I was tagged by Arielle Guy, inspiration extraordinaire…
Drawing for The Aeneid, copyright Carolyn Kaser
What is the working title of the book?
“Better than the original…” –Publius Vergilius Maro
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I was studying Latin and working on various texts — I have always been fascinated with ancient Rome and my first book, Ovid in Exile, dealt with the other great Roman poet — and it struck me that The Aeneid is a really great and somewhat misunderstood poem. It is perceived to be imperial propaganda, whereas Ovid is a sort of revolutionary troublemaker. To some extent, that’s true, but there are subversive and deeply ironic threads that are fascinating to unwind. The great artist Carolyn Kaser is also providing images that really bring the project to life. In that sense, I consider it a collaboration, which makes working on it even more exciting.
What genre does your book fall under?
Poetry / translation.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Having just seen Touch of Evil, I would say Charlton Heston could play Aeneas, Janet Leigh Dido, Marlene Dietrich Venus, and Orson Welles would have to be Virgil.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Epic poetry is weirder and wilder than you think.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I’m still working on it; have been for over a year, expect it to take another six months to a year.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Poetry has been difficult for me over the past few years of studying for my PhD, frankly… Translation is a way to keep working on something that has a more or less definite roadmap, and the moments when it goes off the map inspire me to keep going. As I continue to work on it, I’m also inspired by Thomas Meyer‘s experimental Beowulf, which takes an often-translated text in exciting new directions.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s got monsters, gods, a tragic love story… what more do you want?
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m trying to farm out sections of it as chapbooks now, and a publisher is interested in the project as a whole, but I’ll have to wait and see when it’s finished.
After the enthusiastic response to last year’s “violence” issue of kadar koli—featuring contributions from Joyelle McSweeney, Richard Owens, Rob Halpern, Julie Carr, josé felipe alvergue, Maggie Nelson, Diane di Prima, Emily Critchley, Justin Katko, Shin Yu Pai, Gloria Frym, Daniel C. Remein, Dale Smith, Jared Schickling, and Laura Kilbride—the theme of this issue of kadar koli is “dystranslation.” This is our term for translation that presents some kind of difficulty or aporia that forces the translator (or editor, etc.) to make choices—gaps, smudges, mistakes that require interpretation. These translations might demand emendatio, the correction of an unlikely word or phrase in a text, or even divinatio, an extreme form of emendatio, where the editor relies on special insight into what the author really intended, even if the text is more or less legible as presented.
For example, editors and translators over the years have troubled the reading of “pluma” in Horace’s Carmen 4.10, rendering wildly divergent interpretations of the line. The opening of the poem reads:
O crudelis adhuc et Veneris muneribus potens,
inseperata tuae cum veniet pluma superbiae,
Oh you—cruel and, for now, quite well endowed, flush with the gifts of Love—
once that ‘pluma’ that you—you in your pride—didn’t foresee arrives,
As Chris Piuma notes, to read it as “pluma” offers the following sense: “once that fledgling mustache you in your pride didn’t foresee arrives… ” But the following alternatives have been suggested as well:
bruma: once those wintery hairs you in your pride didn’t foresee arrives
ruga: once those wrinkles that you—you in your pride—didn’t foresee arrive
poena: once the suffering that you—you in your pride—didn’t foresee arrives
plaga: once the welting that you—you in your pride—didn’t foresee arrives
multa: once the manifold things you in your pride didn’t foresee arrive
palma: once the victory prize you in your pride didn’t foresee arrives
This issue of kadar koli invites contributors to think through moments of dystranslation, either those they’ve encountered in reading and research, such as that noted above, or in their own translation work. We are interested in examples from poetry and prose, from whatever time period, language, or location. We will publish a selection of translation examples (with original language specimens, if possible), essays on translation practice, and translations of essays related to this topic. Potential contributors should feel free to interpret dystranslation broadly; any translation or engagement with translation that deviates from normative expectations will be considered (where “normative” is understood as linear, literal, unproblematic, etc.). Dystranslation, by contrast, is creative, experimental, controversial. Instead of eliding difficulties, it highlights and engages with them, blurring (intentionally or not) the lines between poet/writer and translator/editor. We are especially interested in work that pushes at such boundaries, and—while we are not interested in “fake” translation per se, we are intrigued by the question of what constitutes “real” v. “fake” translation—is a translation inherently less worthwhile if it doesn’t adhere to some measure of fidelity? What constitutes the difference, and is it possible or desirable to blur that line as well?
Please send inquiries to co-editors David Hadbawnik (dhadbawnik at gmail.com) and Chris Piuma (chrispiuma at gmail.com) immediately; deadline for contributions is February 15th, 2013.
Habenicht Press is pleased to announce the publication of Richard Owens’Ballads.
Comments on Owens’ poetry:
John Latta on various ballads: “Balladeering as a form of community-making, or communally-made lament for community: Owens’s seem a matter of reassembling pieces, somber, sobering, post-glorioso warnings to the polis.”
David Hadbawnik, from Working Papers #2: “Melding tradition and originality, modern disjunctive strategies and a good old fashioned ear for sound, a careful reading of the [Ballads] project belies the depth of research and energy that informs and propels them. Content-wise, the poems distill Marxist concerns and attention to harsh economic ‘globble’ realities that have haunted Owens’ writing for many years. Personal detail mingles with research and reading in ways that don’t allow the reader to easily escape or dismiss the particularity of the poem’s power.”
120pp, letterpress cover, perfect bound. $12 (domestic) plus $3 shipping.
*FIRST 50 ORDERS* receive a limited-edition broadside of an early ballad, “Cindy Has Gone for a Broker.”
LIMITED TIME ONLY: purchase Kadar Koli 7 and Ballads both for $18 and get free shipping (in the U.S.).
A special issue devoted to the question of violence, inspired by conversations in Sous les Pavés, Damn the Caesars, and elsewhere surrounding protest movements worldwide over the past year, as well as violence within poetic language and poetry movements.
Essays by: Joyelle McSweeney, Richard Owens, Rob Halpern, Julie Carr, and josé felipe alvergue; interview with Maggie Nelson, conducted by John Hyland; poems by Diane di Prima, Emily Critchley, Justin Katko, Shin Yu Pai, Gloria Frym, Daniel C. Remein, Dale Smith, Jared Schickling, and Laura Kilbride.
Co-edited by John Hyland and David Hadbawnik.
Summer 2012, 105pp., $7 (domestic) plus $3 shipping.
We’ve all done it. Given a reading and realized afterwards that we might have left a bad taste in the mouth of the audience, due to an unseemly gaffe or boorish behavior. Here’s a list of Seven Deadly Poetry Reading Sins you might have been guilty of at one time or another.
Preliminary Sin: Avoided reading first. You knew the moment was coming when the host would gather the poets for that awkward discussion of who would start off the evening. You were hoping to settle into the sweet spot, after your friends had arrived fashionably late and the rest of the audience had warmed up, but before attention had started wandering. So you pulled a diva move and arrived late yourself, thus dodging the conversation altogether and forcing some other soul to do the honors. Or you made a face as though someone just insulted your mother when the host approached you and asked you to take the plunge. Or you did the “I really don’t care” routine with the other poets, waiting it out till one of them finally caved and muttered, “I’ll go first.” It’s a minor sin, but the fact of the matter is that poetry readings are not rock shows; with few exceptions, there is no clear headliner and it doesn’t really matter what the order is. Besides, what comes around goes around. Take your lumps and read first from time to time. You’ll hit the sweet spot at the next reading.
1. Gone on too long. Yes, this one’s obvious, but everyone really has done it, and there are particular ways that poets go on too long that are meaningful in themselves. Of course, it sometimes happens that you simply get into a groove and you lose track and read longer than the time allotted (or maybe the host has erred by not making it clear how much time you had). It happens. But you might have exacerbated the situation—thereby revealing that your going on too long was no simple mistake but outright disrespect, even contempt, for your audience—by doing one of the following:
a. Telling the audience you’re just going to read “one or two more,” then reading for another 20 minutes. If a musician says she’s going to play a couple more songs, we know that even if there are actually three more, it will likely take 10 minutes or so. But nobody knows how long your poems are, so saying you’ll just read a few more is already somewhat meaningless, especially since we know you’re not going to be able to resist reading five or six or eight more, anyway.
b. Being so massively unprepared that you lose track of time because you have a giant stack of poems that you stop to flip through after each one. The stack of poems is already a visual reminder of how many you still have to read. Now you’re compounding the annoyance factor by rifling through them in confusion as if they’re a pile of unorganized tax documents.
c. Over-explaining your poems. This could really be its own category, but it falls under the rubric of taking too long because that is usually the result. You may even have been careful to practice timing yourself beforehand, but you forgot to take into account your penchant for blabbing. The need to explain every line in exhaustive detail is not so much disrespect for the audience as distrust of the poem. If we are attentive, and it’s worth getting, we will get it, with minimal or no interjection from you. However, no explanation in the world is going to make it a better poem.
2. Done the “polyvocal” thing. You’ve decided that you’re going to “break the space” of the standard “I speak, you listen” reading format by having audience members join in—either passing out sheets to folks at random or arranging beforehand who will be planted among the unsuspecting audience. Either way, it’s not as new or mind-blowing as you think it is. Also—especially if it hasn’t been rehearsed prior to the reading—it never goes well, because Susie doesn’t speak loudly enough and Doug misses his cue, and what you hoped would be an edgy take on the reading becomes a mess, full of awkward pauses and dropped lines.
3. Only gone to readings that you’re actually reading at. Yes, people have noticed. Noticed that it’s impossible to coax you to the monthly series at the café, even when someone is reading that you’ve expressed admiration for in the past, but the moment you are invited to do something yourself, it suddenly becomes a priority. Did you see all the empty seats at your reading? Those represent all the souls whose events you didn’t bother to show up for when you weren’t reading yourself.
4. Done the “conquering hero” routine. You’ve been invited to perform on—or weaseled your way into—the huge marathon reading that everyone’s going to be at. Nobody expects you to stay for the whole thing. But under no circumstances is it cool to show up right before your slot, with a giant group of friends, noisily fanning out through the crowd as you leaf through your poems, paying no attention whatsoever and distracting everyone else from the current reader. Of course, when you are finished, basking in the glow of your buddies’ praise, you will repeat the same obnoxious move in reverse, annoying everyone and sucking the air out of the room for the next reader.
5. Been the “local poet” at an event for out-of-towners and not bothered bringing anyone to the reading. News flash: the host did not invite you simply because you are a star, but also because you can help put butts in the seats for guest poets who aren’t as well known to the locals. Yet you decided to save your “audience capital” for the big book launch you have coming up, or perhaps you weren’t sure of the other poets and didn’t want to expose your friends to a mediocre reading. Or maybe you just didn’t care. The result was that you didn’t tell anyone—didn’t invite your friends via the event page on Facebook, didn’t send your usual e-mail blast, and arrived instead alone or with your date. Whatever the case, just know that being the one local poet comes with more responsibility than simply showing up for the gig.
6. Believed all the hype after the reading. Having just concluded a brilliant performance, the drinks are flowing and the compliments flying. One audience member exclaims that this is the best reading she’s ever been to. Another, who also publishes a small press, whispers urgently to you that he’d like to see the manuscript as soon as possible. A third promises you a headline slot on the Next Big Event. You dance home, wasted, glowing with the certainty that this is the most significant moment in American letters since Ginsberg’s “Howl” reading at the Six Gallery, and poetic fame will soon follow. However, it’s not 1955. You didn’t just give the best reading in history; the editor who solicited you is not Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and he probably has a backlog of unpublished manuscripts at home that will take years to catch up on; the headline slot (if it happens at all) will merely be another in a series of readings that fade from memory (your own, as well as the audience’s). That’s the way it is. Reading talk is just that: talk. Of course you can and should quietly follow up on these outlandish promises, but don’t expect too much.
7. Been ungrateful. Every reading you’ve ever had happened because somebody (or -bodies) put some work into it. Sure, the venue hasn’t always been packed, and occasionally you’ve felt (and may have been correct in feeling) that more could have been done to make the evening a success. But the vast majority of the time, the reading was put together in good faith because somebody wanted to hear your poetry. Your gratitude should have extended not only to that person—the host or organizer of the event—but to the audience, the proprietors of the venue, and the other poets who’ve joined you in performing their work. You should have introduced yourself to the other poets, listened politely to their readings, and when it was your turn to read, made sure to briefly thank everyone for organizing, coming out, etc. Instead, you showed up late, spent the interval waiting to read busily going through your own poems, thanked no one, and left. Rest assured that anyone in the audience who might’ve been thinking of inviting you to do something in the future took note of your behavior.
FINAL NOTE: This is meant, of course, tongue-in-cheek, but there is a grain of truth to these Sins–we’ve all done one or more of them ourselves or experienced them at one time or another. I’ve been guilty of at least four, maybe five that I can think of. If you’re reading this and you are a poet or someone who goes to poetry readings, and any other mistakes occur to you, feel free to add them in the comments section.
Three Geogaophies: A Milkmaid’s Grimoire is Arielle Guy‘s first full-length book, published this time last year from Dusie Press (and available here). She has also been part of Dusie Kollektiv for the past three years, making poetry postcards, M iss ives [Missives]: Unknowability, and folders, The Invention of Light, as chapbooks. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, has an editing business and is a life coach. She also edits the online journal Turntable & Blue Light.
DH: Tell me about the title of the book—Three Geogaophies: A Milkmaid’s Grimoire. Quite impressive to have two such challenging words confront the reader right away, and it definitely gets one’s attention. What do these words mean to you and how do they relate to and reflect the poetry in the book?
AG: I misspelled words intentionally throughout the book to create a middle language between Swedish and English. I was studying Swedish and spent time in Sweden so the part of my brain that conjured words was swamped in the lilts and foreign, yet familiar-sounding syllables of the Swedish language. When I sat down to write, the rhythm and new sounds were so present and they melded with English so completely, that the Swedish-English words would form in my mind and then on the page. Geogaophies is one of those words from this new language. Grimoire is a spell-book and I liked the idea of creating a modern prayer book that spanned three cities that mean so much to me and have taken up permanent residence in my present life and geography.
DH: Clearly there’s a sense of geography here, and the book is divided into three sections/locations: San Francisco, New York, and Gothenburg. What is the importance of place, and did you write the poems in each section while visiting/living in the places after which they’re named?
AG: All of the cities point to and were dreams of each other. I started writing the New York section while living in SF, as I was planning to move to New York. The earlier poems were fantasies, a kind of magical realism, my imaginings of New York. Gentle and a dream-like landscape of skyscrapers and crowds. These crashed and burned, as I moved into my sublet in Hell’s Kitchen, two blocks from Times Square. So then the poems were more angular and crooked. My life here was hard and isolated in the beginning, even as it was inspiring and awe-filled, and the New York section shows that evolution from Times Square to Brooklyn. The SF section was written almost as a memory, even before I left. So many of my ties were unraveling and the city was like a ghost, one that I walked through but wasn’t really there. I have always felt that San Francisco is a city of different planes, occupying multiple levels of reality and space. It’s a dream city to me, made of fog and disappearing into itself. Gothenburg was written completely while I was there. I became immersed in the city as congruently a stranger and resident, a strange and surreal experience.
DH: When I first met you, you were studying at New College in San Francisco, still in its late hey-day at that time, with important figures like Tom Clark, David Meltzer—was Lyn Hejinian still there?—Duncan McNaughton, etc. A pretty vibrant scene. Perhaps you could talk about your experience there and the importance of that study for your poetry as it’s progressed, particularly the poems in this book.
AG: I can’t say enough good things about New College. I wasn’t lucky enough to study with Lyn, but did study with the core staff there. The poets I was with there inspired me more than I had ever been inspired. I had been a solitary poet until then and NC offered a community that I’d never had so it was exalted and stays with me to this day. The writers and thinking and poets I was exposed to there changed everything for me. Some of the poems in this book, I wrote while at NC and it’s wonderful to see them in the book because they’re so connected with that time. The workings and amusement parks of modern and contemporary poets took the ground out from under me and reearthed it. I learned so much there and it breaks my heart that the program is no longer alive.
DH: One reason I ask about that is, I really admire the typographical play in these poems, which begins immediately in the first section, San Francisco. There is a concern with space, and a fascination it seems with the differently toned pauses indicated by different punctuation marks. One line in the second poem begins:
;that is, the warm air is still
and the old ladies sleeping
This struck me as an interesting way of recovering some Beat concerns with typography, punctuation, pause, and space, a recurring element of the poetry here. So often Beat writing is dismissed as simply post-Romantic, but here you seem to tease out a subtle but important development there that’s been largely overlooked. Could you comment on that?
AG: I am somewhat red-faced to admit I don’t have the familiarity or intimacy to talk about Beat poetry intelligently. I come from a much more Romantic and Objectivist influence, which are both related to Beat in their own way, I think, from what I know. I think what I culled from the Objectivists most intimately were their simplicity and honesty. Utter beauty. The Romantics and older, mainstay poets such as Donne and Dickinson were my first influences. Their mastery and craft and language were grand and epic but tooled and precise, like a well-made, ornate chair. As many baubles as it has, it is still a chair and you can sit on it. The elaboration of physics and metaphysics and love, layered language and infinite Nautilus shell of narrative told in reverent incantation leaves me awestruck every time. My use of typography, punctuation, pause and space tries to solicit that incantation and haunting, yet corporeal form.
DH: To develop that a bit further: In Blended hostess (Letter-sign #9), the poem begins
At fast pace: gone for sale
course, I have four choices:
fold in the canvas
I am pleasantly baffled by this. Again, it does not seem merely a deliberate fragmenting of the kind we’ve become all too familiar with in post-structuralist writing strategies. The stacking up of colons in the first few lines seems alternately tonal and playful, almost Dickinsonian in the way they demand a pause and tap the meaning this way or that. I am curious about the apostrophe, as if there’s a quote we’re missing the beginning of, or a possessive left dangling. Not to overdetermine all this in my mind, but there’s the sense of a game, where not only words and letters, but every mark and space is important.
AG: I used punctuation a lot in this book, in erroneous ways, to distract syntax and illuminate meaning and pause. I write to a very vivid mental background of music so those apostrophes and errant colons help to denote the sound I hear in my head. The score is visual and auditory and, for me, those punctuation marks hold as much emotion as the words. The spaces and things left dangling speak to the unknown that is in each thing. We hoist the unknown on our backs every day, without knowing what we’re carrying and I wanted to show that in these poems.
DH: What about the relationship of time to place? Towards the end of the “New York” section, there is a poem titled “Calendar.” This itself is in ten parts, but all of them quite short. There is a preoccupation with numbers and “getting things done.” The poem reads like a hyper-telescoped daybook or even day planner.
AG: I had to laugh when I got to this question because this is so much the way I think on a daily basis: a train’s electronic message board. Time is such an arbitrary concept in the scope of what we move through as reality but it’s so tangible and bossy. In my poems, I like to both erase and skeletalize time and time’s trappings—give form to something that really has no form. Yet, these calendars and day planners are so comforting on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. I am always thinking about what it is to measure—what does that mean? Measure is a soft word denoting structure so it appeals to me, both the word itself and in its meaning. That’s what we do—measure. Measure cups of coffee or sugar, time spent, what we’ve done with our lives at certain ages. To see myself more as part of a whole universe than an individual tapping time away on an abacus, I like to explore what time feels like as a companion and guide, as well as an elusive, purely theoretical apparition.
DH: Next, there is a poem, “City Quotas,” that seems to skip around in terms of voice and place. There is the seemingly straightforward entry “Bowie,” wherein the narrator recounts listening to Aladdin Sane to get through a difficult time in France; and I’m intrigued by the hints of sensuality that mingle with more fragmented voicings and “liminal” imagery.
From section IV:
I am talking about edges—ridges, valleys, and pools. I am specifically referring to the mood between. The toe, the foot, the sleep—the part of your body you call sleep.
From section V:
We are made of the same stuff, bone and blood and water, and the numbers carved into our limbs. And within it all, that edge beating.
This seems to be one of the themes of at least this part of the book—the juxtaposition of bodies, the zone where one body becomes another, one place another place. Also, a kind of wild zooming between the up-close and physical, and the larger frame of the geographical. Could you talk about that?
AG: For me, there’s a melding and opening to an underlying truth that happens in love—whether loving another person or a book or a city. It becomes part of you as you become part of it, while still retaining physical form. I think very metaphysically about connection, that we are all connected and respond to each other on a primal, subconscious level that becomes pronounced and lit when we fall in love. We experience transcendence, entrance into true union and unity. This is reality and expands to one’s place in the world and universe. Love is the deepest experience there is and all else flows from it.
DH: The final section is “Gothenburg,” which begins with the statement, “Living on coffee and 33 Swedish words for 3 weeks.” I wonder how that kind of language-strangeness impacted some of the poetic themes from the earlier sections of the book: the attention to typographical elements, the notion of place and the body, and so on. It seems like there’s a heightened return to the concern with language at a minute level in the poem “Geogaophy,” for instance, where there are lines like, “Trhe way disaster strikes. of feather: dhattaered clavicle,houseing heart.”
AG: Yes, for sure, being around a language I understood smatterings of and yet with which I felt so at home was bizarre and definitely impacted my writing. I began thinking in fake Swedish, as well as real Swedish, which was like a trampoline in my head. Again, in that primordial ooze, we speak all languages so, learning this new language was really like returning somewhere I’d been before and having that homecoming release memories from another time. I am not directly talking about past lives—it’s more a shared worldly underpinning of universal truths and human experience that is expressed through language but exists in a pure form beyond language.
DH: You have a lot of disparate but related pursuits: in addition to poetry, music (you performed in a speed metal band in Philadelphia, where you grew up, and you also pursued music in the Bay Area), Buddhism, and you are also someone I’ve long admired for being in business for yourself. How do these other interests, in addition to the living you’ve made for yourself, tie into your life as a poet?
AG: This evolves all the time. I am becoming more and more integrated and synthesized in my life, although I have always had that strong and sustaining feeling of all the things I do feeding each other. I have never defined myself as a poet and, for me, living a poet’s life means living a life, working, taking care of errands, looking out the window. Poetry to me has always been like washing the dishes, and I get the same amount of satisfaction from both. Life is so big and so enchanted and so miraculous that all I do moves me to write or walk or cook or sleep. Being a lay Buddhist and practicing mindfulness and the spirit and intent of the Dharma in my life has created space and peace, which are rich and fertile and open. To be aware is a field from which the unknown grows up. This experience of an open field is one I try to attend and tend to every moment. This consummate fragility and brute strength of the present has given me peace and constant attentiveness to the sacredness of experience itself.
DH: Finally, your involvement in the publishing side of the poetry world is two-fold—you are a member of the Dusie Kollektiv and you edit an online journal, Turntable & Blue Light. Was this a direction you were moving in anyway, or was it something that being in New York—where you’ve lived for some time now—inspired you to do? How has this involvement impacted your relationship to poetry?
AG: The community aspect of poetry is important to me and the online magazine and Dusie have given me that beautiful relationship to a group of wonderful writers and artists that I admire and respect and learn from. I have learned so much from both the magazine and Dusie and they’ve been invaluable experiences. Being in New York hasn’t really affected this desire or impetus, it’s been something I long for and reach out for no matter where I am. To be able to share other people’s work is a deep joy for me—it’s superbly satisfying to get great work out there. The involvement in these has brought me closer to feeling that dent in the void—to know that work has meaning and power and purpose, both in the doing of it and the sharing.
from Three Geogaophies: A Milkmaid’s Grimoire
City Quotas [an excerpt]
I have listened to Aladdin Sane more times than I can count and the songs are amazing and still heartbreakingly new and bring back a time when I was insecure and didn’t speak French and was visiting my first boyfriend in a town 40 miles south of Paris. I wasn’t allowed to touch the stereo because I was a girl but I did anyway just to listen to that album because I wouldn’t have gotten through that month without it. I remember what it was like to think everything was going to turn out like that, crazy and poorly mixed but brilliant. I want that energy back, even the misery, because it was real and uncool and unrehearsed, unlike the things I say to people now to explain being upset or down or depressed. I wasn’t intact and impermeable then.
III Stove Mitt
And this all there is to tell–The hooded man falling from the tree, pajamas on
and trucks in the grass like homing agents waiting to get back–
There is no back between
hood and forward and there is no trunk in the saddle of his new
car and there is no wife in his blow-up doll kitchen and there is
no nothing in between his legs and his toes and he in the end
generalizes it all out in quotients and potions x = 4z2
and it harms him fully but never warms him.
IV Protein Chain
Skin repels from inside to create newer and newer boundaries and warts and tumors are growths like any other measured by distance and scale. The row of skin rolls back like a ladder as you come.
Protein delineates action from reaction in the cradling of head to head, groin to groin, image to magic and back again through the forest.
Light counsels the aftermath of numbers as partners pretend to rebuff the broken toenail dust flying off the trees. The shuddering callouses created by counting with an abacus.
(IN A BOOMING VOICE): I am talking about edges–ridges, valleys, and pools. I am specifically referring to the mood between. The toe, the foot, the sleep–the part of your body you call sleep. The furnace, your body heat, how warm your arm was when I touched it last night, the bully from third grade, the guy you had a crush on, the seminar you took one summer on suffering, American style: These are all plural. Dense pluralities made of the same singular material used to make shoes and lamps although in parallel histories of which you’ve been a part, they found ways to make things out of skin.
Susan Briante, whose second book Utopia Minusis now available from Ahsahta Press, recently visited Buffalo, where she gave a reading at our house (part I is above; part II can be viewed here). Her first book, Pioneers in the Study of Motion, was also published by Ahsahta, and she teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas. We first met many years ago in Austin, and it was a pleasure to catch up with her during her visit and later via e-mail, in the exchange reproduced below.
DH: You’ve been concerned with tracing the vicissitudes of Capitalism in your poetry for quite some time now. This is most obvious in the ongoing “Dow Jones Closes…” series, in which you personify the DJIA, and recently, as I understand it, use those numbers to help generate search procedures to lead the poetry in various directions. Tell me about the evolution of that series. How did it first occur to you to write these poems, and how has it developed over time?
SB: There are actually two separate stock market projects. I was finishing work on Utopia Minus, when the recession really started to dig in deep. Although, for those of us who did not see our fortunes rise as a result of the real estate bubble, the sense of limited economic possibility was already palpable years before. I wrote the opening poem of Utopia Minus, “The End of Another Creature,” in response to the original “crisis” of 2008. Like many people I was shocked (see Naomi Klein) to witness the limited focus of this “crisis”—panic over Lehman Brothers, panic over the stock market. No one was talking about the fact that even prior to the crisis the housing “bubble” priced many middle-class families out of the market in ways that were not true just ten years prior. No one was talking about how health care costs made the middle class more vulnerable in many ways. No one was talking about decades of wage stagnation. All of that “too big to fail” rhetoric started to make many of us feel as if we were held hostage by the “the market” that was “reacting,” “responding,” and “rejecting” federal economic policy. I mimicked that personification of “market” in that poem with the lines:
The Market migrates; the Market scatters across the Metroplex.
The Market dreams my carcass onto the highway, groans
a few blocks deeper into my neighborhood.
As the recession really started taking hold, I was again struck by how the dominant narrative to describe economic events became tied to the stock market, specifically the closing number of the Dow Jones Industrial Average and other so-called “economic indicators.” Jobs were lost; homes were lost. The only thing that seemed to matter was the stock market at least in terms of policy. The closing numbers seemed to exert some magical influence over all of us. I wanted to find a way to explore this feeling of helplessness before those numbers even for those of us who don’t have portfolios—especially for those of us who don’t have portfolios. I started thinking about the Kabbala, numerology. I started recording the closing number of the Dow. I’d take the number and let it lead me to a text by plugging it into Google, Project Gutenberg, Bartlett’s Quotations, an on-line version of Paradise Lost, other texts and search engines. I let those found texts and quotations inspire, influence, or infiltrate a poem written for the day. As the project took shape, it became part poetic journal recording my days as well as the Dow’s. I’ve published a chaplet of these poems. Now I am working on completing a full-length manuscript under the working title $INDU or Ghost Numbers. You can find examples of individual poems published here and here.
DH: The concern with capital is not confined to that series; in my reading, it seems to permeate a lot of your work. For example, here are some lines from your new book, Utopia Minus: “What a coin we could make from Walt Whitman’s soft eyes!” “O Sunglass Hut, we hardly knew you!” “window screens / taking on gold, an inheritance…” So, when I introduced you recently for a reading at our house in Buffalo, I talked about Keats and the idea that his keen mimetic ability helped him sense the way the early Industrial Age was seeping into and altering his environment. And how this is really woven into his poems. I wonder if you could talk about this more subtle “economic” thread in your poetry.
SB: I wanted to write about the post-industrial landscapes that were so familiar to me having grown-up in New Jersey. Living in Austin, Texas, I started to notice a different kind of disposable real estate: not empty factories but abandoned strip-malls or a half-constructed office building (what was going to be the Intel headquarters) that “rose into ruin” to quote Robert Smithson. They tell a story about booms and bust in a much more tangible and eloquent way than the closing number of the Dow. But they often don’t receive much of our attention. When I started looking it seemed there were ruins everywhere, not the ruins of war or natural disaster, but the ruins of late capitalism: abandoned factories, commercial spaces, foreclosed homes. Those ruins and their narrative became the scaffolding for Utopia Minus.
In addition, I think when you come from a middle- to working-class background you think about money in a different way than folks who come from more privileged backgrounds. I feel very lucky about my economic situation, but I don’t have wealth. And that creates vulnerability as well as awareness. Maybe that vulnerability influences perspective: you see how economics like a window screen can color everything.
DH: What about lyricism? That same poem I referenced (in part) above, “Scrap Metal,” contains some lush description, and I particularly admire the precise but unostentatious use of verbs in the poem:
at its hemline.
Copper light scores the westside of my chokeberry tree;
buzz over live oaks, ignorant to how much weight these branches might hold.
I feel like there is a persistent lyricism—which I guess I would define as pretty word-sounds and imagery—but it’s also contained; almost never do you seem to use figurative language, and even in the above passage, we’re not free from “trafficopters” and their buzzing.
SB: I admire a precision of image that I trace back to the haiku masters and certainly the Imagists. The haiku masters are also models for having a poetic viewfinder that notes both big seasonal change and house spiders. Smithson, too, challenged our notion of what art could be: what belonged in a museum, what consisted of a monument. I like that pushing of boundaries. I think the lyric can hold a lot. It is also important to me to make art that “defamiliarizes,” that shocks us out of our habitual modes of perception, to quote the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky. I try to remain open to beauty from a wide range of places (the county dump, the construction site) and to accept that beauty as it comes often cut with “trafficopters” or high voltage wires or shift whistles.
DH: In addition to what’s been noted above, there are some other threads that run through this book: Olson, Melville, General Sherman… I wonder if you approach a book of poems in a project-oriented way, in response to reading and research you may be doing? And what specifically drew you to these figures, alongside the Civil War and post-bellum references that resurface in different poems?
SB: My thinking about ruins became a scholarly as well as a lyric project. I wanted to understand how “ruins” (by which I mean abandoned buildings fallen into some amount of disrepair) function in the American imaginary. We associate ruins with the “old world” of Europe. And yet there’s a history of ruins in the United States. You can start with the images of great ruined cities in the South after the Civil War. You can follow that through waves of development and reconstruction. Capitalism seeks to remake the landscape with such speed there is a constant building and tearing down, destruction and redevelopment, until the flow of capital sputters or stops.
The scholarly project then offered a series of ideas that I was able to explore lyrically through the poems of Utopia Minus. In a sense, Olson is obviously one of the patron saints of any long-term intellectual poetic project. I take very seriously his call in “A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn” to “dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other.” I don’t know if I succeeded….but I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about ruins, memory, economics, and national narratives.
Melville, obviously, is also relevant when thinking about the long investigation. And Melville like Whitman records the important process of nation building. Looking at Civil War photographs for the ruins, initially, really got me thinking about nation building and myth making: Whitman and Melville both seem important contributors to that process.
DH: “‘Sex is difficult,’ Rilke explains.” You quote him in “Dear Mr. Surgeon General.” I believe, given the other Rilke quote in this poem, but correct me if I’m wrong, it’s from the Notebooks. First, was Rilke another touchstone for you in this project? Second, this hints at a theme that begins to take on more prominence as the book goes along: Eros, love, sex. “What a time, then, to be an American in love!” you write in “Dear Madam Secretary of Homeland Security.” A later poem begins, “Come autumn, we find a new way / to fuck.” Talk about the “difficulty” of sex (and love), more particularly writing about it, and in what ways (perhaps, taking a cue from Rilke) it’s bound up with distance and loss.
SB: Actually the Rilke is from the Letters to a Young Poet. I was admiring the intimacy and range of those letters and all of their concern for love, art, and distance. If there’s a sense of loss or longing in my epistolary, there’s also a longing for the kinds of relationship that existed between a poet and a mentor in Rilke’s historical moment. I’ve had some terrific mentors in my life, but—and here’s where economics comes back in—at a time when many of them are juggling a writing career and an academic career (if they are lucky) I don’t think we have the time or luxury for those kinds of long correspondences.
The difficulties of sex…yes…hmmm… I think I’ll stick to the difficulties of writing about sex—per se—or romantic love. My interest lies in the process of reconstituting what’s “romantic” (lowercase “r”) finding a new vocabulary for describing the erotic. There’s been a lot of writing about sex that takes its inspiration from the natural world. I was interested in exploring what happens when we make “erotic” poetry from a combination of chainsaws and earthmovers.
DH: And here, too, the movement of the first part of the book seems reversed in a way. Instead of Capitalism creeping into poems that are almost pastoral in their descriptions, we have these formally addressed political-seeming poems, into which a sensuality kind of sneaks in. Was this a conscious design on your part? And on a slightly different tack, talk about the genesis of these “formal address” prose pieces (“Dear Mr. Surgeon General,” etc.) and how they seem undercut with all kinds of intimacy, personal reference, and so on.
SB: I was wondering who might be my Rilke. (My poem “A Letter to Eileen Myles” explores that question in another way.) I was thinking about the relationship between power and intimacy as well. When I began writing these poems, we were in the midst of the Bush presidency, the beginning of the Iraq war. Like many Americans, I began to doubt my actual agency in the political system. This administration was making decisions in the name of the American people without regard to the opinion of many of us.
There’s a wonderful quote from a high-ranking Bush administration official from an interview with the journalist Ron Suskind published in The New York Times:
The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.
And I thought: let’s pretend that these bureaucrats who act like they know everything and want to control everything really have both that knowledge and power. If they want to pour their policies into every aspect of my life as if they know what’s best, maybe they do. Tell me about love, National Security Adviser. Bring it. Obviously, it’s absurd. I did send the letters to their corresponding officials during the Bush administration, but no one ever wrote me back.
As in the Dow poems, I am also very interested in using the lyric as a place to frame our intimacies within the political and economic systems, which weigh so heavy upon us. So I get pleasure out of seeing the title “Dear Mr. Director of a Census Bureau” hang over a lyric that attempts to understand my own birth. In that way, the concerns of that series go beyond any one administration. Again, it is a question of delineating a relationship of power, of showing the scaffolding of a larger social economic structure.
DH: Another thing I admire about your poetry is that you seem utterly unafraid to write the long poem. And even the longer prose poem. Longer lines, longer poems. But also the occasional short poem, such as “At the Lake.” We’ve already touched on Olson, but I wonder if there are other poets who’ve influenced you in terms of form and length of line and verse.
SB: Certainly Olson is a model, not only for the long poem, but for the kind of lyric investigation in which I am most interested. Eileen Myles is model both for the long poem and for writing about economics as is Alice Notley. There’s a ton to learn from the New York School—look at Schuyler if you want to think about observation and the lyric—but I think the second generation New York School writers offer really important work that grapples with poetry and economics.
For the short poem, I look to Jean Valentine, Joanne Kyger, and Hoa Nguyen. There’s a lot still to learn there—especially about the line.
I’m also a sucker for prose. I love the sentence. That’s kind of a new development.
When I was writing my first book, Pioneers in the Study of Motion, I was really interested in the fragment. After six years in Mexico, there were many stories I wanted to tell, but I knew I was writing in the complicated wake of many other traveler/writers. Instead of trying to tell a story—to offer a version of Mexico—I found myself thinking about the field note: non-linear, observation-based, provisional and speculative—much like the best poems. Rosmarie Waldrop writes: “The glint of light on the cut, this spark given off by the edges is what I am after.” In many of the poems of Pioneers in the Study of Motion, I wanted to use juxtaposition to create sparks like those you see in the contact between two metals—the conquers’ sword and warriors’ shield—or the smoke sometimes observed when the wheels of a plane touch down on the runway. I hoped juxtaposition would draw the reader’s attention to the poem’s surface lest they be fooled into believing they might actually be seeing Mexico rather than a glimpse of my mind.
Before I started writing the poems that would become Utopia Minus, I was reading WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. In that book, Sebald proposes to take readers on walks through the English countryside, but actually he creates a journey through syntax and thought and history. Likewise, I wanted my poems to start from a fixed place—a building (often abandoned), a batholith in the Texas Hill Country—but I wanted to challenge myself as to the intellectual distance I could traverse without resorting to collage. I wanted to walk through these thoughts. I love falling asleep somewhere over Kansas and waking up on the tarmac in San Francisco. But I also relish the process of taking things mile by mile, word by word, to notice every historical marker, strip mall, roadside curiosity, to savor every preposition, verb, clause.
DH: And how does your own poetry training perhaps feed into this—I know you did a PhD in poetics at UT-Austin, but I’m not sure about your study, formal or otherwise, prior to that.
SB: I lived in Mexico City during the 1990s, where I had the great fortune of working with the poet Roberto Tejada. He and his magazine, Mandorla, really opened up the American (by which I mean from the Americas) avant garde for me. When I left Mexico, I ended up in Miami and stumbled into the MFA program at Florida International University. I was still in the process of coming out to myself as a poet, and from the perspective of my working class background, the MFA seemed like an incredible indulgence. It was the only MFA program to which I applied.
I was so fortunate to end up there with the poet Campbell McGrath, an incredibly savvy and generous teacher. His first book of poem is called Capitalism, so it is not hard to see where I became inspired to write about economics. His third book, Spring Comes to Chicago, includes the 63-page “Bob Hope Poem,” which is one part Ashbery’s “The Skaters,” one part documentary poetics in its investigation of consumerism, the real estate market, the myths of America etc. It’s really an amazing feat. I think my interest in documentary poetics began there—although I wasn’t calling it that when I first read it, and I don’t know that he would call it that even now.
DH: This leads to your immediate poetic community and environment. Clearly, a lot of poems mention Farid (Matuk), your husband and a fellow poet. The two of you met in Austin while you were both students at UT, if I’m not mistaken. There was a burgeoning poetry scene that sprang up around UT, as well as Hoa Nguyen and Dale Smith, who were still publishing Skanky Possum, and Scott Pierce, of Effing Press—all of you were (and are) fast friends, and I was lucky enough to return to Texas at the tale end of that era. To what extent was that circle, the art and poetry being created by those folks, and the other poets you may have exposed each other to, important to the work you’ve done since?
SB: What was happening in Austin happened outside of the university. I think there’s value to literature or creative writing programs, but poets also have to learn how to be in the world outside of an institution. Poets need to learn how to be part of a larger conversation. Dale, Hoa, Farid, and Scott—as poets, publishers, curators of reading series, and essayists—were models for me. Their work in all of those areas inspired me. It was like I was doing another PhD on the side, a PhD with a lot of tequila. I am still learning from them.
DH: Now you and Farid are married, you have a daughter, Gianna, and you’ve moved to Dallas, where you teach at UT-Dallas. There is a palpable sort of loss (it seems to me) registered in this book around that move, as well as an effort to find the beauty and eros and interest in your new locale. Lately, you’ve been reunited with an old poetic comrade, Roberto Tejada, there, and I gather there is a growing poetic community in Dallas as well. How has all this—the family, the move, your academic position, the Dallas scene—further informed your writing?
SB: I don’t know if the loss is personal. My life is very rich in many ways. I can get nostalgic about Austin because of the great community we had there, but I am happier now or happy in a different way. I have a lot more ground under my feet, a stronger sense of economic, emotional, and artistic security. It is the kind of security that allows one to take risks in art.
The loss registered in Utopia Minus comes from a placelessness I find in Dallas, but I think is evident in much of the American landscape. Dallas is a city that doesn’t show a very pretty public face: on the surface it’s Target, Best Buy, Wal-Mart. When you linger you start to notice snowy egrets floating like awkward angels, monarch butterflies on their way to Mexico, a big old radio tower near downtown, the abandoned hotel, an empty cobalt blue restaurant across the street from the dive bar named Ships.
Like many American cities, Dallas hasn’t figured out how to talk about its own history. It’s a complicated one especially in regard to race. That lack of history contributes to a sense of loss, but it also creates a kind of freedom. Austin has a real sense of itself as a refuge for old-hippies and young hipsters, but that narrative has become a kind of branding (“Keep Austin Weird” ) that prevents Austin from seeing some of the more complicated issues of its past and present. With Dallas, the story is still being written and that is liberating.
DH: Finally, this is your second book with Ahsahta, after Pioneers in the Study of Motion several years ago. That kind of relationship with a press is pretty rare these days. I wonder if you could close by saying a few words about Ahsahta and your experience working with them on two different projects now.
It has been a great gift working with Janet Holmes at Ahsahta. She’s not only a fantastic editor and incredibly smart about the publishing business, but she’s an amazing poet. (See: F2F and Ms of My Kin for a sense of the intelligence and diversity of her work.) In every part of the publishing process, I had the privilege of collaborating with someone who cares for the poems line by line. When we were working on Pioneers, she sent a first set of galleys with the explanation that she thought Futura would be a good typeface for the titles because of its association with William Carlos Williams. Swoon.
I am going to start a fundraising project to clone Janet. Then we can still get more books from Ahsahta and more poems from her.
In all seriousness, this brings me back to economics. So much of the best poetry that is happening today comes from people like Janet who have always worked incredibly hard and are working harder still in the grip of the Great Recession. But I don’t know how long we can continue to count on these extraordinary efforts. We are all tired and working too hard and worrying about our job security and our health insurance and the kinds of opportunities that will be left to our kids. But on top of all of that heavy lifting, we have to imagine a different economic future. We must refuse to accept the narrow possibilities offered by our current political and economic system. If we the poets, researchers, rabble-rousers can’t imagine it, who will?
from Utopia Minus:
The problem is that I always want two
things at once: to linger on Egyptian cotton sheets
and to be up at my desk hard drive whirring;
to sit on the dock dangling my feet in Eagle Lake
and simultaneously writing you this letter
about the ripples I send clear to the far bank,
how my toes hang above reeds and tadpoles,
about the family of geese that came on shore
yesterday afternoon and shit everywhere.
I am learning to row. Winds blow from the west.
An oar can act as brake or motor.
The ribs of the boat make a cradle.
Last night’s sleep was shallow, and I dreamt
I flung myself over a group of children
with arms spread until my winter jacket
opened to wings. Men torched
parked cars. Police hurled grenades
across a street. And while we huddled
behind a Gap advertisement near a subway
entrance, my rather ran towards
the barricades calling
another woman’s name.
central set of 8 steps to the courtyard,
small rock garden,
kidney-shaped pool, 8 feet deep,
blue flox, purple crepe myrtle,
white plastic laundry basket
in a parking lot beyond the cyclone fence Apartments for Rent
1-3 Months Free Avignon Realty,
railroad ties, cracked foundation, It’s all George’s fault in black spray paint,
and black-eyed Susans
to which I feel no relation
by David Hadbawnik
$16, SPD, BlazeVox, Amazon Review at Jacket2 Interview at Bookslut kadar koli 6 Spring 2011 $7 plus shipping Crass Songs of Sand & Brine by Micah Robbins Fall 2010 $7 plus shipping kadar koli 5 Spring 2010 $10 plus shipping kadar koli 4 Spring 2009
Translations From Creeley 2008 $5 plus shipping kadar koli issue 3, vol. II Spring 2008 SOLD OUT kadar koli issue 2, vol. I fall 2007 SOLD OUT Ovid in Exile (Interbirth Books, Fall 2007) --David Hadbawnik SOLD OUT kadar koli issue 1, vol. I spring 2007 SOLD OUT SF Spleen (Skanky Possum, 2006) -- David Hadbawnik SOLD OUT
The Ones I Used To Laugh With -- Diane di Prima $8 plus tax/shipping
Curses and Other Love Poems -- Sarah Peters
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Acts -- Mytili Jagannathan
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Notes No Answer -- Dale Smith
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