The Self, Her Milieu, Discovery, and Artistry in Bird Flying through the Banquet: An Interview with Poet Judy Kronenfeld
By John Brantingham
John Brantingham: The first section of your fourth collection, Bird Flying through the Banquet, focuses on your parents and seems to go back into a world that either you have left behind or simply no longer exists. In the poem, “Lives of the Dead,” you write about a dream you have where your mother and father, who are bad at spelling, play Scrabble: “With a satisfied nod / he puts down a triple-word score, / nudels, and my mother, poker-faced, / trumps him with 7-lettered brockly— / both of them comfortable and anarchic / in their little pocket of moored time.”
It seems to me that this look back at your youth is to some degree nostalgic, but that there is relief you escaped that world as well. Is that a fair assessment?
Judy Kronenfeld: English was a second or third language for my immigrant parents, hence their spelling problems. They spoke German and Yiddish and had limited educations. I know my father attended gymnasium, that is, academic secondary school, in Germany; I’ve never been precisely clear on how much schooling my mother had during her childhood in Lemberg (once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Lviv in the Ukraine) and Vienna, but I think it was less than my Dad’s. The very idea of their playing Scrabble at all is kind of funny.
The world of my childhood is indeed one I have left far, far behind, and its equivalent certainly no longer exists in the same place I experienced it. My Bronx neighborhood was Jewish, Irish, and Italian and seemed dominated by immigrants; it was somewhat insular, provincial, unsophisticated working class with sprinklings of lower middle and middle class white collar workers and professionals, e.g. bookkeepers and elementary school teachers. Our circumstances, especially compared to many of my other relatives’ who lived in private homes in the more spacious and green suburbs, were particularly modest. During my childhood, my dad worked in my mother’s brother’s doll factory, “on the floor” (where my mother also occasionally worked), and later, as the foreman of a toy factory.
On the one hand, I felt a certain dreariness, a sense of economic and cultural limits in the lives of the people around me, coming home on the subway to their small apartments from dull or difficult jobs, often looking grey and weary. (Sad or tragic novels about Jewish immigrant families in straitened circumstances, both economic and cultural, like Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, and Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep really spoke to me.) So, maybe in my collection as a whole (and in my previous poetry collections), there is a relief in having escaped aspects of my childhood world, yes.
But, on the other hand (if not hinted at in “Lives of the Dead”), many of the immigrant families around me, like my own, had urban European roots and were upwardly mobile economically and culturally. My mother’s super emphasis on my doing well in school, even when she didn’t understand what I was studying, ultimately lead to my escape from the provincial Bronx—though she might not have been thrilled about that! And, again—although her own understandings were limited—that concern with education made her take me to every museum in New York City, and—encouraged by her younger, more artistic and Americanized brother, my favorite uncle—to expose me to the theater and the ballet. New York City in my childhood and youth was an extraordinarily inexpensive, accessible, and broadening cultural experience. I went to a high school in Manhattan that required an entrance exam and drew students from all the boroughs; my friends and I not infrequently saw Off Broadway plays for a few bucks a ticket, or watched the City Center Ballet from the umpteenth balcony.
But, to get back to “Lives of the Dead.” For me, the inaccessibility of the parents and the past in this poem (they just don’t get it! they’re in the 50s!), the way in which the parents play “according to their own rules”—these are all a metaphor for the unreachability of the dead, the way it feels as if they are ignoring the person who still misses them, just going on in their own little world, not even hearing how frantic their child is. It’s as if she expects help with her own contemporary terrifying world of violence—global or more close to home—and they just aren’t available, in every sense. Death is the ultimate betrayal. (They didn’t actually die until forty and fifty years after the 50s, but the 50s were when their child was still at home, and they were most parental.) So if there’s a certain warmth here that you sense, it’s not exactly nostalgia, but the need that’s behind that sense of abandonment.
Brantingham: Later poems suggest to me a kind of need or even passion to move on to a new world that was academic and well educated. There is a lot going on in these poems, but this hunger seems central. In “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” the narrator seems so focused on understanding the beauty of one of Donne’s poems, she misses its larger connotations: “Spit on my face you Jewes, and pierce my side, / I intone, an acolyte in the garden / of study—Jewish girl from the Bronx / on scholarship at an Ivy college— kneeling before the vaunted poem.” Are you suggesting that your passion for moving beyond your youthful world made you dangerously naïve?
Kronenfeld: I think you’re right about the passion to move on to a new more intellectual and educated world—in my life and work as a whole. Education was also a route to upward mobility. And that has a lot to do with this poem. The social leap between that provincial Bronx world of my origins and the Ivy League, was enormous, and I was hugely class conscious. (I went to Smith where most of the students came from much wealthier families and much more anciently American lineages than my own.) This poem’s persona who definitely overlaps with me is being such an awfully “good student” because submission to the then reigning ideas of the English major will allow her to be “educated” and sophisticated, and thus to rise in the world, for all of which she hungers. It’s not pure naïveté so much as a self-submission to compartmentalization that is involved.
Literary studies have gone through many transformations since my undergraduate years, and those changes have included periods of extreme questioning of the values and positions (political and otherwise) of canonical writers. But the nature of literary study when I was in college—as the epigraph and citation in this poem mean to hint—was quite different. The New Criticism had been for some time and was still the hegemonic approach to literary texts, and it insisted on the difference between the poem as an experience and any paraphrase or statement of the poem’s “meaning.” Students were encouraged to really live with poems, to let their sounds and rhythms become totally absorbing; it was an intense, and almost religious experience (the language about poetry of the New Criticism veered on the religious itself, hence “the heresy of paraphrase”). And indeed, I was already enormously susceptible to poetry (and had been writing it for some years), and the Donne poem was beautiful to me, even as I ignored the particular seventeenth century attitude toward Jews as inferior and as Christ-taunters, if not Christ-killers, that the poem implies. This intense focus on the aesthetic and formal aspects of poems had definite benefits; one really understood a great deal about the words and nuances of the words and one really internalized the ways sound and rhythm affect tone, emotion, and indeed, meaning, with lasting results for perceptive reading and subtle writing.
But the New Criticism also had drawbacks; it was very suspicious of putting poems into historical, biographical, psychological or sociological contexts (partially because of how inadequate and inattentive to actual poetic language such readings had been in prior decades); it insisted that the poem stands alone and does not need to be explained by anything extraneous to it (and certainly the idea of judging it wanting for expressing a particular attitude was not even remotely entertained). Some part of me—perhaps not a completely conscious part until later—regarded that stance with bemusement because I was profoundly aware of how much my own historical, biographical, psychological and sociological background affected how I read and how I wrote, and maybe even affected my efforts not to let it. One has to know that my undergraduate years occurred way before multiculturalism. This was before Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Asian Studies, Jewish Studies. To study English Literature was to study Christianity (largely High Church); a great many of the great authors emerged from within the Christian tradition: Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Herbert, Gerard Manly Hopkins (so many of them were actually churchmen!), and so much criticism (think Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism or C. S. Lewis’ work on Renaissance literature) was steeped in Christian paradigms. In part because the study of literature was my passport to a wider cultural, intellectual, social world, I submitted myself to the discipline; I compartmentalized my own identity as a “Jewish girl from the Bronx.” The academic zeitgeist encouraged that. Jewes, in the seventeenth-century orthography of our Donne text in my “Metaphysical Poetry” class belonged to a totally different world than “Jews” I knew. Which is, to my mind, kind of funny.
Brantingham: How did you your structure your collection? Were you building and developing a single theme or idea as you worked?
Kronenfeld: Some poets start writing a book with a particular formal or conceptual design. I think of Alicia Ostriker's marvelous The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, in which the old woman, the tulip and the dog each say something in the first, second, and third stanzas, respectively, of every poem. Or of Allison Benis White's Self-Portrait with Crayon, in which each prose poem is a meditation on a work by Degas. (I'd love to try each of those models some time!) Some books of poetry are impelled by a single ferocious emotional experience, like Edward Hirsch's Gabriel, about the loss of his son. My Light Lowering in Diminished Sevenths is a bit like that: one long elegy for my parents and their world—my childhood world—coming out of my parents' decline, my mother's death, my father's descent into Alzheimer's. But basically, I just write, and when I feel enough poems are ready, and have made their way into various magazines, I start looking at what I have, with this faith that they all come from one psyche, so they're going to have all sorts of connections I can work with. Though each book will inevitably be somewhat different from the others in the way it lends itself to organization, and the organization that results.
I do have to print all the poems I'm considering and even lay them out on the floor of my study in order to play with various possibilities. And that can take a while. In the case of Shimmer, a very diverse previous collection, I finally came up with thematic and tonal divisions. For example, the first section is mostly directed outward towards the public world of war, terror and injustice, but not every poem hits such themes squarely on the head, and certainly not in the same way. And some do only glancingly, or pick up other themes in the section, like my feeling for cities. The fifth section has poems that are mostly redemptive in their final turns—most involving the natural world—but here too, I like to avoid the "lock-step" sort of organization, so there are some contrastive or oppositional notes as well that felt as if they worked.
With Bird Flying through the Banquet, when I got those poems on the floor and started walking around them, I discovered I had fewer capital T themes than I had in my previous books. The first section, "Lives of the Dead," did coalesce around my now long-departed parents, their portraits and histories, and the sheer removal in time of their immigrant urban world. And the last two sections, originally one, did in various ways touch on the depradations of age, and on mortality—as experienced by those who die relatively young, for example, or by those who experience others' declines or deaths. (Such themes are not completely exclusive to this section; "Unimaginable" takes them up in the very first section in a sort of philosophical way, though it's also a personal poem about my mother's death; I do like it when certain themes or motifs cross sections.) I wanted to end the book with a certain uplift, even within such a final focus on mortality, and so wound up separating out some poems with a tonally different approach to "darkness" for the very last section; these are full of acceptance, or wonder, or a sort of peace; the ones in the penultimate section, in relative contrast, usually stress rage, shock, fear, dismay, though again, not exclusively. "After Her Headstone Is Placed on the First Anniversary of My Last Aunt's Death," in that penultimate section, is definitely filled with a certain kind of wonder, but I'd say it's chillier than the wonder in the last section, for example, in "The Dark." I was not, I should say, conscious of such minute considerations, as I organized!
I still had a good number of poems I didn't know what to do with, after these mostly long sections (i.e. the first and penultimate)—with their strong focus on kind of "big" themes—started falling into place. The remaining poems were not co-operating. It took a lot of re-reading in a sort of Staffordish way ("[Poetry's] like a very faint star. If you look straight at it you can't see it, but if you look a a little to one side it is there.") to find ways to deal. This was really a discovery process. I don't want to name the threads of connection between the poems in these sections of Bird that are hinted at by the section titles—which are either names of, or a brief quotation from a poem in the section—since I'd like the reader to have the experience of discovery herself. But I will say that "attention" is of various kinds in "The Play of Attention," and "Nothing's the Matter" is, as in the poem from which the phrase is taken, just gently ironic, and not, at the same time. How's that for a teaser?
Brantingham: That’s interesting. Many people find that a great deal of self-discovery happens in writing, but it seems that you might have been developing a new kind of understanding through the compilation of this collection. It sounds as though you were able to organize the issues that you had been dealing with as a person and a poet by organizing the collection. Do you think that’s true?
Kronenfeld: Well, coming up with the organization re-enforced my sense of some of the leitmotifs of my life, so to speak, some of my preoccupations and attitudes (some of which have already been mentioned in this discussion). But, then, these were things already known to me at some level; the individual poems were already written. Seeing the links between poems was as much or more an artistic process than a personal or revelatory one, and at a higher level of remove from what impelled individual poems. The poems came from many different moments of my life, recent and farther back, and grouped together, create a pattern or progression which isn’t necessarily coterminous with the pattern or progression of my lived life, or even, precisely, of my feelings and thoughts. Any one book, or section of a book, or even poem, superimposes a pattern on the complexity and changeability of one’s experiences and emotions. I don’t want to underestimate the desire a poet has to create a whole, to make something with the threads of experience, thought, feeling—something that explores a particular direction while starting from or moving towards some felt truth—in language that hopefully communicates across individual differences.
Having said that, I will say that I do agree that writing, as a form of digesting and re-living, re-thinking, re-feeling experience, definitely involves self-discovery, discovery of what one is thinking, or feeling. Last night, I heard the novelist Russell Banks speak, at the end of the news hour on the public television station, about why he doesn’t take pictures when he travels (and he is now also a travel writer). He finds that taking pictures actually interferes with his experiencing the places he is visiting. But, every night of his travels, he writes for a half hour or so. And he finds that doing so integrates the experiences he has had with his mind, his self, fully places these experiences in his mental space. So, for him, pictures are the anti-experience, but writing is the mental picture that makes the experience last. The old adage: you don’t know what you think (or feel) until you start writing about it has a lot of truth. It’s not that different, I suppose, from undergoing therapy: you don’t know what you really think or feel until you start talking about it. Nevertheless, for me, there is usually a process of development from that sort of revelatory “first thought” (remember Ginsberg’s “First thought, best thought!”) and the shaping of the poem as artistic whole with a chance of reaching others, and that shaping certainly may bring in elements not literally related to my life.
Brantingham: At some level, poets need to simplify their lives if only because we can't write everything we think and experience, but what you're talking about when you write about re-living, re-thinking, re-feeling suggests that maybe the act of writing a poem is an attempt to make our lives more complex. We are taking that moment and not just trying to capture what it was like to be alive then, but in a sense do it over and change the quality of that moment. Yes, there is the first thought best thought aspect to what you're doing, but you're also re-shaping the experience. Do you think that's correct?
Kronenfeld: The thisness of the original experience or sensation or thought (or all of these at once) that leads to a poem (or at least to a first draft) is very important to me. It is the feeling of being intensely in that thisness that I recognize as a pre-poem feeling, a feeling the poem will explore, develop, or puzzle out. It can be something visual, a glimpse of a building or a street in a movie, for example.
That thisness, the nub, the thing itself is in the first poem in the book, “My Long-Left Birth-City,”; in a way the poem is about that thisness. By the time I wrote the first draft, I had transmuted the street corner glimpsed in the movie to my own natal street corner. I am always trying to grasp what I feel for that past ugly-beautiful place, to figure out why it has such a hold on my mind: is it nostalgia (as you previously asked), which is inherently sentimental or wistful about a time in the past? Again, I don’t think it’s any simple form of that. In fact, a poem in my previous book, Shimmer, is called “A Partial Critique of Urban Nostalgia.” (I recently re-connected with a friend I haven’t seen since we were 12, who grew up on the same block in the Bronx, and she seems similarly compelled. More may come of this!) There’s a kind of analysis in this poem as well, with its corrective “as if”s; the speaker knows it’s impossible to actually reclaim the essence of this past place in her present consciousness, and she wouldn’t necessarily even want to go back to her former experience there, if it were magically possible. The final turn suggests what it is she is tantalized by: the “corner / newsstand, candy store, barber shop— / utterly, beautifully, unremarkable.” I hesitate to paraphrase this; it has something to do with the way the place you were born into feels when it just is the world. (“Home to the only-home-that-is” is the last line of another poem—in Shimmer—that touches on this theme.)
The thisness can be, indeed may often be, a recalled thisness. And some of my poems have a tremendous overlay and weaving in of other experiences, including the experience of what I’ve read. Sometimes the thing read (or re-read or recalled) provides the spark, and brings up related moments and thoughts from my life. I often need to go over my drafts, notes, journals to see that I’ve been thinking about something that appears in different places and ways, but is connected. Or to discoverthat bringing together disparate “poem-starts” and even a bit of research I might have done, and reworking these as they rub against each other, can create a complex poem. A poem like “Unimaginable” (in the first section of Bird Flying through the Banquet) had a trajectory probably impossible to precisely retrace because it involved so many disparate experiences—both lived and read about. This poem could well be an example of writing that makes our lives more complex, that does over and expands and juxtaposes moments, ideas and experiences. I’m not even sure where to begin! And I’m sure my memory is fallible. But you will get an idea of what I mean.
One of my favorite short stories is Joy Williams’ “Taking Care,” about a preacher, Jones, with a wife he deeply loves who is dying of a blood disease, a daughter who doesn’t seem to care for an infant daughter she had with some man she no longer cares for (Jones is taking care of the baby while his daughter is off in another country with men she doesn’t seem to deeply care about). At one point he listens to some records she gave him which were given to her by a professor she had an affair with. And one of these is Songs on the Death of Infants, which is described as “controlled heartbreak.” The allusion is to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, and at some point, I listened to parts of these, and looked up some of the many lyrics—written decades before by Frederich Rückert in reaction to the death of two of his children from scarlet fever—from which Mahler chose five to set to music. I may have done this simply because Joy Williams’ story so affected me. I also looked up the circumstances of Mahler’s creation of this work and was struck by what he said in a letter to a friend four years after he wrote it, when he actually lost his four-year-old daughter to scarlet fever: “I placed myself in the situation that a child of mine had died. When I really lost my daughter, I could not have written these songs any more.”
In June, 2011, I read and was profoundly moved by an essay that appeared in The New Yorker—“The Aquarium,” by Alexsandar Hemon—which was about the death of his infant daughter, one of his two young daughters. The fact that my son—then only the father of one child, a little girl of about four—told me that he wept openly on a plane while reading the same piece only increased its weight in my mind and heart. Hemon is furiously against traditional religious consolations in this marvelous essay, e.g. “she is in a better place”; as he says, “there was no place better for her than at home with her family.” His feelings totally matched my imagined ones, as a parent and grandparent. I even took notes on the essay because it was so deeply moving, and I felt so utterly in tune with its sentiments. One of the sentences I noted, when Hemon speaks of holding his dead child—“Though I recall that moment with absolute, crushing clarity, it is still unimaginable to me”—would eventually become the epigraph of “Unimaginable.” At some level I was thinking about the relationship between imagining and actually experiencing death—one’s own, or the death of someone completely loved. (I tried a few very short poems at one point, based on experiences Hemon reported involving the complete irrelevancy or even stupidity of what some unthinking people, outside “the aquarium,” said to him in his pain.)
Meanwhile, I also had started an unrelated poem which used a metaphor of crows to talk about aging—my own, and, my mother’s. I recalled the way, even right after the surgery for a broken hip that wound up killing her, she was concerned with how she looked, and, not feeling completely awful, was convinced that her time had not yet come. I was, I see now, contemplating that question of when it is that we can imagine death, or, perhaps romanticize it (as in the Victorian era, and as in the statuary of the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, which I had seen), or imagine the triumph of it—our last words, perhaps—or, in the case of my mother, the triumph of having a guilty daughter full of remorse for not having paid enough attention to her mother while she was alive! (I found a column by Ann Landers among my mother’s things, to this effect, as my poem attests!)
At one particular moment, the “poem-start” I just described seemed to me connected to what I had loved in Hemon’s essay, and even to some of what I had found out about Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Eventually I myself, as subject, and the crows, exited the poem. And my mother, and Mahler, and Père-Lachaise, and the theme of imagining death as opposed to experiencing it, as well as the theme of the luck of not seeing it approach all came together.
Brantingham: We've talked about poems that coalesce and reshape experiences, memories of experiences, reading, preoccupations, and even research. And about the ways in which poems can create or use experiences that are not literally yours. I want to ask, for my last question: When your process isn't like the complex one you describe for "Unimaginable," what is it like? Where do these other poems come from for you?
Kronenfeld: I think there’s a kind of openness to feeling, a receptive, relaxed state of mind that allows some poems to happen almost immediately, or at least to start, spurred by something just experienced. Sometimes a freshly felt or recalled memory that comes out of the blue, or is re-experienced when I reread a note I’ve made in the notebooks I keep and reread frequently as part of my writing process has almost the same effect.
(I can pretty much check my memories here, because I keep poem drafts in file folders for almost all of my poems.) The small poem, “Bread,” for example, did start from the immediate visceral experience of untwisting the twist tie on a package of sliced bread, first thing in the hungry morning, and inhaling the sweet and pungent aroma. And it was quite quickly completed. Somewhat similarly, but more mysteriously, “The Older Generation” began on a walk in the woods not too far from the Baltimore airport, when my husband and I were pleasantly wasting some of the extra time we had before a flight home to California after visiting our kids. Those ghostly ash leaves among the newly greening trees felt as if they meant something important to me; I even collected some (and still have them in the paper cup I used—and carefully placed in my tote bag for the return flight—which is pinned to my study bulletin board). I scribbled a rough draft of about two-thirds of the final poem in my memo pad right away, though the poem didn’t get fully realized until we were home and unpacked and I returned to my desk, and looked at those generative leaves again.
I think one of the most mysterious experience of thisness I’ve had was involved in the writing of “After Her Headstone Is Placed on the First Anniversary of My Last Aunt’s Death.” The poem’s “given” really was the sensation—that came to me out of the blue—of exploring an inner or mental space that really felt like “an architectural darkness,” a “blind-windowed edifice”; I went with it. The title, as a sort of justification for the emotional process of the poem, came much, much later. (I can barely sing on key, but the experience was not unlike the one and only time when a rather melancholy tune and lyrics came into my head out of nowhere; I taped it—this was a long time ago.)
The thisness behind “What I Love about New York” was the glimpse—when I was in Manhattan, briefly, for a high school reunion—of a very lavishly dressed-up, and obviously made-up woman, her mascara melting in the heat, who looked like she was going to a cocktail party (except that it was midday), crossing a rather gritty midtown street. The image, later remembered and jotted down in my notebook where I re-encountered it, captured something that felt emblematic, and almost beloved to me, about the atmosphere of my native city. Trying to explore that something resulted in a poem that re-created it without giving it a name (still not sure what that name would be!); the developed image became a metaphor for “what I love about New York.” (I doctored the location and time to heighten the situation and introduce verisimilar details that felt right to me.)
“Ten Minutes” is an example of a poem spurred by my re-reading a note I had made. It was about how my father used to set the alarm ten minutes early, so he could almost luxuriate in “extra” sleep, before he got up in the small hours of the morning to get dressed and go to his really exhausting work. The process of fully grasping a very old memory actually became part of what that poem is about.
The rare poem in my collection was written from a prompt I encountered or created for myself. “Values” was started by a prompt I came across suggesting writing about a particular couch. “Malaise” was started when I gave myself the exercise of writing a poem that uses words from a list, and I think (but here my memory is fuzzy) I made up my list from a paragraph in a writing handbook that suggested using words from a list.
“What We’re Reduced To” and La Place de la cathédrale came fairly directly out of actual experiences. But, like the majority of my poems, including most of those mentioned here, they were improved as I gradually revised them during my frequent hours muddling over notes that sometimes help germinate first drafts, and looking briefly at first drafts that benefit from a quick, fresh glance over a period of many days.
“Hair” combines heightened, present experience with a memory of the distant past somewhat self-consciously generated (but still it was fun to think back and newly generated memories are definitely a spur to writing), and a bit of fortuitous research from an impulse to surf the web. Now we’re beginning to approach the complexity of a poem like “Unimaginable,” and almost coming full circle. Thank you, John. This has been an interesting experience and discovery-process for me.
opportunity meets preparation: A conversation with Photographer Anthony Carbajal
by Chad Sweeney
ANTHONY CARBAJAL is a street photographer living in Redlands, California. He has appeared on the Ellen Show and has displayed his work in multiple galleries and art festivals.
I was honored to sit down with photographer, Anthony Carbajal, on November 20 to record this interview. We spoke for over an hour, and here I am including about half of the transcript of our conversation. Anthony Carbajal is a remarkable street photographer despite (or because of) his condition, called ALS, which attacks the central nervous system until the individual can no longer move or speak, but can feel, see, hear and think. Carbajal travels the streets, taking his stunning photographs from the armrest of his wheelchair using a foot or wrist trigger. He is one of the most talented artists I have ever met.
Sweeney: Is the relationship between ALS and photography productive or antagonistic?
Carbajal: The thing is, sometimes I feel defeated with my limitations, and I don't have any motivation to get out, because I feel like it's too difficult for me to work. But if I translate my limitations into something that is potentially advantageous, my limitations will sometimes force me to be a little more creative. So instead of focusing on the things I can't do, I try to focus on the things that my wheelchair allows me to do that other photographers can’t. Does that make sense?
Sweeney: Yes, that’s fascinating, and how does being in your wheelchair become an advantage?
Carbajal: Well, my wheelchair . . . first, there are a lot of disadvantages, things that I can't control as a photographer. It's very difficult for me to manipulate my camera, and so I have to understand what my perspective is, at my hip, I'm essentially shooting at the hip with my camera strapped onto the armrest, I don't always know exactly what's in my viewfinder, especially if it's bright outside. But, when I approach people in my wheelchair the first thing they see is not my camera. They see me, and they see my wheelchair, and they try to understand what I'm doing. They see me rolling up—I have a camera, I'm playing my music—and I feel like they think about what they're trying to overcome and what their limitations are, and they start a conversation and they really open up.
Sweeney: How does that happen?
Carbajal: My wheelchair kind of breaks down social boundaries that people normally place against each other. Because I can still walk, and when I'm walking people don't pay attention to me at all, but when I'm in my wheelchair I get this crazy level of kindness. And when I’m getting this kindness, and at the same time, if I can photograph them candidly without them knowing, I can photograph the essence of every ordinary day. Then I ask their permission to use the photos. I really enjoy it. When I first did this I didn't know what I was doing. I rolled out and started taking photos of cats and dogs and trees and people.
Sweeney: How is this kind of photography different from being a wedding photographer?
Carbajal: As a wedding photographer, I used to photograph people's most important day of their lives. I would say, This is the most important day of your life, this is an investment. That was the sales pitch that I would give to people and half-heartedly believe. And so now I'm photographing the ordinary, because it's so fleeting and trying to realize that every moment's beautiful. With this disease I have a very limited time frame with my strength, and so I realized that every day is important. Now I photograph the ordinary and try to translate it in such a way that everyone can understand how fleeting and beautiful it is.
Sweeney: Can you explain how the transformation occurred from being a wedding photography for a living into being a street photographer as an art?
Carbajal: The last wedding that I photographed was in December of 2013, in Santa Barbara, the most expensive wedding I had ever photographed . . . and I couldn't even button my shirt. I had my assistant help me put my shirt on. At the time I wasn't sure if I had ALS, like my mom has and my grandma, too, or if I had worked too much, because during that year I photographed 47 weddings and I had this monster of a camera that people normally use for the Olympics. I just thought that my hands were getting weak—when I was taking photographs I had to use different fingers to change the settings on my camera, and my arms would shake when I was carrying the camera that day.
Sweeney: Just that one day? It came on that fast?
Carbajal: Well, it was an ongoing thing. I had been very suspicious since Thanksgiving of that year because I did a lot of things with my hands, I did origami, I played yo-yo, I did magic tricks, I drew, I painted, I did photography, I was a very hands-on person, and normally everybody gives me the cards to shuffle because I like to shuffle them fancy for Thanksgiving, but I said No—I had to tell my sister I can't . . . my hands are just too sore and too weak, I can't, I can't shuffle anymore, and I thought, Okay, maybe this is something bad. And then that January Obamacare came into effect, and I was able to get insurance. I made an appointment, got my diagnosis and told my family the news, then cancelled all the weddings and didn't pick up a camera again until maybe a year later. I had to sell all my equipment to pay back those wedding deposits.
Sweeney: How did you get back into photography a year later, and what had changed in your approach?
Carbajal: I got to the point where I had to do something creative. I hadn't done anything creative in a very long time. I just had to get out. I didn't care what the heck it was, but I had to get out, roll around and take photographs, and that's what I did. And then I realized, I think this is street photography. I think this is something that people do. But normally people go to L.A., or they go to Chicago or New York. I'm shooting the suburban neighborhoods of Redlands. And is this special?
Sweeney: I think it is! So at first you did it for yourself, because you wanted a way to get out. This is remarkable because if you didn't discover you had ALS, or start to feel the symptoms of it, you may not have become a street photographer.
Carbajal: Yes, I mean, I can't drive anymore but when I roll out, I feel like I'm driving. I used to skateboard, I've been skateboarding my whole life in the streets. Now I'm in the streets again and when I go through the streets I have all these memories from before my obligations as an adult, of what life was really about. It's crazy. I go into the streets and have these memories of me playing 21 or me playing football like I used to play all the time, or me skateboarding in the streets of Murrieta, California. And I tell myself if I could go back in time I wouldn't have gone to college. I went to LMU for five years, I graduated from LMU, but if I knew how impermanent my life is I would be doing a lot of things differently.
Sweeney: Like what, specifically?
Carbajal: I would just be focusing on things I can do today, I would be going out more and spending time with family. When I see people use their hands, I'm fascinated by it. When I'm not outside I'm on Youtube watching people making things with their hands. Like I watch carpentry videos, bull training videos . . . I watch origami videos, everything that people do with their hands fascinates me, I can watch for hours. When I get out into the streets it brings me back to what I’ve really enjoyed about my life thus far, and it's just getting out, enjoying the sun. And it's just perspective, you know. Not many people do that anymore.
Sweeney: So the immediate sensory presence in the world is the most precious thing?
Sweeney: What it looks like to me, the people that are the subjects of your photographs, they seem like they're in their private space, rather than in public. And it's impossible to capture an image of someone in private the way you do it, and yet you do it, somehow, time after time after time, because almost every image has this affect. How do you think you achieve that?
Carbajal: Deep question. This might be good for me to talk about, because I'm trying to understand my process. Well, I usually have a short conversation with them, and as I'm talking with them I'm also photographing them, because my trigger, my shutter release cable is on my foot or it's on my hand. I don't have to put my hand on the camera to take their photograph. At first, I rarely ask for permission, I just do it, and then I ask later. I technically don’t have to ask their permission, because they’re outside in public, but I ask anyway if I can take their photograph. Unless, there are kids involved, or something like that, I don't want people to misconstrue my intentions.
Sweeney: So you have their permission, but they don't know the moment you're taking their photograph? So they're not stiff or nervous or smiling in some unnatural pose.
Carbajal: Yes, I always ask their permission and yes, so I photograph them before they put up their guard. And I won't post photographs of kids unless I have their parents' permission. There's one photograph that I have where I asked their permission, but their parents said, I don't want you showing that. It's a really sweet image. It was on the patio in front of Augie's Cafe, an elderly white lady, and she had a baby in a crib, a mixed race baby with blue eyes, very beautiful. It was just such a beautiful moment, the light was really nice, beautiful tones, and she told me that the baby was just adopted, and she had been taken away from her home, and there can't be any photos of her for a very long time posted in public. So I'm always careful, especially around children, that people don't think I'm a creeper.
Sweeney: So when you say, you want them to know you're not a creeper, it implies that we live in a time when strangers don't trust each other, so in a way this project is an act of diplomacy and breaking down barriers, simply to move through neighborhoods and capture images.
Carbajal: Yes, that's my goal. I'm starting a project in San Bernardino—yesterday was my first day of going—and my wife, Laarne, doesn't really like it, because she says, You can't go there, it's so dangerous!—and this is what everybody says—don’t go there, don't visit there. And it's the next city over. You know, San Bernardino is considered the most dangerous city in California, and it also has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. So I go there on Friday, my first time going there, and I'm very nervous, and I wasn't approaching people much, but trying to ease my way into it. Because if people are saying these things, then how are they treating the city? Are the people getting funding, are they getting the support that they need? Why is it the way it is? I feel like it's good to change perspectives.
Sweeney: Can you talk about any specific interactions from your day in San Bernardino?
Carbajal: I posted an image on Instagram, of a homeless addict, a Native American woman, and she is intoxicated beyond belief, and she doesn't have a shirt on, she has a bra on, and I felt uncomfortable posting it, but I do want to share it because it's not something we can ignore. I don't know what the solution is, but I definitely know that we shouldn't ignore these people. And I posted the image and asked, How does this make you feel? And everybody's response was, Oh my gosh it's so sad—Oh, I don't want to see this, and one person said, I walk by this woman every day on my way to work, it's disgusting. And I feel like, this is how people treat these individuals in real life, not just in the photographs, because these people, more than anything these people need the most amount of attention, because they're hurting somewhere. And I try to at least have a conversation with them, and I rarely post photographs of people in those situations. I don't know what to do with it. I'm still learning. People look at certain individuals and already make assumptions of who they are. I tell Laarne that if I feel uncomfortable, that means it's probably a good place to take a photograph.
Sweeney: So you've said that you go out without intention, but it seems to me that you have quite a bit of intention. What do you mean by not having intention?—is it possible that you actually do? I mean, what are your goals?
Carbajal: Sometimes, I try not to put too many expectations or goals on my process. I just like to go out for the fun of it. It's kind of an escape from my reality, because, whatever I'm going through with the progression of my disease . . . . there are certain parts of Redlands that I used to be scared of, or at least slightly uncomfortable being there—especially that area near Stater Bros—but now I have thoroughly investigated the whole area and I have talked to the people that I was once scared of, and I realize that I shouldn't be scared of them, I should just approach them and treat them normally, because I feel like they are going through something similar to what I am. Because I have a pain in a way, and they have a pain that's ignored. And I remember having this disease, this rare disease, and not having a voice, and I remember what it felt like when someone began to listen to me. And these are realizations that I’m having right now as I'm talking to you. I guess that's what it is, I tell Laarne that I try to find places where I am uncomfortable then I go to those places. And why do I feel uncomfortable, am I making unfair judgments on a community or a group of people just by one look. Everybody's in their situation because of life experiences, and they aren't always positive ones.
Sweeney: Can you tell us about a specific experience where you initially felt uncomfortable but then came into a deeper knowledge of someone?
Carbajal: Yes, so one time I force myself to go into an alleyway by Stater Bros, and there's this girl and it looks like she's meditating or praying or something, but she's homeless, and I go over there and she starts approaching me, and I feel afraid, but I think, maybe I'll find a moment to photograph her, and she comes up to me and she's a little tweaked out and she has track marks on her arms, and she's young, though, she's around my age, and then her boyfriend comes out from behind the building and comes up to me, and they're talking to me, and they ask if they can pray for me. And I wish I recorded their prayer, but I was able to photograph our hands. They asked if I would hold their hands, and their hands were filthy, there was crud all over their fingers and they didn't smell so great either, but she kept on praying, it was a long prayer, like ten minutes, but at the end she said something like, I wrote it down, something like God, thank you for giving Anthony the strength to be outside today, I know he is weak but he is stronger than me. Thank you for showing me this. And that's pretty profound. I don't know how I'm helping, I know I want to help people in some way but I don't know how to. Just by treating them like a normal person is a good start, a really good start, treating them as if they are my brother or my sister. Just pretending I didn't see those track marks, or pretending I didn't notice that they haven't taken a shower in a few days. Why am I going to hold that against them?
Sweeney: Is the project personal in this way where, maybe, it's about expanding your ability to have compassion or empathy beyond what you had been able to before? And maybe that's the project for all of us as your audience, that when we see the photographs the healing we feel is that the limits of our empathy have been expanded, one person, one neighborhood at a time. Because you seem to capture people in their nobility—even if they're in an alley with track marks, somehow, in the photograph the framing and the beautiful light and the texture reveal some divine aspect in the person.
Carbajal: I think it's perspective. You're hitting on a good point. I notice that. A big theme to the conversations that I've had, people say things like, I'm so glad I saw today. Here I was focusing on issues I was complaining about, and here you are smiling, and who am I, my problems are . . . and I don't want to belittle people's issues, their issues are real things, but maybe it's perspective for them. It changes their perspective even in that small conversation, they're lit up, and they're happy for me, like Here you are in your chair, smiling, and I don't know what you're going through but it's not great, but here you are still doing what you love.
When I first started, there was a woman by Chipotle. It was a windy day and her hair was blowing, and she was carrying this small child. It was a really pretty moment, and she approached me and I photographed her as she was talking to me about how she had just lost her husband and that she didn't want to live. But she was carrying this child, this grandchild, her daughter's child who brought her so much happiness. And she was carrying this baby, and it gave everything to her. She said, I've never talked to anyone about this, and I'm not sure why I'm telling you this either. Those are the kinds of conversations where people really freakin’ open up. I share that photograph, but I don't know if it's appropriate for me to tell the story. And I don't know how to respond to that situation.
Sweeney: Somehow when you're in your wheelchair and you tell people, really specifically that you're going to be paralyzed eventually, they just have this moment where you become this very special person in their life, all of a sudden, your vulnerability invites their vulnerability.
Carbajal: That's true . . .
Sweeney: And then they're safe, somehow.
Carbajal: Even though I'm pointing a camera at them, they feel safe.
Sweeney: Amazing, is this vulnerability an element of your art?
Carbajal: I don't always open up in that way, but maybe I should consider doing that with everyone that I meet.
Sweeney: How does your camera angle, from the left arm of your wheelchair, how does that change the sorts of photographs that you capture? How can that be an advantage?
Carbajal: Well, there are lots of disadvantages with that. When I studied photography, they say you never point a camera up at someone, at least for wedding photography, it's not very flattering, especially for brides. You never want to shoot up at people, up at their nostrils and so forth, it's not very flattering. But from a cinematography standpoint, when you're making movies, when you're shooting up at someone is usually when you want to make them feel more superior, or stronger, a more dominant role in the movie. And for me this is usually the case, I look up at everyone. Maybe I look a lot less intimidating because everyone is looking down at me, and the camera is also pointing up at them, not down at them.
Sweeney: So the camera captures them in their strength. There's a humble positioning in the camera?
Carbajal: Yes, a humble positioning in the camera.
Sweeney: How does it pick up other things that would be missed if you were standing full height taking photos? How do the photos look different?
Carbajal: At times I notice that I've backlit my subjects. The sun is higher, the sun is encompassing them. That's hard to do because my focus won't pick up on them—it's harder to get contrast. But if I do it right I get a lot of interesting backlit effects, halo effects, and I try to look for that. We're talking about things I don't normally take the time to consciously consider, I really enjoy this conversation!
Sweeney: One thing I notice is that the lower camera picks up the texture of the street and renders the children at eye-level—everything takes on this noble quality, because of the humble positioning of the camera, it enables the world to come forward. Instead of the world being defensive or resisting the lens—because the lens can also feel a little violent to people—but in this case it invites the world forward. The world steps up into the shot. It's an incredible effect.
Carbajal: When I used to stand and carry a camera, sometimes when I pointed a camera at people, my subjects felt like I was pointing a gun at them, and my wheelchair and my perspective is a limitation, but as far as being more candid and photojournalistic, it's an incredible advantage.
Sweeney: I love what you were saying about dailiness, qualities of dailiness, how in comparison to your wedding photography in which you said that was the best day of their life, this now is the every day of their life.
Carbajal: And it’s so temporary or fleeting, life is impermanent. Time is going by whether you like it or not. And with technology, we get lost in videos and memes, it used to be that Youtube videos were like five minutes and now Instagram videos are like five seconds. Our attention span is getting so short. We need to be constantly entertained with illuminating experience. But when I go out I can focus on being in the present, and there aren't many people out doing it. And most of them that are out walking the street can't afford to drive or go places. Most of them are in situations where they need help, but in a weird way they don't need help, we can be helped by them.
Sweeney: So a lot of people that are outside are marginalized, peripheralized people? If they're outside in a car city near L.A., in a car culture, yet if they're not in a car, it often means that they can't afford a car. People just aren't walking around for fun anymore?
Carbajal: No, no, no.
Carbajal. If people were out walking around for fun, I'll bet the streets would be a lot safer.
Sweeney: That's a good point. What makes North Redlands different from South Redlands, for someone who lives in Chicago or Tampa, how would you explain the difference? How should we understand the difference between where you take your photos and the other parts of the city?
Carbajal: Every town has its local ghetto. I don't consider North Redlands a ghetto but many people think it's pretty bad. It's on the other side of the freeway, and a lot of cities have that part of town across the train tracks or freeway. A lot of towns have a similar division. And when I used to think of it as being dangerous, it's because I would see people who can't afford a car, that are walking around the streets or taking public transportation, a lot of them are loitering around, so it just seemed unsafe, but perhaps I was being judgmental. The buildings aren't as well kept. Even the sidewalks are not as well maintained. There are a lot of sidewalks in North Redlands that are not finished, and I've asked the city to fix them. The first time I went to the city to talk about getting some of the sidewalks fixed, one of the city officials made a joke, Oh, are they on the north side of Redlands?—like he already knew.
Sweeney: And he thinks that's funny?
Carbajal: Yes, he thinks it's funny.
Sweeney: Do you feel like you're doing something political by revealing beauty and truth in North Redlands where it has been ignored. Bringing attention, bringing love-through-attention to the people and scenes and houses of North Redlands.
Carbajal: Initially, I tried to photograph South Redlands but it wasn't as enjoyable. There aren't as many people out maintaining their lawns. They pay someone to do that. It's not the same. Also, in South Redlands there are no fences. Everyone has these open spaces. But as soon as you cross under the freeway to North Redlands, everyone has a gate or a fence around their yard. It's like their properties are smaller, and maybe there's a small distrust between everyone.
Sweeney: It's ironic, isn't it? There's less to guard but it's more guarded. Do you see Beware of Dog signs?
Carbajal: Oh, all the time, all over the place.
Sweeney: So a lot of your photographs are taken through fences toward the house. You're on the outside of the fence?
Carbajal: Yes, I'm on the outside and I have to use manual focus because automatic focus will focus on the near ground and blur out the house. Sometimes it won't focus. It takes me a good bit to get it right. If it takes me too long, I miss the shot. Sometimes it's very frustrating for me to use my camera, and I try not to get defeated, or I'm learning to be okay with photos that are out of focus . . . . So I guess they are not always very sexy topics, but maybe we could make them sexy. Those are the kinds of things that really intrigue me when people try to push the envelope on. As soon as someone says, You shouldn't do that—or It's not allowed—it makes me wonder why, why do we say that?
Sweeney: Yes, what's ignored, you’re bringing forward what's in the background or what's in the periphery, what you drive right by—your photography brings it into the center.
Carbajal: That's what I want to do.
Sweeney: There's another quality about this that I'm noticing, between randomness and control, between accident and art or technique. Where do you find that those elements meet?
Carbajal: My best photographs—I don’t' believe in luck—my best photographs will be where preparation meets opportunity. And sure, it's a little lucky, but when you have all your settings right, when you have your angle in the right place, when you're anticipating a moment, a lot of things play a role. It may seem like a lucky moment caught but it may be a little hazy where it can be construed as that, but if you didn't click that shutter, that's a very intentional thing to do.
Sweeney: Ah yes, you chose that moment.
Carbajal: Yeah, when I see someone in the distance who kind of looks intriguing, I'm already checking to see if my settings are in place and where are they going to be in the frame. And if it's going to be a difficult moment to photograph, I'll put it in autofocus, then anticipate right when they're going to walk into my view. I don't want to sound like I’m the best photographer in the world, because I'm not, and I used to get caught up in the technical things in an image, but now I’m realizing that even if the focus is off or if the light is slightly over-exposed, if the essence of your subject is in that image, it doesn't matter. And I used to stress so much about it, I used to read so many blogs where there were pixel keepers zooming in to see how sharp that individual pixel is and making sure the chromatic aberration is not visible and all these other things that I used to stress about, I had to force myself to let go, and when I did I felt liberated. Sometimes I find myself stressing about it, but I have to learn to let go. What it really comes down to is what you're photographing. Composition and technique do play a role, but for me sometimes I can be really off with my composition, and I have to live with it, you know what I mean, because I am limited with my abilities. I can't pick up my camera and move it in that instant when they walk by. I'm still learning the process. I'm trying to figure out what works best. Sometimes I pick out my frame and I just park my wheelchair there and I enjoy the composition, and I wait for my subjects to walk into the frame. If I wasn't doing street photography I wouldn't be outside doing that for any other reason. I'm outside, I'm enjoying the day.
Sweeney: I don't know much about ALS. What I know is Stephen Hawking. He's such a good advocate, because he puts a face to it, and we know he's a genius even though he can’t move or talk anymore.
Carbajal: Yes, ALS doesn't take your mind. Stephen Hawking chooses to live. With ALS if you want to live you have to choose to live. It's not always the case because ALS is normally incredibly aggressive and my family's ALS is a little bit slower, which is something I feel guilt over, too, sometimes. After my video went viral, I've been connected to thousands of families with ALS, and now it's been three years since I've had this disease, and I've seen hundreds of people die that I've been connected to in this time.
Sweeney: Oh really, that's fast! It can be that fast?
Carbajal: Yes, 75% - 80% of ALS patients die within three years. It's really aggressive. It's a gnarly disease, my grandmother fought for eight years, my mom's had it now for fourteen—so my grandmother decided not to live any longer. My mom is strong, I don't know how she does it. She has someone who loves her, my stepdad, who takes care of her unconditionally, and would give anything for her, and I have Laarne, my wife, who would do anything for me. That's why I can go out, because she supports me. I wouldn't be able to do what I do without her.
Sweeney: What a love story, Anthony! Your work and your personality are inspirational. All this would make a really good book.
Carbajal: Let’s do that next!
The Space Between: A Conversation with Sherwin Bitsui
By Michaselsun Stonesweat Knapp
SHERWIN BITSUI is originally from the Navajo Reservation in White Cone, Arizona. He is Diné of the Tódích’ii’nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for the Tłizíłaani (Many Goats Clan). He holds an AFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts Creative Writing Program, where he has served as faculty since 2013 in their Low-Residence MFA program. He won the American Book Award and the PEN Open Book Award for his second book of poetry, Floodsong, in 2010.
Michaelsun Stonesweat Knapp:
You’re a poet in demand all across the United States. What are some of the best places you’ve visited in your travels? The best people you’ve met, as a traveler of the world? As an Indian?
I’ve been fortunate to have traveled to places I’ve never dreamed of visiting when I was growing up in the Navajo reservation. There are moments I revisit walking upon Machu Picchu in deep wonder. Other times, I am looking out on some ocean or lake trying to envision what my 94 year old grandmother, who never traveled out of the Southwest, would think of this particular beauty. They are all moments I cherish.
Being a poet in demand across the United States, you have a view of burgeoning poets across the country (a view few people have). What do you see?
I get to meet great people all aiming to write that poem that we all want to read. I’m glad there are poets out there. Poetry is still potent as ever. People are still drawn to this tradition and I am happy to be a part of this experience.
At AWP this year, Brian Turner (author of Here, Bullet) said that many veteran writers are pushed to write and publish only work that relates to their experiences of war. [He feels] that it’s as if people think the big and complex lives that veterans’ live outside of their uniforms either don’t exist or aren’t interesting. Do you think this applies to indigenous writers? How so?
I hope it's not the case anymore. Indigenous people live incredibly complex lives and I hope, as writers, we may continue to communicate our humanity to a world that only values our stories when it fits into some prefabricated sense of who they want us to be. The prejudice is real. We must imagine, and let our words imagine a new poetic context.
What do you find readers have the hardest time with when encountering indigenous writing and writers?
Some may not entirely understand our rage and others want us to perform that rage continuously. There's is almost no between space.
Several Indigenous writers are incorporating their indigenous language into their poetry. A very select group have published books of bilingual indigenous poetry: Dg Okpik (Corpse Whale) and Joan Kane (Hyperboreal), to name two Alaskan natives who have done this. And you yourself did this with the opening to Flood Song. Is this a growing movement in indigenous poetics, or are indigenous writers developing similarly and simultaneously, but independently? Or is it something else entirely?
Native poets have been using Indigenous languages for a long time. Rex Lee Jim's book, Saad, is written entirely in Navajo with no translations. Luci Tapahonso has also used Navajo words in her poems. Tohono O'odham poet Ofelia Zepeda is another such poet who writes bilingually. As Indigenous poets, we will certainly continue to write in our native languages – it's just part of who we are and how we express ourselves. I've noticed that other parts of the Americas, namely in Central and South America, Indigenous poets first write their works in their languages and then translate them into Spanish. It seems fitting that those of us who are Native language speakers [in the United States] do the same.
What are some upcoming books you’re excited for?
I'm looking forward to Layli Long Soldier's forthcoming collection, Whereas at this particular moment. It will be an important work. I suggest people look her up and get to know her work.
[A sample of Whereas can be found at PEN’s website, http://www.pen.org/poetry/whereas.]
Last question (I don't want to take up too much of your valuable time): I wanted to give you a moment for you to talk about some of what you’re up to that you’re excited about.
I'm in the process of completing a new manuscript of poetry. I feel that it's almost there, but I need more time to sit with it. I hope to see it in book form eventually. The work is difficult to talk about. I still don't know it's essence at this point.
MICHAELSUN STONESWEAT KNAPP is a tribal member of the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe of Ohlone Indians. He holds a BA in English Literature from California State University, San Bernardino, and received a Lannan Foundation Scholarship to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts Low-Residence MFA program in poetry. His poems have been published widely across the United States and the internet.
LEAVING HOME: aN INTERVIEW WITH novelist ISABEL quintero
by Shondra Rogers
ISABEL QUINTERO’s first novel, Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (Cinco Puntos Press, 2014) won the Morris Award from the American Library Association for the best debut Young Adult Novel in American and he Tomas Rivera Award from Texas State University for the best Young Adult novel by a Mexican American. She holds an MA in English Literature from California State University, San Bernardino and is the treasurer of PoetrIE, a non-profit arts organization in Southern California.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Isabel Quintero in person on January 5, 2015, in Riverside, California. Isabel is a powerful young writer whose debut novel has been turning heads on the American literary scene. Isabel and I met at a coffee-house in downtown Riverside where the buzzing grinder was reminiscent of Isabel’s busy life of teaching and writing and of her leadership in the literary community, where she works to provide opportunities in every corner of the Inland Empire, this vast stretch of towns and citrus groves skirting the mountains east of Los Angeles. During our conversation, I was impressed with Isabel’s generosity and honesty, and our timing couldn’t have been better, as a few weeks later her new novel, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, won the Morris Award from the American Library Association for the best debut Young Adult Novel in America—and just two days after that, her novel won the Tomas Rivera Award for the best Young Adult Novel by a Mexican American.
Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (Cinco Puntos Press, 2014) is an empowering story about a traditionally voiceless dual-minority character, whose battle for identity is more difficult than most even as it represents the changing terrain of America. She negotiates her cultural and linguistic displacement in a way that will inspire her readers regardless of race or gender. Her story is familiar to anyone who has ever been ashamed of a character trait, or has struggled with family or friends, or has desired to speak her mind against forces that would silence her. Quintero bends and weaves the genres to appeal to many tastes at once: at one moment we are intimately reading Gabi’s diary charting a “regular” day and the next we are delving into mature poetry, or Gabi’s Zine, or a lively and authentic conversation in California’s many vernaculars. After reading Gabi, a labyrinthine journey of nostalgia that was painful to relive (I hated high school), I could see myself in Gabi. She is truly an individual who refuses to be defined and who challenges her readers to explore and accept their full selves. She inspires in a candid voice that tells us what we need to hear instead of what we want to hear. It’s this veracity that animates Gabi, and it’s the reason her readers love her.
SHONDRA ROGERS: Power is one aspect of life that all of the characters in your novel struggle with in one form or another. Writing can be seen as powerful, and as an author how do you hope Gabi will empower your readers?
ISABEL QUINTERO: One way I hope they are empowered is through the writing that she does, because one way she finds power is through writing poetry and just writing in general. The other way is self-acceptance because often we find ourselves in situations where we have lost our power, and I think that stems from trying to please other people and gain their acceptance in such a way that we lose ourselves, and therefore relinquish our power to them. From Gabi, a Girl in Pieces I think of the character of Sebastian. He could have easily given up, but he didn’t. He realized that he had a choice and found the strength within himself (as readers can as well)—that you may not be the most popular kid, you may not be where you want to be in life, you may even have parents who reject you, and while that is a heartbreaking situation, it is not all you are and it’s not a permanent situation. Things can change and YOU have the power to change and to make things better for yourself. Gabi does that as well. She’s in a household where women don’t see themselves as powerful. Even when they are the ones holding the family together. So, she’s able to see that and to say, “You know what? Even if choices like leaving home are difficult and will break my mom’s heart, it’s the best thing for me. This will empower me.” Ultimately, loss of power at one point or another is part of life, and you have to make the choice internally to change it, which characters such as Gabi and Sebastian do.
SR: You spoke a little bit about the relationship between Gabi and her mom. Can you discuss that further—that power dynamic? Her leaving is definitely a choice Gabi makes alone. Does that make her stronger or is she merely choosing the easier option—to escape?
QUINTERO: I think it does make her stronger, though I am not sure I would use the word escape. In the Latino culture, leaving home is a really big issue, especially for women. In my personal case, my mom didn’t want me to leave for college. It was, “Why do you have to leave? Do you just want to go out and have sex? You can just go to college near home and you can leave when you get married.” Which is a very restricting way of life, and it assumes that women all want to get married. It completely disregards other options. Gabi questions her mom—I think she really tries to understand her (that’s why she’s so conflicted about leaving), but ultimately she is able to see that she wants a different life for herself than the one her mother imagines for her. I mean, going off to college is a big deal for people, to become part of a new community, to network, things that you can’t really do when you live at home and merely commute to classes. For many, that would be enough of a reason to leave, but for Gabi and her mother it is much more complicated. Leaving means that she is questioning her mother’s authority and in some ways turning her back on the cultural expectations that have been set for her, and because her culture is so important to her, it is painful. It’s a strong and powerful thing that she does and it’s a smart thing that she does. Her mom hasn’t really made the smartest choices for herself, so Gabi can see that and say, “This is going to hurt, but I’m going to do it.”
SR: Some may criticize the mature voice of Gabi and her heightened awareness of complex issues as being unrealistic to someone so young. When constructing Gabi’s voice what were your goals?
QUINTERO: There are many other novels for young adults where the characters can also be viewed as having “mature” voices for their age. However, I don’t hear this type of criticism as much for male authors, because readers just accept it as is. I don’t know if it’s due to Gabi’s voice being female, and therefore people can’t imagine young women thinking this way, but because Gabi is in a situation where she has had to deal with a parent who’s an addict and a mother who is so critical of her, she has had to grow up much faster than other teenagers. She has developed this heightened awareness and maturity—but she still makes mistakes and is unsure of herself at the same time. Her maturity is directly related to the things that she’s experienced, and those things informed her approach to and view on life. If you talk to teenagers, they are not all the same. They can be independent and often have to make difficult decisions in their lives that others may not have to. My main goal for Gabi was to be the voice for those young people whose voices are often excluded or dismissed.
SR: As you developed the character of Gabi, did you intend for her to be this specific teen in this spectrum that has been thrust into adulthood?
QUINTERO: Yes, that was my goal. Because a lot of Gabi is me, and so I had to really sit and think, “Who was I when I was a teenager?” Now, was I that smart and that brave? Probably not. She’s a lot braver than I ever was, and that was another thing. I thought about, “What if I had been brave when I was a teenager? What would that have looked like?” That was the major part of that process. In the end that’s what it would have looked like—I would have left home.
SR: Which had to be difficult, accurately recalling exactly how your adolescent life would have been.
QUINTERO: Right, and of course it is fiction so you do have permission to create that character any way that you want, as long as she’s authentic.
SR: And Gabi definitely is! I enjoyed the varied pace that shifted between narrative, letters, poetry and zine. Even in the journal entries where one would be tame for Gabi’s day, but then the next is extremely volatile. The reader doesn’t expect these changes, but it’s just another day in Gabi’s life. Did you initially set out to weave these various mediums, or did it happen organically?
QUINTERO: Yes and no. Initially the book was a novel-in-verse, so having made the shift from novel-in-verse to prose, I wanted to keep the poems in there, because poetry was so integral to the story. Gabi was always going to be a poet. Some of those poems were there before, some were added, but with the zine it was added because it felt natural. I had been working on the zine before and I was thinking about how I had needed to finish it. Then I thought, “This would work well in the book,” and it made more sense that if this was going to be a diagram of a woman’s body there should be pictures to actually show you what the female body is. There was another zine that did not make it in because of the issue of page count, and I couldn’t fit it. I had always wanted that, though, because I didn’t want it to be strictly a journal of entries—Day One, Day Two, etc.—I wanted it to be someone’s actual voice.
SR: When you had said that about the zine and that it should have a diagram and the poems, it reminded me of when Gabi gets the book of anatomy, right? It’s saying this is what this is called and that is that, but there’s so much more to it. There are all these real-life connotations beyond those illustrations.
QUINTERO: Right, yeah.
SR: It’s great that you were able include the zine and poems. And speaking of poets, the fictional boyfriend of Gabi is named Martin Espada, who in real life is a poet focused on Latino political rights. Was this a coincidence?
QUINTERO: That was not intentional, but I think, maybe, subconsciously, it may have been. I remember reading Martin Espada way before, but when I came up with the name I didn’t make the connection. I was thinking that I needed a cool name and it is a pretty damn cool name. My brain was probably thinking, “This has to be your boyfriend!”
SR: I thought it was an interesting coincidence.
SR: Senior year of high school is sort of a rite of passage, and Gabi understands this. Now we’re done with Gabi and her senior year, and I know you’re busy with other projects, but I would love to see Gabi through other rites of passage. Perhaps motherhood, or marriage. Is that something you’ve considered?
QUINTERO: No, I haven’t. I’ve been asked before, and I just don’t see it happening. She’s not speaking to me anymore, and that’s where I think she should end right now.
SR: Okay, well thank you for taking time with me.
QUINTERO: Thank you.
SHONDRA ROGERS is a poet, wife, mother, and current student in the teaching credential program at Cal State San Bernardino. A Moreno Valley native, she works within the Inland Empire and is secretary for a literary nonprofit group called PoetrIE. Her work can be found in The Pacific Review and is forthcoming in an anthology by Monkey Star Press.
The Horizon Exists in Our Own Bodies: an interview with artist Claire Anna Baker
by Chad Sweeney
Chad Sweeney: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about your art and some of the specific pieces featured here in Issue 6 of Ghost Town. To begin, can you tell us about your process? And what areas of consciousness are active while you are painting? What energies and sources do you draw upon while in the act of painting?
Claire Anna Baker: I try to tap into source consciousness when I work. I allow myself to bleed into my environment, and vice versa. The consciousness becomes very fluid. I build a giant environment in my studio out of miscellaneous matter, lights, this time mannequins. I collect energy from experiences in nature and from reading that goes into building this source object. I then draw this environment repeatedly, daily, until the energy within the objects becomes a kind of center. The objects come to life and the environment unifies. Suddenly the teetering scrappy artificial natural simulated environment becomes everything and nothing at the same time. The environment is my constant, every time I draw from it is different. My observation of it changes like an emotional weather system. My process is very much like that of an ancient Chinese ink painter. I stare at the waterfall until I make one stroke that becomes the waterfall itself, the energy of the source itself rather than an image of it. I become it energetically. This makes my process seem contemplative and then fast, which it is, but then after the main event of that first stroke the painting evolves very slowly. It takes me many months to understand that moment and open it up into a whole reality.
CS: Your process is fascinating! Can you walk us through one of the paintings that we are showing in this issue of Ghost Town? What environment did you create for this painting? Which objects and lighting? The shapes of the negative space, and so forth? And how did the painting evolve through a process of layers and time as an expression or integration with the “source energies” of your studio environment?
Claire Anna Baker: I actually made a short video of my painting process recently which you can watch here, http://vimeo.com/78112423, or on the process page of my website. The video captures an external view of the relationship between me and the environment. You’ll see that I make the dark mark first, before I layer the transparent washes gradually over the gesture. I work with one studio environment for an entire body of work. For the SunBody series I had a large mound of crumpled paper and yellow fabric and cardboard boxes, etc., punctuated by a copper toned mirror propped on top of it all. I thought of this mound as a dark sun. Above I suspended a tight wad of black foil, reflective matter, and a black veil. This compressed, dangling counterpart I loosely thought of as an earth form. I used a lot of lights in between them, so the space between the two universe mounds compressed and reflected hot incandescent light. I wrapped black taffeta around everything to connect it all—I thought of this as the shadow. You can see in the studio snapshot from the SunBody series that I am surrounded by paintings on the floor. I work on all of the paintings simultaneously.
Anti-Shock is a good painting to focus on (see it here). The scroll format of this painting was directly tied to capturing the tense, dangling, elongated, pendulum like form featured in the environment. I thought of the vertical lines here as very spinal, full of folded minutiae. The thicker curve is almost braided and then a personified light form rests in the curve of the dark disk at the bottom. This blade like form was taken from kinetic photographs dated around 1900 of veiled dancers becoming the mark, defying the mark. As this painting evolved, the pressure of that golden light on the right side intensified and pushed against the rest of the painting, almost like a blast of heat against the steadfast though molten left side of the painting. The thicker part of the black mark in the upper area of the painting almost appears to slip behind the color, as though the black was continuous behind all that light. However, the light in this piece is all negative, coming from the raw light of the surface. I like this reversal. The slight bit of erasure amidst that deep royal blue I thought of as a dimly lit candle, the darkness slowly absorbing the blast. This painting also has three horizontal horizons that cut through its vertical format. The dark saturation of the color in this painting took many, many layers over many weeks. I wash and puddle the ink over the whole surface at once using large pieces of foam. I allow the pigment and the water to move and to absorb into the surface, sometimes for days. Then I wash over the whole piece again and again until the color looks full, feels alive, and I can “see into” it with depth the same way I can see into the environmental objects. Many layers of thin transparent color create more radiance than an opaque application of paint. My work is very much about drawing, so a lot of variations in the washes have to do with the subtlety of the light, and the strength of its contrast. This painting captures the reflective quality of light in the mirror embedded in the environment. The light is so strong exactly because it also plays against the translated weight and darkness of the black taffeta mass.
CS: What are current intrigues in your own artistic process? What are you working through, working out, exploring?
Claire Anna Baker: I am currently thinking a lot about vastness, as Bachelard discusses in Poetics of Space, often referencing Baudelaire. I am interested in this idea of what is very far becoming very close, and what is close very far. I am interested in expressing an intimacy with the horizon, and how the depth of the horizon exists in our own bodies. What is close and perhaps blinding our view can then melt away through expansion. In my daily life in LA I experience such a small speck of the life of this universe. The more we can think expansively, the more we can understand where we are and direct where we’re headed.
All of this manifests in my actual painting through trying to draw the dark gesture so that it holds a body of light. The dark gestures all contain horizons. Their black, dark lines jump out to the eye. Working the surface in order to flip these dark marks so that they become deep space has been very challenging and rewarding. I am interested in achieving a real, radiant glow in my paintings. They need to shine out. This of course takes many many layers of transparent ink to achieve. My last body of work, SunBody, which you feature here, did not focus as much on this, it was more open, white, and minimal. This next body of work is built more gradually. It is important for me to have very long, slow construction processes before a series of minimal fast pieces falls into place. The work has to happen before you get to the surface on the very immediate pieces. The stroke just is what it is then, no going back.
And when I say body of light in these series, I mean literally. The SunBody series had more to do with a cyclical, radial, compression and expansion in the dark mark—where the mark as body became a kind of sun. Now I have swung more literally to the side of the human body, where now the sun becomes the body. The light, absent form is now what you will see first. There is a lot of flipping between bound, twisted compression and then released, open expansion in my work. My work is very much about density, so that is a way to vary the density of the work not just in mark and material but also in how it conducts energy.
I am thinking a lot about transformation, about how to make transformation real, physical, accessible, and relevant now. I am not interested in a grand romanticized transcendence, but rather a receptive openness to the possibilities for transformation in our daily lives, in our society. Transformation through exchange of energy; how can we humans experience life like a river or a fire rather than a machine? Transformation is part of nature, and we indeed are part of nature, so our transformation is real.
CS: Kandinsky wrote that his paintings were translations of the soul. Can you make a similar statement about your own art, are they translations of something? Even as your paintings are not "representational," can you locate elements of your paintings in the world, in consciousness, in spirit?
Claire Anna Baker: I would say that they are translations of internal space into external. I always seek to reveal my inner world to the viewer. The painting must make that dream space as real as possible. Because, well, it is real. Good art creates a full reality for the viewer to enter. Through the bridging of internal and external space wholeness is created. I often read when I paint and that always anchors my work. Particular paintings tie to their own book passages. It helps keep me going and create a through-line in my thinking about the work. In SunBody I was very inspired by The Life of Poetry by Muriel Ruykeyser. She has a chapter about Walt Whitman and his struggle to resolve opposing forces within himself, his struggle to find this wholeness I am talking about. She quotes him as saying I am a dance, pointing out all the struggles which inform that dance, which he dances in spite of.
The simple answer to your question though is that I am really a landscape painter. My paintings are more abstract now, but I will always be a painter of nature and of the horizon. Although now in my definition of nature I don’t separate the wild from the city, I treat it all as our broader environment.
CS: Ah, yes, I enjoy that way of viewing your art, but your “landscapes” remain in motion, transformational, of both internal and external spaces, as if rendering the motion (or potential motion) within the weather above the landscape, how wind might be shaped against the mountain, and how light is shaped within the wind. In another vein, the semantic rather than the spatial, do your paintings feel more like statements or questions? And how do you know when a painting is “true?”
Claire Anna Baker: I love those images! They are perfect too because they have so much to do with the relationship between elements, and how everything exists in constant flux. My paintings are most like metaphors. They serve as both statements and questions, lending themselves to ambiguity and multiplicity. When they are at their most open they are at their best. Otherwise they are really meditations. They are very quiet, receptive works, despite their sometimes aggressive aesthetic. They are still the way someone is still when leaping through the air. I know when a painting is true enough to make when an image paired with a very specific yet all encompassing feeling comes to my mind and to my body. Then I know there is a real seed. A painting is true, in that is resolved enough to live on in the world beyond its nest, when it rings like a bell in my eye. The finish of a painting is very tense, exhausting, exhilarating, like a tender nerve that is so sensitized the slightest touch fires cannons. The piece is done when it has its event, its place, its bodies, and I enter the space as one. These forms are questioningly ambiguous in the most specific way; the arrangement between these forms does create a statement. The painting must be expansive and hold the eye at once. So when you look at the piece the eye literally senses release at the edges of the frame. There is always a kind of drishti, a center of the painting on which I can gaze in stillness while the surrounding movement unfolds.
CS: Can you describe an artistic breakthrough for you? What sources and energies were present to catalyze this breakthrough?
Claire Anna Baker: For me breakthroughs happen when I identify what is and what is not serving my work and then I, poof, let go of what is not. It is always very painful to do, with lots of crying and struggle. I have always been stubborn. But when I finally accept my limitations it is very liberating. I have realizations to add elements into my work, too, but that happens generally very gradually. I realize that a new tool will add another element, or that I want to push the edges of the frame. These tend to be more like natural growth in the practice, work leading to more work. My real breakthroughs have always been about letting go, letting go of the artist I thought I should be or expected I would be and accepting the artist I am. This is about becoming oneself, and becoming an artist. We all have heroes, but letting go of those heroes and pioneering the uncertainty of your own, new voice, is what we have to do.
I have always wanted to do everything, use every brush, every material. Letting go of oil paint and embracing ink as the material that best expresses my voice has been my biggest breakthrough. People told me I should do this for almost a decade before I did. They were right, but it was indeed important that I stuck to what I was doing for so long. I learned an immense amount about density, touch, surface, and painting through my many years of struggle with oil painting. I painted Marsden Hartleys, Joan Mitchells, and Cezannes. It was great, but it wasn’t my work. My ink drawings at the time looked like Claude Lorrain landscapes from the 1700s. I was a retro graduate student. It wasn’t one or the other that would be the answer, it was finding a path of integration.
CS: Please, talk us through one of your paintings in which a breakthrough took place. What was let go? And do you still feel the gravity of what was lost? Does the completed piece still contain the ghost of what fell away as well as, perhaps, the years of technique and effort that led to the breakthrough?
Claire Anna Baker: Inside the Whole was my first painting on polyester. The painting emerged out of uncertainty in the most immediate and focused way. I first painted invisible marks—washes so thin you could barely see them, but they gave the surface a sense of air and pattern. Then in one fluid movement of five minutes the dark mark emerged. I remember looking at the piece after lifting my tool and going back in for one delicate line with a little bit of water on it so it disappeared into the void at the center of the painting. Before this I had worked on several paintings that I never resolved for too many tortured years. I ended up throwing away all of those paintings. Here I let go of showing how hard I was working on the painting. Or rather I was able to hold the intensity of the painting, to bear its weight, without buckling. All that time made me strong enough and aware enough of my own energy to conduct the energy into the mark. It’s like sending just the right amount of electricity for the right amount of time along the wire so the lamp lights and the fuse doesn’t blow. So nothing was really lost here, only gained, in that the light was finally lit. The only thing lost were the years of work and pile of material it took to arrive there. Those years amounted to a long, slow, expensive education more about me as the artist than about the work itself. Inside the Whole and the works following compressed and concentrated all of that learning. Finally the work could just be the work, with me as the support for the movement of the painting. Through all of this the work always came from the same source. The only real difference is that my effort to create the work no longer reads as content.
Despite all of my intentionality, the painting in many ways must ultimately paint itself. I am only its most intimate guide. I have learned to work together with the painting as in an intimate partnership. I have only begun to express what I see in a way that you too can see it. Almost every time I finish a painting I feel a sense of disappointment, because it doesn’t yet fully express my experience to you, the viewer. So the learning has just begun, I am sure, and there will be many more breakthroughs that deepen the work. Now I am beginning to occlude the gesture with white so it feels like parts of the painting literally dissolve into light. In Belly I almost completely occluded the gesture to dissolve into the darkness of night sky.
Current breakthroughs now push farther the integration within the work. The duality between the dark mark and the ground will find greater and greater similarity and interchangeability. The object of the gesture must fall away; the open being space of the imagination must continue to rise out. It is so scary to reveal your inner world to others. This fear is a lot of what I am always trying to shed. Struggled, impenetrable work can be a shield. As an artist I have to create a very safe and protected space around the work, so that the work itself can grow and thrive. Energy I used to spend working in raw panic I now protect and cultivate. It is almost like when you are in a protected forest and you make yourself really quiet and gentle so that you might be able to make eye contact with a wild rabbit. You have to listen very quietly to its every step in order to even know it’s there, and if you’re lucky, watch it grow. Hunters and stompers, of course, must be kept at bay!
CS: Your perception feels transformative and multiple, as if you view the phenomenological world entirely differently—I say “view” or “see” but I believe you are using all of your senses to become the objects of your perception as a kind of transpersonal knowledge. In your way of knowing the phenomenological world, what is an “object?”
Claire Anna Baker: To me an object is anything with a defined boundary; objects and their boundaries then interweave in our lives. Of course there are material objects that can serve as vessels for memory and sensation, etc. But also there are mind objects, thoughts that do have boundaries whether or not we realize. The physical body is a physical object, and then sensations, consciousness and identity become amorphous objects themselves. I often think of objects as bodies. So all of these elements of awareness become translations of the body object. I explore a fluidity of identity, of objects and of bodies, but I do still believe boundaries are necessary. We need to be able to define our own boundaries in experience so we can maintain the integrity of our own identities, even as we integrate with other bodies. By looking into objects I do feel a deep empathy across these defined boundaries, which offers this kind of transpersonal learning you mention. I am so fascinated by these boundaries because my instinct is to be completely open, which of course does not work because complete openness generally leads to being seriously, painfully burned. So creating a protected sanctuary for expansive feeling and receptive vulnerability is really what I am after. The heart must be safe and healed before it can be truly open again. Society constantly and dangerously dictates external boundaries of identity, of gender, class, race, etc. There is an external construction of difference that divides us, or tells us what our boundaries are supposed to be. But in fact all individuals have their own internally defined identity on a vast spectrum of experience. Indeed the boundaries of self constantly transgress, defy, and complicate external categorization. My exploration of all “trans” related experience is really about finding commonalities that may expand, bridge, specify, and complicate all boundaries. Trans awareness is about projecting the self, the senses, the imagination out into the world consciously in order to open, redefine, and intimate the relationship between self and world.
Radiance and Wreckage: an Interview with Matt Hart
by Chad Sweeney
Matt Hart is the author of five books of poems, Who's Who Vivid (Slope Editions, 2006), Wolf Face (H_NGM_N Books, 2010), Light-Headed (BlazeVOX, 2011), Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless (Typecast Publishing, 2012), and Debacle Debacle (H_NGM_N Books, 2013), as well as several chapbooks. His awards include a Pushcart Prize, a 2013 individual artist grant from The Shifting Foundation, and fellowships from both the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. A co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety, he lives in Cincinnati where he teaches at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and plays in the band TRAVEL.
Let’s start with an easy question. Does Nate Pritts prove or disprove the existence of God?
Oh, so this is how it’s gonna be—God and Nate Pritts in the opening question? Let’s definitely be sure not to get them confused. It wouldn’t be good for Nate or Dog [sic].
I don’t know whether Nate Pritts proves or disproves the existence of god. What I do know is that Nate Pritts proves the existence of Nate Pritts, at least to me. And that’s good enough. There are so many more poems in the world because of him, both his own and some of mine, not to mention also lots of other people’s. H_NGM_N the journal and H_NGM_N Books have proven themselves through Nate and his efforts on behalf of other poets and Poetry—no explanation, no further proof, necessary.
Like Nate Pritts (and his press), poems also prove their own existence and are their own explanation as well. Poems aren’t necessarily about anything. Most poems being written (or at least being published in the cool kid places) these days aren’t narrative. In fact most of them resist narrative in various ways, including in terms of “aboutness”. Thus, they don’t need an explanation outside themselves to be affecting or conceptually generative or whatever it is they’re trying to be. Aboutness sometimes seems to make explication necessary, but the point of a lot of poems is to teach us, via demonstration, new ways of seeing and being in/of language and the world. If we had all that sewn up—if the great creator could just lay it all out for us on the Astroturf—we wouldn’t need poems. Fortunately life and Nate Pritts and poetry are so much messier and manifold than any absolute commander has the power to dictate. Experience, in so many mystifying and beautiful ways, just doesn’t add up, and I love that. We get to make and remake the world in our image, expanding its possibilities imaginatively. Imagination makes the world. That’s what poetry proves, if it proves anything.
Yes, yes, and in this vein, of the “messy and manifold,” you begin your book Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless with an epigraph from musician Blake Schwarzenbach, “I believe in desperate acts, the kind that make me look stupid”—and later, in one of your poems, “So all of this is sprawling whether I like it or not. And I swear I won’t come back to this survey of wreckage.” When you spoke to my students at CSUSB, you told them that spontaneity, speed and immediacy are values in poetry—how are these achieved in your poems, perhaps as part of the messy and manifold, the sprawling, desperate and stupid?
I promise I’ll get to something like an answer to this question in a minute, but first…
It’s always so strange to me to see lines from Sermons and Lectures outside the contexts of the poems themselves—which isn’t the case (at least not in the same way) with my other books. I just spent half an hour looking in the book for that bit about not coming back to “this survey of wreckage” and couldn’t find it. Oh well. This has everything to do with the fact that the book’s primary mode and method, especially in the three long sequences, is collage. So looking at the lines out of context is literally a matter of looking at fragments torn away from their sources twice—that is, first from wherever I originally got them (mostly my own non-collage poems and notes—I did a lot of pre-writing and material generating for that book) and then second from the poem as it appears in the book. The lines as fragments become totally defamiliarized (even to me). I’m sure I wrote them, but I don’t remember writing them, and now I can’t find them, so instead I’ll steal them again and write a whole new poem (“Poetry, it’s easy and impossible, like stealing from yourself”—Paul Violi):
All of this is sprawling whether I like it or not
I like it or not I do and I don’t Last
night it snowed It snowed a lot, and now it’s
three degrees I could freeze my whole life
to the bark of a tree, the trunk of a dog, silver-
muzzled in winter That deep-freeze refrigerator
full of meat we call Nature Hearts and snouts
and tongues and lungs All these white months
“No birds sing” wrote Keats, and then he stopped
Outside, the branch of a tree just snapped It was
too heavy, so gravity called Light as a photon,
I go outside to look for damage I breathe the cold
into me, and a spirit billows out No one knows
who No one knows what And the cicles of ice
drip fire on my porch, making it slick, so I put down
some salt I go back inside to stop seeing ghosts
The Saddest Landscape and My Fictions, my new
favorite record It’s actually a record Let me play it
for you now One of the songs, “When You Are Close,
I Am Gone” is more than thirteen minutes long I love
when the marvel goes on and on and on But
right now, you are the one who’s far away, so I am
closer to not being than I’d like to admit, pretending
to myself to play you a song No birds sing
I won’t come back until you come back I swear
and I swear to this wreckage.
The second thing I want to say, before I answer your question—or maybe it’s the third thing since I just wrote you a poem (and made it entirely clear that this is a written, not a spoken, conversation) is that I hope I didn’t tell your students that spontaneity, speed and immediacy are values in poetry. I hope I said that they can be values in poetry, and certainly they often are in my own poems, but I fully recognize that they may not be values for other people.
Without them, however, I never would’ve written the poem above, and while I don’t think it’s the best poem I’ve ever written—it’s maybe not even a good poem—I wrote a poem just now, and it’s material that can be endlessly exploded, unfolded, recycled and messed with—both materially and in terms of whatever ideas come up in it. Even a bad poem can be used to produce and inspire other poems and other thoughts about poetry. A bad poem, on my view, is better than no poems at all.
Also, and this gets around to your question, the thing I just wrote is sort of sprawling, desperate and stupid, and in writing it I had to BELIEVE in those things as values, along with spontaneity, immediacy and speed, or I never would’ve written it at all. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have an idea. I didn’t have any deep thoughts or feelings. I had some words. I had some time. I had what was happening right here in my house and right outside my window. I had what I’ve been listening to and reading, and I trusted all of that to take me somewhere that I wanted and/or needed to go—I trusted it to take me to YOU.
When I write, I try to have faith that making a heavy-duty mess will eventually produce light, maybe not in the poem at hand or the next one or the next one, but eventually. Quantity inevitably leads to quality. And I’m not precious about it either. I’ll show anything I write to anyone (see above). Why not? I wrote a poem. It’s not so bad. And anyway, the path to any “successful” (whatever that means) poem that I or anyone else ever eventually writes is strewn with numerous awful attempts to write that/a poem. Thus, I believe in the process of working—and initially in working as fast as I can. I can think about it all later as I edit and revise, but I’ll never think a poem into being. Poems for me are a matter of discovering something, exploring terrain, wearing my heart on my sleeve to see if it flies. Poems are not a matter of making a plan, or god forbid, an argument—though sometimes in the process of writing a poem arguments do get made. To write a poem one has to get words on the page, and for me that means just sitting down and spitting, mark-making, casting ridiculous shadows. Rationally, I know that this won’t (probably) produce a good poem, but in the midst of it I have to believe it will and forget the parenthetical “probably.” Otherwise I’d never write anything again.
I guess the long and short of it is that what some people certainly would think of as an irrational faith/belief in process—of just sitting down and writing poems with no plan, no guide, just words—is for me generative. I don’t worry about writing poems. I worry—when I worry—about how to keep writing—that is, about how to get words onto the page. This is freeing in the sense that it removes—at least initially—all the pressure of having to do “good” work and instead allows me to get work done—to find some words, some associations, some inspirited racket, some love—the stuff that’s on mind that I have no idea is on my mind.
And how much is freedom a goal, for yourself and for your readers?—or perhaps we could even say radical love or revolution if those things aren’t mutually exclusive?
I like this idea of connecting freedom with radical love and revolution. I can get on board with that. Radical love, it seems to me, would be both free and revolutionary, not in the hippy-dippy sense, but in the sense that it would have to be available to anyone who wanted it without conditions, and it would be all inclusive, ecstatic, infinitely transferable. To receive radical love is to be in a state of grace, and to impart radical love to others—well, that’s too wild to even think about…but why shouldn’t that be a goal of poetry? I mean, if a poem could actually achieve even in some small way what you’re talking about, wouldn’t that help us to be better people to ourselves and to each other? Of course, I’m not sure that I could actually go in search of that sort thing in a poem—seems a little too ego-driven, and besides the main thing is to write really great poems. My fundamental belief is in poetry itself, its power to affect and change people, and my fundamental goal is to write more poems in hopes of stumbling into writing some that will actually be capable of affecting me and other people powerfully, viscerally, and in a way that changes us for the better. I don’t know what I’m talking about here, but talking about it makes me happy.
I’m reading this Nicholson Baker novel right now called Traveling Sprinkler, and in it his protagonist, a disarmingly charming, mid-life crisis ensconced, rhyming poet named Paul Chowder, muses that, “Maybe doing better is somehow finding a way to make people’s imaginations work better.” Freedom, radical love, revolution—these are all rather idealistic and idealized concepts that allow us to render the world in terms other than it is, i.e. to imagine our circumstances differently and better. As Dean Young points out in the Art of Recklessness, “The highest accomplishment of human consciousness is the imagination and the highest accomplishment of the imagination is empathy.” As art, poetry is on some level always engaged in the pursuit of imaginative possibilities (non-ordinary usages of language), and sometimes, if we follow those out to the end of the road by the mailbox, we become better able to connect with other people, because we can suddenly put ourselves in their shoes, if only temporarily. Of course, the foundation of this is recognizing all the ways we’re more similar than we are different. The common, human ground between us is the basis for celebrating difference, for feeling someone else’s anxiety or heartbreak or joy to the world. I hope on some level that my poems could help connect people in these ways, and it’s obviously stuff that I think about, but if I thought about it too much in the process of writing, that would be the end of me. The end
Okay, so with all of this in mind, and after swearing “not to come back to this survey of wreckage,” how do you approach editing and revision? And likewise, what parts do craft and preparation play in your writing process?
I’m so glad you’ve made the distinction in your question between revising and editing. I think of the former as a lot more radical—a re-characterization of the fundamental grounds, formal parameters, and structural trajectory of a poem—whereas the latter is more technical and tweaky—just “tailoring.” Sew. So… Once one surveys the wreckage—“As I survey the wondrous cross”—the question becomes what to do with it to make it amount to more than the sum of its robot (body) parts.
Nowadays, for me, the process depends on the poem. Some poems I write and do a little editing and that’s it—very little revision at all. But some I revise over and over again to figure out what they want to be, how they want to say what it is they have to say. More often than not lately, I think that writing itself has become a process of revision for me—writing and revision have collapsed into each another. What I mean is that rather than writing something and re-tooling the machine of it over and over again in subtle (editing) or radical ways (revision), I just write a different poem with many of the same concerns. Sometimes I write fifteen or twenty poems to get to the poem that I then spend time thinking about and crafting. This is really a relatively new way of doing things for me. I used to write something and then work on it until it emerged as a butterfly-devil or died in its heavenly cocoon. The problem was that the poems that did emerge from this sort of very difficult and noodle-y surgery sometimes lost their energy, their spontaneous wild luster, their strange sloppy quality that made them alive in the first place.
Sometimes even a butterfly-devil is boring.
Over the years I’ve learned that my own tendency in editing my poems is to fall back on what I’m comfortable with, what’s worked for me before—my expectations for the poem— and that’s a killer of imagination, creativity and (ultimately) poetry, so I try to avoid it as much as possible. And one way I’ve found to do that is to re-write the same poem as different poems until it opens its eyes and says “Hello, Crackpot, I’m here!” I should note, though, that all through this process of writing the same poem over and over, I actually think I’m writing different poems. At some point I realize that the last twenty poems were just practice—prototypes—for this new thing I’ve done. So preparation—which is not only writing, but also reading and life—is critical for me to be able to write poems at all.
As for craft, I always say that craft is the thing that nobody talks about when the work is really good. Why do they not talk about it when the work is really good? Because they’re too busy being moved/affected by the work to think about HOW it’s doing what it’s doing.
Of course, as writers who want to know how poems achieve their effects/affect, we have to study craft. And what is craft? Craft is the description of everything that’s already been done, the decisions/incursions/maneuvers that have already been made, the effects and affect achieved in the great book of the revered dead (and sometimes living) poets of the past. As such, craft is absolutely necessary for writing great poems—it’s the foundation upon which we work, and it’s the thing we work against to be our best selves. Craft alone is not sufficient for writing great poems. In fact, a crafty poem with no art is an exercise—a “workshop” poem. We revere the great artists of the past not for the ways they followed the rules (craft), but for the ways they established the rules (art). So craft is tricky business. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. Having said that, I would like to point out that I still do a ton of imitations, which is one of the ways to learn craft and to think about the surprising choices that other artists have made. I also do every assignment I ask my students to do along with them. I learn things every time. I’m grateful to have a job where I get to practice what I love. Craft, like the received forms, is a thing to work with and against, but never within, because then it becomes a box, a coffin, a place to suffocate and/or crack up.
Rather than “theme” or “emotional center,” (or as you said earlier, “aboutness,”) I like to use phrases like “crises of growth” or “weathers of anxiety” when looking for the actionable energy or sources for a poem. These phrases might not have meaning for you, but if so, what are the crises of growth or weathers of anxiety that fed the poems in Debacle Debacle? And were those sources different for Sermons and Lectures?
I’m sure in some ways it sounds doltish to say, but the actionable energies or sources—the crises of growth (I like that a lot) or the weathers of anxiety (I like that even more)—of all my poems are the concrete, immediate perceptions and experiences of my daily life in Ohio. I look out the window. My daughter makes up a song about eggbirds and ghosts. I go out running and get caught in a storm, and I see a woman with a baby stroller also caught in the storm. I feel sorry. The snow, the snow, the now, the now… And these things in turn are triggers for memory, reflection, and associations, which result in metaphors, images, deep darknesses and bright lights.
I’ve said elsewhere that my poems are often a demonstration of a particular way of paying attention—my way of paying attention, which I hope is similar to and different from your way of paying attention—but I haven’t said before that that attention and its demonstration in the writing of a poem involves being receptive and engaged physically, intellectually, spiritually, and aesthetically simultaneously. For me writing a poem is a process of reactivity—a way of interfacing with, and making sense of, myself, other people, and the world. It’s not the only way to make sense of these things, but it’s the best way that I have of confronting the joys and terrors and routine banalities of being alive.
It’s interesting that you’re asking about all of this in relation to Sermons and Lectures and Debacle Debacle, because I was actually writing parts of those books at the same time. One is the overlapping blood brother/weird sister of the other and vice versa. Thus, many of the sources—fatherhood, friendship, Romanticism, the desire for significant connection with other people, spiritual thirst, and political anxiety—are the same in both books. It’s the fundamental modalities in the books (collage in Sermons, lyric/narrative in Debacle) that are different. I can imagine that there are people who’d really like one or the other of those books, but not both, because modally they’re passing in the night.
Of course, Debacle Debacle also takes the doubleness of its title—the fuck-up and flood of the word “debacle” itself (and Breton’s claim that “A poem must be a debacle of the intellect”)—as one of its primary sources. In contrast, Sermons and Lectures is embedded in the racket of early punk rock, and the feeling that it often carries with it that it, and we, might fall apart at any second. Its noise is the noise of simultaneous disintegration and babble (the tower of). As the Sex Pistols put it “anarchy is the only way to be.” Keats called this Negative Capability.
I do get a strong sense of place, of “here, right here,” from your poems, and that here/now is usually Cincinnati, running with your dog, or putting together an issue of Forklift: Ohio, or watching your daughter discover something remarkable. Having visited that complex American city, a city of extremes and of extreme authenticity, I can see why it absorbs so much of your attention. In what ways might we consider Cincinnati to be the Center of the Universe?
It’s the center of my universe, my home base, my Rocky Top. It’s where whatever magic and bewitchment happens in spite of me, then radiates out into the world (if I’m lucky) and sends me scrambling out after it to read poems, a call for a response—a wild, long, racket-full, endless series of them, calls and responses and calls…
But I always come back to the Queen City, Porkopolis, Cincinnati.
That said, I’ve never been all that tied to places as places. What’s wonderful about places are people. The people make the place. I do, however, very much love driving North on I-75 from Kentucky into Ohio. There all these hills in Kentucky before you get to the Ohio River. It’s just gorgeous. When they put the interstate in they had to make a huge cut in one of the hills that’s now known ingeniously as “the cut in the hill,” and when you drive through it the skyline of Cincinnati comes into view and it’s kind of breathtaking (especially at night)—my city, my home where a lot of the people I love do good work. Some of them even love me back.
Come and visit. We’ll cook together and read poems, drink Christian Moerlein and Rivertown Brewing Company beers.
You've taught poetry for many years at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and recently for a semester at the University of Texas Austin. What do you love most about, and what is most essential in, teaching poetry?
Teaching fuels the writing. Writing (and life, of which writing and teaching are a part) fuel the teaching. And when I say teaching fuels the writing, I mean mainly the students and the reading we do together, the conversations we have about art. I don’t necessarily mean that I get content for the writing from these interactions, so much as I get a feeling of community and a constant impetus for remaking and redefining my own aesthetics and interests. In the act of teaching one comes up against a microcosm of the world at large and language, both in general and in particular, over and over again. What’s even better is that it’s never the same from day to day, class to class, semester to semester. What more could I want?—Poetry—the flux of it, the charge and surprise and electricity of engaging with the thing I love day in and day out, and with people who are both engaged in and love, if not poetry in particular, art generally—it’s terrific. I recommend it.
Now, what’s essential to teaching poetry? I don’t know. I’m always trying to learn new kinds of back flips to do, new fires to set, new ways to set them. I try to stay open to the possibilities and to the idea that I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about in any even remotely absolute sense. I don’t know what a poem is, and every day I get to go to work and try and figure it out. I feel like as a writer/teacher, if I do my job, my students will do things I never could’ve predicted. They’ll surprise me and themselves—maybe to the point that we all have to stand back and ask ourselves how, or if, what we’re looking at even fits in with our current notions about what poetry is, how it functions, why we value it? That challenge helps keep us all sharp, helps push and cajole us in all the ways we need to be pushed and cajoled.
Please, give a really good line of poetry by somebody, and tell us why it's really good.
As they swam past me in a long dumb graceful cluttered line
A couple of things you need to know: 1) The “they” in this line refers to a flock of geese in a lake, and 2) the “me” is Ted Berrigan’s speaker “Ted Berrigan”. This line is from his poem “Old Fashioned Air” and is one of my absolute favorites (the line and the poem). There’s nothing really flashy or fancy about it. The words are easy, ordinary, casual, and familiar. The speaker is describing something he witnessed during a morning walk in the park when he had stopped to smoke a cigarette. As a line, it’s long, dumb, graceful, and cluttered. I wish all poetry could be dumb, graceful, and cluttered—though not necessarily long (Note: this line is by far the longest line in the poem and partially operates in terms of contrast to the lines before and after it; most lines operate on the basis of such contrasts, I would guess). This line is what it says and it says what it is; it enacts formally what it’s about. It’s a line about a line of geese and also about the poetic line itself—one of the things it might be, one of the ways such lines might sing or shamble or spring. I don’t know if any of this makes it a good line or not, but it’s a line I like. It has guts, whimsy, and the feel of being speech and verse simultaneously. It hasn’t authentic human goofiness to it. You can find lines like this throughout Berrigan’s work, but also in the works of Philip Whalen, Gregory Corso, Lew Welch, Joanne Kyger ... the list goes one and on.
In our current issue of Ghost Town, we are fortunate to be publishing four poems from your new book-length project Radiant Action. Please, tell us about this new project, its arcs of energy or shipwrecks or processes or apotheoses, and if you don’t mind, please tease us with a few lines from one of the sections, like a little letter directly to our readers, and we’ll end with a link to your work in the issue.
“Radiant Action,” the phrase, as I’ve said elsewhere, so won’t beat it to death here, is from an advertisement for laundry detergent via Charlotte’s Web, which I read to my daughter a couple of years back. “Radiant Action,” the poem, is a blast-off long sequence—at this point some 160 pages—that reflects on art and life and the invisible energies they give off, the shadows they cast, and how our words, our songs, our interactions with other people often have extra-sensory, but powerful—sometimes life altering—consequences and effects. Radiant Action is aCALL TO ACTION! The poem is full of punk rock explosiveness and twitching and grrr, but it’s also full of light and faith, belief and love. It does the worm, and then it slow dances and whispers. It sings a hymn, and somebody in Des Moines or Wichita or San Bernardino or Cincinnati hears it and writes a poem to heaven, or quits her job and starts to glow in the dark, or goes to a show in a basement in Wisconsin and has the absolute time of her life so starts a post-hardcore hip-hop noise band and supernova’s into a black hole. Meanwhile, the radioactivity of it all is working invisibly. And all our human being—the poetry of human being—the radiant action—is part of the same giant radiant anthem, which my poem is trying somehow to document from my own ridiculous little doorstep in the Midwest to every other doorstep in America, and hopefully out beyond it to everywhere: Hell and the moon, heaven and the owls.... Isn’t that how art works? It’s deployed into the world, and then what? Well, lots of things—if we’re lucky, too many things—and some of them are warm and bright (and a little dangerous) like the sun. It’s not cause and effect. It’s the articulation of the connectedness of all things via gravity and light—the will to live and the fact that we die. The older I get the more similar than different I think we all are, and the more connected everything seems to me, too. “My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something great, something one and indivisible.” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797. And I think, yeah, me, too—and maybe that great thing, that indivisible source of energy is human imagination, faith, belief, mercy and grace. To perpetrate (and I use that word deliberately) radiant action is a matter of wanting to connect, to be connected, and to feel that connection to other human beings and nature viscerally. Take me to the light/life source, to something irreducible. Ultimately, it’s empathy and all that that most powerfully leads to that I want: compassion, understanding, re-vision (and re-imagination) of the world as we find it into the way it might be. The Other becomes significantly just like Me, and that is the basis for celebrating difference. Evil is real, but so are beauty and goodness. Poetry’s is one of the reminders:
if you hang around on this planet
long enough, the seasons change
a number of times, and you experience
so many things in radical full-blossom
and radical full-flight, that you can’t
ever imagine leaving this life—tangerines
and fission, electronica and cotton—
and you and I—because I’m talking about both
of us—just keep going as if it will never
ever stop It will never ever stop
On Poetry and Writing: An Interview with Kjell Espmark
By Mariela Griffor
Swedish poet and Nobel Prize judge, KJELL ESPMARK, is an internationally renowned poet and novelist, the author of thirteen volumes of poetry which have been translated into multiple languages. He is touring the U.S. with his new book from Marick Press, Outside the Calendar. His many prizes include the Bellman Prize for poetry and the Schuck Prize for literary criticism, the Kellgren Prize, the Great Prize of “The Nine,” and the Tranströmer Prize. He has been a member of the Nobel Committee and served as chairman from 1988-2004.
As a Nobel Prize Judge for decades, you have been in a position to compare the poetry of the entire world. In this context, how do you characterize Swedish poetry in comparison with other European poetry, such as French or Spanish?
The vitality of Swedish poetry in the 20th century is striking. In the background we notice a strong tradition going back to the 18th c. poet Bellman with his vivid Impressionist pictures of nature and social life and the early 19th century virtuoso Stagnelius who united burning sensualism and gnostic mysticism. They illustrate the two poles of Swedish poetry – its love of nature and its commitment to the human predicament. Swedish literature has always been open to stimulation from the outside. There was inspiration from Expressionism in the early Pär Lagerkvist and in the Finland-Swedish poet Edith Södergran. The situation from the 1930s and onwards could be pictured by the great introducer Artur Lundkvist as a Gulliver coming with the continents in tow. Whitman, French Surrealism, T.S. Eliot, Latin-American poets etc. gave new starting-points. What is remarkable is the efficient administration of the conquests. Poets such as Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf, and Tomas Tranströmer exploited the methods from abroad to develop personal idioms and original vision.
Martinson´s reply to Sandburg is fresh sea poetry and luminous nature miniatures that surpass the master, whereas Tranströmer uses the signals from Surrealism to form a language of visual immediacy and striking metaphor that appeals to readers all over the world. Around them you find a great number of strong poets. The result of the extensive dialogue between foreign and domestic voices is a “golden age” in Swedish poetry.
How do you see your own poetry within the tradition of Swedish poetry?
I belong to the same generation as Tomas Tranströmer, appearing in the 1950s and inspired by T.S. Eliot, Gunnar Ekelöf and above all the Swedish poet Ragnar Thoursie, the author of two slim books of poetry in 1945 and 1952. Eliot and Ekelöf conveyed a broad outlook on history, especially the sense of the presence of the past. But for the poetic craft, Thoursie was of particular importance. He was inspired by Surrealism but this influence was modified by his interest in film and Gestalt psychology. Thoursie, the common master for Tranströmer, me, and several others, taught consistent visual imagery. Instead of a Surrealist stream of contradicting metaphors, we should stick to one image and allow it to develop logically through the text. Tranströmer thus keeps firm hold of the double picture of ship and landscape in his early poem "Epilogue", letting it unfold through the text with visual logic. In a similar manner, I stick to the double exposure of bicycle race and life in my early poem "Tour de France", allowing this metaphor to develop through the text. We both became what has been called "strictly visual" ("synstränga") poets, but developed this persistency in different ways. Tranströmer chose Thoursie's nature mysticism as a starting-point whereas I concentrated on his drastic portraits – or rather X-ray pictures of human beings in their social context. I should perhaps add that, unlike my colleagues, I was strongly inspired by Kafka's dreamlike but tangible visions of the human condition.
Do you think poetry may be fundamentally another kind (because not everybody has it on a daily basis) of consciousness?
I wouldn´t regard poetry as a kind of consciousness. Rather as the result of several states of consciousness – more economic, more precise, and more luminous than the pictures and ideas of the flow of consciousness. It should be generally accessible but needs some literary experience in the reader.
How can poets or writers or even ordinary people ultimately recover the language of poetry?
Poetry is the most exact, refined and concentrated of all languages. (Just try to express a complex emotion in the language of sociology or psychology.) Like all languages it needs training – above all reading, reading, and reading.
And where do you find it most conducive to write in this "exact, refined and concentrated" way?
When I am in Stockholm I write in my study, surrounded by books. I rent the upper floor of a villa, owned by the Swedish Academy, in the island park Djurgården. When the house was built in the early 1900s, the architect put in doors, lintels, and pillars preserved from Gustavus III's opera-house (from 1773), which had been pulled down in the 1890s to give place to the present building. These elements keep an 18th c. atmosphere in the room where I write. Furthermore, a few of the most important Swedish writers have lived in these rooms and their voices blend with the echoes from times long past. A similar chorus – but now peasants' voices – surrounds my writing when I am in my old house Petsarve on the isle of Gotland. All the hard work, all the tragedies and sparse happy moments of the farm and its surroundings are stored in the thick stone walls dating from 1779. There are, naturally, many echoes of this past in my writing, especially in my latest book I vargtimmen (In the Hour of the Wolf, 2012) where Petsarve is the focus of a ruthless inquisition into the "truths" of my life. Between the prose passages of the book, the voices of the house and its neighborhood come in, in poems which sum up whole lives in a few lines. The past is always physically present in my writing.
Do you have any form of habit or preparation before writing?
When I write, first I take notes in a notebook when it happens to be in my pocket, otherwise on the back of a supermarket receipt or on the margin of a concert program. The writing should start in the morning when I am still close to the free imagination and absurd logic of dreams.
How long did it take you to complete your recent Marick Press book of poetry, Outside the Calendar?
This book is a selection from five decades of poetry. The previous book, Lend Me Your Voice, took several years but then I worked on other books at the same time, a novel, Béla Bartók against the Third Reich, and a book of essays, The Albatross on the Deck.
As you worked with the translator to translate Outside the Calendar into English, what was the most difficult part in translating it?
My rather unconventional use of language, especially in my metaphors, has caused problems for translators, not only into English but into some twenty languages, including Arabic and Mandarin Chinese.
What is the author/translator relationship in your case? Please describe in detail anything that would be interesting to our readers concerning the creation of these two recent Marick Press books, Lend Me Your Voice and Outside the Calendar.
The problems just mentioned have in most cases been solved in a dialogue between poet and translator. My dialogue with the brilliant poet/translator Robin Fulton has been going on for almost forty years. As a poet, he has had no difficulties in handling my sometimes rather tricky language, and as a craftsman himself, he has respected the text. He has actually reached a marvelous balance between – in his own words – “literal translation” and “imaginative recreation.”
Do you speak other languages, then, other than your native tongue?
Yes, I speak English, French, and German. And I read Italian, Spanish, and some Portuguese. Invaluable for my work in the Nobel Committee for the Nobel Prize in literature.
Do you outline all your projects?
Yes, they are carefully planned – but the plans develop gradually.
Do you have a tendency to write and then pause for days and weeks or months. Or do you write quickly one project at a time?
As I worked for decades as a professor of comparative literature, I was many times forced to put my literary work aside for weeks, sometimes even months, which was, of course, very frustrating. When I can decide, myself, I definitely prefer going on continually with a book. That does not prevent, as I just mentioned, having two books going on at the same time, in an inspiring shift of crops.
Okay, let’s talk about Lend Me Your Voice, specifically: why did you have to write this book? Tell me the story behind your book.
Sitting on deck, reading an article in the New York Review of Books about Sapho's poetry, especially about the loss of almost all her poetry in the fire in Alexandria, I was hit by an epiphany. I had a vision of a multitude of voices from past centuries searching for someone to receive them, to listen to them and record them. The chorus of voices demanded to be a collection of – perhaps – one hundred poems.
For people who are not very familiar with your style and with the characters in your book, how would you invite them to make their acquaintance?
Perhaps by first reading the individual poem with normal speed, then re-reading it slowly in order to discover its specific vision and the linguistic means of articulating its complex of thought and feeling. My poetry is not difficult but it contains several layers, revealing new meanings at every new reading.
Were you interested in poetry from the time you were a child or did your interest grow after reading certain authors or was it events in your life?
In my early teens I had no interest in poetry. My all-absorbing interest was model airplanes. I built many, with a career as an airplane engineer in view. My literary life actually began with plays. I imitated Ibsen and Lagerkvist. My interest in drama had its importance in dramatic elements in my poetry. My activity as a playwright belongs to recent years (Marx in London and Other Plays).
So that we can imagine the young poet developing, please tell us about where you grew up?
I was born in the northern Swedish province Jämtland, close to the mountains, but moved to Stockholm at the age of four, after my parents divorced. I then lived for more than two decades in the functional style part of Stockholm called Gärdet, populated by lower middle class people, divorced women with children, sewing-machine agents, non-commissioned officers, second-rate actors, etc. – a rewarding surrounding for a future writer.
What would you like to accomplish in the next project? Can you tell us a bit about that?
I am actually finishing a novel called Hoffmann´s Defence. It is actually E.T.A. Hoffmann – the writer, musician, caricaturist, and judge – who dictates the text on his deathbed where he lies paralysed able to move only his tongue and his lips. The authorities try, to the last moment, to crush this courageous judge and irritating critic of the repressive system.
Where do you see yourself as a writer in 5 years?
I hope I will still be a poet with an essential project.
Yes, I hope so too, and we all look forward to reading your future books. Thank you Kjell Espmark, this has been an illuminating conversation.
ESPMARK: Thank you as well, Mariela.
THE WORLD’S SOUL: AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL KAREEM TAYYAR
by K.L. Straight
PAUL KAREEM TAYYAR's most recent book is the novella In the Footsteps of the Silver King (Spout Hill Press). His collections of poetry include Follow the Sun (Aortic Books), Scenes From A Good Life (Tebot Bach) and Postmark Atlantis (Level 4 Press). He holds a Ph.D. in American Literature and Poetry, and he is a Professor of English at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California. He is also a three-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and Editor-In-Chief for World Parade Books.
I recently had the privilege of listening to poet/novelist Paul Tayyar read from his new novella In the Footsteps of the Silver King. In the auditorium at Riverside City College, I was captivated by Taayar’s layering of storytelling with poetic images, historic narratives and pop culture. His lively humor and joie de vivre seemed to spring from his core and engage the audience. Tayyar’s personal stories as much as his fictional characters intrigued me, and I wanted to know more. It’s a gift when a writer has as much personality in person as on the page. He was gracious enough to agree to an interview.
Mr. Tayyar, You have a very compelling personal story, how has your life as the son of an Iranian father and an Irish-Catholic mother influenced or otherwise informed your writing?
PAUL KAREEM TAYYAR:
The fact that I am the son of an Iranian father and an Irish Catholic mother has been, I think, the single most influential component of my identity as a writer, both stylistically and thematically. My father’s cultural background exposed me at a very young age to the marvelous Persian poets—Hafiz, Saadi, Rumi—and to the almost trance-like poetic lines found in the Koran; spending enormous amounts of time in the Catholic Church growing up gave me a deep-seated appreciation for the Gospels, and for the belief that grace can only arrive through action. I don’t think I can imagine what my writing would have been like without having had this particular background: I find myself so often employing allusions to the prophets, the Psalms, the Book of Ecclesiastes, not to mention the spirited, magic-realist tales of the 1001 Nights and The Epic of the Kings. I think about this often: I was very lucky to have had the childhood that I had.
By the way, please call me Paul.
Okay, Paul. So, how does your rich childhood, for example: your
exposure to your father’s cultural background and the time spent in the
Catholic Church, manifest in your new novella In the Footsteps of the Silver King? Can the reader expect to enjoy
some of the layers of your childhood through the characters of the book?
Yes, those childhood experiences of mine form the emotional core of the novella: in fact, the novella's main character was inspired by my own father, and another significant character is based on three Priests who really inspired and influenced me when I was a kid. Along the way, there are continuous discussions on the nature of religious faith, the enduring majesty of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, the richness and humor to be found in American film, and the community-service based dynamic at the heart of Jesuit teachings. In other words, though the novella is fictional, I have pulled from an innumerable number of childhood stories and sources in order to tell this story in what is, I hope, an entertaining and celebratory manner.
When I listened to you read from your novella In the Footsteps of the Silver King, and then, when I subsequently read other examples of your work, especially the poetry, I found the voice to be lively and upbeat. How is it that you are able to write such “happy” and optimistic poetry when so many other poets write from deep and dark emotional places?
The “happy” poetry thing is funny to me: I do definitely try to incorporate a celebratory thematic in much of my poetry. Though I hope it is not an unearned happiness, but rather that it is the kind of physical, emotional, and spiritual affirmation that comes from being engaged in the world around you, and from trying to constantly be sensitive to people’s capacity for goodness, and for the natural world’s ability to restore a sense of psychic and religious balance to our lives. In addition, I have always thought that the contemporary idea of the poet as this haunted figure was a pose, as if the only way to be authentic were to constantly be miserable. Well, the greatest poets had far more nuanced and complicated voices than that: Whitman, for instance. Langston Hughes. Mahmoud Darwish. Yehuda Amichai. Millay. Sexton. Mary Oliver.
Your work features many pop culture references and has a very distinctive Southern California flavor and sense of space. Is that intentional or is it a byproduct of where and why you write?
Yes, the Southern California “flavor,” as you call it, goes beyond being deliberate: it’s something that I cannot help! Southern California so often gets referenced in literature and culture as a kind of “no place,” a landscape without a culture, but of course that’s ridiculous. What I love about Southern California—and what I hope comes through in my work—goes beyond its marvelous diversity: its sprawling, center-less landscape is less bound by tradition than anywhere else in America. I love the sense of freedom and limitless possibility that comes with that.
Speaking of diversity, freedom, and limitless possibility, how has your experience with writing In the Footsteps of the Silver King expanded your horizons? Do any of your characters undergo a similar transformation?
I don't know that the novella has "expanded my horizons," per se, other than that it has newly energized me and created in me a kind of obsession to write another novel, one that I hope is better and even more ambitious. As for the characters, I don't know, the reader will have to decide on what kinds of "transformations" they undergo. That's one of the beauties of storytelling, isn't it? Once a story is out there, it doesn't belong to the teller anymore. It's the people's.
Going back for a minute to the pop culture references, there are also, for lack of better words, rather mythic or epic references such as Dionysus in the poem “Night,” from your collection Postmark Atlantis. Do you consciously use these allusions to craft your work in the tradition of a contemporary Homer, Virgil, or Ovid? In order to enter into a conversation with the epic writers of the past and/or to draw on a shared cultural literacy?
The mythic component in my poems, especially in Postmark Atlantis—as well as in my forthcoming collection Deserter—is very conscious. I love the epic poems, especially The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, and I find the imaginative gravitas of those classic works to be inspiring. Certain characters—Odysseus, for instance, who is my all-time favorite literary character—and images from those poems are constantly with me when I sit down to write. Those poems tap into a timelessness of experience, a universality of what it means to be alive that I find consistently animates my own poems.
Outstanding. So, in addition to pop culture and myth and epic, how else are you influenced? Who are your literary influences and how do they reveal themselves in your work?
Literary influences? How long do we have? Well, in terms of poets, Whitman is my favorite. So much has been said about him already that there is nothing meaningful that I can add there, other than to say that I find myself going back to Leaves of Grass more often than to any other single literary work. Whitman’s love of his fellow man, his political commitment, his spiritual richness, his enjoyment of his body, has never been equaled. But there are so many poets whose work I keep returning to: Mark Strand, James Wright, Robert Bly (especially his gazals). And Dylan Thomas electrifies me. I should also add, however, that other than Whitman, I think the poets who have most inspired me are, in fact, songwriters, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. I have probably spent more time listening to their music than I have the works of any other artist. Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand,” for instance, and Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” especially the final verse, are as good as anything any American poet has written since “Song of Myself.”
You began your writing career as a poet. I noticed that the lines from your earlier pieces, such as “The First of May,” and “Midsummer,” from your collection Postmark Atlantis are shorter and have more traditional poetic lines than your later pieces from works such as Scenes From A Good Life and Follow the Sun: Poems, Stories, and Reflections. Does the arc of your work reflect a conscious evolution into fiction or a naturally occurring one? Also, do you now view yourself more as a poet, a fiction writer, or something else altogether?
Yes, the work in Postmark Atlantis is much more traditional: shorter lines, denser imagery, more dream-like narratives, while Follow the Sun and Scenes From a Good Life are more consciously accessible, more reliant on anecdote and colloquialisms. However, I don’t think of my work as a poet as being a matter of evolution, but of constant reinvention. To go back to Bob Dylan, for a moment: one of my favorite things about him as an artist has been his consistent refusal to mine similar musical territory. Instead his music has gone through specific phases: there was his protest era, his country era, his Christian era. I love that about him. Though I don’t have anything approaching his level of talent, that is something I try to strive towards. My forthcoming collection, Deserter, employs a variety of formal poetic forms: sonnets, villanelles, gazals, in addition to trying to compose more deliberately allusive, at times psalm-like, work.
In terms of whether I view myself as a poet or as a fiction writer, it would have to be as a poet. Though I love writing fiction, and will most likely begin to write far more fiction in the coming years after my wonderful experience of writing In the Footsteps of the Silver King, poetry will always be my first love. There really is nothing else like it. When I think of my favorite poems, Robert Fitzgerald’s “Song for September,” Dylan Thomas’ “I Fellowed Sleep,” Mark Strand’s “The Good Life,” these are works that have changed and affected my life in sustained, meaningful ways. I can’t imagine my life without them.
Since your life has been so fundamentally impacted by writing, you must have many enriching experiences. I’m wondering, now, what has been your most rewarding experience as a writer.
My most rewarding experience as a writer would have to be a reading and lecture tour I took in 2009 through Switzerland, where I gave poetry readings and lectures on American poetry at a number of Swiss Universities, in cities like Neuchatel, Fribourg, and Lausanne. It was an electrifying week and a half: the crowds were engaged and enthusiastic and it was thrilling to see how invested in American culture and poetry the university students were. I’ll never forget that experience.
With such international exposure and experience, you must have a pretty good feel for how our area stacks up against other writing enclaves. So, what is your take on the Southern California writing scene? Should it be viewed as a homogenous entity, many parts of a single whole (e.g. OC, IE, LA), separate identities melding independently into something new and fresh, or completely autonomous writing enclaves? How do you perceive the energy in each area?
I think the Southern California writing scene—the poetry scene, especially—is as good as any in the country. I’ll just mention a few names: Fred Voss, for instance, is as good a poet as any living in America today. His two most recent books, Hammers and Hearts of the Gods and Carnegie Hall With Tin Halls (both from BloodAxe Books), are brilliant chronicles of blue-collar life. Clifton Snider has been doing superb work for the past forty years. And then there are the fabulous Donna Hilbert and Joan Jobe Smith, both of whom should be required reading on any college campus. Factor in the number of great local journals, like Pearl Magazine and Re)Verb, and you have a really lively poetry scene. I’ve been very lucky to have been a part of it.
You mention required reading for college students. As a professor as well as a writer, what advice do you have for young writers and poets?
I usually tell young writers not to take any advice that I might give them! Instead it’s best to read widely, write consistently, and have an open mind towards everything that you come across in this world. Every writer must find his or her own voice—what works for one particular writer might not work for the next.
Finally, you have a very interesting personal story, what would you like readers to know about your journey as an artist, as an educator, as a man, and as a human being?
What an interesting question! I guess my answer would be that I hope people find in my poetry and fiction a sense of the myriad ways in which we are all connected: I’ve always loved that line at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, where Tom Joad talks about man having “a small piece of one big soul”: the world’s soul. I think that’s a beautiful line, and a line that gives each of us a significant responsibility. I hope that my writing honors this responsibility: that it is possessed of a warmth for its speakers, for the natural world, for the dreams, fears, sorrows, and joys that its characters experience. And perhaps most importantly, that my work emphasizes a commitment to do good: to be gentle, to be a peacemaker, to have an open heart and spirit.
That is a noble pursuit, Paul. So, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask one more question. How does your new novella In the Footsteps of the Silver King honor and further the vision of “a commitment to do good: to be gentle, to be a peacemaker, to have an openheart and spirit”? How does this new work fit as one “small piece of one big soul”?
This is a wonderful question. I hope this answer is able to do justice to it: this book was really intended as a way to celebrate a community of individuals who, though all of them were certainly non-traditional in certain ways, if not outright iconoclastic--the main character's father most of all--are deeply invested in a shared belief that they are responsible to the world around them, and that they owe their love and loyalty and friendship to one another. This is an idea that means a tremendous amount to me, actually. Following one's dreams and being available to those around us is not a mutually exclusive proposition. In "Silver King," I think that what emerges is an almost open-ended utopia: it's paradisal spirit comes from the fact that the characters are not trying to achieve bliss or perfection by keeping new people, or new ideas, or different lifestyles, out, but instead by embracing and finding room for those alternatives within an ever-flexible communal dynamic. Okay, I'm worried that I'm starting to sound ridiculously pretentious! Don't hold this against me. Just read the book already!