What was the impetus behind starting lungfull?
One of the beautiful ways in which poetry, as a cultural phenomenon in the west, subverts the notion of hierarchy, is by placing its most inexperienced practitioners as the true gatekeepers. Every “fresh young face from the plains” as Eileen Myles put it when she was one, arrives and starts some enterprise through which they hope to inject themselves into the polylogue that’s been cooking for millennia. I started Lungfull when I was 24 out of a desire to go up to poets I admired and offer them something other than my inarticulate fumbling useless praise. With Lungfull I could offer them the much more labor intensive uselessness of publication in a poetry journal. Most writers who go the editor/curator route wisely give up after issue one or after hosting a few readings — it is strangely difficult work for which you are rewarded with more enemies than friends. Yet poetry gets bettered through it, the relationships that do develop through it are more astounding — even the ones that begin with rancor often turn into intimacy because of the initial animosity — and your engagement with writing becomes more steeped in the traditions and possibilities that stretch out behind and before us. The perception others have of poetry editors as insiders or part of the establishment is hilarious — in a medium as uncommodifiable and culturally invisible as poetry, there is no inside to be, there is no establishment — perceived to be other by the others, editors are even more outside the fold. It is, years later, a fantastic promontory to stand on.
What’s the idea behind publishing rough drafts?
Lungfull emerged from going to readings where people would announce they wrote a poem on the train over to the reading. After the reading their friends would praise the brand new poem for it urgency & so forth, motivated by friendship and the hope that their praise would make their own poems more praiseworthy and the weird life of a poet as well. But they weren’t good poems. They were good germs for what might be something worth reading later, and the feedback people provided was arresting the pieces before they transmute to gold. I wanted to create an environment which would encourage writers to consider their practice rather than their end result — foregrounding methodology over teleology. It seems like a pretty effective means to make writers mindful of the enchantments they’re conjuring so they don’t blow it.
How would you describe your poetry aesthetic?
Misunderstanding is so useful. I would describe my aesthetics in terms such that, if 1,000 people read this interview all but one would walk away with the false belief they understood my leanings and telemetries. And having comprehended them never think of them again. For those people, it would be like directions to a party you didn’t want to go to but fills some obligation — directions that, once you’ve arrived, become totally superfluous. One person out of the 1,000 however will be completely baffled by the description and will keep returning to it, strangely compelled by the non-fitting pieces and total failure to add up. Compelled until their aesthetic becomes entirely subverted by mine. (Evil laugh) The mechanics involve Lacanian desire, 19th c alchemy, Masonic secrets, Santeria, mid 20th c clean lines, Marti, Derrida, Bey and according to some people who are about to publish a book of my essays, the following: Crimethinc, Norman O Brown, David Abram, Kim Hyesoon, Julia Kristeva, Sappho, Pete Seegar, Zizek, Emma Goldman and Helene Cixous. At the moment the bright star of my aesthetic turns out to be the binary system of ruin and desire. Wish you were here!
How do you choose which poems/poets will be in the issues?
Here’s an adaptation of our official statement: Submissions arrive at Lungfull World Headquarters and are immediately buried in salt mines for five years or until they are stable. Retrieved from mine by runners & placed in pink semicicular envelopes for tracking. Sorted by Density Bonus. Distributed to editors via pneumatic system. Editors wear Anti-Impropriety goggles that prevent them from making decisions based on having inadvertently seen the poet’s name or read his/her submission. After mistakenly dismantling welfare in 1996, editors are now much more careful to avoid making the manuscript a law. Editors meet once a month in international waters to argue over the finalist poems & dispose of bodies. Decisions are based on complex algorithms & theoretical properties. We employ the procedure used in Flowers for Algernon on ourselves to grapple with the subtleties of our own poetics during the meeting. This is done at the expense of our long-term well-being. It is sad, but necessary. Because rejecting friends can be difficult, editors wear green or red bodysuits to indicate their opinions. Winners of the wrestling match get rewritten & published under different names in Fence & Lit. The losers are forced to appear in Lungfull. The very best submission gets burned to insure a good crop next year. That’s the only reason you were not published this time.
What’s up with the waterproof cover?
What’s up with writers’ inability to keep liquids where they are supposed to be?
How has lungfull changed since you began publishing it?
It was perfect before we published issue one. Every issue has reflected an evolution back to its initial pure platonic form of grace and wisdom. The first issue was printed at a copy shop, collated and stapled at a coffee shop and handed out to the contributors with about five copies left over for distribution. It was, as the terrible name of the journal implies, dominated by more performative traditions than it is now, 17 years later (before you get an earful you get a lungfull). At the same time it encouraged linguistic rigor, it was distrustful of intellectual pretense. Since that time, its developed a more invocative approach to the possibilities of a literary journal — pulling on many traditions and immediacies. The most recent, and most substantial change has happened recently. We’ve involved a great many more people in the project. What began as a labor of love has become a labor of beloveds. You Kara, and Annaliese and all the other people who have been instrumental in creating this issue have shaped it into an expression of joint action and comradeship. That’s what the magazine wanted to be before issue one came out, and which it is finally arriving at.
How have you seen the poetry scene in New York change since you’ve been involved?
Years ago I talked to Wayne Koestenbaum about how NYC always gives you this sense of belatedness — of having missed the party. And I’m going to talk here about the scene when I was a kid in these romantic terms. But here’s the thing: I really believe this moment, right now, is the golden era.
G train? Cab to where? Subways were for getting to work, if you had a job, and cabs were for when your parents wanted to take you somewhere. Readings were all within about a half hour walk of wherever you were standing that evening. Ear Inn (LANGUAGE poetry) in the lower left corner, the Poetry Project (New York School) in the upper left, the Nuyorican Poets Café (Performance/Slam) in the upper right and ABC No Rio (indefinable) in the lower left. The space inside this lopsided square was populated with about a million other venues and the writers who infested them.
The economy of the early 1990’s blew the poets to Brooklyn and San Francisco (through the SF crew came back one the late 1990’s internet jacked up the price of the Bay). The readings followed them making someone’s event became a commitment. You were likely to run into some poets over the course of a day, but not all of them as you had been when they lived in the same gross neighborhood. At the same time, many readings that took place in downtown Manhattan became much more like products of the established institutions they’d responded against.
The very first readings I went to on a regular basis were at ABC No Rio — named for what was left of a sign for a storefront Spanish-speaking lawyer on an abandoned, largely demolished building on Rivington Street. It was the flagship ruin on a block of buildings destroyed for insurance money in the 1970’s and 80’s. An ailanthus forest grew through the removed back wall of the building into the first floor reading space where the audience sat on chair-sized debris dragged in from the street or harvested from upper floors. The poetry was in line with the architecture — structurally unsound and thus not a place to be — yet irresistibly magnetic because of the danger. Now I believe ABC No Rio is a legit arts foundation with a development staff and endowment in a building that is very much up to code.
Every single Friday I also went to a free workshop at Steve Canon’s A Gathering of the Tribes at 8pm, then over to listen to the featured readings and slam at The Nuyorican at 10pm, then read my own terrible work at the 2am open mike. I’d walk home as the sun was just coming up over the east river and the birds were waking in the community gardens (now almost all luxury condos).
Edwin Torres, Todd Colby and David Cameron led me from the Nuyorican to the Poetry Project which was intimidating. Although the roof had just burned off in a terrible fire, the building didn’t look like it was going to fall on me and I had come to feel out of place in rooms that didn’t feel perilous. Everyone seemed so much more well read and sure of themselves — yet were no less inviting and psyched to meet a new poet, even one as idiotic as I was. Everyone appeared older, some legendarily older — living connections to Black Mountain, SF Renaissance, The Beats and the first generations of New York School. By the time I made it over to the Ear Inn, and its extensions of LANGUAGE poetics, I was filled with the sense that this was an age of mimicry and repetition, of nth-generation whatever school. It was kind of a bummer.
But then something changed. Perhaps as a result of the crash and the illusion of someday achieving the good life no longer being available, more people are pursuing what they actually want. And what humans want is to give rise to their innate creativity in the community of others engaging similar practices. I don’t remember any other time when there have been more readings — and readings that serve as introductions to new poetics by pairing people you know with people you don’t. Or a time of more small press foment and online insurrection. All guided as never before with the understanding that this production is not leading to something — the notion of authoritative anthologies and movements are antiquated nonsense in the post-marketing era of a shattered economy. The empire is in decline and any artistic celebrity or other ego-stroking was predicated on the now apparent falsehoods of that doomed empire. Tonight’s reading is not leading to anything beyond maybe an interesting conversation and a drunken collaborative poem immediately after. Ashbery is not going to descend and place a laurel tiara upon thy brow. And even if he did, so what? Nobody beyond other poets knows who he is. Or Bernadette Mayer, or John Coletti or any of the other deservedly beloved poets of our time — beloved by other poets but unknown beyond our private (but porous) Narnia. Young poets are still going to be silly and ambitious until they drop the ambition or drop the poetry. Old poets who insist on ambition are around now as comedic foils and tragic figures now that we all know there is no ring to grab and never has been. And we owe this awareness to the only thing more self-destructive than we poets — that is, the culture in which we operate. This is the golden era. The era in which we aren’t after the gold — we are the gold.
How has your identity as a poet changed since you decided you would be a full-grown one?
With every passing year, I am perceived as infinitely more noble and more ridiculous because I’ve chosen to engage this practice that can provide nobody with anything useful. I can only give you heightened non-ordinary consciousness and alienation from a society that punishes people to the degree they are awake. That’s a special nobody really wants to order. So I am both something to aspire to and something to be avoided. Like at the end of John Carpenter’s The Thing when you are looking at the protagonist who might be the hero who saves humanity or the evil alien parasite hell-bent on destroying it — and there’s no way of knowing.