There should be no coddling in workshops. They should be brutal, you should feel bad about yourself when you’re finished. If you feel bad you can learn what you’ve done wrong in a poem and then maybe you can start to write a little bit better.
That said, the MFA program I was enrolled in might very well be an aberration. I’m sure my experience is not your experience. A lot of great writers, I guess, have come out of the MFA I quit.
The other issue I had was there were all these seminars about what a writer does with their MFA once they acquire it. I had no interest in doing any of these things. I don’t care to run workshops, I don’t care to teach in any way. I had no interest in moving into the publishing world. I didn’t necessarily have a life plan or goal but I knew the career paths being presented to me were uninteresting. All I wanted from an MFA was to write better and I didn’t feel like the MFA I was in was helping. So fuck it.
Lacking a terminal degree hasn’t hindered you. You have a fantastic book of poetry, I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone, out from YesYes Books. You’ve been published all over the place, including in PANK, Diagram, HTML Giant, and Diode. Since obtaining an MFA didn’t come with the keys to Valhalla, where’d you get them and when are you most vulnerable to theft? Also, does this impact the way you see yourself in relation to other poets or your presence within po-biz?
I’m not a viking so the only thing I know about Valhalla is what I just read in the first paragraph of the wikipedia entry on it. I’m going to interpret gaining the keys to Valhalla as “having arrived” or maybe just “being awesome.” I don’t think I’ve actually arrived or gained any keys or anything really. I think with writing, like anything, really, you can’t allow yourself to arrive. Once you arrive you’re dead. Publishing a book is definitely awesome, as well as placing pieces in the journals you’ve listed, but once you’re done you have to keep moving. I think it’s all about stamina and endurance. It’s about constant motion, constant growth. I personally struggle to keep moving. That’s where my weakness is, I guess. I want to sit down and relax and get showered with praise and fans and admiration. Lucky for me the world doesn’t really care about poetry and there’s not a giant public waiting to shower me. That helps, I think, but it also usually leaves me with a feeling of uselessness. There needs to be more public awareness of poetry, but that’s a whole different issue. Check out what KMA Sullivan and YesYes Books are working on with their E.P.I.C. initiative.
As far as how I see myself in relation to other poets, I feel mostly lesser and sometimes equal to other poets. Sure there’s lots of stuff that I read that doesn’t interest me, but then I just don’t read it any more. I try not to put a judgmental hat on and compare myself. I try to only compare myself to the real badasses, the poets and writers that, in my eyes, have arrived. And in those comparisons I usually end up on the worse side of the comparison. And in my experience interacting with some of these badasses I’ve found that they generally feel pretty similarly to me, in that they don’t have anything figured out and they’re still striving to get “there.”
Speaking of Valhalla, what’s it like being on the other side of the first-book barrier? Is your house lined with more mirrors? Do you see other poets differently? Has this changed the way you write?
I am definitely writing differently than I wrote while I was writing I Don’t Mind, and I mean that in a bad way. I started working on a second book-length collection before I Don’t Mind was published and I’m still working on it and part of me feels like I’ll never get it finished. I think a second book means more in a way than a first book. The second book will always be compared to the first book. And what do I do if the second book is found lacking?
My other issue has been that my ideas are too big, perhaps, for my second book. I need to control myself and write in a more manageable way. I can’t tell you exactly what that means, but that’s what I’m feeling.
In your response to the second question, could you just tell me a couple of those badasses that make you feel inadequate? And I’m not trying to make you focus on stuff you dislike, I just want to know who you think is awesome and then tell other people about it.
I think my number one poetry crush out there right now is probably my fellow YesYes Books author, Nate Slawson. I’ve been a fan of his since I stumbled across his online chapbook. His work has always been totally refreshing to me, as in his work doesn’t feel like he’s trying to copy or fit in with anyone else who’s writing now or ever. And it’s just fucking awesome. I’m a huge fan of fiction, also, and even though I don’t write it, I draw on it for inspiration and can’t help but compare myself to fiction writers. I read Notable American Women by Ben Marcus a few years ago and it changed the way I look at literature. My all time favorite poets are Brenda Coultas and Claudia Rankine. Every time I read something by either of these two women I feel very small and useless in comparison.
You write in a very specific way, in those neat little prose blocks without a whole lot of punctuation. Would you label this writing “stream-of-consciousness”? Is this writing in any way related to your old blog? Do you feel your writing lends itself to the face-jab format of internet information consumption?I write neat little prose blocks partially in protest and partially because I think they look awesome when collected (see the pages of I Don’t Mind) and partially because it just feels right.
The protest is born out of the MFA I dropped out of. I had a mentor there who had us write prose poems as an exercise and he told me my poem wasn’t really a prose poem because it didn’t have a moral. He equated prose poems to modern fables. I had read prose poems before this—Rimbaud and Baudelaire and contemporaries Brenda Coultas, Claudia Rankine, Joe Wenderoth—and had never considered any of these prose poems as fables—and while I don’t disagree that a prose poem can be a fable, I don’t think that’s its defining factor. I decided that I would write everything in prose blocks for the remainder of the semester in protest, and I did, and I was criticized constantly and I kept thinking “I don’t really care.”
I read a lot of the Beat era poets who I think mostly felt stream of consciousness was the ideal to strive towards in poetry and I wrote in this way for years when I first started writing and none of those poems were ever published because they were mostly terrible. I don’t think stream of consciousness is entirely to blame for the failure of these poems. I was learning to write and finding a voice and finding what I was comfortable with, also. But for many of the poems in I Don’t Mind as well as most of what I’m working on since, may begin with a stream that gets thinned down and edited and reworked over and over.
I think the strength of stream of consciousness is in getting all those little strange and fresh images out of your head and onto the page. That uniqueness and freshness is the most important thing in the world, to me. I try to let it all out at first and then edit it into something that’s readable. I don’t always succeed and of course over-editing happens and messes things up.
Your blog died in September 2011 when you started writing Battlestar Galactica poems. Has your writing changed? Do you have another venue (either internet-y or sidewalk chalky) that influences how this writing happens? Do you think this much about writing?
I’ve been working full-time as a web developer for the past 2 or so years and I get seriously tired of the internet. I’ve had several blogs and websites and I get bored of them and I redesign them and I try to make them perfect but I do all this at the end of the day after I’ve been fixing or building someone else’s blog or website. The poetry blog you speak of still exists and was started as a way for me to continue writing because the methods I was using weren’t working. I carried these little Moleskines around—you know, because hip writers write in moleskins—and I would write everything down in them and I filled somewhere around 25 or 30 of them up with drafts and poems and thoughts and I finished almost none of those poems. So in an attempt to bring my thoughts to completion I started keeping an online journal—the blog—and I’d work and rework my poems online. I thought the idea of a craft blog was both unique and functional.
I stopped using it because I forgot about it and because I now use google docs to organize my new work. In the next few months—hopefully before 2013—I’m going to launch a reworked website which will contain all the content from all of my websites in one unified blog. My plan is to move back into crafting my poems publicly again—as I did on the tumblr blog—and to begin blogging again about whatever one blogs about. Reviews and thoughts and nonsense. I might not do that last part, but we’ll see.
And Battlestar is the greatest thing ever. I haven’t written any more of these poems, but thanks for reminding me. I feel like I now have the perfect excuse to sit down on the couch for the next few months and watch Commander Adama beat up some Cylons. Because you know, it’ll be research.
Could you talk about your entry into the repo business? Does this occupation in any way inform your writing?
I would work from 7am until about 4pm in the warehouse the agency stored its cars in, and then I’d work in a truck until sometimes as late as 5am. I did this for a good year before I was completely burnt out. It was a shitty time of my life. It was simultaneously the most fun job I’ve ever had and the worst. I’ve always thought that being a repossession agent is the most punk-rock job in the world and I had a mohawk in high school so it felt like a match. I got to do a lot of questionably legal things—and that was fun—but I also had to watch people who were already fucked suffer while we took their car from them. For the record, the actual process of a repossession rarely involves guns and baseball bats. Most of the time the car is repossessed before anyone has any idea what’s going on. Almost all people who’s cars are repossessed know that their car is going to be repossessed so when you show up to perform the act they’re relieved. A lot of the poems in I Don’t Mind were written while I was working as a repossession agent. I took a lot of images from my work and put them in my poems. There aren’t any poems in I Don’t Mind that are actually about repossessions, but they sort of are at the same time.
Do you like reading your poetry aloud to people in a room? Are you performative when you do this? When you reach the parts of your poems that are in all-caps, as if some sort of dialogue or internal thought is taking place (“I WANT TO EAT TOGETHER THE OATMEAL OF OUR NECKS” from “WHAT ON EARTH”), do you use a funny voice? I love those all-caps lines in your poems. What do you feel is their function?
I do like to read my poetry. There are a few videos of me reading mostly from I Don’t Mind up on youtube, you can go there and watch some of it and see for yourself. I try to make my reading more of a performance than a reading. Readings are fucking boring. It doesn’t matter how good your poetry is, if you read straight from a book with no enthusiasm I will be bored at your reading.
I like the caps lines too and I’ve been criticized for using all caps. The intention of the caps is not necessarily a way to denote emphasis so much as a way to denote moments of dialogue. When I read I think I make a conscious attempt to put an emphasis on these lines, but I don’t use a funny voice.
Also, I think it’s worth mentioning that the best reader I have ever seen is Matt Hart. I can’t talk about reading poetry out loud without citing this video.
I really liked “IOWA” from I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone. This whole section or poem talked a lot about building things from other things, focusing on the components that make stuff up. Or that’s what I got from it. For instance, “The paint on your Toyota Camry is made of American corn. The car is a recycled bottle, so many computer chips.” Moments like this take place often. They fascinate me. What do you feel you are doing here?
Isn’t this the way things are? Each thing is made of other smaller things. It’s like metaphysics or something. I don’t really know what that means. I feel like I should make didactic analysis of my own work right here but I don’t have anything for you. You know, if I had an MFA I might be able to speak more intelligently.
Do you see “IOWA” and that Scarlett Johansson chapbook and your other work as love poems? If so, why? If not, why not? What’s the big deal about love?
“IOWA” and “Please Don’t Leave Me Scarlett Johansson” are love poems. I Don’t Mind as a whole is a love poem. I don’t know why they’re all love poems. Everything’s a love poem. Fuck it. Everything’s about love because we’re all just lonely and we all just want to not be lonely. And I don’t think there’s any way for us to get away from that. I’m not sure I sat down and thought something like “I’m going to write some love poems now,” but I ended up with a whole bunch of love poems.
However, I think I captured a whole bunch of sadness in I Don’t Mind. I think mostly people can’t read it because there’s just nothing positive in the entire collection. While I think there’s definitely love, it’s not a joyous happy Neruda kind of love.
What are you going to do now? Both right now, after you finish answering this, and the more universal now, like with writing and reading and ‘rithmetic?
When I finish this I’m going to maybe do a bit of work. I’m at work and I should probably do some actual work. But there’s no guarantees that will happen. I will definitely sit in a bunch of traffic on my way home and I think I’ll pick up kebabs for dinner. Then I’ll play Dishonored for an hour or two, watch Archer on Netflix, and maybe reread and rework some of my answers to this interview.
More universally, I’m working on my second book, which I mentioned before is a mess. I’m trying to figure out exactly what the hell to do with it and myself. A lot of the work I’ve published in magazines over the past few months is early versions of some of these poems. It’s different than I Don’t Mind and also I think exactly the same.
I’m reading Infinite Jest—this is my second attempt. I got lost in footnotes reading it two or so years ago and I just stopped. I’m nearly lost again. That book is so damn big. I need a companion guide to help me through it.
writing a specific poem. I listen to fragments and sift the rhythms as they occur, whether it is a memory or idea. It’d be difficult to qualify my own sense of “evolution” or where I go: will go: have been: am living. “Evolution” is a peculiar and exciting word—it carries its necessarily forced movements towards a future, I presume. But my imagination often goes backwards in order to see what’s ahead. I don’t believe my evolution is linear. I seem to prefer clouds and forests where I am surrounded by simultaneous frequencies. I guess that’s music. For now I like to stand at the gate where inward looking articulates the lives and lights of other worlds.
I love the first poem in each of your collections. I especially love “Mercy Does Not Mean Thank You,” from Mule & Pear (New Issues Press, 2011), your most recent full length collection, which opens, “But say it is a body / with wounds // Say it is my father / bursting into tears alone // above his newspaper.” Later in the poem, the speaker says, “Say it is when our lips / finally touch after fighting // even though we are working / towards a type of kiss.” You know how to kick off a collection. What factors come into play when you sit down to order a manuscript, especially when it comes to selecting that first poem?
Thank you for the love! The first poem has to provide windows and contrast for the rest of the poems. But the first poem often actually gets written in the middle or towards the end. I don’t always understand that it may be the first because I don’t want to start getting attached to any particular arrangement right away. That comes later when the poems are butterflied on the floor or pinned to the wall. Something that is focused, visual, and thematic has to be happening. And I’m constantly considering mood. By the middle of the writing, perhaps (it was distinct in its tilt for each collection), I may finally concede that it is a manuscript and will consider where and how it may end. I guess I think about other collections that I admire and what was it that drew me inward, how I felt, or if there was an image or rhythm or question that got into me right away. So in my own work the beginning and the end may remain a bit unresolved, doors and windows and memories not fully open or fully closed. How’s that for clarity and confusion?
Artists are constantly observing objects and people around them. As a poet, photographer, and filmmaker, how do you negotiate the politics inherent to the act of looking? Is negotiating these politics through writing different than looking through a lens?
For me, the negotiations surface later. I’m an artist, not a diplomat. I try not to think or to fasten expectations or values to experiences while I’m in them. I need delight, despair, and I need questions. When I’m watching I’m listening—that means being quiet and concentrating. It may mean empathy or emptiness. There is a different kind of observation that occurs if I’m alone. But if I’m photographing a person or find myself in a specific environment I’m always surprised how I adapt and calibrate my sensitivity in relation to what’s before or around me. I would never say that politics are absent in any of these circumstances. But “politics” carries an aviary of beaks, wings, and talons. I don’t shy from the word. The act of looking is subversive inasmuch as it is happening and then remembered, translated. I don’t necessarily negotiate any particular brand of politics because I’m not indivisible. I have to see what I want to see and what I don’t want to see and give each an equal measure of wonder, consequence. The act of looking and the act of writing require reality and a departure from it. It is difficult, at least physically, to create a photograph that contains no “reality” per se. Naming and recognition occurs differently—but I believe that visual artists and writers approach any window or its questions with a parallel desire.
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger describes photographs demonstrating that “what you saw depended upon where you were when,” that “what you saw was relative to your position in time and space.” How would you respond to this when applied to the act of writing poetry? How do you approach perspective in your writing process?
I listen and wait. Shaping occurs with its obvious distinctions for both writing and for creating photographs. I’m interested in what happens when I “create an image” and this may be applied to my work as a poet and a photographer. How will I frame the poem, light the poem, crop and shadow and burn the poem? How will I impart mood in a photograph, how will I gather syllables and then break them through my viewfinder, how will I remove myself (I never can) from the looking without losing whatever this image may mean to myself and others? What will happen, later, when I “show” the photograph or poem to other eyes? How am I to understand the Other Eye that is also Mine?
Since 2006, your in-progress photography series, Ars Poetica, has undertaken the task of documenting as many Cave Canem poets as possible. Your most recent project, P.O.P, is a short documentary film series that engages contemporary poets with both their own poetics as well as those of their fellow writers. Both of these projects are major undertakings, demanding a certain level of immersion. As a poet, these projects give you not only an intimate portrait of the craft of poetry, but a unique bird’s-eye view of the contemporary poetic landscape. Is there a risk of voyeurism inherent to these projects? What have you learned about the current and future states of poetry from them?
I’m drawn to any kind of work that involves risk. I’m sure there is probably some minor amount of voyeurism that happens but it likely resembles the sort of play of distance and immediacy so many poets, writers, and artists need in order to create. The risk of voyeurism is mostly checked because I’m also a poet so there is much more of a sort of simultaneous looking that is happening—I’m inside and outside at once. I have empathy but it is not sentimental. My empathy must work in relation to craft—I must keep in mind the process, the experience and the exchange, and whatever is made finally. I learn so much from these positions of insider-outsider. Sometimes the word “voyeurism” seems to hold some sort of privilege or remove—I don’t want that because I don’t feel that way and I don’t make things through that sort of lens. Let Eros hover. I’m aware that I’m a participant at all times, a listener and a seer.
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes develops the concepts of studium and punctum. Of studium, he says, “It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions.” He describes punctum as “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Barthes was speaking about photography. Can you talk about these concepts in relation to the different mediums in which you work?
Wow, Barthes is so luminous! You asked me a question with Latin and Barthes in it and I hope I can find a way into this. In all of those lucent words I’ll focus my lens on the word “accident” because I don’t necessarily believe that the word “accident” is adequate or able to provide space for the spaces and arteries I leave open. So much, in my experience thus far, appears deliberate and deliberated (whether coming inward or in regards to what is refracted from culture and history). I assent that an ever-always puncturing of consciousness and unconsciousness never lets up, nearly violent, that there is something in the very moment one decides to press the shutter or to break a line or interrogate figure, face, gesture, setting, action. And yes, it is true that it leaves bruises and I want that. Did you see that brilliant moment in an interview with Toni Morrison recently where she said, “I want what I got”? It’s difficult to say anything after all the Barthes and Latin and to even bring in Morrison now! I’m often impressed when I revisit particular vernaculars and alphabets about how and why we look at one another or at anything or why and how we look away too. I don’t know if I want words like “punctum” and “stadium” on my porch but they’re welcome to visit. I work from and through blood and bone. Not that these lanterns can’t also share the same shining, but for me I prefer a process that may be perceived as more intuitive and less articulate. Carpe Medulla.
You are currently working on a collaborative project with Maya Pindyck called Project OBSERVE, a series of photographs that explores gender and ritual in Judaism. Can you talk a little bit about the collaborative process? Do you think all artists should attempt collaborating with other artists at some point?
The act of collaboration manifests itself differently and is relative to the artist and whatever material is at hand. Maya approached me a year ago and asked if I’d be interested in having a conversation about observing tradition and gender. She is a very fine poet and artist whose spirit and work is generous and visionary. Our interests in identity and politics were kindred as I’ve been finally returning to my grandmother’s (and my own) Jewish heritage. We seemed to be very clear about our aesthetics and how we would dress and undress our work. The words “all” and “should” can be quite tenuous when one is addressing artists. Perhaps many artists collaborate with other artists but again—this does not limit itself to only living artists or a time frame of past and present. I’m grateful that a part of my process and my identity truly opens from collaboration and that it helps balance the other spaces where I work that are heavily reclusive.
The French writer, Georges Perec, wrote extensively about the importance of observing and acknowledging what is profound in the quotidian, urging readers to “question [their] teaspoons.” What is the smallest, most prosaic thing you find still profoundly moves you? Why?
I think this question is beautiful but I don’t want to try to engage any superlatives. I’m too distracted. Here are some of the things that leapt into my heart because they’re often relative to my moods and whatever I’m feeling about our lives. I like the stain of tea on my spoon. Slurs of ink on my fingers. I like hearing music from open windows and listening to children ask questions as they’re being carried down the sidewalks and how they explain why any day requires a heroic cape or crushed tulle tutu. The way my lamp or sunlight shines through page after page of a book I’m reading. I’m always reading. I like the little snails I find on the sidewalk in my neighborhood—their backs are intricate and they move faster than I do. I never ever tire of rain, however banal, in any city. The spindles on bicycles. My dog’s eyes know me. Watching light. Listening to trees shift. Cinnamon is profound. The shapes of windows, doors, stairwells. 4 a.m. taxi journeys. Telephone lines and the far away sound of freight ships arriving at the piers in Red Hook. Corroded signs silence me. The days in the city after Christmas when all the pine trees are beached upon cement. Seeing tinsel and needles everywhere. Smaller? The mole behind my right ear that I have to use a mirror to check for to make sure there is only one of me. My mother’s beauty mark on her right cheek. The heap of shells from northern California and Provincetown and the ceramic white pears on my windowsill. The word “apricot” astounds me. The migration of monarch wings through Brooklyn. Buying a cup of coffee first thing this morning and yesterday morning and saying thank you to the woman who smiles at me and how she has no idea I am a poet and that I am still grateful there are poems and pictures waiting for me. And how I hum, feel a red cape warming around my throat as she tells me about her life over the smell of fresh bread and dripping hazelnut coffee.
Robert Frost said poetry “is a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.” What record do you want your poetry to preserve?
I can’t know yet and even if I could know—I wouldn’t want to. It feels like such a cinematic question, you know. Like, if I could see the day and the circumstance of how I will die and be remembered or not remembered. I’m content to know I will certainly die. I’ve enough evidence to find the “record” in most cases is suspect and slant. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to be articulate about one’s own immediate life. I’ve got a lot of work to do. Will you promise to ask me in a century?
What are some of your guilty pleasures? I love Matchbox 20—still. I’m pretty sure I listened to them last week. What’s your pop culture guilty pleasure? What’s the punctum that draws you to it?
I confess that I can sometimes listen to some really nasty music. Don’t tell anyone, OK? Music I would be mortified to play in front of my family or friends or even myself actually. My ear and integrity have gotten into some knockdown scuffles regarding lyric(s). Mostly I prefer jazz, old school, and a wide range of things from opera to flamenco. But it’s even worse when I buy a piece of this filth; it’s like eating an entire pizza covered in cotton candy ice cream. I’m relieved when the lyrics and the entire thing have percolated through me and I can return to somebody like Curtis Mayfield, Billie Holiday, or Maria Callas. But I blame percussion as my punctum, oh well. You know, it’s difficult for me to watch bad films or something like MTV. I feel like I’m too damn old to even mention MTV. I’m a fossil. I don’t watch television and I don’t have cable. I don’t know, when visuals are done badly I’m more impenetrable. If I ever have children I’ll probably become less reckless. Listening to a three-minute song repeating the word “ass” or singing about my Milkshake seems less dumbing but who’s to say?
Us Phantoms aren’t one for making demands, but we do like gifts. Especially poems…
Self, Near Eclipse
N: But, I am doing this interview. There is some engagement with language. I have some engagement with language every day. And there have been times I’ve written every day when I’m more deeply in my process. But I can miss a couple days here and now. But there’s always something. I’ve got a six year old so I was reading books this morning. You read as a writer, you know, just to see what they are doing. I’m reading the original Wizard of Oz books to her; just reading it as a writer to see how it’s put together. He just keeps repeating himself! Every page he just says the same thing again and again. Which seems fine for kids, he names the characters, what they’re doing, and then he says it again. But that’s cool. I guess that’s what you need to do for kids. Repeat yourself.
H: At what point did you decide you were going to be a professional writer?
N: That was pretty late. I’ve been writing since I was ten years old, and didn’t really know it was a thing that you could do. It was the only thing I was ever really good at. I was just so bad at everything else. I had an interest in language, in books. There was energy around them for me. But I took a couple years off after high school. I was an electrician and just worked. When I went to college, I went as an English major, just to study literature and to write. I was twenty, which was old, ancient. A lot of freshmen were like seventeen and here I had been out in the world working. I was this working class electrician. I looked like it. All the clothes I had were my work clothes. My name was on all the front pockets. It wasn’t style. It was all I had. But my twenties were this long apprenticeship and I didn’t go to grad school until I was thirty-two or something.
H: What did you do in between?
N: Drugs. And I worked for the homeless. I was trying to write, but it was mostly the addiction thing. That was my thing I had to get over. Nothing would have happened if I hadn’t quit that. It hadn’t become clear to me but it did at the tail end of my twenties. It was the wrong path to be on.
H: You’ve written memoirs, plays, poetry, and with Blind Huber, historical poetry. How does your process differ across genres?N: That’s interesting to call Blind Huber historical poetry. I don’t know if anyone ever has. I know what you mean by that. But if that’s historical poetry, then everything I write is historical poetry. I had the smallest thread of historical knowledge to write that book. I knew about [François] Huber this historical figure, knew he was blind, knew he had an assistant, knew he studied bees for fifty years, and that’s kind of it. So I sort of went from there. It’s more scientifically based; I did a lot of research on bees.
H: Poets love bees.
N: Yeah, yeah, there is something about them. I became sort of obsessed with them in this way. But, in terms of process— each book has its own form, its own process. I mean, they each definitely have their own form, but the process… The process is that I just engage with language every day. That’s the process. And then eventually energy starts to gather around something; an idea or piece of language or image or some sort of initiating spark. Energy starts to gather around it more. I can write for months and months and no energy gathers to build something bigger. And so that’s kind of the process. To just be open to seeing when energy starts to gather and to follow it. To see that this is the thing right now. Beyond that, I don’t know what to do!
H: People always want the speaker to be set outside the writer. Which is fair, but is it possible to write outside the “I”? Are we asking our readers to do something we’re not capable of doing?N: Sure, people write outside the “I” all the time. There are whole schools of poetry devoted to that impulse. Which I respect. They might not be the thing that rocked me the most because I am quite interested in figuring out, or getting some glimpse into the inner life of human beings around me.
But there are also projects that have nothing to do with it. People who are interested in moving language around, or finding text in the world and collaging it. There are all sorts of loopholes to do poetry. And The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, I don’t know, or Blind Huber, is that all me? The persona poem, which is what Blind Huber is, in that book there are many shifting personas. There are the bees, Huber, his assistant. And some part of that, the liberating part of that, is I got to have these emotions. The problem with the lyric poem, is that you have to present yourself in a certain way. You don’t want to show how gnarly you actually are. You are the one who is creating the narrative and get to decide how things happened and how to remember it.
So I like things that recognize that basic instability of the lyric. That this is only one version of the truth. To me that is very interesting and persona lets you do that. And The Captain is sort of this poly-vocal thing. So do I stand by everything that is said in The Captain? Do I think that’s all an utterance of my heart? I don’t think so. I hope not. There are people who advocate torture in that book. I think it’s gnarly, but it’s also thrilling to think: where the fuck did that come from? Maybe it’s coming from me, or like D.H. Lawrence says, “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me.” Is this coming from somewhere else and are you just a channel? What is it that Jack Spicer said? “Poets think they are pitchers, but they are really catchers.” So, you’re just catching stuff and the lyric impulse is still important and I still often go toward it. It’s a beautiful impossible exercise. The “I” like the eyeball can’t see itself. That’s why you need others to see you.
H: In terms of your first book, Some Ether, what I love about it is how you construct loss. It’s about the act of losing but also what you discover through loss. There’s not really a question there, but can you speak to that?
N: Constructing loss is a great phrase. That’s the interesting thing when you are putting a book together and there is some sort of elegiac quality to it. I guess you are constructing loss. That was the thing that both propelled me forward and horrified me. It’s sort of like, taking this loss and thinking you can make something out of it; which is this awful task. What is the impulse to do that? Why can’t you just accept the loss? Why can’t you just move on, grieve the loss? Why do you have to make something of it? It’s a horrifying impulse. There’s this Denis Johnson poem, called “Poem,” and the last line is, “and God forgive me, I pulled to the side of the road and wrote this poem.” I read that poem when I was first getting to be a poet, and there was something about that line that really kicked me.
What we are doing is trying to take the stuff of this world and shape it into some kind of aesthetic and what does that do? What is it for? I mean it is elegy. The dead don’t get to write elegies. As far as we know.
H: Or maybe that’s the wind blowing through you.
N: Yeah. Constructing loss. There is always that risk, the falseness of it: that you are going to try to present it in a way that is just a lie that gets you through the next day. And is that true? Is that false? What does that do? It doesn’t link you to that person. That person is dead. We think we do it to honor the dead, but how do you really do that? You try to live, I guess. But I like the phrase, it makes you uncomfortable.
H: When you are writing about your personal life and the people in it, do you feel a responsibility because you are writing someone else’s story?
N: Yeah, yeah. That’s the lyric impulse, there are always others involved.
H: Especially when you are writing about your dad. You are the only one who gets to tell that story. How it happened.
N: Well you could be the Dickmans. You could have two versions of it. But most of us don’t! Which is probably one of the reasons we study them, that’s the interesting phenomenon. Identical twins who are both writing really good poems that are so completely different about the same subject.
But there is always a burden of responsibility writing about anyone. I don’t feel any when writing about myself! It’s the approximation, just trying to get close to some understanding. With other people, I just try to distill down. I don’t try to attribute motives to people but you can attribute actions. They did this on this day. Or they said this thing. Why they said it, I don’t know. I just try to get it down to what I can possibly know on a certain day. That’s all you got—to not go at it from a place of certainty. To me that seems like madness. And it makes for very bad poetry. There has to be a level of wonder in poetry. Wonder in the face of this enormous mystery. And we are just trying to gather a little sliver of light to find some meaning. And the meaning is elusive. That’s a good poem, or a good day! But also you can read a good poem on a bad day and miss it. You can read it ten years later and then be like, holy fuck! I read Rilke a hundred times and didn’t get it! But then, one day, the situation was right, and I got it. That’s the great things about poems, because you can read them rather quickly. You don’t really get that chance with novels. With poems, you can read them again and get a genuinely new experience.
H: In poetry, everyone always says the personal is political. Great. I get it. In your work, you often write about the directly political dispersing it with your own personal narrative. The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands and The Ticking is the Bomb are two examples. I’m wondering for you, how often do the politics of governance intersect with the politics of selfhood?
N: I think it’s true, I do write from a political stance almost all the time. My first book of poems has a single-working class mother; a father who’s homeless. These are political issues. I mean I’m writing from my own personal perspective, and it’s completely rare that there aren’t political issues in that. I mean, they are not prescriptive. Sure, when I wrote The Captain and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, those early drafts were very prescriptive. They sort of said what to do about homelessness. And then I took all that stuff out. I realized: this isn’t that kind of book. It doesn’t fit in this book. That was a different book. What we’re doing in this realm is allowing the reader to have an experience. The poem itself is nothing if it’s not an experience, right?
Each one has to be its own experience and not really be about anything, or not to do anything, or change anything. Just to be an experience, to be unique for every reader. If there are one hundred readers there are one hundred different experiences. And it’s an engaged experience, an active rather than passive experience. Not something that is just absorbed, but the level of change is between the synapses, like a really great movie. How after you feel like you’re in the movie all day. It’s like, oh my God, I never saw the world this way before. That’s what I go to art for. I go to dumb movies too, but it’s not for that experience. I go to dumb movies for passive experiences, to kind of shut off and then go take a shower. I don’t feel fully alive. I feel death, the needing to shut off life. But apparently that’s what we want sometimes too.
But the political, with The Captain, that was a little bit more and with The Ticking, that is where I went a little more prescriptive. Usually, I start with some thought and usually by the end of a book, or poem even, that thought’s been changed, even within me. The Ticking starts with a thought: it’s wrong to torture people for some political expedience, and I ended with that thought too. So it’s not as though all of a sudden, I was like, oh, I see their point. That isn’t what happened, but what changed was my going deeper into my subconscious. Going deeper into why I was writing this book. What it was that was so hard to let go of. That seemed to be a journey, which I think is a journey for anyone: to ask themselves why they are writing. There are a lot of other things you could be doing with your time. It’s not as simple as saying you are a writer. There are a lot of things to write about. Why do you keep going back to writing about this incident, writing about mom or dad? What is it you are searching for?
H: In Some Ether, your third poem is called “The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands,” so was that the plan?
N: You caught me. Yeah, way back then, I was like ten! I think I started noticing that this captain was making appearances, speaking as an authority figure. Not like a general, or an admiral, but sort of a mid-level functionary in the military. He was just doing what he was supposed to do.
H: Yeah, in Some Ether, he’s like the Coast Guard captain.
N: Yeah, captain of a ship! This character started reappearing. And I had sort of forgotten. I mean I have this whole other life. I am a captain. I have a captain’s license. In my twenties I drove boats. I grew up near water, so it’s the continual theme. It’s my landscape. It’s my source. I grew up quite poor, but somehow we managed to get this crappy house near the water. You could walk to the beach. It was cold in the winter. The windows weren’t good and the pipes always froze, but we were near the water so we were privileged!
So the sea has always been a theme. So I sort of looked at that poem. It became an epigraph for a little bit. I think there is still a line from the poem that is an epigraph for the book: “…A spokesman can only / state his surprise / that it doesn’t happen more often.” It’s from that poem, and I just sort of realized that that might be the title for the whole book.
H: Have you figured out who the captain is yet?
N: Well that moves around too. I have a captain’s license. It’s a mid-level functionary position. This unidentifiable cog in a machine that can and cannot do many things. Whitman’s captain. The Galway Kinnell poem [“The Dead Shall be Raised Incorruptible”] from The Book of Nightmares, and his is a Lieutenant, so I just sort of shifted it to captain. You have to have someone doing it right? Someone with a uniform doing something.
H: In some poems in The Captain, the reader can’t tell the difference between the political or your personal life.
N: It’s like a chorus of voices at that point. It’s not really lyric because it’s not an utterance of a soul. It is the utterance of a million souls. I sort of borrow from the culture—testimonies, interviews I did. It was sort of a weave. For a political thing, that’s what it felt like it needed. The Ticking is much more direct. You can trace the “why.” It goes back to the source. It goes back to mom and dad eventually. Which surprised me actually. I was very surprised, but it was also, like: oh, yeah, this ties right in to what I’ve been trying to figure out about my mother and father. There are doors. Everyone has a thousand doors in them. You open as many as you can. There is always going to be something that you don’t dare or get to cross, but in that book I feel like I crossed a couple more. I got into a couple more rooms. I’m sure there are other ones, but that book allowed me to do that. Or it forced me to.
H: Following Some Ether and your memoir Another Bullshit Night, your writing, or at least my reading of it, seemed to evolve from addressing personal crisis to cultural crises. Do you think it is necessary to tackle the intimately personal before one can address the body politic?
N: A lot of people’s first books are introducing themselves to the world in some way. As Stanley Kunitz described, creating the myth of yourself. This is my shit. This is what I am going to deal with for the rest of my life. And then everything gets read in that light. So you know when you read Blind Huber, the queen takes on a very different role. Even though it’s never mentioned, there’s the shadow. You know certain things about certain points. I think some critics would say you just want to read the poems themselves, but the information is in the poems already. So you are reading the poem closely. I mean, we know Denis Johnson was a drug addict. That’s just part of who he is. So when he goes into the hallucinatory revelries, you’re like okay, I believe you. I think we’re always doing that. Changing who we are and becoming. I think the writing has to keep up with that.
H: We are now so much more hyper aware of inclusivity in poetry, whether that be through, race, gender, sexuality, etc. What is that like for you as well… a white guy?
N: A straight white guy.
H: Yes. We are so hyper aware of your presence!
N: Huh, the white guy presence… that our time is done? I think it’s great that the castle is being stormed. It’s dissolving before us. Poetry is this huge tree. There’s room for a lot of people in it. There doesn’t need to be this dominant mode. We need to read different poetry by different people—races, class backgrounds, countries, genders, sexual orientations.
I don’t necessarily feel like I am a representative of all straight white culture. I mean, in one respect, obviously, I am. But if I walk into a room and I’m on a panel and there are three other straight white guys, I think, “Who thought this was a good idea?” It’s just not that interesting.
I don’t have long conversations about poetry with the monolithic straight white culture. It’s just not interesting to me. I find other poetry is more interesting right now. The poets I read mainly are women or queer. That’s the perspective that’s interesting to me right now.
H: Who are you reading now?
N: I’ve done some recent editing of things lately: Guernica, Provincetown Arts—that had Jean Valentine in it. Claudia Rankine is in thePloughshares I edited. I also enjoy Cynthia Cruz, Michael Klein. Michael is such an interesting story. He went away from poetry for about twenty years, and he seems to have found his voice and he’s just killing it. Everyone has their own time and his is now. Natalie Diaz kills it. Jamaal May. Carolyn Forché, Marie Howe. My first teachers were women. There’s something about them that is closer to the intuitive and not constructed that is interesting to me.
H: There are distinct moments in my life where I’ve felt my poetry shift. Have there been moments that stand out to you where you’ve felt your poetry shift, either stylistically, linguistically or topically?
N: Totally, I call them my watershed poems. When you suddenly do something in a poem that you couldn’t do before. Some Ether had three or four of these watershed poems. I entered this mode of writing and was like…whoa, that’s surprising, that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last three years. And there it is: trying to make a weave, a successful collage. It’s like trying to have a pure associative energy flowing. Finding these different modes, but then when you get them you can’t really repeat them because it’s opened other doors. However, you can bring that energy into other work. You’ve done this thing that you didn’t think you could do. Often with me it’s the feeling that I am doing the wrong thing. Like, who cares? For seven-eighths of the time writing my books, I think, what am I doing? This is such the wrong path.
Some Ether I wrote in the nineties which was the height of postmodernism and this ironic arch in poetry, and here I am writing a deeply sincere, lyric meditation. I was like, this is so wrong on so many levels, but I just thought: this is all I can do. It did force me to make the poems really fucking work. I knew these poems were going to get attacked. So I spent ten years working on that book, wrestling with those questions. I mean I was interested in postmodernism too, recognizing that language can dissolve syntactically.
H: How many watershed poems do you think you’ve had in your lifetime?
N: Not a lot, maybe a dozen. But that’s the problem: once you do it, you can’t do it again, though you get some kind of growth as an artist. Other possibilities are now open to you. They come in flashes. I’ve worked on poems for years and then have had to abandon them; still, all that work helps the other poems.
H: Can you tell me about your forthcoming book, My Feelings from Graywolf Press?
N: It’s probably closer to Some Ether which isn’t thematically based. It’s basically mom, dad, and me. Mom’s suicide, dad’s homelessness introducing themselves. And Blind Huber is certainly thematically based.
My Feelings is much more just a collection of poems. What happened during the writing of it is that my father died so people will probably look at it and see that as a unifying theme. There are probably four poems spread out over the book that talk about his death. So once you introduce the father then every poem that has a “he” in it is going to be about the father. And I’m reading it now, and I think, oh this or that poem could be about my father too. But it wasn’t consciously written with that in mind. It’s not that light a book.
H: Have you written a light book yet?
N: Ha, I was hoping too. But no, it’s not really a knee slapper. Maybe the next one.
H: Maybe that will be your next watershed poem.
N: Ha, it’ll be a hoot. The poet Adam Zagajewski came up to me once and said, “Very strange, America is in the midst of two wars and all the poets are writing funny poems.”
Mercy, my life is a jukebox. My head is on shuffle like an iPod on meth. Because the book was written in fits and stops and outrageous rages over about 4-ish years, it might be best to give you the PA, USA Greatest Hits. The earliest parts of the book—some of the sonnets—were written during a heavy dose of Red House Painters/Mark Kozelek/Sun Kil Moon. His AC/DC covers will knock your pants off. There was also a lot of Spoon in constant rotation. Almost simultaneously, I started in on these two Scottish bands: Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad (both on Fat Cat Records). I discovered Jr. Walker and the All-Stars. I rediscovered Bo Diddley. I listened to Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak every day for a year. If you want, I’ll put on my headphones and sing “Love Lockdown” for you so loud you’ll scream. I’ll dance so hard I’ll burn holes in both of our shoes.
I don’t think there’s one album I could compare it to. Maybe someone could. But I always think that because there’s so much music in the book, it’s a jukebox. A jukebox of what I love. A jukebox that doesn’t actually exist.
Pop culture references are hard to successfully pull off in a poem, let alone across an entire book. Panic Attack, USA references everything from Lorca to Diane Lane. In “WE ARE ALL THE ANIMALS” you write “I got hundreds of horsepower for you I am / into you like cherries & Diane Lane when you / call me Ponyboy I’ll bleed all my blood for you.” You mention in your recent Bookslut interview (see here) that you are “attracted to works that make mention of popular culture because they are actualities that populate our experiences.” Can you talk more about this and how the idea of “pop culture” functions in your poetry? One of the poems in Panic Attack, USA is titled “YOU ARE ZOOEY DESCHANEL,” and an e-chapbook of yours is titled a mixtape called Zooey Deschanel. How does she figure into this?
One of my first poet loves, Frank O’Hara, put/kept life in his poems. O’Hara wasn’t necessarily a model for me, and I strayed from him for years and years, but one of mottos is “If it’s good enough for O’Hara, it’s good enough for me.” There’s a grounding in the actual when there are references to the people, films, music of popular culture. To some people the actual is trees, is geography, is history. I think the actual is everything sensory.
The Zooey Deschanel chapbook was a project, a Paul Schneider-esque extending of the film All the Real Girls. I love that movie more than any movie this century. I also have another newer, larger batch of poems that semi-remake the film Garden State, so it’s kind of just a thing I do sometimes.
You’ve constructed a book that deals heavily with teenage desire’s anxiousness, rage, and absurdities. As an adult man with a family what’s your take on how those emotions “come of age?”
I feel I need to be way smarter than I am to answer this. I suppose all I can say is that now, at 35, I feel comfortable in my hair and my clothes and my skin, and I can somewhat reconstruct those emotions in different ways in different poems.
In the epigraph of your book you quote the following from the movie Lost in Translation: “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be.” What follows is a book that is consumed with an exploration of the self. You seem to get at the self by explaining it in relation to the “you.” It is a self/self-conscious that seems to need to stand with or even in opposition to a “you.” Do you think this is how we create our selves? Are we only who we are because of “the other?”
The self is a cluster of wants and needs. We need, possibly more than anything, love. However love works or fails. And that’s part of the heart-crushing beauty of life: to fail is to be a living thing. But we are not successes or our loves or our failures. We are standing nose-to-nose-nose, throwing our non-metaphorical hearts at each other.
Expanding on the previous question, let’s talk about violence. Panic Attack, USA seems to be infused with hyperboles of violence imagined to be enacted on the self. The speaker seems not to know how to give or receive love without figuratively impaling the self. For example, in “Let’s Get Old Time Religion,” it says “As if / everyday is your birthday & all I got you / are these teeth I smashed out of my mouth / with a brick,” and later in “What I Mean Is Yes,” “I’m ready to cut my neck / with a broken bottle bleed wolfblood / onto my pants onto your blue blue dress.” The book seems to imply a necessary violence. Can you speak to that?
Have you heard that John Cougar Mellencamp song, “Hurts So Good”? Lord, I can’t believe I’m quoting Mellencamp, but part of the chorus goes “c’mon baby make it hurt so good.” I mean, that’s kind of cheesy, but it’s a pop song from 1982. So I say, I see your “hurts so good,” Mellencamp, and I’ll raise you some specifics. Like carving landscapes into my wrists with a pocketknife. Like having “you” kick out the side of my head. Like cutting myself with “your” photograph. Yeah, that’s right, Nazareth, love does hurt.
Let’s talk about the ampersand. In January’s Poets & Writers magazine there was an article called “Poets & Ampersands” by Kevin Nance that discussed the ampersand as applied to poetry. The article states, “Throughout the mid-twentieth century, such uses of the ampersand suggested experimentation, casualness, a desire to tweak the sniffing nose of literary decorum, and a certain kind of haste.” Panic Attack, USA employs the ampersand exclusively. What does the ampersand mean and/or do for you? Do you feel that as a poetic tool the ampersand says something that cannot be otherwise stated?
Many (all?) of the poems in PA, USA are fast. They move across and down quicker than quick, and I read them that way, too. The ampersand—and I learned to love the ampersand for the quickness, the “haste,” when I did a close re-reading of Alex Lemon’s Mosquito—makes sense in the PA, USA poems for a number of reasons mentioned in the Poets & Writers article: “casualness,” “haste,” and, as always, fuck “literary decorum.” Some of the poems exist in earlier versions with various abbreviated words (e.g. sd instead of said, yr instead of your), so the ampersand is a part of that abbreviating, too. That said, I don’t think I’ve used an ampersand in anything I’ve written for a good couple of years. So me and the word and are cool, too.
do with taxes. I was 22. I was out of college and I didn’t know how to do anything. It was a lucky job. I hadn’t gone to typing or shorthand school yet. I typed, but the way you do to make a paper to hand in. It was before computers, it was 1956. What they had us doing was copying numbers from one book into another, and that was probably one of the few jobs I could have done at that time!
I was in a little office in London with two other women who were grown women—when I think of myself back then, [I think] I was a child. They were in their 30’s or 40’s and over from Ireland. None of us had any mind in this job—it was a mindless job for all three of us, a little more for them maybe, but we just talked all day. They were so friendly and sweet and so it was one of the best experiences. I mean, it was completely boring, but because of them, it was so interesting and exotic to me because it was my first big job and I thought, “So far, so good!” I was getting terrible money, but I had no expenses really, and I could shop at the PX and this made me very popular with the English people I met because I could get them great big bottles of gin, or whiskey, or things like that for nothing. It was more than ten years after the war but a lot of things hadn’t lifted yet.
HG: So, you were the bootlegger?
JV: Yes, I was the bootlegger! They were glad when they saw me coming! So that was fun, and it was more about sort of being in another place and being on my own. The job was obviously nothing that would ever help me, except to let me know I could sit in a room with other people and do something and get paid for it. But when I got home I went to the woman who had been the Dean, and still was, of the college that I had gone to and I said, “I don’t know what to do with myself now.” Imagine anybody caring? But she was very kind and she had encouraged me to write poetry.
She had written some and then she had stopped, so she liked to encourage young women, I think, and she said, “Well, what would you like to do?” And I said, “I really have no idea. I could go to graduate school, but I’m not really interested in anything very much that I would learn there. I want to write poetry,” and she said, “well for any job, you know, you’re going to have to learn how to type and take shorthand.” She encouraged me to go to typing school. She knew that I could live with my parents for a short while, and that’s what I did.
I did a couple of short term teaching jobs, one was with 3rd and 4th graders and one was being an assistant to a kindergarten teacher. Then, otherwise, I got married and had two children quite young. Then I sort of “took in” typing. I don’t know if people could do this anymore, but in those days if somebody wrote a thesis, they’d ask someone to type it. And then I’d proofread it. That wasn’t hard work and it didn’t pay much, but my husband made a living that we could live with.
HG: So, when did you decide that poetry was what you had to do? What was that like?
JV: Well, it sounds so crazy, but I really think that I did that even in high school. I wouldn’t have said that to anybody, but I think looking back, because I got encouraged, I was passionate about it. My sister had shown me poetry when I was young. My mother read nursery rhymes. I latched on to it. Even in grade school, then in high school, I think three different teachers encouraged me. In college I had a couple of teachers who encouraged me. I suppose I got encouragement for other things, but this was the thing I really wanted. I don’t know where it comes from. Do you? You get encouragement for something, and that means the world.
HG: Absolutely. Have you ever wondered if you were not a poet, what you would do?
JV: I tried to write prose at one point, when I was still young, in my 20’s. I felt pretty discouraged, but when I look back I think I was in a dream world. I think I thought someone was going to come down and say, “Where are those poems, we’ve been looking for you!” I had sent a few things out, but I was very timid about it. Not one reply. It was very different in those days and I was extremely, extremely shy. I had given up on poetry but thought, “I have to write something,” so I tried prose. I wrote down 50 pages of what was going to be a novel and a friend took it to a publisher. A very kind friend who wasn’t a writer himself, but he and his wife were friends of ours. He didn’t even tell me the name of the editor, he just said he was a very talented young editor in New York. So that sounded…impressive. I still don’t know to this day who it was. But he came back and we had lunch. It was like in the movies! And I thought, “Well, he’s going to tell me it’s no good.” And basically he told me it was no good! [laughs] He said, “The editor says, ‘it’s well-written, but nothing happens.'” And I had written 50 pages and still nothing had happened. So, back to poetry!
HG: Did you read a lot of poetry growing up?
JV: Yes, quite a bit. My older sister, she liked poetry. She gave me a book of Yeats. Walt Whitman. My teachers gave me poetry too. I went to good schools. I went to private school, and maybe I got better teaching than I deserved, but I certainly was shown poetry. When I wanted to read some poetry there were people who would give me books upon books.
HG: Ahh, when poetry was still poetry.
JV: I appreciate it more every day. You know how there are some things you appreciate more when you look back on it? I think, what would I have done without all those women? And it was all women who showed me the way to reading poems. And reading prose for that matter, just reading.
HG: Did you ever take any workshops? Or did you kind of simply figure it out?
JV: I’ve never figured anything out! I think I just had a lot of luck. I worked at it until I had the famous 48-pages for the Yale Younger Series. Which I think was one of the only prizes that existed in those days. I was 30, so this would have been 1964. I sent it in to the Series, but without much excitement because I’d been turned down by everybody who ever saw it. [laughs] But, you know, I was still writing, and I came home one day to a letter saying I’d won it. From Dudley Fitz.
HG: And what did you do?
JV: I sat down! I came home with my two little girls from the park, and I was opening this letter and I really did sit down on the steps in the lobby. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t when I think about it—what were the odds? So then, I had a book. And I also had a teacher. Because hewas a teacher. He wasn’t mainly a poet. He was mainly a translator of Greeks and Romans, but I must have asked him a thousand questions about that little manuscript. He was very patient with me. Should I have a comma here? I was really asking him questions like that! [laughs] I had no idea! I truly had no idea of what it was to be too demanding of another person, what was to be done.
It was like I was just born. I had been in a pretty isolated world since school, which was for about eight years. Then marriage, then babies, it was a bubble. I had been writing, but I didn’t know a single writer. That couldn’t happen now, I don’t think. Well it could, but not as often.
HG: I think MFA programs have made that hard. People now have a clearer path to follow when they say, “Okay, I’m going to do this.”
JV: Yes, MFA programs really changed the conversation. There’s that, but also, I think there is more energy of connection now between writers. I feel like, now, if I heard about a young writer in my building or on my block, I would put my hand out to meet them, if they wanted to. But I don’t think it was like that in my time. Not that people weren’t wonderful—they were. It was a different social situation. How about you? Are you working on anything? Do you have a manuscript?
HG: Well, yes. Sort of. But you know, the hardest thing is ordering. I’ve just been stacking the best poems up front and trailing back from there!
JV: People I’ve known have felt very strongly about the order. The only way I used to judge it, and this was as crazy as anything else, but to make sure the first and last poem are good. I pictured someone going into the bookstore, and only reading those two! I don’t know if they do that any more than they do anything else, but it’s a superstition.
HG: My thesis advisor, David Trinidad, would always say that when someone picks up your book and flips through it, that you have to be okay with any poem they read being the sole representation of your work.
JV: So he didn’t quite have my thing. He wanted every poem to be good. That makes more sense! [laughs] That’s a high standard. But of course they aren’t [all good] in most books, so don’t let that worry you.
Maybe I’m just untouched by embarrassment. I mean, I do look back and see foolishness. It doesn’t bother me too much. I think the main thing is to keep going, and if you do, you won’t spend a lot of time thinking about the first book. Some interviewer will ask you how you feel about your first book and you’ll say, “It was what I did then.” Somebody might give you a bad review, but that goes by. It’s just poetry. It’s just the world. It’s anything. Though of course we love the good reviews!
HG: When do you think you entered the writing community?
JV: I met my first poet after my first book got printed, which was about six months to a year after I had gotten that acceptance letter, so about 1965. And two things happened: I got a phone call from a poet, Jane Cooper, who lived two blocks up from me and taught at Sarah Lawrence. She was a respected poet. She said, “I’m a poet, and I live near by. I’ve read your book and I admire it and I would like to have you come out and read for us at Sarah Lawrence, but I don’t have any money to offer you.” I said, “Well, I don’t need money! [laughs] I’ll come!” She sounded so nice and so friendly and I don’t think I’d ever read poems before. And then, I got a letter from Adrienne Rich in the mail.
JV: Yes, that’s what I said! She said she had read my book and she really admired it and that she would like to be in touch and meet me sometime. That was amazing. All that within a couple of months after the book came out. These two amazing women just reached out to me.
HG: And pulled you in?
JV: I’ll say! I don’t think I actually met Adrienne for a while after that—life was so different, and we certainly didn’t have Skype. We talked on the phone a little bit, and wrote letters and we would exchange poems in letters. Doesn’t it sound antique?
HG: The anticipation of waiting!
JV: It’s as if you were telling me about the 18th century, like you used to have to copy things with a quill! It sounds that long ago.
Anyway, she and I traded poems back and forth. We started that right away. You know her poetry. Hers is very different from mine, and mine was very different from hers. The most generous and encouraging fellow poet in the world. She was just wonderful, didn’t matter if you were doing the kind of thing she was or not. If you were just doing something she recognized as poetry, she was glad. A wonderful colleague forever, just forever.
So, those were the first two I met. I never did meet Plath, although I would have loved to. I met her in her book, or in a magazine. I couldn’t talk to her or actually meet her, but she… those poems…she just set me on fire. I didn’t know you could do that. You know that feeling? Whoa…and that was before my book was taken. So I went back and just got energy from reading her work and made changes in my manuscript because of her. She really gave me a hand even though we didn’t know each other. She did that for thousands of women poets, I think.
HG: How much have you seen poetry change? The poetry community is more diverse now, and the internet gives us access to all these types of people that we couldn’t reach before. Do you think that has changed the kind of poetry being written?
JV: Yes! Thank God! I do. I think once we had a school, and now we have a world. I really think so. I think, even in my time it was white men. Really. One white woman. Really, almost nothing was coming into the world. A lot was being written, but not getting into the world for other people to read. Now we have the whole world! And in a short period of time when you think about it. Certainly in my lifetime. Imagine that. How much has happened. Oh, I think it’s so wonderful.
HG: Are you familiar with the poet Ken Chen, founder of the Asian American Writer’s Workshop? I was at panel at AWP Boston that was talking about diversity in literary institutions, and he said something— and when he said it, everyone looked as though they had been waiting all their lives for it to be said. He said, “What we want is equality, not diversity.” Do you think that poetry has reached that?
JV: I think it’s great that he is saying it, not that it has been achieved. But it’s just great that he has his sights set on it. I love that [he said that]. I think that is how it starts, as far as I know. I think it’s hard on the people who are the firsts, who are starting it. But at the same time, it’s a glory. Wow. It should be everybody.
HG: Yes. He talked about how it is still a challenge for women. Just across the board.JV: You know—I don’t know which is worse, we can talk about it—I have a friend who said, in our country, racism is the worst thing. Around the world, male power is the worst thing. So probably around the whole world, it is both. And here we have both. I don’t know. But it’s got to be going.
HG: Well, I think that is one of the challenges with the internet and technology. You get access to all these people, but also because there is so much, you can filter out the things and people you don’t want to hear. You can spend all day watching FOX News and thinking that’s what the world is actually like. You can learn everything you want about your interests, but less and less have to push yourself beyond your comfort zone. When you read a physical newspaper, you have to see it all, but now you can just close your browser. Being challenged, it seems, used to be less of a choice.
JV: That’s depressing. But, the information is there. I guess, I wonder if what we are talking about is human nature to some extent. But I guess human nature can change. I have seen it change. I have. People are different about women. And this is, you know, half a lifetime. It’s not good, but it is better.
HG: I think it’s definitely easier to be a woman now. There are more platforms for voices.
JV: You know, I didn’t know I would be talking about a woman president. I wouldn’t have thought we would be talking about that in my lifetime. But I’m not any needle to go by! [laughs] It’s very encouraging to have seen a black male President and a woman Secretary of State. And the president of Ireland who is a woman. I mean the president of Ireland. I lived there for a while, so I have some idea of what women are there and for them to have a woman president is unbelievable. And she’s a goddess, Marilyn Robinson. She’s just brilliant, and they love her! So these candles are going before us. How does it feel to you?
HG: It depends on the day really.
JV: Yes! Good point. When I was young there were two lines of poetry that Adrienne and I used to quote. We didn’t talk about it much. There wasn’t much to say, but the men who we admired had one line: Them lady poets must not marry pal / because if they do they really mess up everybody. The first line is quoted [John Berryman], but the rest is just what I got from it. You can get his drift.
Roethke, who I loved when I was younger, said: women poets shake their tiny fists at God.And I felt, “you didn’t write that did you? You didn’t. Don’t do it.”
HG: Your gods disappoint you.
JV: Yes. And sometimes your goddess too. I don’t know. Being just about 80 now, I look back and see things much better. At your age, I would probably be more discouraged, but at my age, I’m seeing more, just in terms of time. I’m seeing more changes in the time, but you haven’t been here as long. And of course, there isn’t as much change as anyone would have wished.
HG: The idea that poetry is more “institutionalized” makes it more complicated. You have institutions, not just the public building up a certain group— they get applause, and the applause just continues.
JV: I don’t know if that is that different though. When I was young Stanley Kunitz was teaching at Columbia. There was very little teaching going on. They didn’t have the programs, but Stanley had his people. I mean, I think they were all white, but they were men and women. In those days that was something. Not much.
It’s dismaying, but I don’t know what we can do about it except keep trying to educate people. Keep on trying to truck. Keep trying to write the best you can and get it out there. I sort of forget about the “getting out there” part. But I think we shouldn’t. I think we should really try to get it out there. I try with my students. That’s the most important thing, for them to get it out there. I think if something like Cave Canem, or Kundiman comes along, or these other groups, then maybe they can have schools of their own, publishers of their own. It won’t be nothing. It will be really important, I think. The world is slow. So much of it is part of the “boys club,” even some of the women. That’s not going to shock anyone if it comes out in an interview. I think they know.
HG: This actually came up a while ago when I was talking with someone—about women being a part of the “boys club,” and they noted that compassion was important. Because, in the “boys club,” there is only space for one or two women. So they try to hold onto their space.
JV: But it’s like you are a mascot. To have one woman there so you can talk about it. You get a woman who thinks like you do. So unless people are more brave than that, more challenged than that.
I think that’s what happening now, or at least what I see…people are writing more now, and differently. Do you think so?
HG: Yes, I think there is more freedom and more space to say what you want.
JV: That’s what I think. And to say it whether anyone likes it or not. I think, even someone white and intellectual for instance, a woman like Brenda Hillman, I think she is pretty free in what she is doing. I think she goes from book to book, thinking, feeling and she’s politically involved too, which is even better I think.
That’s what I felt when I first met Adrienne and Jane. I felt strengthened. As long as we can build up that kind of strength—that there are people like me in the world and people who love each other’s work and have each other’s back…
Cornelius Eady came to read at Drew, and he did a fantastic conversation first, and then he read his poem about Susan Smith, the white woman who claimed a black man kidnapped her children and drowned them in a lake, when she had really done it herself. It’s amazing. It’s a book-length poem (Brutal Imagination, Putnam, 2001) and he read the whole thing. I was sitting with Ross Gay, and Pat Rosal was there as well.
Pat and I had had a minute to talk afterwards and we both said that it was the strongest poem by an African-American male with understated anger that we’ve ever heard. That he was able to communicate emotion without emotion being the story. He had such power.
Pat and Ross were so moved by Cornelius’ reading, and so particularly moved—that he could make this outside of that rage—it meant a lot to them. I’m not against or for rage, but in that setting it was important to them. I could appreciate that. Here he was, with a pretty white middle class audience in his hand, completely in his hand. It’s not just because he is a good performer, he really was giving us some history. It was very moving. So, I guess, he has gotten a lot of strength from Toi [Derricotte], and the people he has surrounded himself with. He’s gone from strength to strength. Maybe what people need is family and groups to carry us. I couldn’t have gone a first step without those friends. I wouldn’t have. I know that. And if I had, no one would have seen it!
HG: In terms of the modern literary landscape, do you ever think about how your work fits in? Where you sit?
JV: No, I don’t. I have some friends that I show my work to, that I have had most of my life. Where I fit in, I don’t know. Because I don’t know where anybody fits in. I see people who are the best-known, but that is different. I certainly wouldn’t want to be thinking about it in any of those terms, because that is pretty fleeting, I think. It might be our whole lifetime, but it’s still fleeting. So I don’t know where I would fit in. I’ll tell you, I feel more peace of mind about this now. I just noticed recently, I used to want everybody to like my poems, and have gradually realized not everyone is going to like my poems! [laughs] What I’ve come to know is the stuff I write is not for everybody, but I’ve found a few people who read it and will tell me what they think. It’s not so much if it’s for everybody, but more of where I’m on and where I’m off, you know? In my own writing of a single poem. That’s more important to me than where I’d fit in on the literary landscape.
HG: What about your own personal aesthetic in terms of what you are reading? How has that changed over the years? Have there been events that pushed you outside of your comfort zone and made you expand what you like?
JV: Completely. Thank god. I think I was more interested in catching up with women at first, which was important. But I wasn’t going outside of my racial zone. A little, but not very much. I’m consciously trying to do that more, but I’m not where I want to be. As far as taste goes, all I want now is someone who is just going to go to the absolute end of their rope for this thing.
But I think I would like to read much more—work that I’m not acquainted enough with. Part of that would be black literature, Native American literature. All of it. That’s what I want to read. I just want to keep enlarging the circles I am in. I have my rivers that I am in, but they are just rivers. I would like to get much more.
HG: It’s a life-long process…
JV: Oh, I know, and then there are the Greeks! And the Anglo Saxons! I just hope that there are a lot of lives. [laughs] That’s what I am hoping.
HG: In terms of poetry, you are the master of the short poem. This is a fact. What do you think a short poem can accomplish that a longer poem can’t?
JV: Well that’s really interesting because I think of it in terms of breath, somewhat. You know Seamus Heaney just died, and I have a poem over there of his. It’s about 19 lines. He starts out—it’s sort of like breath, how much breath do you need to get to where you want to go? He starts out in this particular poem [“In the Field”], which is very moving, with his own death in mind. I think it’s a breath thing. But if I did that—and I can’t. First of all, I couldn’t! [laughs] But if I was trying to do that, or if Dickinson was trying to do that, you know with her short poems, she would do it in less breaths. She’d say: the this, the this, the this, and then—whoosh!
So, that’s what I think the difference is. It’s more of a shock I think. It’s more like putting your face into icy water. Whereas, Seamus would let you walk into it a little more, and then you’d see it. Dickinson, can do that too, she can have that same effect, but she’ll do it with a different kind of breath. He is more gentle, I’d say—has a whole different voice. Like he’s telling you a story, and in that story he can be as shocking as Dickinson. Shocking isn’t quite the word. She takes your breath away. She takes mine away with those effects of hers. So she’s maybe, more…I don’t want to say dramatic, because that’s a bad word… but she goes for it. It’s the difference between how much time he [Heaney] wants to take and how much time she’ll [Dickinson] give you. She’ll take you out of one place and put you in another pretty quickly, whereas he’s more gently taking you by the hand.
HG: I once heard the poet Brenda Cardenas say that with poetry, we need to “write about the things we cannot say,” which I think is a really complicated statement. How do you get to that point? Of the things you cannot say?
JV: That’s a really good question. I used to just give that to myself as an assignment. I would say to myself, “Write what you can’t write,” because it would get me, right away, into something I found very important. But, you know, being a woman, for one thing, there was a lot of stuff I felt I couldn’t say. But anything I thought people wouldn’t be able to read, or I wouldn’t be able to say to people, I tried to write. You wouldn’t know it, but I’m quite introverted, usually. In an interview, I’m uncontrollable! [laughs]
So, I don’t feel I can talk to most people about much, but I try to sit down and say what I can’t say. I think that is a good prompt for anyone, but it especially was for me. I could hardly say anything to anybody. I could hardly say good morning. So to put that in front of an introvert, who wants to be a poet, was very helpful.
At the very least, it’s been very good for me. Maybe she [Cardenas] felt some of what I felt, that if I said what I really thought, they’d throw me away.
HG: If underrepresented people lack in examples, at least acknowledged, validated examples, then to have to be the first one, even to be the tenth one, still feels like being the first.
JV: Yes! How long ago was Dickinson, and I still feel the same way. It’s not necessarily even forbidden subjects. It can just be something you feel no one else would understand because it is so weird. I love weird! People used to say how weird I was. And my poetry. And I’d say,thank you, yeah. [laughs]
HG: After you write a poem how do you feel?
HG: Not exhausted?
JV: Maybe. Yeah there’s that too. I do feel tired at first. Especially if I’ve been working on it a long time. But sometimes I jump up and down, I’m so excited! And if I’ve got it, I feel very happy. You know, the way I usually know, is that I talk to one of my poet friends on the phone and they’ve got it in front of them and we talk on the phone and they say they think it’s a keeper, then I’m very excited and happy.
HG: That’s one of the nice highs of poetry. But then, of course, there is the opposite end. When you want to write and you feel like there is something on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t get it out.
JV: Yeah, that’s frustrating.
HG: What do you do to get yourself outside of that rut?
JV: I don’t. Probably just what you do. What anybody does. Just sit around with it. I have pages that aren’t doing it, and I’m not even sure what it is I want to do quite yet, and it’s just frustrating. I just walk around with it and keep trying at it. But sometimes I never get it. Sometimes I start things that never get anywhere. Do you have that feeling to? That experience?
HG: Yes, it’s like missing the train when you are already late.
JV: Exactly! Oh no, there it goes. When’s the next one going to come.
HG: Are there any writers that you turn to when you are struggling to get into writing? For example, I have an “emergency” bookshelf above my writing desk, for when I can’t get “there.” I reach for Carl Phillips, Claudia Rankine, or W.S. Merwin and know that they will take me somewhere.
JV: I know what you mean. I think Brenda Hillman would be one for me, and Jane Meade. Strange as it is to say, Rilke and Osip Mandelstam and Dickinson. Celan, every time. But I don’t go with any idea that I will “be” where any of them are, but that they just might give me a little light. It’s almost like prayer. Can you give me a little light here? I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. And sometimes, just a word from one of them will get me into it again. Does that happen with you?
HG: Absolutely. My favorite is when you are reading something and you misread a sentence and then you are like, “Oh my god, I have a line!”
JV: Exactly, isn’t that wonderful! Misreading from heaven! It’s great: “I’ll take this, thank you God.” It is wonderful.
HG: I read an interview that you did with Eve Grubin a few years ago where you said, “I am going towards the spiritual rather than away from it.” Is that something you recognize when as it happens, or do you suddenly wake up on that journey, having to make sense of how you got there? Was there a catalyst for this “going towards?”
JV: Well, it used to be more like that. I’d wake up and be like: “Where’d that start?”
Where I am now, that’s pretty much all I am interested in. Not that my poems might show it that much. I went out and read at Oberlin about a month or so ago, and Kazim Ali said, “Some of the students are asking why you are so interested in death.” I could have said, “Well…look at me. I’m almost 80 years old, it’s coming closer [laughs]!”
But I didn’t really feel like that was the answer, I feel it’s part of the answer, because one is getting closer and, if they are lucky to live this long, they are getting closer to death. I am certainly. I think part of it is, as some of us get older, we get more interested in spiritual things, and I don’t think it’s just because we are going to die, but we are moving in a natural kind of progression from what we’ve seen and touched to what we don’t see and don’t touch.
I think that’s fairly natural. I don’t find myself more interested in religion, but I find myself far more interested in what’s real, what’s inner and what is driving people that they are not conscious of. And the inexplicable, the things you can’t say. The things you don’t even know you can’t say. The things you don’t even know the right questions for.
HG: I’m wondering how you feel about accessibility in poetry? I don’t feel like poetry needs to be universal, but…
JV: I don’t either…but give us a break. I feel sort of in between. I wouldn’t want Dickinson to change, but we have come to her. We have. It wasn’t right away. A few people got it. I feel, if you can be accessible, do it. My feeling about her would be my same response to accessibility versus the avant garde. Dickinson, is probably being as accessible as she can. But, I don’t feel like there is any advantage to trying to be obscure.
I feel like you are just trying to be as clear as you can! That seems to me to be more the struggle! And I think it’s a little affected to be inaccessible.
HG: Absolutely, I think many of us can remember, when we were young, and the first poems that really got us. Poetry has to be able to get people.
JV: Yes. Into your veins. There’s that.
You want to be able to bring them along. But also, the whole enterprise to me seems to be to speak to another human being. That it’s one human to another, or one human to a planet. I don’t care what it is, but it is one being to another and if someone is trying to not get across, why do poetry?
But if they have to, if this is the only way they can speak…god, I love them for it.
But, I never feel outside of my gods and goddesses. I feel like they are doing the best they can. I’m trying to get more true. And I love voices don’t you?
HG: Do you think that when you were younger, the poet you hoped you’d become has matched up with the poet you feel you are?
JV: Oh, god knows.
I don’t know. I think I was secretly ambitious. I would have said I wasn’t, but secretly I was, and wanted to be a “wonderful poet.” I wouldn’t say I am a wonderful poet. But, by my own standards, I’ve worked at it. For that, I am very, very glad. Sometimes, I didn’t and couldn’t but, every time I could, I did.
It’s like I said before, I don’t think I can really judge my own stuff. The best thing that I could say is that I hoped to really do it seriously. And I did. I have. Sometimes I couldn’t. Most of the time I have been able to. Though, there were five years when I couldn’t write. That was really bad.
HG: I’m sorry, what? Five years?
JV: Yes, that was bad. Five years.
HG: Not a single poem?
JV: Not a single poem.
HG: What did you do?
JV: The interesting thing is: I lived through it. I didn’t think I would. If you had told me it would have been five years I would have thought, “I can’t do that.” But you know what I realized?
I had lost my publisher. I had lost my relationship. I had lost my therapist who was like my father—he died. So, I had lost a lot.
And it seemed to just silence me. Those were all big changes in my life. I guess what I gradually realized and, I mean, over the years— this was five years—was that, I am still here. Something in me is still here. I thought I was gone.
But I was still there. And I guess the “I” that was still there began to write a poem. You know? After all that time.
HG: What was the first poem you wrote after that?
JV: I sent it to Oberlin, to their magazine, Field, because they had been really good about taking my poems, and the editor there who had been with me—with my earlier poems—said, “Oh, it’s so good to hear from you. This isn’t quite there, but we love seeing something from you. Send us your next poems.” So it was completely encouraging, but with regret [laughs].
HG: Were you like, “That poem took five years to write!”
JV: I know!
But it had the effect that, “you are still there, send us the next thing,” and I went on from there. It was beautiful. To me, it meant everything that he was saying, “You are going to do it, send us the next one.” And I did.
Then I was back.
HG: That’s terrifying, though. Five years. Maybe it happens to a lot of writers.
JV: I don’t know. I wonder did that happen to Dickinson? Did she have long periods? I don’t think so. Probably just before she started. But she started around 16, so I don’t think we have to worry about her!
God knows what Osip Mandelstam went through? I’m trying to think do I know people who have stopped for that long, or who have been stopped for that long. That’s more what it felt like.
But, it came back. And that was the amazing feeling I had. That I was still there. So then who was I? Because the I meant to me that the poet part was still there. The rest of me, in the body was still there, of course…
Yes, yes. I can’t remember now if I’ve heard of other people who’ve experienced that. I don’t think Adrienne ever had a time like that. Jane Cooper didn’t write much as she got older.
HG: Your collected, Door in the Mountain (Wesleyan, 2004), how did that come about? How do you decide it is time for a “collected”?
JV: I was still kind of creeping back from my early glory and then my sinking.
I liked the poems [I was writing], it wasn’t that, but coming back, I didn’t know what I’d do in the world. Suzanna Tamminen, the editor there, was encouraging. She wrote to Fanny Howe, who liked my work, and I think it was on the strength of Fanny’s recommendation that Suzanna took the book. And then I think I wrote Susanna and asked about a collected. You know, because I had never had one. And she said, “Yes,” that it was “a good idea.” And then I remember, it just happened and that was wonderful.
HG: The title poem, “Door in the Mountain,” is one of my favorite poems ever. It’s my computer desktop background.
JV: Oh, thank you! We didn’t talk about dreams, but that is a dream poem, yeah…
HG: How do you realize a poem is seminal? Do you realize it? Or does someone have to tell you, “By the way, that’s amazing.”
JV: I guess I have an instinct about it, a sort of feeling. I think usually, I get an idea for a title and usually people go along with them. But I like Door in the Mountain, too, as a title. I like that poem too. I’m glad you like it. Do you do dream work?
HG: Yes. If I have really weird dreams that I feel like I need to discuss it later. I’ll make a note of them. But, so often I’ll tell myself I’m going to remember this, and well, that’s of course, no good! But then there are reoccurring dreams I have that are persistently knocking on my door and demanding to be written.
JV: Weird dreams are good. They are wonderful. And you don’t need dreams books. You are writing the dream book. You really are. As much as I am or anybody else.
I want to tell you what Galway Kinnell used to do. He said when he was young and married, he had a machine he could talk into that could take his dreams. This was a long time ago, so it wasn’t quite a tape recorder, but it would wake his wife up. He couldn’t turn on the light because that would wake his wife up too. Then he found a pen that had a light on it, and that was the best solution he had to write things down when he got them.
Because he knew they were gold, as I do. Sometimes you get things you can’t use, but you have them there. But when it does come, you know, that that’s really the soul talking. I think it’s so important to write down everything.
But I understand the fear. You think, oh my god, is that the truth? In some deep “truth” poetry sense? But no matter how weird your dreams are it is something for humanity. You are dreaming for humanity. You really are. You are chosen. You may not want to be! But I think it’s good. I’ve never been given anything that hurt me, in poetry. Never. I think somebody…the giver of the dreams, must know.
HG: Do you write down all your dreams?
JV: Oh yes. Before I go to bed I put the notebook and the pen right next to my lamp and just say my prayers, “Send a dream please!” I love dreams. I couldn’t have gotten anywhere without them. That’s an exaggeration maybe… but they’ve given me an awful lot to go on. You know, all my attachment to weirdness. A lot of that is about dreams. You can’t understand them, but you don’t have to.
HG: I agree. I’m interested to know, looking back, what has been a favorite year in your life so far?
JV: I think one of my favorite years was when my daughter moved back to New York with her husband and two daughters.They lived down the street. They were here for a few years, and I got to see them. Especially the younger grandchild, because she was the one who still needed a grown-up with her. That was one of the happiest times in my life because I was in and out of their house all the time and we had a lot of time together. The older grandchild is also a very good friend of mine, but she didn’t need the constant “watching over” that the young one did. Then they moved to Brooklyn, and she got to be a teenager, so you know—forget it! But that was just wonderful. I loved those years. A few years of real in-and-out-of-the-house family love. It was just great.
HG: That sounds lovely. Speaking of traditions though, do you see yourself giving more poems to the world? Do you have any new work coming out?
JV: I hope so! I’ve got a book ready to go, Shirt in Heaven.
JV: But, I’d say, it should come out by Fall 2015, Copper Canyon Press?
That’s nice of you to ask. When I think about it, I am happy I do have a book. I am sort of going from poem to poem all of the time!
extremely different feels and tones. Can you talk about the construction of the manuscript and what led to the cohesion of such seemingly disparate sections?
The sectioning of the book was mainly the work of my editor, Matthew Zapruder. It is not something I would have done on my own, but I’m glad he decided to organize it the way he did. This was the first time I gave an editor so much control.
When I write poems, I don’t approach them with ideas in mind but rather with certain preoccupations and compulsions that are always better left unstated and inchoate–that is, preoccupations that I am unaware of. As these preoccupations become somewhat clearer and seem to form into some sort of general “gestalt” (i.e. a book) I have to resist being too conscious of “themes” or patterns that might seem to be forming. Otherwise, I run the risk of just writing poems that are merely “about” those preoccupations rather than organic outgrowths of them.
Your vocabulary is absolutely astounding, with every poem finding the aforementioned celebration of sound and color in words. For example, the poem “Tire Manufacturers” is deliciously ridiculous in what it asks of the tongue, but then there’s also lines like this from “Shadow Government”, “In the center / sophists practicing a silken homiletic, / our fictitious sibling, our shadow / trustees in the buildings round / as dewdrops…” Where does this unique and utterly satisfying verbosity come from?
Thank you. I love the verbal richness of 16th and 17th century poets (Wyatt, Sidney, Jonson, Spenser, Fletcher, Marvell, etc.), the Augustans (Pope, Collins, Gray, James Thomson), the Romantics, and Americans like Bishop, Moore, Crane, Ashbery, Dickinson, Berryman, Williams, and Stevens.
I also love reading fantastic prose: George Eliot, Melville, Thomas Carlyle, Robert Burton, William Hazlitt, H.L Mencken, A.J. Liebling, and Emerson, for example. It is important for poets to read great prose and to practice writing sentences. I’ve been rereading the stories of Poe, which are weird and hilarious. He affects an elaborate and formal-sounding diction yet assumes this very confiding intimacy with the reader.
To go along with that, your poems embody a certain classical or romantic aesthetic. Is this Renaissance-esque environment a deliberate construct or a byproduct from the use of such arguably archaic (or at least uncommon) language or something else entirely?
I think the images from things I read get mixed up with the things I see around me. The environments of my poems are not deliberate constructs, but the way I see my own environment through language and experience. Reading, seeing, living, and dreaming are all interconnected, and all work together in forming the landscapes of poems.
Let’s have your honest opinion on pugs. You love them, right?
I’d like to punt the little bastards into the mouth of an active volcano.
No, I actually love dogs. Especially those fat bulldogs that wear fedoras and play poker. But I love all dogs. Perhaps one day I might find myself sleeping in the shadow of a mountainously large dog like the guy in Baudelaire’s “The Giantess” before it eats me up.
Your poetry can at times seem immersed in dreams, or at least possessing a dreamlike instability or etherealness. They can sometimes sound like a surrealist painting looks. Do dreams play any role in your writing? If not, what kind of dreamer are you? Is it all fever dreams? Celebrities? Teeth falling out?
I think dreams can be instructive to poets. The images and the settings in dreams switch, change, and flow into one another, as they do in poems. But you don’t have to understand a dream—you feel it on an immediate level, because of its concreteness and specificity. Likewise with poems. I’m not really very interested in the meaning of dreams. They mean what they are, like poems. I wrote down my dreams for many years, hoping something would come of it. Now I often write while nearly asleep, because that way I can just let the sound of the language carry me off in a less inhibited way. I suspect people all dream in a pretty similar way. Day-to-day life often seems to me as strange and alienating as a dream—maybe it’s somehow important for me to feel this. But don’t most people feel this way? As for my dreams—I often dream of eating in strange Chinese restaurants in the middle of the night.
There are several times in The Rose of January where you write to/about/towards younger modern poets. From the poems “The Lackadaisical Poets”, “Rose of Sharon”, and “The Problems of Poetry”, I feel like you might be concerned with the current state of poetry or up-and-coming crop of poets. Most notably, the scrapheap imagery of “The Problems of Poetry” and “Rose of Sharon”, this to close out the latter: “Listen, Poet: you can’t bring in / two consecutive pieces from the junkyard / of desire—it is a mismanaged junkyard.” You don’t have to be vilifyingly specific, but if I am accurately reading the concern these poems seem to showcase, can you elaborate on what sort of troubling trends you are seeing lately?
I am concerned about the state of poetry and young poets. I think many are afraid of unapologetically doing what poems can do in their purest state. Many poets are striving to be merely clever or quirky. Other poets seem to want to posit elaborate “projects”. Some seem intent on displaying their intelligence. Some believe they might change the world by writing poems that advocate for righteous political stances. I believe that poems do something that is totally unique to poetry. There seems to be some distrust of poetry out there among poets—the suspicion that poetry itself, poetry in its purest form, is not enough. I believe that poetry is the highest and most radical freedom. Poetry is the triumph of the imagination. It strives for precision, which is a kind of sympathy with the real, physical world. There is an ethical dimension to this striving after precision–a love for the world and for its reality that is a strong opposing force to propaganda and totalitarianism (both spiritual and political). The distrust of imagery that I see sometimes among young poets is also unfortunate.
Another thing I am concerned about is how exercised intelligent young people become about this thing that some call “the lyric I” or “lyric self”. In a good poem, the “self,” the “I”, encounters the world and experience polyphonically, and ambivalently. My friend the poet Randall Potts challenges the anti-selfists thusly: “If poetry is not the conversation between generations of ‘selves’ then what is it?” I attended a question/answer session recently in which a well-known “Conceptualist” poet took the lyric “self” or “I” to task for being a capitalist construct. I find this ridiculous and uninspiring, willfully ignorant of the way “the self” encounters and is encountered by the world in poems, and worst of all, intimidating to aspiring poets. She dismissed such poets as Rilke out of hand, accusing them of being somehow fraudulent. I found the apparent lack of skepticism among an audience consisting of graduate students and poets troubling.
My hope and wish is that poets not feel the need to construct elaborate rationalizations for what they do. The pursuit of beauty, the hope of making something beautiful and putting it into the world, is enough. I think many poets experience a sort of “Stockholm syndrome” where they begin to let the general public’s distrust of poetry rub off on them, then feel guilty and attack their own commitment to beauty for being indulgent and superfluous. They might feel there is something antiquated and obsolete and irrelevant about what we do. But we are all “of our time”, regardless of what we might think. I think that an apprehension about seeming somehow archaic or old-fashioned is what causes poets to put images and ideas into their poems that strive for a ginned-up sense of the present.
There does seem to be an increasingly aggressive attitude towards more “traditional tropes” in poetry, with many conceptualists and post-modernists (or whatever they want to be called) seeming to take their inquisitive Oulipan roots a bit too far. What started out as experiments and explorations into discovering new creativity through constraint has seemed to turn into the defamation or at least intentional sneering towards use of the self in poetry. There’s just a lot of “you’re doing it wrong” being thrown around lately, so much so in fact, that it seems poets are forgetting we’re all on the same side. Can you expand on this adversarial attitude you’ve been encountering? Where do you think it comes from? Why do you think it’s happening? Who’s helping? Who’s hurting?
Jeffrey, I’m glad you asked.
It’s important for poets to have a “you’re doing it wrong” attitude in order for poetry to move forward. But as for the specific attitudes you’re talking about—the sneering stance toward the “self” that I also alluded to above: this has always seemed to me more provocative than anything. I wonder what comes first: the compulsion to write mechanical and boring work or the denigration of “the lyric self”? When I was an undergrad in the late 80s, I went to hear Alain Robbe-Grillet speak to a group of students. He was accused of “killing literature” in the 60s. In the course of his Q&A, he denigrated the work of Dostoevsky, and I found this exciting, and it seemed to give us all something of an empowering frisson to hear the work of one of the great megaliths of literature being blasted away by an avant-garde writer. It also felt like an inside joke among clever people, and this is the very sense I got while hearing Rilke and other lyric poets belittled in the talk by the Conceptualist poet I mentioned above. What I mean is, there was something that, in retrospect, seemed very doctrinaire about Robbe-Grillet’s approach to talking about writing. And the Conceptualists’ approach seems similarly doctrinaire: as is the case with many, though not all, avant-garde movements, it is not poetry per se that is important to the Conceptualists, but rather ideas about poetry. And often rather boring ones, at that.
I’m not so sure why I am so exercised by poets like the Conceptualists, who are applying their energies and (apparently) considerable verbal skills to the knocking down of such pathetically low-hanging fruit as, for example, the AWP. But I get tired of hearing academics tell us what poetry is—especially academics who deride not only the “self” of poetry but also, treacherously, the very academy that helps them to move forward in the world. And when I hear self-described poets talking about poetry the way a middle school student might—i.e., as a feeling (“his pitching is pure poetry!”—though this is a sentiment at least coming from the heart) and, along with that, as an endeavor that has no criteria of value and/or quality (“poetry is anything you want it to be”)—but doing it without the heartfelt enthusiasm of the young, without the honest and aspirant hope that there is at least a thing in the world called poetry that can body forth and help them to understand intangibles of which they, the young, have vague notions, I get infuriated. I suppose some of it is the creepiness of it all. It is an interesting, if galling, spectacle: A person bases a critique of poetry, or worse, bases a poetics upon, among other things, the idea that poetry is somehow too self-involved or too preoccupied with exalting a “self” or personality, that poetry of “the self” (be sure never to forget the obligatory “the”) is some kind of capitalist construct; same person then advocates, at least rhetorically, annihilation of that self; meanwhile, same person is busily constructing (or “curating”), as a performative extension of this poetics, an identity that aspires (perhaps ironically, perhaps not), to celebrity and lucre and is vaguely reminiscent of someone who is about to tie you to a chair and demand the location of lost Nazi diamonds.
On the other hand, the Conceptualists are expert at a sort of preemptive, anticipatory defusing of all criticism by adopting a stance and a tone that mocks all sincerity and, in the self-annihilating manner of all hawkers of bogus doctrine, ultimately themselves. I have read an interview in which a Conceptualist declares, with a startling and keen knowingness about the state of academia today, that she will be offered a tenured position in a university within the next several years. And (may God shower blessings upon her) she probably will, promising long hours of boredom to future undergrads and MFA students. Was this declaration intended to be ironic or sincere? What’s the difference?
But I have faith in poets, and the poetics of “the self”. I also have faith in and love for the “traditional tropes” you allude to. I also have an acute awareness of the fact that I will die someday—as, I suppose, everyone does. The “self” after all, at least the self manifested in the body, will die. Poets and poetry are compelled to engage this fact, or at least the fact that the self is a mysterious thing moving about in a mysterious medium.
If I might use this forum to say one more thing to my fellow poets, I would urge them to resist the very idea of a “poetics”….There seems to be a kind of inflated posture of intellectuality in this word. And a self-limiting one.
But finally, the element that separates the poets from those who seem to try to gain from the idea of poetry a kind of borrowed glamour (and ironically, these are the very people who accuse poetry of being a capitalist construct) is the strong intuition, or suspicion, or intimation, or belief, that beauty is an ultimate good with its own intrinsic value. I know I’m not alone in the belief that poetry, like human beings themselves, will not be made into a tool or reduced to something with a prescribed use without losing something essential. The Conceptualists, on the other hand, in subjecting their audience to their grimly utilitarian and ultimately boring sermons, are sort of like preachers that would guilt us or pediatricians who would like all of us to take their bitter medicine.
How do you think the “state of poetry” affects your reaction to your students’ work, especially as undergraduates who are just starting to figure out what poetry means to them specifically? What do you tell them about how to make their art theirs?
A couple of years ago I taught MFA students in Iowa, and I was so happy to see the beautiful and challenging things they were trying out. I hoped these brilliant young people saw their time there as a time of preparation. I encourage students to view their studies as a kind of apprenticeship. I want them to give over control to language, while also being completely aware of what they are doing, what is available to them, and how that fits in to the “conversation” they are having with the living and the dead. Finally, I’d like them to practice looking at the world with a loving and penetrating gaze.
What are you working on currently? Is it poetry? How do you feel about it?
I am working on poems. I love reading and hearing positive things about my poems, and I feel very fortunate that some people feel my poems are sometimes interesting enough to comment on, but I also feel that I need to vigilantly avoid internalizing comments about my poems, or internalizing praise and then striving to write “Geoffrey Nutter” poems instead of fumbling through preoccupations and compulsions in the way that is necessary to turn them into poems.
Before constructing my first book, AWE, I don’t think I fully understood how to make a book cohesive. AWE taught me a lot about thematic construction and this has been helpful for the next two books, as writing poems and making a book started to move in both directions. I think there has been a tendency with my last two books (Black Life and Thunderbird) to write with the book in mind. In terms of writing individual poems, I don’t think my creative process has changed too much between books. But I do think that I am more aware of opportunities in which I can write thematically and start to construct the book itself sooner within the writing process. I am not sure if I will always make books this way.
As a writer of poetry, I’ve found that self-reflexivity is one of the most difficult tropes to utilize. As in Spider-Man, I feel “with great power comes great responsibility.” Being self-reflexive in a poem empowers the author, but used irresponsibly, the Green Goblin tends to win. Can you talk about responsibility and accountability in your poems in regards to self-reflexivity?
I am interested what you mean by the Green Goblin. I guess you are suggesting that there are bad and good ways to use the self in the poem. If so, could you give me an example of what you mean?
I am talking specifically about morality in regards to wielding the power of the author and creator in a way that enables the reader to satisfyingly interact with the poem. Sometimes, I’ve found the poet can become so self-reflexive and referential that the reader is essentially “kicked out” of the poem, having little to nothing to do with the author’s near self-obsession. This is not an experience I’ve encountered in your work, despite the frequent self-reference. I wonder mostly if this is a cultivated ability with the use of self or something you’re just born with and super awesome at? Does this responsibility to the author come easy to you?
I know using the self is different than self-reflexivity, but they feel the same here. I don’t think of using the self within a poem in moral terms, (i.e., in terms of responsibility and accountability). In fact, your question makes me think if morality ever comes to play within a poem. I guess I do feel accountability to my readers, in that I want them to have feelings while reading my poems, both good and bad. Anyway, none of this relates to your question. But to answer it more directly, I would say that I don’t think there is an irresponsible way to be self-reflexive within a poem. I don’t feel that a self within a poem should be held accountable to anything. And I think that using a self in a poem (whatever kind of self that might be) is a way to connect to more readers. Because within the specifics of the self lies the universal. I’ve always felt that the more a poem zeroes in on the tiny, the more it encompasses the large and the everything.
To go along with that question, I want to talk about book-titling. It’s always a special moment for a reader when they locate the source of the title in a book. At the same time, titling is one of the more difficult choices an author must make. Thunderbird is a badass title, and I’m eager to find from where it comes. How important is titling to your work, and what kind of consideration do you think needs to go into it?
Thank you for saying that about Thunderbird! “Thunderbird” comes out of many themes that influenced the book. Among them is the Native American Thunderbird spirit, but then also how that divine force gets infused in American culture, like within the streets and hotels named after it, the car, the liquor, even the search engine. It also comes from the idea of air travel and what it means to control seemingly uncontrollable forces, like air and wind.
I would say that titling is very important to my work. I think as much consideration as possible should go into titling. In fact, I often cannot make up my mind about titles, unless they are just obviously right. I think this is why all of my full-length book titles are one to two words thus far. It’s harder to have bad feelings with these titles, as they are basically just names.
In previous interviews I’ve read, you talk about how rap influences your poetry. In an interview with Mark Cugini from The Lit Pub, you discuss Biggie Smalls and “swagger,” describing swagger as “the craft, the skill, the flow, that connects all of us as poets. The ability to take the muck of the everyday and make it beautiful.” Another similarity I’ve noticed between music and poetry is this idea of the “single.” From Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” to Plath’s “Daddy” to Matthew Zapruder’s “Poem for Wisconsin,” which was very popular last year with union groups in Wisconsin, certain poems seem to resonate “beyond the book.” Why do you think these poems become adopted within our wider culture? Do you imagine a “single” for the forthcoming Thunderbird?
This interests me a lot, because I often am thinking about how poetry might resonate beyond the audiences it usually does. I find it particularly important to consider how teenagers might get hooked on poetry, in the same way they get hooked on music through singles. All it takes to begin a lifelong love of poetry is to connect with one poem.
A poem I could see becoming a single from “Thunderbird” is “I like weird ass hippies.” Not because it really sums up the book or stands as a signpost for it. But because it is a kind of anthem for death. And because people find hippies funny. I used to find hippies sort of ridiculous when I was younger and more of an out-and-out nerd. But now I take hippieness pretty seriously. Well, more so what it means to be free. I guess you will see what I mean when you read the poem.
I want to talk about the idea of the “project.” In your chapbook Poetry Is Not a Project, you say, “If a project does not get to a real poem, then it is not that important to your work because it generates nothing.” This follows a section about your admiration of projects that do lead to good poetry. You mention Bernadette Mayer’s work being a successful “project.” I’m curious what other work you consider successful, and why?
I’m glad you mentioned this and bring up Bernadette Mayer here. She is one of my all-time favorite poets and I do think her work hinges on “projects.” Other poets I love who sometimes use projects are Charles Bernstein, Hannah Weiner, Rob Fitterman, and Juliana Spahr. In the case of all five of these poets, projects are a generative force and inspire new ideas that go beyond a pre-set construct. There are lots of poets we could all think of that do this (go past a construct set at the beginning of the writing process).
I think projects can be great for generating work. I am especially interested in how the terms “project,” with its roots in scientific inquiry, can be incorporated into poetry writing. I have done some educational research (more on that in my next answer) and I studied the benefits of project-based learning in classrooms. Nothing is more awesome than incorporating projects into educational settings, in my view.
Aside from just trying to incite a conversation, what I was trying to consider with the chapbook was how the term, “project” relates to the creative process. In terms of that, I do think that adhering to a project too tightly can breed mediocrity. Because I think that new ideas necessarily go beyond what you may have thought they could be. And that when you create a limitation from the get-go, you may limit things unnecessarily. I am all for newness and freedom. And I am into constraint when making a work of art, too. But I’m not into constriction and limitation. To think of a poet unnecessarily limited or to think of a poet silenced by limitation, that angers me.
You studied Arts and Education at Harvard University. What kind of research did you do during your time there? What do you hope your research can do for the world of teaching? Do you think that world is in trouble? If so, why?
Thank you for knowing that! I did a Masters in Arts in Education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. That program changed my life. While I was there, I studied museum learning primarily and worked at Project Zero (the best place on earth). I thought a lot about the ways in which poetry can be taught in informal settings like museums. My dream is to one day soon start a museum, elementary school, and university partnership as a joint creativity space.
After going to Harvard, I entered a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and I just completed my doctorate this spring. My dissertation research is on how teachers foster small ‘c’ creativity. I studied small ‘c’ creativity in the context of science classrooms (where project-based learning pedagogy figured highly), but moving forward, I would like to think about how to apply my research to arts settings and how best to create learning environments across disciplines.
I think our world is in trouble for lots of reasons. In terms of our educational system, I believe it needs major work. Sometimes I can make myself very upset thinking about all the great young poets in our schools who do not know how to find a way to be valued for their poetry and who may be silenced. My dream for a while has been to find a way to help with educational reform. I hope that I can find a way to do research and teach, and help to create spaces for all poets, young and old, to be valued for their greatness.
Our social construction of gender and sexuality is in a state of constant flux and change. What kind of role does gender play in the creation of your work? How much does the term “gurlesque” mean to you?
I’d like to know more about what you mean that “our social construction of gender and sexuality is in a state of constant flux and change.” Do you mean now in time?
I mostly mean now, but with due credit given to the shifting definitions we’ve seen throughout history. Right now, many and more people are being more open to ideas of sexuality and gender in regards to how one self-identifies and who they are romantically interested in. Definitions such as “male”, “female”, “man”, “woman”, etc., are all malleable terms, at least in progressive and liberal circles, which we as artists generally (and thankfully) operate within. Your work seems to reflect this pliability in terms of being female; are these social constructs something you frequently consider when writing or is it more organic?
Gender plays a role in my work, in that my poetry persona, by extension of myself, identifies as female and discusses often what it is like to be a woman in the world. I connect “gurlesque” with the anthology that I was honored to be a part of and I am excited to see how, where, and when that term might be taken up again. I guess for me I am both playing with gender expectations in my work and trying to dissolve these expectations. This seems to be the same sort of instinct in turn. I might say here that I feel like a man most days, with an aggressive femininity. I am not sure this is the person that most people meet when they meet me in real life. But I do think that I have infused this spirit into my poetic persona.
Ideas about faith, God, the devil, nuns, etc. are prevalent in much of your poetry, especially throughout Black Life. You seem to have a complicated and conflicted relationship with faith and religion (not to confuse the two). Can you tell me about this presence in your poetry? Why is it there, and why is it important to you, your work, and maybe everybody?
I’ve always loved Emily Dickinson’s statement about faith: “On subjects of which we know nothing, we both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble.” God, the afterlife, faith, death, life, love, the Devil—it’s all very important to me. I think in my poetry, as much as I have been doing anything, I have been setting up my own religious beliefs—working through them, believing and disbelieving, and finding where I stand in terms of the spiritual world and this world—it’s all there. In the books, I’ve tried on many religious voices—taken on the voice of a preacher in AWE, struggled with nihilism in Black Life, and turned the persona into a demonic force in Thunderbird—but it was all to find my true sense of existence. It’s funny, I’ve heard people discuss my work as a sort of confessional poetry. I tend to hate that term, “confessional.” But if I am confessional about anything in my work, it is about my own spiritual struggles. And do I think it is important for everyone to consider their relationship to faith and religion? Not necessarily. But I think everyone will have to eventually consider it, so they may as well get started now. I guess that may mean that I do think it is important.
Throughout the last decade, a lot of people have thrown around the term “elliptical.” Stephen Burt coined the term, writing that “the Elliptical Poets seek the authority of the rebellious,” that “they break up syntax, but then reassemble it,” that they “adapt Language Poets’ disruptions for traditional lyric goals (expressing a self and its feelings), and… they try… to keep their poems short, songlike, or visually vivid.” Do you feel this label applies to you? What does “elliptical poetry” mean to you? Does it mean anything to anybody?
When I was getting my MFA around 10 years ago, I felt very involved in this larger discussion and felt that my work was indeed “elliptical.” I think that I really found my voice (sorry, I know people hate that phrase, but I have as yet not come up with a better one) in considering my own work elliptical. This is a pretty standard poet coming-of-age narrative for the history of this term, I know.
After this point in my development, I came to reconsider what my reader meant to me. I came to see the points in my poems where I engaged directly with my reader and how important it was to me to have those moments. And I saw that the specific ways in which I was at that point combining language, weaving in and out of meaning, didn’t allow me to engage directly. I guess that it was important to me to cast a wide swath across a potential readership and I felt that some elements of my own elliptical tendencies, the training and refining of these rebellious moments, shut some readers out. And some of these readers that I had shut out may have not have been privy to the world I had been privy to, but still had the same feelings as me. So, I felt it was unfair, almost unethical (wow, and here I am using moral terms to discuss poetry after saying I never do) for me to continue in this fashion.
At this point, I started infusing my love of Classical rhetoric, what I had learned from writers like Cicero, into my poems. I like to think that it was at this point that I also started incorporating my love of science writing and the declarative into my work as well. But I am not sure if this is true, as declarative syntax was always important to me. Also, the declarative is arguably a hallmark of elliptical poetry. All this being said, poems that might be considered elliptical are among my very favorite, and in at least one of my next books, I intend to go back to my old tendencies once again. Although writing this response to this question makes me think if I have deviated from my elliptical tendencies at all. Here I am spinning and spinning on a top of meaning. Maybe instead I wonder if we could ask the powers that be that I be a part of The New Thing? I’d rather that. At the very least, it’s definitely a cooler name.
What is one book everyone should read (not necessarily poetry)? What is one TV show everyone should watch (not necessarily good)? What is one place in America everyone should visit (not necessarily different)?
Everyone should read Three Tales by Flaubert and Three Lives by Gertrude Stein, together, as one text.
Everyone should watch Celebrity Apprentice, because Donald Trump is an important and fascinating mirror for us to consider.
Everyone should visit every single place in the state in California, because it is the most beautiful state in our country and possibly the most beautiful place on earth, the closest to outer space, or to a land with endless possibilities with its endless weather. To see a palm tree, I think, is to see the divine. Coupled with a clear body of pool water. I just can’t think of anything better. Maybe an orange or two. Maybe a long cloth of hot pink. To hold together a handful of markers. To draw the whole thing up. And live it again and again. Yes, California is the place everyone should see. I will meet everyone there.
still in an exploratory phase or moment in his or her writing life. Someone who is still trying to find their “voice,” as they say. Which, I think, actually, is a complicated quest that perhaps no poet, regardless of how accomplished they are, how much they’ve written, or how old they are, can ever achieve. That might not ever be an achievable quest. I think the implication in “finding” your voice is that your voice is a static thing, fixed and waiting for you to arrive to meet it. I don’t know if that’s ever been true for anyone. To be “emerging,” I would say that you are writing your first poems. You are in your apprenticeship.
Tim Liu often talks about how we think about apprenticeship as a necessary part of pursuing other kinds of art forms. If you are a ballet dancer you put in X number of hours at the studio; it’s expected that you’ll be cultivating your art for years before you reach maturity. If you are an actor you go to an acting conservatory. In theatre, there are rehearsals. He feels, and I think I do too, that there is—wrongly—less of that expectation or there is less attention drawn to that stage for writers. For poets, maybe, particularly.
H: As an emerging poet, do you feel pressure to, well, emerge? I feel like that is one of the side effects of MFAs is that there is this spirit of competition, to get out there quickly.
C: Sure. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel some of that. At the age of 30 I’m still very much an emerging poet— though, my passion for, and my engagement with, poetry is hardly new. By now, poetry is a part of my constitution. So I think it’s really important to silence those external pressures (especially around monetizing poetry, which continues to strike me as oxymoronic, though welcome when it happens). Wouldn’t it be a bit unrealistic to think that the couple thousand poets who graduate MFA programs every May in this country are only two or so years away from publishing their first books? Why are we in a rush?
H: “Emerging” in the larger community has been described as poets without books, but also has included poets who have published two books or less. Do you think this is an accurate means of measuring what stage a poet is at in their career?
C: I hear what you are saying. What’s inside that question is whether poets like the two of us could be grouped alongside someone who has a book or two out. I don’t know— I guess there are issues inherent to groupings of any sort— and hearing you ask that question makes me think I should rethink the notion of emerging. Maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with how much you’ve published. Maybe “emerging” is a label that only a poet can apply to his or herself. Many times I’ve heard established poets talk about their first books as “apprentice books.” Jane Hirshfield has talked about her first book, Alaya, very much as an “apprentice book”— and not in a way that she feels regret about it, I think. I’ve heard Marilyn Nelson say this, too, that you don’t really start doing your work until your third or fourth or fifth book.
H: I guess we’ve got a lot of books to write.
C: Or to at least write as many poems that constitute that.
H: You received your MFA from NYU, what responsibility do you think the MFA, or the instructors in the programs have in shaping emerging writers?
C: I think the task of teaching creative writing workshops is enormously challenging. And almost ethically and morally complicated. I mean that really. Any utterance you, as the workshop leader, make about a poem in that sort of setting, first of all, is likely to be taken by the student poet as gospel. The student poet is at such a precarious, if not delicate, place in their writing life, and they are looking for validation as much as they are looking for feedback or guidance. And so they are really going to hold on to what you say, in my experience. So any utterance you make about a poem, I think, really needs to be interrogated based on who you are as a writer, as a person. What experiences have or have not been available to you as a person before even bringing the student’s writing into the equation?
I don’t think it’s uncommon for recent MFA graduates to feel a little lost after they leave their program. You need to really spend time parsing the messages you receive in workshop or in conversation. And to answer the question, the responsibility, I think, is first to try to understand who each of the student poets are and what’s important to them and their work. Identifying what seems like essential components of what they are trying to do that can’t be discarded while at the same time encouraging them to grow and develop. It’s a question of how to encourage a young writer to reach new heights and possibilities without discarding some kind of essential identity or essence they carry.
H: I agree with you. I also think that one of the responsibilities of poet teachers is to help their student poets read diverse books. To read widely.
C: I think diversity in faculty, in student body, in every way, should be a chief concern and responsibility of all MFA programs. Of course. Of course. I was very happy to see how diverse NYU was. I went part-time because I had a full-time job so I spent longer there than most students. And I got to see it grow in diversity during my time. I was very happy to see there were so many brown and black faces, on both sides of the table.
H: I have heard it said that writing poetry is writing your obsessions. What in your writing do you keep returning to? What is it, you think, that your obsessions are trying to discover?
C: I think I’ve always returned to poetry about identity— and, maybe, the difficulty of identities as we commonly conceive of them. Lately I’ve been writing about my experiences as a mixed-race person. (When I say mixed-race person, I say that with the understanding that there are so many experiences that a mixed-race person can have.) It’s hard to speak about the poems I am writing without also explaining my history, where I come from. My father is Irish-American, he’s really a western European mutt, and my mother is a black Arab from Morocco. It’s hard to know where to even begin!
The truth is, a black identity is something I’ve come to much later in life. For mixed-race people, clear racial identities don’t always present themselves. If you are of two ethnicities, you are often lumped into the group that you most physically resemble. How you feel about your identity and how the world perceives you don’t always match up. In fact, they often don’t. I no longer care how people read my body, although that was a preoccupation of mine for some time. But the core challenge of my experience as a mixed-race person is that my mother does not identify with her blackness, at all.
My mother identifies with her nation, her culture, her religion— as many in Morocco do. Morocco, being a mixed race country— oh, I should say that people often have a misconception of North Africa as “white Africa.” There are multiple black peoples (some Berber!) who are indigenous to North Africa. Black people have always been there. It’s not a result of internal migration. There is also the element— and I say this without judgment and with profound compassion for my mother’s experience— there is also the element of colonialism, and the influence of French occupation in North Africa on the regional psyche. It’s a gross simplification, but in short, you have black people who are colonized in North Africa, who are born into—or have inherited—a national psyche that aspires towards a white Francophone European ideal. Not only of beauty, but of personhood. Personhood.
So, those were my mother’s conditions of origin. Then she immigrates to the United States of America where race has been the most divisive issue in the history of the country. My mother walks down the street and she feels like an Arab, like a Moroccan-American, like a Muslim, like a woman. But the white racist person sees her— and I know this from years of walking down the street with her— as just another n*****. So, I grew up as the biracial child of a white father and a woman who is read as (but does not identify as) black in the nation of my birth.
H: So you are a black man raised by no one who identifies with blackness.
C: Yes. No one in my family, as far as I know, identifies with blackness besides me. And I have two older brothers. And so what happens? The question is, and this is what I’ve been writing into in many ways, and I think is one of the core questions of the book I’m working on, is: what happens when a black person immigrates to the US from a part of the world where blackness has less social import, less cultural import? Where blackness isn’t even an identity and they go to a part of the world where it is?
H: Where it’s perceived as the most important identity.C: Yes. So what happens there? That dissonance was, for me, a source of immense trauma.
H: So how does your father deal with blackness, and the blackness of his children?
C: Well— I was angry at him for a long time. How could you not think that race was something we actively needed to discuss at length? How could you not think that? And I think where I’ve arrived as a person, and eventually in the poems, is finding compassion for my parents. Understanding that they were bewildered by their circumstances, which were handed to them. My mother did not choose to be born into a French occupied territory as a black person. And she’s right, in a way. She’s actually right to resist a label of black identification. She’s right, because that is not a part of the experience native to her.
H: Yes, so for her to come to this country and have the racial history of blackness thrust upon her changes her personhood, her history. It’s a revision.
C: Exactly. It’s a revision. But that revision is also inevitable, despite one’s resistance. If you are a black person in this country you are reminded of it whether you are thinking about it or not. Everyday, all the time. But to answer your original question, my father’s relationship to blackness: he is married to a black person. And I think he won’t rob my mother of the more important identity labels that she holds onto or would offer up before her black skin.
For me, blackness was finally a choice. One I saw I needed to make in order to live. I needed to embrace the blackness that my mother never encouraged us to embrace. And, funnily enough, looking back on my childhood, I can’t help but feel that my experience was profoundly black. I grew up in a Puerto Rican community in the Bronx and studied in white communities. The experience I had of being othered was so formative and so profound that my very notion of self was entirely defined by otherness, by being on the outside. ‘Other’ was all I was. Now, what we called that wasn’t expressly clear.
H: [Laughing] Is there a name for that yet? Being the one thing in the room that doesn’t belong?
C: [Laughing] I think we call that black, Hafizah.
H: That’s the thing, there is so much shame in being othered.
C: Of course. The feeling of shame. That’s really what I’m writing about, too. Shame is actually the thematic glue of my book. Not only racial shame, shame around queerness, being the child of an immigrant. All these shames that one experiences.
H: So this is what you are trying to unpack in your writing?
C: [Laughing] Yes, I’m exploring all of this. And you know, arriving at blackness has been profoundly healing. I’m actually working on an essay about arriving to, or at, blackness. And I hesitate to put it that way because I’ve always been black. But I had been experiencing a kind of exile from blackness. I was estranged. From my own blackness.
For people of color who are educated or acculturated in predominantly white communities, that is a consequence to suffer. Before that even happened, for me, before I even walked into rooms of only white people, I had already been estranged from my blackness. It’s fascinating, truly: the negation of black people in this country comes in so many ways that it can also include the stripping of the label altogether. I didn’t have language to talk about, or define, what I was experiencing. And it took me 26, 27 years to eventually realize that the experience that I had been having all along, every step of the way, was blackness. That was my blackness. For me. That was my negation.
One of the parts of the conversation around race that we tend not to incorporate into the discussion because there is so much pain and grieving, is that all of these racial realities are born out of the most exquisite, complicated fiction that is race in the first place. What are we talking about when we talk about blackness? That question has been explored widely in critical race theory. But, on an everyday level, we are talking about the physical body—whether it qualifies as the fiction we are taught to imagine as the black race.
H: Yes it’s a fiction, but we’ve gone through such lengths to create systematic assurances that this fiction is a reality.
C: Exactly. I hesitate to talk about race as fiction in a time where there are so many atrocities happening around race. Race is extremely real. Race is the most real. But it also is profoundly invented. It is invented. It’s an illegitimate concept with no basis in biological or scientific fact. And yet, it has dictated entire histories. Certainly in this country. Cultures have been born out of this fiction. It’s wild to think about. Lives have been broken, families torn apart. Really, the impact is immeasurable. And yet. And yet. No basis.
H: When did you start writing about all this?
C: About two, two and half years ago. I remember some of my earliest poems were about the challenges of being mixed. When I was writing those poems at 16, 17, 18, whatever. I didn’t understand the full implications of the subject matter in those poems. I certainly wasn’t identifying as black.
H: That’s the amazing thing about writers, we start writing young and eventually we mature our way to the things we need to say. It’s like your psyche trying to save you.
C: Exactly, I should add, that one reason I didn’t explore race in my poems until my late 20s is because I spent much of my early 20s abroad. I lived in Europe for five years and was able to free myself of regional conceptions of race. I was Charif, the American guy. Or sometimes Charif the gay guy.
H: It’s funny (but not really), you accepted your sexuality before your ethnicity.
C: Absolutely. I came out at about 15. I was really young, but I knew that I liked boys. But all of the racial othering that had occurred actually facilitated my process of coming out. I was already so different. I already had such an intense feeling of otherness that it almost didn’t make a difference. It was really easy for me to accept another element of otherness in this chaotic world of otherhood that I was learning to inhabit.
H: You mentioned living in Europe, I understand that you speak Italian and you also do translations?
C: I do. I have translated two poets from Italian into English. Donata Berra whom I met when I was living in Switzerland. I took an Italian course of hers and she very sweetly offered me books by Italian poets she thought I would like and at the end of the semester gave me a copy of her book. I translated some poems from that. I also translated the work of Gëzim Hajdari, an Albanian born poet who has been living in exile in Italy since the 90s. He wrote a book called Corpo Presente, which translates to Body Present. It won the Montale prize in the late 90s and somehow went untranslated, so I translated it. A Public Space recently published a few of those translations.
H: What would you say is the most difficult thing about translation?
C: All of it! It’s an impossible task. People often talk about “translations” not as such, but as “versions” of the original poems, and I think that’s right. There are always choices you have to make that will change the poem, turn it into something else. Also, one of the difficulties is moments of cultural significance not translating across cultural boundaries.
H: As a writer, do you have an ideal way of crafting a poem when it comes to your original work?
C: I don’t know that I have an ideal way of crafting a poem, though maybe it would be more comfortable for me to have one. For me, it’s different every time, as they say, and I think that’s true in terms of every aspect of the poem: not only its genesis and revision, but the formal aspects of the poem— the music, image, through line, metaphor/simile, line, and so on— and making the aesthetic choices that most serve what the poem wants to be.
H: You are the Programs Director for the Poetry Society of America (PSA). With the programs you curate, what are you trying to contribute to the landscape of American poetry?
C: My chief concern with programs has lately been diversity, frankly. I want not only racial and ethnic diversity, but also aesthetic diversity. I want fair distribution across generations. I want gender representation. Contemporary poetry is complex. It is diverse. An intricate tapestry.
H: It’s also spacious. We can fit all these voices.
C: There are so many strands of poetry that don’t have to do with being white, or middle aged, or male! It brings me great joy that in a recent program we were able to feature Angela Jackson, who—in my opinion—is a completely under-celebrated poet, playwright, and novelist. The life she has lived in writing is so admirable and yet she hadn’t read in NY in seven years. And to pair her with someone as aesthetically distinct as r. erica doyle, whose first book proxy just came out from Belladonna Books and won the PSA’s Norma Farber First Book Award was so exciting. To have two black women. To have queer representation.
On the flip side, I think we have names we know, but whose work we haven’t encountered. The poetry community is vast, but it is also small. It is easy to know the names of people who represent the diverse work out there without having actually engaged with their work.
H: People often think that diversity is this impossible thing to figure out. But, I think the work and programming that you are doing at the PSA proves that diversity is not that hard to incorporate.
C: Thank you! The diversity in my programing reflects my values. I think diversity feels hard for some because many people don’t live diverse lives. If you are white and not living a diverse life, when you think about poets you admire, Black, or Latino, or Asian, or Middle Eastern names aren’t likely to emerge. Because they are not part of your organic life. It’s not so much an issue of the arts or arts administration. One needs to challenge one’s own conditioning.
H: We are two poets of color who participate in a community that is talking a lot about diversity and race. Especially with the release of Claudia Rankine’s latest book, Citizen. Can you tell me your thoughts on how the dialogue is occurring?
C: I don’t really know. I don’t really know how it’s going. I’m glad that it’s happening. And that feels enormous to me. That it’s happening at all. Whether the protests and the marchers will really have an abiding impact is not something I know. It’s something I hope for. So my feeling about it is gladness. Though bittersweet, gladness nonetheless that a conversation is happening.
How devastatingly sad it is, the continual murders of black bodies in this country. Though at some point, at some level you have to stop being surprised. It’s not new; it’s the racial history of this country. Claudia Rankine did an event in LA a few months ago, and during the Q&A the first thing she said, in an almost rhetorical way, because she knew the answer to what she was about to say was yes, and I’m paraphrasing: It’s almost as though the issue is that black people started out in this country as property and we haven’t ever really moved completely away from that fact, isn’t it? Doesn’t it seem that way?
Ten years before my parents got married, their marriage would have been illegal. We are talking about the past as much as we are talking about the present. The past is with us right now. It’s in every room we walk into.
Outside of social media I don’t know how much this conversation is happening save inside communities of color. I’ve spoken to a handful of people about it, but I think for white America it might mainly be a digital conversation. I don’t know.
Just having a real conversation about this topic is so hard. It’s so difficult of course. Because people will say things you don’t want to hear and people will challenge parts of you that you might not even understand about yourself. We’ve all inherited this national pathology. Regardless of how introspective we think we are, or liberal, or committed to social progress. It’s inside all of us. And that I think is part of what makes it so difficult. That there will be times in dialogue around issues of race where you are made to confront something about yourself that you would rather not see.
H: Absolutely. And it’s hard for people of color, too, who are trying to engage in these dialogues with friends and loved ones who exist in the spaces of privilege that marginalize them. It’s like what Claudia talks about when she says that fracture of intimacy.
C: Yes! There’s a huge line. For most people in this country, you are born and you know which side of the line you are on. Either we choose to reach across it, or we don’t. It’s hard work that requires a lot of time and brutal honesty and deep, deep, tremendous compassion.
H: Yes, for others and yourself.
C: And the consequences are also cumulative. That’s what Claudia is doing in Citizen, I think. She inundates you with moment after moment after moment. Which is what you live. You experience five moments of microaggressions in an hour.
H: Does this conflict compel you to write?
C: That’s a hard question for me answer because of the specific racial experience I’ve had.
H: Yeah, I’m sure you are dealing with the racial experience of: what are you? all the time.
C: Yes. I haven’t written a poem about the things that have been happening. I did write a poem about Trayvon after that happened. The crux of that poem is— how I as a black man was writing to a dead black boy knowing that what had happened to him would likely never happen to me because I am of a light complexion. I would never be targeted in the same way. And yet I feel unified to Trayvon in blackness, so profoundly. And so I guess what happens to me when I think about this is deep solidarity in heritage and in blood, is an acknowledgement of the differences within our community.
H: What is your reaction when these events occur? By which I mean, what is your emotional process and does writing help?
C: Does writing help me? No.
I haven’t really written poems about this. But devastating sadness is probably the first response. Anger is probably the second. It’s complicated. I think I’m not even fully aware of how I am dealing with these things, because it’s the fact of these things. Not only black bodies being murdered, not just the fact of that, but your positioning— your racial positioning, your socioeconomic background, or the experiences that are afforded to you.
H: Whose work do you go to for solidarity in facing these times?
C: I recently uploaded a video on #blackpoetsspeakout, which is just so galvanizing. To see how many people have been speaking out. It’s inspiring. The poem I read was, “On the Turning Up of Unidentified Black Female Corpses” by Toi Derricotte, which remains pertinent. Even though it’s 20 years old. It’s a reminder that while black boys and black men are being killed, black women have also suffered the same fate. It’s a tremendous poem.
But, I don’t know that I have been going to poems for solace. I think I use my reading to take me away from some of the realities of this country. To take a breather. Regroup.
H: How do you think art can make a difference in the world?
C: On one hand, it can’t. It just can’t. I know that is a depressing response. But there’s the level of legislation, and not just in America, but globally. There are issues of law. On the other hand, art can affect change by reaching individuals who then go back into the world, changed. Think of how encountering just a single poem can change the way someone thinks about who they are, what they’ve lived. How it can give them an insight into an experience that’s been foreign to them. And how they then walk away from that poem and metabolize what they’ve just experienced in that work. I think that’s a slow process, but is maybe the only process. I don’t know.
H: What writer or book continues to guide you the most?
C: It’s never really been about books of poems for me. It’s been about individual poems. I had a tremendously moving and life-changing experience when I studied with the poet Linda Gregg in college. Her work continues to mean a lot to me. She’s the one who helped me see that within poetry, there was a space for me. I was 19. I had very little experience with poetry before studying with Linda. At the heart of that class was Linda’s encouragement. She said that one of the requirements of being an artist or a poet was to ask big questions about our humanity. We were often talking about the soul or the spirit. The inevitability of death. That we are living and dying at once, as Marie Howe often says. The heart of the conversation was: what are we trying to do here in poems? Why are we trying to do it? Sure, let’s talk about what makes a metaphor good or a simile surprising, but what’s at stake?
H: Is there any theme or topic that you absolutely will not write about? An invisible line you can’t bring yourself to cross just yet in your work?
C: The honest answer to that question is, no. I try to live from a place of brutal honesty, which I find naturally translates, or extends, to my work. I have found that there is a direct parallel between the subject matter of my poems and my own self-awareness— or, maybe more accurately, my own self-possession. Regarding race, for example: until I reckoned with my own mixed origins, acknowledged my own blackness, and truly understood the way that race had affected and continues to affect my family (and everyone), I could never have hoped to write about it in a meaningful way. It required work that happened off the page.
If I haven’t written about a theme, it’s probably not yet part of my consciousness. Topics that are currently of great interest were previously nowhere to be found in my poems— not out of an unwillingness to write about them, per se, but because I had repressed them. Or I had not otherwise fully interrogated what they meant for and about my life.
My therapist who is a total witch in the best way told me recently that one of the conditions of the psyche, one of its characteristics, is that it won’t allow itself to feel what it cannot yet feel. And new pain is actually therefore an indication of growth. Because your psyche has developed in strength to allow you to feel, at last, something which has been floating in the soup of your subconscious, profoundly impacting the way that you live, even though you have been out of touch with it.
We repress what is too violent or too complicated emotionally. It’s a bifurcated experience.
*Read Charif’s poem “Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing” in the Emerging Writers issue of PHANTOM.
AN INTERVIEW WITH ANTHONY MADRID
As for my writing process, that was all bound up in Paleolithic/oral culture la-la. I made stuff up in the car or on the sidewalk, no access to pen or paper. I’d let the couplets find their own communities in my head. Then I’d siddown, write stuff up, cut, rearrange, collate, improve, fix, manage, and control. The whole time giving supreme authority to whatever versions stuck firmly in my memory… I’m simplifying the process here, but still. This is mainly how it went down.
How does this process differ from writing poems that aren’t slaves to a particular form?
I don’t know! It’s been so long since I wrote anything that wasn’t either a ghazal or a set of meaningless rhyming quatrains. I’ve become very devoted to rhythm. Not meter, rhythm. The idea of writing something that’s NOT structured strophically? Hard for me.
The title for your forthcoming book is I AM YOUR SLAVE NOW DO WHAT I SAY. The poem “What with This New Body” includes the line “You could say I haven’t the scholar’s cast of mind.” Many of the poems in the book seem birthed from the mind of a frustrated scholar. How do you see contradiction functioning in these poems?
“The frustrated scholar.” You can say that again. Twelve years in graduate school, black clouds in every direction. Having to learn how to write the crazy-clean sentences, and the whole time writing these irresponsible poems. Fantasizing that one day I’d reread ’em, see through all the code, and re-experience my 30s in a whoosh. Maybe it will happen. It’s not impossible.
As for contradiction, yes. To me, that’s the Way of the Nimble Mind. Go ahead and hate something, but then secretly love it. Or the reverse. Now try it with your eyes open.
In the book’s title poem, your speaker closes with “You IDENTIFY with Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger—but as for me, / I’m through with these wise men who smile and condescend.” Much of your book confronts (and at times, antagonizes) philosophy. Do you share the speaker’s position or do you have a soft spot for Kant, Plato, and the rest of them?
I revere the philosophers. But maybe revere isn’t the right word. Is it reverence if you’re still willing to stick out your tongue? Maybe there’s no word for how I feel. I have the same arrangement with Keats. He makes me cry. But I can’t resist quoting his bad lines. Nabokov’s too. That thing where Humbert tells Lolita on the last page of the book to “be true to [her] Dick.” That is an A#1 gaffe, and Nabokov was indignant when somebody asked him about it. Yet I revere Nabokov. There’s no other word for it.
How did you deal with having to invoke yourself in the third person at the end of each poem? At what point do the author and character versions of Anthony Madrid diverge?
Yeah, I haven’t really thought this through. I always wanna say the voice of those poems is me and it’s not. The truth is that the book is a dramatization of my inner climate, “edited for space and clarity.” Basically I walk around through life saying bold things to myself to see how I feel about ’em. They don’t come from nowhere, but neither are they my settled opinions. Except some of them are. Put your finger on some particular couplet and I’ll tell you how much I believe it. As in: what percent.
In your poem “When Cloud-Colored Light Plays on the Body’s Naked Surface,” the speaker says, “The ELEVEN DIRECTIONS are mine: north and south and the other two, and / The ones between, and up and down, and even the broken axle is mine.” Following suit the poems of the collection dart in multiple directions. What was your goal in doing this?
Bird imagery is present all throughout the collection. Why?
Oh, I came up with this idea a long time ago that if the poet really likes horses or boobs or crumbling plaster or whatever, then that poet should put that stuff into his or her poems. People underestimate this. They think you’re supposed to like poems because of the art involved, and not at all because you simply like hearing certain themes treated. But I can tell you right now: there are a hundred themes for which I am a sucker. I am a sucker, so watch me suck. And then, too, there are themes about which you can get a team of geniuses to write until they turnORANGE and I will never like the shit. Baseball. Odds of my liking a baseball poem: 0%.
What themes in your book share a chromosome with the original ghazals that inspired the collection?
Ah! There’s a very small handful of couplets in there that (to me anyway) sound just like the real thing. Straight out of Ghalib, straight out of Hafez. I’ll quote five:
Angels in the bath! But they’re not really angels; they’re merely girls.
And that water is hardly water. It is the blood in your own ears.
I HAVE her love, it’s true, but I want her friendship.
What must I do, what spell cast, to have her friendship?
Prepared for me from the Beginning was the poisonously boiling water.
Since I see I cannot avoid it, I am working up a thirst.
I am guilty; I am cause of guilt; but I am also guilt’s cure:
For whoever takes one look at me immediately feels a comparative saint.
I AM no longer cut to the heart to watch her laughing with my rival.
Any man who gives her pleasure I consider my emissary.
These couplets strike an attitude, especially that last one, that’s just so Ghalib. It’s therapeutic somehow. You feel like it’s OK: the difficulties are OK, the guilt and the envy and the dereliction are OK. Just give it a splash of oratory, and everything will be all right. It’s like when people say brave and ironic things on their deathbeds.
One of the dominant conflicts throughout is between student and teacher/tutor. How did you see these archetypes fitting into the premise of the book’s themes of authority and obedience?
See, there’s graduate school for ya. They make you read all this Foucault, and then you wind up permanently fascinated with the idea that the powerless aren’t powerless even though they think they are. Meanwhile they’re dangerous as fuck. Naturally, I work both sides of the street on this one.
What poetic project(s) are you working on these days?
Absolutely nothing. I’m not allowed to write any poetry ’til I graduate. Think June.
No more questions, just a demand: name five books that you feel absolutely must be read.
Tell ya what I’ll do. I’ll name five books from the last ten years that I’ve mailed to people more than once.
• Dan Chiasson Natural History (2005)
• Ariana Reines Cœur de Lion (2007)
• Robyn Schiff Revolver (2008)
• Chelsey Minnis Poemland (2009)
• Ish Klein Moving Day (2011)
And I reckon when Michael Robbins’ book comes out, I’ll be mailing out copies of that. Also Sandra Simonds’ new book, Mother Was a Tragic Girl. These last two poets are my friends, so my judgment of their poems is not to be trusted. Yet I’ll say it anyway: I admire them.