‘It was by living out the theory that we enraged so many others’: An Interview with Michael Gottlieb

Gottlieb_Michael_Photo1In What We Do: Essays for Poets (Chax Press 2016) Michael Gottlieb addresses poetry, poetry-making, and what it means to live among a community of poets. It’s a sequel of sorts to Memoir and Essay, Gottlieb’s 2011 account of his early days as a member of the Language poets, which remains a must-read for those considering a life of poetry. His affecting 9/11 poem, “The Dust,” hailed by Ron Silliman as one of the “Five greatest Language poems,” was staged by Fiona Templeton and company at the Poetry Project at St. Marks on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. We sent questions about What We Do: Essays for Poets, and Gottlieb was generous with his responses.

First off, what got you thinking about writing the material for this book?

Well, this is the kind of thing I sit around talking about with friends: how are we supposed to live our lives?  As poets? Or, maybe just …as people? How do I deal with this, or this, or this? How do I deal with having to make money? How do I deal with being responsible to myself, as a writer, and what do I do when my other responsibilities—like to my family—seem to conflict? What do I do as I get older?

In What We Do, you talk a lot about the poet in comparison to the artist. Why do you make this distinction?

There’s one section in particular when I compare poets and artists. In that section, I tried to compare poets, poets who are my age specifically, my generation, to our age peers among the painters and artists. What I was interested in discussing was how similar these two groups are. What we have always been interested in, the features and elements in our work, where we lived and went to school—all of those things are so similar. So many of us knew each other, know each other now.  And yet: the painters we’re talking about are spotted sporting the Légion d’Honneur to openings of their touring retrospectives, while the poets are enjoying solitary ramen specials at… well, I describe them dining at what is now a closed lunch mill called Dojo, near NYU. I used to go there a lot. There were two of them, in fact. I never liked them. Very depressing joints.

And the reason why comparing these two groups is so interesting to me is that, I guess it’s obvious what differentiates us, what sets us apart from each other is the economic value that the world attaches to, and applies to our respective work. Otherwise, we are essentially identical: background, interest, what we think about, what we focus on. All of that, all the same.

A lot of your commentary centers on New York City, particularly the growth and transformation of it. It seems you correlate New York City to the life of the poet?

I have been writing about New York City forever. My first book, published in the ’70s, was made from lists of words that I found walking around in New York, and illustrated with photos of New York and collages made up of stuff found on the street in New York. I mean, New York has been so central to me as a writer that back in the ’90s, I published a book that was simply titled New York. And it consists of two long poems: “The Great Pavement” and “The Ulterior Parkways.” They are about, and from, built up out of the language of that city. What else could they be about, with titles like that?  I guess it’s hard for me to get away from thinking about the city. And then there’s “The Dust,” a poem I wrote about 9/11. That’s a long list poem, and an elegy and I guess it’s also a New York poem too—it’s a list of what was in the dust that day, everything in the towers that was turned into dust, from the building to the people to their files and furniture to the fire trucks, too, in New York City.

I guess it’s been a focus in every thing I’ve written, all my poetry, my memoir work and these essays too, as Rae Armantrout commented. Why? Why has New York been the focus, the subject, the ground that my writing lives in, or sits on or stands upon?

Gottlieb_Michael book cover WWDFirst, because it’s New York. This is where I spent my youth. This is where I became a poet. While these essays try and surface issues, topics, questions, like I sketched out above, that I’ve been talking about with friends, with other poets, been trying to answer myself, since then, New York is where I started thinking about this stuff. And, I guess as I wrote those essays, and felt compelled to turn some of those questions into dramatic presentations—here is a person trying to figure this or that out, in a bar, at a reading, on the street, it’s natural that that street should be in New York—the New York of today or maybe the New York in the day when I for one started thinking about those things.

And because of where we lived then, when we were young, and the kind of place New York was then, thirty, forty years ago, it’s easy to describe it now as a kind of fabulously dangerous place. Not that it wasn’t. But just walking down the streets in the empty quarters where we lived, there was so much—from the street names, to the fading signs half-hanging off the buildings, to the history of the building itself—this was the first location of that brand, that chain, that now girdles the globe. How could you not write about this place?

But you asked specifically about the growth and transformation of New York. I’ve always been interested in how New York changes, how one of its defining characteristics, what it is famous for, is its unrelenting embrace of transformation. For so long that was what New York was famous for: tearing itself down and building something bigger, taller, fancier. While when we first came to New York, there seemed to be an eerie pause in that—which many took to be a sign that the city was over, done with, one of many signs. Of course, that was only a pause. Not an end point. And that constant tearing-down and rebuilding has again become a constant.

The fact is: every New York that we ‘know,’ or think we know, is itself a product of one or another wave of ‘transformation,’ of tearing down and rebuilding, of one wave another of new people, new money, coming in and pushing out the old. Since the Dutch, we’ve been doing that. The Native Americans were the first victims of gentrification in New York. We’ve been throwing people out of their houses ever since.  Watching the city get changed, watching who does it, what happens to the people who get tossed, that’s important to do, someone has to. And it’s instructive, too.

Then there’s the possibility that one might have had a role, however insignificant, in all this. When we walk those same streets these days, me with friends of mine from those older days, and we remember running in these streets in our youth, when the streets were empty, and dirty and dangerous, but mostly empty, we do ask ourselves if perhaps we had some role, however tiny, in turning these neighborhoods into what they are now. After all, it was people like us, and us among them, who first ‘found’ these neighborhoods—as if they had been lost. As if, in many cases, there weren’t people already living there. People who had to leave, had to move their homes or their businesses, when enough of us showed up, in the same way that we in turn have been moved out of the neighborhood because we in turn cannot afford to live here. All we can do is visit now, though there’s less and less reason to. God, just look what they’ve turned this place into…that’s what we say to each other now. Look, there’s a CVS where that bar used to be. There’s an Apple Store where the post office used to be… And so it goes, on and on…

You also address poetic life across the generations and over a span of many decades, the generational aspect of poetic life.

I think the generational aspect of poetic “life” is central. Don’t all poets identify themselves as belonging to one generation or another? How much of how we define ourselves is based on what generation we are part of? How much is based on what generation we are decidedly not part of? That generational “for and against” thing is so very important, isn’t it? As poets, to what degree to we define ourselves by who we are against? And how often is that a generation? I think this is entirely common, and not particularly troubling. This is just the way it is. Perhaps I feel this way because I am a boomer, and generation-related issues, challenges, boasts and curses have been associated with my generation all its life. And, concomitantly, I am part of a poetry generation that decidedly defined itself in opposition to a whole roster of generations.

But, on the other hand, it also seems to me—and I think this is even more to the point, when it comes to answering your question—that poetry communities are often much more multi-generational in their demographic make-up than, say, other kinds of communities of writers or artists. I think so, but I’m not sure. When I go to a poetry reading I’m used to seeing several generations of poets, friends and friends of friends, in one room. At a opening in a gallery I don’t often see that.

And, when it comes to the issues these essays try to deal with…how those issues are variously, differently, or similarly faced by different generations of poets—that is a fascinating subject for me. Are things different for you? Better? Worse? Are these issues, challenges, dilemmas, cul de sacs, dead ends, the ones I came across when I was your age…are they the same for you? Is the world a worse place for the poets? Better? The same?

Have things gotten better since it became possible to poet and an academic? I guess, that’s one of the questions this book tries to address. Have things gotten better even if you, you poet you, did get to be an academic, but you’re still working as a waitress to make ends meet? That’s another question this book tries to address.

There’s that area of the life of the poet that you talk about a lot regarding disappointment. At one point, you ask whether the things that are going wrong in the poet’s life are “something we’ve been ‘asking for.’” Do you think this is always part of the poet’s struggle?

Do I really talk about disappointment that much? Yikes. I don’t—or, I hope I don’t—spend more time on the topic of disappointment than one should. Disappointment, or accepting it, from time to time, or all the time, or sometime…is something that seems worthy of attention. No?  I think that’s worth writing about. But is it the poet’s lot to experience more disappointment than others? I don’t want to suggest that.

I think there certainly are a range of factors that could tend a poet, could bend her or him, towards behaviors that will, yes, result, perhaps quickly, perhaps only eventually, in all manner of disappointment. Those behavioral factors are to be found in all kinds of folks though, not just poets. Having said that, I have an opinion as to whether poets sometimes brandish their vocation like a badge—justifying certain behaviors. But that’s another topic.

So, no. I don’t think poets are fated to meet disappointment more than others.

You evoke a lot of self-questioning and self-evaluation in this book, which is amazing. Did you intend for the book to be an interactive piece in this sense?

You are right! This book is all about self-questioning and self-evaluation. It is made up of questions. There are three long essays. Each essay has about thirty sections. Each section starts with a question, a question about what it means to be a poet, how to live one’s life as a poet, questions about all that. What then follows are possible answers to that question, or more questions, based on that question. And these are questions, like we’ve been saying, that I think all poets ask themselves, or will, sooner or later. These are questions I ask myself and I know others do too, because some of them come from them, from other poets. As I say, these essays are built out of those conversations. I list their names, there’s several dozen, at the back of the book. They were all so generous with their thoughts and their time.

My hope, my fondest hope, is that someone will come across this book, and see all of these questions, and find them, find them, somehow, helpful. I would not presume that the text which comes after those initial questions—the ones that start each section of each essay—are answers. They are not meant to be answers. I wouldn’t venture to claim that this book has answers.

I notice you call a lot of emotions into question, particularly those of the poet. Is that the part of the life of the poet that most engages you?

No, no, no. Of course not. It is the life of the mind that calls out to me. Am I not just like you, or you, or you? It is the theory, and then the praxis, and the iterations and the adumbrations which occupy my waking thoughts. It is how we, as Language poets, construed a complex, compound systematic complex of theory, that is what engages me, night and day. And how that theory has been instantiated in this writer and this writer, this writer, and from this group of writers and this type of writer to that and that and that.

Actually, no. All that was a lie. I don’t think about theory that much any more at all. When I was young, yes. It was by living out the theory that we claimed to uphold that we enraged so many others, those who were older than us and those who we saw as beholden to those older ones. Nowadays, I do pay attention to the theory and the theorizing of those who’ve come after me, but I don’t need to spend all day on topics like that.

Do I spend more of my day on things like emotions? Yes. And if, as you put it, I ‘call a lot of emotions into question,’ it is because I look back at my life and see how much of it, in particular my life as a poet, was in fact driven by emotions—like, ambition, envy, anger, jealousy, and yes, occasionally, joy. That’s an emotion too, isn’t it? And in that way, to that extent, I don’t think that I was, or am, any more ambitious, envious, angry, jealous or, all in all, venal than any of my friends. Or, maybe, not too much more.

You do bring up academia, specifically the creative writing aspect of academia. Do you think there is a schism between the classic academic, the literary scholars that generally comes to mind, and the creative writing academic?

What a great question! This is a topic that I get close to discussing in the book. But there my full focus, every time the subject of the academic life came up, was all about the academic life for poets—compared to other poets, poets who weren’t, aren’t, can’t be poets…Specifically, what does it mean to make the choices we are obliged to make? Choices which lead us to that kind of life, this academic one or that “non-academic” one?

But that’s not the comparison you’re interested in…and is it indeed a “schism?” I’m not sure. While I know lots of academics who are poets and lots who aren’t I’m not sure I see them as oppositional in any particular way, at least not constitutionally as it were. I don’t see them as particularly at each other’s throats. But then, I don’t see them together, in the sense that I don’t sit in their offices or in their meetings—maybe just that interaction model, those sets of relationships, that’s enough to prompt a question like this.

Was it your goal to address everything regarding the poet you could think of, or did you not have any particular plan for writing the book?

It’s funny. I was just finishing my response to the last question and I found myself asking myself a question just like this one. I was asking myself if I find the poets I know as the as more apt to toss off aperçu any more frequently than any other group of people I know, or, for example, than a hypothetical control group of New York cabbies. And, further to that general question, I found myself asking myself if I am more or less likely to have a conversation with my poet friends that is more focused on those big question matters, about the world, discussed above, or whether any of them, any one of us, is more or less likely to toss off one of those aforementioned aperçu. And the answer is, I’m not sure.

And when I tell you the reason why, you’ll see that that’s also my answer to this last question. I can’t say that when I hang out with my poet friends, we talk any more about these big question topics than I do with other people, because I have to say that a great deal of the time when I do get together with other poets we end up talking about the topics that this book attempts to address: how do we live our lives as poets, what happens to us, what’s to become of us. Those are very different topics. At their most abstract, they don’t rise above the level of ethics. There is so much else that we could talk about, that art—for example—can be, or indeed should be.

But this book doesn’t address any of that. This book does not ask questions like: What is a poem about? Nor does it focus at all on topics like: How do I write a poem? This book doesn’t care about any of that. This book only focuses on: how do I live my life as a poet?

When it came to writing this book, I wrote it essay by essay. There are three principal essays in the book. Each one focuses on one of these how-do-I-live-my-life topics. Each one arose out of conversations with poets. Those conversations I mention above. We sit around, and this is what we talk about, at least a lot of the time, at least these are the conversations that I’m particularly interested in. I’m interested in having them with my oldest friends and all my other friends, the ones who are ten, twenty, more years younger. How do we live our lives?  And those people are listed in the book. There are a couple dozen folks. And, after writing three of these essays, which came out originally in different magazines, or appeared in books, I came to believe that maybe they could go together.

I don’t think I think about these kind of questions more than anyone else. I’m interested in talking about them, which is why I’m so appreciative of all those people who talked about them with me. I have also been writing about them in one way or another for a long time. I can remember the poem where these topics, these questions, first appeared. It was also about taxi cabs, taxi cabs in New York City. This was still in the 1970s. The poem was made up of quotes overheard in taxi cabs, and lists of the names of taxi cab companies, which used to be painted on the back door of every New York City cab. Also included were other kinds of language and dialogue, including overheard questions about career and an individual’s choices and personal integrity.

So this is not everything I can think to talk “regarding the poet,” as you put it. There are a lot of other  things to talk and think about, a whole lot of other things going on. At least I hope so. And now that I’ve written this, I’m wondering if I have to write about any of these topics anymore. Maybe I’m done. Although I have to admit that I have found myself asking theses kind of leading questions about a new topic, asking them to myself …questions of the sort I end up asking friends. A new set of questions. They are about “late.” What is “late?” Is there a “late style”? What does it mean to be in a “late stage”? What comes towards the end? Are there artists or writers who, when they were late, when they were in their late-styles, had special going that something we can learn from? So, maybe there is yet another essay coming. We’ll see.

—Interview by Mackenzie Johnson

 

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This entry was posted in Interviews on February 8, 2017

‘The first aeronauts were women shamelessly fornicating their way through the clouds’: An Interview with Kathryn Nuernberger

Nuernberger Kathryn Photo2

Poet and lyric essayist Kathryn Nuernberger won the 2015 James Laughlin award, joining the company of poets like fellow BOA Editions pressmates, Li-Young Lee, Jillian Weise, and the late Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Having been familiar with her 2010 Antivenom Poetry Award–winning Rag & Bone, The End of Pink fascinated me with its deftness of language and unique influences. Nuernberger is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri, where is also serves as the director of Pleiades Press. We recently discussed over email about the role of research in her poetry, and how her directorship plays a role in her reading and writing.

You and I share a bond in that we both live in the state of Missouri these days. Considering you now teach and live in Missouri after doing your doctoral studies in Ohio, did you make a conscious choice to return to your home state? What do you appreciate about the Show-Me State?

I never really expected I’d wind up back in Missouri—like a lot of nerdy art types in the Midwest, I think I had my eye on the coasts as final destination point. But after living in Louisiana, Montana, Washington, and Ohio, I was fortunate to find a great job at University of Central Missouri. I know MO isn’t as sexy as a lot of other places in our union, but I’ve found that are an awful lot of brilliant, creative, wonderfully eccentric people here. And my goodness we do have some weird, wild geological formations and excellent spelunking made possible by our spectacularly karst topography. I’ve got some relations in the Ozarks who have also helped me appreciate the terroir of fried morrel mushrooms with squirrel meat and blackberry wine. And, bless their hearts, they didn’t even throw me out of the house when I started going like the most insufferable elitist you’ve ever met about how all this good food gathered locally in season reminds me of the French notion of terroir. They just said, “Well, ain’t that something.”

Current Missouri Poet Laureate Aliki Barnstone states that “Writing is not just about your individual selfhood but also being empathic with other people.” What’s your opinion regarding empathy, writing, and artistic expression?

I think Aliki said it beautifully. I also like what Frank O’Hara said, very cheekily, in his “Personism Manifesto” about this subject. He wrote, “I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified.” I like the idea of the poem providing a space where there can be a profound sort-of psychic intimacy between the author and the reader that isn’t possible in the real world because basic manners and eye contact and itchy noses and stuff like that make it so tricky and weird to really talk to each other. And I also like the idea of that space being a little casual, a little crass, and maybe with a little room for us to fall in love with each other across time and space.

A mentor of mine once told me that it’s not enough to write about what you know, you have to write about what you want to know. I am thinking of one of my favorite poems of yours is “Translations” from your first collection, Rag & Bone, in which the speaker states:

Color is an illusion, a response to the vibrating universe
of electrons. Light strikes a leaf and there’s an explosion
where it lands. When colors change, electromagnetic fields
are colliding. The wind is not the only thing moving the trees
.

Nuernberger Kathryn Book CoverCan you explain how research plays a role in your writing?

Research is often how my poems begin. I start my writing time every day reading poems by other people. By which I mean I start my writing time every day wallowing in profound feelings of self-doubt and inferiority. This may or may not be the best way to do things, but it’s how I do it. And then I try to get my head back on straight so I start reading in other rhetorical modes that don’t make me so keenly aware of my limitations as a poet. I love Public Domain Review and Cabinet a lot, but also art criticism, Wikipedia stubs, and super-dense literary theory.

Sometimes I’ll get on a jag with a particular subject—I went through a women-in-hot-air-balloons phase a couple years back. Spoiler alert: women in hot air balloons for the first hundred years of ballooning were pretty much all prostitutes or opera singers, because everyone thought it was such a scandal to experiment with the effects of the stratosphere on your lady parts. Second spoiler alert: it was very popular to experiment in all sorts of ways with the rocking baskets and also very popular to just chuck your wine bottles out the side into whatever field you were passing. Which was not super-appreciated by the peasants below.

But to get back to your question—once you know the first aeronauts were women shamelessly fornicating their way through the clouds, how can you not write a poem?

Can you explain how The End of Pink came to be a full-length collection? Did you reach out to BOA Editions or did they reach out to you?

I submitted The End of Pink to BOA during their annual open reading period. And then Peter Connors, the director at BOA, called me up and said he wanted it. I like Peter very much, in part because he calls me up very rarely and every time it’s just to say the thing I most want to hear.

As director of Pleiades Press, I’m curious as to how your experience as an editor informs your poetry and vice versa.

I really love how my work as an editor requires/allows me to read hundreds of poetry manuscripts every year. It’s such a great way to encounter a huge range of new poetry—I don’t think I’d read that many books of poetry if “the job” wasn’t breathing down my neck, but I think I’m a better and happier writer for all that reading. Reading influences our work in ways that are so hard to pin down—mostly I’m inspired by what I read, but sometimes I do encounter the cautionary tale. I find it beneficial to be so constantly steeped in this grand ongoing conversation about poetry and through poetry.

Your poetry involves some interesting characters (Benjamin Franklin, Derrida, Bat Boy), how does their presence influence your poetic psyche? Is there a particular historical or cultural individual that you’d like to write about that you haven’t?

I’ve been writing a series of poems about plants historically used for birth control and my research led me to Maria Sibylla Merian, who was the first woman ecologist who traveled to South America in the 1700s to research the plants there. She wrote about the Bird of Paradise, which was a plant that could be used to induce a miscarriage, and while I am fascinated by her, I’m also troubled and disappointed in her, because she did her research in a slave colony and used slave labor to gather her specimens. And though she expressed ambivalence about slavery in her journals, it would be a pathetic stretch to suggest she was any sort of ally. But I keep reading about her because I want to try to find a way to see through the unwritten parts of her story and history more generally to the lives of the women who told her about the uses of this plant.

Those women said that they used the plant for birth control in part to prevent their children from being born into the horrors of slavery and in part to resist their own bodies being used as a commodity by the masters. I’d really like to be able to hear the story of their lives, their struggle, and their resistance in their words. But one of the cruel things about history is the way the voices we most need to hear are the ones that so often are the most aggressively erased.

Can you talk about the role of the Saint Girl persona?

I was raised in a Catholic community that placed a lot of emphasis on morality and social justice. This is a training I appreciated, but there was also a celebration of self-abnegation and insistence on nurturing feelings of guilt and shame that made me feel really messed up.

The Saint Girl persona was born of that tension between feeling a strong desire to do and be good and the contrary notion that happiness might be a necessary part of goodness. Or, to put it more bluntly, I wrote these poems during the years when I was turning away from my work as an activist (among other things, I taught high school in under-resourced schools for a while, and then had a job in the foster care system) and turning towards poetry.

Poetry made me really happy, but I also felt a lot of guilt and uncertainty about the ethics of that choice. So I guess the Saint Girl recipe is something like: (Guilt+Shame) × (Conscience) ÷ Happiness to the power of Poetry = Saint Girl.

One thing I noticed is that you received research grants at the American Antiquarian Society and the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life.

These two awesome libraries are kind enough to open their collections to creative writers and artists as well as to historians and other more conventional researchers. I love libraries and I also love auctions and abandoned cabins and oddball museums. These sorts of research libraries are the perfect combination of such wonderful places. The collections at these libraries include rare books, but they can also bring you collections of stereo cards from the 1904 World’s Fair, so you can see the Pike in 3-D by using this rickety old mahogany contraption. Or broadsides used to advertise P. T. Barnum’s huckster operations. Or pamphlets advertising Dr. Kilger’s quack elixirs and tonics.

At the Bakken you can actually crank a felt wheel until static makes your hair stand on end as Benjamin Franklin used to do as a party trick. (Although he’d have ladies of ill repute there so you could kiss them and get a little blue spark between your lips amongst all that frizziness.) These research libraries are wonderful because you get to interact with physical objects and have physical experiences, which all have the potential to become settings and images in poems about historical material.

You also have a collection of lyric essays coming out (Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, Ohio State University Press 2017), how does the fluidity of genres (poetry/lyric essay) play a role in your writing? What draws you to the lyric essay?

I love the way genre-blur writing breaks the rules or just forges ahead, as if there are no rules to even contend with. Sometimes, when I’m rambling about history or science or other experiences, I feel the need to provide a fair amount of context so readers can appreciate the landscape where the facts are unfolding. In these cases an essay is born. Other times when I’m rambling I realize that what readers need are moments of silence so they can really process the images or the factoids as they spring forth. In those cases, line breaks prove very useful. I always think some silence is necessary to create the sense of a phone call across the void, so that’s why I haven’t written prose that doesn’t have the adjective “lyric” attached to it.

Stephen King often states that a writer who writes more than he or she reads is not a writer. So, who and what are you currently reading?  

Right now I’m reading (copy editing and laying out, to be precise) EJ Koh’s forthcoming book of poems, A Lesser Love, for Pleiades Press. It’s going to blow all your minds when it comes out next fall. And I keep rereading Nance Van Winckel’s Book of No Ledge, which contains collage and erasure poems made out of an old Book of Knowledge encyclopedia set. Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude has been keeping me feeling sane and hopeful about human goodness and the beauty of supportive communities in these grim times; while Adrian C. Louis’s poems have been keeping me as pissed off and riled up as I think we also all need to be.

Last question: What is the greatest piece of advice you received from an instructor or mentor?

Maya Jewell Zeller always tells me to try writing it backwards and with more plants in it. Ellen Welcker tells me to quit giving those dead white guys the benefit of the doubt. Laura Read says to start with a song and a great longing. And Jaswinder Bolina once told me to quit whining, in a less blunt and more gentle way. That might be the best advice I ever got.

 

Furlong Stephen Author PhotoStephen Furlong is a graduate student at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, MO. His poetry, reviews, and/or interviews have previously appeared in or are forthcoming from Chariton Review, Big Muddy, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Additionally, he has a poem in the forthcoming anthology A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault, edited by Joanna C. Valente.

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This entry was posted in Interviews on February 1, 2017

‘Mythmaking, second-hand information, and outright lies’: An Interview with Sarah Sweeney

Sweeney_Sarah_photoNonfiction writer Sarah Sweeney was new to me, but as soon as I read an essay’s opening line of “I never planned to throw my tampon on a stranger’s car,” I knew that her writing was something that I would enjoy immensely. Her most recent collection, Tell Me If You’re Lying, adds up to a modern-day coming-of-age story, and all that entails: music, actors, skipping class, and pulling pranks. Sweeney writes about such topics in a genuine way that isn’t afraid of getting too personal. Rather, her writing speaks for itself and invites the reader along for the ride.

Sarah Sweeney writes both nonfiction and fiction, and her work has also appeared in Salon, The Washington Post, Rattle, The Pinch, and others. We recently emailed about her new book, creating themes, and the dangers of dyeing your own hair.

Nearly all of the essays in this collection have a thread of pop culture through them, though the essays aren’t purely about pop culture. Instead, the essays straddle a thin line between discussing the lightness of pop culture figures—Madonna, Rod Stewart, Adrien Grenier—and deeply telling, personal narratives. What was the experience of writing in this way like? Do you think the pop culture is more characteristic of our time, or does it function as a vessel to tell other details?

I’m obsessed with pop culture, but more specifically, music. At nearly all points during my day—if I can—I’m listening to music. So I have very specific musical attachments and rituals, and I associate periods of my life, places, and people with songs or musicians or albums, especially the classic rock of my parents that more or less defined my childhood.

I’m also very particular about what I listen to while I’m writing because music is definitely a vessel for me, a means to channel a mood or an era and then infuse that into my work.

In writing this book, though, I never set out to write about pop culture, but because pop culture is very much essential to my personal history and identity. Those connections came naturally. I was so pleased to take stock of them all when I looked at the book as a whole. Funny how that happens.

Many of the essays tell one story while hinting at other personal details. For instance, the brief mention of the “troubled teens” workshop while discussing pulling pranks with Evie. Does the larger story take precedence, or do little moments like this reveal information without having to construct an entire narrative around certain life aspects?

I knew I was being a tease with that troubled teens line, and I’m glad it didn’t sail by unnoticed. Without delving into something that ultimately would detract from the larger story of Adrian Grenier and my friendship with Evie, I wanted to make clear that our pranks weren’t one-time occurrences, but rather one of many symptoms of a very particular kind of teenage psychosis stemming from ambition, boredom, parental neglect, and desperation. And showing that school officials had taken note of our behavior underscores that idea without tackling it explicitly.

Hair dyeing comes up in many essays, and I think that’s something we’ve all done in response to something at one point or another. I remember dyeing my hair a particularly unpleasant shade of blonde after a particularly bad breakup. Most of the hair dyeing in the collection, however, results in something unpleasant. Is this poor advertising on behalf of boxed dyes? Or does it capture the essence of a semi-rebellious teen figure?

Both. In college my hair stylist best friend got me a job as a receptionist at her salon where I learned so much about hair coloring. I could go on and on about it, but I’ll just say this: unless you’re going darker, it’s best to avoid those drugstore kits! For many people they’re economical, because salons are so expensive, but you’re playing with fire, in my experience.

But sometimes you’re just that desperate and I was. Hair dyeing became my way of asserting my identity as a young person, making a statement about nonconformity. Standard teen angst. Remember in that first episode of My So Called Life how Angela Chase (Claire Dances) dyes her hair red? I could write 10 more hair-dyeing essays, at least. I had white hair; pink hair; half-blue, half-red hair; lilac hair; green hair. When you’re young and essentially powerless, changing up your appearance can be a pretty satisfying way of claiming something for yourself.

tmiyl

Why did you pick “Tell Me If You’re Lying” as the titular essay?

All the essays have something to do with mythmaking, second-hand information, deception, deducing the truth for oneself, and outright lies. And because my father is an overwhelming presence in these stories, and someone who definitely understood the power of storytelling and self-mythologizing, the essay that most encapsulates him—and the theme—seemed like a no-brainer.

Music comes up again and again, as well as the inclusion of lyrics to several great songs. Were there any other musicians or songs that you wanted to write about that didn’t make it into this collection?

So many. Bands like Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney or The Clash all pretty much gave me life as a kid. One of my freelance jobs is researching and writing liner notes for Light In The Attic Records, and last year I was doing a big project for them and got to connect with an obscure musician named Robb Kunkel. In one afternoon phone call, he basically changed my life and encouraged me to take some big risks—and I was supposed to be interviewing him. A short while later, I learned he was in the hospital, and we had this amazing end of life conversation that was basically the conversation I never got to have with my dad before he passed. So I’m currently trying to write something about Robb, too.

Who are the writers or essayists that inspire you?

I seek out and read a lot of women writers: Roxane Gay, Wendy C. Ortiz, and Melissa Febos are a few of my current favorites. I love Emily Nussbaum’s and Jia Tolentino’s work in The New Yorker (and her prior stuff at Jezebel). I also loved Abigail Ulman’s short story debut Hot Little Hands—talk about troubled girls!—and I am currently trying to ride the Elena Ferrante wave.

In one word, what would you say is the central theme to these essays?

Love.

Do you have any words of wisdom for fellow nonfiction writers?

My advice for nonfiction writers is: Write fearlessly. Write truthfully. Roadblocks are inevitable. Fear is inevitable. Push through that. Maybe you’re worried about hurting someone; maybe you’re worried about exposing yourself. When I was getting my MFA, a lot of fellow students fretted over what their parents would think, what so-and-so’s brother would think. We don’t want to hurt anyone, but the bottom line is this: If you’re serious about your craft and your story is bursting to be told (and the best ones do burst), you owe it to yourself to pursue it. Everything else will fall into place, or it won’t. That’s something you have to reconcile with yourself. (Or a good therapist, which is a highly effective life hack.)

FullSizeRenderAlyssa Cohorn is the Managing Editor of Pine Hills Review and an MFA student at The College of Saint Rose. She writes nonfiction and poetry while avoiding the cold weather of Albany, NY.

 

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This entry was posted in Interviews on January 3, 2017

“Poetry trained me for the mosh pit of motherhood”: An Interview with Sage Cohen

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Sage Cohen brings the fierceness. I learned this first-hand, when she and I met when we were both greenhorns in Manhattan, studying for M.F.A. in poetry at New York University under the tutelage of heavy-hitter teachers like Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds. It was plain to me then that Sage was mindful of what she was doing, both in poetry and in life. She was, in other words, pretty freaking fierce. (As for this writer, that is another story.) In the years since, she’s blossomed as a poet, writing instructor, and author of books focused on helping writers do what they do, first in Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writer’s Digest Books 2009), then in The Productive Writer: Tips & Tooks to Help You Write More, Stress Less & Create Success (Writer’s Digest Books 2010). In straightforward, empathetic prose, Cohen helps writers tackle the challenges usually faced alone in a dark room. She continues this project with Fierce on The Page: Become the Writer You Were Meant to Be and Succeed on Your Own Terms, just out from Writer’s Digest Books. I had a chance to talk to Sage over email, where from her home in Portland, Oregon, she discussed being fierce, as well as teaching, workshops, and our common ancestral homeland of South Jersey.

This is your third book about writing and the writing process. What motivated you to write this one? 

My first two writing books were how-to’s: one for poets, and one for writers striving to increase productivity. What I discovered in writing those books, and in the decade of blogging about writing along the way, is that I am more interested in exploring possibilities than offering prescriptions. Because there is no one-strategy-fits-all in the writing life. There’s only what works for you.

Maybe five years ago on my blog, I stumbled into writing personal essays, in which I explored various writing themes through the lens of my own life experience. And readers really responded. Eventually, I came to understand that what I was offering people (and what they were seeking me out for) was not advice, but permission. To come closer to who they are, to notice what’s working and what needs recalibration, and to find their own true way forward in service to their craft.

I got so excited about this more intimate and spacious way of accompanying writers that I wrote a proposal in the hopes of writing a book-length treatise exploring this form. And then I sat on the proposal for three years until I had come far enough through divorce and single parenting a very young child to believe I had the stamina to write a book in parallel with my full-time business and life.

Fierce On The PageIt’s plain to me you enjoy motivating writers to write, to go places they haven’t gone, to be fierce. Was there a time you didn’t think of yourself as a fierce writer?

I don’t really think of myself as a fierce writer—more like a writer who practices ferocity. And for me, that means relentless self-responsibility. The truth is, what I think of myself as a writer has never been of much interest to me. What I have devoted myself to as if my life depended on it—and it turns out, it does—is my writing practice. I’m not sure how it happened, but I have always loved and tended my writing, absolutely dedicating to helping it reach its potential, without much concern about who liked it, or what it would do for me. It may be the purest relationship I have. A devotional practice, of sorts. I just want to serve my writing. I just want to help it grow and flourish. I just want to exist in that liminal space where words are taking shape.

What do you get out of teaching that fuels or informs your writing? Or is it a different relationship altogether?

I love being with people. I love watching them wake up to their own possibilities and discoveries. Teaching and lecturing has given me deep insight into what writers are struggling with, hoping for, and moving toward—and this helps me serve them better.

How about readings?

I also have spent a few decades overcoming a terror of public speaking. And putting myself in front of students and audiences as much as possible—as a practice of overcoming this fear—has fortified me as a person and a writer. I know I can count on myself to get up at a podium, even if I’m fairly certain it will kill me, and do it anyway. This is an important thing to know about myself.

What I have learned through this is that writers are seeking permission to be themselves, assurances that they’re welcome in the writing mosh pit, and trust that they have everything they need to do the work they are called to do. I feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to write and publish books that offer this kind of guidance, along with all the practical and technical stuff.

I love how your advice in FOTP is both nourishing and straight-shooting. You write early on how you “have simply committed to showing up and writing down what wants to come through,” and that that’s the “single most important thing we can do as writers.” At the risk of sounding mystical, how does the writer find what wants to come through?

I think that process is unique for each writer. Here’s how it works for me: I find what wants to come through when I practice paying attention: leaning into discomfort, softening into vulnerability, listening to the conversations of strangers, taking in the natural world. The more curious I am about the world, other humans, and myself, the more “what wants to come through” is revealed to me.

For me, free writing was my way in. I started this foundational practice in my early 20’s, inviting language to move through me without forethought or effort. After many years of writing blind to find that there was an endless supply of language, image, metaphor and insight pouring through me, I came to think of myself of more as a channel, and my writing practice as a kind of cosmic weight lifting. My goal has been to train myself to be agile, strong, and receptive enough to tap into currents of language that I might otherwise not know how to be listening for.  So I could ready myself for writing, whenever it might happen to ask something of me.

Practically speaking, I am never out of arm’s reach from an index card. When a thought, image, or phrase strikes me, I write it down, no matter what else is happening. By being accountable to my own creativity and curiosity in this way, I think I maximize my receptivity to “what wants to come through.”

What are your thoughts on the traditional workshop these days—by traditional I mean a group in the room, copies of a draft, everyone talks about it, marks it up, perhaps the author stays silent. 

I think the value of workshops is largely in the eye of the beholder! What I value most from my own education through traditional workshops is how I’ve learned to evaluate and use (or ignore) feedback. I have also gained valuable insight about my tendencies and vulnerabilities, and I have cultivated skills in thinking and speaking critically about poetry. I take it for granted now, but workshops have really helped me grow up as a writer.

For people like you and I, who have a few decades of writing practice under our belts, I think the value of a workshop becomes highly dependent on who is around the table. I didn’t workshop for years and didn’t miss it. But I did attend lots of readings and gather with many writers in those years and fill my cup that way. These days I have a group of poets I meet with here in Portland intermittently. Because I have great admiration for their work, just clearing three hours to step in and collectively contemplate their poems (plus see my poems reflected through their lenses) is invaluable for me.

Whether it’s a workshop, conference, reading, or lecture, I think there is huge value in writers coming together in person to remember that we are not alone, that we are a part of a larger conversation, and that we can always learn from each other, at any stage of our evolution.

I am especially gratified in those chapters where you talk about being a mother, a co-parent, who has found kindred souls online and in person for support as people and as writers. That didn’t come without a struggle, I’d imagine. As a father, I can’t help but rely on cliché when I encounter expectant writer-slash-parents. Do you have any advice or say anything when speaking with soon-to-be parents who are concerned about their identity as writers?

What comes immediately to mind are the first two years of my son’s life during which neither of us slept more than two hours at a time. I’d sit in the rocker in the middle of the night with my magnificent child in my arms, at the brink of my earthly sanity and patience, and I’d tell myself: This is my poetry practice.

I’d lean in to my discomfort and mine it for the ecstasies of attention. I’d study the exquisite smell of his fuzzy head. I’d notice the arc of warmth where our bodies were now only temporarily joined. And I’d know that there were women all over the world awake with their children, that my son and I were a speck of a wave in the endless ocean of humanity.

What I am saying is, poetry trained me for the mosh pit of motherhood. And in return, motherhood became a potent poetry practice. I didn’t write many poems in my son’s early years. Yet, I would argue that my entire life became a poem—a study of sound and image, a resonance with the exquisite beauty of impermanence. Which is to say, nothing was lost. And so much was gained.

Parenting and poetry are both love practices. They ask of me similar things: to be patient, to show up at the most inconvenient, awkward and downright humiliating times, and to be willing to take myself apart and reassemble myself at a moment’s notice in pursuit of what is true and just and loving and beautiful. I have been seasoned and humbled by marriage, C-section, miscarriage, divorce, single parenting, co-parenting, and finding my way toward a collaborative little blended family. Through all of these incarnations, my identity as a writer stretched, severed, scarred, and grew stronger at its new, more inclusive seams.

I believe that when we love what we are doing and we love the lives we have chosen, there is room enough for everything we want, throughout many fluctuating seasons. What we may compromise in time at the page we gain in wisdom and authority when we return to the page. If that’s how we choose to hold it. And I believe we can all choose to hold it that way.

Lastly: we’re both from South Jersey. Is there anything about our childhood home, the place, that sticks with you in your writing life, now that you’re living in Portland, Oregon, for nearly 14 years? 

Yes! You stick with me. Seriously. Even though we met for the first time in graduate school in New York City a decade post-South-Jersey, the fact that I had a friend with similar roots whose trajectory through the territory of poem paralleled mine was a huge gift—and a kind of welcome I’d never felt before.

South Jersey was a terribly lonely place for me. I didn’t understand who I was, what I needed, or how to get it. I didn’t understand why I didn’t feel like I belonged. I didn’t know how people survived the anguish of being people. So I wrote poems secretly—and kept writing them—through which I revealed myself incrementally to myself over the course of a lifetime.

My desire to see clearly, to make sense of feeling and experience and context, and to keep evolving as a person and a student, were nurtured by the generosity and support of my parents, the epic discomforts of adolescence, and my English teacher, Mr. Carr, who dared me to be better than I believed I could be.

I learned when I was pregnant that when butterflies are assisted out of their cocoon, they die. Fighting their way out is what activates their wings and gives them what they need to survive. South Jersey was my cocoon. Fighting my way out of the binding old ideas of self, I came to inherit and inhabit my wings.

I am incredibly grateful for all that shaped me, held me back, and ultimately set me free.

—interview by Daniel Nester

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This entry was posted in Interviews on September 21, 2016

“Hope and Anchor”: An Interview with Joshua Corey

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Poetry can inspire us, confuse us, and excite neurons in the human brain to produces new thoughts and ideas. Joshua Corey’s newest collection of poems, The Barons, does all of these things and more, addressing the turmoil in America since 9/11: war, fear, and political upheaval both in the United States and abroad. Dark, complex, and unabashed, The Barons seeks truth where there may be none to find. Corey’s literary journey through this uncertain time takes many forms. John Ashbery writes: “Joshua Corey has reinvented the good old-fashioned American avant-garde epic poem and thrust it, kicking if not screaming, into the early 21st century.” Corey is an associate professor of English at Lake Forest College, where he co-directs Lake Forest College Press / &NOW Books. On “a sort of grey, fall day” from his home in Evanston, Illinois, he answered some of my questions about his new book, writing, and the inspiration of curiosity.

I’ll start at the beginning. Why did you choose Robert Duncan’s quote, “I write poems for the fucking stars,” as the opening?

I found that quote in Lisa Jarnot’s biography. I’m a pretty big Duncan fan. He’s a poet I resisted for many years because he’s so mystical. I sometimes call him the “Dungeon Master of American Poetry” but he has grown on me and become irreplaceable. Anyway, that’s something he said when he was giving a reading. I think someone raised the reasonable question “What are you doing this for?” Duncan was very much a coterie writer. He did have some fame, but poetry has always been a pretty marginal American activity. So, he came out with that and I love the insouciance of it. I love that, on the one hand, it acknowledges the reality of poetry’s audience and it also goes big. It’s very romantic. It echoes, maybe deliberately, maybe not, Emmanuel Kant, one of his famous remarks: “Two things fill me with awe: the moral law within me and the stars above me.” I guess I’m always trying to imagine the connection between cosmology, on the one hand, and everyday life and also the political life on the other. The book is sort of trying to think those worlds simultaneously.

Would you say your book is successful in doing that?

I don’t think that’s for me to say. It definitely represents, for me, a bit of a departure. The other books I had published up to that point were much more unified projects in some ways. They had a kind of a narrative. This book, I think, is more of a multi-pronged attack or negotiation, depending on my mood, with some of the forces I feel overwhelmed by. I think many of us feel overwhelmed by, here, in the early 21st century. Mostly capitalism run amok and environmental degradation.

CoreyJoshuaBookCoverIn The Barons, the poems in the section “Hope and Anchor” struck me as different from poems in the other sections. Other than the change to a more prose form, what makes these poems stand out from the rest?

That’s one of the sections that began its life as a chapbook. There’s another prose section in the book, “Complete Adventures,” where I allow myself to be a little more whimsical and humorous. There is material in those poems that connects to childhood. They’re more inward than other poems. They’re dipping in to this well of interior monologue that prose seems to enable to me. The verse in the book is much more surgical. They’re investigations of things outside the self.

In an interview with Stephen Ross, you called your writing “a re-engagement with traditional forms toward broadly ‘avant’ or innovative ends.” I wonder if you could expand on that idea. Does that still hold true with The Barons?

Yeah. I think that must have been my way of trying to reconcile the fact that I have long been interested in what you might broadly call traditions of innovative writing, innovative narrative, language poetry, and post-language poetry. At the same time, I have this very traditional background. I read a lot of straight up British classics when I was an undergrad. I can find a lot of value in traditional forms and traditional registers of writing. I seem to be obsessed with mid-century writers and thinkers, some of whom have been very fashionable and some of whom are less fashionable like Delmore Schwartz. There’s something about the New York ‘30s through 1960 literary imagination that really captivates me for some reason. I think a lot about what a post-modern epic might look like. Certainly the previous book, Severance Song—that was about the sonnet—is very much a traditional form. I guess I’m not even thinking in those terms now. I’m not finding that very useful for me. I find that the poems I’m writing are almost like a monologue. I think that might be a side effect of writing fiction as I’ve gotten more interested in playing with voice and different subtle shadings of persona.

You used the artwork of Joseph Beuys for the covers of both Beautiful Soul and The Barons. What connection his art has with yours?

I’d known about his work for a while, but I was in Berlin in 2011 and I saw an exhibition of his work at a museum there, the Hamburger Bahnhof I believe. I was really blown away by his use of sculptural elements that are so the opposite of brass or bronze or marble. Felt, animal fat. The organicism of it. Then as I began to delve more deeply into him, I discovered his performances, which just struck me as truly remarkably and profound. There are two performances that really struck me and I used images from each of them on the two books’ covers. The novel is from a performance he did in New York called “I like America. America likes me.” He locked himself up in this gallery in New York for six days with a coyote named America and gave it copies of the Wall Street Journal to pee on. The picture that’s on The Barons is from a piece he did called Iphigenia/Titus Andronicus, where he’s on a stage and he’s reading along with pre-recorded excerpts from these two plays, one of which I believe is Goethe’s translation of the Greek drama Iphigenia. Iphigenia, of course, was the daughter who Agamemnon sacrificed to the gods so he could go to war with the Trojans. Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s fantastic, bloody mess of a tragedy, which also has a central figure in it: a violated and sacrificed young woman. That was fascinating. I also love what he does with animals. There’s a horse on the cover, just grazing quietly. Some of his statements are very provocative. In one of his artworks, he says “Show your wound.” It sounds confessional, but it connects with the democratic idea about art that he had. “Everyone is an artist,” he liked to say. So on the one hand I was really engaged by his organicism, his diffidence about America. At the same time he is an interestingly compromised figure. He was a pilot or gunner who flew for the Luftwaffe during World War II and was shot down. There’s a legendary story about how he was rescued by these tribesmen who covered him in animal fat and felt and saved his life. It’s almost certainly not true but it’s part of his legend. The fact that this guy who, for all intents and purposes, a fighter for the Nazis, turned himself into a democratic, artistic shaman/saint with very progressive environmental values just fascinates me. I’m drawn to figures like Ezra Pound and Martin Heidegger, whose work opens ground for thought and creativity but who are, themselves, profoundly morally compromised. That makes Beuys a very generative figure. I’m not doing anything with him consciously right now but he’s probably in the back of my mind.

The Barons is kind of a culmination of a lot of work, basically stemming from 9/11 onward. What’s it like to work with such an expansive timeframe of work that you’re working with?

It’s interesting. Two of the book sections first saw the light of day as chapbooks. It’s pretty normal for someone to publish individual poems or even sequences of poems in magazines. I’ve been accumulating this work. In some ways I wanted to stand up for the old-fashioned idea of the collection because I do think it’s out of fashion now. I do think that most younger poets are writing thematically-unified books, like the ones I’ve published before. I like that. I like the book as a kind of unified gesture, but I also think there should be room for something that is more about investigating different processes, coming at the same subject matter from different angles, using different forms. There’s a pretty playful and self-conscious attempt at epic in this book. Also, very self-conscious lyric poems. Prose poems. It was kind of a smorgasbord but I do think there is a kind of an uneasy tone that’s pretty consistent throughout.

Clearly, your poems have a very diverse range, as you just said. What freedoms do you take and what restrictions do you impose on yourself?

Good question. I went through a period when I was really interested in various kinds of form. More or less closed form. My previous book is a book of sonnets, though many of the individual poems stretch the limits of the sonnet. I really can enjoy those kinds of constraints and rules. But I’ve become less interested in what you might call the “well-made poem.” I’m less interested in poems that are perfect little artifacts. I used to really enjoy these cunning little toys of language and now, this is something that I’ve really been influenced by my reading of Duncan in, I’m more interested in poems as documents of the process of life, experience, and thought. It’s okay with me if they’re a little more raw, a little more ragged. I’ve moved toward a longer line in many of my poems.

Your previous book, the one before The Barons, was a novel, and your next one is going to be a novel as well, correct?

Well, I had a sabbatical last year and I wrote a lot. I have another novel that I am shopping around. I have another poetry collection which I am not quite ready to send to a press. I have this weird hybrid book that I’m publishing pieces of online and in magazines. I also have a translation of some French prose poetry. So I’ve been very, very busy.

It certainly sounds like it. I was going to ask how it was to transition back from fiction to poetry or from poetry to fiction or if everything just kind of comes out when it comes out.

I like working on multiple projects at once. That seems to suit my mind. I can wake up and if I’m not in a poetry mood, I can work on some fiction. And in this one text, the hybrid one—I don’t really know what to call it—I don’t think I could have written that way if I hadn’t written straight poetry and then straight fiction. I’ve had a lot of academic training, probably too much, so the terrain I have to navigate at this point in my life is I have to unlearn and overcome a lot of rules and ideas that were implanted in me from getting too many degrees, that are not necessarily helpful now.

When you’re writing, either fiction or poetry, do you have a different mindset?

It’s definitely a different process. I’m still, in some ways, teaching myself how to write fiction. I had to give myself permission that was not easy to take to write fiction because we live in these professional castes. I have another fiction project I’m working on that feels like the most straightforward and natural fiction I’ve ever written. It’s the first book I’ve written or tried to write that reads like other books. It reads like the fiction I grew up reading, and that’s partly because it has a little bit of a sci-fi element to it. I feel like it uses a completely different territory than my poetry had, whereas the first novel I wrote is very much a poet’s novel. It’s got that kind of self-reflexive engagement with language that wants to double-back on itself. I’m gradually teaching myself to separate genres. I’m able to explore more. If I’m going to write a poem, I want to do something that only a poem can do.

In a self-interview you did with The Nervous Breakdown, you mention the “pervasive influence of MFA programs.” As someone who has an MFA, could you go into more detail about your feelings about them?

I had a great experience at my MFA. I made poet friends who are my closest and dearest poet friends. What I think we miss is some of the opportunity self-invention and the truly novel. Not so much in writing as in the social forms and the means of production of writing. What I mean by that is, in the early ‘90s, when the MFA industry was just getting going, even relatives who had no connection to art or writing were saying “Oh, you want to be a writer. You should go to school for that.” The very notion of there being a school for becoming a writer is odd. It’s a historically new idea. I just wonder, is it possible that there are other ways writers can come together, discover things, create things, that they simply aren’t doing until after the MFA.

As an Associate Professor at Lake Forest College in Illinois, you teach many different courses, from English 101 Intro to Lit to English 440 Advanced Writing Seminar. What do you try to impart to your students? What would you say is a unifying theme among the courses you teach?

I think those are two separate questions. If there’s one thing I try to impart, it’s something that I think cannot be imparted directly, and that’s curiosity. I really would hope to, if I had the power, to light a flame under my students’ asses and get them reading and investigating and writing on their own. I try to construct assignments that force them to do that. I’m teaching an Environmental Writing course right now where I’m trying to disable or detour their tendency to write expressively about the self and instead learn how to use the self, including their own body, to investigate other places, other spaces. For example, having them write a poem that has to have some research behind it. Ways to get them out of themselves and out of being a passive receptor or transmitter of media. I find there’s no way to teach that. I can only do my best to model it. There’s a great quote, by someone like John Cage: “The only difference between me and my students is I’m better at not knowing at what I’m doing.” I try to model for my students not knowing what I’m doing, that that’s okay and that it’s a productive place to stand from. Maybe that does answer both questions.

What kind of curiosity or creativity are you trying to explore with The Barons, in yourself or in others? Or what kind of creativity are you trying to inspire?

I feel like writing begets writing. I was fortunate to have at about fifteen years old, an “Aha” moment. I was taking a summer poetry class. The rather insane teacher, God bless him, gave us all the massive Norton Anthology of Poetry. I just read around in that thing. Instead of being intimidated, as by all rights I should have been, I thought it was fantastic. There were so many different kinds of writing and they were all poetry. All these different registers of language. That made me think that this was something that I want to do. I certainly hope, that at the minimum, if someone reads my book, that they get a little of that feeling for themselves. I hope they think “Here’s a person trying to figure out how to live in a very difficult and confusing time, negotiating with these forces much larger than himself. Maybe I could do that, too.”

Who you were reading now?

In terms of poetry, I’m reading older things. Some French poetry. I mentioned the translation project. I’m translating the first major book of Francis Ponge, “Le parti pris des choses,” which I’m calling “A Partisan of Things.” That’s going to come out from a little press called Kenning next year. Reading him got me interested in that mid-twentieth century. I found myself reading René Char seriously for the first time. I found myself rereading Paul Celan, who was very important to me early in my writing career. He’s somebody who is really testing language and himself in almost impossible conditions and producing haunting, strange, beautiful work. More contemporary work, there’s a Canadian poet named Ken Babstock, whose work I just love. He can be really vicious and funny and sad. He’s got a new book that is very different from anything he’s done before. In general, I’m a fan of the Canadians. I’m also reading a lot of fiction these days because I’m writing a lot of fiction. I just picked up Rachel Cusk’s book, Outline. The main character spends a lot of time listening to other people talk, so you get this negative space of her. I’m really interested in that. I could go on. I read a lot.

—interview by Lee Geiselmann

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This entry was posted in Interviews on May 18, 2016