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Mathew Timmons’ latest book, The New Poetics ($15), published by Les Figues Press as part of their TrenchArt Maneuvers Series, topped the Small Press Distribution bestseller list for poetry in December. As an admirer both of Les Figues’ TrenchArt Series and Timmons’ work, I was excited to read The New Poetics, and because of its unique nature decided an interview might best showcase the work. Following the publication of our below conversation, Molossus will print an exclusive addition to Timmon’s New Poetics, titled “The New Craft.”

DS

What is The New Poetics? How did the project come about, and how does it fit into Les Figues current series?

I began writing The New Poetics in the summer of 2006. At the time it seemed like I was often talking about the new narrative and the new sentence with various writing friends, Harold Abramowitz being one person in particular. It was a very warm summer in L.A., which tends to push me towards insomnia, and that summer I was in the bad habit of driving around downtown Los Angeles in the middle of the night, between say 3 and 5 AM, roughly. I wasn’t sleeping all that much and would come home from driving around and work on various projects in the early hours of the morning. At some point I thought I’d google “The New Narrative” and see what the internet could tell me about the subject. I liked the odd repetition and rephrasing of what came up, so I took the first three pages of google results, put them in a Word document and started moving things around until I liked what I saw on the page. I did the same thing with “The New Sentence” and afterwards I felt like I had actually learned something about both The New Sentence and The New Narrative that normal research wouldn’t offer. Then I started keeping a list of News, things that would come up in conversation or I would overhear, The New Something-or-Other phrases in people’s work. For example, “The New Debility” is dedicated to Will Alexander, because in his play Conduction in the Catacombs—which I worked on for Betalevel here in Los Angeles, ATA in San Francisco, and 21 Grand in Oakland a few years ago—one of the characters uses the phrase “The New Debility.” In the case of “The New Motherfuckers,” I was at Amoeba Music in Hollywood and on one of the end-caps there was a CD by the band The New Motherfuckers. I listened to it and really liked it, so I wrote “The New Motherfuckers” for them, and most of the material is actually about them, which means they had great google presence back in 2006 when I was working on the book.

I sense a sort of poking fun at schools and movements in The New Poetics. Can you comment on that?

It’s true, I’m not so much into writing schools and movements, or I have a healthy skepticism for them. Kurt Schwitters, one of my favorite artists and writers, created his own movement, Merz, after he wasn’t accepted by the Berlin Dadaists. Schwitters was closer to the Zurich Dadaists and dabbled a little with the surrealists. He wasn’t easy to pin down. I myself don’t like to be easy to pin down, and I don’t need to follow the marching orders of the movement at whatever moment some movement wants to get on the move. I also find that movements and schools should be left to the 20th century avant-garde. Movements and schools require a solid identification and tend towards an Us vs. Them mentality. I’d prefer to recognize mutual affinities between artists and writers around me. I’d prefer not to be limited by what may or may not fit into a perceived or constructed regimen of any school or movement. Yet I love manifestos, the typical founding documents of any movement. I love the didactic voice of a manifesto, always ridiculously self-assured. In my aesthetic statement for Les Figues TrenchArt: Maneuvers Series, which I very appropriately titled, “The Old Poetics,” I bloviated on and on for about 5,000 words about the old poetics. It read like a manifesto for the old poetics, while I am of course, obviously all about the new.

What’s happened with the PARROT series and Insert Press since we last talked?

PARROT 4, 5 & 6 came out: But on Geometric by Joseph Mosconi, Loquela by Allyssa Wolf and Viva Miscegenation by Brian Kim Stefans. We sold out of the first three issues during that time and we ran into a bit of a printing snag that caused a few months delay. I’m happy to say that the printing snag has been dealt with and PARROT 7 On the Substance of Disorder by Will Alexander will be out for the new year and we should get back to getting them out in quick succession again after that. In the meantime we published a booklet in collaboration with MATERIAL about artists’ communities, The Futility of Making Salad. The publication includes texts from Harold Abramowitz, Stan Apps,
 Marcus Civin,
 Ginny Cook,
 Dorit Cypis,
 Robin Dicker, Bradney Evans, Nicholas Grider, Dan Hockenson, 
Peter Kirby,
 Elana Mann, Melanie Nakaue, Julie Orser,
 Adam Overton, 
Putting On, 
Declan Rooney,
 Kim Schoen,
 Charlotte Smith, 
Jesper List Thompsen, Mathew Timmons, and
 Jason Underhill.

Looking ahead to 2011 we’ll be continuing with the PARROT series and working on two books, Bruna Mori’s Poetry for Corporations and The Ups & Downs exhibitions catalog as well as issuing the last two volumes of Vanessa Place’s trilogy, Tragodía through our print-on-demand wing, Blanc Press.

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I was introduced to Travis Elborough by poet and translator Sarah Maguire, of the Poetry Translation Centre, with a simple sentence: “Travis Elborough is a cult.” Though I didn’t know what it meant at the time, I was happy to be spoiled by the tour manager of our Mexican Poets’ Tour through the UK. Travis was more than mere manager; he combined the best aspects of tour guide, curatorial critic, and lomography photographer. During that time, in April 2010, Travis was working on the final edits of his latest book, Wish You Were Here (Sceptre, £14.99), which followed his critically acclaimed social histories of the vinyl record—The Longplayer Goodbye—and the iconic double-decker buses of London—The Bus We Loved. We corresponded informally about his latest book over the course of a couple months before the following exchange, conducted by email. Travis generously supplied his own photographs of the British seaside, featured throughout the interview.

DS

OO

© David X. Green

 

I’ve been to Dover Beach, and suffice it to say I was not impressed. I mean, where are the piña coladas? So maybe this is a strange question to start with, but because your book has so much to do with the English relationship to the sea, I wonder if you could present a sort of thumbnail portrait of your own relationship with the sea, and open that up to explore how the nation engages or interacts with the sea. (Basically, re-write your whole book in a few sentences.

In Dover’s defence (or defense, in US spelling), what it lacks in piña coladas it more than makes up for with plenty of chances to get caught in the rain.

I grew up on the coast.  And most of my family still live by the sea, where they have engaged with varying degree of success (and sanity) over the years, in such time-honoured seaside professions as novelty trinket vendors, guest house proprietors, restaurateurs, publicans, café owners and windsurfing instructors. So I suppose my blood must be about 40 per cent saline or something.

Arguably, though, few other elements of the English landscape are experienced quite as universally or viscerally here. Almost everyone has visited the coast at one time or another. Like the weather, there is a lot of it—some 11,0272.76 miles and none of it further than 72 miles away from any point inland.  And while its range and character varies wildly, it equally boils down to similarly inescapable combinations of predictably unpredictable dampness.

And that coastline and the weather are the things that define the nation above all else. As Jonathan Raban once observed, to leave these isles is always to go overseas.

Similarly images of deckchairs, promenades, ice creams and slot machines and the taste of sand in a sandwich and slosh of rain on an esplanade are such familiar parts of our collective consciousness, our folk memory, they almost feel implanted in our brains from birth.

But its recent history is much more troubled. From the 1960s onwards, you increasingly see in films like Tony Richardson’s adaptation of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, fading seaside resorts being deployed as metaphors for the nation’s imperial decline.

And I was keen to unpick some of that. Or at least try to in the book.

What do you think about On Chesil Beach? Do British people like the book simply because of their messed up sea-complex?

I have to confess I haven’t read Chesil Beach. I love his stories and some of the early novels (or novellas), The Cement Garden is a wonderful book, but can’t feign any great enthusiasm for his recent output. Which is probably more of a failure on my part than his. Time is finite and there always seem to be else that I’d rather be reading than the new Ian McEwan. Even typing those words I feel slightly weary. I can immediately picture an iceberg-sized display of shiny, just-off-the-press Ian McEwan hardbacks, stickered at a special discount price, in the front of almost every bookstore in England.

But that’s envy really, isn’t it? Where’s my iceberg of hardbacks?

To go back to the question, though, since the novel, from what I remember hearing about it at the time, is about frigidity, perhaps it is British people’s messed-up sexual complexes that explains its appeal. Though as I discuss in my book, traditionally the seaside was where newly weds honeymooned and consummated their marriages. (Mathew Arnold went to Dover for his, while less successfully T. S. Eliot went to Eastbourne with Vivienne Haigh-Wood). It is also where couples sneak off to have so-called ‘dirty weekends’, so the two are rather inextricably linked in the national psyche. Which I imagine is why McEwan used Chesil for his setting.

How did you get from vinyls and buses to the sea, a much vaster and wetter protagonist?

What I think they have in common is that they are all slightly everyday things that we can rather take for granted. We may forget or simply be unaware, for example, that before the arrival of the vinyl LP in 1948, recorded music could only really be heard in four minute chunks.

Similarly before the Romantics there was no such thing as a sea view, per se. And the seaside as a realm for relaxing was a distinctly British and largely Victorian invention.

So in each of my books what I like to do is simply turn back the clock to the moment when each of these ‘subjects’ was ‘new’ and move on from there.

The singer Cliff Richard, once regarded as England’s answer to Elvis, appears in all three books, so he could be seen as the component that binds them all together. Or perhaps not.

I’ve seen you read excerpts from this book at London’s Horse Hospital, and you accompanied them with records from your impressive collection. Why the integration?

I started reading with records when I was doing events for my book on vinyl. It seemed quite natural to do a little bit of a show and tell on that one. Or show and play Mantovani and triple-disc Emerson, Lake and Palmer LPs at people, as it were.

I was booked to do quite a few of the big festivals over here in the summer that book came out, Green Man and Latitude among them. And I felt that my readings would need to be more of a performance. Otherwise any audience I got would simply wander off in search of the cider tent or someone strumming a lute elsewhere. For these festival readings, I roped my wife Emily into the act. She span the records while I read, which made life much easier for me on stage. It was also a slight ruse. As a performer Emily would also be entitled to a free pass to the festival, so we could both go along.

When Wish You Were Here was published and I was asked to do some readings for it I found myself reluctant to give up on the records. Not only had I written parts of the book with certain songs in mind but the portable record player I used had become a good stage prop and something of a comfort blanket combined.

Essentially, I write cultural history, and if I can introduce a few sonic or visual elements that help entertain as well as inform in a live setting that is all to the good in my opinion.

Mine too. I’m very much a fan.

Does America have a George Formby? Hell, does America have its own sea-complex? What, off the top of your head, would this book have been about if we replaced England with America?

For their mastery of double entendre perhaps either Little Richard or Chuck Berry (particularly with his “My Ding-a-Ling”) could be your George Formby.

If it is down to uke playing, then maybe Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields is your man.

But it’s interesting you should raise this issue of American equivalents and what a stateside version of the book might have been like. My original starting point for Wish You Were Here was actually two movies set in Atlantic City. The first was Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens, starring Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern and the magnificent Scatman Crothers. And the other was Louis Malle’s Atlantic City with Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon. I’d seen both of these films on TV a couple of times over the years but in about 2007 there was a scheme to build a huge super casino in Blackpool, one of the biggest and best known seaside resorts in Britain. The aim was to make Blackpool a kind of Las Vegas of the Lancashire coast—and the town faces out toward the Atlantic ocean and historically its Pleasure Beach was the nearest thing to Coney Island in England. (Back in the early 1930s, the playwright J. B. Priestley wrote somewhat witheringly about the Americanization of Blackpool in his famous travelogue, English Journey.)

In the end, that scheme didn’t pan out.  But I had started to see some interesting parallels between what was planned for Blackpool and the way casinos and gambling had been licensed in Atlantic City in the late 1970s.

Also the other big thing with seaside towns over here recently has been the whole question of gentrification. As house prices in London, especially, have continued to rise, so many formerly unprepossessing southern coastal towns have become increasingly attractive places for aspiring Bobos types to buy property. Now, while the game of Monopoly was conceived around Atlantic City, the British version uses the streets of London. And again I had some foggy notions about drawing an analogy or three here too.

A lot of English seaside resorts were developed in the late 18th century and early 19th century as the result of some fairly wild property speculation. Several leading coastal developers went bankrupt before their resorts turned a profit and/or had to flee to France to avoid their creditors. The area called Kemp Town in Brighton, is a prime example of this. Places like St Leonards were built as exclusive new towns—not unlike somewhere like Seaside in Florida, say, in the 1970s. So, I guess what I am trying to say is that I had far more transatlantic book in mind to begin with.

Will you please move to Los Angeles so we can work on some collaborations?

I’d be delighted to move to LA and even more delighted to work on some collaborations with your good self but London is still calling at the moment. There is however, always Skype.

December 2010

 

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I met Pascale Petit while studying at Oxford, and we became friends over the course of the single trimester she tutored me. My own preoccupations with contemporary indigenous poetries and my upbringing in Mexico very obviously overlap with her interest in and study of Amazon and Aztec mythologies, which she explores extensively in her collections The Zoo Father and The Huntress. Named a Next Generation Poet by the Poetry Book Society, her collections have twice been nominated for the TS Eliot Prize, as well as having been selected as Books of the Year by the TLS and Independent. She has traveled widely to write and perform, and has also worked extensively in literary translation. I particularly admire her translations of Chinese Misty Poet Yang Lian, who now lives in London.

In 2004 she published a chapbook of poems about Frida Kahlo, The Wounded Deer, which marked the beginning of her exploration of the painter’s life in poetry. This May Wales-based Seren released What the Water Gave Me (£8.99), a full length collection of poems exploring the life of Frida Kahlo. Already glowingly reviewed by Ruth Padel in The Guardian, WTWGM continues to garner critical praise.

Though we seldom see each other in person, we do maintain a regular electronic correspondence, and it was a pleasure to discuss Petit’s latest collection by email. Coincidentally Pascale Petit has also been selected by Molossus contributing editor Sudeep Sen for the next installment of his World Poetry Portfolio series, which will include several poems excerpted from her new collection.

DS

So, first the obvious. Why Frida Kahlo?

What the Water Gave Me is a sequence of fifty-two poems, each based on one of Kahlo’s paintings. When I was at the Royal College of Art, training as a sculptor, a tutor said my studio reminded him of her home, the Casa Azul, and he suggested I should take a closer look at her paintings. Though I’d noticed her personal, bold and sometimes shocking style, I didn’t really know her work well. It didn’t occur to me to write poems in her voice until I was finishing The Zoo Father, my second collection, in 2000. I must have been reading about the bus crash she suffered when she was a teenager, and how the injuries from that caused her lifelong pain, which she depicted and transcended in her art. I saw a connection with the poems in The Zoo Father, which is also about transcending childhood trauma.

I wrote the first two poems ‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (I)’ and ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound’, on the same day. Both narrate the violence of the accident and how the bus handrail pierced her abdomen and exited her vagina. It seemed to be a kind of rape with no one to blame. I could use the images of the bus and tramcar colliding and the gold dust that splashed over her from her fellow passenger. Afterwards she told people this accident was how she lost her virginity.

A few years later I saw her painting ‘Self-Portrait with Monkey’ (the one with the dark leaf background, that Madonna owns,) in the exhibition Surrealism: Desire Unbound at Tate Modern (2002) and was struck by how alive she looked in it, gazing defiantly out at the viewer. I wanted to try to capture that. In 2005 I published a pamphlet of fourteen of these poems in The Wounded Deer and it was launched in Tate Modern’s Frida Kahlo exhibition. It was an unforgettable experience to read surrounded by the paintings. I didn’t then think I would write any more of these poems and a few years passed before I did.

You’re both a visual artist and a poet, and you’ve written and talked extensively about the relationship between the two disciplines. How did your personal experience in both fields intersect or engage each other in What the Water Gave Me?

I was a sculptor but I don’t make visual art any more. As an artist I used intense colour, often on transparent materials such as glass, fiberglass and resin casts. I made translucent female figures with parts of their abdomens exposed so you could see their reproductive organs. I placed iridescent beetles (gifts from the Natural History Museum), and tropical butterflies on their glass-like sexual organs. I also made installations of glass structures crisscrossed with brightly painted thorn branches, and there were hummingbirds inside domes and boxes, a warbler, a blue tit, eggs, nests, dragonflies, and so on. So some of Kahlo’s imagery was already there in my work, even before I’d fully explored her pictures.

When I started writing the Frida poems, it felt like I was making my own ‘paintings’ after hers. Not exact replicas, but my versions. Except that they were made with words. Ever since I stopped being a visual artist it’s been important to me that my poems are physical – solidly made and visualisable, and I’m aware of the objects embedded or suspended in them. My sculptures were transparent, but there were also arcs of colour – glass tendrils drawn out of the kiln, and hawthorn branches that I collected and painted bright blue, green or red. Perhaps the lines of the poems are these arcs, around the face, body, nest or bird in the composition.

I love the idea of the biography in verse. Here you include interpretations of Kahlo’s work, reflections on her lifelong physical pain and tumultuous life with Diego Rivera, and more. It seems like the appropriate form of biography for another artist, especially such an iconic painter. Can you reflect on that?

It’s a strange kind of biography, half her, and half me disguised as her, which was great fun to do! I loved pretending to be her. There was so much I could identify with. I’d been through a long period of illness and isolation so could relate to her months of being bed-bound and her loneliness (she said she painted her self-portraits because she was always alone). I don’t have children and I’d never written about that, but explored this subject through her, her inability to bring a child to term because of injuries as a result of the accident. I enjoyed depicting her troubled relationship with Diego, her jealousy and sense of betrayal when he had his affairs. It was much better than me writing about myself, made those common human sorrows more vivid and somehow joyful (because she turned them into colourful art). I should say though that, however much I was putting myself into her persona, I kept to the facts as rigorously as I knew them. The poems had to be true to Kahlo and sound like her.

What Kahlo biographies did you read? What else did you do to research your poems?

I started with the Hayden Herrera Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, and Kahlo’s fabulous diary The Diary of Frida Kahlo, and Martha Zamora’s The Letters of Frida Kahlo: Cartas Apasionadas. I spent a lot of time in the Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council library in Hyde Park, devouring all their books about her. And of course I went to visit the Casa Azul, back in 2000 when I started writing the poems, and all the museums for her and Diego Rivera in Mexico City. Later, more books were published which I found very helpful: Gannit Ankori’s Imaging her Selves: Frida Kahlo’s Poetics of Identity and Fragmentation (particularly good on the painting What the Water Gave Me), and Magdalena Rosenzweig’s Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida’s Wardrobe, which was written after the unsealing of her bathroom and dressing room. I’d been disappointed the bathroom was sealed up when I visited her Blue House, but here were evocative descriptions of her bath and clothes. I went back to Coyoacán a few times. I also went to the nearby Pedregal, to see the volcanic plain that forms so many backgrounds in her paintings of her broken body, the fissured landscape mirroring her scars, and although it’s now a built up area, you can still see outcrops of volcanic rock here and there around the drug baron mansions.

You bring sexuality into your poems with very sharp images—I’m thinking of “Whenever we make love, you say / it’s like fucking a crash – / I bring the bus with me into the bedroom”and that reminds me of some of your earlier work. I see it as a sort of incursion into the mythologies you build up in the work, and, I suppose, part of the mythologies, too. That said, I wonder how this collection, and especially the process behind it, might have been similar or different to other books.

My preoccupations in What the Water Gave Me are quite similar to those in The Zoo Father. Both books are about overcoming childhood trauma and at the heart of them is sexual damage. It was useful for me to write as someone else but still explore the transforming of pain into art. Kahlo’s paintings were a vehicle to expand these explorations into more adult concerns such as marriage, surgery and miscarriage, and there might be less of the embarrassment of so-called ‘confessional’ poems. The Zoo Father and The Huntress are often read as autobiography, however much I’ve mythologised them with Amazonian and Aztec rituals. In What the Water Gave Me I’m confessing the biography of an icon, an extraordinary woman who turned herself into myth. My previous book The Treekeeper’s Tale is different I think. In it, the natural world, which is always a strong presence in my poems, takes more centre stage.

With such a thematic collection, I also wonder how you knew when to stop. Especially with a life as full of little details as Frida’sfrom her early accident to her later dog Señor Xólotl.

Stopping was hard. There are still paintings I haven’t written about. Each poem has the title of a painting and I regret that some are missing, and there is much about her life I left out, because it wasn’t of such interest to me. I could have gone on and made a bigger book, but I’d already taken ten years, so thought it best to stop. I wonder if I will write any more. I resist that prospect, for now at least.

What are you working on now? What are you reading, watching, listening to?

I’m writing my first novel. And I’ve started writing some new poems, but I don’t want to talk about the novel, and the poems are linked to it so I won’t talk about them either – it’s too early. Almost all my current reading is research for the novel. But I’m also reading in preparation for the next Poetry from Art course I teach at Tate Modern, when we’ll start off in the Gauguin exhibition, so I’m reading his journals and letters from the South Seas and the myths of Tahiti. Recent exhibitions I’ve been fascinated by include Annette Messager’s The Messengers, and Surreal Friends in the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, especially the paintings by another of my favourite Spanish/Mexican painters Remedios Varo, whose work I first encountered in Mexico and whose paintings I wrote about in The Treekeeper’s Tale. I also loved Francis Alÿs’ powerful video Tornado in his recent exhibition at Tate Modern.

August/September 2010

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Sherwin Bitsui, by Geoff Gossett

Sherwin Bitsui is originally from White Cone, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. Currently, he lives in Tucson, Arizona. He is Dine of the Todich’ii’nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for the Tl’izilani (Many Goats Clan).

He holds a BFA from University of Arizona and an AFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts Creative Writing Program.  He is the author of Shapeshift (University of Arizona Press, 2003) and Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press 2009), which won the 2010 American Book Award  from the Before Columbus Foundation.

I corresponded with Sherwin via email, and though both our hectic summers meant some lag time, our conversation was worthwhile.

DS

So, my first question, which I hope opens up several more, is about your linguistic heritage. You grew up on a Navajo Reservation—do you speak Navajo?

Yes.

There are so many questions about the politics of choosing to write or not write in minority languages, but I’m more interested in the personal decisions involved. Obviously you write in English. Why?

English is my language just as much as Navajo is. Navajo thought resonates through my poems written in English. There is a freedom that I have in composing poems in English because I am not bound to it completely. It’s much easier to break rules in English. I can’t break rules similarly in Navajo because I’m not as competent in writing it as I’d like to be. Navajo is not as noun driven as English nor does it segment reality as easily. Certain words are actually phrases defining a set of actions that relate to the thing or activity that is being referenced. I see English, or language in general, as a medium, much like a painter would view paint or a sculptor would view marble. Politically, English is the language of my tribal nation’s oppressor, but we certainly have to use it come into a new kind of knowing that will help us translate this outer culture into our own and vice versa. Flood Song feels like it’s trying to braid these diverging worldviews together in order to create a middle area that is accessible to both perspectives. On a less political note, I suppose I just enjoy seeing language suffocate as much I enjoy seeing it flower. There is much possibility in there for poetry. Navajo is very beautiful to me. I’m saddened that it has recently become an endangered language. We still have a large number of speakers in our communities. I’m hopeful that we teach the children to be fluid in both cultures, to sense the world as a whole rather than something binary and balkanized. I’m being rather hopeful here aren’t I?  Currently, my understanding of Navajo hasn’t allowed me to see Navajo text as malleable as I’d like it to. It is a poetic language that brings out the sacred in all things. I suppose you can say that about poetry in general. I feel there are levels of speaking that I haven’t mastered. I still have to call my parents from time to time to ask them how one says certain phrases or words. The language is also very complex and dense. It’s a great language to experience the world with.

One of the things I admire is the way you’re able to incorporate “an indigenous eccentricity” without romanticizing the culture, while being totally engaged in contemporary American life, too. Is that a particular challenge you consider when writing?

Not so much. I have no other “place” to look back to but what is underneath my feet and the moment in time that I have been born into. My roots reach beyond the subsequent layers of imagined origins that history writers have given to the Americas. I have a deep connection to Dinétah (Navajoland) and the American Southwest, the landscape is ever present in my imagination, it is my place spiritually, culturally and politically.

I wouldn’t begin to know how to romanticize my culture. I see it from within and never had to “go back” to find it. I spring forth from that life and don’t look at it as “other” or “exotic” the way most people might view it. It’s simply just an aspect of who I am. I do appreciate the beauty of my land and culture. I long for home all the time.

You write, “I map a shrinking map,” which I think is true, perhaps the most succinct possible description of Flood Song. But there’s something about the mapping, I think, that at least slows the shrinking of the map, right?

I can’t help but notice, because of all the facets of new media, how small the world suddenly feels. I grew up in a community that seemed very far from the world literally and historically. My perception of the old and the new all changed quite fast as I traversed these two aspects of time and the languages that are seeded within them. I’m still writing through this map, finding that it is a web that is host to my poems more so than a literal map. I feel the vibration underneath my feet, follow it to its source and capture what poem lay there struggling to be voiced before the dark decides to take it back toward silence.

You started your relationship with the arts as a painter—and you even painted the cover of Flood Song. I was recently talking with Douglas Kearney, who says he tried to employ hip hop mixing techniques into his new book, especially stuff by J Dilla and other producers’ producers. There’s a huge tradition—and I think this is even more true in the UK, where you have poets like George Szirtes and Pascale Petit, who were very successful visual artists before they turned to poetry—of visual arts and poetry interacting. How do painting techniques translate into your own poems? Or do they?

I feel like any creative project I attempt resonates with all essences of what is unspoken within me. I don’t necessarily separate the two spaces, though I do wish I had more skill  and time as a visual artist to say what I want to say with more clearly.  I believe that my poetry attempts, through the oral recitation of the poem, to fill a space much like a film or installation piece would. It’s still poetry, but I want a poem to be a lived experience when the audience leaves afterward.

Images from early drafts of Flood Song used by Reona Brass, a Peepeekisis First Nation artist from Regina, Canada during a performance of hers in Alberta, Canada, home of the Tar Sands, to question the spirit of colonial legislation and language. She also drew from images in Shapeshift in a performance she gave in Bogota, Colombia, to question the freedom of thought in a military state. Reona interpreted the poems through her performances and thus created entirely new pieces out of them. We eventually collaborated in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2005, and created an all day performance/installation piece we called “Dear Reservation.” The installation piece was based on the premise of speaking to our nations’ political realities and boundaried existences. I wrote with graphite on the floor around a pile of rocks for most of the day, while Reona strung barbed wire along the outer walls, nailing them flat in areas, while pushing with her fingers and body: curled wires into two corners of the gallery. We were both bound together by rubber surgical tubing and could not move without somehow affecting the gestures and actions of the other. I wrote story after story, poem after poem on the floor until the words became a dense opaque shape surrounding the pile of rocks. Eventually, at the end of our performance, I moved the rocks to form a crescent shape out of the negative space of the floor and read a section from Flood Song. Reona wrapped a plastic Target bag around her face and placed a fist-sized rock on her neck. She let the weight of rock pull her down and as she gasped for air inside the plastic bag during the duration of my reading. It was a very quiet piece, unsettling perhaps, but it was moment where I felt that poetry and art were entangled and actualized in a new way for me. Reona’s been doing this kind of work for a long time, I was very privileged to have worked with her because I hold her vision and work in such high regard. She taught me a lot about seeing the present in a more poetic way.

Have you ever been interviewed without someone asking something about Sherman Alexie? How are you pigeonholed as an indigenous writer?

If I am pigeonholed, I haven’t felt it yet. I suppose I just don’t give much time to entertaining to the ideas of the reasons behind my work. Shapeshift was published in 2003 to some mixed but mostly positive reactions.  Ultimately the book stayed around and eventually garnered national attention. I just wrote without really reaching for anything other than to be in the moment of the poem and to stand out in the open to wait for it arrive. In retrospect, my books have everything you’d expect from and indigenous poet writing in today’s changing landscape. This shouldn’t be surprising, after all, they were written by a poet from an indigenous community.

Not many Native Writers, especially those from my generation, get through an interview or a question and answer session without being asked about Sherman Alexie or his work. I have a lot of respect for him and enjoy reading his books from time to time. He is unmatched in his ability to break through all sorts of barriers and has been a major influence on my journey as a writer. As a role model for younger Native writers, he’s shown that one can do anything and there are no excuses when it comes to writing. I saw him read at the Taos Poetry Bout in 1998, and I was floored by his energy and ability to transform poetry into something other than what I’d known poetry to be at the time. I don’t think we’ll have anybody quite like him for a very long time, if ever again.

September 2010

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Gumball Stick, Geoff Gossett

 

After reading Ange Mlinko’s “Letter from Beirut” in the current issue of Poetry, I was excited to spend time with her new book Shoulder Season (Coffee House Press, $16). Jordan Davis’ clever interview reflects the serious fun contained within Mlinko’s poems, and I’m grateful to Coffee House Press for allowing us to publish it here.

DS

JORDAN DAVIS: With all the life-and-death concerns running through your new book—assassinations, the financial collapse, wars of opportunity, and through it all maintaining a family—it’s understandable that you meditate on the imagination. (It’d be understandable if you advocated for a return to the land, too, but let’s save that for later.) I was pleasantly surprised, though, that after you talk me and the rest of the world into believing that “the mind—it’s a little spa” in your hit poem “Treatment,” in the sequel on the next page, you repeat, “the mind is not a little spa. / The Mind is not a little Spa.” I have to ask, is the ambivalence about the mind, or about the spa?

ANGE MLINKO: A mind is a great thing! And that the mind can make itself uncomfortable, can turn on itself Socratically, is exactly what makes it so great. It would be awful if we could just live in the imagination. The imagination is beautiful and necessary, but to treat it as a windowless spa, a self-enclosed vivarium, is to become a kind of zombie.

A great and terrible    thing, indeed. Speaking of zombies, in “A Not Unruffled Surface,” you mention a horror movie about a demonically-possessed wedding dress that “wreaked havoc at the reception, set the hall on fire and dropped a crate of champagne on the string trio.” Great drama! but only one such scene in the poem, which also includes lightning strikes, a walk through a sculpture park (Storm King?*), fluid dynamics and some Sacksian neurobiology. Your poems are positively metaphysically unruly; how do you understand calls for restraint in poetry?

I am such a hopeless Byzantine that I almost believe, contra Steven Pinker, that language structures genetically shape the brain. You see the epicanthal folds in my Americanized family, so why not in our language?

But the imperative to be plainspoken is what unites even the so- called “quietists” and avantists in poetry today, isn’t it? I always felt embarrassed that I didn’t write more like Robert Creeley. And my worst “experiments,” the worst dreck I ever wrote, was in imitation of James Schuyler! And then on the other side you get something like Mary Karr going after the “ornamental” and trying to take down James Merrill a peg or two. I can’t take it seriously. Literary style is the expression of the innate person, not something you buy into with options for future makeovers.

Storm King, you’re right! And Storm King is proof positive that many kinds of things can be accommodated in one space if you give yourself room.

Yes, “accessibility.” (I don’t agree with your judgment on those Schuylerescas, by the way.) It’s not as if the plainspoken has worked, as far as attracting the lost general audience goes. It reminds me of Tom Hanks’s line in Big: “I don’t get it. A robot that turns into a building? Why is that fun?” A poem that you don’t have to think about? Except, of course, that poems are at least as much about feeling as about thinking, don’t you think?

Regarding feeling, I often quote Ashbery’s “Perhaps we should feel with more imagination.”

I think I’m still on guard against an all-too-easy elegiac tone in poems where “feeling” means only one thing—gauzy nostalgia, wistful regret. I like poems where the feeling is not easily pinned down. Or the feeling shifts. I like brassy feeling, I like bitter feeling. Feeling for me is like the timbre of instruments in an orchestra. Now you get a flute, now you get a tuba . . .

Yes. Or colors—Irish cream, cloudy iris, yellow-cake (!), Van Ruisdael brown, Gulf Shrimp. Did you ever study painting?

Through Schuyler’s art writings only.

Favorite painter?

Nicolas Poussin. I’m feeling about 500 years old right now.

That’d make you older than Poussin! But I can see the affinity—the colors, the complexity. Who’s the painter in “Schilderachtig?” The one who prompts you to ask, “why on earth does the water want / to be mountains?”

A Turner at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, MA: Rockets and Blue Lights. Darn, I should have used that title! Why didn’t I think of that?

Where do you not get ideas for poems?

On or around my navel (I hope).

What, for you, is the main thing a poem has to do?

I really don’t like to make generalizations. The thing that makes art art is that the minute you draw a line in the sand, somebody comes along and makes you look provincial. That said, I’ll share some of my prejudices: I like poems that engage the world. I love shows of brilliance and virtuosity. I don’t share the American prejudice for modesty in poems, but I do believe in a sense of proportion and elegance, things which give meaning to the idea of virtuosity, I guess. I like skills. I hope someday to be as ample as, say, Kenneth Koch.

I share your admiration for those qualities. Regarding drawing in the sand, I count on the ocean to erase everything. But as for what you say about modesty, is that a hint about
your ambitions?

I don’t know. People have different ideas of what constitutes ambition. I think it’s worthwhile, in art, to try to give people some happiness. I want to perform, on the page, the way a dancer performs on stage. Is that modest, or exactly the opposite—showing off?

Nothing wrong with a little showing off. I’m thinking now of your hit poem “Pop Song.” Were you ever a performer, growing up?

Goodness no. I must have taken a couple of dance classes, a couple of stabs at learning instruments, before my parents decided with ruthless economy that their money was better spent elsewhere.

Do you want to say anything about when you first realized you were a poet?

Recently I wrote a piece on Gerard Manley Hopkins for the Poetry Foundation web site; I recounted my sense of discovery when I read his poetry at seventeen. I was sixteen when I read “Prufrock” and wanted to be T.S. Eliot! But to me there’s something a little embarrassing about it all—who doesn’t think they’re a poet at sixteen? I find more poignant the stories of poets who’ve grown old at this. I’m reading Cavafy now, the new Mendelson translation, and he so wanted to finish a clutch of poems before he died of esophageal cancer—25 poems; he knew exactly. But who knows? Maybe when— if—I get to be an old poet I’ll find these stories sentimental too. It’s a privilege to be a poet—but a privilege often abused. Let’s read and praise poems, and leave the poet in the background as best we can.

Fair enough. (I’ve noticed, though, that pointing away from the life and toward the poems tends to lead people to look more closely for biography in the poems.) You’ve borrowed the name of the French theorist Gaston Bachelard for your web site**, and you write a column on language for The Nation, yet the cognitive work in your poems isn’t simply theoretical, it’s always imbricated with sense data, especially touch—gestures, textures, shapes. . . This is turning out to be more of an observation than a question.

Well, it runs counter to a lot of what is deemed avant- garde work. I noticed I couldn’t really write the thinky or conceptual poems that mark their territory through a refusal of sense data, or spatio-temporal conventions. I’ve written a lot on Susan Stewart’s work, which takes as a starting point Marx’s notion that even the five senses are the product of historical forces—they have a history, and for Stewart poetry is a record of that history.

And I have a history, and it is legible in my work both as content and in the development of styles and methods. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The thing you must have noticed in my Nation column is that I ground my pieces in books about empirical linguistics. Not that I’m a trained scientist. I read philosophy as an undergrad. Yet I am less comfortable discoursing, say, on Wittgenstein or Austin than reporting on the findings of field researchers. No one would deem me a mystic.

How about a lightning round. I say a few words, or a name, and you shoot back a quick response, free-associative no-time-to-think-equals-best-thinking style.

First word: Mayakovsky.

A Black square, bald head.

Akhmatova.

A Spiritual aristocrat.

Favorite virtue.

Kindness.

Worst sin/vice/flaw/absence-of-virtue.

A Failure to love the people who need you.

Home.

Growing roses over what you can’t fix right now.

Intelligence.

What Dante said God is.

Poetry.

Life sentence with no parole.

Language.

It has angle and gauge in it, which are instruments for measuring; it has gag in it for fun; it has egg in it for possibility; angel which means “messenger” and Ange, for talisman.

Beauty.

So few drink from its fountain!

The main thing.

Making someone happy to be alive.

O

 

*The Storm King Art Center in New York

**Ange Mlinko’s web site: bachelardette.blogspot.com

O

JORDAN DAVIS‘s recent poems appear in Poetry, The Nation and Ploughshares, his prose in the TLS. His first collection of poems appeared in 2003.

O

Interview published by permission of Coffee House Books.

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Hosting Voices: A Conversation with Ching-In Chen

I first met Ching-In Chen at the Silver Lake Jubilee, where she performed at the Molossus showcase alongside Jamey Hecht and Monica Carter. I had recently read her first book, The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi Books, $21), a novel in poems that employs a great variety of forms to tell the story of Xiaomei, a young Chinese immigrant in America. I admire and recommend The Heart’s Traffic to all readers of contemporary poetry, especially those interested in hybrid and multi-genre forms.

DS

Your first book, The Heart’s Traffic, is a novel in poems. What other novels in verse and narrative poems do you admire?

My absolute favorite has been Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution. I admire her ambition to write a speculative story in two very different voices (one is a tour guide who speaks in a desert tongue made up of 300 other tongues; the other a historian) with intersecting histories and the breadth of the imagination it took to write such a book.  While writing my book, I found helpful A. Van Jordan’s Macnolia, which tells the story of the first African American student to make it to the National Spelling Bee final, as well as Frank X. Walker’s Buffalo Dance: the Journey of York, a collection of persona poems from the point of view of Clark’s personal slave, York.   I also admired Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red for her language that shatters.

I’m struck by the blurbs on your book: Arthur Sze, Terrence Hayes, Juan Felipe Herrera, Rigoberto Gonzalez. I’m jealous. One of the things that comes up again and again is your use of so many forms, from the sestina to the haibun—even the zuihitsu! How do you use form, or how does it use you?

The main character, Xiaomei, is confronted with the basic question of who she is—both who she’s been told she should be and who she wants to be—and this shifts throughout the book as she grows up.  For me, the variety of the poetic forms were ways that I could use collective voices from a wide variety of communities and traditions, but also stay true to Xiaomei’s wide-ranging and roaming journey.  It was also a way for me to challenge myself to keep going on a longer project, to give myself an assignment and therefore continually re-invent my interest in the project and the character or give myself a fresh perspective.

In your notes it comes out that many of your poems are after a great range of poets, from Li-Young Lee to Faiz Ahmed Faiz. You also incorporate text from interviews with Arthur Golden. Tell me about the incorporation of those voices. How do you make the space for them to dialogue with and within your work?

I think poets are always in conversation with other writers.  When I feel drained of inspiration, I fill myself up with lines, images, whatever strikes up words within me and then grow it into something that helps me participate in that conversation.

During this project, I became interested in how different poems birth more poems, sometimes within the body of the original poem.  Also, I started experimenting with hosting multiple voices within the poems—and all this grew out of the novel in poems structure.  Before this project, I wrote primarily out of my own lived experience.  What happened with this book organically was that more and more of the terrain unfolded in front of me—and often from different points of view, which felt very liberating.

I love the idea of using riddles to tell stories. Can you speak to that?

This began when I was reading Li-Young Lee’s poetic memoir, The Winged Seed. At that point, I was mid-way through the first draft and I had Xiaomei, the main character down, but was struggling to find a way to connect her experience as a new immigrant to the Asian American community she was entering into and the history of that community.  Reading about how Li-Young Lee’s father told him riddles reminded me of a family game we would sometimes play on road trips with my family where my dad would tell us Chinese riddles and we would have to guess them.  It seemed to be a perfect form to adopt because I wanted to use structures and forms that other people might not think of as poetry, but which meant more to me in terms of my development as a writer than the learning about sonnets (which I did in high school).  I also was interested in playing with the different variations of the sounds of the word—a la Harryette Mullen.

How much of The Heart’s Traffic is autobiographical? How much do readers—an especially interviewers—tend to project the poetry back on you?

I would say it’s all autobiographical—in that I think that all books tend to reflect some obsession that the writer is working on.  In terms of specific details of Xiaomei’s life, I would say that some of her experiences I pulled from my life, and others from the lives of those around me, and still some were imagined.  Many tend to read the body of the writer into the work and assume that the book is thinly veiled autobiography.  One reviewer actually referred to me as the speaker, which greatly surprised me!  I’ve been told on occasion that some of my poetry is elliptical and elusive and mysterious, but I had thought that it was at least clear that my main character’s name was different than mine!

You’ve worked extensively as a community organizer. Does that affect your writing?

I first came to poetry through community organizing—because I certainly did not have an affinity for poetry before then.  Through my community work, I started meeting community-based spoken word artists and poets (folks like Marlon Unas Esguerra of I Was Born With 2 Tongues or Geologic from Blue Scholars) who were contributing to the community through their poems and I felt inspired by them.

I think of cultural work as an integral part of the movement to make a better world and I feel that our primary task is to inspire and help dream up creative solutions.  That’s why in long protests, we sing and chant—to keep up our energies and spirits.  That’s why I think what we do as cultural workers is so important.

There was a period of time when I was transitioning to being more of a poet who worked on the page when I worried about the question of accessibility, knowing I was more attracted at the time (and probably still am) to poets who pushed language in innovative and often difficult ways.  A good poet friend of mine, Tamiko Beyer, who blogs for Kenyon Review, just wrote up an insightful entry about this subject which points to how I’m thinking about this now:

I’m interested in how to invite “ordinary” readers to participate in poetic sense-making, to encourage them to approach texts not simply to glean content or emotional empathy, but to create meaning in collaboration with the text itself.  I think this is important, because poetry has potential to be more radical than other kinds of literature, as the work of reading itself becomes an act of re-imagining how the world can be.

What are you reading/watching/listening to now? What are you working on?

I’ve been involved in the last few months with a project on writing about the Southern California desert, which has been wonderful for me because I’m a transplant from a climate very different than desert.  This has helped me make connections to the land and this community in a deeper way.  This project started out with my participation at a Dry Immersion Symposium called Mapping the Desert, Deserting the Map.  Most of the participant were visual artists and it was great to meet artists like Flora Kao (who abstracts maps and land use patterns and makes paintings out of them).  It sparked my interest in the intersections between mapping and writing.  I’m currently reading Experimental Geography, which is a fascinating book that showcases the work of artists looking at the intersections between land use and art.

I’ve been discovering African American assemblage artists like Noah Purifoy who, along with fellow artists, made sculpture out of the burning wreckage of the Watts riots.  I’ve been looking at and reading everything I can get my hands on about Noah and his contemporaries John Outterbridge and Betye Saar.

The other major strand that I’m following right now is a large-scale project attempting to re-tell the global histories of coolies, “unskilled” workers who were imported after the slave trade was abolished, primarily of Chinese and Indian descent.  I’ve recently finished a poetry manuscript which I think is the first book in this series and also the beginning of a novella, which I’d like to keep developing.

Wow, you keep busy! I look forward to reading more of your work in the near future, and hope we can feature it on Molossus.

June 2010

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Friday 21 May 2010 The End Times Opry brings its multidisciplinary arts showcase to the Eagle Rock Arts Center. As media partners, we’re proud to present the following interview with poet Elena Karina Byrne, one of several Los Angeles-area poets performing at The End Times.

Elena and I conversed by email. Her love of language trickled across the ether, somehow encoded into and decoded from binary.

DS

The End Times Opry is a multidisciplinary event, and I’m excited to see how the different arts dialogue with one another. You have a new chapbook, Voyeur Hour, which contains poetry and art. Tell me about the book, and about how other forms of art dialogue or engage with your own poetry.

The Voyeur Hour Book began with an idea (which is rare for me unless I have some general artifice with which to guide a series of poems) rather than an image: voyeurism is everywhere: in our culture, in our personal lives and within the process of writing itself. But remember, it is a process of seeing—language is a process of seeing, and we position ourselves on its stage, on the street, behind the bushes, in the dark… It began with the Masque book and my art influences from Hannah Hoch, Ann Hamilton, Sophie Calle, Vito Acconci and others… the masks were all personas, adopted voices literal and abstract, so in that sense they too are a dialogue. As for Voyeur Hour… in some ways I failed and only could find occasional meditations that would satisfy the larger theme, so it soon became a book about failed love, self-voyeurism and the voyeuristic impulses that arouse unanswered questions. The art, not yet finished, is a series of painting/drawing/collages… they do dialogue, as I believe poetry dialogues, with the outside world and with the smarter nether-world of the imaginative intellect.

I really like what you’ve written about the way you fumble sounds around your mouth when writing a poem. Can you describe more of that process?

I don’t think I ever used the word “fumble”—which, by the way, reminds me of one of my favorite odd words, carphology, a delirious fumbling with the bedclothes—so poetry is an erotic fumbling with the bedcovers, with the partner, with the sounds of language, and often seems to begin in the body; any number of physical entanglements (the physiology of the phrases) can be included in how we get from raw language to the consciousness of language. I see it as being in a row boat on the ocean, the writer musically rowing their way toward landfall of subject and image and meaning. I sit on my bed and write—I surround myself with books, and my “journal,” which is filled with snippets of writing, odd found facts, art, and, yes, words that will procreate more words, words that will even instigate a whole poem.

I vowel my way into a poem. Many of the Masque poems were engendered from a single word or the short epigraph line. I know this humorous story has been told many times (I think you can find it in Language of Life, and Moyer’s interview with Robert Hass), but it does bear repeating here: Mallarme, upon hearing Degas complain of his struggle with poetry because he had no ideas, told him poems were written with words and not ideas.

You’ve written that for you “language is Eros.” I guess that means your readings get pretty intimate?

As I said in the last answer to your question, I do believe language resides in the body, is a physical expression as much as it is an intellectual one—that doesn’t mean I write tons of erotic poems. It does mean however, language is a sensual medium, and like the physical act of love-making, offers endless possibilities.

I know you’ve studied with Kunitz—I’m jealous!—and many other great poets. Whose work are you reading now, who is teaching you new things?

I was very lucky indeed!

I didn’t study with Stanley but knew him and interviewed him during my Sarah Lawrence College years. He was a stunning, amazing man on every level. Everything that came out of his mouth during our interview was brilliant, and heart-breakingly beautiful. Also the fact that he knew Theodore Roethke, one of my all time favorites, excuse the film cliche, had me at hello. A gardner married to a painter, an influential teacher, a great wit and passionate man… if you don’t already know him, (through his poetry and interviews) do.

I try to balance old and new in my reading and find, over the years, we yearn and learn from writers for different reasons. For example, Plath and Berryman and Edna St. Vincent Millay and Hart Crane were my earliest influences, not because of the drama of their lives, but because I needed to be empowered by their power of diction, their tireless craft. My first professor Thomas Lux gave his “freshman dummies” a lifetime jewel box of old and new poets as the first bargaining tool for our futures in writing. Lately I’m interested in poetry that still displays some semblance of passion and innovation… but let me say I’m not interested in blind invention, the mere self-conscious construction-play that too often passes as innovative new writing—growing up with artists and contemporary/conceptual art, one knows the recycling of the old hat. I can love Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s work next to Molly Bendall’s; Mark Doty next to Mary Ruefle, Charles Simic and Harryette Mullen… going back and teaching the greats affords me the luxury to enjoy the new poets too: Brendan Constantine, Amy Newlove Shroeder, Dan Beachy-Quick, Cathy Colman, Douglas Kearney, Lytton Smith…

You have three forthcoming books. What else are you working on? And how, with all the responsibilities you juggle, do you have time to be so prolific?

Funny, I wish I wrote more! I’m asked that question often. (I ask myself too!) I am a binge writer—fevering my way into a book until I stop. Also, I think it has been a survival tool… as when a brain is damaged from an accident and finds other pathways in which to function. Once I had children I had to learn how to write at odd intervals, and I had to learn how to give something to myself—but really, it is a compulsion, and if poems are a material like paint or clay, I am constantly trying to find new ways to discover their properties, to get messy and be surprised, to eventually find the inner life’s worth and negotiate that inner life with the outer life… outer? Now that suddenly sounds like an odd word!

May 2010

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