Sunday, September 17, 2006


Thomas Fink: How and when and where did you get your start as a poet? Who and what were your early influences and fellow travelers?

Geoffrey Young: I date my connection to writing from the year I spent in Europe, when I was 20. After three semesters of college French, I embarked in 1964 on a ship from New York called "The Seven Seas," and after ten days at sea, with a bunch of European students returning from their summers in the States, I got off in Southhampton, still wobbly from North Atlantic storms, made it to Londonfor a week where I stayed with family friends (the novelist Oakley Hall and his wife Barbara), then settled in France where I studied for three months at the University in Aix-en-Provence. For the ten months I was in Europe, living on the cheap, traveling around the Mediterranean from Tangier to Istanbul (by way of Malaga, Florence, Rome, Corfu and Athens), I kept a journal, daily. Together withletters home--there were no telephone calls in those days--that daily practiceof writing changed my relationship to language, making writing an automatic companion and record of what I was up to. It wasn't poetry I was writing, nor can I read what I wrote back then without flinching, but it was the naturalizing of my sensibility. That I read some Giono, Proust and Rimbaud, and that I heard Dexter Gordon in
Copenhagen and Don Cherry in Paris, can be found in those journals. I remember I carried a paperback copy of Crane's The Bridge with me for those
ten months.

Upon return to UC Santa Barbara, my father, who, unbeknownst to me had been sharing my letters home from Europe with the poet Howard McCord, put me in touch with Howard, who was teaching at Washington State, and we began to correspond. Howard turned me on to shelves of good books, and wrote such clear, excited letters that I was immediately attracted to his mind and his life as a poet.

And, apropos of origins, the house I grew up in was filled with books--both my parents were readers, my father had written poetry, my mother had written stories--so there was nothing foreign about literacy, nothing alien about the arts. Though I was most of the time across the street at a playground playing ball, some of their bohemian arts orientation must have rubbed off.

TF: What wonderful environments to begin your immersion in writing! How did you come to associate with Language poets and members of the New York School? Did that start to happen in the late sixties or early seventies?

GY: Laura Chester and I arrived in Berkeley in the fall of 1974,and, with luck, I got a job at the newly hatching West Coast Print Center. I knew a few local writers already--Stan Rice, Stephen Rodefer, Summer Brenner--but it was not difficult to meet others, since there was a steady stream of reading series, both in SF and Berkeley. At the Print Center I met Barrett Watten and Johanna Drucker, among others (almost every editor and publisher and poet came thru its doors, getting cheap typesetting and printing for their mags and presses), and soon we were all talking, drinking and dancing after various Talks and Readings. Lyn Hejinian had moved back to Berkeley, Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw found a loft in SF, and many others already there, or soon to arrive, found common cause. Ron Silliman, Tom Mandel, Kit Robinson, Rae Armantrout, Erica Hunt, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Alan Bernheimer, Leslie Scalapino, Kathy Fraser, to name but a few. Theblack tarantula Kathy Acker was living in SF at that time, as well, about to embed a diamond in her front tooth.

When the Grand Piano reading series started in 1976, in the Haight, founded by Barry Watten, things really picked up. Everybody read there, including out of state poets like Ted Berrigan. At 80 Langton Street (an arts organization sympathetic to writing), residencies by Clark Coolidge, Peter Schjeldahl, & Alice Notley were sprinkled in with performances by local poets (Steve Benson, Tom Clark, Anselm Hollo). David Antin did a memorable talk at 80 Langton. Ed Dorn read from Gunslinger at the San Francisco Museum of Art. We met Tom Raworth that evening, and later published many of his books. Older poets in the community, likeRobert Duncan, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi & Larry Eigner, could be heard orvisited at one place or another.

One reason we chose to live in the Bay Area was its historical hospitality to poets and poetry. Everyone was aware of City Lights Books, of the Beat phenomenon two decades earlier, but no one was sentimental about it. Language Poetry hadn't been named, but various theoretical efforts were being concocted in the brainpans of Silliman, Watten, and others, and they were in touch with Bernstein and Andrews in the East, whose L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E began to appear in 1978.

I'd arrived in Berkeley a fan of WCW, had been reading for a decade Gary Snyder's Myths & Texts, O'Hara's Lunch Poems, Whalen's Memoirs of anInterglacial Age, Creeley's For Love, Spicer's Book of MagazineVerse, McClure's Dark Brown, Raworth's The Big Green Day, and Stein'sMelanctha, to cite examples. Within months of living in Berkeley, I wastranslating poems by Francis Picabia, Vicente Huidobro, Louis Aragon. Booksmattered, as did history. Many of us admired and emulated the local tradition of fine printing as exemplified by Auerhaun, White Rabbit, and Jack Shoemaker's SandDollar, among many other often short-lived but mythic presses.

Within a few years there was almost too much going on. Tuumba, This Press, and The Figures would throw joint publication parties, Bob Perelman's Talks Series thrived, various teaching jobs were jockied for, and though most of the poets were scuffling, studying leftist thinkers, no one talked about money or real estate. Writing was the dominant theme: and that meant Russian Constructivism, Surrrealism, New York School, Black Mountain, the Allen anthology, Zukoksky, Kerouac & Coolidge, and the new writing just emerging, much of it published by ourselves. I know I aimed The Figures at this generation just appearing. For example, in 1978 I published books by Perelman, Armantrout, Hejinian, Robinson & Rodefer.

I never felt completely identified in any group, however. I had two small kids, teaching jobs, played softball for "The Best Minds of Our Generation" aka The Minds), and attended what jazz and pop music concerts I could); there was barely enough time to do the 1000 things we were doing, but the creative excitement in the air propelled us all.

TF: In your article, “The Figures: A True Account of the Origin of a Literary Small Press”, you mention that “Language Press” was one of the names considered for what eventually became “The Figures”—which, you observe, is especially suggestive, not only for its reference to Olson’s “I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You,” but for the thirteen definitions in Webster’s Dictionary. As you’re pointing out, you published many Language poets, as in 1978, but the Figures was never a “Language press”; your list includes quite a few poets who don’t fit the category. Toward the end of the article, you note that Stan Rice’s Some Lamb was the first book you published (in 1975), and I don’t think he fits. What are the aesthetic and perhaps political factors that made you extremely sympathetic and helpful to the Language poets but “never completely identified” with them?

GY: I had always loved Jack Spicer’s work, from the moment I first bought Language and Book of Magazine Verse in 1966—it was hip, perverse, unpredictable, savagely personal, intellectually brilliant, & often very sad-sack elegiac—so I’m guessing that “Language” Press would have derived from that interest, as well as the simple fact that language was everything, it was the medium through which we could see where we were.

One of the problems with talking about Language Poetry is that it has no stable, unbreakable rules. It isn’t a sonnet, for example. I don’t know what Language Poetry is. But I was eager to publish work I liked, or was learning from; that was enough. If it was tinged with New York School overtones, or OULIPO constraints, or was, like Hejinian’s Writing is An Aid to Memory, very difficult from moment to moment, but fascinating, it made no difference.

We’d all come through the anti-war years; the exhaustion and idiocy that was Vietnam ended in 1975 as The Figures came into being. Politics mattered, but I don’t remember having much time for it. And the writing proposed a critique of conventional poetics that was inherently political, or at least aggressively impatient.

Looking back I can see that lots of the writing that happened was the result of a generation’s brain power bumping up against new sources of critical content. That it was frequently hyperestheticized, and mixed with interest in art, music and movies, is what kept it alive.

TF: If I just name five Language Poets you’ve published, Lyn Hejinian, Bruce Andrews, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, and Rae Armantrout, and if we add Clark Coolidge as a “fellow traveler,” we can observe a stylistic diversity that many in the mainstream won’t acknowledge, no matter how often Marjorie Perloff points out this kind of thing. I’m heartened by the idea that you “don’t know what Language Poetry is.” Its detractors stereotype it as anti-referentiality, but a quick look at your backlist makes it clear that even the appearance of referential opacity was never a basic criterion for inclusion in your stable.

The Figures put out nine books by Coolidge, as well as a collaboration he did with Larry Fagin. What has it been like to work with Coolidge and to witness his various aesthetic changes?

GY: The accusation that Language poetry is defined by anti-referentiality is interesting, and the degree to which it's true, is the degree to which perhaps Language poetry has failed. The way painters dealt with anti-referentiality early in the 20th Century, as abstraction was coming into being, challenged the prevailing assumption that a painting was a "window on to the world." Insisting on the autonomy of the art object, that
the thing made needn't refer to anything outside itself, made for a tough, refreshing art.

Visual breakthroughs in Russia, Germany, Holland, France, Italy and America came at roughly the same time. The Futurists praised noise, speed, the machine, war--anything anti-bourgeois--as did the Dadaists. Walter Arensberg wrote elegant, hi-faluting gibberish poems in 1918, poems that Duchamp praised. We're perhaps overly familiar with abstraction in Art--non-representational painting needn't sap art of its energy, or
pleasure--because in Art it works (color, shape, texture, & formal limits define their own worlds), and less sensitive to how abstraction works in language, when it does.

But abstraction in writing risks a greater loss. Especially if the writing ain’t about nothing!

Color, composition, and texture--the action of painting itself, the way we read into the work--generate ranges of possibility that purposeful abstraction in writing is hard-pressed to match. Who cares about the atomization of language? No one I know. (Well, a few.) Language poetry perhaps had to go through a comparable set of uncompromising assaults before the writers realized that few readers cared about such self-indulgent drivel.

It was with a linguist's sense of curiosity that Jack Spicer wrote, as if he were a randomly generating word machine: "Sable arrested a fine comb." Not long thereafter Clark Coolidge began writing poems as if they were crystals impacted with glancing light, as if each poem harbored within it the shapely irreducibility of a mineral.

Even his early, longer works, things like The Maintains, or Polaroid, started with conceptual limits, and in their amassing, became performances of difficult procedures. I never liked those early works of Clark. I couldn't read them. Though they seemed to garner a fair amount of respect from people like Bob Grenier and Bill Berkson, I found them dry, formally chilling. It was only in 1982, when Barry Watten handed me the manuscript of Clark's Mine: The One That Enters the Stories, that I fell in love with Clark's writing. Quartz Hearts had been readable, and American Ones even more so, but with Mine, Clark was firmly making nods to more traditional prose, his sentences and paragraphs were excavating personal and writerly material on every page. I jumped at the chance to publish it.

I remember calling Michael Palmer to get Clark’s phone number the same day I read the first 35 manuscript pages of Mine, thinking that someone else might be about to accept the book and I’d better jump fast, even before finishing the manuscript. As a publisher I’d never had that experience before. So I called him and said I wanted to publish it. He was surprised, and then thrilled two months later when he came out to San Francisco to read at Tassajara Bakery and I handed him the first printed copy of the book. Summer of 1982. Thus began an important chapter in the life of The Figures.

Every year or two I'd do a new Clark Coolidge book--The Crystal Text, At Egypt, Odes of Roba, The Book of During, On the Nameways volumes 1 & 2--and in so doing, got familiar with his brilliant freedoms. He has a way of stringing words together that is sophisticated, painterly, sonically weird and mindfully wonderful. At times wildly non-referential, at other times transparent and immediate, there is always something newly minted, freshly felt in his word choices. Open his book to any page, and just catch the ride. He's really playing the instrument of writing. But for a few misspellings, I never had to suggest changes, improvements. And he didn't want to go back and doctor anything up. He let things stand, as they happened in the act, and moved on.

I published several books each by poets as different from each other as are Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Christopher Dewdney, Ron Padgett, John Godfrey and Ron Silliman, to name seven. Linked by generation, perhaps, by social affiliation as friends, as well as by intellectual inclination, they might all be called Language poets, but there’s no common thread that I can see that would unite them. And, in truth, I wasn’t looking for poets who limited themselves to some pre-existing aesthetic limit, supposing there was such a thing, but for poets who pushed form, voice, attitude, information, sustained attention, and bravado toward something fresh.

TF: Your book Lights Out includes poems from as early as 1981 to 2003, the year of its publication, and so it can be regarded as a kind of Selected Poems. It makes sense, then, that my focus in talking with you about your poetry should be on this large, impressive collection.

Your experiment that, although your own invention, keeps coolest with Coolidge (not the Calvin of two-word answers) seems to be the remarkable “Mount Trove Curry” ((LO 111-123). The after-statement of this poem tells that you “decided to construct forty stanzas, with 25 words per stanza, using only five-letter words, for a total of 1000 words,” and “no word could be repeated, and no two words in succession could start with the same letter” (123) Such exacting constraints! Further, “all words were chosen from daily reading, rather than from raiding dictionaries.”

“Mount Trove Curry” might be the most extreme example, but much of your poetry has the verbal bounce, sass, jive, mojo, and disjunctive mindfuckabilitude of the best Lang Po—and, I might add, New York School inventiveness. The title, “The Diatribalist” (LO 73), is a compound coinage that wonderfully exemplifies your sense of play. Like Ashbery and some other New York School luminaries, you make assertions like “Curiosity kills the crap” in “Frank” (LO 25), an homage to O’Hara, that inject new juice into hackneyed verbiage, and this sentence also exemplifies a tenet of poetics: “curiosity” about what language and fresh perception can accomplish “kills” banality and stupidity. What crazy compass guides you to achieve these effects? What do they do for you, and what do you want them to do for your readers? In the case of “Mount Trove Curry,” what protocols of reading do you want your readers to observe?

GY: I like the phrase "Protocols of reading," maybe because I never think about what we want when we read, or why we need it. I’ve never missed a day of reading: I wonder, should we all take a day off? Could we do it? In the case of something obsessive and offbeat, like "Mount Trove Curry," I wasn’t expecting that anyone would actually read the work, at least not more than a few stanzas here and there. The "trove" was just too endless, and self-limiting; a reader trying to make it make sense might starve for the protein sense offers? I did want the words to be well-chosen (seem to belong to their moment), to be sensitive to their neighbors; but given the constraints, I gave up trying to illuminate anything, or build to any crescendo. If artists can stack stones (or used bars of soap), or paint with mud on gallery walls, I realized I could accumulate a mass of five
letter words, just to see what would happen. Maybe some reader will respond with an accumulation of her own, arrayed differently, in response. I still don’t know if I might have repeated a word in it—who can remember over the course of 1000 words whether or not some word "snuck" in there twice? But writing it provided relief from the condition; I’m no longer obsessed with five letter words.

What I respond to in writing is Verve, oops, a five letter word. Suppleness and verve. I like to be surprised by the aptness of a phrase, or amazed by the perfect strangeness of a word—that’s why Coolidge is always refreshing. And why Frank O’Hara is a pleasure to return to. The lyric seems the best mode for the kind of energy and flexibility that I respond to, though lately I found it in Philip Roth’s great novel from 1995, Sabbath’s Theater. Lyric seems to be the default setting on most practitioners’ poetry meters. I remember the first time I looked at the typescript to Christopher Dewdney’s Spring Trances in the Control Emerald Night, in 1977. It began, "August a haze amniotic our dream aether and lens of distance," and I was just riveted. I didn't miss the absent punctuation, nor the fact that it was an incomplete sentence. The manuscript had been rejected by every press in Canada, and I published it immediately. Dewdney avoided the stultifying effects of cliché; he knew that poetry was a thinking jewel.

TF: In Lights Out, your use of allusion seems to serve different purposes. It can express aesthetic joy, or serve as an analogy for a different kind of experience, or make a seemingly “solid” reference into an absurdity, or act as a linguistic surface that plays against its status as a marker of time (what’s ephemeral, what endures).

Take this passage from the allusion-studded “Introduction”: “Robbie// Robertson was the guitar who could vacuum my pockets/ For jukebox quarters, especially on Dylan’s 2nd version/ Of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” issued on 45 only./ One of Robbie’s cropdusting “mathematical guitar genius” solos/ Par excellence, worthy of all the beernuts in Laramie. . . “ (81). It’s such an interesting passage, because I think of Robbie Robertson of the Band as a very competent lead guitarist who blends into the overall musical ambience that the Band and Dylan produced rather than standing out, like Hendrix, Clapton, Santana, etc., as much as or more than blending in, but you call him a “genius,” and the adjective “cropdusting” is remarkably elusive. About a page later, you make an analogy between someone’s “rage” (that you witnessed) and “the night Emile Griffith beat Benny/ “Kid” Paret into a coma and worse, the ref wouldn’t stop it.” From what I was told by some boxing enthusiast in the sixties, when I was a teenager, Paret called Griffith a “maricon” (“faggot?”) before the fight, and Griffith went berserk. Paret’s death brought energy to the movement to ban boxing, but it didn’t happen. Your lines evoked these long buried memories of mine.

What is your sense of why and how you use such cultural allusions in poetry? And how would you read those passages from “Introduction”?

GY: Seems our heads are full of culturally exotic vignettes (aka, allusions); that some of them find their way into poems seems natural—especially in narrative poems. Olson talked about “use,” delivering a million obscure (historical) details in the Maximus Poems, and I think it’s fair game to drop names in poems--to include telling, if obscure, details--as long as they don’t break the flow. Apropos Robbie Robertson, it was Dylan who called him a “mathematical guitar genius,” which is why I put quotes around it, in “Introduction.” Of course I haven’t heard that particular version of the song for decades—I don’t own the 45 record—so can’t verify if I’m “right,” regarding his solo. I agree, The Band featured a group sound concept, no front man dominating--only Garth Hudson didn’t sing of the five--which gave their arrangements lots of variety and flexibility. Their thumping tempos, downhome content, and aching harmonies made for a music of great gravitas.

Watching Emil Griffith beat Benny Paret to death was one of those horrible moments that sports enthusiasts are treated to every so often, like football player Dexter Manley getting “clotheslined” into paralysis. If we in the TV viewing audience were aware that Benny was “out on his feet,” defenseless, how come the ref didn’t see it? Griffith was just doing his job—like a General’s job is to kill enemy soldiers—so I doubt that being called a faggot lead to Griffith’s zeal. The ref failed. I can remember it like it was yesterday, black & white TV, bedroom with white carpet, fists pummelling a helpless fighter, yelling “Stop the fight!”

Maybe this historical reference, once included in a poem, can reverberate beyond its occasion? Give a value to lived experience, even if mediated by TV? People fight, but only rarely should. And murder?

I don’t calculate what some reader might get from anything I write, but if something seems real enough to me, and it happens in the writing, then I don’t mind including it. O’Hara was the master of using the surface chatter of his cultural life in poems. How many names of writers, poets, painters, titles of books and movies, musicians, and dancers did he include in passing, without comment, thereby endorsing by his attention the things he mentions? Not to mention friends?

“Cropdusting” flies low and delivers its payload, like any good guitarist in the act of bringing it.

TF: I could conclude by asking about the effect of your pursuit of tennis amplitude and your work as an art dealer on your muse, but instead, I’ll question you about your most recent book of poems Fickle Sonnets (Great Barrington, MA: Fuck A Duck P, 2005). As you mention in the Preface, “Serendipity and Method,” the unrhymed, fourteen-line poems in the book are all rewrites of earlier poems originally penned between 1976 and the same year. “Whether shorn, expanded, or merely reconfigured,” you state, “each work’s mind changed, becoming newly svelt, normatively ample, or, like a Costco urn, functionally clunky, depending on the case” (11). I’m interested in hearing about examples of this. As befitting a book of sonnets, fickle or not, many of the poems in the book are about love and its difficulties. “Poem” (22), “What Is This Thing Called” (26), “Fool for Love” (47), “April Fools” (61), “Homage to Creeley” (64), and “Power Solo” (97) are all excellent examples. In poems like these, did the transformation from some other mode into sonnet form tend to change the meditative or affective core of the poem? If so, how? If not, what did change?

GY: Doing Fickle Sonnets confirmed what I already knew: that rewriting is crucial to my process. Not every poem in that book of 112 poems was an old one, though most were. Immersing myself in the process of rehabilitating them, of sending them to weight clinics, or springing them from the anorexia ward, caused me to write 25 new ones, at least. Coming upon some older work in the computer, it’s brutally self-evident what to get rid of, how to streamline, and even what to add, if necessary. That process of editing is a re-thinking; only rarely did the content not shift, mutate into something it wasn’t, before I began tinkering.

Since I didn’t have to be formally strict (I didn’t count syllables, nor worry myself with end rhymes), I could let the lyric/narrative aspect lope along, see where it led me. At sixty-two years old, I’ve been around a while. I’ve had two wives, raised two sons, enjoyed and been hurt by several other serious love-affairs, and inevitably, some of the poems, but by no means all, reflect the turmoil of these vicissitudes. For example, the poem “What is This Thing Called,” is made up of lines I wrote down one morning while watching Woody Allen’s film, “Love & Death.” “Fool for Love” was written some months after the painful evening it refers to, when the woman who would be my second wife, in anger scratched my cheek at a dinner party at the home of friends. Confession or story, I told it, and it seemed useful. Some writers find it hard to talk about their personal lives. I find it hard not to.

I have to believe that the transformation from whatever these poems were before I rewrote them made them better works. I didn’t store the originals, can’t go back and compare, now. Some just needed to be relineated; their words weren’t changed. Other longer poems were halved, with the dross being ditched. I got very sensitive to adjectives: how can I eliminate them, how can I force this longer thing into a fourteen line thing? Making each poem look the same (three quatrains and a couplet) was another formal constraint that helped me edit. I’m still inclining myself toward this format, putting any new short poem I write into it. It doesn’t seem to standardize the product, however. But it gives me a mold into which I can pour any emotion, any story, any kicked-up rampancy. And by the way, thanks for asking, Tom.

TF: And much thanks for telling, Geoff.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Interview with Jack Kimball

Tom Beckett: Where did / does poetry begin for you?

Jack: I'll stay in the present and future tenses, for the moment, holding that poetry, a poem, and notably a poet begin all together, an invention separable only through further artifice, analysis, for instance. Still, since my answer turns on self-as-analysand, I'll talk about a poet before poetry.

[This is a bracket.]

A poet wakes up to her being a poet. One can think of this as daily practice, but for some it's more or less frequent. Obviously it's recurring. Over a time, and after many times the waking up to and the going into practice seem or feel the same.

Poetry -- what it is, where, what constitute domains of influence -- can be experienced as practice, as well.

I've had the good fortune of living in Japan, and I've attended nonrigorously to a few of its visual "poetries," pottery, gardening, Noh. These are crafts requiring practitioners to excel in a way of life. As models, their lives parallel those of poets. They show how normalcy is achieved by means of extraordinary pleasure and necessity. I'm leaving a lot out, but I stress pleasure, because that is what makes the work poetry.

I'd go on about my impression that not being a poet is anomalous, but that sounds awful, and it's tangential to where poetry begins.

TB: Poetry doesn't begin with anomaly (doesn't begin drifting from the expected)?

Jack: Two ways to answer.

First, poetry and doing poetry are a species-wide phenomenon. Not thinking poetically is the anomaly (although, admittedly, it's a social norm). I discovered anthropologist-philosopher Giambattista Vico's Scienzia Nuova almost at the same time I first read the developmentalist Lev Vygotsky's Thought and Language. Vico says that poetic / creative / emotional utterance is primary linguistic production, and Vygotsky conceives of that production, a child's external, egocentric speech, evolving into an adult's abbreviated inner speech (the internal monologue that is inaudible but that we somehow "hear"). I proceed then as if poetic invention were foundational: Vico argues that humans are born poets and that poetic faculties are integral to our language endowment; Vygotsky recognizes that poetry and in particular poetic writing demonstrate mastery of inner speech, which in form often parallels poetry.

Vygotsky's scheme is also helpful when deciphering what motivates poetic composition, i.e., does it begin with anomaly? Vygotsky describes written speech as mentalist action that accesses inner speech. A writer, a poet, say, makes a list of things floating in her consciousness. She overwrites text she copied and pasted from the Web. She doodles. She comes up with cognitive diagrams including words and arrows and other signs. She free-writes, seemingly spontaneously, although this activity, as well as the others -- list-making, overwriting, diagramming, etc. -- partake of inner speech to varying degrees. Vygotsky's construct helps because it stipulates doodles and other writing are constituents of externalized inner speech. The odd thing about anomaly, for me, is a poem or perhaps several poems could emerge from this externalization by further manipulating the text in either direction, that is, rewriting or otherwise reformatting text to adhere to more -- or fewer -- conventional standards. An emerging narrative (speaking of one generic convention) can be punctured. Or a new narrative can be superimposed.

I guess I'd say a poem can happen in moving text(s) toward as well as away from the conventional. I'd also say a demonstrably better poem could result from moving text(s) toward and away from the conventional. You know, freed and fried at the same time.

TB: What do you think woke you up to being a poet? Where did that arousal come from, anywho?

Jack: I had to (and still have to) wake myself, and I'll own up: it's been a dreamy inversion of different emotions. Thinking my way through sleep into a poem has always been easy. The hard part is putting it in words. (Writing changes everything.) My mom was a diarist, and her mom. I guess I woke up from the start: writing is normal. Hah. My best friend preadolescence was word-crazed. We got on collaborating in skits, dumb songs. From fifth grade through high school my closest cousin, three years older, was super-religious and an okay poet in English, Latin, and French. I competed with him in English. It was extreme sport and tribunal. Latin School is when I first considered the job of poet, immersed in Cicero, Hugo, and Heine, while drawing a lifestyle from all the wrong modernist models, Yeats, Beckett, Duchamp. All four women I've lived with have been practicing poets. (I've never lived with a male poet for more than a week.) The inversions I mention connect to -- to adopt your word -- self-arousal as a daily or sometime practice. There have been patches when I just thought poetry or about poetry, satisfying only to a point.

TB: I've been reading your new book, Post-Twyla, and have been struck by some of its diaristic aspects, struck by the variety of approaches you bring to a long series of short but very intense lyric discharges (for lack of better critical terminology on my part). Could you speak to the methodology of this book and what is at stake in it for you?

Jack: Lyric discharges -- that's just great expression! It seemed important to have each brief piece add up on its own as tuneful mayhem. And I wanted the pieces to add up together as baggier mania. So that's at stake.

I started Post-Twyla earlier this year. I wanted to spoof a diary via devious inspiration, compressing reactions to every page of John Ashbery's Flow Chart within three-line verses. The aim was mock critique, fake haiku dredged from lyrical prolixity. Problem was it didn't work. I stopped after the fifth page, because I wasn't "reacting" so much as "countering" with extraneous materials, earlier drafts, TV lingo, on-the-spot writing, and other texts, including passages from my blog (which I treat as notes-in-progress). I wound up sourcing dozens of texts, including Flow Chart, but certainly not page-by-page as I intended. I continued a nonsystematic, countering method, arguing with metaphors, vocabulary, that sort of countering. (I do this with everything, including my own notes!) In 346 pages, if you're keeping score, I slipped in one or two specialized lexical items from Ashbery, "chrysoprase" and maybe another.

I thought I'd take P~T to a hundred entries, but the assembly processes spread like narcolepsy and I couldn't stop until I hit 250, a cut-off I imposed before it got tedious. (I'd like to write more three-liners, but I'm retraining myself not to.) I needed to scramble components to justify the length. I stayed with the three-line format (it's not a form, really, and it's straightforwardly not haiku). But I introduced "commentary" after many of the verses or entries to extend and / or preview ideas, to enforce asymmetry, typical in a diary, and to make room for wooly inserts that upset "the flow." (Too much flow in a long piece doesn't fit because the fit shows. The tell.) I think I'm fair characterizing the work as assembly in that it's heaps of disparities remade. The larger pile of material is less than a year old, much of that delivered just-in-time (in other words written on the spot). Another pile collects earlier drafts and approximations from notebooks and my hard drive.

I kept learning about my methods and meanings, submitting the work to rampant revision. How much? Since the book was formulated as a long exercise, I emended early, and through to the end, and nonstop, adding and / or deleting in one place to affect the outcome in other places, sometimes scores or even a hundred pages apart. I've always thought of revising as a huge pain but it's fundamental; this time it felt urgent, more compositional in the musical sense. Here's an example. I got to a point -- hard to imagine after the fact! -- where I was peering into Gertrude Stein's Lectures in America and finding snippets of what I call 'icing' to drip over P~T, as if it were confection, which it is.

TB: I want to return to your earlier, parenthetical statement that "Writing changes everything." I couldn't agree more. Please elaborate.

Jack: I'm impressed as I think many are with how dreams are dismantled by writing them down. This sort of composition is second order; the pen starts moving after the dream stops. Also a kind of dismantling is obvious when I'm awake, writing on what's taking place at the moment, converting it into a memory. In either case, we're composing versions of larger experience, selections, slices. We're sharing pieces taken from richer and larger pieces. How can it be otherwise? Stein addressed this challenge and reset an agenda for composition (and thought) that's a perpetual to-do list for a poet, writing now. Her ideas and practice of "the continuous present" direct her language to enact the now rather than narrowly engage in piece-work representation and verisimilitude.

Poets after Stein have discovered novel ways to get to the present. Stein's work is the bellwether, though. And of course Stein and others change the present, including now, through writing it, not at all unlike the observer affecting the observed.

I'm wondering, Tom, if you have anything similar to what has become a recurring dream scenario for me. While dreaming I come across a clump of words; sometimes the dream concerns me as a poet finding or writing words or, more often, I'm somehow looking at the dream and attempting to create a mnemonic so I won't forget them. That doesn't always work. When I wake up, I might be able to put together fragments of a dream, but remembering these leads me into the present moment that I also have to write.

TB: I have, at times, had similar dream experiences. And, then too, I once had a therapist who advised me to try to project positive scenarios before falling asleep. That advice prompted me (years later) to write these lines:
Before sleep (s)he prays for an erection or for a line of poetry to be delivered upon waking--either or both would be OK.
(S)he sees them as the same thing.
A prayer is a means of programming one's mind.
Jack, what most haunts the present of your writing?

Jack: I'm not used to the word haunt, don't use it. I conceive of the present as a thought experiment putting out ripples (I'd say infinite ripples, but that sounds like a Ben & Jerry's flavor). I can diagram the present as it wobbles out its traceries for a very long time, seen from even far away. (These are earthly terms, yes?) What's most compelling is how the present is surpassed forever by now. This condition can prompt a haunting, I suppose, but what we call the present is comprehensible to consciousness, even if in limited, diagrammatic ways.

Back to dreams for a moment, I'm interested in your taking action based on a therapist's advice. Do you find dreaming about words troubling? My own experience is that dreaming (in) words is invigorating and mostly pleasurable, except for my failures recapturing the experience when I'm awake.

TB: That's probably the only time I really did attempt to take her advice. But, no, I don't find dreaming about words troubling. I just don't typically dream about words. My dreams tend to be symbolic elaborations of the real life crap I'm dealing with at the time. I could give examples, but this isn't about me.

When I used the word haunt I was wondering about history, personal or otherwise, in the present of your work. I can't imagine anything without its shadow. Not even a word.

Jack: History in the shadows. When you put it that way, I agree history is everywhere. Writing puts the present into memory. I source from all over, all memories. The reason I couldn't readily react to your question about haunt is that I don't feel impinged upon by these "memories." If anything I'm a counter-spook, de-haunting the brainworks exorcising memories through using them and being rid of them. I combine influences that are more personal with many more that are just there, fabulating emotions by pushing them into many rooms of artifice. The décor thumps hot or cool, depending on steam, nubs, and volume.

TB: Can you speak to why you chose "Post-Twyla" as a title?

Jack: Kim Lyons was visiting, and I showed her the still-untitled manuscript. She and I thought it'd be a snap to scroll through the pdf and find a word clump that might work as a title, but turns out it wasn't easy. We gave up and started gossiping about someone whose writing is hard to pinpoint in some of its antique qualities, influenced by a number of San Francisco Renaissance folks. The term post-Duncan came up with reference to Robert Duncan, but I couldn't stop thinking of Isadora Duncan, too, and then aha! Updating the dance reference, I argued good writing today should be seen more as post-Twyla. Since Kim and I had been searching for a title minutes earlier, we were ready to receive post-Twyla as a semantic gift, and signed off on it primarily for how it sounds.

TB: Hee! I love it.

You've already mentioned Duncan and Stein. Who else do you see as your poetic forebears? And to what extent do these influences figure in your positioning of P~T as "a postlanguage verse-critique"?

Jack: Forebears, that's about as personal as it gets. I mentioned Duncan in the context of a conversation about his influencing someone else. I once read Duncan closely, but years ago I turned away from those high-churchy surfaces. I look forward to rereading Duncan, and I'm expecting to learn a lot from Lisa Jarnot's biography. Right now I'd not cite Duncan as a direct influence. Here are some randomly sequenced influences. 1) French poetry of the first half of the twentieth century, the original French and, especially, the English prose translations in The Penguin Book of French Verse 4, edited by Anthony Hartley (1959). Even secondary figures, Charles Peguy, for example, seem hugely precursive. Here's the opening stanza to part two of "Les sept contre Paris"; the stanza carries the subtitle in English "The Suburbs":
Seven towns advanced from the south and the west; Boulogne had armed all the laundry boats; Versailles had presided from the height of the reservoirs; Challais-Meudon threw out mountains of ballast.
If those precipitous descriptions remind you of young and even middle-aged Ashbery, I concur. It's plausible that Peguy's deadpan tone and flat, classical parallelism serve as templates to Rivers and Mountains -- "The Suburbs" continues, "Ivry-Port thought itself a kind of Brest; Suresnes babbled along the horses' watering-places..." 2) New York poets from Whitman to present day. 3) Modernist reclusive giants and successors, Dickinson, Stein, Wieners, Coolidge, Meyer. 4) Language poetry but more language poetics. 5) Younger poets, some of whom I mention in P~T. 6) Thomas Campion.

The postlanguage construct, brilliantly summarized in Chris Nealon's article "Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism," reintroduces persona / personality as weaponry for some greater good, good in both directions, concrete, abstract. Or as I put it in Entry 73, current practice is rapacious polemic, "one that would have and eat the material world."

TB: Why does poetry matter?

Jack: Well, I'm answering on the day after the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, so I'm not sanguine. Nothing matters (or seems to matter) enough when you have so much poetry to ignore. I'm convinced I don't read enough poetry, and I'm guessing I'm not alone. I'm not reading enough and I don't do half as much as I could to integrate my work within other disciplines. I'm not alone here, either. I've been thumbing through diaries of Jean Cocteau from the 1950s, and I'm disheartened how far poetry has fallen in half a century, from then to now. Cocteau, who did more than poetry, of course, kept up with writers, film-makers, and painters, not just in France, but here in the States, England, Spain, etc. He references frequent poetry readings on BBC and French radio. He argues with W.H. Auden because Auden's English isn't good enough for Cocteau's French! Poetry mattered!

Contemporary institutions for poetry are made up in the guise of the helping professions, teaching and journalism. Add the clans of poetry to operate as way stations and battlements against one another and other arts growing wealthier by the season. From a top-down view, cold-shouldering and competition among poets come off as intramural spitball, completely stupid, and in my read the discipline could be taking an uncharacteristic turn, sinking into self-loathing. Top musicians have stylistic or psychic reasons to fault or exclude one another, but they're too busy to talk or do much about it. Same for dancers, painters -- can you envision Brice Marden dangling a subscription to his listserv as a trophy?

In the last hundred years our politics has never been worse than now. It shows in our poetry (it should) and in our depressed self-regard (which some project unpoetically). Poetry, itself, won't stand for this, because it keeps at it, looking for more than feeling terrorized, sullen, desperado-like. I'm in these moods, right now, but I'm looking forward to my poetry and that of others taking on wider gamuts, other faces dissolved in water. Poetry gets poets into binds and lets loose.

A principle of violence dictates our manners (Saint-John Perse).

TB: Do you think a poet has unique social responsibilities?

Jack: I see why you're asking this after that last tirade! Sorry I've gone off, and I've not gotten to your earlier question why poetry matters. It does. As to social responsibilities for a poet, I'm going to come up blank on this one. I'd suggest a poet needs to keep herself entertained and, in my view, entertaining. While you're in school this can be a sort of gaming within multiple disciplines and an adventurous social life. School is great for gaming, and I suppose that's why so many of us stick around and not a few never leave. But a full life probably demands more than the conventional academic setting, even if you punctuate your routine with a string of love affairs. My extended advice would be to game or dabble in unfamiliar but enticing fields, other arts, professions, industry, maybe. Keep a research perspective, and when others' realities intrude, research a new place. I'm thinking broadly, because I don't know how to suggest a direction for another's progress without smudging the stub that is blank.

TB: What do you find to be most encouraging / discouraging about the current poetry scene(s)?

Jack: Once more into the breach, eh? Henry V would be no more amused than an average neatnik by how pettiness gets magnified in poetics realms. At trench level I'll bitch-slap with the gangliest, I'm imagining, but a poetic model, John Wieners, keeps reminding me of self-restraint, to avoid haters -- there are only a few of those -- and maintain a comfortable distance from the hesitant or half-hangers-on. I watched John ratchet up his courtly dizziness when faced with awkward social choices, and although my strategies are different, his manners instruct me to prepare well for love and its absence. (I hate this.)

I find writing by younger poets points to zanier boho sentiments and verse. I mention some in P~T, Alli Warren and Brandon Brown are a couple, and they are pie-eyed delirious in their poems. I'd love to jump around in their bed and find out what words come up. Three New York poets are piling it on, Jeni Olin, Cori Copp, Carol Mirakove. There are others. I've read only a half dozen pieces by Farid Matuk, but I've found bastardly ambience, absolutely bounding, wanton, and needed like a long jaw crested with hashish. It looks like American English is going to keep making poems. That's encouraging.

TB: Yes it is. Thank you, Jack.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


TF: To begin near or in the present, you’ve both been involved in sculptural poetry lately. What impact does the development of such material poetry have on your relationship to language, to narrative modes (and subject matter in general), and to poetry communities?

DD: Nick and I have actually been working on visual poems today—so your question is very much on my mind. Ideally, I find objects that suggest forms of poetry. A hamster wheel on which I wrote a poem that has no beginning or end; a typewriter ribbon on which I wrote a very long poem that was all one line; a lawn ornament pinwheel on which I wrote a stanza of a sestina each petal—the stanzas could be read left or right, starting at any place. I’m a little superstitious about saying too much on the project I am working on now—lest I screw it up—but I can say it involves writing on Venetian blinds. My friend Cindy Chinelly described my process as making poetic form palpable, sort of like a pop-up book. Sculptural poetry for me has been hypertextual to some extent—I am able to let the reader/viewer approach the work in a way that is not necessarily left-to-right reading. I am not sure as of yet what effect the visual poems have had on my subject matter as I am drawn to objects that are domestic and familiar, which I suppose compliments my obsessions. I just had a panel accepted to AWP (coming up in March 2007) called “Poetry Meant To Be Seen.” On the panel are Nick, Jeanne Beaumont (who makes accordion books and who recently had a poem of her adapted to a short film); Stephanie Strickland (who is a hypertext poet pioneer), and Joshua Beckman (who makes artists books and poetry objects.) It’s exciting for me to bring together poets whose work differs in sensibility all drawn to interdisciplinary modes.

NC: It’s interesting that you use the term “sculptural” to begin to describe our work. It immediately reminds me of the heavy solid forms of Henry Moore or the minimalist shapes of Donald Judd. The object occupies the space. I want our poems to occupy space not just on the page but out in the environments where we live, work, and eat. I am probably closer to Alexander Calder with his mobiles because I have made many poems that hang from the ceiling. The second thing that is important to me is that the poem must be interactive in some manner. Most of our pieces move physically or the reader must be the one to move through or around the poem to read it. A third aspect is reading the poem. Not readability but some kind of interaction with words and letters must take place between the object and the observer.

TF: Denise, you have employed narrative modes in poetry from the beginning of your career—and that’s true of Nick as well. When you talk about writing “a poem that has no beginning or end,” does that permit fragmentary narrative, does it destroy narrative, or does it in some way comment on it?

DD: The first time I really felt like I was working in the realm of 3-D was when I made the Möbius strip poems, two of which wound up in my book Two and Two. In one poem, I was trying very hard to write about someone I knew who had Alzheimer’s—and because the person was in and out of time, in and out of memory, going around in circles, I wasn’t able to quite end the poem successfully. I had the thought, “Why does a poem have to end? It puts such pressure on the poet to come up with a good last line…” This was a whiny—what I thought hypothetical—question, but then something else popped in mind, “Maybe a poem doesn’t have to end in the traditional sense. Or begin for that matter.” The Möbius strip poems are simple paper constructions, my first attempt to really build something off the page. I believe that such attempts do permit fragmentary narrative as well as comment on narrative modes—“plots” can turn on themselves, the ending informs the beginning (since the reader may approach the “end” first) and so on. I’m not interested in destroying narrative as I think I’ll always be a story teller at heart. But I’m definitely fascinated by collage and the hesitation that comes with turning a narrative in a completely unexpected turn.

TF: What I think you’re doing, Denise, is enabling readers of such pieces as the “Mobius” poems to have a glimpse of the potential endlessness of narrative. Any so-called climax can turn into a middle that acts as a beginning for a new set of narrative motions.
Nick, what are the advantages of poems hanging from the ceiling? Also, in discussing your third aspect of “sculptural poetry,” are you suggesting that “readability” is impossible? If so, why? If not, what is it about the poetry that does not permit this? Of course, I’m also calling for a loose definition of “readability.”

NC: I would say interactivity and complete immersion in the “text.” The first 3-D poem I made was paper based and it was published early on by Jukka Pekka in his experimental poems chapbook web site called Xpressed. The poem was printed on all six sides of five cubes which the reader could download, print, and cut out to make the physical cube. To read the poem, you threw the cubes like dice and the poem would be made by the reader. I then made sculptural equivalents of the dice poem and they are meant to be hung from the ceiling in a straight row against a wall. The second hanging poem I made was during our first residency at VCCA. I was thinking about how a person can be totally immersed in a text and read a poem that moves in all directions. That’s how “The Absence of Atmosphere” came about with its Styrofoam balls with the words of the poem painted on them. Each line of the poem is a different color and the reader follows the colors walking through and around the poem in order to read it. The words are literally hanging around the reader and he or she has entered that space where the floating signifiers are really floating around you. In our sculptural poems I hope that readability is possible. Not just the individual characters of the English alphabet, but words and phrases. I also believe in the readability of shapes and lines. A curve always tells a story when placed before or after a straight line. Then there is the reading of colors, verdigris next to crimson tells a completely different story from verdigris next to Turner yellow. There is also the reading of movement, as in modern dance. What is the gesture of making a reader revolve around a poem mean in terms of the experience? All these sensory experiences must be present when one “reads” one of our sculptural poems. These are elements that are impossible to explore within the flat pages of a book. (That’s excluding artist’s books, especially those who work in 3-D).

TF: So the uses of three-dimensional media help you to expand the contexts of reading and readability.
Shifting to your poetry in general (both on and off the page but perhaps concentrating on the last ten years), I’d like to ask what dialogues are at stake in your work? Bakhtin, who obviously didn’t study late-twentieth-century poetry, believed that dialogism was virtually restricted to the novel and the drama. When I read the longish poems in the last section of Denise’s Queen for a Day (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2001) and poems like “Love Which Took Its Symmetry for Granted” in Two and Two (U of Pittsburgh P, 2005) or the adventures of Ang Tunay Native American Lalaki in Nick’s Secret Asian Man (Chicago: Tia Chucha P, 2000), I am struck by how energetically dialogic the poetry is. Even when there seems to be one “speaker” at a time, there is “double-voiced discourse,” the inherence of another’s stance or others’ stances within that “voice”—for example, the understanding that opposing views must be reckoned with—cannot be ignored. To refine my question, who are some major participants in the dialogic field of your work?

DD: I think when I first began writing poetry, some of the “major participants” in my work were my own inner voices. Even now, I find that writing poetry is a way I argue with myself, have compassion for myself, go back and forth about something, pick an issue apart and try to make sense of it which is, as you say, a “double-voiced discourse.” But having said that, I’m also very interested in polyphonic poetry and monologues in which the speaker is seemingly not me, the poet. Perhaps because of my early interest in spoken word poetry (I spent a great deal of time at the Nuyorican Poets Café in the early 1990’s), I am very drawn to poetry that has a strong voice—a voice that seems to want to be performed. I have had my poems staged as plays at various venues in New York City and elsewhere, and students often use my poems in forensics debates. So perhaps Bakhtin would approve of contemporary poetry employing elements of drama to achieve dialogism.

NC: In many of my poems I begin with an epigraph quoting another poet’s lines or the statements of an important figure in history. These are just some of the multitudes of voices that bounce around my head before I capture them and make them sit down on the blank page. Let’s not make the mistake that I am speaking FOR them. It’s quite the opposite, the voices speak through me, much like through a psychic medium. I completely understand when Yeats had his channeling episodes and wrote those voices down in a book. In my second book, Secret Asian Man the dialogues help get the point across. I’ve always seen that book as a film with actors saying the lines. Maybe, in the future someone will be crazy enough to make it a feature length film.

TF: Denise, in Mille et Une Sentiments (Firewheel Editions, 2005), consisting of 1,001 sentences that involve “feeling,” we can hear clearly how you “argue” with yourself. And, of course, many of those “inner voices” are “planted” by aspects of the culture(s) in which you breathe. I could say the same, Nick, of Secret Asian Man. The concept of dialogue within a poetic text, as in Nick’s use of epigraphs, leads me to ask both of you about your collaborations with other poets. (I should note that Denise as an anthologist should be considered a promoter of collaborative poetry.) What does collaboration with others enable you to do in poetry that you don’t or can’t do otherwise? What pleasures does it afford? And what points of intersection does it have with your solo work?

DD: I feel extremely blessed to have worked collaboratively with Maureen Seaton. We completed three volumes of poetry together using exquisite corpse and cut and paste methods. In most of our poems we tried to meld our two voices into one—something we thought of as a “third voice,” but still that one voice argues with and contradicts itself. In collaboration, poems take all kinds of crazy U-turns as one writer may be building up to point A, but is then directed to point Z by a line her collaborator writes. More recently, I have been collaborating with Amy Lemmon. We are writing a series of “Abba” poems. The poems use an “abba” rhyme scheme and also must make some reference to Abba, the singing group, in each. I have also worked with Stephen Paul Miller on a series of poems having to do with sounds. We gave each other rules—we could only write two words each at a time, and those words had to contain the same three letters, which were the initials of a writer whose name was the title of the poems. The pleasures of collaborative poetry are many—the surprises, the cheering on from another poet, what Jane Miller calls “the animation of one’s privacy.” My collaborations have also benefited my “solo” poems. Before writing with Maureen who wanted to write sonnets, I did not feel very confident about form. But after writing them with her, I felt less intimidated by formal elements. Most recently, Nick and I collaborated on a Vispo piece called “Ruth and Marvin’s Medicine Cabinet,” a photograph of which is up on Nick’s blog.

NC: Currently, Denise is the more prolific collaborator amongst us. I have written poems with Eileen Tabios and with Eric Gamalinda and those poems are in the collaboration anthology. The medium of my collaborations has also grown with me as I explore other forms. Eileen and I had worked on a series of Vizpo collaborations about a year ago. I first sent her an object with text written on it, then she responded with her own piece with her text answering the earlier object. We sent our little boxes through the U.S. mail four or five times and we have each other’s pieces. When it comes time to exhibit them we’ll bring them together and display them sequentially. Sending the boxes is reminiscent of the Fluxus boxes sent around in the 60’s and 70’s and also of Ray Johnson sending his mail art to his friends. At present, I am collaborating with Eric Gamalinda on a poetry video. He emailed me a 30 second shot of a scene he made and I am responding with my own scene. Our aim is to end up with a ten minute short poetry video with scenes that are no longer than one minute each. Are there any contemporary poets that I would want to collaborate with? If possible, Stephanie Strickland, John Ashbery, Richard Kostelanetz, Cecilia Vicuña, and Charles Bernstein. Can you imagine the stuff that would come out when you spark their artistic visions? It’s like my very own fantasy league of visual poetry players and those poets are the star poets with most imagination power points.

TF: I like “crazy U-turns” as a description of poetic collaboration; that’s been true of my experience, too. Denise, what were the purposes of some constraints to which you submitted in collaborating with Maureen Seaton and Stephen Paul Miller? Did these constraints produce the kinds of effects you anticipated?

DD: Maureen and I collaborated over a period of fifteen years and knew each other well, so we were able to try more and more adventurous collaborations as we went on. At first, we just left lines on each other’s answering machines and wrote our poems one line at a time, back and forth. Then, we worked in exquisite corpse for a while as well as writing “chunks” of prose that we would then cut up and collage to make poems. As we progressed, we “invented” forms such as the exquisite sonnet and exquisite sestina. Maureen and I also often worked in person. My collaborations with Stephen have been exclusively on line as he lives in New York and I live in Florida. They have been a lot of fun—as Stephen and I seem to both spend a lot of time on line and tend to write back and forth pretty quickly. In addition to the poems based on sounds, we’ve written poems line by line. Both Stephen and Maureen are excellent writers and put a poem in a tailspin within a few words. I am also surprised, actually, by the ways in which the constraints work. They almost always work—but it’s hard to predict how.

TF: Nick, how would you characterize the responses that you and Eileen Tabios made to each other’s texts in the Vizpo collaborations? Were they focused on thematic content, on material properties of the words (including sound-effects), on visual properties, or on all of these things at different times? And was there a conscious exploration of Filipino/a or Filipino/a-American topoi?

NC: Our responses to each other’s Vizpo pieces were based on the metaphors that emanated from the objects. Sometimes it was a brush stroke, the position of a letter, or the sound made when a super bouncy ball struck the floor and the wall. It is interesting that our Vizpo collaborations have not “brought out the Filipino” in us (as Sandra Cisneros would say). Eileen and I are sometimes too uber-Filipino in our other literary activities so it may be a way to start with a tabula rasa in this other way of artistic expression.

TF: It’s not surprising that two poets who are husband and wife would make each other characters in their poetry from time to time. Don’t beat me up for being impertinent; I’m going to make this question as broad as possible: How do each of you respond to some of the poems in which you figure as a character?

DD: I am always totally flattered when Nick puts me in a poem, even if I appear to be doing air-heady things! I want to be his muse—I have been known to ask for love poems as presents.

NC: Denise is completely obsessed with me as a character in her poems. I’d rather be in her poems than not.

TF: Pardon my chutzpah, both of you, for asking about this stuff and probing a little more. Could I implore you, Denise, to take one example of a Duhamel figure in a specific Carbo poem (at any phase of his career) and to say whether you recognize this figure as approximating some characteristics of the “real” “you”?

DD: In “Votive Candles,” from Nick’s book El Grupo McDonald’s, I am the “girlfriend” and the “good Catholic girl” in the poem. This is one of my favorite poems of Nick’s. The second stanza reads:

She prays that I don’t leave her, that no one
mugs me on the way home, that the electricity used
to light the candles doesn’t waste energy…

I didn’t really “pray” for those things—and Nick is poking fun at me, perhaps, and my clinginess and my naivete when it comes to politics. But as a poet, I know that exaggeration often makes for better poetry. And I also know that the minute a poet starts to write about a person that person becomes a character and is no longer himself/herself.

TF: “Yes” (originally in The Star Spangled Banner [Southern Illinois UP, 1999] and reprinted in Queen for a Day, 79-80) is one of my favorite poems by Denise. For the readers of this interview who may not know it, it’s about cultural differences in the uses of the word “yes” by the two of you. Nick, could you please take a look at that poem and offer your own framing of Denise’s interpretation of cultural differences and reconciliation?

NC: That poem came about when Denise picked up my copy of the travel book “Culture Shock: Philippines.” It is an introductory book to the different cultural practices of Filipinos meant to be consumed by a western readership. The Filipino “yes” and the different gradations of its meaning seems to be very complicated to the western person. To us Filipinos, westerners appear to be rude and arrogant in their social interactions. This may be due to their cultural trait of being direct and straight forward with their intentions and use of language. A “yes” to an American has only one meaning in their culture. To Filipinos, the “yes” has many hues of meaning, just like the Inuit have hundreds of words for “snow.” The “yes” of the English and American English is too rigid and comes out as arrogant when it comes into contact with Filipino English. We have a very important cultural way of doing things called “delicadeza.” It is a word taken from our first colonizers, the Spanish, but the Filipinos have changed it as a word to represent the many hues of Filipino social interaction. “Delicadeza” involves finesse, delicate negotiation, stroking the other’s ego, and knowing when to back away and appear to kowtow to the other’s desires even though they had not outwardly expressed it in a “yes.” Can we assert that the American “yes” is too arrogant and rigid in its practice by Americans? The Filipino “yes” is so much more complicated and socially intricate that Americans immediately get exasperated with the Filipinos’ multiple meanings. They naturally assume that the American “yes" is correct and superior to the Filipino ways because their "yes" tells the truth and has only one meaning. What Americans see as wishy-washy, indirect, devious, or untruthful is really a rich set of Filipino language rules that can make you a friend for life or an enemy unworthy of any attention. So, in Denise’s poem she comes to this word as an American and she tries to “decipher” all the “yeses” coming out of my Filipino mindset.

TF: That’s a very interesting and helpful gloss on cultural underpinnings of the poem. I think that some of Denise’s narrative and rhetorical gestures in “Yes” were, to some extent, creating ironic distance from her character’s adherence to what you’re calling the “American yes” and slightly making fun of the simplistic concept of “assertiveness,” as in “assertiveness training.” Indeed, I wouldn’t value the poem if it were merely an affirmation of the “American” side of the communication. Further, Denise’s comments on the fictionalizing of her character in Nick’s “Votive Candles” may also apply to both characters in “Yes.” This poem can be read in the context of Denise’s overall questioning of masculinist “Americanness” since the early nineties. This leads me to my last question for both of you. As you look at the entire sweep of your career, do you feel that there have been stages in the development of the political dimensions of your poetry or that these dimensions have been constant? If constant, how? If there have been different stages, what are they, and what might account for the shifts?

DD: Great question! I always intertwined feminism (my main, though not only, political stance in poems) with pop culture. I think that’s because in 6th grade I had a teacher who brought in Helen Reddy’s record, “I am Woman.” The girls AND boys would sing along: I am still an embryo with a long long way to go until I make my brothers understand! We all loved the song. It’s fascinating to think about it now—I always had positive associations with the word feminism. The word now carries quite a stigma with some of my younger students. I tell this story because I guess when I first began writing I didn’t really think of feminist politics as separate from myself. Because my early poems were mostly in the first person, the politics were there by way of autobiography. My books fluctuated between personal poems and poems more apparently political. My second book drew on the strong female characters of Inuit folklore; my fourth book used Barbie dolls as a trope to explore female identity. I’ve written chapbooks recasting Olive Oyl (with Maureen) and traditional fairy tales. I think the shifting from the self to the world—even though the world is contained in the self and vice versa—has been a way for me to explore politics from different angles and with different lenses. The shifts have had more to do with my aesthetic approaches than the politics, which for me has remained fairly steady.

NC: I grew up in Manila during the U.S. supported Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines and I saw how basic rights were taken away one by one. People disappeared when they talked too much about how bad life had become. I witnessed many assassinations. When we had had enough of Marcos, we went out into the streets and protested. I was there for the early People Power demonstrations that eventually toppled the Marcos dictatorship. I came away with a sense of being politically empowered. This is the kind of politics I bring to my poems. I am constantly amazed when I hear poets say that “being a ________ poet in America is enough of a political statement.” When was the last time an American poet was charged for writing a subversive poem, convicted in the courts, and given the death penalty? Ezra Pound eventually spent time in jail for his fascist radio broadcasts during the Second World War. Ernest Hemingway went to Spain and fought on the side of the revolutionaries during the Spanish Civil War. Has the world changed so much that you are now fighting causes by proxy, by giving lots of dollars to NGO’s like Green Peace or Save the Children? Where are the American political poets who would volunteer to go to Darfour and defend the Sudanese tribal minorities from being massacred? I’ve admired Pablo Neruda not only for his powers for metaphors but also for his engagement in the world he lived in. If that is the model of political poet I want to follow, I am really at the infancy of my career.

TF: Thank you, Denise and Nick.