Walter E. Washington Convention Center | February 9, 2017
(Dana Levin, Richard Siken, Sarah Vap, Jaswinder Bolina) How do we avoid writing the same poem our entire lives? How do we frame reinvention from project to project? When can the pressures of reinvention become limiting and when transformative? How does material success and failure affect artistic change? Five poets try to shed light on these questions by providing ideas, inspiration, and one poem from their own reinvention projects.
Published Date: May 3, 2017
Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series. This event was recorded at the 2017 AWP Conference in Washington, DC. The recording features Dana Levin, Richard Siken, Sarah Vap, and Jaswinder Bolina. You will now hear Dana Levin provide introductions.
Thank you so much for coming out here at 10:30 on Thursday. We really appreciate it. My name is Dana Levin and I’m a pseudo-moderator for Victoria. The name of this panel is Protean Acts: The Art of Reinvention, and what we wanted to talk about today was how do you reinvent your work? How do you stop writing the same poem over and over? Is it a problem to write the same poem over and over? Um… some people probably have strong feelings about that, and some people are probably like, ‘Eh!’, um… oh, I forgot to say I teach at Maryville University. I was supposed to say that… in St. Louis. I wanna share with you the questions that Victoria posed to us, that we’re going to attempt to answer in different ways and then we’re gonna leave room for questions—for Q&A.
Question One: Do you think about reinvention, consciously or not, related to your work? If so, how has thinking about reinvention helped you creatively, or do you think about reinvention another way?
Question Two: Do you think reinvention can be limiting? Why or why not? Do you think there’s a pressure in our culture to ‘make it new’?
Three: Is there a particular moment, project or poem where you were more conscious about reinvention than other times? If so, why?
Four: Are there any reflections in hindsight that you have on the process of reinvention that you can share?
And then the last question is: The weight of our historical moment and how it may be pressing upon us and you, in terms of re-evaluating the kind of work that you write, whether or not your feel that you must respond to this historical moment. What happens if you do not have a gift for the political? And how do you… participate in that?
Um...the first person who’s gonna attempt to answer some of these questions is Jaswinder Bolina.
Hello. I’m Jaswinder Bolina. I teach at the University of Miami at the MFA program there. I’m replacing Jericho Brown who should be here, and I should be there, ‘cause I’d like to hear what you have to say, but Jericho’s there so we can ask him about it later.
Uh, so I… it’s a strange thing, I’m so much more curious to hear what they have to say and I never feel like a I have a lot to offer but then when I think about the questions Victoria had for us, they... even when I got asked to be on the panel, they’re pretty central, I think, to my work and the way that I think about it, but over the last couple of weeks, kind of mulling some of this over, I realized that I grew up listening to David Bowie, and, um, reinvention, it was sort of the heart of the game with him. On the other hand, I also grew up listening to people like Bruce Springsteen, where reinvention is not part of the game, or if it is it’s much more subtle or quiet, and so I think of poets too, and I think of a poet that I got to work with as an undergrad, Dean Young, who, if there is a reinvention it is a pretty subtle and career long one. Um... and I feel like Mary Ruefle falls in that category, but of course when we look at their work and we see, I think, a lot of difference from one poem to the next and so the question becomes how do they generate that difference, and I don’t think that it is necessarily that conscious. I think it ends up being… for me it’s about obsessions, right? What I’m obsessed with... what sound I’m obsessed with. I know that in my first book I got really fixated on the phrase, literally, the part of the sentence, complete or incomplete, where the most interesting words were kind of next to each other. And, consequently, that book has a lot of, sort of, disjunction to it, and if there are structures there are a lot of holes in them, because all I was interested in was, oh, I don’t know, for a lack of a better term, beautiful phrases. In the second book I started to get a lot more interested, and I don’t think I was doing this deliberately, I mean I thought I wanted to do something very different from one book to the next, but when I started to think that way it locked me up and I got blocked for like six months or a year. I couldn’t write anything, because I was thinking, “I don’t want to write like myself,” and “What do I do next? How do I make something up out of nothing?” But once I let that idea go, that deliberate idea of, “Oh no, I’m gonna do Ziggy Stardust,” you know, I started to just sort of write what I was obsessed with and it changed. It changed from just the beautiful phrase to the weird line break. I started to get really obsessed with a complete sentence, but cutting it in such a way that the next line would seem like it came a little bit out of nowhere. And I realize that I did that almost for the entire book. Like, that was the driving principle behind what I was working on, and, again, it wasn’t deliberate, it was just kinda what I got stuck on, and now that I’m finishing, or kind of have finished my third manuscript, I realize that my obsessions have changed and weirdly they, it has become an obsession with the prepositional phrase, which Marjorie Perloff authored an essay says it’s like a terrible thing to do, so my apologies to Marjorie, but I really liked the prepositional phrase all of the sudden, so everything in the book is ‘of something else,’ or ‘with something else,’ and I didn’t realize I was doing that until the book was done and I read through it and I thought, “Marjorie Perloff’s gonna be very, very angry with this book because it’s all prepositional phrases and a lot of complete thoughts.” And the other thing that ended up happening throughout, I think, the arc of the three, is that I’ve always been interested, in touching on at least, the political, and I don’t mean, you know, the political in the vague sense, I mean in the topical sort of direct sense, where I started my MFA program in the week before 9-11, and so I feel like that, how could you write about anything else? And so, there was this sort of, I didn’t know how to do it, and so the constant through all this has been trying to balance my fixation on craft level things, like line breaks or phrases or prepositions or whatever it is, with a more consistent interest in balancing the personal with the political—being able to touch on the political on every turn. So, I think in this weird way that last thing makes my work sound like my work, because it always returns the same idea, but it’s a level of craft that if there is a reinvention, or a real big gap from one piece to the next, it’s almost exclusively born of the language itself and some obsession I’m having with something in the language, less than it is any kind of deliberate or conscious choice, and I suspect others have different versions of that, but I’m gonna hand it off.
Can I ask you one question? So, a prepositional phrase like ‘to’, ‘of’, ‘within,’ that, those are all words of positioning, and do you think that being obsessed with these little words of positioning or where the alignment is with writing about political or social issues, and maybe that’s why maybe from a linguistic perspective your mind was like, “Oh, interesting”?
Um, yeah. Yeah, that actually is... it is after all the President ‘of’ the United States, right? It’s not the United States President, and so yeah, there is a kind of positioning in, even something as mundane and common as that phrase, so if you’re interested in that, you know, what do you do, you start to game play—President of the United States versus Resident of the United States, states and then you can think of states of matter or conditions, and then it becomes Residents of the United something, right? So, yeah, it is about maybe positioning, and then contorting what ends up relative to what, so in that sense it’s still connected to that very first thing, the interesting phrase, right? Juxtaposing things that don’t go together, and my students get sick of my saying that probably but I’m always saying that. I want words that don’t belong together forced together in the poem.
That sounds like America. [laughter] Okay.
I am gonna stand up here because I wanna be able to see all of you. I hope that’s not like, “Why is she standing up and nobody else is?” Good? Okay.
One of the things Victoria asked us to do is also to pick a poem to read that perhaps showcases reinvention, and Sarah and I both have one, but Brian and Jaswinder don’t, which we’re sad about. Um. But I’m gonna read a poem. What I liked... um, or what I was interested, in terms of what Jaswinder was saying besides prepositions is how often he uses the word obsession. And I think in terms of reinvention, you know, a kind of mystic truth would be... it takes care of itself. If you worry too much about it, I think you can end up creating some poems that ultimately feel very forced, though sometimes forcing yourself into new forms and new voices and new subject matter can yield something that feels authentic to you. So, following the obsession is perhaps the way that the authentic change will occur. So, for me, in my most recent book, Banana Palace, one of the things that I got really obsessed with is overheard speech, which was not something that had been part of my repertoire. So, and particularly the speech of the dispossessed—homeless people, while I was walking through cities, people that clearly seemed to be mentally disturbed, little blips of conversation that I would hear in an office space or a park, so this poem is called “En Route.” It was the hardest poem to write for this book. I did not believe this was a successful poem, or could be for a very long time because it was complete alien territory for me. It’s in ten really short sections and finally I had to give it a narrative spine, so you just imagine one person from morning going through their day all the way until they go to sleep. There’s a mention of a Cumae, which was where one of the Greek oracles lived, writing out her fortunes on oak leaves and throwing them out of the cave. Good luck! Go find it!
(Reads “En Route”)
Now, I have no idea if that is a successful poem, but I liked it, and I liked working on it, and I think that’s another crucial component of reinvention, is to have the confidence to just say, “This obsessed me. I wanted to work on it. It’s really different for me. I’m gonna try and figure out how to do something with it. I’m gonna show it to friends and see.” You know for a long time I would show this to people who were like, “What are you doing?” “I can’t tell what’s going on here.” And they helped me. I thought, “Okay, I have to put this in a narrative thread. That’s gonna help the reader move through it.” People say to me it’s easier to take in reading it... hearing it out loud than reading it on the page, because you don’t get the tonal changes. I don’t know what to do about that! But I put it in my book. So, I think the biggest inhibitor to reinvention is all of the psychological stuff that comes up about writing anyway. “This is stupid. Nobody’s gonna understand it. I don’t know what I’m doing.” Um... and... I mean, you know, what do you have to lose? It’s poetry. You might as well move forward, and see what you can create, and you know in terms of the press of make it new, do you feel this, do you feel like you are constantly needing to do some new thing that you didn’t do before? I’m curious. Do you feel this pressure? Yeah. I think about the haiku masters where success was not in reinvention, it was in variation—how well could you deploy the whole set of images that go with writing haiku about the fall? Could you present to us the moon in a new way that we haven’t thought about before? You know, could you deploy cherry blossoms in a haiku about spring in a way that makes us re-see the cherry blossom? And I love thinking about, not reinvention, but variations in eternal tropes and offering them up in some way that, where the world comes afresh somehow, because I think ‘make it new’ makes us think we’ve just gotta pluck something out of the air, just like ‘come to me new thing.’ We’re not all blessed with that moment—so very few of us are. So make it new for you. One of my mentors is Louise Glück and she told me that when she starts writing again, because she goes through long silences, the first thing she asks herself is, “What do I never do on the page?” and she gives herself very teeny linguistic assignments. “Wow, I never use questions!” she said in... about Vita Nova, so every poem I write has to have a question in it, and a repetition because I never use repetitions. Or in the book Averno, she’s like, “I never have really worked with the fragments. I’m now going to give myself an assignment to work with fragments.” The teeniest, teeniest, teeniest linguistic or formal assignment—so, if you are feeling stuck, sometimes giving yourself these kinds of teeny, teeny structural assignments may help you get somewhere new. I’m gonna hand it over to Brian Teare, but I hope, ultimately, we come back around to this idea of the press of the historical moment.
It’s a real honor to be here with all of you and with all of you. Thank you all for coming. I am Brian Teare, as Dana said, and I teach at Temple University. That’s what I was supposed to say, right? I’m done with what I was supposed to say. I wanted to begin by admitting that I’m actually not a natural writer. I did not... I’m not one of those people that I read about who spent their childhood scribbling in notebooks, you know, and illustrating their poems and giving chapbooks to their moms for Mother’s Day. Though I love that idea, I was not one of those people. I really started writing in the context of college, of college, after I dropped out of high school, and I really started writing in the context of a workshop. I never really wrote outside the educational context, which I think is actually really important for my sense of this question of how one changes. I experienced education both as a great privilege and as a great pressure to conform, and I experienced creative writing education the same way—both as a site of great privilege and access to poetry, which I never really had access to before, but also as a great pressure to conform to the aesthetics of the particular school I went to, which were fairly conservative even by the standards of the nineties, i.e. rhyme and meter and traditional forms. I had been most immediately an activist in terms of gender rights and sexuality in Alabama, which tells you something about my character, and so I wasn’t particularly interested in sonnets, to be honest, or rhyme or meter. I was interested in content. But the education I had was resolutely against political content in writing and completely obsessed with form, and so I really was a very obedient student. I felt very lucky to be in a context of education, so I repressed a lot of that content for a long time. I did write an awful lot about sex—it was my way of being like, “Well, I still am homo, so...”, and that’s political, so I can at least write about blow jobs, right? But... I didn’t write about overt politics—I focused on form, because that’s what my education told me to do, and I also focused on perfecting form, because that again was my obsession in my education, was like, what is the right lyric closure? What is the right, what is your line? What is all... and I’m not saying this is irrelevant, I’m just saying this is what I focused on instead of other things. And for me, what the problem of that for me as a writer, is that I am someone who, like the moment I am willful, you can tell. The moment I am willing upon to do something, it sucks, and everyone knows it. And so, I cannot will change, and I cannot will obedience, either. They just look fake. To me what I began to learn during my education was that the spontaneous obedience to constraint could work for me. That if it just happened, the moons aligned and I was actually in this sonnet-ish space, I could do it. If I had a sonnet-y idea, I could somehow fill up that form, but if I just wanted to write a sonnet or someone told me to do it, it would not happen. And so I became really interested in listening to the spontaneous pressure, rather than the willed pressure. The spontaneous… because I’m gonna introduce Darwin a little later on, the spontaneous mutation. And the thing inside of a formal impulse that may lead me a little bit astray, but actually is a kind of change, a kind of music that I could listen to, and could sort of fulfill. What I became really aware of, as I started writing books is, um, my favorite poets are metaphysical. I was raised deeply religious, and so poets like Whitman, like Dickinson, like Carl Phillips, like Louise Glück, um, they’re very metaphysical writers, even if like Glück they’re basically atheist, there is still this kind of, what I think of as a ritual of form, the way in which in Buddhist meditation you sit in the same posture every time, but something different might happen, toward your attitude toward language or toward your mind—it’s how I think of lyric form. Dickinson wrote the same poem form a thousand times, but something different happened each time she sat down to fill out that form, and so at the same time that I was resisting a kind of obedience, I also saw that a kind of ritualized practice and a ritualized attention was something that could lead a poet to new kinds of insight, even as they’re filling out the same kinds of forms. I also figured out, while thinking that Jean Valentine, another poet who’s like that for me, and very important, and these are some of my touchstone poets—Hopkins, as wild as he is, basically every poem’s like, “Guess what? Jesus is out there.” And he’s so pretty! That’s the message of a lot of the poems. But we get there through various wild kinds of calisthenics of... of rhythm and ear, which again, are pretty similar from poem to poem, though for me, ravishing, and ultimately seductive. So, what I found out is that I’m actually not that kind of poet, even if I am a metaphysical writer and those are the people that I really feel are my peeps, that’s actually not how I work. Um... I might work that way for, like, a little bit, but then there’s something that happens that starts a new book. And I’m not a project-based writer. Again, projects are willful, and I... which, I’m not insulting you willful writers out there—there’s plenty of Taurus’s out there who get shit done. I am not one of them. So, I can’t will a project or a book into existence, but I can follow the mutation or the adaptation into a new sort of formal landscape. So, Darwin has this idea of Descent with Modification, that each successive generation, and here I’m sort of positing an analogy between books and generations of a species, that there’s a crucial, sometimes adaptive adaptation that happens in response to environmental pressure, and that’s for me where history and experience come in—that I feel like all of my changes between books have a lot to do with the fact that the content of each book in some ways is always about the relationship between spirit and matter. It’s like, I think that’s my primary obsession, it’s what I’m always going to write about, I think, because it’s a mystery that none of us have figured out. If you have, get back to me. So, I probably, I’ll return to that, eternally if I’m lucky, but the form for whatever reason always changes because the actual story or narrative that I’m telling, whether it’s about incest and sex work, or about loosing a lover to AIDS or about our environmental crisis or about chronic illness—whatever those are, those external circumstances force a formal change, but it only forces a formal change if I allow myself to follow that impulse toward a different incarnation of the problem of spirit and matter. Does that make sense? So, to me, this idea of reinvention doesn’t quite sit right with me because reinvention to me sounds willful. I know it’s not... I’m not slamming anyone here who’s like, “reinvention’s my thing”, for me it’s really... it just is not the metaphor or the phrase that would work, because it’s not quite organic enough. It’s not quite random enough. So, to me, this idea that the formal changes in one’s work has everything to do with a response to our environment, and a response to environmental pressures—both literally our ecological environment, but also our historical situation, our personal narratives, our own bodies—that I think form follows from those pressures, and that if we’re sensitive listeners, we’ll follow the spontaneous changes that happen in our practice as we go along. I think that one of the things—that’s the end of my spiel—I think the thing that I’m most interested in, um, and I wonder if people could maybe speak to this or if you guys are curious about it. I’m a big fan of writers whose work—you might, this might not surprise anyone—whose work changes a lot over time. I’m interested in that, like Brenda Hillman, for instance, is a writer whose work has great formal range and change from period to period, but also remember seeing Brenda talk at one point and saying, like, “the first two books I had a certain amount of readers and then I wrote these other two books and I kinda lost some of those people but then gained new people and then changed again,” so I’m really curious actually about readership and change. Like, I think you ask that question, like, “Why not follow it?” and then, like, I think one of the inhibiting things is like, “Well, if I do this weird thing, no one will read me.” And so, I wonder if that’s sometimes, like I totally have decided not to give a shit about that question, but I also wonder sometimes what actual effects there are after that.
Yeah. I actually... that’s so interesting to me. I don’t know if it’s interesting to you, but here we are in this massive historical moment where so many things are changing and for myself, it’s like my biggest impulse is, I want to write poems about envy. I want to write poems about wrath. I don’t want to be addressing it directly for... and I’m afraid. I feel like I should be going out there with my flag of protest, and saying, “Everything that’s going on is upsetting to me,” but it’s just not how I’m oriented. So, for me, I have to kind of find this swervy path, which has to do with ego destruction—which we could use (laughs). But I don’t know if anybody’s gonna wanna read those poems because they don’t have words in them like ‘protest’ or ‘I this’ or whatever, so, whenever you are ready to start doing something different, you do risk both alienation of the other and invitation to the other. You just, you don’t know what’s gonna happen. And in terms of Brenda Hillman, I read this interview with her in 1997 where she went on about this idea that progress wasn’t vertical, but horizontal, and if you had a perception of progress that was horizontal, what would that mean for your writing. Well, it would mean that you would include more and more and more and more. And I have found that interview a touchstone for looking at the changes in her work, because I feel like it is driven by that philosophy of horizontal progress, just including more and more and more. So just like asking you about like, do you prepositions, which are words of position, somehow lead you to a new way of speaking about our sociopolitical moment, you can see that there’s a connection between an idea or a philosophy and the language comes to you and will offer you solutions inside of its own structure that will let you talk about the new thing. At least, that’s what I think.
Um. Thank you, Jaswinder. Thank you, Dana. Thank you, Brian. I’m Sarah Vap. Can you hear me? Is this on? I’m Sarah Vap and I teach at Drew University MFA program. I’m also at University of Southern California. I... I think that by virtue of coming at the end I feel like I’m gonna touch on a lot of the things that other people have said. I’m not sure what I’m gonna say yet, but um... I feel like I should start by describing this is a perfect thing for me to think about, because I’m in the middle of a project that I’ve been working on for years that is completely breaking my brain. It has been... So, I would start by saying, I feel like... Jaswinder was talking about beginning with a prepositional phrase or thinking in terms of a word or thinking on a poem level. And I feel like over time, across my books, I have moved from thinking on a word level, to thinking on the line level, thinking at a poem level, and now I feel like I think at a book level, but maybe not even that. Recently at… um, Drew Anne Waldman came to visit and she started talking about a twenty-year project, and I thought, “Oh, maybe thinking... maybe I’m working on twenty-year project level on this, I’m not really sure.” And I, actually so this book that I’m working on, it was supposed to be published two years ago. It had a set date. It was supposed to come out two years ago in February, and I asked for another year because I needed to like re-enter it. What I had thought was done, it was no longer exactly what I wanted to say. It didn’t represent, the world had changed too much, and my life had changed too much, and I had to re-enter the book. And then I asked for another year, and you know, so I kept pushing this book off by a year and re-entering it, and now when I try to describe it, I say that I think it’s a double book, or I think that there are two different books and they’re poetry inciting each other, or I think that, you know, like, so I have re-entered the books so much, that I ended up writing a second piece—a second book that is... that I can’t actually extricate from the first book. And so, I’m gonna read you just a little bit, well, I’ll say a couple of other things I really connect to what Brian was saying in terms of not having a choice about this. I have never felt like I had much of a choice about what I was writing, but I have felt extremely susceptible to the world. And when I was thinking on this panel, I kept thinking of this word ‘susceptibility’ and, sort of, my sense of not necessarily having a choice about what I was writing about through my life, and so Brian’s thoughts about adaptation and mutations seemed right in line with how I’ve experienced writing, or how I’ve experienced the effect of time across my writing, and so one of the things that happened to this manuscript I’m gonna read something to you from it in a second, to explain a little bit about what I was talking about, but um... it... when I first started writing it I would sit down and basically I was trying to write a poem about winter, and I had two very young kids, and so every few seconds is, as soon as you would sit down... as soon as I sat down I would be interrupted, and so instead of becoming like really... like, frustrated isn’t the right word... it’s like such a deep frustration, you know, to every few seconds across years to be interrupted by very young children, um, so instead of sort of like, you know, your sense of self does break. Your sense of a single selfhood does... it becomes disintegrated across children. Um... it becomes disintegrated across years, and so I felt this sort of, um, center of myself dissolving across a communal identity as I was writing it, and so what had been, you know, in my twenties, writing books that were very much trying to figure out what that central selfhood of mine was, figuring out original family relationships, figuring out my set of values, about how I wanted to move through the world as a human being, I reached a point in this new book where I couldn’t... the selfhood that I just figured...that I just spent thirty years figuring out, is dissolving. So, what am I writing from right now, and how do I move forward from that place, plus I only have thirteen seconds to think about it… (audience chuckles) and then I have to change a diaper and then I have to breastfeed someone, and so this was actually really, really painful years in terms of my brain, right? As somebody who loved thinking, loved writing, loved reading, and then this was just...it wasn’t just interrupted. It was evaporated. It just became something else across these years, and so the other things that happen to your bodies, you know your body has other bodies in it, you have people attached to your body. Your brain is interrupted every few seconds, your immune system is different than it was before, like literally my microbiome changed. Things were entering my psyche, my physical space, my brain—it was just a... I was a species transforming across these years, I was billions of species transforming, and then sort of it simultaneously the Internet became, what was it, became so much more present in the way that social media appeared so I felt like I was not only being... I was not only deeply susceptible like on a... what a human being is, like on a human being level, but like, on a social level, as well, so this extreme susceptibility to the world has sort of... informs years of deep, um... I don’t know... free invention, because it’s still being... I don’t know if I’m inventing anything, I feel like I’m just responding across this manuscript, but um... so here’s what I thought three years ago. Um... was a poem, and I thought it was a poem from this manuscript. Um... and so I’m cataloguing the reasons that my kids have cried, because they cry every few seconds, right? And you know, you give them the wrong shaped pasta, who knows, they’re gonna scream. And this is in that series of poems.
So, a second later, I was interrupted, and instead of becoming deeply frustrated, I would just put the interruption into my book…
So, these kinds of moments, instead of excluding them, instead of not, sort of, crumpling my breaking brain, I just started to include them in the manuscript and then I started calling them, to make myself feel better, aphorisms. …This has to be a kind of wisdom, right? Like my… and why don’t we have aphorisms from women across history? It’s because they were taking care of their fucking kids, and they were interrupted every thirteen seconds for twenty years, and so I started to sort of like embrace, embrace these moments, and put them in a manuscript, and so I just made myself more susceptible, and I made my books susceptible, and then as years went by, so I’ve been working across years on this, and then I had another kid. My book is accepted for publication, and then we had another kid and I said, “I can’t... you can’t publish my book. I’ve had another kid.” And this starts all over again and the world has changed, and so I kept... I couldn’t... I can’t stop in some sense and so this is when I... after putting the book off publication twice for two years, this is the kind of thing that I have put in the new piece.
You’ll probably see my susceptibility to Internet and to politics and to the world even more deeply in this one. And these are extremely short. I wish I could show you but they’re just some of them are just a few lines long and they actually look like aphorisms—more than the previous ones.
So, this is all part of the same project and it might be coming out next spring (laughs). I have no idea... you know... I have the most generous, beautiful press in the world, I’m working with, and so I just wanted to offer the idea of susceptibility versus a sort of willful reinvention, as having been my experience across books and across the, uh, sort of aesthetics of what the changes in my work have looked like.
So, you have susceptibility, and you have mutation, and you have radical adaptation, and I don’t know. I like... those words feel comfortable to me, as opposed to reinvention, which feels completely full of pressure. I just wanted to ask my fellow panelists, just very briefly and then we’ll take your questions, really briefly, like give me a sentence.
Do you think there is a ‘should’ involved in writing poetry at this moment? Do you think that there are topics that we should be addressing? Or do we have tolerance to still read poems about trees? Do we have tolerance to still read poems about a sunset? Is it bad to write those poems? How are you guys feeling about this? Jaswinder?
Sarah, my spouse and I are thinking about starting a family, and I may make a phone call after this. But the poems are so good, maybe it would, maybe it would be okay. I think if there is a should right now, it is a should of inclusion. Yeah, trees, sunsets, but also everything else, and everybody else, because there are a lot of bodies being ignored and threatened and harmed, so yeah, that’s the thing compelling me is I see sunsets too, and I like thinking about them, but somewhere a drone is probably killing somebody, and so that’s my ‘should’ is include it all... if I can.
Yeah, I ... I read a really great blog post the other day about self care in the context of trauma and activism, and one of the things that the writer, it was someone from L.A., and I’m sorry I can’t remember her name. She was really great.... said was that, okay, just because all this is going on doesn’t… We actually have to attend to the things that we love, and that’s also a form of resistance and self care. And so, to me, trees and the lived environment, and people I love, and queer resistance, et cetera, and intersectionality with people of color and trans-politics, like all of those things to me are part of the world that I love, and part of the resistance, but they’re not sep… I mean I think the thing that... the susceptibility idea is like the idea that the sunset or the tree was not separate from the political realm was one of the fictions that we were told about literature that isn’t true—like my education, that was like, “You can pay attention to the sonnet and to the line break but you can’t pay attention to rape, for instance. Which is just a falsehood, and a way of maintaining power, and so I think actually one of the advantages of this moment is that maybe we’ll stop lying to ourselves about what literature is, and what literature can contain, and I think that strategy of... of, yeah, it should be the whole world, you know… Wittgenstein says, “the world is everything that is the case.” But why hasn’t literature been that? And I ask that all the time. Why has literature not done that work of being everything that is the case? And so, to me, that’s what I want, and that’s what I hope my students do, I hope that’s what you tell yourselves to do, but there’s no ‘should’ about how you do that. That’s to me the... I don’t know how you do that. You’re your own weird creature. And so the fact that all of you could be doing that in your own weird creaturely way is what I think’s so powerful.
Um, yeah, I agree. I don’t think a sunset is any different than politics, and then um... thinking about social justice necessarily. I think that...you know...one of the we’re gonna lose winter, for example, that’s why this book, this book that I’m writing is obsessed with winter, this idea that as the world gets warmer we might just like, we might loose snow. We might lose… At some point there’s going to be no winter, right? If we head in this direction, and can... I... can human beings even conceive of this idea, or this phrase, like, “the river is dying.” What is it... my... it’s another thing that breaks my brain, like, there are things that are, like we have not evolved enough to be able to understand, and I feel like that is often the work of poetry that can be within human relationships. It can be social relationships. It can be about sunsets. It can be ele... so... I have no ‘shoulds’ in my sort of belief system about poetry necessarily other than just, um... you know what I always offer. Just be as... what is your risk? You know, have your courage and take your risk. Like, if you’re going to bother sitting down to write, you know, make it worth your time. Make it worth... you know, that would be my... so it’s sort of my only should I ever offer in terms of poetry, is take your risk... and then... or the other piece that um...has always been helpful for me when I’m thinking about my own, uh, projects is to identify who on Earth in my... I love that you… thinking about having an audience. I’ve never considered having an audience. I sort of assume that we all don’t have audiences, but it was just very freeing and wonderful, actually, but instead of picturing an audience I’ve always pictured like, who is my poem going to... who is my book, poem, my book going to offend? Great! Now how do I offend them even more. And so that has been sort of, like, really helpful to me... like, thinking, who am I not writing for, and how can I even more not write for them?
Does anybody have any questions for the group or anybody up here about reinvention?
Um, if you guys couldn’t hear that, the question was about you want to respond to the pain and injustice that is happening all around you, but you also realize that you might be appropriating the experiences or the pain of others that don’t belong to you. So how do you address that?
In this section related to what Sarah said, in a certain sense, I mean, I tend to... I think of it in terms of language and instead of thinking about who I’m writing to and who I’m gonna anger and I’m gonna write to that person, I actually start to think, and this might be will help the other question too, there’s my language, right? There are the words that I always go back to. There’s no way that I can break free of that. I’ve read a lot of Wittgenstein, too, right? You’d like to kick out the ladder of language, but you can’t. What I do become conscious or cognizant of is, then, other people’s language. What is person X going to be able to say, what do they say, that I would never say? And one way that I get around or, kind of, re-work my own work and it’s rarely deliberate is that I try to put in the words that I’m not accustomed to using. And from that a kind of, I hope, a kind of authenticity is born, that I can’t appropriate an entire experience, but I can start to think in a language that I don’t ordinarily think in. I can use a word that I would never use in my day to day life, and if I start to use enough of those, it’s fulfilling to me as a poet just in the act of writing because it’s entertaining to me. You know, it becomes language game play, but then the consequence of that is that I hope that I end up quite a bit further from my own limited self, you know, when we say Shakespeare is the greatest writer in English history…his vocabulary was larger than anybody else before or after him, and they’ve done word count, and he’s got twice or three or four times as many words, and yet he made up, ya know, a third of them or something like that and so that’s one way around this—rather than thinking I’m gonna write somebody else’s experience, how do I be respectful of the language they would use, how do I incorporate it into my work? Just at that, at that really fundamental level.
I also think it’s important to try, and to be ready for critique. Um... I’m moving to St. Louis. I’m writing a poem about St. Louis. I’ve never lived anywhere in my whole life that has a living breathing history of segregation. I feel like I must contend with what I experience in St. Louis. I’m terrified to write about it, but I’m gonna do it, and I’m gonna show it to people, and they’re gonna say, “Whoa. Don’t even.” Or they’re gonna say, “Interesting, but what if?” Um, so I think it’s important to try, but I think you also have to be read to get critiques you might not be looking for, ready to receive, but I think it’s important to try, ‘cause I think poetry is an act of empathy. I mean, when you write towards something you are trying to have an empathic relationship with it. We need to have more empathic relationships. Were you gonna say something about that, Brian?
Yeah, I was gonna say a couple things. One is that... uh... one of the premises of a more intersectional politics is that the crisis isn’t... you look at what your story might and your struggle might have in common with others, while maintaining the boundary between your story and other people’s stories, and respecting those boundaries, so that you don’t mistake your own struggle for someone else’s. You recognize when and where they have common interests, but also recognize the limit of your... um... of your own interest, and so I think that is important, ethical work and work with a conscience, to do. I think it’s also, in doing that work you risk making mistakes, which I think one has... does have to do in terms of making strides in terms of political struggle, but I also think there are whole strains of poetics let’s say like documentary poetics, poems like Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, that are documentary poems that use, like research and more journalistic tools to contextualize other people’s struggles, i.e. White working class, Black laborers, in the context of a historical moment, and so there are other... there are also other modes. I think that’s one of the troubles with the lyric, or lyric narrative mode, is that the “I” is always at the center, or tends to be at the center of that, so one solution to not putting the “I” at the center, is don’t put the “I” at the center of the poem. And that again is another formal challenge… okay, well, what if I’ve never done that, how do I do that? Is that then more like fiction? Like I use a narrative... you know, like, I think that these challenges are really good in terms of having to deal with the ethics of telling a story that might not be only your own, and how do you do that. I think is a really powerful question. Again, documentary poetics, I think there... like, Mark Nowak is another writer who’s done that kind of work. They use these documentary frameworks to try to not make it just a story about the “I” and to open up their aesthetic to do other work. That’s...
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I would just add that I think that the world is always trying to trick us out of thinking that our problems are sep... like that Brian’s problems shouldn’t matter to me or that my problems shouldn’t matter to him, and like... I think that, it’s to the benefit of Donald Trump that we think that we can’t, you know, empathize with each other, and to connect with the things that are hurting other people. So yeah.
(Question being asked in background)
I just read… I’m a big fan of Winnicott, the British psychoanalyst, and he’s a big… because he’s a big fan of aggression, and thinks a lot about aggression, and he… I just read this really great article about mothers’ hatred toward their children, and that it’s actually totally crucial to children’s development that mothers actually show aggression or let their children know, because hatred is like this really primal impulse in children, aggression is really primal, and you can only learn to check it if you watch your mother check her own aggression toward you. Does that make sense? Then he has this great phrase about “sentimentality is useless for parenting”
It’s useless for poetry.
But I also, but that, no, that’s actually what I keep thinking about, like both in your comment but also in the question about ethics is like, you know, part of it is like, we need to be a little bit more ruthless with ourselves, like in our own investments, our, and be, ‘cause, what he says is it’s impossible to take care of other people if you haven’t taken care of your own hatred.
Well, yes, and the domestic... I think the domestic... it starts in the domestic. I mean my own personal creed is all of the collective stuff is in... is right in here, it starts in here, you learn it in here, and then it... it just goes outward, so I think you’re right, Rachel, in terms of the ways in which we say, “Oh, well that’s just about mothers, or that’s just about kids, or that’s just about the relationship you had with your dad or whatever, and obviously it’s not about these other things.” Like, making the connection, and you know, for yourself, and then if anybody reads your work, in terms of, no, there is a through line from the moment you’re born all the way into being a citizen that affects the way that you engage with your world that affects the way that your government treats you. I mean, I’m living a father nightmare right now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but you know there’s ways where Trump, I just feel like I’m five years old hiding under a chair again, because I had a raging father. And this is, you may not agree with me but maybe you do, but that’s who is sitting within the oval office and I... I mean, so I just want to reflect back to you that it’s all connected, all of it, and if anything comes out of this panel today, I think we go back to Brenda Hillman’s idea of just including more and more and more and more and to not imagine that progress means becoming narrower and narrower and shapelier and shapelier and that to get messy in your inclusivity as you’re trying to work it out seems like a pretty important component to finding new ways of being yourself on the page.
Thank you so much for coming today!
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