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