TheThe Poetry
≡ Menu

Reviews & Interviews

It was late in the smoke-painted bar, a quarter past the blue hour, when The Interviewer pulled The Poet into an even darker room. And in the dark of that darkness, came the first question. Tell me, said the Interviewer, where do your poems live?

My poems have roommates, and until two weeks ago, slept on a loft bed they bought in 2006 while still a paralegal. The last girl my poems had over called that shit a bunk bed. They forget to take out the trash on Sunday. They are from Ohio, and know enough to start there. They live lives I can almost imagine, and rarely, but sometimes, ones that I can’t. In the subway, in karaoke dive bars, in my grandfather’s house. In my mother’s text messages. They’re trying to fall in love with someone tangible and special. Their stomach flips when the landlord sells the building. I know my poems can’t live in a nicer apartment than I do.

The dark room was the color of closed eyelids now. Music reached in through a window deprived of its pane. With his eyes on the music, The Interviewer asked What was the last sin your poems committed?

It’s the future you can change. Not the past. My poems don’t pick and choose when they want to be themselves. If anything, they’re party to the sin of silence. But that’s not their choice. That’s a muzzle I build for them. They’re everywhere: When I open the refrigerator. When the last of my hometown friends are married and having children. When I’m gentrifying a neighborhood I’m about to be priced out of. If my poems don’t materialize, I’m the one who makes that silence. When they’re afraid to speak. When I don’t read enough to nurture them into reality. That’s me. They’re waiting to love me. I try to be brave enough to reciprocate. They know when to listen, and what needs to be said. They know when I’m lying, and help me right that ship. They help me be bold. It takes a lifetime.

A blade of moonlight cut The Poet’s body in half. The Interviewer liked this. The Interviewer wondered which half wanted most to be taken. Drinks appeared at the table without explanation. I want to know, said The Interviewer, pausing to take a sip of his drink, what your poems dream about?

That all sixty-four of my great-great-great-great-great grandmothers are in the same room. That the poems are being watched by something larger, not judgmental, just something that is to them what they are to me. And that supervising presence is made from, not just the writing that came before, but playgrounds, divorce papers, two hours past my bedtime camp fires, journeys that ended in bloodshed, or silence, or catharsis, or surrounded by children each two years apart. Whatever explosion happened a million years ago to build the old light we see on this canoe ride. That’s who my poems dream to meet. Who they answer to. Who they often don’t find, but when I’m really proud of them–when my stomach has an ache akin to sorrow, but not quite. A somber pride, that’s when I know they are reaching. That they’ve dreamt big.

Minutes were hours in that shut eyelid-colored room. The moon turned into the sun without apology. Music that had been reaching through the window pulled its hand away. The Interviewer looked less himself. Tell me, please tell me, what have your poems come here to do?

Like quarter notes, brush strokes, like windmills. We journey to find the art. Our minds have to train, not theirs. The poem’s agenda is the specificity of truth, which is complicated, and delicate. Full of broken rules and emotional history. They aren’t here to save anyone’s life, and not because they don’t have the heart for it (I’d argue that art is the single most empathetic force in the world), but that salvation is not their journey to dictate. When I read something beautiful and my heart tells me it is true, that’s my pilgrimage to walk toward. To dissect, and wear in my mouth, to let change me. To experience the magnitude of something that doesn’t turn away. A force that can (and many times over, does) save me, yes.

But this happens in retrospect for the art, the artist, the audience. The poem whose foundation is a desire to effect change and alter the emotions of others, risks compromising its relationship to discovery. To saying what needs to be said. If I’m writing from a base of trying to make others turn right, I risk not being able to turn left, or backwards, or do a somersault. I turn the key and try not to crash. I open the rodeo gate and wrap my arms around the bull’s head.

Bob Marley songs, for instance, feel like they came to make so much available. But I’ve seen enough daytime frat parties where everyone’s singing “Buffalo Soldier” to understand that with every person comes a new way to experience and utilize a piece of art. Art’s job is to exist. To belong to the air around it and the eyes and imaginations that see it. An invitation to consider something deeper. I strive to know that whatever change comes from that, for both artist and audience, is on us. Not the music. Not the poems.

_______________________________________________________
Jon Sands is a Brooklyn based author known for electrifying readings. He wrote, The New Clean, released in 2011 from Write Bloody Publishing, and starred in the award winning 2011 web-series “Verse: A Murder Mystery” from Rattapallax Films. He is Director of Poetry Education at the Positive Health Project (a syringe exchange center located in Midtown Manhattan), an adjunct with the City University of New York, as well as a Youth Mentor with Urban Word-NYC. He’s represented New York City multiple times at the National Poetry Slam, tours extensively, both nationally and internationally, and makes better tuna salad than anyone you know. Say yes to www.jonsands.com.

BARTAB: AN AFTERHOURS BALLAD
Two Handed Engine Press
118 p.
ISBN: 978-0982002001

Cesca Janece Waterfield’s poetry is palpably stunning at times. Raw and evocative, her debut book,  Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad (Two-Handed Engine Press) veers between profoundly personal poems about the nature of life fueled by substance abuse—and  a refusal to accept traditional boundaries—and the prose poem-narrative of two musicians floundering in a world that has little use for impractical brilliance. Her writing is sharp, incisive, and unsparing of self or society.

Stylistically, Waterfield is a direct descendant of postmodernist Denise Levertov. She’s also a singer-songwriter, which no doubt explains the intrinsic play of rhythm and sound in her lines. Drawing deeply from a lifetime of musicianship, Bartab begins to hum, early on, with a sort of subconscious soundtrack laced with blues-soaked Americana. Waterfield’s tone is conversational and unapologetic, and Bartab is concerned with prices and prisons. The price of refusing conformity, of obstinate recklessness in the pursuit of one’s dreams; the prisons that society surrounds us with and those we create ourselves. The book’s subjects wallow in romanticized cheap living while subtly building to the conclusion that all of this impoverishment comes with a staggering cost. In the story of characters Evie and Daniel, we are led, for example, to contemplate the domestic horror of a surgical procedure where a mere fifty bucks means the difference between proper anesthesia and toughing things out with a few valium:

That day, Daniel drove Evie to the clinic. The nurse had explained that Evie would have to remain at the clinic for three hours after the procedure. The anesthetic gas was powerful, she had cautioned over the phone, and monitoring was necessary to ensure the patient could be discharged. In the waiting room, Daniel squeezed Evie’s hand and looked into her face. “I’ll be right here,” he said. She disappeared into the back.

In a cramped office, Evie watched a video. When it was done, the nurse asked for $375, in money order or cash. Evie’s chest squeezed in panic. “They said bring three twenty five.” She looked down at the bills in her hand. “Three twenty five.”

The nurse was marking paperwork and said to her pen, “That’s for oral analgesic. Valium. If you want nitrous gas, it’s $375.” Inside her alarm, Evie’s thoughts coalesced. “I’ll take valium, then.”

The nurse looked up. “Instead of nitrous?” Evie nodded. Her hands were clenched on her thighs. The nurse consoled her, “At least with valium, you won’t have to wait long in the recovery room.” She circled something on the sheet. Evie remembered Daniel was waiting and she relaxed a bit.

On the ceiling was a poster of a kitten.

Early on in the book, in the mesmerizing Velocity, we are treated to glimpses of Evie’s childhood and adolescence:

I was sad but now I’m getting up wood grain below
my feet rises to swirl in my head swallow intentions
white cold porcelain of the tub’s lip I study the flowers
I painted on the shelf’s edge gorgeous pansies delicate
blooms with the correct number of petals because I
love biology sit up front get high with the grad students
maybe I’ll study neuroscience cure my sister’s epilepsy
I should mold some flowers from polymer clay no a clay I
will make I could patent it drive drive to Chesapeake
the dark Chesapeake earth smells round and sharp
simultaneously strange little animals (grim, they’re grim!)
dart through my headlights their eyes recognize me
they note my gift my head is awash in pictures what my
mother called vanity my father beat us my sister & me
differently I knew watching him beat her he understood
it was meditated it was math but for now I’m speeding
the Eastern Shore thuck thuck branch beneath the tires
thuck and I’m a girl

It’s Evie’s past, then, that largely, perhaps, informs her dealings with men (“I’m here cause Daniel said so”). Particularly heartbreaking is True Story, in which a drunken Evie triumphantly comes home to Daniel to announce, “I din spend any money, baby!”—proud of having gotten wasted without wasting any of their precious green.

It would be easy to despise Daniel but for Waterfield’s adroit painting of his character. Daniel is no villain, nor even a particularly bad man. He loves and tries to do right by Evie – but fails to shoulder his own burdens. From the prose poem-narrative A Prior Engagement:

The waitress reported back that she had a fresh bottle of Dalwhinnie and asked if he wanted one. Daniel thought about money and Evie’s smile. He ordered a double on the rocks. He saw no way to save it this time.

The metaphor of substance abuse as prison is well established, even overused. But Waterfield is effective in illustrating the rationalizations we make when in the throes of addiction. Consider:

These days were defined by a different kind of slide. Evie did not know what to do about it. She simply couldn’t put down a bottle of vodka once she’d screwed off its top. So she rationalized that going to bars with increasing frequency would put the quash on her habit. Because she would have to pay the tab at the end of the night…

And the frankly stunning (and harrowing) account of Drink:

Then you remember how you take it
and you want to pull it into you,
for it to work you over,
dusk shushing day.
There.
You’ve admitted it.
After you step out of sensation -
that silky dress -
shrug into shame,
and return, you recall the afternoon you
fucked the security guard on top of a parking garage
while a neighboring rooftop party saw and began to watch…
You imagine how it will feel,
not long from now…

When images meld, particulars scatter…

Your shoulders tense slightly
as you sense the clock’s progress,
its second hand shoving tenaciously forward.
You slap each minute down 25
like cards in hands of blackjack you win
and win and win…

Of course, the source of these demons is all too recognizable. Then there’s the too familiar background music of depression…(“The keening dirge/how long must I listen? When will we agree to stop pretending it is not there?”)… so delicately and heartbreakingly rendered in Portent, where:

To stretch long into the white spheres of stillness,
one must recall the clamor of hordes.
And as a single shiver descends
a body still ringing with warmth,
grief reaches into the air
to snap scenes between its sharp teeth:
snow flashing gold under sun,
the clattering limbs of the dog
loping into the brush, and I
at my window, watching birds yawp over seed
–as if we didn’t know the machination of sorrow;
how it stirs beneath even these days, waking,
rubbing its eyes with budding fists.

The final poem in the book is titled Memorial. It suggests a sober heroine looking back on her past with regret and wonder. Yet it is Evie’s passion—for music, for her own gifts as an artist—that finally drives her recovery, propelling her out of heartbreak and dissolution and back into the joy of existence, a

Congregation

I am coming a part of,
to wear as wing
of crow, clear
for landing, in my way. I rise
at the sudden clang of
yet another knell…
I fall down at altar as well as any, caw
swell as crow…

There are varied sorts of soldiers,
and on that day at last
the door whines open at my touch,
I want your face to look like Judas
and it’s the coming
of your god damned Lord.

Order Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad

 

It was late in the smoke-painted bar, a quarter past the blue hour, when The Interviewer pulled The Poet into an even darker room. And in the dark of that darkness, came the first question. Tell me, said the Interviewer, where do your poems live?

Most of my poems are conjured between the pages of old fairy-tale books and on flickering screens. It’s true that many of them wield swords.

Lately, they’ve been exploring the disappeared home of my childhood in Tennessee. The home I grew up with no longer exists, the gardens and woods I remember wandering nothing but ugly rubble I can only bear to look at on Google Earth once in a great while. They have never done anything with the rubble, so I must regrow everything from memory. The rocks and roots, the violets and daffodils, the acres of old oaks and bear caves. My brothers and their old pickup trucks

They’ve also been ducking into classrooms: algebra, cartography, old stories barely remembered. Conjuring memories yet again: Sunday school, high school dances, dusty yellow polaroid photographs that show a girl feral, big-eyed, holding her little brother’s hand.

My poems do best in a fantasy landscape. Colors metallic, ice mountains, enchanted deserts, alien flora and fauna…it’s where my poems really feel most at home.

The dark room was the color of closed eyelids now. Music reached in through a window deprived of its pane. With his eyes on the music, The Interviewer asked What was the last sin your poems committed?

My poems may bite. They may also reveal secrets, gossip, cry into a bottle of beer. And I don’t even drink beer! My poems are much less polite and they smile less than I do. They are survivors, the detritus of battles lost.

A blade of moonlight cut The Poet’s body in half. The Interview liked this. The Interviewer wondered which half wanted most to be taken. Drinks appeared at the table without explanation. I want to know, said The Interviewer, pausing to take a sip of his drink, what your poems dream about?

They dream of apocalypse. Of futures where she might be a robot, or a witch. Often, they dream of disasters: hurricanes, broken cell phones, girls who must rescue themselves from glass coffins. My poems bloom best at night and are pollinated by large green moths.

Minutes were hours in that shut eyelid-colored room. The moon turned into the sun without apology. Music that had been reaching through the window pulled its hand away. The Interview looked less himself. Tell me, please tell me, what have your poems come here to do?

They have come to tell you a story that comes with a warning and a gold coin. They have come to tell you about the inside of someone else’s skin. They have come to tell you about the hidden dangers of mud dauber’s wasp nests and goat’s milk full of cesium’s daughters. They have come to show you the way out. My poems want to rescue you but are often only able to watch.

It was late in the smoke-painted bar, a quarter past the blue hour, when The Interviewer pulled The Poet into an even darker room. And in the dark of that darkness, came the first question. Tell me, said the Interviewer, where do your poems live?

“Hello Darkness, you smell like hot dogs.” (from my poem “Ralph Wiggum, Redacted” – part of the chapbook Anoyed Grunt) Most of my poems reside at The Afterlife Bar and Grill.

The dark room was the color of closed eyelids now. Music reached in through a window deprived of its pane. With his eyes on the music, The Interviewer asked What was the last sin your poems committed?

A few of them got all dressed up in their Sunday best and presented themselves to the editors of some of the more prestigious, pretentious literary journals, who said things like “This one comes closest, but I don’t love it enough to publish it in The Hi-Falutin Review.” Such a pointless death, like the one suffered by my first car, not to mention Kenneth Patchen, who wrote “The animal I wanted couldn’t get into the world” and other lines penned, as Valery said, “by someone other than the poet to someone other than the reader.” Our prayers might be missives from someone other than us to someone other than God. Behind my beard is a face that’s different from the one my wife fell in love with years ago. Behind any given joke is the funk that made us look for laughter. If you don’t know what I mean, you’ll wake up one day knowing. You’ll look up and see sunlight hitting a mountain so hard they both seem ready to shatter.

A blade of moonlight cut The Poet’s body in half. The Interview liked this. The Interviewer wondered which half wanted most to be taken. Drinks appeared at the table without explanation. I want to know, said The Interviewer, pausing to take a sip of his drink, what your poems dream about?

They sleep in hotel beds and dream of flying and then falling beneath the sound of their own breathing. They dream of the broad curves of Crazy Woman Creek Road, which I drove down once as the sky hazed over. They dream of dying but it’s like a turtle entering water, the water creasing and then smoothing itself out.

“This morning my alarm clock tried to wake me
so my feet would take me away from my dreams
to my dream job. ‘Can I borrow a feeling?’
I sang along, which made my tongue feel
brand new, took me back to my childhood home
in good ol’ Springfield USA, scrunched me back into
my ten-year-old skin, which even then didn’t fit right,
and there was Homer, Dad, in a scrubbed new SUV,
dealer decals still on the windows, the proud provider.
I hopped onto the bench seat beside him, and the car
became a spaceship as Dad and I became Kang and Kodos,
tentacled and drooling. I turned to wake Jessica to describe the dream
to her, but just then I remembered that she’d left me
and the dream fell away like Timmy O’Toole down the well.
Jessica thinks I cheated on her, but she didn’t
see me do it. She can’t prove it.
Eat my shorts, I said to the nothing that wrapped around me,
not like arms, not like a blanket, but like midnight, like a rope.
I got up to shave, but my face had been erased,
lost, probably, in the smoke-clouds at Moe’s,
where a son, like his father, gets drunk off his Duff.
I looked closer and did see a face in the mirror.
I didn’t turn into my dad. I turned into Milhouse’s dad!
¡Ay Caramba!”

(from my poem “Bart Simpson, All Grown Up” – part of the chapbook Anoyed Grunt)

Minutes were hours in that shut eyelid-colored room. The moon turned into the sun without apology. Music that had been reaching through the window pulled its hand away. The Interview looked less himself. Tell me, please tell me, what have your poems come here to do?

Everything makes sense
if you squint just right, and at least once a day
I realize that whatever I’ve been saying
isn’t the point at all. I spend most days listening
to other people almost making sense, and I don’t
ask them what the hell they’re talking about
because they’re on television or the radio, or
because I’m eavesdropping from the next table.

AND

You may remember me. I drove a float
in the Springfield Parade. You wore your crown,
your sash, and your gown as you waved
and blew kisses at everyone but me.
Remember? I hauled the Marshalls
and tested the microphone for the band
that played your wedding reception.
You may remember me. I wore a tiny
red, white, and blue thong to the beach,
hoping to lure me some fish.

(from my poem “Troy McClure” – part of the chapbook Anoyed Grunt)

LMB: You recently defended – for lack of a better word – the use of melodrama in poetics. Why do you think people are so uncomfortable with it?

CF: It’s funny, because I don’t think melodrama itself is the problem; think, for example, of the melodramatics in Keats, in Eliot, in Donne – the first stanza of The Good Morrow is as dramatic as any Lana Del Rey song or Minnis poem. I think the real issue is that people have a problem with feminine melodramatics; it’s why Plath became the poster child for some crass concept of Confessionalism (even though another melodramatic man, Robert Lowell, is really responsible for that whole mess) in spite of the fact that she was a master craftsman and genius of the literary costume.

So, I think it’s a gendered issue more than a simple one of dramatic/not-dramatic. The “problem” with girly melodrama in contemporary poetry has to do less with the gesture and more with the thing against which the dramatic girl or queer of female-identified poet is reacting against. Look back to Freud’s case study of Dora, the classic hysteric: her fits of melodrama made people uncomfortable because it forced them to acknowledge some previous hurt or wrongdoing. It’s easier for people to discount the dramatic female voice in literature as a substanceless performance rather than actually dealing with the issues that would cause someone, say, to want to put together something like Marie Calloway’s Google Docs, or Joyelle McSweeney’s very bratty and dramatic Percussion Grenade – which is all about acting out, being loud, wearing costumes, and throwing a tantrum.

LMB: MY LIFE IS A MOVIE – the title itself – is a good bit melodramatic. People seem to be afraid of too many details; I’ve been told myself that “sparse” is good. Less isn’t more, to me, though. In fact, I think melodrama goes a long way. You detail your work extravagantly; I feel like I am getting wasted and then having my heart ripped out. Did you write this book for you, or for the world?

CF: It is dramatic, and intentionally so. In a lot of ways, this was a way for me to work through the issues I have/had with the label of Confessionalism; A lot of the things in MLIAM actually happened, and that’s why I chose the title. The scene with the Austrian welder and getting lost at Ground Zero, and there’s a bit where a jogger gets hit by a car; I workshopped an early version of this and someone actually said that the getting hit by a car thing felt too contrived and overtly melodramatic, that it seemed as though I had put it there for shock value.

The other thing that’s important to note is that MLIAM came directly out of the co-morbid phenomena of reality TV and child actors. My mom and sister had just started filming Dance Moms: Miami, and I had shot two episodes with them and felt really conflicted about it. I was a professional actress for like the first eleven years of my life; I used to be really ashamed, and kept it secret. In graduate school I decided to “come out” as a former child actress when Johannes [Goransson] made us write these manifestoes in my first graduate workshop, and for the first time I allowed myself to acknowledge how intensely that experience (I mean, it was literally half of my life, at the time) affected my poetics.

Growing up in the film and television industry gave me a really different way of thinking about ideas of framing, narrative, truth, and performativity, I think, and in MLIAM I try to give the reader a sense of what it’s like to live within or in the aftermath of that experience.


LMB: You’ve created The Bratty Poets Series. Is there a certain brattiness in all poets that goes unidentified that you’d like to showcase?

CF: Absolutely, and that’s why I started the series – which is less a “Series” in the traditional sense and more a sort of watering hole around which people might gather when they’re feeling a particular variety of thirst. The thing about brattiness is that it’s sporadic, irrational, sometimes childish, and always right. It has an aesthetic but it also doesn’t exclude any particular aesthetic or camp, it’s cliquey but it’s a quality of every clique, by nature. The Bratty Poets Series, more than anything else, is a way to start breaking down the whole “these cool kids over here, those cool kids over there, these aging hipsters hanging out in Brooklyn, those pretentious hipsters in the Academy” quality of “the scene,” such as it is. It’s a nicely decorated padded room in which poets are totally allowed to have a fit.

LMB: Your book trailer is touchy. In it, I say that men don’t only love women for their breasts, but it’s sure a reason. Why did you choose to record your friends, and how does this relate to MY LIFE IS A MOVIE, aside from the obvious?

CF: MLIAM has two definable locations – the City and the Old West. It’s never really clear which is the real and which is the sur-real, because they’re generally interchangeable terms in this movie. When I moved back to New York this summer I was staying with different friends, all of them poets, I was out of school for the first time in almost ten years, I had one suitcase and a guitar, and I felt this really intense sense of being non-locatable. So the footage I shot during those first weeks when I was back in the City and I was really emotionally in shambles for various reasons were in some ways an effort to create for myself a sense of reality; this is my place, these are my people.

The first video I took was of a poet friend sitting on her couch, on which I was sleeping at the time, smoking a cigarette and crying and talking about how many times she had tried to quit smoking. It was very early in the morning, and all anyone had done so far that day in that apartment was write poems and smoke cigarettes, and the light was really perfect and her sadness was so real and beautiful and happening right then; it was like when you see your favorite painting for the first time and want to keep it with you forever. I had an iPhone and there was this gorgeous thing happening front of me and I thought, people should have access to this. Which is the same thought that’s really at the heart of MLIAM.

LMB: If your poetry were any pop-star, who would it be?

CF: Alanis Morisette. She’s such a brat, and very angsty and melodramatic. She’s also a brilliantly talented technical musician. People tend to not see the latter and just think of her as that heartbroken 90s girl who screams, but she’s way more than that. And my favorite Alanis Morisette song is Unsent, which is absolutely no one’s favorite Alanis Morisette song. I was eight when it came out, and it was and is very relevant to my life.

LMB: We both just received our MFAs in poetry. There is a lot of talk about uber-Masters and medieval practices and sheer wastes of money. What are your experiences with the system?

CF: I’m probably the wrong person to ask about this, because I believe fully in the ideas of Poetic Lineage, the tradition of an apprentice being shepherded along by a Master, and Feudalistic economies in general. I write about it in an essay on my blog called FEUDALISM IS RAD, and you performed the role of the Idol in my play, EVERYBODY, LET’S BELIEVE IN THIS IMAGINARY CURRENCY at The Bowery Poetry Club last summer, which was essentially “about” the whole issue of the MFA economy. As far as the MFA itself goes, there are a two things I was told by the person who taught me as an undergrad, and these are some of my personal ultimate truths: don’t pay money to get an MFA, and don’t get an MFA for any other reason than the luxury of two (or three) years during which you have no obligation except to your work.

That being said, once I got to my MFA program (which was amazing, by the way, and certainly not for everyone but I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere else) I got very angsty and resentful of the whole thing. I wrote this long allegorical poem called The Princess and The Ivory Tower, which was a very bratty treatise on what I perceived as the injustices of being a young female in a fundamentally broken Academia, during my first semester. That poem really idealizes the sort of Grand Pastoral experience of learning about poetry, which is an exaggeration of my experience as an undergrad, as antithetical to the sorts of masturbatory arguments that can happen in a hyper-theorized context. In retrospect, I’m really glad that such places exist so that arguments, in general, can happen. They need not be “productive,” they need only to continue.

LMB: You write, “I feel so sincere it makes for bad poems” in MY LIFE IS A MOVIE. How does any good poet balance sincerity with craft, and how do you translate the bigness of life into a poem?

CF: That’s the Big Question, isn’t it? Especially with all of the “New Sincerity” vomit all over the internet (to which I’ve admittedly contributed a few bucketfuls). During my aforementioned Grand Pastoral upbringing, my teacher brought two irises into his office when we met to discuss my poem one morning: one was a wild iris, and the other was a hothouse iris. They were both formally excellent examples of an iris, but one had certainly been bred/crafted to have a quality of showiness, whereas the other had more or less just grown. I think the lesson he meant to teach me that day was about the difference between a public and a private poem, but it seems to apply to the sincerity argument, too. Is the hothouse iris less of an iris; is the wild iris less beautiful?

LMB: Your life/poems is/are a Lynch film. Which one?

CF: Actually, I totally can’t watch David Lynch films. And I don’t like Twin Peaks. I’ve tried, and I just can’t – but I get why other people are into it. My life/poems are a Meg Ryan romantic comedy, or one of those movies in which Drew Barrymore fucks everything up and still gets the boy.

__________________________________________________
Carina Finn is a poet, playwright, and multimedia artist. She is the author of I HEART MARLON BRANDO, which was published in a limited screenprint edition in 2010 by Wheelchair Party Press. Her play, EVERYBODY, LET’S BELIEVE IN THIS IMAGINARY CURRENCY, premiered at The Bowery Poetry Club, and THIRTEEN WAYS OF BREAKING was workshopped and premiered thanks to the generosity of the Film, Television, & Theatre department at The University of Notre Dame. She a graduate of Sweet Briar College, has an MFA in poetry from Notre Dame, lives in New York City, and blogs at www.ladyblogblah.wordpress.com

Birds of Lace is a feminist press founded & edited by Gina Abelkop. Born in 2005 and currently based in Berkeley, CA, Birds of Lace publishes the literary and arts journal Finery as well as chapbooks by emerging writers. Recent releases include Jason Helm’s Fetish, Carrie Murphy’s Meet the Lavenders, Leon Baham’s Ponyboy Sigh, and Anna Joy Springer’s debut novella The Birdwisher.

ORDER CARINA FINN’S MY LIFE IS A MOVIE

Samantha Zighelboim: How did you become interested in the process of erasure?

Matthea Harvey: I first read about erasures in Heather McHugh’s wonderful book, Broken English. There’s an image from Tom Phillips’s A Humument  (which I adore) on the cover and her essay, “Broken, As in English” discusses, in her characteristically brilliant way (“All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages at every turn”) Phillips’ work as well as the fragments of Archilochus (“the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”), Heraclitus and Parmenides.

It’s interesting to think about what the eraser’s attitude towards their text is. Jen Bervin’s beautiful Nets is a respectful erasure—she allows her erased poems to talk to the original Shakespeare sonnets because the poems are printed in grey and her selections are in boldface (or shyface). Someone like Srikanth Reddy, in Voyages (an erasure of Kurt Waldheim’s memoirs) understandably has a different attitude towards the text, as does the artist Ariana Boussard-Reifel. She had a piece in the Museum of Arts and Design show, “Slashed, Under the Knife”—a book in which each word has been individually excised (it’s presented with those words in a pile next to it). Only when you read the wall text do you discover that the book was a white supremacist bible. I also love Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes and Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. As James Tate once said, “Poetry is everywhere. It just needs editing.”

Before you fortuitously found David Cecil’s book that fateful day, were you interested in Charles Lamb’s works? It’s interesting that he wrote that wonderful volume of Shakespeare (Stories from Shakespeare) interpretations for children, almost nursery rhyme-esque in essence.

To be honest, he hadn’t made a big impression on me, but once I’d erased his biography, I was hooked. Along with the Tales from Shakespeare, Charles and Mary did write a book of poems for children, but none about Mary and her little lamb, since the poem that inspired that nursery rhyme was written in 1830, many years after they published their book). His essays (The Essays of Elia)are marvelous. I love Anne Fadiman’s essay “The Unfuzzy Lamb,” Sarah Burton’s A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb and Charles and Mary’s letters. It was funny to find tidbits like this one, from a letter to Coleridge: “[Lamb here erases six lines] Is it not a pity so much fine writing should be erased?” Or this to another friend, Thomas Manning: “I have scratched out a great deal, as you will see. Generally what I have rejected was either false in feeling, or a violation of character—mostly of the first sort.” He was erasing himself quite frequently! Or this heartbreaking glimpse into the siblings’ lives in one of Mary’s letters: “You would laugh, or you would cry, perhaps both, to see us sit together looking at each other with long and rueful faces, & saying how do you do? & how do you do? & then we fall a crying and say we will be better on the morrow — he says we are like tooth ach & his friend gum bile, which though a kind of ease, is but an uneasy kind of ease, a comfort of rather an uncomfortable sort.”

Did you expect the poems or the narrative to take the darker twists and turns that they did?

Well, page one (in the original—we selected 100 pieces out of 108 and reordered them)was “Lamb lived in the background” and page two was “Lamb disliked the lark: that little orchestra. The world showed grey as something fallen from the mind,” so I think the somewhat gloomy sieve of my brain was at work from the beginning. It’s probably more of a surprise for the reader—especially given the bright colors of the paintings. That being said, I certainly didn’t expect them to fall in love and have sex!

How much did your own childhood experience (if any) with this particular nursery rhyme influenced the process?

Well, I’ve always been crazy about animals, so I do remember liking the story of Mary and the lamb that followed her to school, when I was little. Until the age of eight, I lived in Dorset, England, where there were plenty of sheep. Ultimately, my immense sympathies for the lamb in the book, probably owe more to my codependent relationship with my 17 year old cat, Wednesday.

Amy Jean Porter’s paintings add layers of complexity to the already palimpsestic process of erasure and composition. When did the idea to illustrate the poems come into play? What do you think that visual element added to the work?

At first, I was just erasing the book for fun. As a story emerged, the characters became very real to me. I had just done a children’s book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake with Elizabeth Zechel, and I loved that process so much that I started wanting to do another book that blended text and image. I was already a fan of Amy Jean’s paintings—there’s no one who works with animals and text like her (right now she’s doing text messages on butterflies) and I liked the idea of handing over my text so that she could then transform (erase, expand, complicated) it with her images.

Do you think details (the love and madness and violence) of Charles Lamb’s life filtered into the poems?

Here’s another quote from Lamb—“You may extract honey from every thing; do not go a gathering after gall…” It’s good life advice, right? But I couldn’t extract only the honey—there’s so much sadness in their biography. Mary killed their mother in a fit of madness and Charles devoted his life to looking after her. When Mary smiled in a strange way, Charles would have to put a straitjacket on her, and the two of them would walk—weeping—back to the madhouse again. They lived with her madness every day (Charles himself spent a short while at a madhouse), so the word “madness” appeared relatively frequently in the biography, and worked its way into the text. I didn’t feel like I was guiding the poems(or that I was consciously blending the nursery rhyme with the siblings’ story) as I erased—more that I was excavating a story that was already there.


by Matthea Harvey, illustrated by Amy Jean Porter

Of Lamb is the rare, special kind of book that is so beautiful one can’t help but keep it wrapped in tissue paper when they’re carrying around, as they might a shiny stone kept for luck. A collaboration between painter Amy Jean Porter and poet Matthea Harvey (Modern Life, Sad Little Breathing Machine), the book is an art object.  Porter’s one hundred paintings become integral to Harvey’s sad, strange love story; they complete it, shading it with whimsy, irony and surrealism.

It’s interesting to read Of Lamb beginning with the endnotes, where Harvey discusses the unique process of the book’s conception. Inspired by other erasures or appropriations of texts like Jen Bervin’s Nets, Harvey challenged herself to pick up the first book she could find and “erase” it. That book was David Cecil’s A Portrait of Charles Lamb, the story of well-regarded Victorian writer Charles Lamb and his sister, Mary, who in 1796, after an acute episode of depression and mania, stabbed their mother in the heart with a kitchen knife, killing her. The courts declared a verdict of lunacy, and, had it not been for Charles—who offered to become his sister’s legal caretaker—Mary would have resided in an asylum for the rest of her life. Details of this devastating tale of madness, filial devotion, grief and tragedy become the presiding specters of Of Lamb, seeping into the narrative and haunting it with melancholic shadows.

Harvey has excavated a surreal, often somber, incredibly weird and passionate retelling of the nursery rhyme most of us are familiar with.  “Mary had a Little Lamb” ends with the lines: “’Why does the lamb love Mary so?’/the eager children cry./’Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know.’/the teacher did reply.” That sentiment of unconditional love found in the rhyme is what is explored most fundamentally in Of Lamb. When does love become conditional? Is it appropriate to love another so different from ourselves? Does it even matter if it’s appropriate? When does love trump all differences, and when are those differences the destruction of love, and of ourselves?

In Harvey’s version, Lamb and Mary fall in love. They even have sex (“They pin’d and hungr’d/after bodily joy”); consider having children (“What did Mary think/of children? Lamb/a father of a dark-haired little girl-lamb?”); and grow old together (“In old age,/Lamb did think/he should be/happier.”). Lamb, longing to be human, is forced to reconcile with the most real and harshest of human attributes, and is never quite allowed to forget who or what he is. A particularly dark moment occurs when Lamb sees Mary eating mutton (earlier, we hear Mary call Lamb “delicious”). The following page has an illustration of Lamb standing on a table and biting his hind legs, hovering over the lines “Actually, Lamb/liked meat.” For Lamb—full of ambitions, dreams, and an undying love for his companion—the desire to love and be loved as a human being is, ultimately, his demise.

For an erasure to succeed, something entirely original must be resurfaced from its source text. This happens on three levels in Of Lamb: first, Harvey’s poem-story, a boggling of the imagination in its own right, emerging from a strictly non-fiction text; secondly, Porter’s paintings, which further resurface meaning from and add trope to Harvey’s text.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this palimpsestic process of removing in order to create—itself the ribcage containing the heart of Of Lamb—mirrors the growth (and destruction) of its characters. Lamb and Mary chip away at themselves by questioning relentlessly just what it means to be human, what it means to give oneself to another—and eventually reveal “the pathetic little pair” that they are.  What Harvey and Porter have made for us is a story that resonates and echoes long after the pages have been turned.  It remains as a constant reminder of the inevitability of human nature and, ultimately, love.

The setting, Yahia reminds me more than once, is a little absurd. We meet at McGinty’s Irish Pub in Silver Spring, situated in a bustling commercial environment, across from a cineplex and multi-storied shoe store. This woodpaneled simulacrum of authenticity, shutting out as much sunlight as it could, served as our original meeting place, a year and a half ago, to discuss Yahia’s book Trial By Ink. We had sipped beers and discussed his intellectual and spiritual awakenings, my recording device picking up the ambient noise of soccer, classic rock, and the increasing din of patrons. Today, the environment is a little sunnier, and much warmer, but still not exactly conducive to discussing mysticism.

The pub, and Silver Spring itself, very much constitute what Yahia, in The Artist As Mystic, a new book of conversations with fellow aphorist Alex Stein, calls the “here-world”: “Silver Spring,” he assures me in a way that only subtly hints of irony, “has restaurants, bookstores, cinema, and the general feeling that something is happening. What else can you ask for?” But the artist’s often troublesome relationship to the “here-world,” the humdrum of taking out the trash, answering the phone, and trying to live each day as a citizen, husband, etc., is a subtext of this book. Its subtitle is “Conversations with Yahia Lababidi,” but Yahia calls them a series of “lyric interviews…controlled hallucinations,” in which he “eavesdrops on [his] dreams,” then speaks them out loud to Alex. Alex, through his “creative listening,” provides the “music” of their arrangement, turning them into a viable, readable book. Their ruminations address the general topic of art and mysticism, or, the extent to which artists are able to navigate the “here-world” of lived life and the “there-world” of their own dreams.

To speak of this problem Yahia allows himself to be “spoken by” major figures whom he consistently refers to as “these guys”: Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Kierkegaard (among other minor characters such as Bataille, Eliot, and Ekelund). Just how “Any biographer is one who is clever at confessing through the mask of another…They can very discreetly tuck themselves in…They’re lending it their own breath, their everything,” Yahia uses these figures as masks through which he can dramatize his own inner conflicts. But this is the point – he reminds Alex in the introduction that “mortui vivos docent,” the dead shall teach the living, that we are always in conversation, and therefore a conversation, he tells me, was the “optimal form for expressing ideas that are too slippery for other forms…We were letting these ideas have play. You are a midwife. You show up with a body, because ghosts need a body to communicate, then as soon as you can get them to hold hands, you can say ‘please never mind me.’” But, he reminds me, “I don’t want to make the artist sound too precious because they are just a metaphor for everybody…the artist draws from the same well; he only makes a bigger show of the pulling, prodding, and partaking of its contents.” Artists self-consciously display the things that we all inherently struggle with; “[these thinkers] are talking to one another, and we’re talking through them.”

The conversations with Alex are Yahia’s way of demonstrating that “between any two artists there are more similarities than differences,” and that the closer you look, the more their affinities arise. Their affinities, Yahia and Alex argue, reside not in the life of the mind. “I was exasperated with the mind aspect,” Yahia asserts, “I’ve arrived at the very edge of my mind and it’s thin and flat and I’m not interested in it anymore.” For too long “these guys” have been examined and critiqued like specimens, the spiritual urgency of their visions suffocated beneath the trappings of the academic; “we are rescuing dear friends from a stuffy academic party and saying ‘come out!’” The Artist as Mystic uncovers just how each of these figures “comes out” to touch a level of being beyond the “here-world.”

These artists recognized that their existences were “exalted,” which means, Yahia affirms in the book’s introductory discourse, that they were “called to service…The life of the artist may not be apparently monastic, or holy, but there is the same sense of sacrifice, vocation, of having been entrusted with something greater and dearer than one’s own happiness. Imagine! To hold something more dear than one’s own happiness. That cannot be a voluntary thing.” Indeed, for some like Baudelaire, it may lead you to become a “neurasthenic idler,” wallowing in the paralysis this condition may bring. It is a lonely condition, which consists, Yahia asserts, quoting Heidegger, of “longing [which] is the agony of the nearness of the distant.” “That got me,” he says, “It seemed that it was right there. It! I could almost brush it with my fingertips. But it wasn’t right there.” For those who can break free of “neurasthenia” one concept rings true: “I kept coming back to the idea of attention. Attention is the artist’s mode of prayer…I think of those times when I fly in my dreams. I think there must be some connection between how I fly in my dreams and this state I sometimes come to in writing when I feel that I am aloft, ecstatic. The thing I want to say: In my dreams, it is blinking that brings me back to the ground…When I have fallen, I don’t know how to get back into that state. But if there is a formula, I think it must have to do with attention.”

In this sense artistry borders on meditation, which requires the focused channeling of the whole being. One can see how this might lead an artist to become a bit of a misfit, or even a frail neurasthenic, or worse. So, I ask him, how do you negotiate these two modes of existence? “With extreme difficulty,” he says, “I have gross tendencies toward imbalance…But you used this great unstuck simile last time. You said I am unstuck from space and time, like an aphorism, scurrying to find some balance, always.” As for these guys, and the new book about them, Yahia and Alex agreed that “the balance of light has to outweigh the darkness.” Yahia admits that he has his moments where he is “marinated in irreality” and he’s able to work with precise uninterrupted attention. But for the most part, he says, especially as we get older, it’s harder to find those moments of sustained purity. They are replaced by what he calls “interstices,” which resemble dream states, which more or less occur accidentally, appearing like Alice’s rabbit hole. But, ultimately, the goal is “to turn an accident into a summer home, where you return with some sort of intentionality and regularity if you’re lucky.”  Spending time with Yahia and, to use his words, “breathing in” his energy, I can see how important the quest for interstices is to him. He elaborates:

At the risk of sounding completely like a mad person, it’s like a dream state, whether it’s a daydream or an actual dream. It’s a noncommittal state; you’re abstracted enough in the world of ideas. It’s a diffusion of vision, not an everyday life. You abstract, you see everything around it and beyond it. Solitude helps, silence helps, reading helps, to sort of rev up. Another person helps, to sort of nudge you there. To be really fair, it’s always grasped at, it’s not like you show up and say ‘It’s me again!’ [knocking, now, on the table]…The cage seeks the bird. The violin seeks the wood. I’d be flat out lying if I said I’d found a way to go back. If anything I’m trying to find a way not to be denied going back. I know the things I need to do to not be denied from going back. Work is one way of doing it. You do what you need to do throughout the day and you don’t expect it.

His candor about spiritual things is refreshing, but most of its resonances in the book are filtered through “these guys.” To be with Yahia in conversation is to encounter the full range of his feelings on the subject. I begin to see how the book took shape, over the year plus of dialogue with Stein.

Alex used a phrase to describe the core of these spiritual movements. He calls it a “rage for transformation,” which he perceives in each of the figures discussed in the book, centering, for example, on Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” with its monumental final line, “You must change your life.” “You could have said ‘Boo!’ and I would not have been more surprised,” Yahia confesses. But it’s this desire for transformation that drives these artists beyond the “here-world” and into, yes, mysticism. Yahia tells me:

Transformation – yes brother – yeah [clasping his hands together], that’s what it’s all about. But again that’s where the writer is a metaphor for everyone. This is not some academic, esoteric, rarefied project. This is something where everyone is going about in their own ways, maybe without declaring it as such, but it is about transformation. All of these guys, if they have anything in common, that’s the ultimate thing. But it doesn’t belong to philosophy as it does to mysticism. And that’s where we’re comfortable talking about the mystic enterprise vs. the spiritual one. Because the mystic is the one who’s denounced as heretic, because he’s gone too far. There’s no measuring stick; maybe they’re the ones who have to go too far to make someone else realize what is the way. They have to declare themselves divine and then go mad and then backtrack a little bit and realize that that’s an imbalance. All of these guys somehow suspect that they are imbalanced. That’s the difference between the balanced spiritual life or the philosophical life that is very rational…and the mystic, who is reckless and very keen to arrive at once and risk everything, not caring one bit what’s at stake. And these guys interest me now [for] this recklessness, because they didn’t hold anything back, and they didn’t calculate, or care very much, for what they might lose. Everything might just be enough – it might not be enough – but it might just be enough. When you don’t give everything, that space in between might be depression, madness. You’re gambling with that.

It is a constant quest without arrival, a pushing to the edges of parameters, “using the mind to overthrow the mind. Using words to overthrow words.” “It’s a continual clearing of the way,” he muses, “You’re always mid-leap. That’s why you’re always aching. That’s because you can never relax into a normal sitting position.”

Toward the end of our conversation, it became more apparent that Yahia prefers balance to the dangers of approaching the mystical. I asked him, expecting him to reply with one of “these guys” or another like them, if he could only read one person forever, who would it be? Without hesitation, he says:

At this stage, I’m less interested in these guys than I’ve ever been. It was very difficult for me to return to them…The Book of Tao – it’s impersonal enough that I’m not wrestling with one person, especially when I have to return to [these thinkers], but I’m very aware of the all-too-human dimension behind it all. I knew that they shat, or slept, or ate, or betrayed their effervescent persona. They were creatures of their own time and they weren’t always aligned to their own version of themselves. Because of that and because of their psychosexual specificity, I’m done with that, because I’ve got my own psychosexual specificity to deal with. I’m also getting older…meaning it’s unbecoming for me to be under the sway of anyone. It’s not as necessary or valid for me. Something like the Tao is a freer space and something that I don’t want to be reading on a daily basis, but every time I return to it – I really think I’d give up all these guys for this one book.

His preference for the Tao seems to indicate a new turn in Yahia’s spiritual quest. Replacing the mad searching with a balanced rendering of the scale between “here-world” and “there-world.” But will he miss these guys? Ultimately, he finally says, “Writing is a way of looking away from something, so you can look on to something else. It’s a way of saying that they are alive and they are relevant. They are worth picking up. But it’s also a way of saying a grateful goodbye.”

The Artist As Mystic emphasizes this gratitude. It captures the earnestness and urgency of Yahia’s discourse, which is really only fully encountered in conversations like these. Since our first encounter, he and I have become friends, and he never ceases to exude a refreshing spiritual energy. He’s worth reading for that alone. But this is a viable critical/biographical work of any of these figures – Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke, Kierkegaard – for the very reason Stein and Yahia claim. That is, while Yahia breathes knowledge of the life and works of these men, the main aim of the project is one of recovery. It’s not a “study” of them as much as a grateful encomium, an example of how spiritually enriching criticism and biography can be written. Therefore the book is ultimately a way for Yahia to be “spoken by” these guys, to offer his own take on art and mysticism through his formidable interlocutors. I am grateful to be spoken by him, even if for a brief interstice.

Canarium Books, 2012

We lie in every word.
Did I say word? Oh dear. I meant mode.
We lie in every mode.

Darcie Dennigan, “The Ninth Annual Meeting of the Fraternal Disorder of Historic Linguists or The Error of My Maze”

Darcie Dennigan announces in Madame X, her second collection of poetry, that we have been “wis-hearing” syllables “since the Tower of Babel’s ceiling fan stirred M and W into topsiturvitude.” In “Some Antics” we find the speaker “at Macy’s searching for an honest clause.”  We are told: “When the honest word eludes, try to substitute.” Finally, at the end of the book, Dennigan acknowledges her readers: “If anything emerges from this book’s mistakes, it is thanks to [their] generous readings.”

Mistakes run rampant through Madame X. As large-scale disasters they are droughts and hurricanes, nuclear holocaust and water contamination.  But mistakes also arise as verbal collisions, as a misunderstanding or misspeaking.  Dennigan favors dramatic monologues in a prose style that is rich with ellipses to signal interruptions, erasures, verbal tics or a trailing off. The ellipses allow the prose poems to escape their box bodies (yes, these are prose poems with line breaks) by separating words with lapses or pauses, often highlighting language’s slipperiness. In “The Atoll” Dennigan describes the native Atlanteans, driven out of their island homes by the negative effects of fisson testing: “We escorted them … to a very nice … resort-like … laboratory”…“They were nodding and bowing … maybe politeness … maybe vomiting.”

These poems inhabit a site that is almost recognizable. An abandoned Los Angeles. A dreamscape with vivid flourishes.  A sense of normalcy, for instance, in the surreal preparation of a fancy dinner – thirty duck hearts – against the backdrop of a simultaneous hurricane, blizzard, and 4th of July. The recipe keeps changing, depending upon who hears about it, always with some new ingredient to add, some preparation method to tweak. “That’s not the way it goes … anymore,” the chorus of dinner guests reprimands. “Each heart should be served raw … and drowning … in a sacred diamond-flavored fountain” is an impossibility in a poem entitled “The Drought”, where the riverbed is dry.

Symbolism, for these characters, is often undermined.  The hostess in “The Drought,” frustrated by her guests’ servitude to ritual, finally blurts out: “But these guests! … Honestly … They were just … They were as hungry as I was.”  Divorced from symbol, objects become purely functional again.  Baptismal water and communion wafers are consumed for sustenance. St. Augustine’s book flips open to a revelatory passage, not through mysticism, but since “the freaking book probably always falls open to that page because … who’s always reading it … creasing it … who owns that book in the first place.” As Dennigan puts it bluntly, “Even if I believed the Word became flesh, well –/ I’d probably just want to have sex with it.”  Dennigan’s poems often return to the body, the desires and perceived failings her speakers constantly try to transcend.  “This is me typing – Darcie. I am a human. / At least, when I am not a monster, with boobs, and mouth and fingers.”

“Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice” famously wrote Robert Frost.  “I whispered precipice” Dennigan answers, “[…] because precipice contains ice (practically twice).”  If the end is near, as Dennigan proposes, at least the language is hearty.  The crux of the book seems to hinge on our ability to dismantle words to make meaning, to misspeak to create new understandings. True loneliness, Dennigan says, is a place distanced from the disaster zone or, as above, removed from verbal topsiturtivitude. “When the baby is calm you cannot know its mind, and you must / hold in your arms a strange thing.”

Brian: My favorite aspect of your novel, one that other “Armageddon” narratives mostly miss, is that the sky may fall, but still nothing is more terrifying than one’s own death (or even one’s own life).  I guess this is a statement posing as a question.

Colin: I like this.  Thanks, Brian.

Brian: A writer friend and I debate over concept v. character. I don’t consider your book to be a “postmodernist rewrite.” But some might. Did you envision this book in that light? To what extent do you see yourself as an “experimental” writer?

Colin: I don’t view it as a rewrite so much as an interpretation, and a loose one at that.  Obviously I pick and choose which elements from the Book of Revelation I’m interested in working with.  I set down a frame on a particular section of a particular translation and worked with those elements. I’m working with the material much in the way that the characters are.  I’m responding to a  limited set of external stimuli, drafting a story in response.

As for the “experimental writer” thing…I’m going to go ahead and say I would accept being called as much by someone else, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it about myself.  In a literal sense, Revelation is a long-form experiment.  In one sense, especially early on, I was balancing a variety of narrative modes against one another to see the effects.  But I also feel like “experimental” has become a way of describing a certain style of work that resists recognizable trends in “realist” fiction.  This is going to date me a little, but I think of a band like Modest Mouse and how everyone would always describe them as “indie,” even long after they were on a major label.  It had more to do with their sound than anything else.  There’s a certain “indie” feel to it.  This is done all the time.  Bands have an “indie” sound, or writers have an “experimental” vibe, even though most of the work that’s out there being called “experimental” is as heavily codified and traditional as what people often call “traditional” (by which they most often mean “realist” or narrative).

Brian: This is interesting. I focus on what some call “unnatural” narratives. That is, anti-mimetic strategies that stretch the reader’s cognitive parameters. Problem is, “unnatural” strategies, such as, say, the experimentations of postmodernism, are very quickly “naturalized,” or incorporated into a set of parameters readers have come to expect. Do you feel pressure to challenge those parameters? Are we always trying to be one step ahead of incorporation? What does the MFA workshop, which wants you to be able to sell your books, say about this?

Colin: I’m interested in working with the expectations of the reader.  For certain projects, I’ll engage with familiar tropes or narrative modes, recognizable genre ticks, references of one kind or another, etc., and use them in specific ways.  Of course, it’s impossible to predict how people will ultimately respond to a provocation or proposition, regardless of the thought and care that went into it.  And I’m also interested in this.  I find it fascinating and extremely useful that you can introduce elements of the “familiar” by opening a story in a particular way, or saying a particular thing at a particular time, and yet every reader will have a different set of associations to a “familiar” thing.  So what you’re really doing is loading the work with a moment of recognition.  It’s a tool in the toolbox.  The thing is, the “parameters” you’re talking about, what tricks are “naturalized” or “familiar,” those are shifting all the time.  So it feels pointless to me to challenge them directly.  Rather, you can use them to enhance or complicate the work in some way.  I gave my grandmother a copy of Revelation because she was very excited about the fact that I had written a book and someone had published it, etc.  But I talked to her a few months later and she said she had to put it down because she felt she wasn’t familiar enough with the Book of Revelation to read it.  Her plan was, and I suppose still is, to reread the biblical version of the story in order to prepare herself for taking this book on.  Now if you’ve read the book, you’ll know that’s entirely unnecessary.  Maybe it would enhance your read in some way, but everything that needs to be there is in the book itself.  At least in my opinion.  But I’m interested in the way her expectations of the book shift due to a structural conceit.  If she ever returns to Revelation, studied up and thoroughly “prepared” for the material, the questions at the center of the book will be as present as they would have been otherwise, only maybe she’ll feel them more deeply because they will resist the information she’s brought to the book with her.  Where, she might ask, is the God I’ve come to know?  Why is the believer in the same position as the non-believer?  What/where is salvation?  But this book is not the Book of Revelation.  It’s not even a re-telling, really.  It’s something else entirely.  It functions on its own terms, even though it incorporates and uses a variety of familiar narrative modes.  Alternatively, if I had attempted to write something that was a direct challenge to those modes, I feel like it could no longer be said that the work functions on its own terms.  I’m tempted to say that if I wanted to “challenge” the Bible, I would just hand out copies of the Bible to as many people as possible.

But back to your question, I think we want to innovate.  That means different things to different people.  Most people want work that explores new ground, digs a little deeper, maybe, or addresses something abandoned or untouched, or recasts the die, etc.  This is as true of the “experimental” writer as it is of the YA novelist.  So, as you’re making work, it helps to know what you’re ambitions are.  And I think young writers tend to feel that more than know it.  No one in my MFA program was too concerned with me selling my work.  In fact, when I pressed faculty for information, everyone seemed just about as confused and unsure of the game as I was. I won’t go into it here, but it’s obvious that the face of publishing is changing and has been for some time.  The people I listened to most at school were those who encouraged me to make the work I wanted to make, and trust that if I kept at the whole publishing thing I would eventually land on my feet.  At the very least, during those desperate nights when you feel you’ll never make it as a writer, that no one will read your work, let alone pay you for it, that your “career” is a joke, etc. (we all have these nights, right?  Or maybe some poor souls feel this way in the morning…), but at the very least you’ll have a folder full of work that you love and that means something to you.  That’s not enough for everyone, but at one point it was something that kept me going.  It got me to this point, where I’m a little more comfortable with myself.  I don’t ever think you can shake the fears, the doubts, the reservations, but you can make it to a point where they’re no longer driving the car.  This is something a teacher of mine once told me, another thing that stuck, that you’ll never get rid of fear and self-doubt, but as long as you don’t let them take control, you’ll be alright.  They can even be useful.

Brian: That’s beautifully put. Thank you. We have Marcus’ whole life in a slim volume. Did you always envision this book as being relatively minimalist? Why did this approach speak to you the most?

Colin: I knew the book would need to be spare.  I wrote a lot more than is included and edited it out or set it aside knowing it would never go into the book in the first place.  I drafted the in-between scenes and most of what (in the book) happens off stage.  For example, the letter Marcus is obsessing over in the second chapter, I have that written out and saved in a folder on my computer.  The exact wording of the letter is irrelevant for the book, because for that scene what matters is not what the letter says, but the way Marcus is reading the letter.

Also, throughout the book, I wanted a clear sense of how things had moved in the characters’ lives.  I needed to be able to write each new chapter as if it were continuing a story, rather than picking up at some random point and beginning again.   I was interested in a story that feels clear and direct and yet is full of gaps.  The book is a kind of distillation.  There is a story here, but it is obviously not the “full” story.  In fact, I’m skeptical of the idea that there ever is one.

I’m interested in examining our relationship to the unknown, but I didn’t want to be withholding without purpose.  I think the gaps introduce elements of the unknown without tendering purposeless obfuscation.  The gaps make the world feel bigger.  I heard a story once, and I’m likely remembering this wrong, that when Gil Evans was working with Miles Davis on the album Sketches of Spain, Evans wanted to include “quiet” in the composition.  Not silence, but “quiet”.  The way he went about it was to instruct the players to play a large instrument (like a gong) softly.  So, it was actually a fairly loud sound, but it created a sense of quiet because that loud sound was loaded with the possibility/sense of an enormous sound.

But there were a lot of things that made this approach important.  Another major one was speed.  I wanted the book to move quickly, or to have the feeling of something that is moving quickly.  This isn’t an articulate way of saying this, but the book needed a kind of “woosh” to it.

Brian: Is this because death “wooshes” us?

Colin: Oh god, if we’re lucky.  I hadn’t thought of it this way, though.  Life certainly does from time to time.  David Byrne had it right.  And here’s the annoying part of the interview where I include a hyperlink to a Youtube video.

Brian: There’s some interesting textual variety here. Why fill up the page sometimes, sometimes not? Is there a relationship to poetry there?

Colin: I suppose so, in the sense that I was interested in graphic interruptions.  I think the white space on the page guides the way we read and can dramatically alter our interpretations of and engagement with the text, and that’s something many poets are concerned with.  Certainly more than most fiction writers.  But I’ve just finished two books of poems and that feels very, very different.  It was something else entirely, really.  For Revelation, I was interested in certain moments standing alone, or inserting gaps here and there.  Slowing things down or speeding them up.  I wrote the book in standard paragraphs, and it wasn’t until we were editing the book that I spaced it out like this.  Once I had done it I immediately thought, oh, this is right.  This is perfect.  Then I had to edit everything all over again.

Brian: How long did you work on Revelation, from the first intuition of the concept to the final edit?

Colin: I wrote the first draft of the book in a month.  Or, about three weeks.  During that time, it was practically all I did.  I sent it to readers then and spent a few months editing.  Then I Quixotically sent it out to publishers and agents.  Mutable Sound got back to me in a matter of months.  We went for it.  Following that, I spent maybe three months editing and re-formatting the book.  I took it to Martha’s Vineyard and immersed myself in it in the way I had done when I first wrote it.  The book was published exactly a year after I finished the first draft, but I was sending them “updated final versions” up until the last possible second.

Brian: Talk a little bit about your web presence. Your site does some interesting things.

Colin: Ha!  My web presence.  First please allow me a tangential anecdote: about a year ago I was in Austin doing a reading at 5 Things!, a monthly reading series held down there.  At the time, Amelia Gray was involved in running things and she was the one who invited me to read.  After the reading we were all hanging out at Amelia’s and eating tacos and I was being drunk and Amelia said something about the fact that I had a kid.  When I said, I do not have a kid.  She looked at me a moment and then said, well you need to work on your web presence.

That’s been the resounding cry from all concerned ever since.  I recently started working with a publicist  (Lacey Dunham at Atticus Books, she’s amazing) in preparation for the release of A Long Line of Diggers, a pair of novellas I wrote that they’re releasing in 2013.  One of the first things she said to me after we introduced ourselves was, we should talk about your web presence.

I mean, to be honest, it is primarily jokes with myself.  That’s about it.  I just thought to write, it’s all a desperate attempt to be funny…but that’s not entirely true because if I’m posting something, it’s almost always because it’s making me laugh to myself at that moment.  So I guess it’s kind of selfish…

The website is a pride of mine.  My friends Rebecca Elliott and Heather McShane helped me do the code for it.  They helped me realize what was a very specific dream.  It does exactly what I wanted to do.  It is an extension of my outlook in certain ways.  It is a random assortment of images that are related to my work in specific ways and excerpts and stories and interviews and what have yous.  There is no way to “successfully” navigate it, meaning the only way to potentially ever access all of the material is to keep going back and trying over and over again, although you’re just as likely to get nowhere or cycle through the same thing over and over.  Like I said, it’s random.  I imagine it’s terribly frustrating to many.  But I find it immensely pleasing.  (Not frustrating people, mind you, but the site itself).

Brian: That’s why I love it! These are interesting moments you describe, when folks who want to market you “need to talk to you about your web presence.” How comfortable are you, in general, with the prospect of marketing yourself, or, altering aspects of what comes naturally for you for the sake of marketing?

Colin: Thanks, Brian!  I get the idea and use and even necessity of an “artistic persona”.  I think it’s not only a marketing tactic, but also a tool for guiding readers as they approach your work.  That said, I’m a terrible actor.  So my “artistic persona” or my “web presence” has always just been an extension of my normal, social self.  An exaggerated extension, sure, a distillation, but one that, as you say, “comes naturally” to me.  Lacey is an amazing publicist and we never did wind up making any serious changes to the website or any of the other ways I’m using the internet: social media sites, etc.  After we started working together a little more closely, I think she got a handle on where I was coming from and things started to gel for both of us.  She might not have even been concerned initially, but rather looking to make sure we were on the same page.  And I think we are.  I’ve been called “strange”.  The work is “strange”-seeming, at least to some.  And my web presence is certainly “strange” in particular ways.  But I think once you see the whole picture it starts to make a certain kind of sense.  So, in answer to your question, I’m fine with the idea that artists or writers might work to present themselves in a certain light, I think we’re all doing this all the time anyway.  But I think it’s important that the presentation/illusion be in some way a part of the work, or that it help us to better understand the work or inform us as to the terms on which we are to engage the work.  However, in terms of serious alterations to the self, I’m just not a savvy enough fellow to stray too far from home.

Brian: Some very exciting things are happening for you in the near future. How do praise, fame, etc. affect your work?

Colin: There are some exciting things happening, yes!  Or things I’m excited about, at least.  There will be the book of short stories Animal Collection out in September 2012 (Spork Press) and then two novellas will be released by Atticus Books in 2013, as I said earlier.  I’m excited for all of that and to tour and on and on.  As for the second part of your question…I’ll need to see your sources.

Brian: What about the not-so-near future? Do you have ambitions for bigger projects, different modes, more experimentation, etc.? Do you feel the need to evolve as an artist?

Colin: I just finished two new projects I’m really excited about.  The first was a book of poems collaboratively written with another poet, Ben Clark.  It’s called Kate Jury Denton Texas.  Most recently, I finished a book-length poem.  Right now it’s called And We Will Stay That Way.  These were the two “ambitious” projects on the horizon this spring, but now they’re finished and out in the world being read and hopefully they’ll soon find a home.  I’m also about halfway through a new novel that is doing some strange things.  It’s a lot of fun to work on, but it feels very odd moving back into fiction after being so heavily steeped in poetry for the last few months.  To me, every project feels singular, though I’m sure you could locate patterns and identify developments in style, etc. if you were to look closely after the fact.  I’m interested in making work that is exciting to me, and part of what excites me is examining new ground, or the same ground in radically different ways.  I don’t feel pressure to “evolve” as an artist.  Or, if there is a pressure I feel, it is not on those terms, necessarily.  I feel pressure to keep myself interested and fully invested in the work.  But I don’t look at it as a progression as I move from project to project.  But if I were to use the language of a linear progression, I would say I work “backwards” as much as “forwards,” and of course “side to side”.  As I see it, I’m sifting through and rearranging a network of constantly shifting ideas and associations.  It’s a mess up there and out here.  Each project is a momentary organization of a set of needs, ideas, impressions, etc.   Let us look to the T-1000.  Ideally, each book would enter the world like one of his blades or needles, exacting and perfectly fitted to a specific use, and yet the full effects of the introduction of that new element are unpredictable.  That’s one of the motivating factors behind sharing the work, I suppose.

Sigh.  That is the second time in two days I’ve brought up Terminator 2.  Something is wrong with me.

Brian: Well, I don’t see too much wrong with Revelation, or with the way things are going for you. Thank you so much

“Formal choices are never without ideological implications.”
Marjorie Perloff

From the title on of Jennifer Karmin’s “aaaaaaaaaaalice” (Flim Forum Press, 2010), we are falling—crowning though sentiment and buckshot language splayed across pages. “aaaaaaaaaaalice” is a book grappling to hold on to meaning in the self-fomenting chasm that is our condition. In this way, sentience is a pain.

The book oscillates, like its speaker, between a traveller’s snapshots of exotica and an authorial responsibility to the readers’ experience with a crafted effect. In the tatters and wobble between sign and signified, the book struggles to make sense of the phenomena of experience. The book may be a performance score toward a diaristic and playful childlike freedom or it may be a series of exercises pulsing between apophantic closure and menu aperture.

Because I cannot read Jennifer Karmin’s “aaaaaaaaaaalice” for you, I want to insist on one thing: I want to insist that the book is not both a LANGUAGE text and a commodity but that it is between a LANGUAGE text and a commodity. The book is between a self-conscious Fluxus score and a distraction in the wax museum of the dream-life. Indeed, how can any experimental reading be anything other than the between experience of (1) the cutup language that points to the readers’ alienation from themselves and (2) the immersion in the placebo of closure?

One thing is sure (well, for rhetorical effect, it is): those who read poetry attentive to its medium will take pleasure in the different motives and motions animating this book. After all, why read if not for pleasure taking? Another sure thing: experimental readers should read widely, as Karmin does: from non-sense literature to Postmodern Physics.

For what seems to be a few very good reasons we hate to have our vocabularies extended. One such reason is that urbane and modern industrialized readers are lazy, so used to abhorring and going in dread of inconvenience are we. It is hard work to learn new words, even if we were to add such new words only to our passive lexical backwoods where many shadowy terms loaf seeing the light of use but rarely.  Perhaps, on the main unwittingly, we also detest distending our word-hoard because we intuit that new words bring new worldviews.

New words are like spinach for our mind’s eye. We may agree with poststructuralist philosophers that authorial intention is unknowable but then how do we square that with recent neuroscience evidence that the RTPJ (Right Temporal-Parietal Junction) is responsible for interpreting others’ intention and therefore vital to our moral judgment of their actions?

So how might experimental readers write about Tibetan yaks, as Karmin does, in English to Anglophone readers without tokenizing the yak and the yak’s milk-drinkers?

liza comes to talk
grandmother follows
smile gold teeth
many questions
for usa (80)

The more obvious delight of experimental reading presents with the ignition spark motion between the estranging assortments of address and the escapism of storytelling. The more often overlooked pleasure of reading experimentally is that such reading expands the readers’ vocabulary and therefore what is possible, between poetry and the other genres of knowledge such as philosophy for Charles Bernstein, the natural sciences for Forrest Gander, or the medical sciences for Paul Celan. In place of a hermeneutics of reading, as Susan Sontag’s ghost might say, we need an erotics of reading.

The seven sections of Colin Winnette’s slim new novel Revelation correspond to the seven angels of the Book of Revelation. They bring with them fire, hail, receding oceans, bitter water, falling stars (and bodies, in a chilling moment), darkness, locusts, sinkholes, and, of course, those pesky horsemen. The seven sections also depict seven stages of the life of Marcus, whose love and despair we encounter intimately. These biblical calamities, very subtly rendered in unique and memorable visages, are backdrops to Marcus’ struggle, a reminder that life’s great apocalypse – its end – is always an intensely personal one. I had a chance to speak with Winnette about his work on this novel, his other projects, and the writing life.

Brian: Can you talk a little about your development? What authors and styles have shaped you? How has attending a program changed your outlook (or not)?

Colin:  Influence is a tricky thing to talk about.  I can say that Ben Marcus’s work was extremely important to me.  It still is, but at one point it totally saved me.  Or, reinvigorated me.  I was finishing up undergrad and I was in love with writers like Beckett, Proust, Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, these iconic figures who did what they were doing so masterfully that there seemed nowhere to go at all after that.  That was also the result of my age at the time and what being in school can do to you.  I didn’t realize it then, but I had a pretty narrow vision of what it meant to be a writer and what one could do with fiction.  But then I picked up Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women and I was just totally blown away.  It was an entirely different approach to working with and examining language than I had ever encountered before.  Those books led me to Gertrude Stein and William Gaddis and all of these authors who were breaking language apart, yes, but also reclaiming it, making it do new and fascinating things.  And, I mean, they had been doing this for a long time and in different ways, and here was Ben Marcus doing it still in his own way and just killing it.  So I suddenly felt very free again.  It’s interesting the difference between grad school and undergrad.  In undergrad I was constantly being told what good writing looked like.  It looks like Carver.  It looks like Chekhov.  It looks like Pynchon (and indeed it does!).  It looks like Austen.  Etc.  Workshops were little help because they were often the same kind of thing: I think you should do this, or I think this should happen, etc.  Initially I lacked the confidence to assert myself.  Then, when I gained a little confidence, I asserted myself by just ignoring pretty much everybody and only listening to the 2% I thought made sense or seemed to come from a good place.  I started to tune a lot out.  So I left undergrad fed-up, but with a lot of energy.  I wrote and worked and traveled and didn’t write and two years later I went to grad school with a much different attitude.  I used that time to write as much as possible.  I listened to people and read as much as I could, but took the whole thing less…personally, I guess…than before.  I took it seriously, but I knew the conversations we were having in class were often selfish in that we were all interested in enhancing our work by discussing the work of others.  Helping one another wasn’t exactly the point, although we certainly did help one another from time to time.  And I should say I think all that’s great.  The two most important things grad school gave me were time and a sense of purpose.  I felt encouraged to work and I had the hours in the day to do it.  Or if I didn’t have them, I made them because I knew my time was limited.  I taught myself how to make time to write.  I was writing a lot on the train and in bed my first year.  I wouldn’t let myself sleep until I had done a certain amount of work.  I’m not sure I would have had that kind of discipline at first if I weren’t in a program.  Now, it comes much more naturally.  I had to learn how to kick my own ass.

Brian: I found that the discipline angle served as a wheat/chaff scenario in my own fiction writing classroom. The students who wrote well were the ones who put the time in. Is that level of focus and concentration waning in the generations that come after us? Is it something that can be taught?

Colin: Obviously practices vary.  The kind of disciplined work ethic that worked for me in the past just wouldn’t work for everyone.  It’s very personal, I think, and the method I described is one that fits with the way I am, in general, about many things.  I can be rigid and extremely hard on myself, especially when I’m working on something I care about very much.  And it doesn’t even work for me all of the time.  In fact, being too disciplined or too hard on oneself can often be a hindrance, and can drive one to resent something that should ultimately be pleasurable and thrilling.  So another thing I had to learn was to not be so hard on myself all the time.  It’s a balance, I’d say, something I’ll be perpetually tweaking.  But can discipline be taught?  I think yes and no.  You can’t make anyone do anything, really.  Or, who would want to?  But you can give them (and I assume we’re talking about students here) ideas about what to do.  In a classroom setting, I think it’s important to emphasize the variety of ways that people have worked and will work.  I think it’s important for young writers to write often, even if it’s bad.  Especially if it’s bad, maybe.  Just write it all out and use up all your clichés and lazy sentences.  For me it was like I just poured all of this garbage out onto the floor, but in it were these little pieces of rubbish that I actually kind of liked.  These nuggets I could polish and be proud of.  Seeing it all messed together like that, it was easy to start understanding the difference between something I thought was good or attractive or effective and something that wasn’t.  There’s a process of learning to identify what interests you and what you’re trying to do and what helps you do it.  But that’s just how I do things, you know?  As a kid, I was the one who poured all the Legos onto the floor then went digging for the pieces I wanted.  I needed to see it all at once.  But I had a lot of friends who were much cleaner and more deliberate in their selection.  And we both eventually built whatever it was we were building. There’s no right way to do it.  You just have to do it.

Brian: Ben Marcus and Adam Levin speak highly of Revelation. How do mentors shape your work?

Colin: I’ve always had relationships with other writers and artists.  For me, it’s essential.  I’ve also been blessed enough to attend schools with curriculums that involve one on one meetings with faculty, so a lot of my education occurred in that intimate kind of setting.  I learn a lot from other people.  Or, really, I learn everything from other people.  And I love people very much, so it’s always a pleasure to get together with someone whose work I admire or who is really insightful and engaged and talk through things and get to know one another better.  Having Ben Marcus respond to the book was really one of the most thrilling things that ever happened to me.  He’s a champion and I owe him a lot.  Adam Levin teaches at SAIC, where I earned my MFA, so I had the opportunity to work with him both in class and as an advisor.  He has an incredibly active mind and cares very much about fiction, so our conversations were often incredibly invigorating.

Brian: Do you have any interest in teaching your craft?

Colin: I love talking about fiction.  And I love talking about fiction with people to whom it really matters.  People who have a personal connection to writing.  Often, but certainly not exclusively, you meet those people in an academic setting.  You meet people who are trying to figure things out for themselves, trying to better understand their work, trying to improve, and so it can be a wonderfully open and productive environment.  It can also be a hostile and competitive environment.  It’s a mixed bag just about everywhere, I think.  But I’m optimistic.  I’m happy for the good when it comes.  I’ve had a number of teachers who really inspired and encouraged me.  The bad experiences tend to melt away and the good ones still drive me years later.  One of the best gifts a writing teacher can give, I think, is the sense that the work of a young writing student is as important as the work they themselves are doing.  It sounds obvious, but I think it’s much more difficult than most people realize.  I’ve had a number of teachers who did this, but one of the first was Brian Morton, whom I worked with at Sarah Lawrence College.  While our opinions about fiction were occasionally at odds, I always felt that he approached the conversation as earnestly and attentively as I did.  He was studying, his mind was always working, and he was kind and generous and honest.  He was an early guide, but also an attentive friend.  It was a gift.  My interest in teaching writing would come from a desire to give other young writers something like this, because it meant so much to me.  And still does.

Brian: You manage the imagery from the book of Revelation so gorgeously and subtly in your novel. How did this idea occur to you?

Colin: It was really very sudden and intuitive.  Honestly, I was first attracted to the idea primarily as a constraint.  I had no idea why, but it just occurred to me to write a book that was seven chapters long, each chapter of which would be invoked by the sounding of one of the seven trumpets of the Apocalypse.  And I knew each chapter would jump forward radically in time, so that the book covered the entire span of a character’s life.    It wasn’t until I had written the first draft of the book and was beginning revisions that I really started to understand what was interesting to me about using this structure/content, other than the fact that it gave me the push to begin the work as well as a set of loose guidelines to move the project forward.  It’s something I say all the time about the book, that it was a sort of exorcism of certain narrative modes I was steeped in as a kid growing up in a small Texas town, as well as the models of “great writing” I was beaten over the head with as a young writer.

Brian: How important are constraints for anything that you work on? This is, to me, the delightful irony of experimentation. You exhibit freedom and limitlessness through the very limits you impose on yourself.

Colin: I was extremely interested in working with constraints at one point for many reasons, one of which was exactly the reason you detail here.  I followed and studied the Oulipo, and other artists working with constraints, like 60s/70s performance artists or musicians, and many working today.  I’m interested in the idea that we are always working with constraints, only some are more apparent than others.  When I sit down to write a work of “fiction” on my MacBook, in Microsoft Word, a vast number of decisions are made for me before I even begin.  One’s limited knowledge of the tradition in which they’re working can also be viewed as a series of constraints guiding all of one’s production.  Making the conscious decision to impose constraints is a way of acknowledging and engaging with the constraints that are already in place.  There’s a quote from one of the more famous Oulipians, Raymond Queneau, in which he says, “…inspiration, which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery.  The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.”  It is also a way of knowing more about what you are doing before you do it.  For me, it is also a way of incorporating one’s limitations into the work itself.  And, as you and Queneau point out, the marvelous thing is the way in which engaging with limitations or constraints, be they self-imposed or otherwise, can actually be liberating.

Brian: Most other narratives of this type depict a man-made apocalypse and thus morph into social commentary. Some would argue that even the end-of-days apocalypse is man-made, due to sin, etc. What causes the events in Revelation?

Colin: Yes.  Exactly.  It’s funny no one’s thought to ask this so directly before.  The quick and easy answer would be to say there is no answer.  Or, we don’t get to know.  This is something the characters in the book are struggling with, or trying to ignore, or successfully ignoring.  I’m much more interested in the ways we come to understand, deal with, or not deal with traumatic events in our lives, rather than tracing any kind of causal relationship, casting blame, etc.   I’m interested in the stories we tell ourselves.  I think examining those stories brings us closer to an understanding of what it means to be an actively living/seeing/perceiving thing.

Brian: This is a good point. Your answer clearly applies to Marcus. We don’t get to see the ups and downs (mostly downs?) of his life actually happen to him. We’re always, at the beginning of a section, thrown into some sort of aftermath, or dénouement, of another major life change. You have a taste for, as you say, the way we re-present these moments to ourselves, after the fact. I find it would make for a very interesting film. Have you thought of this book cinematically? Does thinking cinematically help you?

Colin: I think it’s hard not to think cinematically at this point, at least when writing a book with such clear scenes and imagery.  I certainly pictured every scene I wrote in my head as I was writing it.  And movies have dramatically impacted the way I imagine things.  This is true of other work I’ve done as well, that the work relies so heavily on the concreteness of a certain image or gesture that I have to really picture it before I can write it.  I have to see it and look all around it and check it for weak spots.  I’ve been so effectively trained by movies and television as to how one looks at and around a thing, that my imaginative eye often examines an imagined thing in these camera-like sweeps and zooms.  I am a slave to the machine.   But I think you’re also talking about the narrative itself here, and I would have to say that in constructing the story I wasn’t thinking at all cinematically.  I also would be interested in seeing a film that moves in this way (I’m sure they’re out there.  In fact, I’m sure I’ve seen a couple without realizing it).  I think most movies emphasize the moments that this book tends to leave out.  We are attracted to stories with high-drama and with rising tension that moves toward a rewarding climax because it makes the events of our lives seem meaningful.  I am not belittling this method of storytelling.  I love it, in fact.  And I’m interested in it.  I’m interested in the ways we construct meaning.  And I think we always draft the narrative of meaning after the fact.  There is a quote, though I cannot remember who said it, that thought occurs in the wake of experience.  This idea has been stated in one way or another by many, I’m sure.  And I like that.  If it’s something that’s been said over and over in myriad ways and contexts, that seems right.

 

 

One of the most dreamily sinister images in Dana Curtis’ Camera Stellata appears in the poem The Final Amnesia, which features an abandoned Eden drifting in space with hanged gardeners who “have decided to die/to give the roses/wings/the mint/dominion.” In the void of such lawlessness, “God’s Rapist” has begotten a miscellany of stars, planets, illegitimate black holes, and feminine “iconoclast[s] awhirl in stasis”…”each attempt to abort” drying their hair to thorns: the streams running from Christ’s crown those of Mary’s menses, or miscarriage: a kind of cosmic Handmaid’s Tale interspersed over Biblical prophecy.

camera stellata

Female voices cycle through the narration, some truculent and young, recalling coming-of-age visions of “blood, vomit, loud sex in asparagus fields”, some sorrowful as Russian mothers striding among bombed-out ruins as chemical fires flicker on the horizon. Flames (as in war, as in zodiac, as in mythical salamander, as in creation and regeneration of the solar system) are a recurring image here, and music is Pythagorean/of the spheres. (Cemetery opens with the Shostakovich quote, “The majority of our symphonies are tombstones. Too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone…where do you put the tombstones? Only music can do that for them”).  Ergo, Curtis’ poetry here is at times strongly reminiscent of translations of Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, reading almost as if it had been composed in a foreign tongue and filtered back into an approximation of English. The effect is a language that’s both sparse and opulent, finding a home somewhere between the pared-down grandeur of HD and the epic generalities/sweep of Dylan Thomas.

From Salamander:

She said her death lobbied to be gruesome…she won’t live anywhere she can’t imagine

This is an apt overview of Camera, whose speakers are committed not so much to transcendentalism as to exploration within the parameters of their own doom. This is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, of course (as all existentialism is), but it’s a defiant, expansive strain that’s nobody’s fool or prisoner. Just as the heroes of Norse folklore (as in mythographer and scholar Edith Hamilton’s famous account) are heroic without hope of spiritual deliverance in any truly transformative sense, Curtis’ language is never so triumphant as when it comes into collision with the end of itself (“Look/the swans hit the water like ruined wine”). The nymph Daphne’s transformation into laurel tree was not liberation from her pursuer, but merely the next best thing. Similarly, in Entropy

The woods were never an escape, but I escaped

Trapped in roots and mushrooms.

There was never any her, not

Here, no longer, a little

Longer before the film of scum eats the pool.

“I died outside the garden gate/arranged the letters because I must be gibberish” is what we hear in Elegy, which begins “Shall I compare you to nothing?” In a place where history and time have yet to begin, zero is, by definition, the only possible comparison with itself, and time’s possibilities, being new, are endless. In Towards the Uncreation, Eve, having slain the serpent, invites the exiled back into paradise:

In her arms, no garden but a

 dead snake and she says…

Come

back and reveal

the equations and constellations

Retreat opens with the startling line, “As if I’d entered one of my own pores”. Here, learning “the true, luminous nature of digestion”, we pass right on through to On Her Blindness, which ends: “The mirror is a sea/feathered glorious”…a line reminiscent of Ariel’s “and now I foam to wheat/a glitter of seas”.

The book’s title track, Camera Stellata, is as much love poem to Astarte and/or Venus as it is love poem subverted into physics:

She hates me and I hate 

a horizon penetrating a blindfold…

She’s not the beauty I recall…

Pink is torn…pink trespasses the installations

 I design

A liquid event

 horizon. I just might

stroke her throat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is pretty much everything here: sex as anatomy, anatomy as physics, the “horizon penetrating a blindfold” as event horizon itself; the wormhole as the throat that might or might not swallow the venom of After Vienna, where the Akhmatovian speaker knows “the poisonbaths have failed to make [her] immune.” But toxicity is relative to the antidotes in the myths so scattered throughout the book: if Eden’s serpent were Snow White’s stepmother with her poisoned apple, help might just as well arrive in the form of astronomy’s white dwarfs wished upon…as stars…in the Disney song. As in For Seraphim Walking Dogs, original sin might have relegated us to “running errands past the cobra farm/but for every place we’ve been/there might be an antidote.” Camera Stellata, like the proverbial butterfly dreaming it’s a man, is (to our delight) finally a luminous cosmological prayer dreaming it’s an existentialist swan song.

I see your movement flashing like a knife,
Reeling my senses, drunk upon the hues
Of motion, the eternal rainbow wheel…
–Claude McKay

Claude was referring specifically to the hustling city of Barcelona, mostly because
he’d just abandoned the Harlem Renaissance & his friends wouldn’t talk to him anymore. This is not a problem for Tim Seibles. He manages to keep both ambidextrous hands flexed upon an operating lever that activates & deactivates a bicameral fog-machine. Fast Animal—the poet’s seventh collection—is poetry that accomplishes the following laundry list (plus whatever numbered attributes you choose to affix after purchasing & camping out with the work many times over):

1. Seibles hijacks classic forms to croon Blues.

I’ll let the powerful odes “Ode to My Hands”, “Ode to Sleep”, and “Ode to This for That” speak for themselves—to retain the hoodoo. There are also villanelles aplenty,
one in each of four sections:

I once rode the cosmos in a suit stitched in plaid
The Earth was my space ship and me, the rough crew
The big light was nice; but the nightside was bad
–from “Mad Poets Villanelle”

The teams, the games, the superstars—the happy fans all shout!
I sang inside the Spider’s house pretending to be free
We bumble all around this place and then they take us out
–from “Punching Villanelle for the W, 2005”

2. Seibles trash-talks Maturation,

which is basically like roasting the Grim Reaper. Waking up daily is an attempt to embody & embolden what are essentially the organic shells of our spent beings. It’s no easy task. It’s likely our hardest task. While most of us never acknowledge exactly how weird & difficult this resuscitation is, Fast Animal is filled with such things:

my own life: the bending

of a man into something
else: did I change? Are you

changed?
–from “Familiar”

Let’s stop talking
about God. Try to shut-up
about heaven: some of our friends
who should be alive are no longer alive.
Moment by moment death moves
And memory doesn’t remember,

not for long: even today–even
having said
this, even knowing that
someone is stealing
our lives—I still
had lunch.
–from “Faith”

3. Seibles takes a magnifying glass to Race.

The cufflink pair Racism & Ignorance should disrobe more evidently in the universal coat closet. Fast Animal plays a large role in permanently pressing that tuxedo.

The monsters that murdered
Emmett Till—were they everywhere?
I didn’t know…
Occasionally,

History offers a reprieve, everything
leading up to a particular moment
suddenly declared a mistrial:
so I’m a black boy suddenly

walking the Jenkintown streets
with a white girl—so ridiculously
conspicuous we must’ve been
invisible.
–from “Allison Wolff”

4. Seibles is interested in human beings’ daily miscommunication & uncelebrated resemblance to Animals.

Well, it’s true.

5. Seibles pines for lost, found & as yet undiscovered Love.

In this life, most of us are lucky to encounter the solitary one-who-got-away.
Counting “Allison Wolff” above, tack on “Delores Jepps”, “Donna James”, add a verse about best friend “Terry Moore” then another about big brother, Big Brah, Tom the Bomb. Seibles not only misses everybody he’s ever encountered, he finally gets to say & do everything he meant to at the time. His poems of memory are not unlike finding overalls in an attic, digging in a pocket & pulling out a still-edible candy that’s no longer manufactured.

The best way to gain time is to change place.
—Proust

Any review of literature in translation is also a review of the translation. And in this act, the review is also, in part, a comment on the endeavor of translation itself.

The Zoo in Winter, a selection of Polina Barksova’s poetry translated by Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg, often addresses this issue of translatability head on. For Barskova, language shapes both perceptions of and expressions of interior identity and exterior reality, writing, “how could one describe in Russian/ The grand and small (goddamn) details/ Of need, so that the martyr’s crooked body/ Would not be crooked more painfully,/ So that, as it had once, it should desire/ Purposeless days in place of rueful days?”

In her work, Barskova doesn’t shy from explicitly stating her concerns as a writer, a woman, and a Russian living in the U.S., writing, “most of all I’m occupied with beauty/ I’m driven mad by the fact that the prattle healthyyoungbeautiful/ in their language means simply alive…” Here, and in its concern for beauty and its confrontation with mortality, poetry has the capacity, despite language-gaps, to bring people together, across genders, across nations, across languages—even as memory recedes, even as death intervenes—in the very act of articulating these divides. Barskova writes:

Under a foreign sky, under the ward
Of smiling Berkeley invalids
Whom I attend,
My soul lies like a hero killed,
No longer drawing crows.
Everything toothsome has been pecked from it,
It should be washed by rains and kicked by winds.
But – there is neither rain, nor wind, and one can hardly
Pick out a word to cover up the shame.
Words that serve here are meek and even,
Foreign to past grandiloquence…

In that passage—from “On Overcoming the Language Barrier”—language is not a mere characteristic of a nation’s people, but shapes nationality, and nationality, is not only a characteristic of an individual, but shapes that individual from his/her origin.

 

_____

 

Two years ago, in celebration of the Tolstoy Centennial, at a Russian-themed reading at Pacific Standard in Brooklyn, Polina Barskova read with Ilya Kaminsky and Boris Dralyuk, a translator of Tolstoy and also Barskova’s translator. And this reading in 2010, marking one hundred years since Tolstoy’s sudden disappearance, then illness and death at a railway station in then-Astapovo, now named Lev Tolstoy, Barskova read her poems in the original Russian, then in the English translation, suggesting a loyalty to her own language, while also a commitment to being understood across barriers.

Also there in reading’s audience was Austin LaGrone, a Louisiana poet I met just before the reading began. We discussed the Southern Writers Reading series, which takes place monthly at a massage parlor-turned bar in Chinatown, and his then-forthcoming first book, Oyster Perpetual, selected for the Idaho Prize for Poetry by Thomas Lux and now available through Lost Horse Press. (Months later, in the same backroom of Pacific Standard, LaGrone would read from it, and I’d snag a copy.)

His book, like Barskova’s work, rings out strongly of its origin, but in a way that neither exoticizes where it comes from nor alienates a reader who comes from someplace else. Further, it shares a similar concern with being transplanted to new cities, with bridging time and place, and with conveying experience that is specific to an era and locale while also reaching beyond its context. In “Peach Flavored Cheyennes” LaGrone writes:

I’m not sure how things
come together to make a life,
or at what nexus we choose our heroes.
I want to sing Hank Williams.
But then I see girls
outside Pete’s Candy Shop
tying cherry stems with their tongues
and I think about Crystal
working the pole down at Maxine’s.
The heart grows stubbornly
in whatever soil we give it.

And even though this conversation during the break in this Russian-themed reading was our first-ever, our talk ended up landing on the topics of illness, death, and grieving. Oddly, it is with this similar, associative motion that Barskova’s poems function. In the book’s title poem, she writes:

Your father now holds Frosya by the hand. The hand –
Should be memory’s last stop
Before it swims off into the abyss.
The palm wraps round the night trains of remembrance,
Proust’s soggy little madeleines,

And VN’s Dobuzhinskii caves.
And Frosya’s wooly head
Is pressed against the tender web of veins,
Stretched out across the father’s ruin
Like a sweet lover’s furrow.

The hand. To hand. He walks into the room, where I sit without light,
As if I’m Heracles, ensnared with Admetus,
Hoping to save someone, yet lingering.
And mumbles: “I’m still. How cold. Give me that.”
And grasps my hand in a despairing handful,
The sweaty palm – awakened, warmed,
Blooms, nearly, like a stump on a spring day,

What’s astonishing – your father doesn’t know
Who I am, in that room looking after him,
Judging about him,
Yes, and in general, himself. Druid and asteroid,
He moves in darkness,
He moves towards me,
So as to freeze above me, and for a long time warm my hands
In the comfortless silence of his haggard rooms.

This reading was two years ago, now, as Tolstoy died in 1910, but I can still remember, as Barskova read the last lines of that title poem, “Since he has long ago forgotten all our names,/ Let him give names to us: Madness and Death,” LaGrone and I caught each other’s eye, astonished, across the packed backroom of that Brooklyn bar on 4th Avenue and St. Marks.

Read Levi Rubeck on Oyster Perpetual here.

Portland just feels different. That can seem like an unfortunate statement to anyone already living here, because the rent spikes another forty bucks every time it’s uttered, but that doesn’t make those four words any less true. They seem especially true now to those of us in the local literary community, because everything that has made Portland a Mecca for musicians and visual artists for the last decade or so is here in earnest for the poets, too.

“Community” is an important word. While it feels like there have been small pockets scattered around the city of close friends, or trusted confidants, who write together, offer feedback, and support each other’s efforts, bringing those groups together into a larger, more diverse local presence never seemed quite possible until recently. There have been some touchstone figures and organizations working in the literary spectrum this whole time, to be sure—Kevin Sampsell, small press guru of Burnside Powell’s and seemingly tireless driving force behind Future Tense press immediately comes to mind as a kind of figurehead for the local indie press movement, along with the Independent Press Resource Center (IPRC), helmed by Justin Hocking. There’s also Literary Arts, which brings in figures from all over the upper stratosphere of the literary world, while constantly working to support local writers, publishers, and journals. There has also been a guardianship of Oregon’s literary tradition maintained largely by organizations like the Friends of William Stafford (the board of trustees includes Paulanne Petersen, Oregon’s sixth poet laureate and reads like a who’s who of the national poetry scene spanning the last few decades).

It’s not like Portland woke up one morning and joined the larger contemporary poetry world in progress. Considering how much of the year we spend covered by thick, flat-gray clouds and perpetually soaked by the fine mist that hangs in the air everywhere all fall, winter, and spring, Portlanders have a lot of time to engage in their “indoor” hobbies and pride themselves on being a well-read crowd. You are equally likely to get turned on to a new author while mixing concrete on a construction site as you would while wandering around one of the many libraries and bookstores. Portland is a well-read city in the midst of a well-read state and has more than its fair share of writers, which has been made patently clear over the years.

At the height of the popularity of slam poetry during the nineties, Portland made waves in the national scene for having the lowest-scoring audiences in the nation. It seemed like this city was an excellent place for performance poets to get their egos raked across the coals any time their material favored pure performance over literary merit, or substantiality.

As slam fizzled out locally (not to effectively reappear until very recently), about a thousand open mics seemed to pop up around the city. These ranged from quiet bookstore or library affairs to rowdier barroom readings sometimes accompanied by musicians and DJ’s. I hosted on of the latter type for a year-and-a-half, learning a lot about that particular scene from several sides of the picture.

Those open mics were a great thing for a lot of budding poets. Even now, they can create a space to work on reading voices, make friends with people who are also into what can feel like one of the more despised art forms in America (especially for those of us who have friends that like to bitch about how much they hate poetry), figure out their craft, and occasionally (very occasionally) meet someone to date. But, as much as open mics are a great way for new poets to start figuring things out, they have problems, too.

After visiting a number of these around town, and running one, I started to notice that the same group of people would migrate around and read the same set at every single open mic that fit their schedule. Since most of these were weeklies, the homogeneity was palpable. This group of regulars made up the bulk of the readers at each open mic, and seldom—if ever—played the audience role well. If a new person (especially a woman, the bulk of the regulars all seem to be men) wandered in to the open mic, all the regulars would break out their “big guns”—whatever got a good response from that particular crowd in the past—which would be fine, excepting that the same set might be repeated over and over every week depending on how many strangers showed up.

The close quarters also seemed to lend it to deep, jealous rivalries. Little, sometimes one-sided, wars would break out among regular readers.  Keeping track of who hated whom could drive a person to drinking heavily, especially since so much effort on the part of whoever had a grudge went into trying to recruit supporters. Since the same general group would be at each reading, there might be no escape from the machinations of angry regulars.

Granted, this behavior was only really common among the divas in the group—primarily male, prone to redlining microphones by screaming “fuck” a lot, and frequently given to rambling “off the cuff” medleys of their memorized work. Since the bigger personalities were often at odds with one another, it could sometimes be hard to see past them and find the distinct value in the open mics, especially if the goal was to check out some poetry. Of course, the value is there and its discovery can keep someone (like me) coming back week after week for the flashes of surprise that can make the open mic so worthwhile.

Despite the problems, fresh art can be found frequently at open mics, along with amazing feats of performance. I remember standing in amazement one time while a guy recited “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” from memory, and again while Tom Blood (who would later win the Oregon Book Award) “read” in his strange, lilting tone from blank sheets of paper. The surprises are what makes the open mics worth visiting—which is probably true everywhere—especially when there’s an energy to specific venues. The energy is more likely to attract diversity, and simple high school biology tells us that a diverse ecosystem is less likely to collapse. In fact, that surprise and that energy are probably the key reasons why Slam took off so hard in the nineties.

While some of the open mics struggled with inbreeding, and seemed to be providing fewer surprises, many of the smaller curated readings didn’t fare as well as one would like. Attendance could be abyssmal for numerous reasons: popular open mic regulars noticably absent anywhere but the open mics at which they read (often citing issues of authenticity), no reliable list of events to be found anywhere, only a handful running on a regular enough schedule (usually monthly) to predict.

Unfortunately, some curated readings would be followed by an open mic, as a strategy to build or keep audience, a practice that deeply violates my old punk rock ethos—whoever tours headlines!—but also creates an environment in which the open mic crowd starts noisily arriving somewhere in the middle of the last “featured” poet’s set. The host might then transition from the curated portion to the open part by saying something like, “we listened to you, now you listen to us,” which can seem hypocritical since the “us” in question often has just walked in the front door, or spent the last twenty minutes shuffling papers, not listening to anyone at all.

Many of the other curated events suffered from lack of publicity to a point where I might catch sight of some local poet walking into a café or gallery while I was out getting groceries and, if I dropped what I was doing and followed him or her, I’d wander into a reading that featured some touring poet whom I’d never heard. Sometimes the reading would actually be kind of a big deal, but news of its existence wouldn’t seem to make it into the light of day until after the fact.

The newspapers didn’t help. If anything the local weeklies and the Oregonian appeared to be pointedly ignoring the local literary scene. I remember sitting in an editorial meeting while working as an intern for Willamette Week right as there seemed to be a small, sudden influx of new energy in local poetry, mentioning an upcoming event as possibly being worth a blurb and getting “slam poetry is dead” for the trouble. Yes. Slam was (at least temporarily) dead in Portland. Of course, that’s not at all what I was talking about.

Then something changed. Just as more Portland writers started getting national recognition, an influx of highly active, extraordinarily community-oriented people showed up on the local scene, injecting the city with a new vitality. I don’t know who came first. It was like an explosion. Now the city is filled with people who really give a shit. Not just about the art, but about fostering relationships between everyone with a shared interest in the art. Willamette Week lists the slam almost every week (along with all the amazing stuff happening around the city), Oregonian has a poetry column that only occasionally is bumped, Portland Mercury thankfully lost or fired all their lit-crit Reed alumni and replaced them with people who only occasionally rip on poetry.

It is fucking awesome, and as far as I can tell, directly linked to a few key events.

I remember walking into my first (their third) If Not for Kidnap, held in the living room of a large shared house off of César E. Chavez Blvd. (it was 39th Ave, then). I was nervous as hell because the thing I can handle the least is being around a crowd of people. Plus, I wasn’t experienced with the kind of energy this group put out. It was a semi-BYOB event, with a couple of half-racks of Pabst parked on the table to fortify all the wine everyone brought. I was there with my girlfriend who’s also nervous in a crowd, carrying a bottle of red wine and wishing there was someplace nearby to get a whiskey shot. We were, of course, a little early.

Although I don’t like crowds, I do like readings, and I wanted to try to be as close to the readers as possible. The hosts, Donald Dunbar and Jamalieh Haley, were still busy putting the living room together. I’d met Donald Dunbar before, but tonight he was radiating waves of calm energy. It felt good. In fact, I’d never felt so completely welcomed into a space in my life. Kate Bucko, a friend and classmate from PSU, was a roommate in the house and provided shots pilfered from a secret stash. We went out to the back porch, to get out of the way, and met Marshal Walker Lee and Drew Scott Swenhaugen (who we’d later learn are the engine behind Poor Claudia, one of the prettiest journals I’ve seen). By the time the reading started, it was packed. People were all over the floor, directly in front of the microphone to watch Emily Kendal Frey and Lisa Ciccarello. The excitement in the room hung on everything like humidity.

I’d never seen a reading like it in Portland. In the last twelve years, I’ve been to bookstore readings, library events, slams, literary variety shows, readings by extremely famous poets in massive venues, and countless poetry open mics. I’d talked with people about what a “good” reading looked like and heard a gamut of ideal events ranging from boozy rowdiness to church-like silence. This reading got silent, but it didn’t have the stuffy feeling of being at a strict protestant service. People were drinking, but nobody in the audience reached the point where they had to heckle or shout or otherwise make themselves more important than the readers. It was rapt attention. Everyone in the room was really into the poetry. And the poetry was good. It was funny, strange, and sometimes sad. It felt great.

Matty Byloos and Carrie Seitzinger kicked off the Smalldoggies reading series (named after their press and magazine) a little over a year ago at a bar off of Hawthorne that boasted impossibly cheap pints of Ninkasi IPA. The bar closed and they’ve moved it to the basement stage at Blue Monk, a venue that has historically shown solid support for the literary crowd in Portland. It’s a remarkable event, and has been touted by some as one of the more important regular readings in Portland. Part of what makes it incredible for an audience member is that Carrie or Matty are right there at the door, despite having a show to put on, to say hi and take donations. Their presence is thread throughout the whole evening, as they swap emcee duties and prepare the audience for each new segment. The format is great, too. Since the beginning, they’ve had a band or musician open the show, followed by the readers—almost the reverse of any event I’ve ever seen. The music is often unexpected, sometimes raucous, and always contemporary—I think I’ve seen more indie-rock open for poets and writers at Smalldoggies than anything else, the most recent show featuring Curious Hands, one of my favorite local bands to see live.

Again, what marks Smalldoggies as being so great is that it has the same kind of intense energy as INFK; the audience’s attention is undivided. The venue helps. People who are more interested in socializing can hang out upstairs, leaving the fans to the work of watching, but it’s hard to think there are too many people bailing on the reading, the seats are almost always completely full and the entire back end of the room is regularly filled with people standing near the bar without ordering drinks.

Bad Blood shares this feeling. Drew Swenhaugen, Joseph Mains, and Zachary Schomburg originally put these readings together at the Work / Sound gallery right off of Morrison, moving them to ADX after a while. Bad Blood comes out of nowhere, sometimes, and can happen any night of the week. The news of a new show releases anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months in advance, depending on what’s being booked, giving the events the feeling of being like a party the hosts threw together to break up the wet, gray doldrums of Portland weather. This is a group that’s also not afraid to mix it up, often inviting filmmakers to show off work. The readings feel cathartic, making Carolyn and I crazy about running off somewhere to talk about every little moment, the way we do after watching a movie.

I’m not sure what started this, exactly, but I’m glad it’s happening. Portland is changing by strides, so much so that the poetry produced from this city is significantly different than what has come before. Categorizing it is the job of more critical minds, but there is a real shift away from quiet meditations on the Pacific Northwest landscape and a move toward touching, dreamlike visions, absurdity, and dry humor. There are well put together readings several times a month that have all the energy, excitement, and audience I’ve ever dreamed of seeing at any of the smaller, independent events I’ve visited over the last decade or so and there are really good poets just hanging out everywhere.

It’s a renaissance. Maybe that’s too big a word. Nobody is inventing the new physics here (that I know of), but there’s a clear change in the fabric of Portland and it’s making the city love poetry again.