CONVERSATION


Mystery, Irony, and Poetry in the Culture of Now:
A Conversation between Joe Millar and Chris O. Cook

Joe Millar's first collection of poems, Autobiomythography & Gallery, was named “Best First Book” of the year by coldfront magazine, after being short-listed for the Yale Younger Poets prize, the National Poetry Series, and the Academy of American Poets’ Walt Whitman Award. He grew up along the Space Coast of Florida, attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and now lives in New York City, where he runs Brooklyn Arts Press and acts as co-Director of Go North gallery. He’s currently working on a novel about meth running in Florida, a book of haiku-like poems called hiccups, and an erasure hybrid narrative overlapping the text of John F Kennedy: Public Papers of the Presidents, a 3-volume set from 1961-1963.
 
Chris O. Cook is the author of To Lose & to Pretend (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2008), and his poetry has also been included in the Subpress anthology Free Radicals (2004). His critical writing may be found in the Facts on File Companion to the American Novel, and he is the founder and Lord High Editor of the sociopolitical humor website The1585.com. Born and raised on Long Island, New York, Cook earned his BA from Ohio’s Kenyon College and an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was the recipient of a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. He currently lives in Chicago, where he teaches at DePaul University and Harper College.

Joe Millar: So Chris, in rereading To Lose & to Pretend I’m still struck by how fluidly you manage to incorporate dissonant ideas or feelings in the same poem without breaking from the poetic dream. One moment I’m involved in the documenting of an intimate portrait of two lovers, followed by a shift invoking the Chinese adage of clouds-&-rain, then a supposed Aztec ritual, and immediately back to another quiet moment of helping a spider, followed by an insight into web pornography. My surprise is that I’m not more taken aback, that these poems continue to resonate despite the inconsistencies or shifting views, as if what we’re witnessing is a soul being constructed in fits and throes. Maybe it’s all held together by tone. The tone doesn’t waver, it’s cool as a cucumber. I’d like to know a bit about your process. Do you see yourself more as a collector of moments and ideas or an excavator? I’d imagine grocery shopping with you might be a fun but harrowing experience. 
Chris O. Cook: That would depend on where we went grocery shopping.  When I go to one of those cool grocery stores, I'm just terrified the whole time that everyone is cooler than me.  So based on that, I guess I'm surprised that you called my tone "cool"—it's not something I get accused of very often.  Sometimes I guess I can do "disinterested" pretty well, which is a type of coolness, or I can do a sort of oddly purposeful matter-of-factness, like I'm telling a joke but the joke I'm telling scares me a little for some reason.  A few years ago after a reading, someone from the audience told me I reminded him of Steven Wright—you know, that stand-up with the eerie monotone—and that interested me and I think I kind of ran with it, and tried to see if I could somehow make it happen on the page.  I think poems and jokes have a lot in common.  I think most great comedians could also have been pretty great poets if that had been what they felt like doing—you could certainly see that in somebody like George Carlin; he was just so in love with language...  So yeah, I guess it's all held together by tone, but isn't everything?  Isn't a day in your life all held together by tone?  The thing that happens after the previous thing doesn't really have anything to do with it other than chronology, which is an accident, and the fact that you basically feel the same way you did five minutes ago, so you see it through the same lens.  And then if something significant enough to make you feel different happens, then it suddenly doesn't seem like the same day anymore.  That's why when you're on vacation or something and you're running around doing all this stuff, the morning of the same day seems like it was a month ago.

So, yeah, after a while I think I gave up trying to tell a story, because I realized, well, how can you not tell a story?  Even if you try not to, people are still going to see one there, so then that becomes something you don't have to make happen, and you're free to do other stuff, like when musicians lay down baseline or rhythm parts first and then play them back and play over the playback, so everyone can then just solo the whole time, even the damn drummer.  And then the idea of allowing myself to think I have a "plot" started to seem laughable or even obnoxious.  A lot of the poems in the book are "notebook writing," where you just have individual lines or couplets in a journal—or in my case, all over my apartment on tiny scraps of paper, so I'm always finding them—and then when you feel a poem happening you kind of fill in the spaces you can see in it with the lines that are the same shape tonally or emotionally or syllabically or whatever.  I think I actually didn't learn the term "notebook writing" until some class back in the Workshop, but when I learned it I remember instantly realizing that that was how Kurt Cobain must have written.  And that made me want to try it, whereas otherwise I might have had the instinct that it was fake or cheating or something.  But his stuff totally felt like it all went together even if it totally mocked the idea of narrative—it was more story than story.  You can try to say the same thing about Dylan on the first few electric albums, but that was different—that stuff felt like it was a narrative, but it was in code, as opposed to feeling like something other than narrative.  I would say Cobain was the biggest influence on how I'm actually putting stuff together—on the chunking of what parts go where, at the mid-range level, more so than overall thematically or word-to-word.

In your stuff, in the poems in Autobiomythography, I get the sense that there is a definite thing happening, but that you don't—or, you know, "the speaker" doesn't—even have time to talk about it.  It's like the poem is the stuff that the actual event sends reeling across his mind's eye, but the thing itself is too horrible to be in the poem.  Many of your poems actually scare the shit out of me.  I sometimes feel like it's some Lovecraft story where someone has just seen something so weird that it drove him insane.  But then like if I knew what the thing was, it wouldn't actually be some gibbous monster rising out of the sea; it would just be, like, some normal thing that's just sitting there, that was always just sitting there, like a road sign or a stapler or something, and then one day it was suddenly horrifying.  Like that horror movie convention where the movie tries to take some everyday thing and make it scary—showers in Psycho, phones in Scream—only in your stuff, usually, there's also some counterweight hopeful thing that can save you, that's also been sitting right there the whole time.  It's someone in some finite place, and suddenly one of the things in that place is trying to kill him, but there's another thing in there somewhere that can save him and he has to find it or figure out what it is.  And the poem feels like the clock ticking on that.  A lot of your poems remind me of that old video game Gauntlet, where when your life force was low you'd start hearing this mechanized burp-burp-burp and this voice would start intoning "Red Wizard is about to die...  Red Wizard is about to die..." and you're running around like a buttmonkey trying to find the food.  And then when you see it, half the time you're so excited you shoot the food, and then the voice is like "Red Wizard shot the food" and you die.  Which is bullshit, because it's not like food goes away if you accidentally shoot it.  What the hell?  Just pull the arrow out and eat it anyway.  But I feel like your poems often correct that.  A lot of the time, at the last moment, a Joe Millar poem pulls the arrow out of the food and eats it anyway.
JM: Ha! If by eating the food you mean accepting failure as nourishment, then yes, I eats the food. If you mean my poems show a fear of going someplace but go there anyway, then I say, hey, writing the second line after the first can be terribly difficult, but the poem must find its own course, and one should not fear the arrow. I see what you’re saying about Carlin; his whole bleeding-life-from-words bit concerning the slow transformation of the word “shellshock” to the phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder” got me thinking as a kid. And Wright was doing ironic comedic enjambment before I knew what it was I was hearing. I just knew that I liked it. It’s hard to say if they’d be good poets. There’s a discomfort when trying to define what poetry does, or even what it is, which I guess is a good thing. If you believe mainstream efforts to define it, or devalue it, poetry is this mushy place of political solace and easy moral comfort. Obviously this is not always the case, with so much raw ingenuity and angst and political vitality and real searching and struggle that’s going on in poetry now. That said, poetry, like comedy, needs an audience.

I think there is truth to the argument that if poets forget how to be the satellites of our social realm, absorbing and digesting and then disseminating the new news, we risk becoming as irrelevant as Hummers because we’ve disregarded the natural social aspect of language. Likewise, to ignore language’s musicality or sonic aspects would be like trying to hide the instruments from the musicians in your band. It can’t be done, actually, because language is inherently musical. Satellite doesn’t quite fit as a metaphor—it sounds both too instructive and too complacent, too far removed, overlordly, the wizard’s big phantom head; maybe internet search engines might be a better fit, to account for elements of randomness and catch-as-catch-can, but search engines flatten out the value of everything to one value and sort according to targeted information clouds. Whatevs. All metaphors break down eventually, so I’ll let mine die here.

My point is, whether you’re writing associative or linear poetry or whatever, the words are going to sing and the words are going to mean, regardless of your plans. We can only hope that the products of our searching strike a reader’s senses as authentic, if not to the nature of reality than to the interior nature of the poem. If poetry has any one obligation, it might be to speak to the now, as authentically as possible, using whatever methods or histories we have at our disposal. I’m trying desperately not to discount any possible form of poetry writing here, beyond the mushy, as I’m a big believer in plurality. Culture and language are constantly expanding and shifting and redefining themselves, forcing poetry to accommodate and change alongside them. There’s a reason the words “poetic” and “lyrical” have entered our vernacular as ways to describe haircuts and botanical gardens. It’s shorthand for accounting for something with a measure of skill, depth and imagination. Poetical language is unusual because it is activated by how it seeks, not what it seeks. You can gargle it, brood with it, snip it up, subvert it or bunch it together as a story, but it has to be flexible and speak of an awareness. If you’re lucky enough to be any good, it’ll be interesting as well. There’s a distinct head-butting flagellatory self-editing aspect to writing commercially, fiction or non-, where you’re aware in advance that an editor with a deadline will be looking to trim down your sentences for economic reasons or in service of a kind of fluid readability. Poetry however is expected to rebel, to perform by its own rules, despite the adoption of any editing process. With poems language and ideas get to struggle with themselves, have sex with each other, hybridize, disassociate, forget, remember, turn on a dime. Gold stars are awarded by me for the more nimble and dexterous and moving among them.  

As far as my own poetry goes, to answer the other question, um, I let the poem go where it goes, but there is a good deal of wrestling. The poems in this first book, Autobiomythography & Gallery, are of a certain time and place. When most of the poems were written, I was in grad school and being attacked from all sides—all these new voices, these theories, these poems. In order to discuss it all, I had to learn to think differently, look differently, absorb and report back. And to be part of some discussions, I had to learn a new language. If a poem didn’t jibe with me, I wanted to be able to articulate why. To tell someone who had a love of Schuyler or Ashbery that his poem didn’t sound like Williams or Auden was a personal knee-jerk resistance to learning. As my understanding of poetic modes and histories grew, I became fairly indiscriminate and stole from everyone.

I think I became interested in voice-shaping because my own voice was so elusive. I’m in awe of artists like Dan Flavin or Richard Serra, who can set upon one plan of action and execute it for decades, in effect maintaining a solid vision and voice. But though I do love the work of these artists, their ability to function this way doesn’t jibe with my sense of myself as an organism whose identity is in constant flux. It’s a philosophical difference and one easily overcome to recognize beauty. In my own work, much more now, when the music shifts, so does the dance. I’m speaking of both internal and external music, or why poems turn when they do.

William Gass said that when a character changes her mind, the language she uses must change, and vice versa. I tried to carry that statement around from one poem to the next. Many of the poems in my first collection are ‘about’ something, as you say, in their hearts, because I had this nasty loyalty to the idea of poems as objects with definitive subjects. I move back and forth on that now.

"Autobiomythography," the title poem, was about the re-imagined life of author Breece D’J Pancake, a fantastic West Virginia writer that committed suicide shortly after publishing his first book of stories. It was my rebellious poem, a leaping forward poem. Narrative and meter caught frowns and backlash, so I wrote a southern first-person mythopoeia hero-narrative jammed in rhyming, loose hexameters and housed within the architecture of an assonance/consonance-driven corona. Alliteration and pun were welcomed guests, as was the ghost of Robert Penn Warren. It sounds ridiculous to lay it all out like this now but it felt punk then.

Anyhow, at some point in the poem I have the main character selling stolen goods over the internet, and when that small shift from past to present hit me, from what Pancake might have experienced to what he could not, other things began shifting. Suddenly there were all these questions. Things like, how do formal restrictions aid or inform the development of identity? And also, what ethical concerns are inherent in mythologizing? How much am I in this? What is the nature of this I, as a creator and witness? Was I creating an Other just to knock around? Was I a neo-con? I’d been hijacked by my own poem. I’d read Rimbaud but I wasn’t prepared for this mess. Eventually I learned to let each poem sort through its own mystery and its own issues of authority, to develop its own life and struggles, in effect create its own identity. But it all really started with that poem. So back to ‘about.’

Each of the Memory poems is about something, I guess, like the mourning of an imagined child, or the weird and dire prospect of having emotions we’re not evolutionarily equipped to really deal with yet. Gallery was about the convolution of real and desired memory, actual and false witness, fellowship and alienation, with art in the role of interlocutor or impetus, in this case a dance by Murray Lewis/Nikolais, a musical piece by Philip Glass, some TV shows, and the movie Freaks by Tod Browning. That poem is a real tossed salad. My dad read that poem and asked me if I blamed him for the divorce, which I didn’t, but it remains a poem that still resonates in unexpected ways for me.

Autobiomythography is full of all kinds of stuff, ideas, people. If something hits my brainpan and really captures my imagination in a way that I obsess over, it’s fair game for use. If not for a poem, then for a story or a collage or an installation or something. You asked if my poems were scary. I don’t know if they are or not. Jim Galvin said once after reading a few of these in draft form that it was like being sprayed by a waterhose and feeling unable to breathe, which I’d imagine would be pretty scary. I started loosening up a bit after that piece of criticism. I had one guy accuse me of attempting to naturalize necrophilia. Ha! While we were drinking cocoa together in a cold, cramped coffee house.

As you’ll recall at the time, persona poems, so-called confessional and realist narratives were out; Language, generational New York School and Ellipticism were in. Of course the purported aesthetic purity of these camps often overlapped, and in no way canceled each other out, but a lot of us were awkward in our stumbling through the haze. These poems came out of my own stumbling. I grabbed onto whatever the hell I could. This is a good thing because it taught me to keep grabbing. You can call some of these poems narratives, but everything is a narrative in that it tells the story of its own process. Even erasure poems leave a trail, or a mark, even if that mark is only a memory.  

So my next question to you is, how much of the Culture of Now do you allow into your poems? That is, do you work from a place of pure memory, do you scavenge from cultural detritus, rip from the headlines, what? Is subject matter a real concern or just a byproduct of process for you?
COC: Jim compared your work to being waterboarded?  That's awesome!  And it was back before waterboarding was in, too!  And I just reread "Gallery" and, oddly enough, you quote Steven Wright in it, which I had forgotten about.  There's also a kind of very quiet, very cautiously hopeful preservation and balance thread running through that; several passages feel to me like they should be engraved on something at a zoo, and I'm really jealous of that.  I now aspire to write something that feels like it should be engraved on something at a zoo—or, I guess, I always did, but never put it in those words before.

The "easy moral comfort," as you put it, view of Poetry is what I hate more than anything about what's going on now.  That stuff to me is inseparable from the academicizing of Poetry, of the genre's union with advancement in college politics. Or even just with campus society broadly, or education as figuring out new and complicated ways to show off that you’re a good person. And although I certainly do think that morality is more complex than most people give it credit for, I also think it’s important to remember that it’s not the same thing as Art. I don’t think any genuinely bad person could ever be a great Artist, but I don’t think Art is simply a matter of being the best person in the room. There’s an idea some people have, more so about Poetry than other art forms, of the Artist as the morally superior figure and the Art as the evidence of his or her standing as such. Which would be problematic enough on its own, but becomes even more problematic when it’s combined with this idea of ethics as the mere renouncing of things, the Artist as renunciant: “I won’t engage in this or say that or believe the other because it would involve presuming X or Y…” Even to the point where selfhood, where a definite identity as a mortal in the world, becomes an ethically iffy presumption. Poetry becomes a cataloguing of victimhoods at that point. The Artist is obliged to become another victim, the ultimate victim, even. And I don’t want to do that. If I wanted to become a victim, I’d go back to high school. I think it’s just as acceptably Poetic to respond to victimizing by going out and kicking a little ass as it is to respond by martyring yourself. Maybe you can be an Artist’s Artist by playing that game—like how they talk about a comedian’s comedian—but you can’t be a People’s Artist, and I want to be a People’s Artist. Not populist, necessarily, but at least accessible by and relevant to people who want to do something with Art other than use it as fodder to make more Art. And you say that about Poetry, and people go “Oh, what’s the point? No-one reads poetry.” And maybe that’s true but, you know, what else am I supposed to do, roll over and die?

There are people who want to read Poetry.  There are definitely lots and lots of people who strongly desire to see themselves and be seen by others as someone who reads Poetry.  That may not seem like much, but if you compare it to, say, hockey, it's quite optimistic.  By which I mean that no-one aspires to like hockey.  People who like it, like it, and people who don't, don't.  You never hear anyone get this reverent tone in their voice and go "Oh!  I wish I knew about hockey!"  But you hear that about Poetry all the time.  But then, you have to wonder what the people who talk like that think it means.  Because half the time it turns out to be those people who think that Poetry means you relate some bullshit that happened to you in vertical incomplete sentences and then magically everyone is supposed to care for some reason.  We've all taught people like that, people who get personally insulted by the acknowledgement that there is such a thing as craft.  I don't know why this happens to Poetry.  No-one does this to other genres.  No-one says that pointing a camera at their own face while they talk about some stupid bullshit that happened to them counts as a good movie.  No-one says that chanting into a tape recorder about some stupid bullshit that happened to them is a great song.  No-one says that stick figures reenacting the stupid bullshit is a brilliant painting.  But everyone thinks this about Poetry, and then when we say otherwise we're the Asshole.  You get people bragging that they don't read, and these are the people who are in the Poetry classes.  People in bands don't brag about not listening to music!  What the fuck?!

What you say about "poetry" becoming shorthand for any old thing involving a modicum of skill, that's something I've bitched about often.  People use "poetry" as a compliment to mean that something that isn't Poetry is good, and then when something actually literally is Poetry everyone hates it.  People use "philosophy" the same way.  Some stoner who goes off about whatever is a "philosopher," but then when someone is an actual philosopher no-one cares.  People want things to be a little bit good.  People want people to be a little bit good at something.  Have you ever wondered why there isn't an American Idol for actual bands?  Where they would not only sing but also play instruments and write their own songs?  Because no-one would watch it.  Because then it would be actual artists, instead of a normal person who can do a parlor trick, and that's when everyone gets mad and has to shit on it. 

So, okay, the Culture of Now.  I was actually just thinking about this, and it comes back to comedy again.  I've been thinking about the way the internet has altered the concept of being funny.  Funny now means remembering things.  Referencing things.  It's like, hey, I bet you'd forgotten about this song from the '90s, or this cartoon from the '80s, or this commercial, or this whatever...  Well, I just referenced it!  There, that counts as making a joke.  I wrote that.  I wrote that reminder of something.  Don't you go stealing that from me and reference it on your blog now...  But how do you steal a reference?  How can someone lay claim to the act of remembering something?  It's not even a voluntary process.  And it's our generation that invented that comedy-by-reference stuff, and I feel a kinship with it on a lot of levels, whether it's something to do with our generation specifically or you want to use the word zeitgeist or whatever.  Just look at how often people around our age say the word "random."  Everything's "random."  You even hear it used to describe people, like "oh, he's such a random person."  And even though I felt this happening in our generation before the internet, it's gonna end up connecting to the concept of surfing.  If ever anyone is inclined to actually analyze my work in the future, they'll probably link it to surfing.  To clicking around from one line of the poem to another.  I think that's the effect you were describing two e-mails ago.  But I don't feel like I'm lazy or aimless—I feel like I'm nervous about wanting to get everything in.  It’s a Modernist problem, all this drowning in references, but on the other hand trying to force all of it into a definite identity is a Romantic problem. It’s a quest, a challenge, it’s saying “Okay, screw you, turn on the firehoses of pop-culture crap at full force” but you somehow stay this specific, dynamic individual in spite of all that. My hero has always been Byron—specifically in his long stuff like Childe Harold and Don Juan—and he's very proto this sort of thing, I think.  I remember you once talking about an idea called maximalism, and saying you thought of it while reading Byron's long stuff.  I think that was the first conversation I ever had with you, actually.  We were sitting on someone's car, as I recall.  And I don't think it was either of our cars.  We were walking and just both jumped up on some, well, random person’s car. Speaking of cars, this is also basically what Camille Paglia says about Byron in her chapter on him from Sexual Personae.  She says he's like speeding, like driving really fast across the country with the radio blasting.  She compares him to the Beach Boys.  And, fuck me, there's our surfing again!  Damn. 
JM: Nobody talks about poor old Byron anymore! Though strangely Byron he does have an IMDB page. Actually I remember you and me being in the Fox Head, wrecked a little early after a particularly grueling day, and we were discussing the Romantics, but particularly Endymion and Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” I think, where Keats posited that beauty lives forever and Shelley was like, no, it all turns to dust, even yer perty art stuff. That Shelley-ish focus on temporary art really paved the way for folks like the Situationists and the fleeting one-offs of ‘60s performance and eco-installation artists, works by Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s curtain fences or that spiral jetty thing, stuff that was just meant to be shown for a brief period, interrupted, and then disappeared in every way but in photographs and memory. And so when we spoke that time I was feeling the need to tie down everything, lick my wounds, set my mind straight, regroup, and so I blurted out ‘Maximalism.’

It was never me trying to start up a camp or something. The word was an anchor, a reminder, a kind of positive reinforcement. It was a means to self-forgiveness, to be honest. That is, in poetry, everything is fair game, everything is permissible. And we’ve been dropped in this ocean of life and learn to swim through flailing and floundering, so we have to be able to forgive ourselves when we miss the mark, because the searching actually yields more pleasure and truth than the sum of its measures, what we call life, or the settled end result, which is death. The term Maximalism is a way to remind me not to shy away from the mistakes I’d be making as a writer moving blindly forward in the dark, that the searching is what is interesting, and the shame of unknowing is often counteracted by the shared pleasure of honest intuition you hope to find in reader, the feeling of authenticity when a passage rings true, even when it comes from a voice that is unsure of itself or its place in the world, its value.

Who was it that wrote the book where the alchemic leftovers of poems settled on the bottom of the page? Excess and divergence are cardinal sins in writing, something we get from Flaubert maybe; but that never stopped Whitman. Or Frank O’Hara, who I go to knowing the energy of his poems drive the experience, not ‘what’ but ‘how’, and that in his poems I could end up anywhere at any time. Maximalism is my defense against the naysayer voices in my head. It allows me to use irony, humor, narrative, homonyms, meter, even cynicism, anything, any mask or trope or form, as a legitimate tool in constructing a poem. It allows me to wander into any conversation, from politics to cheeseburgers, and feel like I belong, even when I’m unsure of my footing. To discount a human response we’ve all felt before, like cynicism, as unfit for poetry is ridiculous and immature.

We have, as adults, emotional opposable thumbs, so let’s use them. Cynicism is off-putting because it’s dismissive. Yet in the gentlest of hands it can be present and undercut by the same voice that employs it. Without irony, televised news media would be unwatchable. Same goes for sentimentality. David Foster Wallace once said that all good writing walks the line of sentimentality. This makes sense to me. We all believe we’re special, and have a fondness for our special lives and special selves. It’s natural to want to preserve an idea of irreproducible moments. We contain within us, when triggered, a huge capacity for empathy, and historically a good way to trigger that empathy, that shared understanding with readers, is by detailing the path you took, the good and bad choices made, warts and all, so that your journey becomes theirs. Whether or not art is manipulative by its very nature can be argued. But if it’s not pulling on your heart or your sense of wonder or your naughty bits, it’s probably not very interesting.  

  I understand people’s suspicion of certain poetic forms and architectures as being overtly authoritarian, greedy, or bankrupt, but putting anything on a page and expecting someone to value it beyond the worth of a piece of paper is risky and a bit self-indulgent. And with poetry, as with fiction, you’re beginning from an unreal sort of place. I mean, we make art to make meaning happen. The world isn’t a metaphor for anything. Tension, mystery, an ear for eloquence and dissonance, and a sense of urgency—these are the elements that guide my reading, and if I’m lucky, my writing. Do you know that place where, when you start voicing your mind, you get in a groove and suddenly you’re sounding pedantic or preachy? I feel like I’m butting right up against that point right now, so let’s jump to something else. Why do we do that? It’s like you play connect-the-dots, and then you realize there’s this cool picture you’re making, and then you try to paint the picture, and halfway through you realize the picture is just you pointing your thumbs at yourself wearing this shit-eating grin.   

Not sure why, but lately I’ve been reading lots of interviews with artists, and it makes you feel good to run across your own thoughts in famous-peoples’ mouths. I ran into a Julian Schnabel interview where he was like, to paraphrase, artistic camps are good but to follow them too far limits personal vision, which is more important. When I was young I adopted this weird pseudo-Frostian human-whisperer technique in my writing, like I was some ghost in a cornfield revealing this final curious revelation to you the reader, a last bit of wisdom imparted before an uneventful death. You know? And everyone around me was writing that kind of poem; we fed off each other. It’s not that that type of poem is totally bankrupt, but it did start to feel like a layover between pertinent destinations for me. I had been afraid to include the joys and panic of the super-saturated, emotive, stimulating world I was actually living in, because—and how lame is this?—those things just didn’t feel poetic to me at the time. You could write about anything, but the writing should be purely meditative, tranquil. Looking back, I came off as sounding tranquilized. The work was controlled, trite, habitual—poetry as a ritual not of spirit but of hopeful occupation. Or worse, hopeful vocation.

That’s being a bit rough, I suppose. But I began to see the importance in distinguishing between poetry that reinforces camp-logic past its primal sense of discovery and poetry that seeks its own end via experimentation and a sense of wonder. Pound and Duchamp were smart enough to erect and kill their own invented camps in almost the same breath. For me, the poet’s greatest asset is curiosity. Galvin said another thing that stuck with me, something Bob Hass later reiterated in a different form, and it was that the only time you don’t change your mind is when you’re dead. In essence, the brain works from a naturally destabilized place and tries to parse out and make sense of what it means to be human at every moment. This creates psychic instances we bundle together and call personal identity, which is ever-shifting. A poem has to attempt to engage the world the same way. Poetry lies not in stating a math problem and solving it, but in value the searching, in the discovery of truths through curious linkages and sounds. I’ve always felt that I’ll never be as smart as some people, but hopefully I’m more curious than most. (Shit-eating grin).   

Back to the interviews. I just read one where David Shapiro identifies with poems that jump from one tempo to the next, in the same poem. I dig that. If you haven’t read the Paris Review interview with Blaise Cendrars, google it right now! It’s fantastic in so many respects. He basically says writing is a curse, but counters by saying humanity lives in its fictions, so not only is poetry important, it’s imperative! I’m piecing through his collected poems now. I’m going back in time. I’m reading Jules Laforgue, who’s an exploding starry dynamo and funny to boot. I’m rereading Donne. I’m always up for O’Hara and the New Schoolers in the way I’m always up for Roethke, Denis Johnson, Eliot, Merwin, Berryman, James Wright, Jorie Graham, Faulkner, Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. These are writers who value the mystery of language as much as they value the mystery of the human heart.

DeLillo actually sent me a really nice note about Autobiomythography. I got it in the mail and was like holy shit! because he’s one of my all-time favorite writers, right? Funny story, the note was on a card inside an envelope, and I was reading the card and actually threw away the envelope outside my apartment, as I was in a hurry to get somewhere, and halfway through my coffee down the street I finally made out the signature and ran back and went dumpster diving for the thing, and it was in this city trash can right out in front of a large-windowed restaurant during lunch hour. It was sad sight.

Anyhow—the haiku of Issa kills me; very quick, sometimes very biting, and yes, even cynical at times. Check out the last poem he wrote before he died. Or the one about sea slugs not seeming Japanese enough. As far as contemporary poets go, I love parts of everything I read. I’m liking what I see from younger poets like Ben Lerner and Matthea Harvey. I got a chance to meet Joanna Fuhrman, whose stuff I like, last week at a reading here in NYC, which was cool. There are just so many good poets. We live in a Renaissance. It’s rare that I get to actually hang out with poets so much. We’re a weird breed—if we’re not huddled around each other, we tend to slide along in totally varying circles. I don’t teach anymore, and I don’t attend many readings; I like the poem on the page, and poetry readers can often lack bigtime in the performance department. Here and there I’ll bump into someone and we’ll talk. Right now we’re coming off the Obama election and enduring a disastrous financial crisis, so conversation tends to revolve around these things rather than poetry. Though I’m feeling drained by that as well. The onslaught of sterilized talking points and sound bites in politics lately have left me feeling manhandled.   

Luckily I have my writing and the independent press and the art gallery to help keep me busy and thinking. It sometimes feels like I have no business doing any of these things; each terrifies me to no end. I applaud anyone starting a small press; it’s a real lesson in humility. Mad props to the DIY crowd—all the modern dancers who start their own companies, the artists opening their studio galleries, the indie filmmakers, Dave Eggers for demonstrating once again (it happens every generation, all the way back from John Milton up through Poe and Twain and Franklin, Whitman and Thoreau, Pound, Hemingway, Stein, Eliot, Ferlinghetti, Ted Berrigan and D. A. Levy, etc) that self-publishing doesn’t equate to shit. Every other artistic form praises people who take matters into their own hands, every one but Big L literature.

Our vetting process tends to be more severe, on the surface. I think we’ll see that change for good over the next decade. I hit blogs nowadays where the journalists seem ten times more knowledgeable than the columnists you find in mass publications. The difference used to be a paid editor, a gatekeeper, but if you work in publishing now, in any format, you realize that editors aren’t the Maxwell Perkins types they used to be. For a good number of them, it’s just another job. This isn’t me bashing big publishing houses; it’s me commenting on time and money. Small presses and blogs value both as a matter of survival and as a labor of love. If you don’t love it, you won’t spend the money on it. I definitely think we’ll see more online books, e-books, small print runs and self-published books. People are tired of paying thirty bucks to come fifth place in every contest, where only one out of a thousand gets published. I think the best way to go about this is to find a group of people whose work you enjoy and you all go in on a press together as a cooperative. Make each of you the editors and publicists and writers, then branch out and pull in submissions. Alice James Books used to have its published poets become partial editors for the next group of manuscripts they received; I’m not sure if they still do this, but I liked their idea.

Truthfully, I love doing everything myself, but it can get tough. Luckily I got some good advice early from several sources: Ethan Paquin from Slope Editions gave me my first real boost. Then James Cox, the tireless editor of Midwest Book Review, laid down the law and offered his help. Check out the Midwest Review online for everything you need if you plan on starting a small press. Stephen Motika of the Poetry Project and Nightboat Books gave me some valuable pointers as well, and Jon Beacham at the Hermitage in Beacon, NY can teach anyone a thing or two about the value of obsession with labors of love. As a first-time publisher, you learn a lot really quickly, like how wickedly terrible printers can be, in service and in failed promises. And how InDesign and Photoshop carry a raw human hatred for each other. They suck up computer memory until the other one just gives up and dies. I’m also a co-owner of Go North Gallery up in Beacon, near the DIA Museum, right there on the Hudson. I curate about three shows a year, and I’ve found curatorial work to be a great way to investigate different art forms, and an even better way to get out of one’s own head and into a broader space. I also put in time at Housing Works, a local volunteer bookstore whose proceeds help people who are homeless with HIV/AIDS find shelter and care. When I’m not doing that I’m writing, which requires a lot of time. I have to keep busy. If not, I get antsy and depressed very quickly. My wife Wendy helps keep me going. She is the hardest working person I know. At the end of the day she’s still up for anything, so complaining to her makes me feel like a spoiled ass.   

I think the last thing I’d like to talk about, as an aside, because interviews are just asides by nature and nobody reads them unless they know you or you’re famous, is that craft is just an articulation of form, or better, a perceived polished adherence to formal restrictions or subjective limitations. Beat Poetry’s first-thought-best-thought and certain haiku and automatic writing may seek to dispose of or regulate self-editing, but the point there is that the mind already knows itself, has already crafted this human being and also the voice of nature it emits—so bang, I’m art already, here’s the proof. There are many instances of modern dance and painting that adhere to these notions. I’m of the mind that the single-bullet ‘I write, you get it’ is false, as proved by advertising methods—poetry as an art form requires attention fueled by a sense of mystery and misunderstanding. A poem shouldn’t be fully consumable at first read; it should invite a reader into an experience and be mysterious enough for a reader to have to live in it for a while.

We do this with music all the time. It can be the Beatles or Sleater-Kinney or Beethoven. The same music listened to over again reveals a modulation in nuance, tugs at the mystery. That’s why haiku is one of the hardest forms to write in; if that initial spark of lightning doesn’t set fire to a whole forest, it dies on the page. Even the most straightforward poem should exude this mystery if it’s to last in the reader’s mind. We’re social creatures. We like flexibility. This speaks to my own interests; I like the seeker poem rather than the knower poem. The knower imparts wisdom or celebrated doctrine. The seeker provides excursions of imagination, with curiosity as the starting point. Think Hugo’s “Triggering Town,” or fucking Donald Justice’s essay on the sublime, have you read that? “The Prose Sublime; Or, the Deep Sense of Things Belonging Together, Inexplicably.”

Basically he states that sentences following one another in a paragraph (read lines in a stanza, too, or even word to word) have just enough to do with each another to fool the reader into believing time is passing and ideas are taking shape and before their eyes characters are coming into being. Upon closer inspection one realizes these sentences have almost nothing to do with each other. “I went down the block. Jane was standing on the corner.” Nothing to do with one another except in close context, in the juxtaposition. We’re hardwired to make meaning. Put any two words together and you have a universe of referential data. You can take this theory anywhere, even back to the films of Man Ray or Salvador Dali. All artists should be introduced to Justice’s essay at an early age. Just like they should be asked to read Thomas Pynchon’s preface to his short stories and Camus’s “Create Dangerously.” If for nothing else than for a sense of the value and importance of artistic risk-taking.   

Okay Chris, wrap it up for us. Give me the rundown on what’s been bouncing off your brainpan lately. Talk into the breeze.
COC: Okay, well, what occurred to me today is that I don’t put on music often enough. When I’m in other people’s houses or apartments I always feel this deep pain about how their place is so much cooler than mine, as if their apartment is, like, the incarnation of people in scarves kicking leaves around on a college campus in the perfect amount of sunlight, and mine is just this bullshit hole where all my stupid stuff is, and I think that’s because other people just have music on, and I don’t. And the reason I don’t is that I like music too much, so I tend to only put it on when I can afford to do nothing else at the same time but just sit there and listen to it, which of course I never can. And I need to give myself permission to put it on even though I’m doing something else at the same time. I need to realize that I’m not going to get in trouble with the music for doing that. And I’m glad I responded honestly off the top of my head like that, because it gave me a door into which bit in your last e-mail to respond to first, because what I just said about music is kind of, I think, related to why the stuff you said about the publishing industry scares me. You were talking about how we need to destigmatize self-publishing, and I got embarrassed during all that because, frankly, I’m scared to. I realize it makes me horribly uncool, but the fact is that I really crave the approval of the grown-ups. Logically, I understand your argument, and you’re right, and you don’t need to throw all the stories at me, but emotionally I am terrified of what the new technology means for publishing and for literature. Aren’t you, on any level? Have you really looked on the web? I realize that the lit game could get a lot more democratized without risking turning into 15-year-old MySpace Goth Poetry or whatever, but still, I fear a literature wholly free of the grown-ups, even though I know that all my heroes were opposed by the grown-ups of their day. It’s illogical, and callow, and the thing I like least about myself. I think it’s because I feel like to succeed in a democratized poetics I would have to be cool, and I know I’m not. Historically, I’m a lot better at making grown-ups like me than I am at being cool. And yet all I would need to do to be cool is let go of that very fear. Or maybe not, and you just do what you do, which I take to be the point of my favorite Issa haiku, the one about the guy with the radishes.

And I probably wouldn’t have just admitted all that if not for what you were saying about Maximalism. Art as a series of tangents, of fuckups even. Someone wrote about how the other Romantics were about birth and death over and over, but Byron was about being born once, changing a lot, and dying once. And that’s honesty, and that’s rock and roll. You remember how the tangent is the central device of Catcher in the Rye? Well, if Byron hadn’t been born into the nobility, he’d basically have been Holden Caulfield. And James Joyce had a ton of secret schematic stuff based on Byron too, so there you’ve got the greatest 20th century popular novel and the greatest 20th century high-art novel both directly descended from Byron. What’s funny is that Byron, the quintessential Romantic, was actually a Modernist, and Joyce, the quintessential Modernist, was actually a Romantic. And then they ran out of names for schools and Salinger came along with Catcher and people were like “Holy Shit! It’s a normal person!” And the whole point was that he’s not a normal person. Or something. Sometimes I think I would have made a pretty good normal person. I get really scared on Sunday nights. I’ve heard that’s normal.

What Bob told you about changing your mind reminds me of something he told me about schools. About trends. I was worried about how what I was doing was not at all what the others in the class were doing, and he said “Well, people thought there were trends in the 1860s too, but it turns out the only trend was that Emily Dickinson got up in the morning.” I could probably use that advice to help me be less afraid of separating myself from the game. You know, it’s weird that we’re both talking about being such rebels, but here we are reverently relating all these nuggets of wisdom we’ve received from the most established poets. And there’s no reason we wouldn’t be, because all the people we’re mentioning are absolutely fantastic. But that makes me wonder, who are we rebelling against? I think we must be rebelling against other people our own age, because we both love all our teachers. Is that strange? Maybe not in Poetry. Or maybe not in art in general. I think probably in their heads most artists aren’t rebelling against the past so much as they’re fighting to keep what they see as the unbroken, logical progress of the art they love from being hijacked and fucked up by the people from their own generation who don’t get it like they do. But then future observers aren’t comparing the work of a generation’s winners to that same generation’s losers, because the losers lost so their work isn’t around, so the critics in the future have to talk about how each generation rebelled against or corrected the art of the generation before it, because it’s the only thing they can talk about. But really, in their hearts, probably most artists aren’t rebelling against the past, but rather they’re trying to imitate it but are just bad at it. Luckily for them, I guess, or us if we turn out to be them.

They say Poetry is written for the future. And then the future takes that Poetry as the essence of the generation of the artist that produced it. And yet Poets are probably less like everybody else than anybody. We are so frequently actively writing against our generations, sweeping our contemporaries under the rug of time, as it were, because we don’t want to be embarrassed in front of the future. And then we end up being forever taken to symbolize all these people we hated. Or maybe we don’t really hate them. Or we only hate them with our wills, but not with who and what we are, and the latter ends up being more important. Keats certainly thought so, anyway. Of course, he got in a few good rank-outs in his letters, just like anybody. I certainly think it’s been good for me to split myself into two personalities, and I get to put my will into the political stuff I do for The1585.com and only who and what I am into the poems. I have no idea which is better, or which is literature, and certainly no idea which is more me. Hell, who was Shakespeare, Hamlet or Falstaff? Or even Iago? Man, that was such an advantage. Characters. How funny is that? Everyone talks about Poetry as this deeply personal art form, as the manifestation of personal emotion, the most personal thing in the world, and here the greatest Poet of all time never spoke as himself. It’s like, did no-one ever notice that?

You know what would be unbelievably hilarious? If someday someone found some lost notebook of Emily Dickinson’s, and it had a bunch of character names in it, and a key to which characters were speaking which poems. And we’d be going through these 1,775 poems and separating them all into speeches by, like, 42 characters or something. And then future editions of her would begin “For over one hundred years people thought she was nuts, but then it turned out she was playing a bunch of characters.” Think what that would do to Poetry. Or to America. It might fix or ruin both. It would be nice if it fixed America. But they probably won’t find a notebook like that, so I’ve decided I’m going to fix America. Right after I start remembering to put music on in my apartment even though I can’t devote my full attention to it, and after I stop being afraid to wear my glasses to the grocery store because I might get into a fight, I’m going to fix America.

And I guess I’ll close by saying that I think you’re a bit off about Shelley. The ostensible purpose of the art fades, but not the knowledge that the artist was talented. In “Ozymandias” the king is dead and the city is gone and the statue is in pieces, but even the cracked face is enough for people to tell that the sculptor was talented, and that becomes the point. That, and the fact that people can still use that idea to connect with each other, which is, I now think, even though I never got this before, why Shelley wastes the first fourteen syllables telling us that the rest of the poem is a quote from somebody. It’s important that the message is being communicated from one person to another in the poem, not just from the poet to the reader. I think for Shelley, alone among the big Romantics, people really were more important than art. I think that’s what Yeats found in him. At least at first, but Yeats lived to be a lot older than Shelley, and so he got to the point where he thought people were overrated. There’s no telling whether Shelley would have. But it does seem like it’s a lot easier to believe that people should just run around being people and everything else just gets in the way when you’re young. When you’re old nobody wants you at the orgy anymore. And the human race will never know which thing, youth or age, is the illusion.








Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761