Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Interview with Jack Kimball

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

Jack: I'll stay in the present and future tenses, for the moment, holding that poetry, a poem, and notably a poet begin all together, an invention separable only through further artifice, analysis, for instance. Still, since my answer turns on self-as-analysand, I'll talk about a poet before poetry.

[This is a bracket.]

A poet wakes up to her being a poet. One can think of this as daily practice, but for some it's more or less frequent. Obviously it's recurring. Over a time, and after many times the waking up to and the going into practice seem or feel the same.

Poetry -- what it is, where, what constitute domains of influence -- can be experienced as practice, as well.

I've had the good fortune of living in Japan, and I've attended nonrigorously to a few of its visual "poetries," pottery, gardening, Noh. These are crafts requiring practitioners to excel in a way of life. As models, their lives parallel those of poets. They show how normalcy is achieved by means of extraordinary pleasure and necessity. I'm leaving a lot out, but I stress pleasure, because that is what makes the work poetry.

I'd go on about my impression that not being a poet is anomalous, but that sounds awful, and it's tangential to where poetry begins.

TB: Poetry doesn't begin with anomaly (doesn't begin drifting from the expected)?

Jack: Two ways to answer.

First, poetry and doing poetry are a species-wide phenomenon. Not thinking poetically is the anomaly (although, admittedly, it's a social norm). I discovered anthropologist-philosopher Giambattista Vico's Scienzia Nuova almost at the same time I first read the developmentalist Lev Vygotsky's Thought and Language. Vico says that poetic / creative / emotional utterance is primary linguistic production, and Vygotsky conceives of that production, a child's external, egocentric speech, evolving into an adult's abbreviated inner speech (the internal monologue that is inaudible but that we somehow "hear"). I proceed then as if poetic invention were foundational: Vico argues that humans are born poets and that poetic faculties are integral to our language endowment; Vygotsky recognizes that poetry and in particular poetic writing demonstrate mastery of inner speech, which in form often parallels poetry.

Vygotsky's scheme is also helpful when deciphering what motivates poetic composition, i.e., does it begin with anomaly? Vygotsky describes written speech as mentalist action that accesses inner speech. A writer, a poet, say, makes a list of things floating in her consciousness. She overwrites text she copied and pasted from the Web. She doodles. She comes up with cognitive diagrams including words and arrows and other signs. She free-writes, seemingly spontaneously, although this activity, as well as the others -- list-making, overwriting, diagramming, etc. -- partake of inner speech to varying degrees. Vygotsky's construct helps because it stipulates doodles and other writing are constituents of externalized inner speech. The odd thing about anomaly, for me, is a poem or perhaps several poems could emerge from this externalization by further manipulating the text in either direction, that is, rewriting or otherwise reformatting text to adhere to more -- or fewer -- conventional standards. An emerging narrative (speaking of one generic convention) can be punctured. Or a new narrative can be superimposed.

I guess I'd say a poem can happen in moving text(s) toward as well as away from the conventional. I'd also say a demonstrably better poem could result from moving text(s) toward and away from the conventional. You know, freed and fried at the same time.

TB: What do you think woke you up to being a poet? Where did that arousal come from, anywho?

Jack: I had to (and still have to) wake myself, and I'll own up: it's been a dreamy inversion of different emotions. Thinking my way through sleep into a poem has always been easy. The hard part is putting it in words. (Writing changes everything.) My mom was a diarist, and her mom. I guess I woke up from the start: writing is normal. Hah. My best friend preadolescence was word-crazed. We got on collaborating in skits, dumb songs. From fifth grade through high school my closest cousin, three years older, was super-religious and an okay poet in English, Latin, and French. I competed with him in English. It was extreme sport and tribunal. Latin School is when I first considered the job of poet, immersed in Cicero, Hugo, and Heine, while drawing a lifestyle from all the wrong modernist models, Yeats, Beckett, Duchamp. All four women I've lived with have been practicing poets. (I've never lived with a male poet for more than a week.) The inversions I mention connect to -- to adopt your word -- self-arousal as a daily or sometime practice. There have been patches when I just thought poetry or about poetry, satisfying only to a point.

TB: I've been reading your new book, Post-Twyla, and have been struck by some of its diaristic aspects, struck by the variety of approaches you bring to a long series of short but very intense lyric discharges (for lack of better critical terminology on my part). Could you speak to the methodology of this book and what is at stake in it for you?

Jack: Lyric discharges -- that's just great expression! It seemed important to have each brief piece add up on its own as tuneful mayhem. And I wanted the pieces to add up together as baggier mania. So that's at stake.

I started Post-Twyla earlier this year. I wanted to spoof a diary via devious inspiration, compressing reactions to every page of John Ashbery's Flow Chart within three-line verses. The aim was mock critique, fake haiku dredged from lyrical prolixity. Problem was it didn't work. I stopped after the fifth page, because I wasn't "reacting" so much as "countering" with extraneous materials, earlier drafts, TV lingo, on-the-spot writing, and other texts, including passages from my blog (which I treat as notes-in-progress). I wound up sourcing dozens of texts, including Flow Chart, but certainly not page-by-page as I intended. I continued a nonsystematic, countering method, arguing with metaphors, vocabulary, that sort of countering. (I do this with everything, including my own notes!) In 346 pages, if you're keeping score, I slipped in one or two specialized lexical items from Ashbery, "chrysoprase" and maybe another.

I thought I'd take P~T to a hundred entries, but the assembly processes spread like narcolepsy and I couldn't stop until I hit 250, a cut-off I imposed before it got tedious. (I'd like to write more three-liners, but I'm retraining myself not to.) I needed to scramble components to justify the length. I stayed with the three-line format (it's not a form, really, and it's straightforwardly not haiku). But I introduced "commentary" after many of the verses or entries to extend and / or preview ideas, to enforce asymmetry, typical in a diary, and to make room for wooly inserts that upset "the flow." (Too much flow in a long piece doesn't fit because the fit shows. The tell.) I think I'm fair characterizing the work as assembly in that it's heaps of disparities remade. The larger pile of material is less than a year old, much of that delivered just-in-time (in other words written on the spot). Another pile collects earlier drafts and approximations from notebooks and my hard drive.

I kept learning about my methods and meanings, submitting the work to rampant revision. How much? Since the book was formulated as a long exercise, I emended early, and through to the end, and nonstop, adding and / or deleting in one place to affect the outcome in other places, sometimes scores or even a hundred pages apart. I've always thought of revising as a huge pain but it's fundamental; this time it felt urgent, more compositional in the musical sense. Here's an example. I got to a point -- hard to imagine after the fact! -- where I was peering into Gertrude Stein's Lectures in America and finding snippets of what I call 'icing' to drip over P~T, as if it were confection, which it is.

TB: I want to return to your earlier, parenthetical statement that "Writing changes everything." I couldn't agree more. Please elaborate.

Jack: I'm impressed as I think many are with how dreams are dismantled by writing them down. This sort of composition is second order; the pen starts moving after the dream stops. Also a kind of dismantling is obvious when I'm awake, writing on what's taking place at the moment, converting it into a memory. In either case, we're composing versions of larger experience, selections, slices. We're sharing pieces taken from richer and larger pieces. How can it be otherwise? Stein addressed this challenge and reset an agenda for composition (and thought) that's a perpetual to-do list for a poet, writing now. Her ideas and practice of "the continuous present" direct her language to enact the now rather than narrowly engage in piece-work representation and verisimilitude.

Poets after Stein have discovered novel ways to get to the present. Stein's work is the bellwether, though. And of course Stein and others change the present, including now, through writing it, not at all unlike the observer affecting the observed.

I'm wondering, Tom, if you have anything similar to what has become a recurring dream scenario for me. While dreaming I come across a clump of words; sometimes the dream concerns me as a poet finding or writing words or, more often, I'm somehow looking at the dream and attempting to create a mnemonic so I won't forget them. That doesn't always work. When I wake up, I might be able to put together fragments of a dream, but remembering these leads me into the present moment that I also have to write.

TB: I have, at times, had similar dream experiences. And, then too, I once had a therapist who advised me to try to project positive scenarios before falling asleep. That advice prompted me (years later) to write these lines:
Before sleep (s)he prays for an erection or for a line of poetry to be delivered upon waking--either or both would be OK.
(S)he sees them as the same thing.
A prayer is a means of programming one's mind.
Jack, what most haunts the present of your writing?

Jack: I'm not used to the word haunt, don't use it. I conceive of the present as a thought experiment putting out ripples (I'd say infinite ripples, but that sounds like a Ben & Jerry's flavor). I can diagram the present as it wobbles out its traceries for a very long time, seen from even far away. (These are earthly terms, yes?) What's most compelling is how the present is surpassed forever by now. This condition can prompt a haunting, I suppose, but what we call the present is comprehensible to consciousness, even if in limited, diagrammatic ways.

Back to dreams for a moment, I'm interested in your taking action based on a therapist's advice. Do you find dreaming about words troubling? My own experience is that dreaming (in) words is invigorating and mostly pleasurable, except for my failures recapturing the experience when I'm awake.

TB: That's probably the only time I really did attempt to take her advice. But, no, I don't find dreaming about words troubling. I just don't typically dream about words. My dreams tend to be symbolic elaborations of the real life crap I'm dealing with at the time. I could give examples, but this isn't about me.

When I used the word haunt I was wondering about history, personal or otherwise, in the present of your work. I can't imagine anything without its shadow. Not even a word.

Jack: History in the shadows. When you put it that way, I agree history is everywhere. Writing puts the present into memory. I source from all over, all memories. The reason I couldn't readily react to your question about haunt is that I don't feel impinged upon by these "memories." If anything I'm a counter-spook, de-haunting the brainworks exorcising memories through using them and being rid of them. I combine influences that are more personal with many more that are just there, fabulating emotions by pushing them into many rooms of artifice. The d├ęcor thumps hot or cool, depending on steam, nubs, and volume.

TB: Can you speak to why you chose "Post-Twyla" as a title?

Jack: Kim Lyons was visiting, and I showed her the still-untitled manuscript. She and I thought it'd be a snap to scroll through the pdf and find a word clump that might work as a title, but turns out it wasn't easy. We gave up and started gossiping about someone whose writing is hard to pinpoint in some of its antique qualities, influenced by a number of San Francisco Renaissance folks. The term post-Duncan came up with reference to Robert Duncan, but I couldn't stop thinking of Isadora Duncan, too, and then aha! Updating the dance reference, I argued good writing today should be seen more as post-Twyla. Since Kim and I had been searching for a title minutes earlier, we were ready to receive post-Twyla as a semantic gift, and signed off on it primarily for how it sounds.

TB: Hee! I love it.

You've already mentioned Duncan and Stein. Who else do you see as your poetic forebears? And to what extent do these influences figure in your positioning of P~T as "a postlanguage verse-critique"?

Jack: Forebears, that's about as personal as it gets. I mentioned Duncan in the context of a conversation about his influencing someone else. I once read Duncan closely, but years ago I turned away from those high-churchy surfaces. I look forward to rereading Duncan, and I'm expecting to learn a lot from Lisa Jarnot's biography. Right now I'd not cite Duncan as a direct influence. Here are some randomly sequenced influences. 1) French poetry of the first half of the twentieth century, the original French and, especially, the English prose translations in The Penguin Book of French Verse 4, edited by Anthony Hartley (1959). Even secondary figures, Charles Peguy, for example, seem hugely precursive. Here's the opening stanza to part two of "Les sept contre Paris"; the stanza carries the subtitle in English "The Suburbs":
Seven towns advanced from the south and the west; Boulogne had armed all the laundry boats; Versailles had presided from the height of the reservoirs; Challais-Meudon threw out mountains of ballast.
If those precipitous descriptions remind you of young and even middle-aged Ashbery, I concur. It's plausible that Peguy's deadpan tone and flat, classical parallelism serve as templates to Rivers and Mountains -- "The Suburbs" continues, "Ivry-Port thought itself a kind of Brest; Suresnes babbled along the horses' watering-places..." 2) New York poets from Whitman to present day. 3) Modernist reclusive giants and successors, Dickinson, Stein, Wieners, Coolidge, Meyer. 4) Language poetry but more language poetics. 5) Younger poets, some of whom I mention in P~T. 6) Thomas Campion.

The postlanguage construct, brilliantly summarized in Chris Nealon's article "Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism," reintroduces persona / personality as weaponry for some greater good, good in both directions, concrete, abstract. Or as I put it in Entry 73, current practice is rapacious polemic, "one that would have and eat the material world."

TB: Why does poetry matter?

Jack: Well, I'm answering on the day after the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, so I'm not sanguine. Nothing matters (or seems to matter) enough when you have so much poetry to ignore. I'm convinced I don't read enough poetry, and I'm guessing I'm not alone. I'm not reading enough and I don't do half as much as I could to integrate my work within other disciplines. I'm not alone here, either. I've been thumbing through diaries of Jean Cocteau from the 1950s, and I'm disheartened how far poetry has fallen in half a century, from then to now. Cocteau, who did more than poetry, of course, kept up with writers, film-makers, and painters, not just in France, but here in the States, England, Spain, etc. He references frequent poetry readings on BBC and French radio. He argues with W.H. Auden because Auden's English isn't good enough for Cocteau's French! Poetry mattered!

Contemporary institutions for poetry are made up in the guise of the helping professions, teaching and journalism. Add the clans of poetry to operate as way stations and battlements against one another and other arts growing wealthier by the season. From a top-down view, cold-shouldering and competition among poets come off as intramural spitball, completely stupid, and in my read the discipline could be taking an uncharacteristic turn, sinking into self-loathing. Top musicians have stylistic or psychic reasons to fault or exclude one another, but they're too busy to talk or do much about it. Same for dancers, painters -- can you envision Brice Marden dangling a subscription to his listserv as a trophy?

In the last hundred years our politics has never been worse than now. It shows in our poetry (it should) and in our depressed self-regard (which some project unpoetically). Poetry, itself, won't stand for this, because it keeps at it, looking for more than feeling terrorized, sullen, desperado-like. I'm in these moods, right now, but I'm looking forward to my poetry and that of others taking on wider gamuts, other faces dissolved in water. Poetry gets poets into binds and lets loose.

A principle of violence dictates our manners (Saint-John Perse).

TB: Do you think a poet has unique social responsibilities?

Jack: I see why you're asking this after that last tirade! Sorry I've gone off, and I've not gotten to your earlier question why poetry matters. It does. As to social responsibilities for a poet, I'm going to come up blank on this one. I'd suggest a poet needs to keep herself entertained and, in my view, entertaining. While you're in school this can be a sort of gaming within multiple disciplines and an adventurous social life. School is great for gaming, and I suppose that's why so many of us stick around and not a few never leave. But a full life probably demands more than the conventional academic setting, even if you punctuate your routine with a string of love affairs. My extended advice would be to game or dabble in unfamiliar but enticing fields, other arts, professions, industry, maybe. Keep a research perspective, and when others' realities intrude, research a new place. I'm thinking broadly, because I don't know how to suggest a direction for another's progress without smudging the stub that is blank.

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

Jack: Once more into the breach, eh? Henry V would be no more amused than an average neatnik by how pettiness gets magnified in poetics realms. At trench level I'll bitch-slap with the gangliest, I'm imagining, but a poetic model, John Wieners, keeps reminding me of self-restraint, to avoid haters -- there are only a few of those -- and maintain a comfortable distance from the hesitant or half-hangers-on. I watched John ratchet up his courtly dizziness when faced with awkward social choices, and although my strategies are different, his manners instruct me to prepare well for love and its absence. (I hate this.)

I find writing by younger poets points to zanier boho sentiments and verse. I mention some in P~T, Alli Warren and Brandon Brown are a couple, and they are pie-eyed delirious in their poems. I'd love to jump around in their bed and find out what words come up. Three New York poets are piling it on, Jeni Olin, Cori Copp, Carol Mirakove. There are others. I've read only a half dozen pieces by Farid Matuk, but I've found bastardly ambience, absolutely bounding, wanton, and needed like a long jaw crested with hashish. It looks like American English is going to keep making poems. That's encouraging.

TB: Yes it is. Thank you, Jack.


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