Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Interview with Shanna Compton

Tom Beckett: Shanna, where did/does poetry begin for you?

Shanna Compton: The first poem I wrote was a class assignment in Ms. Alexander’s Language Arts Class. I was about 10, in the third grade. I don’t remember why I didn’t want to write it, because I liked writing already and had written short stories, (mostly falling in horror and talking-animal genres); I was probably just being rebellious. But I refused at first, and she sent me to a desk in the corner. She told me to sit there until I wrote a poem, and I finally did. I started with an image I borrowed from a printed box of quiz cards in front of me—ladybugs on a flower. Later, we made a chapbook of all the poems, which the school published. Our parents got copies and they were sold at school events. I think they even put copies in the school library. I remember autographing them for my mom and grandmother. Just a couple of years ago I realized the assignments we’d done back then were Kenneth Koch’s, from his books on teaching poetry to children. I got an “A” on the poem, but a “D” in conduct.

My process these days is kind of the same, except I am both the little girl in the corner and the teacher nudging her to write. I write something every day, but most of it isn’t poetry. I take notes on what I’m reading, keep an on-and-off journal, keep a little notebook full of stray lines and titles. I’m a slow writer—or not really, but I write in spurts—and it’s no good if I sit down when I’m uninspired, or cranky, or otherwise unfocused. So far I haven’t had much luck with writing toward a big idea either—I don’t know how to do it. It also makes me anxious to think too much about articulating a poetics, to say “I am trying to do this with my poems.” Afterward I usually can explain what I was doing or what I was after, but before and during, that kind of stuff feels too thinky and sort of false. I have to shut those anxieties off. I tend to do better when I focus on enjoying the poem as it comes, keeping things loosey goosey. I try not to worry about dry spells too much—no rush, right? And I’ve found ways to manufacture inspiration: reading lots, or collaborating with another poet, or deciding to try a certain form or Oulipo exercise, or setting arbitrary deadlines for myself like “the next time I give a reading, I’m going to read only new poems.” So for me it’s about balancing inspiration with intent.

TB: What inspires you? And what do you intend to do about it?

SC: People. There are people in practically all of my poems, either as characters or as addressees. New York is a good place for a poet who is interested in people. They’re everywhere, and in a city where it’s easy to feel anonymous, it’s also easy for an observer to catch unguarded moments, to see what people are wearing on their faces, hear what they’re saying to each other, the jokes, the arguments. There are little bursts of narrative everywhere—but just bursts. You get used to reading through the disjunctions. The city’s a big poem. You can’t help but imagine what the moment you are witnessing means to the people you’re looking at or listening to. And then the next thing happens right in front of you. It’s impossible not to be empathetic, to engage your imagination with the stories all around you. My friends—poets and other creative people—inspire me too.

Landscape, or maybe place is a better word. The way you feel surrounded by certain scenery—except it’s more than physical location or just props. When I was kid, going out into a pasture or out into the woods on the “deer lease” (Texan for a piece of property leased for hunting) or taking a walk around the neighborhood, I was fascinated by the way each place affected me. In the house shut up in my room vs. out in the living room. In the yard or up in a tree in the yard. In different aisles of a grocery store. New places excite me or sometimes unnerve me until I become used to them. I’ve had to practice some behavioral therapy to get over some of the less pleasant effects of this sensitivity. But I love to travel, and I think these sensations of place are what I try to capture in the photographs I take when I’m traveling, too.

Pleasure. I’m often inspired to write about something that brings me pleasure, and I’m a bit of a hedonist. I write because I enjoy the process of writing—even when it is difficult or not going well. I think I read on Ange Mlinko’s blog that she has to be in a good mood to write—me too. Musical attention to sound, a sense of humor, rhythm and texture and tone, vivid visual imagery, narrative, surprise—all ways to communicate something pleasurable to the reader, regardless of whether the subject of the poem is pleasurable in itself. Certainly poems can be built to do other things, and I’ve asked readers to experience anger or some other less-than-pleasurable emotion, to entertain a complex idea, or to simply listen to a story or a string of thoughts, or to look at a collection of images. But communicating pleasure feels good, and pleasure seems to be less eroded in its transference to a reader. Communicate, commune, in common. People are more willing to receive pleasure than to listen to me yak about politics, for instance, or lament the world. Pleasure is sometimes difficult to come by. Pleasure stands in opposition to all the bullshit. It’s very human, necessary. So pleasure seems primary to me, and not just in poetry. Who doesn’t want more occasions for pleasure?

This question is actually pretty difficult, Tom! I think just remaining open is key. Paying attention. I don’t want to miss anything.

TB: I'm interested in learning more about how you work--from, for example, the starting point of an overheard conversation. Could you take me through the creation of one of your poems ?

SC: I keep a notebook (or usually a couple at a time—small ones that I can fit in a jacket pocket or bag) to write overheard lines in, and also ideas for titles, lines, phrases, partial poems, reading notes (other people’s lines and paragraphs), word pairs, just whatever stray stuff, as it occurs to me. Most of the overheard dialogue I’ve used in poems comes from the notebooks, which I’ll pull out and page through as I’m working on something. I’m not really very careful about keeping the notes because I take them down on the fly, so sometimes I can’t remember the original context of the line I’m borrowing, or even tell if I actually heard someone say it or just heard it in my head and thought I could do something with it. In Down Spooky there are a couple of poems that use overheard speech, like “Thank Y’all for Appreciating My Animals” (the title is something someone said, and overheard speech mixes in with invented speech all through the poem) and “Fusion Lingo” (which does the same thing). I have two longer poems in sections (that haven’t been published anywhere) that have different voices coming in and out, mine and people in bars in Williamsburg (the neighborhood where I lived when I wrote them). I don’t really worry about providing a context for the quotations, or even making it clear that they are quotations. I just like the texture of them. The contrast between the borrowed bits and whatever else I’m saying. In “Fusion Lingo” the part that goes “Over to the / neighborhood / via buses the BQE / bust open good” is a quotation—I’m quoting a woman who sat near me once in yet another Williamsburg bar—and the second bit of speech is invented. I actually don’t think I got what she said quite right. I’m a little hard of hearing, so overhearing is frequently also mishearing. And she talked off and on the whole time I was sitting near her (the day I took the notes), but I didn’t write most of it down. Sometimes she talked to herself, and sometimes to the bar crowd in general. Much of what she said was probably more interesting, but I kept hearing that line and started the poem with it, not by putting it at the beginning, but by putting it in the center. The pair of lecture and tincture also started the poem. I don’t remember where the two words came from. I just kept thinking of them and liked how they sounded. And I had decided beforehand that I was going to work with a very short line (for all of the poems I was writing around that time—it was a new thing for me. I’d been writing in much longer lines.) I wrote the poem several weeks after I’d run into this woman in a bar. Unless I am working on a title challenge (which I did for the poems in the chapbook version of Down Spooky and the chapbook I wrote with Shafer Hall), the titles are always added last. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I write them last. The word pair “fusion lingo” was already in my notebook. After I wrote the poem, I just stuck it on top because it seemed to fit.

TB: You have spoken a bit to how you do poetry. What does poetry do for you?

Poetry is the antidote to everything that gets me down. It’s the “thing” I find most exciting, absorbing, relevant to my life. I don’t even care how dippy that sounds. I’m 100% serious.

TB: A number of people--myself, and Ron Silliman, for example--have remarked that your work seems to connect with and extend out from the so-called New York School of poetry. I'm wondering how you feel about that. I'm also wondering more broadly who you read--forebears and contemporaries--for inspiration. What kinds of writing do you find most engaging?

SC: Not really for me to say, but I think that makes sense; I’ve certainly been influenced by those writers. I identify with the figures there—Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch, Berrigan, Padgett—particularly with their (if I may generalize as so many others have) sense of humor and playfulness, the way their poems come off as immediate and intimate, without being overly sentimental or uncomfortably confessional. And the way they can be brainy without pomposity or ponderousness. O’Hara finally cured me of my extreme “I” anxiety. All of my poems (excepting reams and reams of juvenilia) were written from the perspective of personas or characters before I learned from him that an authentic “I” can be charming and aloof rather than embarrassing and self-indulgent (though I’m still more likely to be listening in my poems than speaking).

But I think of the “New York School” as a milieu more than a poetics, and I’m drawn to its members too because they were friends who worked together and against one another, collaborating, competing in a fruitful way, and hanging out. That’s a vibrant scene and a vital community. You know, some of the writers associated with the group can’t really be said to share the characteristics I just listed. Guest and Schuyler, for instance have a quieter kind of elegance to them and are also very different from each other. Well, these sets of characteristics are really general and aren’t mutually exclusive, but I hope you see what I mean. Another big influence is not New York School, but shares some affinities—Harry Mathews. He was a huge influence on me while I was writing Down Spooky. I had a class with him a few years ago (a mini workshop, and not even a poetry class) and it flipped a switch.

As I mentioned earlier, my first poem was written via one of Kenneth Koch’s exercises, so in that sense, yeah, the New York School really is where I first engaged with poetry. I read all of Ashbery first, then all of O’Hara. And I’m still reading them and the others (both the Koch and Berrigan collecteds right now, and some later Barbara Guest, Anne Waldman, Kenward Elmslie, David Shapiro, Bill Berkson, and a bunch of Alice Notley, kind of catching up with her). And I’m woefully underread (a new but very useful word) in Language poetry. I started with Ron Silliman’s In the American Tree and am working from there. Been reading Robert Grenier, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Carla Harryman (I just read Gardener of Stars) and have a long list to get through there. I’ve collected Duncan and Olson but have yet to really tackle them. I wasn’t offered much of this stuff as a writing or English lit student, but hell, I guess I needed to read everything that I’ve read so far in order to feel an urgency and appreciation for all that I haven’t. I hope I never feel like I’m an authority who’s covered it all.

I grew up in a small town, and am not from a bookish family, so I began reading poetry where everybody begins, with what was taught in school: Yeats and Keats, The Waste Land, some Pound, everything by Wallace Stevens (who’s still very important to me), only a very few journals, a few anthologies, which was about all that was available to me until I went to college. (Lots of mumbling and grumbling about anthologies lately, but they can be pretty important as maps for isolated readers—maybe the internet makes them less so now than they were to me then.) In college I literally worked my way through the poetry shelves in the Perry-Castañeda Library (at the University of Texas) pulling random books until I found something I liked and I followed trails of reviews and blurbs and mentions and acknowledgment credits and series until I found work I liked, branching out from whatever I’d been assigned in class (mostly the usual stuff—good books, but mostly Romantic and Modernist in my particular English department and almost nothing in translation), and I worked in a bookstore so I’d order new things to check out. I still read that way, in related cycles, though now the blogosphere serves as an additional sieve. I found it really difficult to keep up with what was current before the poetry blogs, unless I read lots of magazines, which can themselves be hard to find. So now I read a lot more contemporary work and books by young poets than I could before, just because I know more about where to look. I guess I also felt like I had to catch up and get some kind of grasp on the past first. Like everybody I’m overwhelmed and embarrassed about everything I’ve managed to miss. But it’s nice to know I’ll never run out of good poems to read.

Can you tell I am stalling with my list of contemporary peeps? Among younger poets, there are lots of people I think are doing interesting things: Katie Degentesh (can’t wait for her book), Kasey Mohammad, Gabriel Gudding, Stephanie Young (love her book), Jennifer Knox (yeah, I know I edited her book, doesn’t exempt her!), CAConrad (ditto), Danielle Pafunda (ditto), Drew Gardner (on the record as loving Petroleum Hat and “Chicks Dig War”), Lisa Jarnot, Ange Mlinko, Heidi Lynn Staples, Lara Glenum, and of course my blogroll. As usual, this list leaves out more people than it covers, and it’d have been a different list three years ago, and really different three years before that. I’m most interested and engaged by work that’s challenging accepted ideas of what’s expected from or suitable for poetry, work that’s different from what I’m doing myself (what am I doing again?), and poets who write in ways I don’t think I’m capable of.

TB: The book you are working on now is quite different in style and purpose from Down Spooky. It is set in Central Texas and features the relationship between an adolescent girl and a German POW during WWII. Are you comfortable talking about work-in-progress?

SC: Sure, though at this point most of what I could say will be speculation because I’m trying to let the story tell itself as I go, not plotting it out in advance. It’s happening in scenes, out of order. Maybe this is how everybody writes, I don’t know. But I’ve just started writing it and I’m still getting a feel for everything by reading history and period magazines and newspapers, looking at photos, just to sort of immerse myself, learn what the frames of reference might be for these two people so I don’t make anachronistic mistakes. Maybe it’s like method acting?

Today in the New York Times Book Review the lead review starts: “History is a comfy subject for fiction. We already know what happened, and we usually know what to think about it. This makes historical fiction a safe, even conservative, genre.” But that doesn’t seem right to me. I’m not writing a “historical novel.” but I do feel an obligation to get the historical elements of the story right, to extrapolate my fiction from a historically accurate context, to stay within the realm of what would have been possible, even though I’m inventing. As with any constraint, historical accuracy—or maybe verisimilitude is a better word—is a challenge. I wouldn’t feel the need to read so much background material for another kind of book, because I’d be free to deviate from what “we already know.” And I’m really enjoying doing the research, even if I won’t use much of it in a straightforward way.

My two characters do have a relationship, but it’s not a very direct one. They meet once, but otherwise don’t interact. They serve mostly as mirrors for each other.

TB: Now that's what I call projective writing! What inspired you to embark on this project?

SC: It’s tangential to the personal mythology or family fairytale I’ve been collecting—liberally embellishing and fictionalizing—in various unwritten versions since I was a kid. My family is German-American on my mom’s side. My great, great grandfather came from Hanover to New Orleans, and then to Central Texas, in 1876 or 1878, like a lot of Germans. (There were a few decades before and after the Civil War in which Germans systematically immigrated to the US, many to Texas. Texas was apparently touted in German popular literature at the time as a kind of utopia, not the Wild West, but open and free, full of possibility. Germans from all the social classes came over to escape trying economic and political circumstances at home. Most were politically progressive, wealthy, and very well educated, but later these first-wave immigrants organized land grants and other incentives to draw people from the agricultural and craftsman sectors too, and established whole communities. That’s how we got to Texas. My people were all farmers and clergy, and some of them were also musically trained.)

Around where I grew up in Central Texas, there are several surviving German settlements—like Fredericksburg and New Braunfels, among the successful ones, and Luckenbach, which is now just a post office, bar, and a famous song. Occasionally our family would participate in German-American traditions, like a seasonal festival or an annual insurance company gathering—it was party for policyholders, I think?—complete with barbecue (German influence being responsible for the smoking techniques that makes Texas barbecue so kickass) and oom-pah-pah music. But other than these yearly parties and trips to New Braunfels for sausages and German pastries, this heritage wasn’t a big deal. Nobody spoke German at home or anything.

But then I found out that my oldest aunt and uncle spoke German at home as kids (my mom’s the youngest and never did), but that at some point my grandfather had forbidden it. From then on it was English only, buddy. He could be a fierce dude, so that was that. This was during World War II, and I guess he attributed a scrap one of my uncles got into at school to anti-German feelings. I never heard this story from my grandfather or my uncle, so I don’t know how accurate that is, but it’s plausible. I regretted that loss—felt like the younger members of the family had missed out on something special. Later I heard about the POW camps and learned that my grandfather and oldest uncle served briefly as interpreters and civilian guards in one of them. I had no idea there were German prisoners—400,000 of them total, scattered throughout the continental US, but many in Texas—in the US during the War.

So I’ve always been fascinated by all this stuff, and began reading about it, and things just started clicking. This book is absolutely not autobiographical or a family history, but it borrows from some of the family stories. I think I’ll be able to deal with patriotic fervor (which has always scared the shit out of me), and the concepts of “us” and “them” in the context of WWII in a way that might be relevant to what’s happening now in Iraq and elsewhere. That’s what I hope to do, anyway, though that’s not my main motivation; the story and the language will come first. I’m not planning to write an antiwar statement or anything. I’m attracted to this German-American girl and this Nazi soldier who’s been dislocated from the battlefront and hoping they can expand their notions of what it means to be “us” and “them.” I just want to see what they’ll do. I should maybe say the soldier is also very young, 18 or 19, and nonpolitical, though certainly not blameless.

TB: Do you think that poets have a special social/political responsibility?

SC: Do you? I think all people do, and that social responsibility is more important than adherence to any kind of political party ideology, and that interpersonal responsibility is just as important as activity on a larger scale. All successful (electable) politicians are failures, because they can’t afford to act as responsible individuals. They’re either compromising their ideals to build consensus, or they're inflicting their own agendas on a constituency for which they show no empathy.

So poets (or any other artists) aren’t special. To be a politically or socially responsible poet does not mean that one’s poetry must exhibit, protest, or act out. Though that’s certainly one option. Strident rhetoric and moral certitude—on any subject—can be really tedious. Poetry should be anything but tedious. I’m not making a blanket statement about politically tinged writing or saying poets can’t be politically engaged as well as artistically effective, just saying I’m wary of a particular tendency of politically charged language to bully and manipulate, whether in an artistic or other context. My poetry doesn’t feel like the best place for me to express or enact my political beliefs. Everybody else can do what they like.

TB: Stridency doesn't interest me, but I do think that artists, poets in particular, have a special socio-political responsibility that derives from a cultivation of the ability to respond. I think innovative poets, at their best, listen to the world in special kinds of ways in order to speak back to it. I also think that people communicate with one another in profoundly political ways that poets may be uniquely positioned to recognize and reframe (I confess to occasional Brechtian tendencies).

SC: I didn’t mean that I find all political poetry strident. Maybe integrating my politics and my poetry is something I can learn to do with grace as I go. I’m afraid I can be strident about my own views, opinionated and argumentative, but I don’t like to feel like I’m arguing a point when I’m writing a poem. I’m probably being too literal about this question. It’s probably already apparent where I fall on the continuum. On that internet political personality quiz I fell between Hilary Clinton and Gandhi smack in the Socialist region, and you know those things are always accurate.

I see what you mean, about poets being in a position to listen, speak, and reframe, and I’d agree with you there. I just have my doubts that poets are better able to be politically effective than other intelligent, articulate people in other fields, or are somehow special in that regard. If you’re saying that poetry is a place where the kind of thing that needs to be said can be said, I’ll agree with that too. Do I think the poet has an obligation to speak out for or against agendas (of whatever kind) or for society at large? Not necessarily. But many poets I admire do, to varying degrees. CAConrad has a really beautiful love poem he’s written to George Bush, a man whose views couldn’t be more different that Conrad’s own (and who probably would not be touched by it). I admire Conrad immensely for being able to write that poem—and feel that poem. I can barely stand to look at the Bush’s face on the news, much less write him a love poem.

I don’t mean to seem cranky about this, but it’s just that I’ve been voting against (and donating against, and marching against) George Bush since1994. I still haven’t gotten over the shock that he came out of basically nowhere to defeat Ann Richards. I wear a black rubber bracelet on my arm that says “I DID NOT VOTE FOR BUSH” that I put on the day after the last election and never take off. The political situation in this country is frustrating and the leadership frankly disgusts me. I can’t watch the news without having a conniption. It’s hard to talk about it in a measured way, and I think if I tried to address the subject in my writing I’d just be writing rants. I’m not interested right now in writing rants. There are other, more positive ways for me to act and oppose, and I’m focused on those.

TB: I don't think about poets being politically effective (or personally "special") so much as I think about poets as points of resistance, as roadblocks (no matter how flimsy) in the path of the conventional wisdom steamroller. I think, at their best, poets >ask questions which are as fundamental as those philosophers used to ask.

What's at risk for you in a poem?

SC: I’ve tried several times now to come up with an answer for this one. Maybe it’s difficult to say because I don’t feel, honestly, like I’m risking much writing poems. I mean, I’m enjoying myself. I’m playing around putting words together, talking aloud to myself, telling some jokes or stories, pointing at beautiful things, reporting what I see. That may be indulgent, but it doesn’t feel all that risky. I guess I’m risking failure—the chance that maybe I won’t be able to say what I’m after, or that readers won’t like what I’m doing, that nobody will pay attention or care. But you know, that’s the same risk I take with everything. Everybody risks failure. That’s not a risk, failure most of the time is guaranteed. It’s guaranteed that I’ll be thought mediocre, shallow, derivative, flippant, stupid, obnoxious, silly, incomprehensible, arrogant, or whatever by somebody. Who cares? I just try not to worry about it.

TB: I admire your equanimity.

You're a blogger, you've worked in the publishing industry, and you've become a huge advocate of DIY (do it yourself) publishing. Would you speak to the evolution of your thinking about how best to get one's work out?

SC: Ha. I’d like to emphasize try in that last answer.

I’ve always been a DIYer. I’ve been making chapbooks since grade school, and I published a zine in college. The way I look at it, publishing the poems in some form once they’ve been written is not a separate activity from writing the poems—it’s an extension and conclusion of the act of writing. Unpublished poems can’t be read. A reader completes the circuit. To find a reader, the poem has to go looking. I’m mixing all kinds of metaphors. Publishing poems is like holding them out at arm’s length and leaning forward: Here, take these things I made for you.

That said, my thinking about publishing has definitely evolved because of what I’ve learned working as a bookseller, publicist, editor, and publisher. Ten years ago when I moved to New York with a B.A. in English, I figured publishing would be a good way to make a living. My first publishing job was assisting a publicist/editor at a division of Random House. I thought I’d love working in publishing, so I was excited, though I was much more interested in editorial work than publicity. In my first month, I went to a party at Norman Mailer’s house. I talked to Johnny Cash on the phone and corresponded with the mastheads of my favorite magazines. Martin Amis said I was cute. But I was quickly disillusioned. First of all, the workload was insane and the pay was miserable. I got to work on some good books, even a little poetry, but I didn’t care for most of the books we put out. My boss and I worked mainly on literary fiction—the “edgier” stuff (their word) published by the imprint—but the same division published Martha Stewart’s cookbooks and nonfiction by Michael Moore and Spike Lee. The books I liked the best were getting the least support from the company, the least media attention, and selling the fewest copies. And it was all about how many copies sold. (Nobody seemed to care if anybody read the books once they were sold. That part wasn’t our job.) Other books were throwaways: fad dietary guides and impulse-buy gift books. But Martha, Mike and Spike paid the salaries and the bills. The throwaway books sold themselves. The solid literary work in the middle suffered the ignoble decisions of the marketing and publicity teams, who tweaked angles and manufactured campaigns, and turned many of the cover designs into homogenous embossed garbage. A book would barely be on the shelf, and we’d all turn our attention to the next dozen. We lied to our authors and told them we were doing everything we could. And we exaggerated print-run and budget figures to pique media interest, create buzz. It sucked. I hated it. I got to where I couldn’t even go into a bookstore without feeling creeped out, stressed out, and faked out. Books went from being the thing I loved most to something else. I quit. I went to write for a fashion catalog.

Working for Soft Skull has been completely different, like night and day. A tiny staff of people (several of whom have second jobs) plus blessed essential interns in a cramped storefront (until recently) who are mostly writers themselves, making and selling books they really love and believe in. Richard Nash is amazing. Everybody at Soft Skull is great and genuine. Every book on the list has at least one champion, and often gets unanimous love. Soft Skull still has to market, publicize, and sell the books, once they’re printed and distributed, just like the big guys, because of course it’s necessary to turn a profit and that’s not easy, but everything starts with the books—and the people we hope will not just buy but read them. Sometimes the books are wildly successful, like when Eileen Myles appears on the bestseller list, or David Rees or Lydia Millet or Matthew Sharpe just explode, or Billy Wimsatt continues to sell out print run after print run. I’ve never had to lie to an author. I’ve had to explain and apologize plenty, for delays, for short budgets, for mistakes, for the inability to get them reviewed as much as they wanted. But I’ve never said “we’re doing all we can” without that being true.

So that’s the big picture. The publishing industry is like any other industry. Economics. Moving product. Second-guessing the market. That’s not to say that everything published by the major trade publishers is trash without literary or artistic worth. But I now know smaller is better. Small and independent presses do real cultural work. They’re as invested in the books as the authors are. And they serve both author and reader with everything they’ve got. Maybe this is difficult to see from the outside, but publishing a book with a bigger, more “prestigious” company is not the experience most people assume it would be. The systems and attitudes that’re in place in the publishing industry do work well for certain kinds of books. The industry works fairly well for some kinds of fiction. It’s perfect for quick-hit nonfiction. But all books are not the same. What works for Martha Stewart will not work for Heidi Lynn Staples. This is all duh stuff, isn’t it?

And poor poetry. Poetry’s a “prestige loss leader” for the mainstream trade houses that still publish it. I don’t doubt there are people at these places that love the poetry they publish—I’d never say that folks who work for the big guns aren’t at least somewhat invested in writing as an art form. They chose to work with books and not in with some other widgets. But the big houses simply can’t be bothered to publish books that don’t make money for them. Small presses can work on a scale that makes poetry more viable financially, though even on a teeny scale it can be tough without institutional support, nonprofit funding, or paid-entry contests. I’ve learned, after trying pretty much everything else, that poetry’s just a special case. Poets publishing themselves and each other, reading themselves and each other: that works. Digital short-run printing, print-on-demand technology, and micropress publishing are making everything easier and less expensive. Poets taking responsibility for publishing, distributing, and YES promoting their own work: it’s gotta happen. DIY or self-publishing maybe isn’t for everybody, but it’s is certainly more effective (and lots more rewarding!) than sitting back and bitching about how unfair everything is. This is now. And this is also then. Poets have always done these things. Communities of poets attract (and overlap with) communities of readers. But suddenly (historically speaking) there’s all this mumbling about how crass it is to promote oneself, and a lot of misplaced anxiety about legitimacy and merit and prestige, as if some editor has the ability to confer such a thing on a poet whose only dignified option is to politely try to attract his interest. Walt Whitman is crying. You know, don’t be an obnoxious whore, but do reach your arms out and lean forward. Offer us your poems.

TB: What most excites you and most worries you about the current poetry scene?

SC: 800+ poetry blogs—that’s at least 800+ poets writing new poems, 800+ readers for every book of poems, and a big old poetry-based conversation free-for-all. That’s exciting. Online magazines that introduce new poets to new readers. Online archives that present and preserve out-of-print work. Audio recordings and podcasts of poetry. The way the internet has created and/or made apparent other locales for poetry beyond New York and San Francisco and etc.: our new map has lights blinking all over the place. We can hear and see each other better, find each other more easily. Print-on-demand and digital short-run printing, desktop publishing software. All that stuff is thrilling.

As for what worries me, I’d have to say it’s the all the anxiety about careers and books and reputations. Nobody is exempt from those anxieties. I’m not. Gone unchecked, these worries—this misunderstanding of the whole point—can turn into bitterness. None of this self-loathing and sniping and poor-me-ing is new. But we’ve all gone public with our neuroses. This anxiety is out there and it’s contagious. Gotta steer clear, stay focused on why we do this thing. Maybe talking about it helps, I don’t know. I do know that I prefer to expend my energy elsewhere.


Post a Comment

<< Home