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Interview

bj-ward

Michael T. Young: Thank you, BJ, for agreeing to an interview.

Your newest collection, Jackleg Opera, is your fourth, and is a new and collected poems. Could you comment on putting it together: how and if you worked on the new poems to connect thematically in any way to the whole or just worked on the newer poems independently of any overall cohesion?

BJ Ward: I worked on the new poems as they came to me, not concerning myself with how or where they connected to the other work. Once I had about sixty poems that were publishable or had already been published somewhere, I chose and arranged the thirty-three new poems that make up the first part of the book. The thirty-fourth new poem I placed after my 2002 book, Gravedigger’s Birthday, as it serves as a coda for that manuscript. One of the best aspects of releasing a collected poems is the opportunity to revise some of the earlier work, an assiduity I have admired in poets such as Justice and WCW.

Michael T. Young: I love the title of this collection. Of course, “jackleg” means “unskilled or incompetent,” and yet your work is so wonderfully skillful. Also, much of the collection seems to be about embracing our imperfections. For instance, “The Noises I Make” declares “I rejoice in my imperfections.” Could you talk about that a bit: if you see this kind of embracing as important, or what its significance is in your poetry, or, perhaps even for one’s sanity?

BJ Ward: Although that line asserts that I rejoice in my imperfections, I actually have spent the better part of my life wrestling with them. I suppose I’ve come to live with them. Why did I write that line? I think of two things: Frost’s maxim that a poem is a momentary stay against confusion, and that final line in James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”: “I have wasted my life.” It’s reported that when Wright was later asked about that line, he said it was just how he felt in the moment of the poem. Supposedly he joked that after he had a sandwich he felt better.

Yet I hope there is also some kind of truth in my line, as your question seems to imply. I’ve always loved these James Joyce lines from Ulysses: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

Michael T. Young:  The poem “Filling in the New Address Book” ends saying, “why threaten any miraculous history,/any great testament, with knowledge/of how empty our current book of stories is?” The poem “And All the Peasants Cheered for the King. The End” which is a fatherly effort to preserve a child’s imagination against the harsher elements of reality and concludes, “The astronauts are still fastened in their flotation /The soldiers still guard the fairytales.” How important do you think it is for people (children and adults) to preserve some sense of mystery and wonder about life? In what way is it important?

BJ Ward: I don’t think we have to work too hard to preserve some sense of mystery and wonder about life. It’s always there. What we might have to do is learn to be comfortable with it. I question, even as I embrace technology, what we have lost in this age of information. I suppose my embrace is guarded. And somehow forced through my employment. Sure, the ready access of information is useful for many reasons, particularly in terms of a greater accountability of authority and the resultant effects on issues of social justice. But there is this thing in me that feels our urge to be connected through our devices might lead to an unquestioned, or at least implicitly sanctioned, “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I know I am not alone in this. And because of this, I am very protective of the silences with which I’ve tried to surround myself. In a different age of industry, Whitman had it right: he loafed in order to “invite (his) soul.”

Michael T. Young: The poems “Bandages” and “Upon Being Asked Why I Dedicated My First Book To My Mother When There’s Not A Single Poem In It about Her” portray instances of breaking rules for a greater purpose, a kind of reaching out to others when it breaks with laws or social norms. This comes up in your other poems in different ways. I wondered if you might comment on this: do you see this as important in the greater context of our society and world? Why?

BJ Ward: So many heroes of mine were criminals in the eyes of those who were in power. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela. When you live in an unjust system, it may be morally imperative of you to break the rules by using the artillery of resolute compassion.

Michael T. Young: In “After Googling Myself. . . “ you write, “I toast all the engines/I never controlled.” And “Development,” ends with “But the houses/were just fields then./And we were wild.” A number of other places in the collection seem to quietly suggest an embracing of a wildness in ourselves, the uncontrolled. Do you feel this is significant and if so, why?

BJ Ward: I love Donald Justice’s penchant: he wanted the maximum amount of wildness a poem could bear. An artist should be aware of this wildness. I don’t mean to speak for others’ creative processes, but perhaps someone reading this can relate to it: in the act of composition, I’m riding the wildest form of the poem, almost as if seeing where it takes me. A term for this is “transport.” In revision, I’m taming it. If I do it right, what I’ve produced still has wildness. If I do it wrong, it either remains all wilderness or becomes too civilized, too “broken” (in horse-trainers’ lingo). I aim to have just a little more body in the poem than brain—a little more beast than math.

Michael T. Young: The poem “Delaware Water Gap, NJ Side, Election Year, Rush Hour, Hungry Again,” opens with “The sun slips like a tongue/down the sky’s neck/and the flowers within me//open to it all.” This recalls to my mind a moment in Rilke—I can’t remember where—a flower opens so wide to the sky it’s unable to close at night. I wonder if you see opening or exposing our heart to the world, to the greater reality around us, as necessary and if so why. What is gained?

BJ Ward: We create in a time when new houses are more likely to have back decks than front porches. A time of intentional obfuscation, with language that is deliberately imprecise. (In Oxford, NJ, close to where I live, the garbage incinerator and landfill is called a “Resource Recovery Center.”) Greed no longer seems immoral to us, but something that makes one admirable. How revolutionary an act writing a poem in America seems. By doing something so earnest and so outside the expectations of Western culture’s sense of “industry,” you are deliberately engaging in a deeper economy. The first gesture toward engaging in it is what you point out: opening ourselves to the outside world, like Rilke’s flower. The second is to protect that heart you mention, for the world is acidic, and it is drawn toward your compassion and your imagination. It wants to extirpate them. And the third part is to commit to a deep happiness, much deeper than the exchange of money.

Michael T. Young: “Aubade” says, “I want to be as precise with my joy today/as all those poets are with their suffering.” Even in your poems that deal with suffering or difficulties (I think of many of your poems about your father), there seems an effort to find joy and beauty, to be precise about it more than the suffering. It is also evident in the linguistic playfulness of so many of your poems. I wondered if you feel seeking out joy in spite of suffering is important, looking for the beauty rather than the ugliness that is surely always there.

BJ Ward: Langston Hughes viewed his role as a poet as having three important aspects: celebrant, performer, and seer. Although Hughes approached them differently than I do, I aspire to these three myself. (The third one is by far the hardest.) I don’t have to look hard for misery. It’s always waiting for me when I open that door. The writing of a poem is what helps me step past it. I’m lucky in this way; I know a lot of people who get stopped by the misery, and they have my sympathy. I’ve come to look at joy as an act of creation. Experienced fighters know that, when your opponent has a terrific defense, a tight guard that is hard to slip past, you have to “make your own hole,” usually with a combination technique. I find myself almost every day making my own hole in the ugliness that’s out there.

Michael T. Young: Which is your favorite poem from Jackleg Opera and why is it significant for you?

BJ Ward: I don’t mean to be evasive, but I don’t have a consistently favorite poem from the book. Right now I suppose it’s “Wolverine The X-Man Kisses” because I just received a generous email from someone saying how much it meant to her. How it helped her understand her marriage. It was generous of her to thank me like that, and it was a powerful moment for me to receive her message.

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that you feel have significantly influenced you as a poet?

BJ Ward: My first inclination is to say, “Too many to name,” but I’m always disappointed when other authors say that to this kind of question. It seems like a cop-out. So I’ll just name the first ten works that come to my mind. I’ll limit the list to prose by writers who are no longer alive.

Shakespeare’s tragedies, particularly Hamlet when I was younger and King Lear now; the great plays of Tennessee Williams. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and The Brothers Karamazov. The letters of both Emily Dickinson and John Keats. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. All of Hawthorne. The short stories of Flannery O’Connor. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel. The Bible. And the short stories of Raymond Carver. I am sure there are dozens of others I could have listed, but these came to me first, and even now I couldn’t limit the list to ten.

Michael T. Young: What are your favorite activities that have nothing to do with poetry or writing?

BJ Ward: I love baseball—watching it and playing it. Also, I’ve trained at a traditional karate dojo for 36 years now. But, given your question, I should say that the men and women I train with have absolutely influenced my poetry, although they wouldn’t know that unless they read this. Right now I train with a mechanic, two cops, a pharmaceutical executive, former junkies, a Shop-Rite cashier, a postal worker, two engineers, a church cantor, and a lumberyard worker, as well as hundreds of others over the last 36 years. The lessons I’ve learned from them have influenced not only my writing process but also many individual poems.

Michael T. Young: Thanks for your time, BJ. Let’s close with your favorite poem from Jackleg Opera.

BJ Ward: Thank you for the interesting questions, Michael. Here is the poem I mentioned earlier. A note about it: as far as I know, the Marvel superhero Wolverine only has one real superpower–the ability to heal instantly. That’s what allowed surgeons to line his skeleton with metal and place those retractable claws in the backs of his hands. The title notwithstanding, this poem is as much about loving someone who has (almost) stopped being vulnerable.

Wolverine the X-Man Kisses

His bones, lined with adamantium, are unbreakable,
. . . . . . . so his lover is just licorice and moth wings
in his careful palms.

And tucked within each open hand
. . . . . . . lie three knives, retracted,
but one thrust and snickt

(x, x, x)

whatever he holds could die.
. . . . . . . What delicacy is in his hug,
but is this a fair relationship?

Before you answer, know this:
. . . . . . . he is a mutant, able to heal
from the deepest of cuts,

and so to hurt him
. . . . . . . she must kiss him.
Look at his trembling lips

as he leans in to hers–see the nervous animal
. . . . . . . in his eyes, how it paces back and forth (x, x, x)
knowing there is no way out of love

but to suffer. He’s a mutant, but is he so different
. . . . . . . from you? Have you ever folded yourself
into someone’s arms, unsure of yourself,

knowing what you have learned in your life
. . . . . . . contradicted such tenderness, leaning in anyway,
lips separating, closing in,

the potential of blades
. . . . . . . running along your bones
just in case?

            (from Jackleg Opera, Collected Poems 1990-2013 [North Atlantic Books])

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You can learn more about BJ Ward and his poetry at his website: http://www.bj-ward.com/.

 

 

The Eggshell Parade brings you an interview with writer Mark Baumer.

http://archive.org/download/MarkBaumerInterview_18/MarkBaumerNew.mp3

The Eggshell Parade brings you an interview with poet Joe Weil.

http://archive.org/download/JoeWeilEggshellParadeInterview/JoeWeilMixdown.mp3

The Eggshell Parade brings you Connor Syrewicz reading (an edited-to-meet-FCC-regulations version of) his short story “Tomorrow ‘Dun Gone”, which appears in Issue 9 Spring 2012 of Superstition Review.

 

http://archive.org/download/ConnorSyrewiczTomorrowDunGone/ConnorSyrewiczReadHisPeaceTomorrowDunGone.mp3

The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Emily Vogel.

http://archive.org/download/InterviewWithPoetEmilyVogel/EditedInterviewWithEmilyVogel.mp3

The Eggshell Parade brings you an interview with writer Minrose Gwin.

 

http://archive.org/download/MinroseGwinInterviewEggshellParade/MinroseGwinPhoneInterviewSession_mixdown.mp3

The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from writer Catherine Lacey. Catherine reads her short fiction piece “(Grew),” which appears in issue 12.3 of DIAGRAM.

http://ia601509.us.archive.org/19/items/CatherineLaceyReadingAndInterview/LACEY.mp3

 

The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from writer Woody Brown. Woody reads his short fiction piece “Sillyhead,” which appears in issue 12.3 of DIAGRAM.

http://archive.org/download/WoodyBrownTheEggshellParadeReadingAndInterview/WoodyBrownLouder.mp3

 

The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Neil Shepard.

http://archive.org/download/NeilShepardInterviewAndReading/NeilShepardInterviewEdited.mp3

 

The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Marie-Elizabeth Mali.

http://archive.org/download/Marie-elizabethMaliTheEggshellParade/MarieElizabethMali.mp3

 

The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Kelli Russell Agodon.

http://archive.org/download/TheEggshellParadeKelliRussellAgodonInterview1/KelliRussellAgodon.mp3

 

The Eggshell Parade brings you a The Noisy Reading Series reading and interview from poet Michelle Bitting. Michelle reads her poem “Free,” which appears in the winter 2012 issue of diode.

http://archive.org/download/TheEggshellParadesTheNoisyReadingSeriesMichelleBitting/MichelleBittingTnrsFinal.mp3

 

The Eggshell Parade brings you a The Noisy Reading Series reading and interview from poet Michael Homolka. Mike reads his poem “Family V,” which appears in the inaugural issue of Phoenix in the Jacuzzi Journal.

http://archive.org/download/TheEggshellParadesTheNoisyReadingSeriesMichaelHomolka/MichaelHomolkaTnrsFinal.mp3

Animal Collection is a new book of stories by Colin Winnette (author of Revelation, discussed here at THEthe). Like his previous book, it is a subtle blend of experimentation and dramaturgy. The concept: each story contains some kind of animal behaving in unusual and, in some cases, very human ways. From being cuckolded by a beaver, to falling in love with a hummingbird, to being impregnated by an iguana, human characters interact with animals in intimate and occasionally visceral ways. The result is a commentary on the strangeness of our own behavior, and the collection is proof of the power of certain art forms to defamiliarize ourselves to ourselves. This, to me, is the potent achievement of Animal Collection.

Here is the interview:

Brian: When we spoke about Revelation, a major theme of the conversation was the happy constraints of a framing concept. Here we have a collection of stories, each of which revolves around the image of a certain animal. How did this concept occur to you?  How “happy” of a constraint was it?

Colin: The germ for this project was pure constraint…or, better, like a dare / challenge I gave to myself because I was afraid. I had been asked to participate in a reading put on by Publishing Genius and Beecher’s Magazine at AWP DC a few years ago. I was super excited about the reading, many writers I admire were participating, and so I kept googling the reading and looking for info. Then, like the day before the flight, I discovered a poster for the event that claimed all of the authors had chosen an animal to write about and would then read that story in front of said animal’s cage…I had not done that. So I was sort of terrified and convinced of my own failure. Then there was a blizzard in Chicago (where I was living). A major one. All flights were grounded, school was cancelled, six feet of snow fell in something like two or three hours, and people were buried in their cars on Lakeshore Drive. Hunkered down in my apartment, nervous I would never make it to AWP in all of that, I decided to write 26 stories, one for each letter of the alphabet, each of which would center around an animal they had in custody at the Washington D.C. Zoo. A lot of these stories were awful, but some I loved. That was how the whole thing started. I wrote a lot more, revised considerably, and worked out a larger, more considered structure for the collection itself over the next few years. So, in a way, it was the happiest of constraints…except for those poor folks on Lakeshore Drive.

Brian: We have stories of metamorphosis, anthropomorphism, and something in between. In your thinking about this project, did you envision a clear boundary between the animal and the human? Is there a scale or spectrum of humanness or animal-ness? It’s obviously more fluid than that, but how fluid was it in your mind when you conceived of these scenarios?

Colin: The overall project, initially, was extremely fluid. As it came together, I began to detect certain underlying structures, and I worked to tease those out or, sometimes, to counteract them. Every story operates on slightly different terms so the boundaries shift. They are specific to each piece, and to the function of the “animal” in that particular piece.

Brian: More than even metamorphosis, we have visceral images of the human merging with the animal – eating a tarantula, having sex with an octopus, aborting an iguana baby, having one’s private space completely overrun by insects and vermin (which include men, in one story). This to me was a very disturbing turn, which contrasted with the lighter and outright funny tone of some of the other pieces (but maybe that’s because I’m squeamish in general). I guess the question is – if a story collection is a recipe comprised of different flavors, how did you manage the balance of the various flavors we have here?

Colin: This was a topic of much conversation with a  friend of mine, actually. The poet Ben Clark read these stories over and over again while I was working on them. He read many of the stories I wound up deleting and drafts of the stories that wound up looking completely different. At one point, he sorted all of the stories into separate categories. Something like: animal as human, human as animal, animal into human, human into animal, and so on. The various functions of the animal figure, as he could best figure them. So that was a helpful guide. But, more than anything, I was guided by the associative qualities of whatever animal occurred to me at the time I was writing the piece. That was a way I secured a certain level of variation throughout the text. Whichever animal occurred to me when I was setting out to write one of the stories would come with a cluster of associations. Some fairly common or general, and others deeply personal. Those associations dictated the movement of the story, and what was possible. So the stories had a kind of emotional and intellectual logic to them from the get go, which I then refined during revision. For that reason, some of the variation I hoped for was pretty much there from the beginning, but Ben helped me to see the “recipe,” helped to point out the ingredients, so that I might balance the whole thing more purposefully.

Brian: One unifying component of pretty much all the stories is the breakdown of relationships – lovers, families, friends. How does envisioning people as certain animals aid this feeling of disconnection and dissolution? Could it be misconstrued as a distraction (i.e., why not just depict humans as humans, rather than as animals?), or is that part of the point?

Colin: Well, I grew up on Disney films, so who knows what kind of havoc that wreaked on my sense of what exactly is “human,” but…

It’s different in each story, but the function of each animal brings something to the equation that I feel wouldn’t be there otherwise. For example, the iguana. That story is terrifying to me. It’s a joke my friend Blake and I used to make, that we always thought our parents didn’t understand us, when the reality is, they just couldn’t sometimes. It wasn’t possible. It’s entirely possible that I know Blake better than his parents ever could, just because we’re about the same age. The terms of our era were so radically different from our parents’, the disconnect was so severe, there was just no real way to bridge the gap. Any parents who are willing to listen to their kids and genuinely accept what they think and feel and do, without question, without feeling complete alienation and bewilderment every once in awhile, those are some pretty amazing people…or they’re faking it. It’s the kind of parent I hope to be (the genuine article, the amazing kind, not the faker), but what terrifies me is the question of whether I will have the self-awareness to realize when I’m not. Anyway, the joke Blake and I used to make was that it was easy to say parents “just don’t understand,” up until the day your kid is suddenly dating a Tyrannosaurus, and all you can think to say is, “I just don’t want you hanging out with that dinosaur! It’s unnatural!” Of course there’s something about racism in there too, I suppose, but for me it’s more about feeling fundamentally alienated from your child’s life. Or that’s the hook of the story. That’s what complicates it. I mean, would you have allowed her to birth the iguana?

And, just for the record, humans are totally animals.

Brian: Speaking of – the other major “human” theme is one that I’ve already briefly mentioned – the invasion of one’s space and privacy. To what extent is this a comment on the fact that the spaces and zones we build around ourselves are arbitrary and fragile? Am I putting words in your mouth here? Better than a tarantula, I guess. Stylistically, though, one way to convey this invasion of privacy (beyond various really creepy scenes) is the use of the second person. You open the collection in the second person, and one entire story consists simply of “You are here.” Who is you in Animal Collection? How many you’s are there?

Colin: Arbitrary and fragile, yes. Those are words I would use…and even have used when answering earlier questions. Each You, as with each animal, and each story, is very different. It is a way of incorporating the reader at times, or of generating an extra-textual character who is being addressed. For example, the Beaver story does not ask that the reader occupy the space of the You, any more than he/she would any other character. But the You story, that’s all about you, Brian, or me, or whoever is holding the book, really. On the one hand, it’s extremely literal. It’s also a joke. A bit of fun. But one that I felt was essential. It’s one of the last ones I wrote. I was pretty proud of it.

Brian: We have lots of animals, but also lots of voices and perspectives. As many as there are stories, really. This builds on that multivocal component of Revelation. I tell my students that writing is less akin to directing a film as it is to acting in one. How do you get your mind around the different voices and personae from story to story, especially when they’ll only live and breathe for a short time? To what extent do you “become” the voices you depict?

Colin: I abandon a story pretty quickly if I can’t embody the characters I’m writing. For me, it’s literally a physical sensation. I can feel it. I move in certain weird ways sometimes when I’m writing. You’re completely right that it’s like acting in a film, rather than directing it. Although, sometimes, once you know your characters well enough, and if you want to create a kind of stiffness or something, you can move them around like a director, like set pieces. I didn’t do that much here in AC, but I did do that a little in Revelation. They’re different projects, but they do overlap in certain areas. With AC, I was very invested in the voice of each character, or each story. It comes out when I read them, which is something I really love to do. (As a side note, whenever I read the “Tarantula” story, someone inevitably asks, “did you really…?”). I can’t say exactly what caused it, it likely has to do with the associative qualities each animal brings to the story, and what those associations allowed me to access. I was also able to play around a lot with these pieces, so I wasn’t stuck in one voice for any particular length of time. I could start writing and ride the wave of a particular voice until it stopped. Until it was done, and I could just end right there. I didn’t have to keep coming back to it and dragging more out of it. What I loved about writing this book is that I felt so free to make each piece be exactly the length it needed to be. I felt no pressure to extend a piece to make it more like a “short story” or to cut the longer pieces down so they better fit with the flash pieces. The book needed range. It required a variety of approaches to telling a story—and these are all stories, even if they’re poems. It’s a bestiary, an abecedarium, a zoo. It’s an animal collection.

CAConrad glasses
LMB:You talk about the body as a representation of the world around us – it is. Everything we are is everything there is. But the body may not be the only way we exist. If our hair is the war, as you explained in your WAR HAIR, and the war is our body, does writing keep us from falling apart? Does our writing become extraphysical?

CA: Thank you so much for this opportunity to be interviewed. I’m punchy. Last night I woke to smoke and fire engines. The building next to mine was on fire, the building I SHARE A WALL WITH, and I had to crawl down three flights of steps because the smoke was thick. It’s SO NICE to be alive and writing to you!! But I want to say to your question that while I was standing on the street watching firemen chop a hole into my neighbor’s roof and pour hundreds of gallons of water into their living room, that I was creating a (Soma)tic poetry exercise. I have already created one for writing poems after being mugged. That one’s in my new book A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON (Wave Books). Last night I started this new (Soma)tic for surviving fire. Part of it involves meditating on your STUFF, your THINGS that survived. I’m FULL of adrenaline, which is now a secretion for the poems. To be honest, it wasn’t clear right away if the fire was in my building, and the smoke was so thick that I had to press my nose into the hallway carpet to inhale deeply and get my ass moving! What a relief when I made it outside! But then after making it outside comes the part of being alive where you FEEL literally FEEL so awake, watching your home be rescued, hopefully you’re watching it be rescued. And the smoke in your hair and clothes, what is this awful smell from? Plastics, wood, vinyl, what, what, WHAT?

I agree that the body is not the only way we exist, which is why I separate – or EXPOSE – the word SOMA living inside SOMATIC. (Soma)tic. Soma is the spirit, and adding a tic makes it somatic, or, a body surrounding a spirit. Hmm, but does writing keep us from falling apart? I want my blood, my vomit, my piss and semen IN my poems. Poetry permitted me my physicality; it piloted me away from believing all the pricks in my fucking high school that wanted me to kill myself because they didn’t like faggots. But one day we WILL fall apart, our cells will be destroyed by disease, or guns, or strangulation, and we will be unhappy. I know I will be unhappy. I’m NOT one of those people who struts around claiming to have made peace with Death. I will be at war with Death for as long as I can stand it, and I have (Soma)tics prepared for writing poems under the influence of chemotherapy and other horrific ways we survive. I love living. I LOVE LIVING. I am one of Poetry’s brides. My white gown sweeps the ground now as I pace back and forth while typing these answers to you.

LMB: I have a ghost in my house. You live with a ghost too. All of my friends look down my long corridor and find heaviness there. No one believes it is harmful or negative, and some of them can’t even explain why they feel the way they do. I had a fervent solipsist walk in and say “I feel something right there.” I decided to write a set of poems to the ghost, who, as it turned out, was found to be a female child who could not pass on. You’ve said poetry is a religion. If poetry is a religion, can we speak to these spirits, can we be guided by them in our writing?

CA: I’d love to read your ghost poems!! I’ve had several ghosts in my life. I’m someone who didn’t believe in them until I finally saw one. When I lived with my friend Elizabeth Kirwin we had a ghost show herself in 1994. What an incredible experience!! It’s the sort of thing that happens and you’re so glad that someone else was there because you feel like you’re losing your mind. But this ghost was a definite “intelligent haunting,” as opposed to what occultists and mediums refer to as a “residual haunting.” In other words, she was not stuck in replaying an event, she was aware and desiring contact. Elizabeth and I talk about this online at PARANORMAL POETICS.

But the ghost I live with now was my neighbor Owen who killed himself in 1999, a very sad young man. He was only 21, he’s such a sad ghost to have around. He whispered in my ear in 2006 to use my hair MY WAR HAIR to remind me that we are at war. Americans, we who are the plural of war, our disgusting American plurality of war, and I want to never forget it. Owen’s ghost is responsible for me writing this poem about war every morning since spring of 2006. I hate the poem, I hate Owen’s ghost, I hate my fucking hair SO MUCH! I wish that I had never listened to him, and I wish that he had not been such an idiot and killed himself.

In the 1980s my neighbor and friend Jim McCormick lived below me. In 1988 he found out that he was HIV positive and killed himself. It was so terrible, and I could smell him through the floor, much like the smell of Owen’s dead body years later when I moved across town. But the maintenance man Willie opened Jim’s apartment door, and we saw him. Poor Jim, he didn’t do it right and had to take drastic measures, most likely leading to an excruciating death. I miss him, he was such a good man. He was one of those old-school queers, very effeminate, gentle, witty, collected lots of antiques. Jim had a print of a painting that I fell in love with. While we were waiting for the police to come I covered my mouth and nose from the stench and stared for a long time at that painting because I thought I might never see it again, and I couldn’t figure out who painted it. Jim’s ghost PUSHED me last week after all these years when I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with my friend Michelle Taransky. I had no intention of seeing the special exhibit “Visions of Arcadia,” but I felt DRIVEN to see it at the very last minute. I didn’t like most of the show because they FUCKING LIED saying it was work by Matisse, Cezanne, and Gauguin. 95 percent of the paintings were other artists. But THEN, THEN, OH MY GOD, THEN at the end of the exhibit, THERE WAS THE PAINTING, the very one Jim had hanging in his apartment!! Only this time it was not a print, but the actual painting from Spain. It’s called THE DREAM, painted in 1912 by Franz Marc, so it’s 100 years old THIS YEAR!! I’m so excited to have it back in my life, and now I have a beautiful card of it that I carry around with me.

Maybe you and I could collaborate on a (Soma)tic poetry exercise about how ghosts have made us brave? My friend Jim whom I just mentioned was also a huge fan of the artist Thomas Eakins. In the 1970s Jim had a brass plaque made and hung at Eakins’s Philadelphia studio at the corner of Juniper and Chestnut streets. In 1986 when I first met Jim he walked me over to the plaque, something that he was very proud of. A few years ago Blick Art Supply renovated part of the building and moved in. But the plaque suddenly vanished!! My friend Frank Sherlock (do you know his poetry? He’s such a fucking genius poet!!) and I would show the plaque to anyone we were with when walking by the location. And it appears in our collaborative book of poems THE CITY REAL & IMAGINED (Factory School Books). BUT IT VANISHED, the plaque. Maybe construction workers took it and sold it? I don’t know, but it was gone. And when I went into the store to talk to the manager I was told that they didn’t know anything about it. That was it. A shrug. I mean, YOUR art supply store for ARTISTS is right in the fucking bottom floor of the building where one of America’s greatest artists had his studio, and you don’t care.

Jim’s ghost was on my side!! I started writing about this situation online and the local newspapers picked up on it started quoting me. An outrage started to churn in Philadelphia about this, and my phone started ringing off the hook. THEN the threatening emails started to arrive from Blick headquarters. And I kept saying, “PUT THE PLAQUE BACK AND ALL WILL BE WELL!!” But they’re a corporation and think that they don’t need to give a shit what one fat-assed faggot in Philadelphia thinks. FINALLY they threatened me with a lawsuit, and I said GREAT!! PHILADELPHIA WILL LOVE THIS!! AND NO ONE WILL BUY YOUR FUCKING PAINT BRUSHES AND EASELS AND TURPENTINE!

Then I received a very nice email and phone call from the granddaughter of the owner of the company. She apologized for all of the flack I was getting. It turns out that she had scouted out that very location in Philadelphia and THAT PLAQUE my old friend Jim McCormick had made and hung decades ago was THE REASON she wanted to put one of their stores there. She even had a photograph of the plaque. She had a team of designers make another plaque, one that looked exactly like the one Jim had hung, and now it’s back on the corner of Juniper and Chestnut in Philadelphia, where it belongs. Jim’s ghost was with me the whole time. The threatening legal letters only infuriated me instead of frightening me like they were designed to do. I feel like Jim KNEW this reasonable, intelligent, caring person was there at the company, and that if I just HUNG IN THERE and kept FIGHTING that she would eventually hear about it. I miss Jim. It irritates me that we die. Every single day it annoys me.

LMB: As you write in Preternatural Conversations, when I read your work I feel an “I.V. drip of/sphinx’s blood.” Sometimes when I first read the book I felt lost, like I’ve dreamt, woken up, tried to recapture the image, failed, tried again — and when I did, it’s right there, shimmering. Poetry should hit you in the face with shimmer. What do you think about the poetry being written from today’s new poets?

CA: “Preternatural Conversations” is a newer piece written soon after the manuscript was finalized for Wave. But yes, it’s in jubilat, I’m very excited, the amazing poet and editor Emily Pettit published it, and I enjoyed making the little film for it. I’m so happy with this piece, mostly because it’s about using psychic tools to communicate with people and dogs. But another reason it makes me happy is because I FINALLY figured out a way to tell Ed Dorn off without being mean. I was finally able to make light of his grotesque bigotry against faggots, and say “I want to dress special for this.” HAHA!! When I FINALLY got it out of me in this way I was thrilled. Making fun of someone’s bigoted, small-minded views of the world can take some of the power back. And when I taught at Naropa this summer I read the poem. It was one of those marvelous opportunities with hundreds of people listening and a fantastic stage and I had LOTS AND LOTS of red and purple glitter COVERING me that night. Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman started Naropa as we know, and Ginsberg was one of Dorn’s prime targets for his homophobic rages. So JUST BEFORE reading the Dorn piece I said “This poem is for our fairy godfather Allen Ginsberg who helped build this queer stage!” This made my year, doing that!!

What do I think about today’s poets? Anyone who says they would rather go back to another time for poetry is an idiot!! NOW is the time for poetry!! NOW!! There are so many brilliant poets writing RIGHT NOW!! I mean they are OUT THERE at this VERY MINUTE writing poems that are going to blow my mind and break my heart!! When I was a teenager writing poems I had no idea that my favorite poets were going to actually be my friends. This is something I’ve had to get used to, being a great admirer of poems written by friends. Shimmering, yes, as you say. But also an awakening, because I feel startled so often by the poetry of my friends!

LMB: So you were at the Radar Writer’s Retreat in Mexico. Once in Mexico I threw copal, tobacco and chocolate into a fire for the Abuelo of the mountains in Tepoztlan. We made wishes, and I admit that mine came true, which was both painful and necessary. For me, there is something about Mexico that has influenced nearly all of my writing. Location, politics and culture clearly affects your work, in that you are deeply impacted by the world itself, and its goings-on, but how did Mexico treat you? Do the countries you go to speak to you?

CA: Oh I loved Mexico!! And I love the RADAR Lab!! I’m grateful to Michelle Tea and Ali Liebegott for their incredible dedication, making this possible!! It was one of the best weeks of my life getting to make poems in the middle of this paradise, and it truly is a paradise along this jungle ocean shoreline!! Here is the outline of what I did down there, the (Soma)tic Poetry Exercise:

For 9 consecutive nights I prepared my crystal-infused water dream therapy. Each morning I would implement the final stage of the dream therapy, then I would listen to a different PRINCE album in its entirety: DIRTY MIND, CONTROVERSY, PURPLE RAIN, etc. Lying still with eyes closed, allowing the dream to braid and dissolve inside the musical landscapes of my beautiful, androgynous muse. As soon as the album finished I would write for fifteen minutes, which was not so much a dream-journal as it was a dream-lost-inside-PRINCE-journal.

After breakfast I went down to the beach. Each morning from 9 am to noon I would sit in the same place, one foot closer to the tide each morning. On the last day I sat directly in the tidal break with sturdy paper and a pen whose ink embeds into paper, a pen invented to prevent check fraud. PRINCE may wash my dreams away, but the ocean would not take my poems.

For a few minutes I would close my eyes and listen to the tide. Then I would suddenly open my umbrella and stare at one of its polka dots, each one a different color of the spectrum. After staring at one polka dot for five minutes I would suddenly look out at the beach, coral reef and ocean. The polka dot’s color would show itself in the hue of a broken shell, or be found in the bow of a distant ship. One morning my eyes landed on the white of the umbrella, which is all the space surrounding the polka dots. I decided to go with it. When I tore the umbrella aside I noticed FOR THE FIRST TIME tiny white crabs who made their homes at the wettest part the sand, continuously washed by the tide. The study of the crabs consumed my morning. One day I looked up from writing to see a hundred yellow butterflies fluttering in a line down the beach above the surf a few feet from my face. The parade of beauty kept me in awe: giant sea turtles, iguanas, and magnificent sea birds. One day I placed my large Lemurian crystal in the sand under the surf. RADAR Lab’s amazing chef Christina Frank sat with me to witness the little silver fish surround the crystal. They LOVED IT! They would ride the surf to the crystal, surround it and KISS IT, ride the tide out, then ride it back in and KISS IT AGAIN!

From 3 pm to 6 pm I would sit in the bathtub to write. My favorite childhood liquid was FRESCA! I thought it went out of business, but it just moved to Mexico! I drank FRESCA all day long at the residency, and used it for the bathtub meditation, drinking mouthfuls, letting the grapefruit bubbles roil in my mouth while turning the shower on. I would touch the falling water with the tips of my fingers then I would swallow the FRESCA and turn the water off. I would meditate on arguments from the archive of my unforgiving brain. Arguments I had, and arguments by others. Once I heard my mother and sister shouting in another room. My mother yelled, “I SHOULD HAVE ABORTED YOU!” My sister yelled back, “GRANDMOM SHOULD HAVE ABORTED YOU AND WE WOULD ALL BE FREE FROM THIS GODDAMNED MESS!” My mother BURST into tears, my sister left the room with a smile. She saw me and said, “I TOLD HER!” I returned her smile and hugged her, saying, “YES you did, my dear!” The MOMENT we embraced THE RELIEF of our grandmom’s imaginary abortion WASHED OVER US BOTH! We laughed from so much pain and nonsense for a rolling tide. The brain holds all of our disasters in little, decrepit files marked and mismarked and repeating their vomitus sick, and sometimes a little too quiet from too much damage. These notes became nine poems, my homage to my mother who was not aborted, and to her children, who were also not aborted.

LMB: I find it interesting that you say our mothers (and the others we sentimentalize) are usually drawn up as sacred texts. One of the reasons I’m drawn to your work is because I can relate to having a fucked-up childhood, whether we view it now as fucked up or simply different. A euphemism or no. You escaped a lot of what you experienced by reading. So you learn to grow and move through history through your work, instead of being haunted inside of your work. That’s brave. How hard is that to pull off?

CA: It’s not possible for me to take for granted that I come from poor, mostly illiterate, country people, and yet have somehow found this endurable, rich existence of poetry. And I don’t say I BELIEVE poetry can save our lives, I say I KNOW it can!! And I don’t mean it redirects emotions, or conciliates in the sense of pacification, no, I mean poetry can actualize an entirely, wholly new pattern of awareness. My boyfriend Earth (aka Mark) was murdered in Tennessee about a decade ago. In my new book A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON there is a (Soma)tic exercise I created for us to investigate trauma. I used the music of Philip Glass, which is PERFECT as a trance vehicle, in fact his music makes it almost easy to enter a trance state. But I used these (Soma)tic techniques I’ve developed for the “DOUBLE-SHELTER” piece in the new book, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I am changed.

The word “escape” isn’t right for me. I escape nothing because poetry for me is about plunging into everything despite how much it might wind up jeopardizing my happiness. Poetry is worth my fear being resolved. Thank you for this interview.

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.