Interview by Nicky Hyman
I’m especially struck by your piece Love Poems. Not only was the content itself intriguing, but I also loved the form of it, the arc hidden underneath. What kind of narrative, if any, were you after in this piece? What was the impetus behind choosing this form?
In writing Love Poems I wanted to get at the dips and curves of being in love and create a montage of all that fucked up shit you feel and want to do with someone and to someone and around someone when you love them – or at least when you want to love them. At the time, when I wrote Love Poems, I had been talking to a poet friend (Jack Nachmanovitch) about love poems and how often the best ones are about unrequited love (no one wants to read about how awesome someone else’s life is). But I thought that was dumb because I don’t always want to be suffering to write the material that people connect with. So in writing these poems I was trying to write love poems about requited love that didn’t feel cheesy or forced.
To get to that sweet spot I had to blend bliss with harshness. I’ve found if anything feels good in love it is because of the pain of not wanting to be alone.
When it came to the form, I wanted to see if I could create turns in each chunk of text without actually spreading out the text and instead make the reader feel the tension of everything winding. I wanted the body to be felt through the quick inhale / exhale that has be done with the run on sentences and the ampersands. The poems are in the paragraph / stanza format because it embodied for me that feeling of desperate love completely condensed. When you love someone totally and fully saying it isn’t enough, you feel it all internal compressed into your organs and it feels like there is not enough time to breathe or get it all out.
In making Love Poems I sought to write something that looked “normal”, but when read aloud or when looked at felt physically retching. I’m interested in trying to embody physicality in poetry since it is all such a mind game.
There are moments of sweetness or genuine gratitude spread throughout the entire piece and that was my attempt at trying on as many metaphors and layers of love as I could. I’m actually working on making Love Poems into a zine / artbook with a friend and having each love poem on its own page. Since they are so dense this will give them space to breath and let each one have its own internal arc.
I noticed that your first draft of that particular poem was written out, longhand. Do you often prefer to work in that mode initially, before transcribing the text onto the computer?
For me, the beginning of a poem happens on paper through longhand. This is probably an ego thing, but I find it feels more like the poem is coming from me rather that when I generate on a computer where typing very fast feels like some computer ghost is making the poem.
This is not to say that I don’t use the computer to write the poems – I often will freewrite longhand and then type it up on the computer and develop the poem from there.
There’s a certain cadence in Love Poems, which permeates the whole piece, providing it with a unique, somehow not grammatically straining string of run-on thoughts. In general, when you’re writing, do you find that your thoughts and ideas tend to flow out of you, reflecting a similar rhythm, or does it tend to be a more pain-staking process? In other words, how would you describe your personal writing process
Yes! I wanted Love Poems to feel slightly awkward, but still full of life and glimmering in a way.
When it comes to composing I have a collage method approach. There are three sources I pull from: freewriting, saved lines, and performances.
First, I will generate large amounts of text through freewriting (stream of conscious style) either from a line I like or a song I’m listening to or an image stuck in my head and give myself permission to freewrite for 10 minutes or so.
Then, from those chunks of text I chisel and pull out the skeleton of the poem, which I believe is already there I just have to find it. I’ll get real here and quote Michelangelo: “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action.” I always try to remember this bit of advice when I’m writing to feel motivated.
Next, with this rough sketch of a poem, I pull from other chunks of text and lines and combine them. The saved lines is a list that I keep on my phone or in a notebook with sentences or lines that I think are stellar, but perhaps sound horrendous in their original poem or piece of writing. These lines could also be describing images I’ve seen or things I’ve heard.
For me, a poem is not complete unless I’ve performed it for another person – preferably a group so the pressure is on – and I can really see what I need and what I don’t need in the piece and where the breath is for the line breaks.
Having studied at Pratt, how do you think your narrative voice and style changed or transformed over the course of those four years? Being a current student of their (relatively new) writing program, though not very well-acquainted with the poetry side of things (I’m more of a prose writer, myself), I’m curious as to what you think the strengths and weaknesses are of Pratt’s approach to poetry, and writing in general. Do you like the way in which they’ve chosen to structure their program?
I came to Pratt thinking I would take the prose route and explore scriptwriting and the more journalistic / essay type of writing. I had very little interest in poetry until I studied avant-garde poetry and literature with Rachel Levitsky and got a taste of Gertrude Stein. After that I fell into the poetry world at Pratt because it felt so free to me.
In Pratt’s poetry program it was as if anything I wanted to create – a performance piece, a monologue, a sculptural piece – could be a poem and it was accepted and celebrated and critiqued. It was difficult for me to focus on a full-length story with a beginning, middle, and end so that freedom was very appealing to me. I was given permission to think of writing as project based with collections of poems or collages of poems always building without a concrete end. And then through Rachel Levitsky I heard of Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program in Boulder, CO where I got to know Anne Waldman and many other skilled poets and was struck by the possibilities that poetry could take in form and in performance.
Strengths: The professors. Laura Elrick, Christian Hawkey, Rachel Levitsky, Eric Rosenblum, Robert Lopez – each of these professors made me feel as if my work was valuable – that it deserved meticulous attention and detail and that each piece could (with hard work) bloom into something accessible and real.
Another strength in general is the chance to study a visual arts school. For me, being surrounded by not just writers, but individuals that identified themselves as artists pushed me to see myself as an artist and gave me multiple chances to collaborate with them and find other outlets to experiment with my work.
Weaknesses: I think the program could be even more rigorous in a well-rounded fashion. It would be great for the writing department to offer other classes (besides the internship class) that could help translate the writing and communication skills that the students develop there into other facets of real world work and supporting oneself.
As appealing as it is to be a “struggling artist” working at a café and dedicating yourself to your work late into the night, there is also something to be said to feeling like you are supporting yourself based on what you have worked so hard to perfect rather than taking a day job just to get by. I’m still in a space of trying to figure that out for myself.
Upon graduation I felt very knowledgeable about poetry, publication and performance, but only felt confident about contributing it to the Art World and not the Real World. I felt as if my options (if I wanted to continue to have a creative life) were to continue on to grad school (and rack up possibly more student debt) or work as a barista. I ended up joining a volunteer program for a year, which was extremely illuminating, and has created an unexpected and exciting path for myself that I’m learning how to navigate.
Following up on that, now that you’re more fully immersed in the current poetry/indie publishing scene, outside of an academic setting, what’s your take on things? Do you feel things moving in a positive or negative direction? Do you see them moving in any direction at all?
Haha thank you! I’m working on it – there is a lot of awesome writing going on right now so I’m excited to be a part of it.
For the past three summers I have taught creative writing at the University of Virginia’s Young Writers Workshop and it was there, surrounded by other writers completing their BFAs or MFAs in creative writing, that I realized that what we had been doing at Pratt and learning and pushing and creating was not the norm and was pretty experimental and I hope it still is. So my take on poetry outside of the setting of Pratt is this: I think there is always going to be pretty boring poetry where the writer is not pushing or challenging form or content. And when I say boring I mean just that. Some writers like to really focus on the conceptual aspect, but the actual product is not stimulating or new or refreshing, and for me I think one’s process and approach can enhance the excitement of the piece, but it should not be relied upon.
Poetry that is innovative to me is when either form or content or both is startled. One or the other ought to have some tension in a poem for it to really breathe and have a pulse. Currently, I’m finding myself more drawn to poetry becoming visual, not necessarily images, but playing with the design of a poem and the book as an actual piece of art. I suppose that is the direction I would like to see poetry take: collaboration with other modes of art-making and performance.