APRIL 10, 2010
SHIRA RICHMAN & AMANDA MAULE
A TALK WITH PRAGEETA SHARMA
Photo Credit: poetryfoundation.org
Prageeta Sharma is the Director of the MFA program at the University of Montana and author of three poetry collections, Bliss to Fill, The Opening Question, and Infamous Landscapes. When asked about a guiding notion for The Opening Question, she answered, “I started with the idea of a kind of unabashed confrontation with disappointment and worked towards a way of reeling it in with a hopeful lyrical edge.” Her work takes on topics to which many may have aversions – philosophy and feminism – with humor and insight as seen in poems such as “Everywhere:”
I was crafting crafts, I had needles, I was sewing butterflies
like women do – but only in terms of thoughts,
not in terms of doing. Or I thought, alas,
lightness is part of the commune of despair.
The scene of a woman doing needlework becomes increasingly strange when we realize she is embroidering thoughts. The thoughts open passageways that lead into communes in which despair surprises with its lightness.
Poems, Sharma asserts, are “places in which you can actually take ideas on, and figure out how they can be inhabited.” Her poems, Major Jackson writes, reveal “’the posture of the life of the mind.’ ascending, where humor is unabashedly handsome and an enormous intellect alluring even to the most cynical pedestrian.” While Jackson points out the ascendant movement of Sharma’s poems, Lisa Jarno talers us to their transcendence: “Prageeta Sharma’s poems are as ever imbued with a crafty playfulness by which the appearances of the ‘I,’ the ‘You,’ and the ‘We’ transcend tricks of the trade.” Thomas Sayers Ellis also notes the expansiveness and profundity of Sharma’s poems that, as he puts it, “seem to live everywhere we’ve lived without wallowing in identity or judgment.”
Sharma was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, to Hindu parents. “Being raised a Hindu,” she says, “I was taught to honor knowledge and books like a religion and so for me poetry keeps this relationship close, true, active.” She earned an MFA at Brown University in 1995 and an MA in media studies at the New School in 2001. In 2010 she received a Howard Foundation Grant. We met with her at the Hyatt in Denver during the Association of Writing Programs Conference where we discussed escaping the institution, poets are creative consultants, and limits of the image.
Your poetry addresses feminism in a playful, humorous way. Does humor feel like a way to be taken seriously when discussing feminism?
I always felt like I had this split personality culturally – I was very quiet, but in my poetry I felt conscious of what a dramatic voice and a dramatic “I” sounded like. It felt melodramatic to me at times. I wanted to construct a voice that was closest to my personality in speaking, in the way that Frank O’Hara had that kind of conversational tone or Kenneth Koch. It was natural to think about a feminine voice that could be conversational and informal, or intimate in ways that weren’t exaggerating the terms of intimacy, but were playful. It is a kind of feminist position to feel comfortable with your voice and engage the reader without putting on airs or trying to construct an over-determined identity for the poem.
When I was beginning to write, a lot of Indian poets were educating the reader about their identity. I wanted to present my personality rather than educate the reader. I’m interested in how we can be, not our best self, but our quirkiest self in the poem, because we have to be this other self all the time. Our artistic self, or the need to be an individual, should be in the poem. That’s a feminist act: to not be one-dimensional in the poem. But I do think a lot of Indian women, culturally, are set up to not have anything to say – except to explain, or to mediate, or to be a messenger of something “more important” than their inner lives.
Such as what?
When I went to grad school – I graduated in 1995 – there was a lot of “salvation” fiction about the first-generation immigrants and immigrant experience. The subject matter was also very domestic, and I was sort of rallying against that passive “I,” where the character was examined through an omniscient narrator reporting on the culture the characters were immersed in, but never having an opinion about it. You were basically writing for a white reader, who would learn about your culture through you. You were learning nothing about it. You were just putting it on display.
I didn’t want to create poems that merely educated the non-Indian reader. I wanted poems where thinking was happening, because that was a canonical thing. Helen Vendler would talk about the thinking that was happening in, say, Keats – and I’m actually not trying to align myself with “great poets,” but it became this real whiteness – that writing was cerebral thinking, and if you were a person of color, you were telling your story or you were writing the narrative. You were educating people around you instead of actually thinking in the poem, too. It’s important to explore the variety of cognitive experiences in the poem rather than just telling a story.
Where do you see that thinking happening, or what kind of thinking are you doing in your poetry?
I don’t know if it’s evident in the progression of the books – this is just something I’ve always returned to – but I like thinking of the poem as that place to speak about theory without it being academic. Artists are developing their theories about the world, and we do that in a poem. We don’t have to do it in an essay. That’s the kind of thinking I hope I’m doing. All the stuff that you can’t do anywhere else.
In all three books, I have poems where I’m proposing ideas, a personal philosophy that I think is lofty in an absurd way, but where it’s fun to be absurd with thought. I think a lot of German philosophy is lofty, and a lot of Hindu is more general – you know, general audience ideas. So I wanted to explore places where you could have extravagant thinking without having it fixed to one movement or another. I think men do this all the time. And going back to humor, when women explore humor, sometimes it’s sort of slapstick or jokey, and that can be awkward. But there are so many male poets who are funny in their poems, like Kenneth Koch.
I think women are funnier.
Women are funnier. I’m just wondering if it’s as much in the poem as in the way we interact and engage. But we may be funny when we’re making points when we’re remarking on something that’s unfair. We can be slightly snide and funny. Are we using the poem as a place to enjoy our playfulness? We are now, I think. A lot more poets are. Arielle Greenberg is, I think. And Matthea Harvey, in the way in which her humor is felt through abstraction and character. There’s that playfulness to the poems. I think her second book, Sad Little Breathing Machine, does that. She has nouns and objects stand in for people. I think there’s a lovely quality in the strangeness of the humor there.
Among South Asian poets, I think there are a few male poets who explore craft and wit, really think of it formally, but I’m wondering if there’s still not more of that playfulness that could be found. In terms of gender, I’m not sure if we’re still fixed with the kind of confessional “I.” Or when we experiment, do we just extract language from the narrative and not necessarily put our personality in there? I don’t know where we are with humor in terms of cultural identity. But in terms of gender, a lot of women are playing; they just don’t want to be too slapstick. There’s a particular poet who I’m not going to mention, who may be just a little too funny. Then you’re like, Ugh, I don’t want that. I don’t want to be a comic. So there’s the risk, I think. A lot of men can be comedic and even use one-liners, and it’s okay. They just take that kind of space.
I’m having trouble thinking of funny male poets. You mentioned Kenneth Koch.
Kenneth Koch I really love. And Tony Hoagland.
Dean Young can be funny, too.
Yeah. And people have said they see connections between what I do and Dean Young’s work, structurally. I like his work. I haven’t thought about it in relation to my work, but I certainly know he was publishing when I was younger, and his poems were playful and exploratory. Structurally, they had a voice that was working against some perceived notion of the poem he was undoing. That’s something I like to do. If there’s a rule, I want to play with it.
One of the funny poems of yours is “After the Weekend with Geniuses.” The fiction writers are the geniuses who are full of pages, and the poets are the warriors and false gardeners who end up languishing on the lawn like love-starved lawn ornaments. Are poets lazy and ornamental? How are fiction writers different?
I spent a weekend with a bunch of fiction writers and we were helping Heather McGowan, a fiction writer, think about her first run of edits on her novel, which was experimental. Whenever we talked about it, I would say, “You know, if it were a poem, you could just do this and you wouldn’t have to do those fifty things.” But it was never helpful because she couldn’t just do this. So I thought, “We’re so extravagant, poets. We can just do this little thing and then lounge about and not do any more.” With the poem, you have a lot of autonomy I don’t think you have as a prose writer. We poets have more autonomy to be ourselves. That’s extravagant, I think.
Dean Young has surreal tendencies. Do you see a relationship to surrealism in your work?
My undergraduate study was really formal, and I learned a lot about modern and contemporary poetry – the canonical lens – and then went on to Brown, which was an experimental program. There was a new or different, alternative cannon: Stein and O’Hara and Ashbery. And realizing you could read Eliot and Pound and go one way, or read Eliot and Pound and go the other way. You could go to Lowell or you could go to Olson in your thinking. That was really new to me to think that – Oh, there are open parentheticals, or, Oh, language, words can stand in for other words. You don’t need a simile here; we don’t need to do this with craft.
Then I moved to New York and realized that the poets who seemed to have the most fun, in general, were having fun on the page and having fun in their lives. It spoke to me that I could play in the poem, and I could find surrealism. I think there are some poems trying some surrealism….
But I guess, more, it’s imagination – really figuring out where you want your imagination to be. I think it would be easy to say that I’m surrealist, but I don’t think I am. I don’t think it’s a structure I try on. I just like pairing certain ideas. I like being contrary, so a poem is set up to sort of contradict itself. Just as we go from one thought to another, the poem invites another idea. I don’t think I’m as experimental at all. I’m that square peg in a round hole. I’m not sure what makes the poems so different from somebody else’s in terms of contemporary, nontraditional poems – if we call narrative traditional. But I don’t know if we’re doing that anymore.
I do like some surrealism, but after a certain point I get tired of a poem being purely nonsensical, in the sense that I don’t need meta-symbolism for the poem. Tate does an American surrealist thing where suddenly you step back – I forget which poem it is, but he’s talking about a daughter marrying a prince. After a certain point, you realize the absurdity of this father-daughter relationship and where it goes, and it’s quite metaphorical but it’s also absurd, and you understand that the essential part of the poem is that father-daughter relationship can be estranged in such complicated ways that you might not be able to talk about them directly. I love Tate because the surrealism provides a way to talk about complicated relationships. The surrealism serves a philosophical purpose, makes room to talk about something. I think Dean Young does that, too. I think American surrealism, if that is indeed the right term, does something that the metaphor isn’t always able to do.
In some of your more recent work, you put the urban into a wild setting, such as being mugged in a river. What sorts of things do you do to ground or un-ground your imagination?
I don’t know how I ground myself. I do feel like an outsider in ways in the West. I used to feel like an outsider in suburbia, growing up with no other Indians around me. I can really go to places where things are invented for me. There are social norms I have to explore. I try to create high stakes around some questions, and then my imagination takes over. I position myself in a place where I have to explain myself, and the terms that I’ve set for myself are both real and imaginary. For example, Homi Bhabha, the theorist, talked a lot about – I’m going to butcher this because it’s been a long time since I’ve read the essay – but he talks about how colonized people will mimic the colonizer. That’s a very interesting power dynamic. He has this beautiful line where he says, to paraphrase here, Mimicry represents ironic compromise, not always representationally but even in the language, then I was somehow enacting a theory that felt very close to me, which was about power relationships.
You seem to write a lot about ideas – your ideas about ideas, and what triggers a viewpoint.
Theory is interesting to me. I’m naïve and excited about it at the same time. Poems seem to be places in which you can actually take ideas, and figure out how they can be inhabited.
Do you think that’s a common view? I’ve heard that ideas are for essays and images are for poems?
I can’t stand rules like that. After a certain point, you have to have the strength and character and belief to be a writer. Images aren’t going to save you from yourself. Beyond craft issues, you have to start wrestling with why you are who you are. Your poems are going to have to save you. If you think about great poets, they’re always doing something new. If we talk about anyone who’s doing something interesting, we’re not talking about how they follow the rules.
I’m teaching an insider and an outsider class where we read poets inside and outside canon. I think what’s hardest for all of us is to say what makes us uncomfortable. When do we think the poet is getting away with something? Why is that so disturbing? When do we think correcting them is appropriate? What are the problems with over-determining the body of work by any given poet and its significance? Sometimes I just want to stop being in the institution and say, Well, what is the real pleasure here, and what’s the pleasure you’ve been taught to experience in the poem. Un-schooling may allow you to write something different.
What would it take to escape the institution?
I don’t know if anyone can escape. In grad school, our professor, William Keach, asked my friend what he was doing for the summer, and he was like, “Oh Professor Keach, I don’t even want to tell you, you’re a Socialist/Marxist.” And he said, “No, I want to know what you’re doing for the summer.” My friend said, “I’m working for Citibank,” and Keach said, “We’re all working for Citibank.”
In essence, we live in the institution. I think I make fun of being in an institution because I work in an MFA program. There are things that naturally happen in that environment. But I think it’s funny to think more ironically about it being an intentional community and that we all agree to be a certain way and do certain things and push against certain things. It seems people don’t generally like work that’s far from the institution. “Language” poetry’s been co-opted by the academy, but people don’t know what to do with spoken word. People see a lot of outsider poetry as being written by someone not knowing, not reading, or not understanding literary traditions. It’s interesting to thing about what inside and outside mean.
I try to introduce my students to poets who either write outside the academy or don’t consider their poetry identity to be their primary identity – you can have a multi-functional, professional identity. Ofelia Zepeda is a linguist at the University of Arizona, and she’s a poet. What she’s don’t for Tohono O’odham culture – she’s been preserving Tohono O’odham language for Native communities – has been primary and has served her poetry, and her poetry enacts it. I think it’s interesting when you have certain ideas and your work enacts them, so that you’re engaged in how your work does something maybe larger socially.
I think that goes back to how I want South Asians to feel good about how complicated they are. Rather than trying to please the reader or aim for certain success, they can fail. So much immigrant culture is based around this idea of needing to be successful, so usually you don’t choose to be a poet because it’s not a choice that can pay the bills or that can make your family proud of you. In some Indian communities, it’s fin to be an intellectual. But being a poet is kind of scary because it’s creative.
I’m interested in communities where people do explore the difficult: being a poet, writing about things that aren’t cool to write about. I think if you’re only success driven, your art will fail.
Could you give more examples of outsider poets you’re teaching?
We’ve read Amiri Baraka; his earlier work as LeRoi Jones is so popular. People love how he writes about influences – the Beats, Black Mountain, Olson, Pound, Eliot – in ways that re-center him around racial discourse. He’s not that confrontational in the earlier work, but the more confrontational he gets, the more uncomfortable the white reader is with Baraka.
I found I was in this non-place where I didn’t feel threatened by the work at all. I was interested in the politics, and I’m interested in what the work tries on. I’m trying to explore what it’s like to be a white reader reading work that’s confrontational, having never occupied that space where I’m confronted as the person employing the power. It’s interesting when you’re both inside and outside, and I’m trying to get my students to figure out how their identity is complex but not generalized. They love the canonical work. I taught Jorie Graham’s first book so we could talk about a first book that propelled someone into the canon. They can identify all those moves in Graham. They can very much imitate Graham. But imitating Baraka is hard for them. If we go back to Homi Bhabha’s ideas of mimicry and ironic compromise, maybe they’re not experiencing enough of that compromise in the poem.
I’m also teaching an Indian poet, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, who’s a cognitive scientist. She writes out of the model where there are some strange narrative turns in the poems that you don’t expect. We’re reading Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Claudia is Jamaican, so she looks at her identity as it relates to being in America, but she also has other ideas of lineage – that’s the thing I’ve really been trying to get my students to thing about. What if they could construct this imaginary lineage that they come out of? What would it be? Would it culturally represent just one thing? What does that mean, to be a contemporary poet writing out of one kind of lineage? Some poets aren’t writing out of just one lineage.
Some of my students – especially at the undergraduate level – are like, “We don’t have a lineage, and we don’t know what you mean by that.” I have to ask them, “Do you want to have a lineage, or do you want to figure out the places you’re writing from? Wouldn’t it be nice to think of it as a lineage, or is it that a cultural thing – that I would want a lineage?” Because in Indian culture, you really love the idea of mentoring, passing down wisdom. I always loved that idea that I had a lineage.
In talking about feminism, maybe you can have a feminist lineage and thing of women you write out of. I’m always thinking: What do we do with class now? or What did Sharon Olds offer or Anne Sexton? I don’t really like Sexton’s work that much, but she was a big outsider poet in a lot of ways. She was a sort of strange housewife in therapy in Newton, Massachusetts – I’m from Framingham, Massachusetts – so I always thought, God it’s funny to think of her getting on the subway and going to Cambridge and taking a workshop and having her therapist. That was very outside.
Speaking of lineage, it’s been said that in Infamous Landscapes you are responding to Wordsworth and a landscape “cast in hysterics.” Can you talk about this?
I see Wordsworth as naïve and lofty and I thought of what the feminine equivalent of that would be. So I thought, I want to try hysteria. I’m interested in the individual and the sublime and how you have the landscape stand for certain emotional intensity and registers. I wanted to reposition that kind of loftiness in a feminine voice and see what it would look like. But then, I also like George Oppen and Barbara Guest, so those three influences, if you put them together, would feel closest to the work in that book.
I wanted to replace a kind of innocence or idealism with more of a hysteria. I say “hysteria” but I don’t mean that the woman is always cast as hysterical. I just like taking up space in ways that confront the masculine poetic authority. What do we have for poetic authority for women? We can be kind of dramatic and insistent upon certain ideas, but we can also be confrontational.
Somehow we haven’t managed to assume the same kind of, even, romantic poetic authority. It’s very hard to figure out, so I was just trying to assume poetic authority in ways that would mirror or counteract it in romantic work. I mean, Byron has so much poetic authority, and yet he’s transgressive. You know, we’re always hearing how bad Byron is, like, “He’s having way too much fun.” I mean, they all did.
Wordsworth is kind of the most naïve – I say naïve because the poetic authority is always that wandering and speculation – but you don’t really know where you’ve arrived at the end of Wordsworth. I was thinking of inhabiting that romantic space, but enriching it with a more feminine sensibility, rather than a childish one, or a naïve one.
Where do we find poetic authority? Or does it just happen and we look back on it and say, “There it was.”
I think we are steeped in the poetic authority of the 18th and 19th centuries, and we have it in the 20th century, too – I guess Lowell had poetic authority – but I’m thinking of Eliot and Pound. I always felt really uncomfortable with male poetic authority because I felt that it was a way to flex knowledge. It was like saying, “Okay, pack the poem with everything you know.” And if it didn’t have that, such as in Lowell’s later work that’s more confessional, then it becomes, “I’m a wealthy man who can’t bear it.”
I started to connect to this poetic authority with craft, so that you have to set up the stage, your poem has to have placement, the voice has to be determined, and you have to figure out if your images are really serving what they’re supposed to serve. When you away from tradition, what are you doing it for? Are you turning away from poetic authority or are you reconstructing a kind of authority that has been ignored or has not been engaged with? I think you can do it formally or informally. People always talk about Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott: what Brathwaite does informally, Walcott does formally. You know, Omeros is an amazing book for what Walcott does with Homer. So, wow! That’s an incredible shift in poetic authority.
I’m thinking about whether authority comes out of craft or if it comes out of the space to do what the poem needs to do. Historically, I think it came out of white men who believed in the tradition. I think I’m always trying to deconstruct the tradition, to figure out if you can have authority after that. But I know that I have a lofty authority in my poems to try all this out.
If my name was Prageeta I would want to put it in a poem, and you’ve done that. How does this affect the relationship between the poem and the reader?
I like to be self-mocking in the poem and I like to have the reader understand that certain truths are constructed but that I am still trying to play with the seriousness. So we have the “I” as the ultimate authority, but what if you put your name in the poem? What does it do to the “I?” Or what does it do when I’m writing in the third person and I refer to myself as the third person? It’s obnoxious in one sense, but it can also allow the poem to have a natural remove: I am removed in some way from the authority of the “I.” I’m playing with that.
I apologize a lot, and I am interested in how we have certain gestures that are constructed culturally in terms of gender, and how we play with our diminutive self. I try to position myself in these powerless places that are my most vulnerable powerless places, and then play with that. Or, when the reader is instructed or spoken to, it creates an intimacy in the text. It’s almost a reaching out or an invitation. I like trying to break down the spaces of reader and speaker so that there’s an intimacy that maybe the speaker doesn’t always have.
I see that breaking down of the space between reader and speaker in Bliss to Fill. The whole first section is called “Dear _______.”
Yeah, I’m interested in the lyric in that book. In that epistolary form, that heartfelt engagement, I really am trying to speak to the reader as a friend, or as all sorts of manifestation. I wrote that in New York my first couple of years there, steeped in a fabulous writing community.
A lot of poems in The Opening Question were my graduate manuscripts that were reformulated with additional work. So, Bliss to Fill was my second manuscript. I knew it could be freer because Subpress Collective was a really generous project. So I could enjoy all of the vulnerability of O’Hara’s lines. That was really an exciting time to think about the immediacy of the poem. I don’t know if my poems now are as focused on that immediacy of the poem. I don’t know if my poems now are as focused on that immediacy as they were in Bliss to Fill. There is a certain rawness to that book that would be hard to recreate.
Poetry allows us so much freedom and intimacy and the ability to lounge out on the lawn. What is the biggest challenge of poetry?
Our challenge is that we allow ourselves to exist outside the economy. That’s why we get a lot of freedom. It’s very political and very interesting and if people could sit comfortably with that, they’d feel more empowered.
Value, worth, and money come up a lot in your work.
I’m lucky in that I have a good job. Before I took this job, I worked a lot of different jobs in New York and I had the same questions with each: “Okay, who is the person I’m working for?” Or, “How’s this environment going to help me be creative, help me believe in a lifestyle, and help me take care of people whom I love?”
I worked for a famous artist who made a lot of money. He taught me essential things about being an artist that were not about the work. And so I realized, The work is private – you do it, you believe in it – but you have to make smart decisions about who you are outside your work. You have to deal with money. You have to know how to. This artist taught me how to insure things. I learned that poets should be collecting art and figuring out how to have assets that are non-traditional. Poets should be immersed in their culture, the culture being produced around them, and engaged with it. And to really live in your mind by being shrewd – don’t think that just because you’re a poet you can’t figure out how things work around you.
I am really interested in money. I don’t know if it’s because I’m first generation American born and my parents are immigrants; they came here from India with 200 dollars. They’ve done well, they’ve struggled, and they’ve experienced a lot of racism and a lot of discrimination. I have, too. I don’t have the luxury of not thinking about money, but I also really love what poetry offers me in terms of my identity.
At a meeting yesterday, I was joking and everyone went silent. I said, “Well, you know, we may not be able to promise our students lucrative careers, but they won’t have a midlife crisis.” I think we’re providing them an inner life, which actually keeps people from buying crazy cars or leaving their spouses. I think there are a lot of interesting things that poetry offers that aren’t about money. But I’m still a director and I recruit people to come to an MFA program. I’m not trying to be a hypocrite. I get a paycheck. I don’t want people to take out loans for poetry. But I also think that people take out loans for the most ridiculous things anyway. Like why would renovating your house be more important than your inner life? I think people should pay more attention to what they spend money on and what it means to spend money on something. What’s actually nourishing?
I love this set of directions for poets and I’m especially interested in the one about how poets need to be engaged with their culture.
We are so keen to historicize what has been interesting in the past for poets. It’s like saying, “In the 50s, we had O’Hara who’s a poet among painters. Oh, that’s great.” Well, he was smart about knowing what was going on in a really exciting world – a parallel universe of art-making. A lot of those poets were involved in the arts and they knew they were on the pulse of seeing great work as it was being done, and they were also making work and making connections.
We have a weird economy of high and low art, but we forget that curators are looking at what’s happening in strange rural places and seeing amazing work coming out of those spaces. Poets need to participate in everything going on around them or instigate or initiate or collaborate and see themselves as participating and engaging… or articulating a sense of what’s going on around them. That is, creating the history that will then be romanticized.
It just seems strange. I think scholars can do all that historicizing. Poets need to be making work right now and believing that they have some kind of agency. It’s useful to not historicize, to not call attention to something that doesn’t exist anymore, but to look at the living artists. All these careers are propelled by just believing that you have agency – by doing something new – and a lot more poets should worry less about whether they’re being read or how many books they’ve sold and just be more involved in the arts in ways that will feed them.
You don’t have to think you have to be somewhere; you just have to be immersed fully where you are. Dale, my husband, is a performance artist, and I will have a crazy work week where I’ll be talking about poetry and I’ll be writing a little bit or whatever. And he’ll present something and I’ll just think, “Oh my God, it’s just genius.” I know I’m biased because he’s my husband but he has taught me so much about being in your work all the time and believing that it’s the most meaningful place that you have to be in the present, and understanding and engaging with it.
Do you see any potential for technology/poetry collaborations?
Well, my biggest fantasy – have you been to BAM in Brooklyn – the Brooklyn Academy of Music? I remember my parents actually went there in the 70s when Peter Brookes had created that adaptation of The Mahabharata. It was a very experimental theater in the 70s, and here was this suburban family from Boston going to see this beautiful adaptation of the classic Indian text.
But then I thought, Wow! Brooklyn Academy of Music has done all the great commissions, and the poets have collaborated with artists and composers. Tom Waits and his poet wife have done these incredible productions. And I’m thinking, Well, all the language in all of those things has the lyric in it. It’s got poetic elements. It’s fragmenting language in order to heighten it, so it all involves poetry when we’re looking at experimental theater or multimedia productions.
I think poets could be more actively engaged in cross-genre productions, in the aesthetic experience and the pleasure of it. In my workshop, I teach Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle and I think, How does video art become so extravagant, whereas when you have it in the poem, it’s unreadable? People will watch video art or animation – why is the visual element so much more engaging than what your mind can conjure? Why is it so disturbing when it happens in the poem? But you can spend five million dollars on it and have it represented at a gallery and it’s conceptually the same thing. In some ways it’s more flawed because of its budget.
I think poets need to hijack more things. We need to be out there saying, “You should really have a poet do that.” Matthew Barney should hire a poet to work with. We bring a lot more imagination to pieces. Sometimes what’s surprising about some of the video art is that it’s literal or Freudian. Even David Lynch. But we have his early videos and we see credit to C.K. Williams as a consultant on one of his films from art school. It would be nice if poets were not seen as so “fringe-y” but more useful. Like vessels of imagination.
Why are poets seen as “fringe-y?”
Because we don’t make money. Painters are “fringe-y,” too. Until they have big accounts.
So many people think there’s no need for so many people studying and writing poetry, but it seems like you’re arguing the opposite – that as many people as possible should discover the inner life of a poet.
I don’t think you have to be teaching at a university to be a poet. I don’t think you have to give up who you are to do one thing or four things. There are 5,000 students entering MFA programs a year. But that’s a very American thing, isn’t it, to have anxiety around people studying the subject? Isn’t that inherently competitive? Say we could have 5,000 people a year who are more engaged with their humanity? Though you could be a narcissist going through the program, so you have to split the 5,000. Maybe 2,500 are interested in bettering themselves. Not that poetry has to be therapeutic. But on the flip-side, all of those narcissists are actually doing something productive, instead of being awful people. So, in some ways, however you come out as a writer, it’s all productive.
What do you do in your life to maintain literary friendships and the kinds of community you need to nurture and support yourself as an artist?
I like community; I like being involved in what people are doing, but I think a lot of people don’t. They want the community to serve them, but they don’t want to do enough for the people around them. I’m not saying I do everything right, but I like paying attention to what people need. What I really like about the MFA program is that you’re all present with each other. And that stays. I think students and faculty get to keep and protect and preserve the community around them. But I think it can be hard being the poet. It’s easy to send poems out and publish, but it’s hard to believe that you did the right thing. That’s where all the struggle is – believing that it’s okay to be a poet, especially when you’re invisible.
But, then it’s kind of funny, too. I’m seeing a family friend tonight – she’s going to come to the “One Hundred Days Reading,” this celebration of Obama’s first hundred days in office. She’s a nurse in Boulder and I was like, “There’ll be a lot of people in this space; it’s going to probably be a little bit unsettling.” It’s like, all of the interest and engagement – I don’t know how many of those poems are going to make sense to her. But Obama makes sense to her. And then she’s going to have this funny experience with these poems playing in rhetoric language. But it’s all play, ultimately. That’s what’s so confusing to non-writers. They’re like, “Oh… this is all fun.” and that’s the secret. We’re having fun all the time.
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