Monday, January 23, 2006

Interview with Mark Young

Tom Beckett: I thought I'd begin by asking you the same first question I asked your First Hay(na)ku Anthology co-editor, Jean Vengua…If you were to describe your poetics in terms of an intersection, what would the names of the crossroads be?

Mark Young: I don't think of poetry, of my poetics, in intersectory terms. I've always believed it was the one road. The only intersection, the crossroads, came, shit, nearly fifty years ago, when I decided that I preferred writing poetry to being a jazz musician. The two things overlapped for a few years; the music had the promise of a career but it was the words that won out.

So back to the road. If I hijack your analogy, I see myself driving a car — though it could just as easily be a camel with panier bags — made up of those things that contribute to my way of writing. Humour, a facility with words, a cock-eyed & somewhat cynical view of the world. & as I drive, or pause for a pissbreak or food or sleep, I comment on what goes on around me, what I see, what might be around the next corner, how something I come across relates to something else I've seen before.

Jean used the terms The One, The Other. To me they are one another.

TB: When I think of your poetry I think of different categories of inquiry: ekphrastic poems (your Magritte series, for example); fable-licious riffs (I'm coining a new term to cover your "ficciones," say); poems in which you occupy the persona of, or somehow otherwise deal with, an historical figure; occasional poems in which you skewer or celebrate your contemporaries (me, for example);not to mention collaborative poems, visual poems, marquee poems, etc. You, sir, are an active guy. The catalogue of your efforts could continue, but…

What I want to ask is: don't you ever sleep?

MY: I sleep. Sometimes I even dream. But I don't write as much as I would like to. Or, perhaps more specifically, I don't write consistently at the level I would like to.

When I do, it tends to come in highly productive spurts. & it has to do with excitement, the shock of the new. Most usually external stimulation or a discovery or line of enquiry. & where once there were a few strong well-crafted poems that were the pillars that held up what could loosely be described as a collection, now there are discrete sequences that stand both alone & out, & the collections are mosaics where, hopefully, the whole exceeds the sum of the parts.

I would use as examples of the sequences Betabet & the work I did in collaboration with Jukka-Pekka Kervinen — the Oracular Sonnets was 20-something poems in three days (& not much sleep); what became Poles Apart was done over the next few weeks. Betabet was a week's work. Once conceived/delivered they were barely worked on. I think only one poem in Oracular was revised, about four in Betabet. In a sense each was as if I was writing a single poem. They were written at white heat, & I hope this comes through.

What I would call the collections are the work that has gone on around them, the day to day stuff as it were. There are flashes of brilliance, though probably not that many individual poems that will be remembered. But what I hope out of them is that joined together, collected, they produce an entity that is worthwhile, that brings pleasure. Bill Allegrezza made a comment about calligraphies that I think is a perfect summation of what I'm trying to do, something along the lines of "it’s like spending an afternoon in conversation with an old friend".

& though I seem to work in what you describe as different categories, I would suggest that instead there are common threads. Series Magritte, for example, has the common thread that the poems are all about Magritte, but they utilize a number of different forms. I believe that the poem dictates the form, that it shapes itself, & that you follow the poem's own direction in regard to form. I do not consciously think I will use this or that format when I write. So within the Magritte "series" there are pattern poems & hay(na)ku & ficciones & four-word poems & twenty-page poems & probably some that tumble down the slopes & enrol in the school of quietude.

TB: The "school of quietude," I take it, is located in a valley?
At any rate, what I'm hearing you say is that your work is dialogical. Does that sound about right?

MY: Let's call it monologue with audience participation. A stand-up routine. I think it's a stance you & I both share. But I think you take the backchat full-on, & occasionally retire to lick your wounds, whereas I have a tendency to duck & weave & keep on coming. I guess it boils down to the perennial question, who do you write for? I think we all write to & for an audience, even if that audience is just some aspect of our selves. & though we may adapt our vocabulary, vary the syntax of what we say, to achieve maximum rapport with whoever we're talking to, we are always talking to someone when we write, engaging in a dialogue, even when we claim we're not..

(As for the school of quietude, all I know is that it's all downhill. He stands up, & in a perfect Barbra Streisand voice, launches into "On a Clear Day".)

TB: Do you feel that the performative aspect of your work has intensified (or become at all problematic for you) as a consequence of your daily efforts as a blogger? What, I'm trying to ask, does blogging mean to you in terms of your past and present practice as a writer?

MY: I'd give you a different answer every day to that question. Let me put on my dancing pumps, do a sidestep, step back & then step back in again.

Writing, creative writing, is a cottage industry. Blogging, creative blogging, is much more of an assembly line. If you commit — fuckwit that I am — to blogging on a daily basis mainly on the back of your poetry, and you don't have a diverse social network or access to independent films or to live music or to bookshops that stock anything other than self-help, sports & bestsellers to provide some sort of activity-based nexus that you can call upon to help bridge all the dry patches, then you tend to cut back on the quality controls, miss out on that step when you ask yourself should I be putting this out there.

It's a different type of confessional. Where in the past I would expose few pieces of myself but those would be examined in all their subdermal layers, in my blogging I open myself totally, even though I don't open myself up, just show the surface areas. It's a bit like the difference between saying I have cancer, & saying I have (hangnails & corns & some dry skin on my elbows & the odd minor rash &).

It's probably provoked — or at least hastened — a different writing style, something much more terse. It's also broadened my methodology, in that I now include paintings in the middle of poems, or poems that move, or colour; as I become more comfortable with html I can now go back to using physical layouts that I'd abandoned when I started blogging because I didn't know how to do them.

But underneath all this, I really haven't changed my practice all that much, just extended it. There is a separation between what I post & what I post out, kind of like a farmer who keeps some produce — I was going to say best produce, but it's often much more arbitrary than that — for himself, or, in this case, for submission elsewhere. I still maintain the publication rate that I've had for the last few years, averaging roughly 4-5 poems a month, but I send less out.

Leaving aside the driver that the pelican hasn't eaten today, I use the blog as an outlet for three groupings of my poems. There's the blog poetry, poems that are specifically written for the blog, sometimes even directly to it. There are those poems that I would probably have accepted somewhere, but I'd have to try a few places & run them in on the back of something else so why not just post them anyway. & there are those poems that would almost certainly be accepted at first try, but I can't wait that long, I want them out immediately.

TB: If you're a fuckwit, then hurrah for fuckwits! I hereby declare my solidarity and proclaim that I'm a fuckwit too. Or at the very least a fuckwit wannabe.

Part of what I think I hear you saying about how blogging has inflected your work is that it has caused you to become more invested in a kind of public persona. Is this something you think about?

MY: Inflected or infected? I took it as the latter at first & it made sense! & the response would probably be the same with or without the l.

The short answer is yes, but it's an answer in the past tense. It's something I thought about, probably tentatively at the time I started my own blog, deliberately a little way in, but now that the structure's in place, I don't think about it consciously.
(After a cigarette & a bit of navel gazing.) Let's rephrase that. Yes, you create a blog to give yourself a public persona, & the three stages are selfconsciously, subconsciously & unconsciously.

A blog is a both a concrete reference point & a message stick. The first is because it's a place where those who've read your poetry can find out a bit more about you, & where those who come across the blog can be referred to some more of your poetry.

The second. I live in an isolated part of the world, am a shitty letter writer & not much better at emails. So the blog becomes a carrier of missives where I can fulfil my letter-writing obligations to everybody at the same time, & still manage to get across personal messages. It's a physical presence where I can reach out, be reached, interact with other physical presences.

TB: How does a sense of place figure in your writing, figure in your sense of self as a poet writing in the world?

MY: Place has never been important in my writing, but out of place, well that's another story. I'll answer your question with a quote from an essay I wrote recently for the New Zealand print journal brief called "Exile & The Middle Kingdom".

"For others, like myself, it is choice, this putting aside of any feelings of belonging in any one place. Geographical barriers are replaced by place names – coming from Armenia has the same significance as coming from Wellington. There are no language barriers, for English has become the Frankish tongue, the lingua franca.

My publishers are based in Finland & the U.S. My most recent poetry appearances have been in magazines coming out of England, Australia, Finland & the U.S. Today my blog has been visited by people whose i.p. addresses include Norway, Singapore, Australia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Canada, France, Finland, Thailand, Brazil, The Philippines, India & twenty-three states of the U.S. Note the notable exception.

Most New Zealand poets I know I have met only once, last year, in Auckland, & only a couple of them do I keep in touch with. I know a handful of Australian poets who I might see once every twelve months, & again there are only a couple of continuous contacts. But I do not lack for company or communication, am, in fact, probably more involved in the writing scene than at any time in my life. Several times each week I send / receive emails to / from friends I have made through the e-zine / blogging network in Portugal or Mexico or Canada or Finland or the U.S. They send me books, print journals. I read their blogs & know more of what is going on in Helsinki than I do Herne Bay.

This is not exile, but a replacement of isolation. It is the ideal domain for someone like myself who has never felt at home in their physical environment, for whom the influences, the artists that one perceived as like-minded, have always been far-distant. Now I can mix with them, be part of the community, feel at home. Be honest."

TB: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

: I've been exploring the historical bit of this of late because it's still something that puzzles me. Pre-suppose some sort of creative drive inside me. Add to it that I grew up in a household where everyone read extensively — my parents would each go through five library books a week, mainly crime but other bits & pieces as well, my brother (twelve years older) was an SF freak so that opened up another avenue. I read all of it. My mother wrote & published light poetry, my father was a Freemason who would regularly be called on to give the lectures that were an integral part of their meetings, so there was always writing going on around me even if the only things I ever wrote were school assignments. Take away the fact that I disliked the poetry I was taught & forced to learn in English at school. Balance that out with my realisation that many of the hymns we sang each morning in school assembly were originally poems, & their majesty, when performed by a chorus of a thousand boys' voices, touched something inside me. & in my last year I did German, a very small informal class, with a teacher who didn't teach but informed me, through this informality, about Rilke & Goethe & Heine.

Jazz was my love. I listened to it, played it, was starting to write music. My first literary writing, at age seventeen, was a words backed by jazz piece called, I think, "The Pied Bopper of Harlem", about a Charlie Parker-like figure who comes along & blows the old-timers away. Then, much later that year, seized by teenaged angst — Rimbaud writes "At seventeen, one isn't serious" but he was fifteen when he wrote that so I'll forgive him — I started thinking about impending death, Death, & decided to write the worries out of me. It turned around inside itself & turned out to be a fairly light-hearted, sly, in the main colloquially- & naturally-phrased, eventually, poem. (& I've never worried about death since.)

Something clicked inside me & I wrote a few more. My mother suggested I send them away to the N.Z. Listener, a weekly publication based on the British journal of a similar name that included, along with news of radio programs, essays, stories, &, one of the few publications in N.Z. that did, poetry. The poems were accepted, appeared over the next couple of months.

We talked about the public persona earlier. When I went back to University after the (southern) Summer break I discovered I was now being treated as a Published Poet. I was asked to be the editor of the annual literary magazine — what a quaint phrase that seems now — was treated (almost) as an equal by the small number of other Published Poets in the place — all academics, none of them in the English Department — was expected to be A Poet, to Write Poetry.

It almost fucking destroyed me. I began writing in a style that was diametrically opposed to those first poems — yes, the soq is in a valley — & wrote shit for the next couple of years, most of it published, now deliberately lost. What saved me was the publication of the Donald M. Allen anthology. It showed me that it was okay to write the way I'd started out writing, to be colloquial, to use lines as short or as long as I wanted them to be, that felt right for the piece. That, as I said earlier, it should be the poem that dictates the form, not the reverse.

As for the second part of your question, where does poetry start for me for now, it doesn't, it just is. Where does breathing start? & anyway, how come you get all the one-liners?

TB: While you have "a certain facility with words" I have an uncertain confidence in my language abilities. One-liners are, however, within the range of my competence. I get the one-liners, you get the monologues. It seems a fair enough division of labor.

It's an interesting paradox that you say "it should be the poem that dictates the form, not the reverse," and yet there's your involvement with hay(na)ku. Speak to me of that, Maestro.


a natural
way of writing.

Building up to
or drilling

I should really be succinct in responding to this, but instead I'm going to be expansive, & tie in two books that have been influential on my thinking.

One of the great bonuses for me from The New American Poetry was that through it I was brought to William Carlos Williams. New Zealand poetry was very Anglophile in tradition & outlook, so that was what one was primarily exposed to. The only US writers that tended to intrude were those that wrote in the same tradition — Lowell, Frost, Wallace Stevens, the transplanted Auden. e.e. cummings was there as well, but mainly for novelty value, & Ezra Pound, also for novelty value, plus a hat-tip to his influence on he whom Paul Blackburn called "the preacher", T.S. Eliot.

Williams I knew of only through three poems, "Tract" & "Young Sycamore" which Hoagy Carmichael read on Jazz Canto, & the poem from Spring and All known as "the red wheel barrow" which tended to crop up as an example of how you should not write poetry. But it became obvious to me that my near contemporaries in the TNAP were building on a tradition, a tradition that I knew nothing about. So I went looking, & discovered this whole new bunch of poets, from Apollinaire through to Zukofsky.

Williams was the stand-out for me, the poet I go back to more than any other, primarily because of the structure of his work, the line & stanza breaks. Look at a poem like this one from his 1928 book The Descent of Winter & wonder no longer why I immediately connected with the tercet that Eileen Tabios formalised & named hay(na)ku 75 years later.
My bed is narrow
in a small room
at sea

The numbers are on
the wall
Arabic 1

Berth No. 2
was empty above me
the steward

took it apart
and removed

only the number
• 2 •

on an oval disc
of celluloid

to the white-enamel

two bright nails
like stars

the moon

The other book I'd like to refer to is Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, Kuhn (re)defines the word "paradigm" as a body of scientific belief that is "sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity…" (&) "simultaneously… enough to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve."

I'm not suggesting that the invention of the hay(na)ku caused a paradigm shift, but I can easily appropriate many of Kuhn's words to explain why I like the form, especially "sufficiently unprecedented" & "open-ended enough…." It is a structure that forms naturally, is an assist rather than an impediment to the writing of poetry. It engenders a flow, is flexible, creates a precision. It is handy for those of us — you & I are both prime examples — who are enamoured of the epigram. It is wonderful for political vitriol — think of Crag Hill's work in this vein. The hay(na)ku can be finite or (almost) infinite in length, is malleable, is able to be personalized.

& it is, in the main, dictated by the poem because for most of the "enduring group of adherents" it is sufficiently akin to their own natural writing style to make transition to or from the hay(na)ku for a particular poem an easy decision.

Forty-plus years ago I wrote:

The beat
of my knight's

the pulse
of my daze.

What a pity Eileen wasn't around..

TB: Let's shift gears a little. For a couple of years now you've been writing poems in response to Magritte's paintings. 119 of those poems, paired with images, are currently available on your Series Magritte blog. What are your thoughts about this project from your current vantage point? What is the itch that that series scratches?

MY: I have always got sparks off painters, off paintings. Sometimes those sparks coalesce, & a poem forms. Right from the early days.

I've said above, or at least intimated, that the N.Z. poetry scene held little interest for me. The art scene was a different thing altogether. I lived with, amongst, painters, interviewed them, reviewed them. Wrote what was probably the first book on modern N.Z. painting.

In those early days, in the wider art world, it was the U.S. painters — Gorky, Kline, de Kooning, Rothko, Pollock from the previous few decades, plus the more contemporary Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Robert Indiana, Larry Rivers et al — who moved me, but it was the earlier European Surrealists, particularly de Chirico & Magritte, who really got to me.

It was their imagery, the way they combined unrelated objects into something that didn't tell a story, per se, but was open to a literary, rather than literal, interpretation. I have a little de Chirico poem from the seventies, & if I'd had a book of his paintings when I got back into writing it quite possibly might have been a Series de Chirico, but it was Magritte who was to hand…..

I don't know if my intention was to write a series, though I called it that from the start. What I wanted to do was write about Magritte-like things — the second poem was a found hay(na)ku that was the titling of a photo of a nuclear explosion — but somehow I got hung up trying to write a poem to do with the opening to The Simpsons & ended up going back to Magritte paintings. Plus it was the heady days of the beginning of the As/Is collaborative blog, & the poems seemed to flow.

The itch was the itch to write, & the paintings were a source of subject matter &/or stimulation. In a sense they were ready mades, or at least ready to be assembled. The best of them are those that can exist without the referenced painting(s). But I'm running out of Magritte paintings to scratch the itch with, & though I still add to the blog, I'm running out of puff. There will come a time when it won't be refreshed.

Will I move on to another painter? I answer that in the next issue of Spore.

TB: What most excites and/or disturbs you about the current poetry scene(s)?

MY: This is a restricted response because my geographical location prohibits me from access to most printed material, but

The number of poets & the amount of poetry out there.
How little of it I like.
How styles haven't changed all that much since I was last around, but there seems to be more access to & evidence of alternative modes of "writing".
Encroaching academia which I see as a threat equivalent to global warming.
The electronic community of poets of which I am part & its diversity in which I delight.
The speed at which things happen.
The number of offers I get to contribute to things.
Accessibility of outlets & email submissions.
The opportunity to read on a regular basis the work of Kirsten Kaschock.
The difficulty of visiting on a regular basis all those blogs belonging to people whose first name begins with a J.

TB: Thanks, Mark. It's been a pleasure.


Blogger Jean Vengua said...

I really enjoyed this interview. I want to join the fuckwit club, too!

3:09 PM  
Blogger ed schenk said...

"Imagery open to a literary interpretation". Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

11:21 AM  

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