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.


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