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.