Monday, January 15, 2007

Interview with Ernesto Priego

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

Ernesto Priego: It began with García Lorca. My parents gave me this little book of his poems for children, an illustrated one. I must have been 6 or 7. I knew that book by heart. I can still remember some of those: "el lagarto está llorando/la lagarta está llorando..." It was a very scary book, in a way, and now that I think of it I realize how influential it was to me. Not only the fact that for me the illustrations and the words were inseparable, and perhaps thus my fascination with illustrated books and comics, but also this sense of melancholy and inebriated sorrow that can be felt all over Lorca.

I started writing poetry and became interested in being a poet (whatever that means) after meeting Mexican poet and Latin American literature professor Eduardo Casar. His approach to poetry is so down-to-earth, and at the same time so carnavalesque, that it was impossible not to be fascinated by the possibility of experiencing life in a poetic way, which would mean, for me, when I was 15 at least, not growing up and thus becoming boring and pathetic. When I was a teenager Casar made me rediscover poetry's revolutionary power to disturb with beauty and a sense of humor the most solidified cysts of a conformed society. It may be the only case in my life in which meeting the person preceded reading the poetry. I met him at a poetry reading he gave at my high school in Coyoacán. Then I read his Caserías book and a whole world revealed to me. "Basta la lluvia y se me nota todo" was a line that made me realize how words could say more about us than we ever imagined.

In a non-chronological sense, poetry begins, for me, in dawn and dusk. Poetry is a space of indeterminacy: the threshold. It may sound like a commonplace, but I find poetry wherever I go, and I am constantly sniggling or even laughing on my own when I walk around a city. My idea of poetry is very referential and self-referential, trivial one could say, in that sense. I am always establishing connections, quoting, building bridges. Sometimes I become quite cryptic for other people because I have this whole textual universe which is almost private (though shared with some people I know and I don't know) and therefore I'm concerned about not getting whatever message I want to convey across. And when I see that this private, intimate network of words makes sense to other people, people who don't know me personally, like Jean Vengua, Eileen Tabios, Amy Bernier, John Bloomberg-Rissman or Mark Young I realize how much I underestimate the power of simple words. I am always surprised and what can happen when you send a word away, when you let it go. In that sense I was profoundly influenced by Cristina Peri-Rossi and Alejandra Pizarnik. I truly, sincerely believe that poetry must be a very humble act, just to discover that what it can do, sometimes, can be the least humble thing.

TB: You're bilingual--fluent in Spanish and English. You think and write in both languages. Talk about that a little--how it affects your practice.

EP: It's essential. My relationship with English is a special and strange one, because I always feel a bit uncomfortable in it and still sometimes it's the language I feel expresses better some things. Since I was a kid my favorite authors were either USAmericans or British, and even though I read them in translations to Spanish I could always sense that what I was reading was merely an approximation to what the original was. There's also the fact that many of the translations I read came from Spain and therefore felt always pretty alien to me: that Spanish wasn't the Spanish I knew. So the experience of translation has also be a key one: the idea that no language is completely whole or self-sufficient and that only a Babelian mash-up of languages could probably come somewhere near to expressing the whole. Back when I was a teenager, by listening to pop music in English (mainly punk, hardcore, goth and some metal) and reading comic books and novels and poetry I started having this understanding of language and experience of it as a fragmentary one. It is through the experience of bilingualism that I have come to define for myself an understanding of what poetry could be: meanings are never final and univocal.

I get aesthetic pleasure from dictionaries: I collect them. They are an essential tool, not only when I'm writing poetry, but as a way of making a living, because I am a translator as well. Translation and writing poetry have always been related fields for me, not only because of my experience as a reader, learning a language by trying to understand poetry or song lyrics (most of my knowledge of French came first from Baudelaire and Rimbaud, for example) but also because of my need to say things that cannot be properly expressed in only one language. When I read Deleuze and Guattari's book on Kafka and minor literature I could perfectly relate to this idea of writing in a language that wasn't yours. And then I discovered Walter Benjamin and then Jacques Derrida and everything started making sense. But critical theory and deconstruction in particular became meaningful for me only because I already had this primitive, primal notion that meanings were perpetually deferred.

As a Mexican writer, it's very strange that I should decide to write poetry in English. But as a Mexican English Literature student, it was only logical, for me, to try my hand at it. But in Mexico it was some kind of unspoken rule, a cultural taboo, also because of our contradictory and conflictive relation to the US,that a Mexican Spanish native speaker should want to write in the language of the Northern neighbor, the language of Uncle Sam. In Mexican culture, the figure of the translator is the figure of the traitor. La Malinche is depicted by Mexican muralist painter David Alfaro Siqueiros Siqueiros as a prostitute who, bilingual, licks Hernán Cortés´s ear. So right there, deep in the Mexican psyche lies the idea that to speak the oppressor´s tongue is to sell yourself and therefore to sell your country. Again, this is quite contradictory in contemporary Mexican culture, because, for instance, Diego Rivera was very happy to paint his murals in the US and, in general, Mexicans have a fascination with English and make every possible effort to learn it. In recent times, our most talented filmmakers and actors have filmed in English, but there are not that many of us writer types writing originally in English. (Mexicans writers are translated into English, of course, but not the other way around). So, I must say, for me it's also a conscious decision, a political act of sorts if you will, to know that writing in English as a Mexican writer puts me in a strange situation which is also a non-place. Because my English is "awkward" because it's my second language and I´m not as fluent in it as I wish I were, and because in Mexico people will not take seriously any work of mine not written in Spanish. My hay(na)ku collection, Not Even Dogs, will not be reviewed in Mexico because it's in English and therefore it cannot be read nor sold nor distributed. There's no interest in Mexico for a book like mine, written in a language which is not mine. Then again, I would say that Spanish is not my language either.

TB: Not Even Dogs has, I believe, the distinction of being the first individually authored booklength collection of hay(na)ku. What is it about that form that appeals to you?

EP: I feel very honored that Eileen Tabios decided mine should be the first single-author hay(na)ku collection. I never expected that to happen. What interests me about the 1-2-3 form is that whenever I think of it different ideas come to my head. I have attempted to reply to this question of "why hay(na)ku?" before and I always come up with a different answer. By the time I first came across Eileen's concept of the hay(na)ku I had been playing around with those "magnetic poetry" sets at my friend's kitchens and would take photos of the resulting poems. I realized some of them imitated the three-line structure of the "American haiku" as imagined by Jack Kerouac, and when I read Eileen I even thought we were on very similar playgrounds there. Then I realized her concept was much more formally rigid than I thought at first, but this gave me an excuse to be bold and just attempt as many combinations as possible. There is something about the rhythm of the hay(na)ku that was strikingly familiar to pop music lyrics and to the Northern Mexican lyrical tradition of corridos. I saw in the hay(na)ku structure a very seductive tendency towards the stanza rather than a self-contained unit. I guess I always thought of some lyrics by bands I like in terms of 1-2-3s:

pensando sobre-
viviendo con mi

en New
Jersey: ella me

que es
una vida buena

bien rica,
bien chévere! (Ey-oy!)

(From The Pixies, "Vamos")

Also, a case like this:

ahí cabaretera
vuelve a ser

que antes
eras en aquél

rincón ahí
quemaron tus alas

equivocada las
luces de Nueva-York

(From La Sonora Santanera, "Luces de New York")

So I thought that the hay(na)ku, instead of promoting a way of reading that would isolate individual words in a negative sense, would be all about fluidity and run-ons. The stanzaic form, though, does promote a reading that places attention on the graphic situation of each word and on the blank spaces after each end of line. This gap between lines, the line-break proper, is something I see as the space between panels in comic books, what Scott McCloud calls "the gutter". For him the whole mechanism of graphic narrative is activated by this blank space between panels. For me, the hay(na)ku is activated by this blank space between lines and between stanzas. I have never been into metrical patterns, even though I had to study that in the university. But I always thought that poetry was somewhere else, not in technical or metrical precision. So here was this form that was cunningly simple. 1, 2, 3. Like punk rock:

on the
brat -beat on

brat with
a baseball bat

(From The Ramones, "Blitzkrieg Bop")

I am only thinking of this as I try to reply to your question. But the more I think of it the more I realize that my visual memory of pop music lyrics had a tendency to be in a hay(na)ku-like stanzaic form even if they hadn't been originally conceived as that, of course. The hay(na)ku appealed to my imagination and my sentimental education. I was thinking of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon whispering,

swear I
never mean it

swear it
wasn't meant to


(From "Shadow of a Doubt")

and then, I don't know, I just started trying my hand at it. I would start talking in hay(na)ku form, even if nobody noticed. When I first read my hay(na)ku in my book's launch in Xalapa, México, last year, a member of the audience asked me to read more emphatically as to underline the 1-2-3 stanzaic form, because he could not "see" it as I was reading it. I did not want to, because for me the whole thing was about being fluid, about running into the next stanza. Some of my hay(na)ku sequences, as they have become known, do require some more isolated reading, separating each stanza as a single unit, making pauses between them, but in general I would say that what I want to achieve is a two-fold combination of both an emphasis on the haiku-like 3-line snapshot and underscoring simultaneously that these instants are always part of a longer current of words and images and thoughts that flow into each other.

I guess that another reason why I have been so in love with the form is because of the differences between the English syntax and the Spanish one. I have always been fascinated by antepositions and all the possible relationships between adjectives, adverbs and nouns. Adjectival nouns are so marvelous in English. I don't think there is an equivalence in Spanish. So the possibility of leaving a word on its own is an invitation to consider its different functions, both as a part of speech and as an element within a syntactical structure.

TB: Who do you think of as your poetic forebears?

EP: That's a very interesting question. I don't know! I was just reading the issue of MiPoesias that Nick Carbo edited and I could relate so much to the poetics there. Sometimes I feel more connected to the poetry being written by Filipino-Americans and Asian-Americans than with the one written by Latinos or Chicanos. So I was wondering, just today, if there was something common, yet-unexplored, between the poetic experience and ancestry of Asian Americans and the place I think I come from. I would as well, say that there would be no way I'd be interested in poetry were it not for Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The whole Beat generation was foundational for me and I guess that for a lot of people of my generation in Mexico. But I was also influenced by a sense of poetic writing from authors like Borges, Cortázar and Pizarnik. Of course that Mexican poetry was influential, especially Octavio Paz and Xavier Villaurrutia. Villaurrutia, whom I read because of Elías Nandino, another poet whose sense of sadness affected me deeply, has to be the the Mexican poet that most made me see what could be done with words. I always felt a bit alienated from Octavio Paz´s work, due to political reasons, and it took me until my late 20s "to give him a second chance" and read his poetry trying to leave my prejudices behind.

I don't think I write with a sense of historical or literary genealogy in mind. In a way, for me to write is to be trapped within a very complex double-bind: I write to liberate myself from any sense of rootedness, while, at the same time, I know I write as a means to ground myself somewhere. I just don´t have a "national" conception of poetry, and my forebears would have to be all these authors from different times and ages and countries and languages. To be honest, I feel closer to Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis or Frank Black; the Pixies´s lead singer, not the ragtime musician) than to López Velarde. I think this is also in some sort of reaction to an attitude I perceive in some Mexican writers of my generation and even much younger ones, that their poetic tradition, to give it a name, is pretty much Mexican or Latin American. I know that my love for the English language annoys (or, in the best case, amuses) my fellow wordsmen at my home country. I just can´t separate myself from the political context and I do feel a connection between revering the mainstream literary tradition in Mexico and alligning yourself to some sort of literary or cultural status quo. To be honest, I don't give a flying cucumber about that. So I try to keep myself as far away as possible from the literary mainstream, even though I have mingled with it quite closely you could say, but in terms of recognizing a tradition I can't lie and say that I like better Octavio Paz than T.S. Eliot or Carlos Fuentes than Nick Hornby. I guess this is also connected to this idea I have that a writer is not someone who calls himself a writer but someone who writes. I get the impression some people write because they want to be writers and the social recognition it brings, even if in a country like Mexico that is so paradoxical because even the most recognized and best-selling authors struggle to make a living from their work. Maybe this will sound like bollocks to some, but I honestly write for pleasure. That´s why I blog. I guess the reason why most of my contemporaries in Mexico do not blog is because they see writing as a way of making a life and see no reason to do it for free. It´s just an hypothesis, but I would sustain it. Others blog but leave their "more serious" work out of the blog, so they can publish it later somewhere else, most importantly on paper. What I like about my book is the fact that most of the poems there were previously posted on my blog and people had already read them even if in a slightly different form. I write in English, I think, because my true passion is pop culture and that implies a recognition that we live in an heterogeneous, cacophonic culture, and this has allowed me so much freedom to write whatever I want without thinking of pleasing specific literary mafias or cliques in Mexico. Now it may seem like I am straying too much away from the main question, as I usually seem to do (you should see me teach a class!), but I guess what I am trying to say is that an idea of who your forebears are is strictly related to who you want to be and what you want to do with your writing. So I acknowledge the importance that some writers had on my personal life, but that does not mean I would like to write like them or to be related to them in any way.

When I think about it, most poets who really influenced me were really rock and roll, if you know what I mean. Eduardo Casar is so rock and roll. When he writes,

Sucede que yo no me enamoro.
Simple, infinitivamente me tatúo.

he is playing with language and is giving a very long, emphatic finger to so much of the mainstream poetics and its politics. (I am quoting here by heart; so the actual poem may be slightly different). Paul Celan, Rainer Maria Rilke, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Constantine Cavafy, Xavier Villaurrutia, Cristina Peri-Rossi, Philip Larkin, W.B. Yeats, the English Romantics, all of them are grouped in my own personal pantheon as pure, absolute rock and roll. And even though I do enjoy some experimental and avant garde music, I will always prefer John Cale to John Cage. (And I do like Cage, mind you, just like I enjoy Pierre Henry, but if this flat were on fire I'd take The Velvet Underground over Cage's Etudes Australes without a thought). I come from a lyrical tradition, and this must be my strongest connection to what could be my own personal "national" tradition. Maybe this explains my conflict with the terms "experimental" and "post-avant", which I never know if they are meant to be chronological or formal. I understand the postmodern age I have experienced as one of intertextuality rather than one where language should be used as some sort of malleable substance that does have to stray away from the traditional sense of "meaning". So I come from both these sides, from both a need to experiment with languages and a need to keep saying things. Mexican culture is a lyrical culture, full of popular sayings, idiomatic expressions and carefree music about heartbreak and impossibility. Even the most experimental Mexican composers, who have had to deal with the ghosts of people like Manuel M. Ponce, Blas Galindo, Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chávez, seem to move within a lyrical context, even if its only "emotional", and not lyric-wise. I don't know if this makes any sense, because I am not a professional musicologist, but even one of the most prolific contemporary composers, Javier Álvarez, who by the way studied here in London and now teaches in Mexico, seems to be trapped within a need to deconstruct the burden of "Mexicanity" (I am thinking here of his piece "Temazcal"). Something similar, I think, happens with contemporary poetry in Mexico: there are some precious exceptions, but in general I think that the most recognized young poets writing in Spanish in Mexico are still trapped under the (political and formal) shadow of Octavio Paz. To be honest, I am interested in this as a cultural phenomenon, but I think that there are more interesting things being done at the level of underground pop culture, both in music and in poetry. So my forebears are the poets and the writers and the musicians and the artists in general that I have enjoyed during these three decades of my life, but that does not mean in any way that that is actually reflected on what I do. Maybe it does. I don't know.

TB: Well, Ernesto, I believe that what/whom one loves matters in infinite numbers of ways which aren't always apparent to oneself. I'm a great believer in acknowledging those loves.

Do you think that poets have any unique social responsibilities?

EP: Yeah, you are right. I never quite believed Miles when he said he had no influences. It wasn't for him to say, after all. And sure, acknowledging one's loves is truly important. I keep dedicating poems to people or writing them after their work or their names or what they do. I do believe that poetry is a social activity and could never be detached from the rest of the world and other people. In that sense, your question is truly important. I'm not sure about "unique" social responsibilities, but I do believe that poets have social responsibilities they are not always willing to accept. By "social responsibility" I don't mean here some kind of very direct activism, or charity work, which here in the UK is perceived as the main form of being ethical or socially responsible, but an acknowledgment of the political role of poetry. Because poetry is not a "productive" activity in the same sense gardening or medicine is, and because it is still practiced and consumed by a comparatively small group in the context of the mainstream cultural activity, poets should be constantly aware of their role in the world. It comes to mind that language, especially "powerful" languages such as English, that dominate others and that have become the lingua franca of global business and mass communication, is also the material with which poetry is made. So poets should be more sensitive to the powers of languages, to what they can say and do. Not content-wise, not in the sense of Sartre's "engaged literature" or of the Latin American idea of "protesta", but in the sense of being open to difference through language. It is also in this sense that I understand Adorno's famous and so often misunderstood idea of "no poetry after Auschwitz". Because language was a key element in the implementation of Nazism and the destruction of European otherness. Because poetry could never be the same after such barbaric event. My idea of social responsibility in poetry is the one I read in Paul Celan, and more recently in the poetry of people like Barbara Jane Reyes and Michele Bautista, where language is reflecting, in my reading, the severe traumas of the contemporary world. That's also one of the reasons why I dislike some poetry written according to very formal metric standards or using a language that is completely detached from most people's reality. It's not about being "populist" or about dumbing down poetry, but about realizing that language can alienate and be used as a means to alienate poetic language itself.

The problem with the avant garde is that it also saw people like Marinetti and Italian futurism, whose radical elitism shaped their idea of "hygiene" through war. Futurism became an aesthetics of war, and in this sense it represented, for me, the end of the promise of poetry as a revolutionary force. Because, after all, I do believe in the revolutionary power of poetry, but not in the propagandistic sense. By "the revolutionary power of poetry" I mean the ability to make language say more than what the status quo has allowed it to say. Poetry should celebrate imagination, not alienation. My interest in popular culture is also an interest in the carnavalesque, in the possibilities for disrupting the established order of things. As long as poets have the will and the initiative to seek different forms and forums for expression, as long as they do not passively accept the traditional channels and forms of mainstream and established literature, I think there is hope for poetry as a socially responsible practice.

I don't think that the poet is a "unique" character that should receive special considerations in society. But I believe, at the same time, that some societies have been completely detached from their poetic traditions and have learned to live without poetry. This is very sad. When I visit a house of a friend that has no poetry books, the next time I take a poetry book as a gift. It disturbs me, it saddens me deeply to see a house without poetry books, the same way that I still can't understand how some people can live their lives without listening to music. And then there's the fact that poetry books are very expensive and printed on very limited runs. And the official campaigns to promote poetry reading, not only in Mexico but even here in London, as in the case of the Underground Poetry campaign here in the tube, have not been that intelligent nor successful in attracting new readers. The truth is that the general public feels completely detached, if not alienated, from poetry or poetic experience. Walter Benjamin and his idea of modernity as the decay of the poetic experience comes to mind. I do believe that poetry can change lives, but that can only happen if poetry is read and poetry is written. So "social responsibility" in this sense would mean understanding the fundamental role of poetry as a life-changing experience and as an essential aspect of human development, of all human beings, not only cool urban hipsters or nerdy indie kids or tweed-wearing academics. And sometimes poetry feels so alienated form the rest of the world; so concerned with their own internal strifes, without realizing that nobody else but those within care about it. It reminds me of all the hours I spent in my 20s discussing what comics should be with Mexican cartoonists. We kept talking about it, spent weeks on message board discussions, burning precious time we should have employed in actually doing those comics. Comics share with poetry their reduced readership and their endangered species status. But, unlike comics, poetry is considered the highest literary activity. No one denies the cultural importance of poetry, while comics are still unfairly perceived as childish and immature. But this cultural recognition is merely nominal, because out of a few mainstream and well-established authors, poetry does not matter much in the cultural panorama. So poets have a responsibility to keep practicing poetry and to make it matter, to attract new readers, not only the same people who are already reading it.

TB: One last question: what is most encouraging/discouraging to you about the current poetry scene(s)?

EP: There are more encouraging things than discouraging ones. I have been very lucky in finding a receptive audience and fellow poets who have made me feel like what I do has some value. I would have never been so vocal about what I think of poetry outside of the unviersity's classrooms had it not been for blogging. I am indebted to many individuals who were very encouraging from the very beginning, like Bill Marsh, K. Silem Mohammad, Nick Piombino and of course Eileen Tabios. I think they might have been about the first ones to notice my work on my blog and to respond to it. I think the work that Ron Silliman does in terms of promoting poetry is awe-inspiring, even though some times I get depressed by reading the comments on his blog. Sometimes the Internet can emphasize a lot this navel-watching attitude of small groups or the "developed West" a lot, but at the same time it has, with blogging at its center, developed a very interesting community of people from different countries who support each other. I have recently been able to participate in a project by Bill Allegrezza, a poet whose blog I had followed for some time now but that until recently I established contact with. So "my scene" if it should be called like that, is basically my blog roll, a group of mutually-encouraging people interested in poetry and other things. I do find a bit discouraging to see that in spite of many important efforts poetry on the Internet still seems to replicate the political agendas of poetry off line. So there is not as much collaboration or exchange between poets of different nationalities, maybe because of the language barrier and what has been called "the technological divide", but I remain hopeful that this will change in the near future. When I was a teenager I published my own fanzines and was a DIY publications collector. Electronic self-publishing and blogging has been the next logical step. I wouldn't have been able to publish my poetry in English in Mexico, and it would have taken me a lot of time to get my stuff published in American or British journals using the traditional system of submitting by post. So as a blogger I have been self-publishing my stuff for more than 5 years now, and that has been a means of opening many doors. I still find the USA poetic scene(s) very intimidating, very localized and insular in many ways, but that may be because I don't know them first-hand and because all I know about them is what I read of them. I believe poetry should be all about exchange and dialogue, and I think that the Internet is and will keep playing a central role for contemporary poetry. As long as poets understand that the world is very diverse and complex and that the term "global" still has to find its true meaning implying a respectful recognition of otherness, including that of other languages and cultures, I think that poetry has a lot to offer in terms of encouragement. Maybe I'm too optimistic, but sometimes, when I write something and get a response I never expected, I can't help feeling that there is still some hope left in this world.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Interview with Jordan Stempleman

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

Jordan Stempleman: I still have a hard time talking about both. “Did” from the fact I can’t keep my life straight. And “does” because it seems to change each time I sit down. I “do” know that a few years ago, I would almost always start with an image. I was always looking at things, organizing extended phrases from looking while I rode the El in Chicago, well before I would ever write anything down. These days, I tend to listen more—go with the overheard from my own partial thoughts (which are mostly what I’m provided with) and build on them repeatedly—returning often to my tendencies and my concerns. When I begin, many of my poems sound the same to me as the last one. And I think the sound of ideas; the sound of trudging through the mind for a language to match a state of mind, is what I’m most interested in. Often times, the poem that results from this process may appear to have been written by a completely different guy than the last one, or at least this is how I feel once I’m there reading it.

I was having a conversation with the poet John Craun a few months back about the freedoms of form and style available to writers, (now that we’ve got the after effects of this whole Postmodern thing to look at and then consider) and it was then I realized it’s okay by me to one day sit down and feel the urge to write a prose poem and the next day to compose a poem of nine parataxical linked couplets with only three pronouns. Hey, that’s got all the makings for the will to go on if you ask me. So for me the first line is always the first line. I never throw it out. The rest, sure. But if that first line has the generational pull to observe what it does in the space that it defines, I establish it as the pace for the rest of the poem.

TB: Intention and address. What do you want your poetry to do? Who or what is it meant for?

JS: When I’m writing I’m never thinking of anyone that isn’t in the poem. That isn’t to say that because a physical creature isn’t mentioned in the poem it isn’t being addressed to some person or a group of folks who tend to move on those frequencies. It often does. I guess you can kind of think of it like someone toying with a ham radio. Sitting there and talking into a space, and perhaps one, two, thirty people start chiming in. But that all comes after the thing is put together. My wife, when I met her, and many years after, when confronted with one of my poems would ask me what in the hell they were about. I was always hurt by this question. I don’t know why, maybe because I had some sense what I felt by the experience of writing this poem or that, all very much different experiences, but of course, their was no hopes in her having the exact reaction that I did to that process of putting the thing together. I write much differently now. I don’t feel on walls with my eyes closed as much. There’s usually a tone that comes through and from that tone I can then settle in and give it an environment of other likeminded tones. Now when I show her a poem, I know if the reaction is good, I was successful in using the requisite language for that place. If she shrugs and goes back to doing whatever it was she was doing, I can often find the place where I lost focus and pushed a line or two in that belonged to a different zip code. To consider what I want them to do…well, either be used to write other poems or for those individuals who don’t take to that kind of activity, just be amused in some manner or another. This may take a large scale operation with much funding and volunteerism, considering what it takes to hold even the attention of poets these days, but I haven’t given up hope yet. My daughter, now three and a half, each time she sits down for an extended stay on the toilet will call me in from the other room and ask me to read her poetry. Now granted, she usually stops me at every fourth or fifth word to ask me what it means or to laugh and repeat it because sonically it just sounds wild, but that’s great stuff, no? Adults are way too freaked out to do those kinds of things. Workshop students better find the paradigmatic happenings in the poem or it's strike three! My readers tend to be those who don’t worry so much about cracking anything. They connotatively feel the language and respond. At least that’s what the one reader I know I have does.

TB: Could you speak a little more clinically to your methods of composition, perhaps by taking me through one of your poems?

JS: Sure. Did you have a specific poem in mind that we could etherize and dig in to?

TB: Nah. Select whatever text you like. I'd just like to get a little more concrete sense of your process.

JS: Okay. Well, here’s a newbie.

Order from the menu that which has the ability to cut itself

The one coat for everywhere

becomes obvious when a bareness

is weighed. By morning,

a layer has gone on

too long, supported the rest

to the unconditional point where

the tired truly separate, fold up

their belongings, and head on

flapping into the wind.

As I mentioned earlier, the first line became the environmental rub for the rest of the poem. For whatever reason, this first line came across to me as cold, or more specifically attempting to take on too much. Whether the “coat” in the line is at first to refer to a layer of paint or a good parka where you can remove the inner lining when the winds die down, it could go either way. I often really do well with either ways. I know with this poem I had to hesitate and get a grip before moving into the second line and determining what does happen to one thing when it takes on so much. This isn’t always the case, especially when I’ve agreed to some formal constraint of form such as a hay(na)ku or a sestina or whatever. Then I will almost always think my way through to a stopping point. In many of my poems, and the one we’ve got our scalpels hovering above, the structural movement was to vacillate between the stark landscape and the one object that arrived to do something. And making sure I kept that thing as transitory as possible until another phrase arrived to affect it, push it around and take on its qualities without actually announcing what the “it” is. I’m not trying to be elusive here. I truly don’t know what the "it" is. I’m just moving around the sensual phantoms of language with many, many things that feel like they have passed through the same space and have had the same response, have all told the same tale. The poem above has a very fabulist structure to it I think, which then means I’ve built this parabolic container to house the thing. The one thing it doesn’t have, of course, that a fable might, is a moral structure. I still don’t know how I feel about this. I mean, in no way do I want to start writing poems that are in a position to teach people how to live, because the good morals I’ve got don’t take up that much space, and seem only partially useful to three-year olds. I would like to think that I’m sincerely trying to listen to what my mind is saying. When I really feel like I’ve accomplished something in a poem, I’m working with fragments of ideas, language, partial memory, the entrances of thought that often begin emotional responses but that turn inward, outward, explosive, and head in a different direction. They are statements that are intended to remind the reader of something they once said, something they always say, something they read, or something they always see scrolled in some commonly phrased way, but before they’re allowed to develop, they’ve been sewn to another one of those moments. But that’s just this poem or others that have the same feel. On a Sunday morning I might feel like writing a poem with a direct address to my wife. It may say something like:

If I were a truck

I’d move you about the country

never complain

and rarely run out of gas

You said while reviewing Their Fields that you feel I am very much a poet who works with collage, and I agree with you. Although when I was younger (and even more frequently these days) I needed a collection of objects rather than language to move the poem forward. I consider language to be a much more fluid of a substance than images or objects, thinking of what I call “objects” as physical materials and “language” as patterns of varying degrees of light or darkness.

TB: When you say you "needed a collection of objects rather than language to move the poem forward," I'm not sure I take your meaning. Could you elaborate?

JS: Let’s see if I can get at it.

I guess I needed more of a point and shoot approach to writing. Rarely would I compose a poem of my own thoughts. More often I would rely on a train ride, pulling together overheard conversations while appropriating text from the book in my lap or a magazine in the lap of the person sitting next to me. This would be how I wrote just about everything, for years! It became quite a nuisance. I mean I needed my book-fix or else I couldn’t get a poem going. I needed a collection of things already in the world that I could then determine how and where they could get together and go through with their affair. What I mean by language then is much different from appropriation and much less fixed than actually seeing the environment that I’m in while writing the poem. The rotunda is wide open. And in those kinds of poems they stay that way. There seems to be a very fine film that surrounds the space of the poem that only allows for very tiny pieces to find their way through. For example, a baseball would have little chance of coming in as a baseball, it may be round and tumbling forward and dipping and picking up dirt, but that’s it. And to make maters worse, I don’t know if it’s a baseball or a cannonball when I’m standing in the center of the pit and trying to listen for the thud. But again, that holds true for those kinds of poems. There are others that may find their gas solely from sound, humor, sadness, or…gasp, love. And they’re very clear, very much stationed with objects that have all the properties and good old symbolic characteristics holding them in place. I guess I’m a poet who works in states.

TB: Why does poetry matter to you? What does it do for you?

JS: Because it’s about the best kind of matter we've got. In its most sincere form, poetry offers up a living thing with unlimited amounts of energy. There’s no part of it that will ever get rusty or dry up. It just needs to be reprinted now and then, or carried on with a few dedicated voices until the chance arrives to get it down on paper once again or for the first time. There’s something really fantastic about this fact. Now how poems affect me, well, I guess I don’t really have the sense that I’m thinking when I’m outside of reading poems or writing them as well. I am in more of a mindset of process and react. But with poetry, and not with fiction or standing in front of a painting or anything else, I feel no pressure to move. I think Clark Coolidge once compared a poem to tangle with a head on it, or something like that. I really enjoy sitting there and working out the knots, and as is most often the case, producing some knots of my own. But mind you, all this, while I’m in the poem writing it or as a reader, is going down with a heartbeat that I can feel or a pulse from the brain, however you want to see it. I think of Charles Bernstein’s poem Apple Picking Time (from Dark City TB) in which he writes:

A poem should not mean but impale
not be but bemoan,

When a poem is on, this is the effect it should have on its audience. It defines its own terms within the poem itself. It has set up for itself over the years this place that renders a moment of concern for some thing and for some reason, even if the impulse isn’t entirely clear. I’ve recently realized that being a poet in the US, although there are heaps and heaps of us walking the streets, is a very odd thing. We are basically read by our peers, and if we went to a restaurant and told the waiter, “Hey, you got a table of poets here, recite one of your favorite poems for us,” they would say something like, “Man, I don’t read that stuff.” While if you sit in a cab in Turkey or China or elsewhere in the world, more often than not, if you ask your driver about poetry they will be able to recite a few from memory and have a very clear sense of what poetry does to their psyche. They would never consider themselves a poet, but they know what that feeling is that comes from poems that has somehow disappeared from the American landscape. I’ve got some thoughts on this but I promised to voice them at my next PTA meeting.

TB: Within a more homogenous traditional culture, poetry tends to mean one thing. In our polyglot society it means many, many things. It is truly fractured discourse. I could briefly describe a number of tendencies but it would begin to sound like competing cartoons. Who do you think of as your poetic forebears? And, c'mon, elaborate a little on that speech to the PTA!

JS: I came into poetry from the front door. In other words, I read primarily 20th century poets that then led me into those poets they were influenced by. One of the first poets who really did something to my sense of what a poem could be was Ted Berrigan. I was taking a class with Tom Raworth at Columbia College, and Tom was so great at reading into a young writer’s work and understanding what they were aiming for, so he would go to the Harold Washington Library and pick up a stack of books, bring them back to class and say, “Thought you might like some of these guys.” That was where I first encountered Berrigan, Dorn, Knott, Scalapino, etc. So for a writer like Berrigan, the impetus was there to read up and determine where he got his stuff. That of course led me to O’Hara, the entire NY School, Apollnaire, Ashbery opening me up to Reverdy, etc. These days I guess the group that I return to and who find their way into my writing in one way or another are: Stevens, Oppen, Niedecker, Rosemarie Waldrop, Spicer, Edson, and the Ashbery of Flowchart. These are all writers who I often pick up in the middle of a poem, ask them a few questions, and go back in with the gardening gloves on to get the weeds out. They are all very helpful and understanding of my circumstances and limitations.

I am now at the point in my life where I’m trying to push my group of forbearers to a few more dead people. I don’t have enough of the ‘long gone’ on my list. I read the Romantics, like a lot that goes on in the shorter work of most of the group—the poems of Keats just before his death, and the longer work of Wordsworth, especially the Preludes, and Shelley’s Adonais, but when it comes down to it, my attention just isn’t there for many of the poets between Chaucer and Eliot. And I know that’s just from the way my education came about. Aside from the beloved Tom Raworth, much of my early explorations of poetry was done on my own. I majored in Fiction Writing as an undergraduate, and therefore was reading the lineage of fiction and prose all the way back to stone. I read fiction well before writing it. With poetry just the opposite is true. I was writing goo goo-glop glop broken hearted love poems to a girl that broke my heart when I was sixteen, and then going to those god awful coffee shops around downtown Kansas City to read them to an audience that was looking for a performance. All I had was these very quiet and depressingly dark poems. A couple of years later I found the Beats as most lads and laddies do these days when they’re out looking for trouble, and I found choleric Corso, who matched up very well with my tendencies. It wasn’t until around the time I graduated from college that I could finally look myself in the mirror and say I was a poet. It was at that time I started to really study what it was I was doing, discovering Zukofsky, Pound, Williams, H.D. etc., and studying form and theory. I’m still very much at the initial stages of my education (If John Hollander ever got a hold of me he’d call me the typical verse maker or some shit, by no means a p-p-p-p-poet!). Couple that fact with the fact that I am a terribly slow reader and you’ve got a guy who should be up to speed at around seventy-five. So around eighty I will fend off senility by quoting Cavalcanti sonnets and large portions of The Ring and the Book.

The PTA speech? All I know is it would start off with me giving my best Emerson impersonation: “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” And go on with a sharp critique of (English) teachers and parents. I’d point my finger out to all the teachers with their hands filthy from only teaching poems they can crack, many teaching the subject because they love the short story and the novel and poetry is a dollop of Cool Whip on the top. And I’d look down upon the parents for not reading poetry to their kids when they were very young while they were on the toilet. It’s the best place, you got ‘em, and they have this wonderful look of concentration on their face.

TB: Why the shift from fiction to poetry? Is fiction writing something you still aspire to do? Do you now read much fiction?

JS: I do read quite a bit of fiction. For one, I am teaching Interpretation of Literature at the University of Iowa which requires us to teach 20th century texts as well as period literature, and regardless, I find fiction to have a very high entertainment value. I often fall asleep in movies. I like them, but they knock me out. So I’ll often turn to George Saunders, Nicholson Baker, EudoraWelty, Stephen Dixon, Molly Giles, etc. when I’ve had it up to my sparse scalp with poetry. This feeling usually takes place at least once a day. I feel with Berrigan when he lists a group of poets he read in a day to make up for missing class, only to then say, “I hate books.” I would say I get really bugged by poetry on an ongoing basis. Mostly I think this feeling stems from envy and the wish that I could just be on—into that long drive when the poem writes itself. I’m lazy like that. I love it when things come easy. But back to fiction, and the writing of fiction. No, I don’t write it anymore at all. I was never that great at it. I decided to major in it because it was very difficult, which right away contradicts my previous statement of wanting things to be easy. I knew I enjoyed writing poetry when I was in my teens, so I thought with enough discipline I could also write fiction. Well, I upheld the regimen of sitting down for hours at a time, completing 80 pages of fiction in each class per semester, but I soon realized I had no command for the elements of narrative that I knew I wanted in my work: dialogue, controlling scene, managing characters by understanding their reactions not just having them react when plopped down in the middle of stealing a piano and pushing it down a busy street in Chicago, etc. I always felt exhausted after writing fiction. I would lose interest. The shift for me to poetry took place because I found I really got off on talking about poetry, more importantly, from writing it. There’s always this feeling of infinitude after I write a poem. When I sit down the next day to write another, there is almost always this feeling of equanimity, no pressure except for dropping in and going to work to create something that is distinctive to the moment it was written in. Even when I return to a longer poem there is always this feeling of a new center, there’s always a center point that I encounter, rather than a bunch of thoughts prior to writing a thing as to how to introduce this or how can I manage some situation between two characters who want two very different things.

Will I ever write fiction again? Sure, but I’ve got the sense they would be terribly short pieces, perhaps all under a thousand words and written as if Carver only had two fingers and tired extremely easily. I wouldn’t mind trying to dictate a story into some handheld tape recorder and then edit it into something manageable. That sounds like something I would be up for doing. We’ll see.

TB: Do you work with tape recorders during the composition of your poems? I ask this, not only because of the nice segue you provided, but because at your blog you frequently post audio versions of your poems.

JS: Not usually. There have been some poems that were dictated into the microphone that’s hooked into my computer, but those were often composed late into some evening
when I had taken in too many spirits. A few lines I may have salvaged. The majority of the time I compose the poem at the computer in one sitting, then I record the audio, save it over at Odeo and poet it on the blog.

I’ve decided on posting audio versions of my work because I’m interested in how an audience might envision my field of composition as they listen to the poem. When I first began taking poetry seriously I often spent hours listening to archived readings at the EPC. I think I actually heard Creeley before I ever read him. The intimacy of hearing the voce of the poet, the background noise, which in my case, is often my daughter Bella singing or running through the house screaming/singing or her calling our dog a blockhead, is very effective for me as a fixative presence when I return to the text or encounter the text. I like knowing that if someone listens intently to many of the audio versions of my poems they will hear much of my day to day life preserved. Much like music, the opportunity also surfaces to mishear certain phrases—the entire poem perhaps. This gives me great joy! I don’t intentionally slur my words or anything like that to push for this effect, I just like to presuppose it happens from time to time. I tend to mumble when I speak as it is, so perhaps a mishmashed version comes through. Anyway, you know, it might be interesting to do a collaboration where we each record an audio take of something we’ve written and then have the other person determine the form of the work—listen for lines, punctuation (or lack thereof), stanza breaks, etc. It would be really exciting to do this kind of thing with a minimum of ten pages to work with. You game?

TB: I really might be game (I often feel preyed upon. Heh.) But seriously, it sounds like an interesting experiment.
Shifting gears a bit, do you feel that poets have any unique social responsibilities?

JS: Not any more unique than the barista who still left room for cream in my coffee when I said, no thanks, fill ‘er up, I take it black. There’s a social responsibility by all people to listen. That’s all I’m doing as a person which then finds its way into my work. I feel also that poets should be infatuated with variances of every sort. I have a bit of an ache now and then when I hear poets squabbling over the scraps of poetryland, or confusing the profession into something too professional, meaning, clubbing other poets with their foul statements of poetics. There’s nothing more ridiculous than watching two poets squabble, well, I guess watching two circus clowns or mimes going at it, now that would just bring tears to my eyes. It’s no surprise that if social responsibility is lacking in the general populace, who are we as poets to say we’re not every bit as vulnerable to becoming a part of that group.

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

JS: There are definitely benefits to all these new poets running around. One major blessing is the opportunity to establish some really fantastic communities of poets that are actively engaged with each other’s writing as the first measure of introduction, perhaps months before the personal howyados fall into place. I mean, that’s how we did it right? You were writing those great zombie poems over at AS/IS and I thought, this guy is tops, and there’s this box where I can leave him a message so why not! I was talking with the poet Nico Alvarado-Greenwood the other day about where are the best relationships in poetry being formed. Now all I can do is speak from my experiences, which are found in classroom interactions with other MFA poets and on the internet with blogging, and we both agreed that more often than not these days, poets are finding each other through the accessible medium of blogs and the internet. Comments are left all over the place from poet to poet, enabling one to say to the other, hey your work is really something, glad to have found you! It’s very similar to what poets have always done, as evidenced in the most recent issue of Jacket Magazine that included seven letters edited by Rod Smith, Peter Baker and Kaplan Harris from Creeley to WCW, Levertov, Duncan, and Raworth. Especially thrilling was the letter to Tom where Creeley said, here’s some writers that I think are great and that you may want to publish in Outburst or Goliard—the list of names including Olson, Dorn, Levertov, Dahlberg, etc.—Dorn then becoming one of Tom’s closest friends throughout the years. I think the same kind of thing is happening right now. Poets who can keep their wattery ego in check are able to instantly form relationships with other poets. That just blows my mind, and its something I’m very grateful for—meeting such wonderful writers such as yourself, Mark Young, Jean Vengua, Br.Tom Murphy, AnnMarie Eldon, Bill Allegrezza, and many, many more.

What discourages me is again the feeling that many poets have hormonally injected into poetry this gross careerist manuvering and posistioning, where their actions seem fairly calculated to get them this or that. I see it happening quite a bit with poets under thirty who are postioning themselves for university jobs—careful about what they say, where they publish, and more significantly, how and what they write. I mean, I’m in the mix of it. I’m one of those thousands of MFA kids doing the dance. The difference in my desires, I hope, is that I was just fine working with high school kids in the inner-city of Chicago, filling in their skill gaps so they could make it through high school and hopefully beyond. I’m one of those strange creatures these days who is under thirty who is married and has a kid, and wouldn’t mind finding some little school in the middle of nowhere to teach at where I could have a house and some woods and just go on watching my daughter do those great things she does. I always told my wife that, if Mill Valley, where we lived in California last year, was affordable, I would still be working out there as a tobacconist, smoking cigars, smoking my pipes, and talking to regulars. I’m just glad to know that there are poets around who are writing good poems, and that more importantly, there are poets out there that are also good people. I can live just fine waking up each day to that.