Belgian-American poets from Detroit. We were both interviewed by the Gazette van Detroit—which might be the only Belgian newspaper in the United States.  My family name was actually Danneels, D-A-N-N-E-E-L-S. My great grandfather Americanized it at some point.

DK: Yeah. Well, you’ve cornered the Belgian-American-Detroit demographic.  You’ve cornered that poetry niche, that’s all yours.

JD: Well, JD is not exactly the most interesting name in the world. Maybe a step above John Smith, but not by much. I wrote a poem called “You bring out the boring white guy in me” to play with the blandness a little—that’s me, on some level, so why not own up to it instead of trying to be something else.

DK:  That seems exactly right. That sounds exactly like a poem you would, could, should and did write.

JD: I guess even in my earlier series, the Digger poems, about a factory worker and his family, I was trying to find poetry in ordinary life that many people think is mundane.

DK: Yeah. Digger’s Territory, that was a finely made little chap. Tuned me into identifying characters that may recur in my own work.

JD: Then later I wrote the “Tenured Guy” poems, I was really trying to—

DK: Step into that, too.

JD: I’ve been teaching for over 30 years, so I’m writing poems about teaching and academia. I’ve always been interested in writing about work, not necessarily blue collar or white collar, but just work and how it affects the rest of our lives. Academia is such a crazy world, there’s plenty of material for poems. People talk about it being an ivory tower, but all the same shit happens in academia that happens everywhere else.

DK:  In my experience, whether, you work as a short-order cook, or you work in “ivory tower academia”, or technology or manufacturing, or the goddamned whaling crew on the North Slope of Alaska, it’s the same shit. People fuck each other’s wives, people are pissed about the work they’ve got to get done, who’s in charge, and getting up to go to work every day. So, no surprise for me that you might find some fodder inside the halls of academia.

JD: Of course, it’s all fiction, right?

DK: Right. Right. The names and circumstances have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.  Sure.

JD: It’s amazing I’ve been at Carnegie Mellon, I think this is my 33rd year there—I never would have dreamt it.  But hey, I really like Pittsburgh, it fits me well as a place to live, and the university’s really treated me great.

DK: Well, I haven’t been back in a while, but I went back to the Big O, I guess it was about eight years ago, and there’s something special about the Big O.  Getting a small fry—I can’t even fit my hands in the camera to illustrate the size of a small fry with some cheese on top.

JD: That’s an investment there, yeah.

DK: It’s not health food, but it was good stuff. It is a great place.  I have lots of affection for Pittsburgh for sure. In relation to Pittsburgh, you have a film about Pittsburgh coming out, right?

JD: Well, I’ve done three films, and we were going to do another one this summer, but we ran out of time, so  we’re planning on trying to do it in this spring. A short film—this next one’s based on a poem.  We never have any money for these films, but I love working on them because it puts me in touch with all these talented people around the city that I wouldn’t have met otherwise who have great ideas, and we kind of feed off each other. Either Tony Buba or John Rice have directed my films, and they’ve both become very good friends.

DK:  If I remember correctly, the early films were done by folks in Pittsburgh about Pittsburgh, right? Am I right?

JD: Yeah.  Pittsburgh/Detroit, this hybrid of my two cities. No Pets was the first one. Two of them were adaptations of my own stories.  The most recent one was Mr. Pleasant—it’s based on Mt. Pleasant, a city in Central Michigan that is completely flat. We have no area like that around Pittsburgh because, as you know, it’s very hilly here, so we had to drive to Ohio to film. And we had this ‘Welcome to Mt. Pleasant’ sign somebody made and we just stuck it in the snow and started filming.

It’s that creative kind of shit that I really enjoy. It gets me out of that little writing room. I have these hermit-like tendencies, so it’s good to get me out of the house. I’m working with John Rice again on the new one.

DK: Is he a Pittsburgh guy or a Detroit guy?

JD: Pittsburgh guy. And like most people in film in Pittsburgh, he got his start on George Romero zombie films. I think Dawn of the Dead was the first film John worked on. Now he’s teaching filmmaking at Point Park University here in Pittsburgh.

We have the same sort of aesthetic, he works fast, no nonsense, and we’re always on the same page—which is key when you don’t have any money to spare. With Mr. Pleasant, we worked on the script for a year, we filmed it in a week, and then we spent a year editing it.

DK: So, this will becoming out from MGM when?

JD: We don’t even make them feature length, so we just get in some film festivals with them, and we have a good time. Even with our limited audience,  I always say more people have seen these films than have read my books. I feel good about getting my work out there in front of people who are not poetry readers.

DK: Which festivals?

JD: None of the big ones, I’m afraid.

DK: So, I won’t be seeing it at Cannes or at Sundance?

JD: No. No. These are like $10,000 films. At Sundance, the average budget is $1 million. If we added another zero and had $100,000, I think we could do miracles. But it’s part of the challenge, it’s like a scavenger hunt, finding people, places, props, etc. We did get around a bit—film festivals in South Africa, Wales, Canada. A couple in California, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Carolina, Texas—

You can see the trailers online—we have websites for the last couple, Dumpster, and Mr. Pleasant. We tend to use local theater people as actors, and we’ve been very lucky to get talented people who are willing to be a part of what we’re doing for little or no money. One actor from Pittsburgh, David Conrad, was in this CBS series called “Ghost Whisperer,” and we got him to be in Dumpster because he loves Pittsburgh and was willing to help us out.

And so you meet these interesting people. In fact, I got the cover for Birth Marks through working with David—he had this crazy idea to create an imaginary art movement called the Lost School of Pittsburgh. He imagined this group of artists in the 50s that made all this art, and then disappeared, then he had contemporary artists and writers in Pittsburgh recreate work that the lost school might’ve made.

DK: This is the displaced writing about the displaced of the nonexistent, right?

JD: Right. Right.

DK: The Askenazi of Pittsburgh or something.

JD: I think it only made sense in David’s head, but we all went along with it.  The photograph on the book cover is from this group that he called the Skid Crews that created artwork by making skid marks with their cars. When BOA was asking about cover ideas, I thought of the photographs of the skid marks. You don’t know where you’re going to find a book cover.  Have you got a cover for your book yet?

DK: No.  I sent some suggestions for the cover of Twine to Bauhan Publishing.  Bauhan is the publisher for the May Sarton prize. But it’s—we’ll see.  I’m not a cover designer, and this is my first full length book.  I have no idea what to expect, or what level of influence I’ll have over the process.  I sent a couple of random pictures their way, but no.  No.  None yet.

JD:      And it is an interesting process because it’s so—

DK: You can judge a book by its cover?

JD: Well, if I’m signing books and there’s three or four books on the table, it’s interesting to see which ones people pick up.  The cover does make a difference.  Some of my ideas that have been used were probably not very good ones in terms of catching people’s eye.

DK: So, which ones weren’t good ideas?

JD: Well, one book of stories, Mr. Pleasant had a bland cover—I’ve been doing these photo books with Charlee Brodsky, this great photographer who teaches at CMU, and one of her photos is of this guy smoking a cigarette where the ash is really long, and you can’t see his face, and he’s bent over on a bench. But it didn’t draw people to it, despite it being a great photo. Sometimes I don’t have any ideas at all, but with the last book of stories, Trigger Man, I just gave them this broad idea, I said there’s a story about a clown in there, can you do something with a clown in some kind of an urban setting. So they came up with this thing—It’s a smiley face made up of hubcaps with a clown nose.

DK: Awesome. It’s so smart.

JD: I would’ve never come up with that. They did a great job.

DK: That’s exactly the kind of thing where I’m hoping that there are smarter people in the world than me about those things because—I had to think about a cover and send some ideas none of which I loved. But boy, that’s a really smart cover. So I guess you can judge a book by its cover. Do people pick up Trigger Man and make you sign that one? Is that the deal?

JD: Yeah, I have a lot of respect and admiration for designers.  Already, I’m trying to come up with ideas for Eight Mile High.

DK: A gentleman named Henry James is the book designer for Bauhan Publishing. I’ve seen his work so I’m excited to see what he creates. The picture I sent Bauhan Publishing was—or the idea was just—the book’s called Twine, so there’s the twine that ties up a package over the surface of a book shape.  And that’s as far as I got.

JD: That could work. What do I know? I have friends who have had awful book covers. My one friend, he would only read from the hardcover because he hated the image on the paperback so much.

DK: Oh really?

JD: It was his own book. Yeah, they had like a drawing of a frog on a lily pond—it looked like a kid’s book. Oh man, he was really bummed.

DK: Yeah, you’re scaring me, man. Drive me back to drinking or something.  But—

JD: Yeah, I don’t drink anymore.

DK: Yeah, I don’t either.  How long has it been since you…how long have you been not drinking?

JD: Four years. I had quit previous times because I was out of control.  In fact, I quit drinking for my entire freshman year in college because I was drinking so much in high school. The drinking age was 18, and so we were just getting wasted all the time. I went to Alma College, this little college in a small town in the middle of Michigan to dry out. But then I started again, and I stopped again, and drugs and….

But my daughter got really sick her freshman year in high school. And it was a very tough time for a while, and my stomach had all these issues as a result.  And so it forced me to stop drinking. When my stomach got better, I felt like I didn’t miss the drinking, and I probably drank enough for one lifetime already anyway, so I haven’t had anything since. There was this weird kind of pressure—I was only having one glass of wine now and then, but I was always having to put my hand over my glass to keep people from refilling it. And I figured if I say I don’t drink at all, then I don’t have to deal with that.

DK: Interesting.  I haven’t had a drink since February of 2004.  I had no interest in stopping until about then. I did my fair share, certainly as a youngster. Then grad school, it was kind of the motif, if you will. And I had my haunts. And during my 5 years in Alaska, there’s not much to do other than hunt Caribou, and your next drink.

JD:      Yeah.

DK: And so yeah, at some point I had had 100 reasons to quit along the way, every one you could imagine.  But in 2004 was when it was just time. I’m kind of looking forward to having not drank as long as I drank.  Which will be pretty meaningful.  But for me it wasn’t even about stopping the person from pouring the next drink. I never left a half glass of wine.  If somebody was refilling the glass, I was happy to drink it.

But not drinking certainly has changed my reasons for doing what I do. I don’t have to plan my life around it.  I am more connected in a lot of ways to what is true for me.  So yeah.

JD:      Yeah, I remember—

DK: We have the same legacy in my family around drinking.

JD: Yeah. It’s tough to break from that. A number of years ago Ted Kooser told me he quit drinking because it was like a part-time job for him. And that made a lot of sense just in terms of the recovery time.

DK: It takes a lot of management to live a life and employ yourself in the job of drinking.  And sometimes that part-time employment became a full-time job for me.  So, I was—

JD: Oh yeah.  And grad school was tough, too. The woman I lived with in Bowling Green was related to a big-time cocaine dealer. Yeah, he was major league, man.  He didn’t have to touch the stuff.  He had all these guys working for him, and he just fronted the business. She would go home, and she’d bring back—this was during the big cocaine years in the 80s—and she’d just bring back baggies full of the stuff. And technically, he told her that—or she told him that—she was going to sell it, and then we’d just do it all. I mean, what was he going to do? It was his sister-in-law. He wasn’t going to take her out, you know? Yeah, that was bad news. I loved cocaine.

DK: Yeah, it’s a great —it’s a good time drug, but again, talk about a full-time job, right?

JD: Oh man.

DK: A full-time nose job.

JD:      So, here we are.  Clean and sober.

DK: Yeah, totally.  And grad school, it’s one big blur, but I think one of my favorite memories was this pattern I would have of going to parties after the readings, and for whatever reason, some of the faculty and I would get liquored up and decide to get into fist fights. With relative frequency, people would be breaking up fights in these posh homes with the readers in the other room, witha faculty member and I talking trash and about to throw down in the living room. Writers trying to beat each other up….never pretty.

JD: Well, you always had that kind of intensity.  I’m sure it would get magnified when you were drinking.

DK:  Good times.  So, coming up on an hour here, I don’t want to and I do want to zero in on the Two Aunts poem.  Read it if you would..


My Two Aunts

work at Burger King and McDonald’s.
One in Newark, the other in Memphis.
My two aunts married two drunks–
one died, the other disappeared.

My two aunts are two alcoholics,
recovering.  One dates a blind man.
The other dates memory:
her husband’s final day
breathing his own blood.
Their alcoholic sons
have married and divorced.
Their children are sad and overweight
they are tall and stutter
they have imaginary illnesses
they blame their fathers
they blame their mothers
they smoke one endless cigarette.
But my two aunts,
they’re saying, May I help you.
And Big Mac and fries.
And Whopper and fries.
They are amazed by and resigned to
the goofy hats and polyester slacks.

They take orders from bosses
younger than their children.
They pledge allegiance to the burger corps.
After work, they put up their feet
and reach for the imaginary drink.

One lost the condo paying off
shared credit cards after the divorce.
The other lost the house after the husband
lost his salesman’s job after 27 years,
lost his factory job after six months,
ended up a janitor swigging wine
in the broom closet.
My two aunts take off their sour uniforms
and sleep — or don’t sleep, depending.
Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder,
Whopper. Itchy collar, swollen feet.

No more Cheerios for dinner
no more shakes and instant regrets
no more half-gallon vodka guilt and lies.
One aunt bites holes in her lips
and takes community college courses in math.
The other started aerobics
with matching leotard and sweat band.
It’s a matter of time,
they both say.  I’m getting on
my feet again.  AA,  the church.
Belief, addiction,
addiction, belief,
May I help you, please? 
Please, may I help you?
One aunts wants her marriage
annulled: they were teenagers and not
in their right mind for thirty years.
The other says she stopped visiting
the grave but hasn’t.
My two aunts are getting
their lives together.
They have shed their soggy dreams
they are selling hamburgers
in America for minimum wage
they are trying to shed
their scales and bad news.

If only they could give up
on bad news, swear it off.
What put them here
pressing buttons, handing out change?
Thank you, yes, thank you. 
Here is your order.
My two aunts smoke now,
more than they ever drank.
My two aunts, one way or another
we will kill them.

That’s one of the things that I suppose is typical, and probably cliché about AA meetings, that everybody stands outside and smokes.   My aunts — most of the people of their generation that I knew growing up finally did quit smoking, but it was like they needed that one thing to keep up —

DK: A dirty little secret about recovery is swapping one thing for another.  Of course, you’re not running down kids in the street drunk, but it definitely is one way to take yourself out if you’re replacing drink with something else.

DK: I think about that poem, and I think about it as a mirror back to talk about the trajectory of your career again, I reflect all the way back to “Short Order Cook” from Places / Everyone. And I think to myself where that poem was coming from, its persona, its concerns, right? And then I think about this poem, which is about a couple of folks working in a fast food restaurant, your aunts working in a fast food restaurant, but the concerns, the arc, the stance, the point of view, the stories, and how that reflects a kind of transformation in your career to some degree.  What if we put one poem, “Short Order Cook,” a well understood poem, a well known poem, right?  And you put —

JD: I’ve made more money off that poem than any other poems. Isn’t that crazy?

DK: Exactly. It’s been the money shot, I get that. Yeah, anthologized, appearing in writing poems by Robert Wallace, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, but then to put that poem in the context of the “My Two Aunts” poem, which is I think a broader more mature frame I think that’s interesting to see those two as a diptych between then and now, between being in it and now being about it. This transformation signifies to me what I know of you as thoughtful artist wanting to progressive his craft even if the words artist and craft in and of themselves are a kind of contraband in the world your work emerges from.

JD: It’s interesting to compare those two poems, “Short-order Cook” and “My Two Aunts”—they both involve working in fast food, but I think they’re different in one key way, and that involves thinking about myself vs. thinking about others. Since becoming a parent myself, I’d like to think that I’m a little more empathetic. Sometimes I look back at those earlier poems and I say oh, it’s all about I, I, I.  And—

DK: Well, when we were 20, what else was there, right? Here we go, “Short Order Cook”

Short-Order Cook
An average joe comes in
and orders thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries.
I wait for him to pay before I start cooking.
He pays.
He ain’t no average joe.
The grill is just big enough for ten rows of three.
I slap the burgers down
throw two buckets of fries in the deep frier
and they pop pop, spit spit. . .
pssss. . .
The counter girls laugh.
I concentrate.
It is the crucial point–
they are ready for the cheese:
my fingers shake as I tear off slices
toss them on the burgers/fries done/dump/
refill buckets/burgers ready/flip into buns/
beat that melting cheese/wrap burgers in plastic/
into paper bags/fried done/dump/fill thirty bags/
bring them to the counter/wipe sweat on sleeve
and smile at the counter girls.
I puff my chest out and bellow:
Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!
I grab a handful of ice, toss it in my mouth
do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success.
Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.

JD: Yeah, right. Right. But, as you know, becoming a parent just changes everything. And I think Blessing the House was a kind of turn there, an expansion of scope.

DK: Yeah.  That was my sense and when I first read Blessing the House, I was like very—not only was I interested in that book, but I started to wonder what’s next.  That book cleared the deck where I could see you were going to start producing many forms, many different styles, with a hell of a culmination in Birth Marks.

I recently I read the book quietly to myself to dig in to the poems to prepare for this interview. I also wanted to hear them read aloud to me. In a recent road trip with Linda, my other half, I asked her to read the book aloud as we were driving.  And so—

JD: Oh boy.

DK: So she was reading the poems, and reading the poems, and—as we were driving up into the mountains, she turned to me after the super ball poem and she said wow, I really like the way he writes. And then she kind of looked at me, and I took her look to mean how come you can’t write more like him?

It was my interpretation of her look. I couldn’t really explain to her that I could never write with such candor and generosity and heart. I did explain to her your influence on me and she again just gave me that look.

Birth Marks, its a really beautiful and tough book.  And shit, we should probably do this more often. We should definitely hold a conversation more often than every 20 years or so. Lets chat again soon.

Jim Daniels is the Thomas Stockham Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, where he has been teaching since 1981. At Carnegie Mellon, he has received the Ryan Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Elliott Dunlap Smith Award for Teaching and Educational Service, and a Faculty Service Award from the Alumni Association. For fifteen years, he directed the Creative Writing Program, and for seven years, he has been the English Department Director of Undergraduate Studies. He is the founder and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards, which just celebrated its 15th anniversary, and in 2001 he founded a mentoring program involving students in the creative writing program at Carnegie Mellon and students at the Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, the creative and performing arts magnet school. Daniels’ fourteenth book of poems Birth Marks, was published in 2013 and was selected as a Michigan Notable Book. His fifth book of short fiction, Eight Mile High, will be published in Fall 2014.  He has also written the screenplays for three films, most recently, Mr. Pleasant, in 2011, which he also produced. He has collaborated with Design Department Professor, Charlee Brodsky, on two books combining his poems with her photographs. Their book, Street, won the Tillie Olsen Prize. Other writing awards include the Brittingham Prize for Poetry, the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and two from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. In addition, he has edited or coedited four anthologies, including Letters to America: Contemporary American Poetry on Race. A native of Detroit, Daniels is a graduate of Alma College and Bowling Green State University.

David Koehn’s first full length manuscript, Twine, now available from Bauhan Publishing, won the 2013 May Sarton Poetry Prize. David’s poetry and translations were previously collected in two chapbooks. Tunic (speCt! books 2013) is a small collection of some of his translations of Catullus, and Coil (University of Alaska 1998) won the Midnight Sun Chapbook Contest. David’s poetry and essays have appeared in a wide range of literary magazines including The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rhino, Volt, CarolinaQuarterly, New York Quarterly, Diagram, Omniverse and many others. David currently writes and runs “First Verse,” first book interview series for Omniverse, the Web property of Omnidawn Publishing. David is Chairman of the Board for Ominidawn Publishing (, has a BA from Carnegie Mellon, and an MFA from the University of Florida.


Mary Cappello with Peter Covino

Peter Covino
Peter Covino

Literary nonfictionist Mary Cappello and poet Peter Covino interview each other on the matter of “beauty” in their work and the work they love to read; on anti-beauty, un-beauty, disruptive beauty, and uncontained beauty in poetry and the essay. On trauma and poetic practice; on writing violence and literary nonfiction; on letting the wild in; on queer Italian/Americana; on the contrapuntal and distillate forms; on lyrical space, confluent energies, writing light. And plaid. The conversation was recorded at the University of Rhode Island December 2012, by Justin H. Brierley for The Beauty Salon, a radio program that explores everyday aesthetics in and around Rhode Island.

Poet, translator, and editor Peter Covino is associate professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Rhode Island. He is the author of the poetry collections, The Right Place to Jump (2012), and Cut Off the Ears of Winter (2005) both from W. Michigan University Press, New Issues; and the co-editor of Essays on Italian American Literature and Culture (2012) from Bordighera Press, CUNY. His prizes include the 2007 PEN American/ Osterweil Award for emerging poets and the Paterson Poetry Prize for Literary Excellence (2013).

Sasha Steensen with Martin Corless-Smith

Martin Corless-Smith and Sasha Steensen
Martin Corless-Smith and Sasha Steensen
Sasha Steensen: I’ve just read your new book, Bitter Green, and it strikes me that it is a divergence from some (though certainly not all) of your earlier work. Much of this earlier work is multi-vocal, using persona (Thomas Swann), quotation (Swallows, for example), and overwriting and excising techniques to challenge the sovereignty of authorial intention and the primacy of the written text. In Bitter Green, the mother is a fundamental figure, but she is gone, and this absence has forced the speaker to re-adjust or re-position his own social compass. The book strikes me as both highly personal, and desperately concerned with one’s presence in the larger world. But the poems do not rest comfortably with the interior (private, familial) and exterior (public, social) binary any more than they accept a trajectory whereby the familial seamlessly turns into the social.

As I move toward related, but distinct, questions about the relationship between what we experience as familiar and what we experience as strange, I find Denise Riley’s description of the dynamic between family and non-family incredibly compelling:

There is an unspeakable outside, an imagined asocial space, where something howls beyond the edges, prowls in anguish around the dark perimeter encircling the glowing campfire of the family…. There is a strong argument for rejecting this imagined lure of the thought of the wild outside versus the regulated family inside.  It is the lure of the tame which may best render strange the familiar.

I don’t mean to suggest that this new book abandons earlier preoccupations (with the soul, with influence, with history), but rather I wonder how this new book might be using the personal to render these familiar subjects strange once again.

Martin Corless-Smith: My increasing sense as I write and as I live is that the unit we call self is as floating and various as the one we call other. I don’t mean a wishy-washy self that has no intentionality, I simply mean that the dynamics of being involves constant and shifting interactions that require and produce selfhood—we are made as well as offered during every interaction. We read ourselves in others.

My family offered a loving environment. We lived close, and most everything ran through the expectations and needs of that group. That does change as you grow up and away. For a long time, it was not replaced. I find now that I am less certain of the role of family, as opposed to say friends or even peers.

As I’ve said, I feel that some of my writing is not so much to an individual (or as an individual), as it is a gleaning from the realm of other towards making a lyric self I feel moves around a description of being I have sympathy with. In this regard, reading through lyric poems becomes a kind of utility of the other wherein I notice the frisson of intimate relation. Self and other are in this way coeval.

I’m interested in your relation to family in House of Deer, as you take it to be a fundamental, almost molecular formation. You work with the word Family as almost a noticeboard where important shifts of inclusion and exclusion take place. It is at once handled as opaque and as banally familiar. Do you see poetry as being a kind of family making experience? As opposed to say the lover/reader dynamic of the love lyric?

SS: I wanted to explore the ways in which the speaker of that book (sometimes me, sometimes not only me) has been formed by a noisy set of speakers (my own family members and the larger voices of the culture) who seem to be constantly narrating the parameters of family.

I wanted to be a mother who had critically examined, to the best of my ability, the cultural conditioning I had received. I had to go outside the family to first get glimpses of this. Just as the love poem falls short, leaving the lover bereft, so would the poem that longs for a family. I am wondering now how Anne Carson’s triangle might work here. The lover and the beloved always face a third component—that which comes between them, a kind of hole that is both inside the lover (though previously unnoticed) and outside (as a kind of chasm forever separating lover and beloved). Carson asks, “who is the subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is that hole.” Perhaps that hole exists between the family and the member too.

Carson evokes Aristophanes’s famous image of two lovers being cut in half, perpetually searching for their other half. In some ways, the offspring might be thought of as the product of this reunion, but of course, that offspring no more fills the hole than the now present lover does. We never fully realize the intimacy we desire, in part because of language’s limitations, and each person with whom we desire intimacy reminds us of this hole. But, as you say, the poem also arouses and fosters intimacy. Ultimately, poetry acknowledges separation. And yet it is precisely because of this acknowledgment that poetry is able to offer something other than separation. Not union, exactly, and not simply communication, but relation.

MC: Empedocles believes that the daimon (call it soul) is produced at the instant of cosmic break up. The ground for this breakup is god, or a sphere (and sometimes the Golden Age), which I suppose we might think of as personal pre-existence, the womb (earlier?). For Empedocles, it is strife that forces the rupture in perfection, and this rupture produces the daimons that can be individually incarnated.

In his introduction to The Poems of Empedocles, Brad Inwood says very succinctly that “we give up bliss to gain personal identity.” The most interesting aspect of Empedocles’s daimon is that it is a rather odd mix of elements including water, earth, fire and air, along with love and strife. So it is a nexus of commingling effects. When we think of the birth of consciousness, we might think of it as just such an event, rather than as a kind of manifestation of a sovereign self. There’s no doubt that the event of birth is pivotal, but so is the use of eyes to see light. We don’t think of ourselves now as the origin of all we see. Consciousness can be thought of as an event. I like that. And if we think of Carson’s Sappho, it is her use of love as the originating erotic rupture that seems to be both the awareness of otherness, and the awareness of our distance from it. Selfhood is the isolating experience of consciousness.

I read and write not to reinforce a version of me in the world, but to actually disappear to a degree into exchange. Poems and paintings are some ways I manage to disappear successfully. Music as well, of course. It is only the coy, sheepish post-coital explanation of what I was just doing that makes criticism or articulations of the value of poetry seem necessary. The ideal poem feels something like one is reading it as much as writing it. I don’t want to be met by a decent idea or by a clever revelation that represents my thoughts on a subject (though I suspect the majority of what we write is a pastiche of the real event). Most poetry is a ruse to get off. Not all of it is honest about the fact that it doesn’t manage to.

You seem in your writing to want to play with the idea of language as a spell. Your poems play with mishearings, false cognates, the true beauty of the fraudulent. But also in the way that rhyming takes on a magical aspect, a kind of ritualistic rhythm, a powerful something is motivated, we are drawn into its spell, into a rich world of what might be said and what that might actually do! So that language speaks through us, and we are like puppets to its game. We are possessed. I wonder if you feel that the real game of poetry is the slippage, the misfirings, the weird that creeps in. The way we mean things we don’t even know yet? The job of the poem is to distract us from its real task which is a glorious possession. Something like that?

SS: I often experience poetry as an illocutionary act.  It isn’t just the excitement I feel in the presence of a powerful poem.  The poem acts. When I read certain poems, I feel so addressed, and I shift my position as a response. On the other hand, I often feel physically handled when I am writing—I am being pushed around, but obviously, I welcome it.
“Ritualistic” seems right, especially if we think of it in terms of what ritual does to time.  If ritual exists to collapse time so that we might move closer to previous iterations of that same ritual, can poetry be said to do the same to language?  The poem is a long instant, indeed!

A few years ago, I wrote 40 poems over the 40 days of Lent (and you kindly published this chapbook—Waters: A Lenten Poem—in your wonderful Free Poetry series!), and the image of water appears in nearly every poem. A few months later when my parents’ house burned down in a forest fire, I felt shored up by those 40 poems.

As far as the poem distracting us from the “real task which is glorious possession,” I can’t say for sure. I suspect one does need distraction for this possession to take place. I am intrigued by your notion of honesty, in terms of what you say about the fraud of conjuration and maybe even your notion of poetry as a ruse to get off. How can the poem be honest while also giving itself over to the “beauty of the fraudulent?”

MC: The idea of honesty and fraud is not as serious as it sounds perhaps! I feel as if the truth content of a poem has played out as far too important in the theoretical defense of Poetry since Plato got all bent out of shape about it! I rather doubt anyone has been woefully led astray by the assertions of a poem! Or at least not in the way Plato is concerned. The reading of a poem as you describe it—the immersion—seems to me to be an opening, something like Duncan’s field as he is permitted to enter and re-enter. The job of the poem is to supply material to get there. The semantics are the ruse. A poem is already a leap of faith to a certain degree. One is receptively charged.

But the truth was there in the performance. In the flourish of liveliness, the approaching of true vitality that haunts us. We are held away from the essence of being by our own self-consciousness, so the poem’s events are really just a way at the performance of living.

SS: I have never understood what was meant by the poem being “true.”  A poem doesn’t seem to me to be either true or false; a poem just is.  On the other hand, poems can hold back, knowingly and unknowingly. Or rather, the poet holds back, and so the poem falters. But then there is the deliberate seduction—Whitman waiting for the John. This is not “false” because, in a good poem, there is vulnerability on both sides. And, as you say, the reader knows what she’s getting herself into.

But before I begin to sound like I believe that the poet does control the poem absolutely, there is another sexual parallel worth exploring. The holding back necessary in good sex can also be a liability.  Hold back too much, and all you have is body.  No orgasm.  Don’t hold back at all, and it is over too soon—very little tension is built, and so, very little is released.  But, of course, you can’t be thinking about how to build tension and when to release it the entire time you are having sex. It feels oddly similar to me, writing a poem. The tension is built and released in the rhythm of the poem, and this is not something that I can think into existence.  I listen.  The poem tells me.

MC: In his Handbook of Inaesthetics, Badiou discusses poetry as holding something always unknown. His sense is that the poet must preserve the secret in a way, that the job is to say around what one is holding. I’m sympathetic to the idea to a degree. Derrida says something very similar about Celan’s work in his essay, “Shibboleth.” But I feel they tend to face the unknown internally. They see the poem as a crypt (encrypted). I don’t fully agree with this internalization. We do the same thing when thinking about the soul. We don’t know what it is we discuss, but we house it “in” the body. We feel certain that it must be in there. But it seems to me that the poem and the body have their working out there in the open. And it is the open we explore. It seems infinitely possible. The poem points outwards to otherness. To possibilities. In sex, I suppose one of the things we know is that we don’t know the other. Imagination seems to me to be as fraught as Soul in the way it gets described.

SS: Imagination—yes, fraught.  But I think this is why Stevens felt it important to reconsider.  Because in order for it to be a mechanism of intellection, it must also be a mechanism of perception.  I’m still trying to figure out how this might be different from Kant, who seems to think of perception as the outcome of the imagination at work.  Interestingly, there is this moment in “Adagia” that I wanted to quote, and when I went in search of it, I found that the line just before it is a line Stevens uses twice, once in “Adagia,” and again, in The Necessary Angel, when he briefly mentions Kant.  Here’s the “Adagia” first:

La vie est plus belle que les idées. Perhaps there is a degree of perception at which what is real and what is imagined are one: a state of clairvoyant observation, accessible or possibly accessible to the poet or, say, the acutest poet.

And The Necessary Angel:

The philosopher proves that the philosopher exists. The poet merely enjoys existence …. Kant says that the objects of perception are conditioned by the nature of the mind as to their form.  But the poet says, whatever it may be, “la vie est plus belle que les idées.”  This is a bit of a summary, and also somewhat of a simplification of the process, but for Kant, appearance and consciousness meet via the imagination (as opposed to thought) to form “perception.”  The point (degree of perception) at which the real and the imagined can be “one” (the same thing?) is where the poem seeks to go, but it is also the point at which ideas must fall away.

MC: I do feel that Stevens wanted his poems to be flourishes of imagination at the threshold of perception, but I don’t think they are. I think they are very very good embellishments on ideas of perception rather than perceptions themselves.

SS: Maybe I’d say the inverse—Stevens wanted his poems to be flourishes of perception at the threshold of imagination.   It seems the imagination is more of a constant for him, and perception something we move in and out of, and glimpse from a distance and then only briefly.  We can’t see ourselves seeing or hear ourselves listening, or taste ourselves tasting, etc.

MC: I’m happy with the way you describe Stevens as well! I don’t know that it changes the constitutional dilemma, if there is one: the difference between doing and knowing. I mean I’m not particularly worried by what a poem is and what it isn’t to a degree. I like its uncanniness, its coming close and drifting away from what it might or might not be.
It is as if we are uncovering rather than manufacturing at times. I agree that the poem is the event of engagement. Poems and reading are, simply put, part of my environment.
I suppose I feel less excited about the poetry world per se. I have a sense that there’s a huge contemporary arena and it doesn’t feel like I want in. That sounds a bit churlish, but it is a matter of trusting one’s enthusiasms. It’s probably why I’m painting more these days. I like talking through ideas with my students. But I’ve only so much energy for being part of the wider world. I’d rather go for a walk with my son than attend a conference.

SS: That’s probably why you came to mind immediately when I was approached about this Conversant project. I, too, would often rather go on a walk then go to a big conference. Sometimes I worry I am setting myself up to become even more reclusive—on my little plot of land on the outskirts of an already small town. But then I realize how deliberate this has made me about what I do attend, and that feels right.  And I have poet friends here who I can talk to daily.

MC: I live so far away from society, and it strikes me that I must prefer it. I am sociable, though here I don’t have poet friends per se. Students. Past and present. And perhaps I have books. So the walks I take with poets are of a different order. Wordsworth hikes the hills, Dorothy and William. John Clare studies the hedgerows.  Whitman is lazying in a hot spring. Herrick is marveling at the promiscuity of dancing youth. Keats is really already looking past the sunset.

I hope we take a walk together soon. To continue a walk together.