"You Can't Stop Us: Three Independent DC Publishers"
[interview with Ross Taylor from the Washington Review 20.6 (April/May 1995)]
Buck Downs, Mark Wallace and Rod Smith are three local poets who are also involved in independent publishing. I talked with each of them on separate evenings, discussing new poetry, publishing, and the idea of a community of writers. A brief list of related publications and resources follows the interviews.
RT--We were going to focus on local independent publishing . . . I'm sort of coming to language poetry from elsewhere, there are a lot of people I don't know about. In some ways I can be sort of a convenient conceptual martian, the man who never heard of the Beatles . . . I was going to start with what are you doing and how are you doing it . . . there's the magazine . . .
BD--Open 24 Hours, which comes out pretty much irregularly. It has evolved as I've started publishing books. The magazine has become a sort of house organ, I'll probably concentrate on fewer writers in each issue--
RT--Is that typeset?
BD--I did the first couple of issues at Pyramid Atlantic, now it's done on a PC . . . the book projects that I'm doing now are in two groups, full size books, I'm actually having a designer work on them, and then smaller things like chapbooks . . . those I can set myself, do on an ad hoc basis . . . it's really an offshoot of the fact that I've been obsessed and in love with reading and possessing books. Publishing is just expressing that love.
RT--How did you come to doing this? And how did you come to DC? With this I would also ask how did you come to this kind of poetry and--I feel there is a group of people here too--how did you meet this group of people?
BD--Before I moved here I was living in Baton Rouge and was in the Ph. D. program. I was a fairly dilatory student and when it came to teaching composition I found I wasn't very good at that and I didn't really like it, so the English Department and I called a halt to this. I took a leave of absence from the program. Baton Rouge at the time was in dire economic straits, a really tough place to find a job. Some friends were living up here, principally Greg Erken, and they said come on up they're hiring all the time. That was in '88. So I moved up in August. For about two years I really didn't know anybody that I could talk to about my work. I went to a lot of things at the Writer's center and picked things out of the City Paper. Then in the summer of '90 I met Joe Ross. I was in conversation with someone else, talking about Clark Coolidge and he came across the room and went like "What, What, you know Clark Coolidge?" and we kinda bonded on that. That meeting--I keep replicating that with other poets that I meet in this community, vis a vis language poets. The work that I'm doing does not really have the kind of political grounding or the tinkering with language that I see in language poetry, but the rest of the writers around here were really not able or not willing to listen to what I was trying to do. These writers that I didn't really have that much in common with, I did have in common the ability to listen and try out some other things.
RT--Then did you start publishing--did you start xeroxing things . . .?
BD--The magazine had had two or three issues, and I was doing things with self-publishing . . .
RT--How did you put the first issues together--the same way it is now?
BD--Well, it was a lot thinner, I had not really come to grips with how difficult it would be to put together a magazine as a solo project. I had done it before, but with an English Department to help . . . but the issues got better each time . . . my involvement with Pyramid has helped too, learning about type and things like that.
RT--Have they been around a long time?
BD--They've been around for fourteen years. They teach an ongoing string of workshops about the publishing arts.
RT--Are they oriented to the arts?
BD--Predominantly, yes, prints, the artist's book, but also letterpress and offset printing.
RT--Why do it yourself, instead of getting involved with others?
BD--Well, a lot of it is probably personal temperament, not being able to work with other people very well without friction. I hear a lot these days about collaboration on works and the tension that results from collaboration, but a lot of times that tension is not productive. Trying to do as much in house as I can allows me freedom, less stress in my life.
RT--Let me ask a bit more about DC--how you see the community--IS there a writers' community here, and how do you see it?
BD--I think there are a lot of really talented writers here. And more importantly, to me, there are a lot of really educated people around that aren't writers. I don't consider my writing to be very experimental, though I suppose you could group it that way, but the ties I have to experimental writers here are largely ties of personality. People I can be around, talk about shit with.
RT--I haven't been out much in recent years, but in the early, mid eighties there were lots of place for readings, there was Poetry Clearinghouse, the newsletter. Are there lots of readings now?
BD--Well it seems like, it's hard to say objectively, but it didn't seem like there were a lot of places in the late eighties, but in the past year or two there seem to be a whole slew of places, coffee houses like It's Your Mug in Georgetown, Iota in Arlington. It does seem to have picked up a lot in the past couple of years.
RT--Sounds like more clubs than bookstores --
BD--Well, the coffee houses want the business. In other cities where there's a large university presence the readings seem more to revolve around the universities and the bookstores that serve the universities, but not so much here.
RT--How much do you think people benefit from a physical writers' community, being around each other instead of just mailing off to magazines and hiding off in garrets?
BD--There's an idea in writing programs that by being around other writers you can pick up the tricks of the trade, you can actually sit around and talk about enjambment . . . The way that I think about it now is almost the opposite--what a community of writers can provide is a place for you to go when you've completed that activity--and not talk shop. You can gossip and you can talk, and people are going to understand the discourse you're making. In that way the writing community actually serves as an antidote to writing. They have been inoculated, they are in the same ballpark as you are . . . we establish social contact--
RT--You can talk it without having to explain it, or just briefly allude to it . . .
BD--Exactly so. An antidote to that solitude, it's nice to know there are fellow travellers around.
RT--Sorry, I'm just moving down the list . . . Now I may be narrowing things too much to just talk about language poetry--but how do you see this different kind of poetry? And maybe how do you see the people doing it--Do you feel there's an "us" and a "them"?
BD--There could be, but I don't have a handle on who the "them" are. It's hard for me to understand why people wouldn't be interested in poetry with language that isn't like everyday language. The writers that I publish in the magazine I think have that in common. I bridle a bit at calling it experimental, it's just writing that's whacked--that makes me ask "Where'd you get THAT?" Some of the most exciting writing that's being done is in that camp, however. Language is the poetry movement that happened in my lifetime. As a writer today, you ignore that poetry at your own risk. But there are lots of other people out there doing interesting things. When poetry writing coalesced for me was when I was at Louisiana State and I took classes with Andrei Codrescu. He really challenged me as a reader and a writer. He told me "what you've got, what you think you've got, is less than half of the story. And the half of the story that you have got, a lot of that classical edifice, is what will lead you to the conclusion that literature is dead."
My bias in putting together the magazine is towards, I guess we should call it unlettered writers. Someone sends me a submission and on top is the last two pages of their CV or they send me some clips--probably 99 times out of a hundred I'll throw it right in the can. I couldn't care less about what someone's resume looks like. When someone sends me a big chunk of stuff and there's just no information, that piques my curiosity. There are a lot of people I've published in the magazine that I never hear from again. As if they had just one big burst of stuff and got it out.
RT--Are there any magazines that you are particularly interested in?
BD--Ben Friedlander and Bill Howe are putting out a series of magazines, or one magazine whose title changes with each issue - "I am A Child" is the title of the first issue. Then there's Aerial and Situation in DC; Proliferation in Boulder Colorado, Prosodia in Berkley, California. Andrei's Exquisite Corpse still remains the best poetry mag in the U.S., all in all.
RT--I wanted to get a little bit into experimental poetry and the issue of "poetry and the age," what would Archie Bunker think of this kind of poetry? Supposing that Archie Bunker might be able to relate a little bit to the poetry of, say, Robert Frost . . . You did say that you were interested in unlettered poets, and the term "language poetry," what with the advances in linguistics in the 2nd half of this century, suggests an element of theory and intellectualization--this against the problems of people hating poetry in high school . . .
BD--I hated poetry in high school too. First of all, I would absolutely challenge the idea that your Archie Bunker Straw Man would like Robert Frost at all--that "Stopping in the Woods," whatever, for example, would register as anything but quavering intellectual pretension. Frost may or may not be harder to understand that a poetry that actively challenges your assumptions about what a poem is, that forces you to take a stand, but it is definitely harder to enjoy. Once you've been exposed to an intelligent alternative. Rod Smith is a walking, talking refutation of that middle-brow, suburban reaction against the new poetries that have sprung up in my lifetime. Rod's no Ph.D. He finished high school and just started living his life. But if you want to talk theory, want to talk about the ramifications of capital, he talks it as sensibly, as cogently as anyone in my generation. I don't think it's really any harder to read Bruce Andrews than to read Robert Frost once, you've gotten over the bar. As you say, a lot of people have already gotten turned off to poetry by the time they leave high school. So that line has already been drawn.
RT--What do you mean by getting over the bar? What would get one over the bar?
BD--Admit to the possibility that you can sit down and read a poem and enjoy it and it's going to change your head, that reading poetry is not significantly harder than reading the newspaper. And a lot of the enjoyment of poetry is having your expectations superseded by the reality of the poem. In my writing all of the traditional goals still adhere, but there's more of an openness to playing with the givens and foiling the stale expectations.
RT--Is that the sort of thing you look for in revising or working on your poems?
BD--For a long time it was, I'm still a fairly crazy reviser. When I wrote my book of sonnets that was a big revising task, a couple of years of writing. Now that desire to mess around with the parameters comes a bit more naturally on the first draft.
RT--Would you reject a word or line as being too ordinary, "of course I was going to say that" . . .
BD--Sometimes. You can just write line after line listening to the sound itself, not worrying about whether it makes sense, and write pages of that until finally desire wells up and you want to actually say something--I think that's another fun trope, to, in the midst of all this sound stuff, suddenly make sense.
RT--Do you ever use any randomizing techniques?
BD--I have done a lot of erasure, taking a text and cutting out lines . . . I used to do a lot more annotation of tangential events, "today it's 4 p.m. and Chuck Berry says . . ." I don't do as much of that any more. The poem "Postcard from Mallarme" in Office Products is taken word for word from a postcard Joe Ross sent me . . . just fishing through this postcard as a block of text--it's all Joe and no Mallarme.
[The first few minutes of this interview were conducted without the interviewer having checked the recording levels on his taperecorder. Some interesting conversation was therefore largely inaudible. During this time I asked Rod about Washington publishing and he responded that his magazine Aerial "was never strictly Washington oriented, it's national . . ." and mentioned that he had started it in Manassas, with Wayne Kline, in 1984. He mentioned the importance of the graphic aspect of much current writing, and cited a number of writers that either began as visual artists, or continue in both fields, listing Susan Howe, Joan Retallack, Jackson Mac Low, Melanie Neilson, Norma Cole and John Cage as examples.]
RS--Do you want to go back over what we just said?
RT--I think we'll just keep rolling, and a lot of this stuff will sort of churn back up as we keep talking.
RS--Accidents are often useful [laughter]
RT--So, about the area, how do you see the writing scene in DC?
RS--My work has been supported here. There's a sense in which you call things to yourself too. I started a reading series to try to make something happen, and very often something did. (Laughs) Any artist tries to have faith that what they're doing will become of interest to others.
RT--My next question is "Why independent publishing"--and next down the list after that, and it may tie in, is "why language poetry," though I don't mean to pin us down to language poetry, it could be alternative or experimental poetry--but to begin with, why did you decide to do it yourself, instead of joining some other magazine?
RS--In terms of independent publishing in general I think that it's economic and political. You don't have access so you make your own. I Think Washington is desperately in need of more independent radio, or as they say "non-corporate" radio. That's a technology that needs to be used for the same reason that people use independent publishing, to create community. People are isolated in this society . . .
RT--What would like to hear on independent radio?
RS-- There's tons of information that's not made available. And of course the laws are written in such a way that it's almost impossible to start a station if you're not a big business. Which insures that those are the interests that will be represented. The corporation is the international political issue today, the amount of power being accrued by these organizations is--well, how many people know that the number one U.S. export is armaments? But just to cite something that is being done, there's Alternative Radio, done by David Barsamian out in Boulder, which isn't available in the Washington area but is available in 2/3rds of the major markets in the US, and all of Canada. It's a political show with interviews and talks by people like Noam Chomsky, Cornell West, bell hooks, Alexander Cockburn, Winona LaDuke, some people you do hear on WPFW occasionally, but it's just an incredible resource. And it's on a regular basis, so a community can form around it, and have input with regard to it. People can't change things alone, but together they might, that's just basic Alinsky or Chomsky, but it needs to be repeated. The media has advertisers who only want certain views represented. But to say that independent publishing by itself can make up for that--it can't. But it's important to try . . . in terms of art, or to come back to that, how these things can be related. When Gingrich first came in he started talking about school prayer. So I thought "how can I mess with this context" and came up with this project with Lee Ann Brown and Mark Wallace, called "America: A Prayer," and we wrote this thing calling for the Poets of America to "give America a prayer," since it doesn't have one. [laughs] And the response has been good. The New Censorship, a Denver based magazine, will be publishing them.
RT--What about alternative poetry? If you could say a little about what brought you to poetry, and to a kind of poetry that isn't in the mainstream?
RS--I'm not somebody who started writing in their teens, like many people I know, but I did know at that time that I was going to be a writer. I started at about 20, and by the time I was 23 or 24, you know at that age you take in a lot of influences. I'd done my confessional poems and beat imitations, etc. and felt I'd exhausted what was generally available. And just my sensibility, I wanted something else. About that time I met Douglas Messerli, and some other people in DC, Joan Retallack, Joe Ross, Tina Darragh, Dough Lang, and became part of this loose-knit network of poetry folks who were doing something I thought was interesting. And through publishing And readings etc. I came in contact with writers outside the area, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Carla Harryman, I guess it was '88 I met John Cage, who's been particularly important to me, but all of them doing things that seemed to me genuinely different and exciting . . . so you're asking me why did that pull me?
RT--Yes, what was the appeal of this kind of writing?
RS--There's a playfulness and openness in the best of it that's very different from what you're taught writing is supposed to be. Also an emphasis on musicality and a willingness to talk directly about political implications. That was there in the New American Poetry but many people wanted to take it further. I do think that good writing is good writing--the elements of good "experimental" and good "conventional" writing are not that different. Maybe the experimental tries to include more things going on at the same time. There's no definition, really, of language poetry. Ron Silliman said a language poet is anybody who's been accused of being one. What it comes out of is a basic insight I think--language is the thing we explain the world to ourselves with. And in many ways it's a mystery. Language poetry is often criticized as too academic. But practically, in terms of how poetry could effect the society, it's in the universities. That's the place, now, given the way the society is structured, where asking questions about how and who constitutes meaning might matter--maybe you could put questions in peoples' minds about their hierarchies. The other aspect of poetry, particularly language or experimental poetry, that seems to me pragmatic is in terms of what sorts of public modes of behavior are acceptable. If you get up in front of an audience they expect you to make a certain kind of sense, and when you don't it's a political act in the sense that you're not accepting the power they want to give you. Duchamp said, and Cage often cited it, "the work of art is completed by the observer." So it's never finished, really, it goes on changing as different people experience it. So I like not having to do thee conventional "I'm going to tell a story"--and there's a lot of that kind of writing I admire--but I found in these other traditions more of a multiplicity. I could tell a story if I felt like it, but I could do other things as well.
RT--Did you feel any of this with you first exposures to poetry in high school?
RS--The educational system I was in was not good enough to show us a poem. [Laughter] Seriously. The main things they are teaching you in school are punctuality and endurance of boredom. Readying you for capitalist society. [Laughs]
RT--So you didn't have anything against poetry because it hadn't been shoved down your throat . . .
RS--I mean I read some e.e. cummings or Eliot, Pound, things like that on my own . . .
RT--I mentioned that in my relative ignorance of language poetry I could be a convenient conceptual martian, not knowing where it comes from . . .
RS--Well one of the most important places it comes from--the language poets are of the generation that came to maturity in the '60's during the Vietnam war. Many of them were involved in activities against the war. So they were effected by the optimism of believing they could change things, and they saw the way language was used to control people. Another thing that was important in terms of this question of where it came from--is what Barrett Watten has called the "overdevelopment of theory" in the universities. Often without any sense of American writing, or American society for that matter. So they engaged with that and that has changed--not due only to poets--but much contemporary theory does try to address pressing contemporary concerns. Other things, minimalism and conceptual art, the women's movement was important. It's not as though it came from outer space of course, there plenty of literary precursors. Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky are often cited as parental figures. Language, I think is the first avant-garde movement that included women in similar numbers to men. Of course it's not "Gee, wasn't that good of them," it was reflecting what was going on in the society. There were a number of women in Fluxus, but in terms of numbers I don't think it was the same.
RT--One question I have on my list is about language and the "Poetry and the Age" issue. Noam Chomsky has come up, and you've mentioned the theoretical side of it, but I sense in your approach a populist angle--what would Archie Bunker make of it?
RS--Well, politically, Chomsky is a populist, or more accurately an anarchist. But, Archie Bunker, he's not going to encounter language poetry. If he did it would be on TV, some public access or something, and he would probably turn it off.
RT--But the whole idea of story telling as being more accessible--
RS--It doesn't interest me to stick up for one sort of writing over another. I mean, story telling maybe is more accessible but it's not true to my experience, or just story telling certainly isn't. It seems to me contextual and a matter of sensibility. Mark Wallace has and essay called "On Genre as Conversion Experience." In that essay he talks about how avant-garde communities often mimic religious communities in t he sense that someone has a conversion experience to a particular practice of writing or painting or praying, whatever, and it then becomes the way the community defines itself, by excluding anyone who doesn't do it "the right way." And that seems to me rather boring.
RT--But you do see some usefulness in focusing . . . the focus in your magazine seems to be on a particular kind of writing . . .
RS--Sure . . . it's the community I came to, but I don't think I'm or we're better because of it, which is a dynamic you get with, say, the surrealists. Maybe I used to, but if so I was missing the point entirely. When you talked about Archie Bunker . . . that reminded me of something Messerli said that I liked very much, basically he questioned the idea that everyone should be interested in poetry. You want to have an audience, but I think you can get carried away with the idea that everyone should like your writing or everyone should read poetry. I suppose the problem to be addressed is that people know it exists at all. I mean, it should be made available for those that might find of use.
RT--Have you seen cases in which language poetry would be the kind to get over to a non-academic audience?
RS--Oh yes, I mean, I've been at, and given readings outside academic contexts that were quite well received, and plenty of academic audiences are completely cold to language poetry. I think the average Joe or Joan can understand . . . Nam June Paik said "I don't think I'm smart, but I don't think the other guys are smarter." Which could translate as "people are generally pretty smart." I mean the aspects of theory involved are, I think largely a matter of vocabulary, which can be obtained by the average person that wants to. Chomsky makes that point--what can be understood can be understood by most people. For me the way theory relates to practice is in terms of creativity, it's just a matter of what ideas are useful, what can I do with this.
RT--I reserve the right to go back and make myself look smarter than I am by fixing up the text, collating topics and so forth.
MW--I understand, an interview is always a performance.
RT--What I'll start with is "What are you doing and how are you doing it," in terms of independent publishing.
MW--Well, unlike the other people you've been talking too, I'm fairly new to Washington. Though I grew up here and went to G.W. as an undergraduate, I left Washington in 1986 and just came back a couple of months ago. When I left I was not doing poetry at all. I'm involved in several projects, I'm continuing to do a small poetry magazine called Situation which was coming out four times yearly and is now coming out each time I have sufficient material for it. I was involved for a long time with an organization called Leave Books which is also a small press and which has published a number of poetry books, first chapbooks and now larger books and an essay collection, things of that sort. That I'm no longer doing, it's not part of the Washington, DC context. That was in Buffalo, which is where I began my magazine too. I've also worked very closely with some people I met in Buffalo, Jeff Hanson and Elizabeth Burns, on a poetics magazine called Poetic Briefs, which is a series of discussions of contemporary art and poetry. I continue to be very involved in that project, it comes out of Albany, NY these days. I met Joe Ross and Rod Smith at a big conference of younger poets that was held in Buffalo in the spring of '93. At that point I was getting my Ph. D. in a year and figuring out where I was going to go. I decided DC would be a good place to relocate-- I had writing friends, all kinds of friends, I had been a journalist so there were other kinds of careers I could segue into here if I had to. I wanted a Ph.D but I'd always thought of myself as a poet and fiction writer; scholarship was just background to that.
RT--What was the conference?
MW--The conference was called Writing from the New Coast. And it was organized by two people, Juliana Spahr, one of the founders of Leave Books, along with myself, and a man named Peter Gizzi, who was the editor of a magazine called Oblek for many years. The prerequisites for the conference were that you had to have at least one book and they wanted everyone to be under 40 years old. I don't really buy arguments that writers of a given generation necessarily have things in common, but do see that writers group themselves and have friends in various ways and that can be something that can help you put your work forward. And that's where I met Rod and Joe and started corresponding with them and talking about moving down here. I've been a fiction writer all my life. I left DC to go to Binghamton U. At that time I wrote fiction only. I studied there with Larry Woiwode and Gayle Whittier. I feel in with a group of friends who talked me into poetry, including Keith Eckert. I didn't start writing poetry until I was 25. My fiction at that time was realist. My thesis title was "The Town I Grew Up In." Then I went up to Buffalo, and of course Robert Creeley was there. While I was there they hired Charles Bernstein who directed my dissertation. He was a great help to me in more ways than I know how to thank him for. Susan Howe started teaching there too. People come from all over the world to study poetry there.
RT--Did you work with Creeley at all?
MW--Yes. A lot of people want to work with Bob Creeley [laughs], and I didn't work with him in the day to day way I worked with Charles Bernstein, but I did work with him.
RT--I just ran into a bunch of Bernstein on the internet this afternoon, somebody has been putting him on it a lot . . .
MW--I wouldn't be surprised. [laughs].
RT--Has your magazine always been in the same format?
MW--Situation is a 20 page magazine, laser printed--a newsletter. Yes, it's always been in the same format. The essential goal of the magazine was--given it was small, I wanted to focus on a certain kind of terrain, which was the relation between the forms in which one writes and the life which one is living. So I was interested in poems that dealt with what my identity as a writer is and how I conceive of myself as a writer--how that affects the form of the writing I choose to use. Definitely working in an experimental and avant-guard context, but not exclusively so. I do at times publish things that are more traditional narrative or lyric forms. But the emphasis is on new forms. If writing is at least partly always the process of figuring out what you're going to say as you're saying it, then figuring how you're going to say what you're going to say can't ever be a given either.
RT--Does language poetry have a lot to do with what you're doing, or is that just one part of it?
MW--I think it's just one part of it. Language Poetry is just one part of experimental or avant-guard practice. "Language poetry" is a term after the fact. Charles Bernstein and some others did a magazine called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and that name got attached to a movement which began in the seventies and early eighties. There are other strains in the avant-guard, of a kind of religious poetry, of certain kinds of twisted lyricism . . .
RT--Of your work I mostly know Complications From Standing In A Circle. Do you think of that as language poetry?
MW--I do and I don't. I think that book is more influenced by language techniques than some other things I have done. Language poetry, if one wants to use that term at all, refers to a group of poets that I'm not part of. One of the things I was doing in that book was foregrounding the materiality, the physicality of words. But I've also been influenced by American pragmatic philosophy, you know. I was having a discussion about my work with Kevin Moore, of American University, and he said my writing was empirical. And I thought that was absolutely right. What that book is doing is saying there is no ground for understanding things other than what you put forward and create, there's nothing transcendental. In that sense the book comes from a whole American tradition that reality is the social circumstance which we can construct. That's in William Carlos Williams, even in Thoreau and Emerson, as surprising as that sounds; it's in Ben Franklin. That the language that we choose to make, and the cultural ramifications of our choices--that's our culture.
RT--You've already answered a couple of the questions I was going to ask. I was going to ask how you came to what you are doing. I also wanted to talk more about independent publishing--why independent publishing? Is there an "us" and "them"? And a bit of "why alternative poetry?"
MW--Well, in a publishing context, if there is an us and a them, I don't feel that I'm the one that has created it. I would be happy to publish in the New Yorker, but the question is would they publish what I do? In the mainstream what one can publish is a very limited set of writing practices. And if I don't want to do those I'm going to have to find somebody else to publish me.
RT--How do you see the DC writing community--or is there one?
MW--My answer has to come from the point of view of someone who's still inexperienced with it. There seems to be a lot of poetry going on in Washington. There are readings, there are groups of friends doing various things . . . The idea that there would be a single writing community seems to me false, at least here in DC. When I was in Buffalo things were somewhat more cohesive, but mostly because it was a smaller city. People will talk about community because it's harder to talk about the more complex things that are going on. A lot of writers I know--I'm not in a community with them, I'm in a business network, though that business network is not defined by money but by publishing options, things of that sort. I try to support poetry. By putting out my magazine, by going to readings, by buying people's books when I can do that. By putting poetry forward as a cause, like this NEA rally we're doing this weekend. I'm also starting a reading series at the Willow Street Gallery, and I'm involved with the people who run reading series at the DCAC Arts Center.
RT--More about this kind of writing, and its involvement with theory--I've talked to other people about Archie Bunker versus poetry ... Is this a continuation of the direction of the modernists, away from populist poetry, or something like that?
MW--A lot of big questions there. I'm currently engaged in writing a dialog with my friend Jeff Hansen and with a writer named Stephen-Paul Martin, who is involved with a magazine in NYC called Central Park, on the subject of readability and the avant-guard. I argue in there, a little for the sake of being devious but also because on some level I think it--I take some paragraphs of my own poems, from Complications From Standing In A Circle, and compare them with a newspaper article recently in the Washington Post. I come to the conclusion that on all sorts of levels by which one might define complexity, my poem is a much easier thing to read. I go on to argue that the only reason it doesn't seem so is not because it isn't easy to read but because we live in a context in which people assume that poetry isn't easy to read. They do that often because that's what they've been taught and I don't blame them for that. So I don't necessarily feel that my writing is hard to read. The argument that I'm also putting forward, and I teach college courses, is that with freshman college students of reasonable intelligence my experience is that it takes about three hours, two class periods, to talk to them about the basic techniques that they would need to understand a range of experimental writing. How many years of training have they gotten in reading newspapers and narrative novels? Years and years. One could argue from another perspective, to really play devil's advocate, how high is comprehension of anything in our society? Do people really understand a realist novel? Who does read the newspaper well?
RT--I had one scenario of people coming to avant-guard writing through more traditional writing, but this is more a case of them coming directly to it and accepting it . . .
MW--Some of the best reactions I've had to my work come from people who assume they don't know anything about what poetry is. "That's neat," --you know? They don't have an investment in thinking they know what poetry is. I've had the most resistance from people who are trained, but whose training conflicts with my training.
RT--In your writing, how do you revise? And how do you see the completion of a poem? And where does the impulse for specific poems come from? Do you use chance elements?
MW--My revision process is exactly the same as any other writer's, I go word by word until every word is right. I want the words to do certain things and I keep playing with them until they do that. How I know when a poem is--resolved? I don't. Sometimes they're not. It's intuitive, but that intuition contains a critical faculty. And where I get ideas for an individual poem from? I've got words in my head [laughs]. Maybe I don't know what they mean the first time around, I put them down, I start seeing what happens. I do use chance elements, things not in my control, to make certain things happen. Complications From Standing In A Circle--I don't know if this is a chance element--for each poem I went through the dictionary and picked 15 words I had never, to the best of my knowledge, used in a poem before. The poem couldn't be finished until all those words were used. The trick was that the words had to belong in that poem. In a sense that makes me a formalist, writing to a kind of limit. I've just had a book come out from Texture Press called Every Day Is Most Of My Time. It's a more lyrical work. I don't write in just one way, I often write a bunch of poems in just one way and then don't write in that way again.
RT--In Standing In A Circle, I feel a lot of what moves you through the disjuncts in the language will be emotion--do you keep one eye on that, preserve one central emotion . . . that would be more of a given in a narrative poem . . .
MW--The poems are a function of who I am in way that is not a matter of my conscious intention. I wanted levels of emotion and specific kinds of human involvement to be operating on the level of my language. In that sense I've also been influenced by NY school or beat generation writing . . . I'm ironically aware of the difficulty of this sort of thing, but I do try to put my life into my poems. Not in a unselfconscious sort of way . . .
RT--"you bring your whole life to the material"
MW--The title of one of my chapbooks. Every writer does that.
RT--you said the material in your magazine should reflect the person's nature . . .
MW--I wanted the magazine to feature a lot of writing that was specific about its situation--the name of the magazine. Lodged in very particular kinds of circumstances. To try to turn the tables around on a traditional narrative poem saying "I walked into the room, my family was there . . ." --one of the things I find frustrating about those sorts of narrative poems is not that they are subjective but that they assume that subjectivity and point of view only consist of certain kinds of experience. My relation to my family, my relation to my job--those aren't the only ranges of experiences that people have. There's the experience where you're walking down the street and some incredibly disjunctive thing happens in your own mind, or right in front of you. That's personal experience too. In that sense I might argue that one of the things I sometimes try to do in my writing is open up to a whole other range of experience that is often excluded from so-called "subjective" narrative poetry. Without ever saying that I write down my experiences. My experiences are not directly in my writing. And I'm not trying to directly represent my mind. Rather, the writing itself is the experience--both in terms of writing and reading it--and so while my writing does have some relation to my other experiences it's not the same as those other experiences.