Sunday, September 10, 2006

INTERVIEW WITH DENISE DUHAMEL AND NICK CARBO by Thomas Fink

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.

3 Comments:

Blogger EILEEN said...

What a lovely interview. I really like the discussion on sculptural poetry--Nick, your concept of the Calder-type poetry mobiles resonate. Love how the poetry then isn't static physically...and metaphorically. And I appreciated Denise's discussion of "fragmented narrative" which is meant differently from how I've seen others use that phrase. I think it's great that Denise's being a "storyteller at heart" has not prevented her from exploring disjunction...

...but there's really no such thing as linear narrative, is there?. Denise's discussion, too, reminds me for some reason of how (I think it was) painter Pat Steir who once mentioned something about there really being no diff between abstract and figurative...

Nico--as one Uber-Filipino to Another -- you of course know that the People's Revolution toppled Marcos but the aftermath didn't quite become what we all hoped. And that many NGOs actually have been saving graces in the aftermath as politicos there continue to disappoint. I understand, and respect, the point you make but it can probably be made without criticizing poets for (only) donating to NGOs -- there are plenty of other things more heinous (heh) to criticize in poets than their donations to good causes.

cheers,
Eileen

11:42 AM  
Blogger catharinebd said...

This is a great interview!

9:32 AM  
Blogger Jane said...

What an excellent idea to interview these two fine poets at once. I really enjoyed reading this exchange, especially the poets' description of their work in visual poetry, their discussion of appearing in one another's poems, and Nick's descritpion of the American "yes." Denise and Nick really provide endless opportunities for readers, students and friends to rethink the nature of the language that we often speak recklessly.

I really enjoy your blog. I am going to link to it from my blog Jane Awake (http://janeawake.blogspot.com/). Please let me know if you have any objection.

Thank you very much!

11:19 AM  

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