Combining Text and Sound with Laura Wetherington

Laura discusses the experimental art of text and sound from her online journal, Textsound.

JS: When and how did you begin to write poetry?

LW: In the fifth grade for a project, the class made a little book with poems in it. That was probably the first poem that I wrote. As for feeling like a poet and a person in the world, that’s an ongoing process. I went to school as an undergraduate and studied English in a place that didn’t have creative writing as a major, and then decided that maybe I could call myself a poet. I applied to graduate school thinking “maybe I could do this,” and then I graduated from poetry school thinking “maybe I could do this,” and then I published a book and I’m still thinking… “maybe I could do this.”

SM: Tell us a little bit about your online journal and what kind of things you guys publish.

LW: Textsound started in 2007. There were four of us: Anna Vitale, Anya Cobler, Adam Fagin, and myself. We knew we wanted to make something with sound, and we knew we wanted to make something that built community. We wanted to make something that would reach out and connect people through the internet because we thought, “What better way to use the internet than to connect poets and artists, right?” We met for six months and thought about what would be the format of the magazine, what we would call it, what color would the website be, etc. Somebody built the actual website for us and we launched in 2008. We publish some poetry that is read aloud without any background, but mostly we publish things that are edited, or sound based. It’s not just me reading a poem or a guy with a guitar, but someone reading a poem and a weird guitar in the background. We like disjunctive sounds. We like to be surprised. We like conceptual kinds of works — things that you don’t really understand until you go to the contributor’s page in the website and read the artist’s notes where they describe what it’s about. There’s this guy that has a piece called Swarm of Sun Valley where he overlaid a song that sold a million copies over and over and over again like a million times, and the sound is like a very loud buzz. That’s all the thing is, but when you read the background on the contributors page — what he’s doing, what he’s thinking about — it makes the sound a completely different thing. So we like that kind of stuff- things that make you think.

SM: Where do you draw the line between poetry and noise or music, sound poetry, etc.

LW: I don’t draw the line. That’s what I like about the magazine. I feel like it crosses. It’s at an intersection– like a twelve way intersection. A lot of people send us work and they don’t necessarily send us a bio, so we’re listening to something and we’re not sure, “Is this an artist who has sent us this piece of art, is it a poet who sent us their poem, or a musician who sent us his music?” Because you tune your ear a little bit different depending on what the thing is, what its being called, and where its coming from — the field out of which it arises. We listen to a lot of things cold and have to take it at its auditory value. So I’m not thinking about categorizing things. I’m trying to break out of that mode.

JS: Do you have a selection process and what would that be?

LW: The selection process has evolved over time because we started out with four editors, and when there were four of us we would listen separately and then come together and have a discussion. It took a while for us to figure out how to say yes to a piece because we’re not always gonna agree, and we had to have a way that somebody could say “It’s life or death that this goes in,” or “life or death that this stays out.” We had to have some kind of extreme “yes” and “no,” and then there was a kind of “maybe” thing going on in the middle. And there were moments where we would all kind of say “Well, I’m fine with it,” and then we realized “Well that’s not good enough,” so we had to have at least some extreme in one direction or the other. Sometimes it would be that extreme where one person would be like “Life or death, yeah!” and the other person would be like “Life or death, no!” and we would have these amazing discussions. I feel like it really shaped my understanding of poetry — listening to these things that were maybe art or music and having someone say life and death things about the piece. It was a really challenging process. We moved from four people into three, and then from three into two, and when there were less people in a discussion it got a little bit easier because then its just one “life and death.” It became more a matter of me or my co-editor saying “I believe in this so much,” and then the other person would say, “Well then of course we’re gonna put it in, and now let’s have a conversation about why, what’s going on and what we think is happening.” It became less of a struggle and more of a fun conversation, and now for the last couple of months my-co editor has moved on, so I’m in a transitional phase where I’m moving into editing the thing completely by myself, which I’ve never done before. I took it over for a year and put out the issues, but I still had in mind that the other people were gonna come back, and the aesthetic needed to stay in that realm of that thing that we had made. Now I’m thinking about how I can make it mine, because now it can be mine, which also is scary because I liked the idea that there would be things in the journal that I didn’t love — that I thought were important, but I didn’t love — and now I think if everything in there is gonna be the what I love, is that gonna be boring?

JS: So you’ve had it by yourself now, and the site says that you’re expanding in visual art and moving pictures. So what kind of submissions in those disciplines are you looking for?

LW: About a year or two we started to think that what we were gonna edit the webpage so that it would have the archive of the old Textsound and maybe would turn into Text-Image-Sound in another portal. We would be expanding it, and I was very excited about visual poetry and for art working with sound. I spent a while putting together a proposal for that new portal and tried to get a little bit of funding and I think I just don’t have, as a single person, enough time to pursue that and publish the magazine at the same time. I just haven’t gone and updated the fact that we’re not doing that anymore.

SM: What do you think are the parallels between poetry that uses words and poetry that just uses sound?

LW: I think that poems happen on a continuum with absolute meaning being one end of the continuum, and absolute dissolution of meaning being the other end of the continuum. Those sound poems that are only sound, that are phonemes, that are phonetic like — A BIT DOE BADALOW BOWBA — that kind of thing is at the absolute dissolution of meaning. Very often, playing with words at the level of phonemes reflects what poetry is about and what poetry is for. When you’re talking about layers of a poem you’re thinking about playing at the level of language and making multiple meanings. You have a metaphor and it stands for this thing, but it also stands for this other thing, and theres a kind of cloud that happens around those two things it’s standing for — like a kind of ambiguity that’s happening at the level of metaphor. I think that the sound poem is one extreme of that one part of the poem that’s making a metaphor so I think thats how they… talk to each other.

JS: So going along with the idea of text sound do you think there is an element of poetry that’s lost when its simply printed and not read out loud?

LW: Its hard to say that about all poetry. I think that there are some poems that are better aloud. I think about June Jordan, and how I’m just weeping when I hear recordings of her poetry. She does this thing to my heart and my soul. It’s like an arrow; it goes right into you. When I read her stuff on the page it’s not always as provocative, or it doesn’t always elicit the same level of emotion from me. In that respect I would say there are some people who, when they present the poem, you can tell that there is something living inside of them. When they give it to you in person you’re like “WHAT?!” but when you see it on the page you think, “Oh yeah… Yeah, thats good”. I feel like its difficult to think about how to place things on the page in a way that will transfer what you’re hearing in your mind as the writer to the reader’s mind. If you write a poem and you have it in your mind and you know what it’s supposed to sound like, you wrote it so you know what its supposed to look like. You hand it over to me, you ask me to read it, and I might read it aloud and you think, “Well that’s not how it’s supposed to sound.” When you hear a thing in your mind, how do you make the line breaks in a way that transfers all of the sound over to the other person? I think in that way the page and the sound are at odds with each other. In a way I think you’re asking about translation. How does sound translate to the page or how does the page translate to sound, and of course any time you’re translating, things are gonna be lost. You can’t move the word for “cat” into another language without some part, either culturally or soundwise, being lost. Absolutely, there’s something lost.

SM: I was reading the masthead in the journal and I read a quote from you that said that you find comfort in discomfort. What is it in discomfort that comforts you and how do you think that communicates effectively?

LW: I’ll tell a story about a friend of mine who was disabled. She had a disability and physically lived in a wheelchair. She really liked watching slasher movies. When I asked her, “Why? They’re so traumatic?!” she said “Well there’s something comforting about it, because my life has been so hard.” She had a hard upbringing and lots of people making fun of her and being rude to her and staring at her when she’s going around in the world. She said, “I feel, in the face of all of that stuff… somehow normal.” I think that there’s something about that in Textsound. Like the parts in Textsound that seem really discordant or jagged parts of sound- there’s something about my initial response to that which is to feel like an elevation in my nervous system– to feel a little anxious or weirded out. There’s something about that feeling that reflects how fucked up the world is, and all the things that make me feel mad, or a little bit crazy, or that- I just don’t have answers to all the things that are messed up in the world, and that’s the feeling that I have. There’s something about art which makes me feel those most important elevations. That is somehow comforting and I don’t know how that gets communicated… Was that your second part? What do you mean?

SM: There’s a conception that art is, at its very core, communication, and I’m just wondering if you agree with that. Do you think that discomfort communicates as an art?

LW: You have to turn to something artistic in order to try and communicate feeling because you can’t say the word “sad” and feel the sad. But I can show you a painting or write a story and you can somehow suddenly feel like you’re a part of the sadness. I think discomfort is an emotion like any other, and transmits itself through art in that way by somehow putting the reader or the listener into the subject position so that you feel like you’re the one inside it.

SM: How do the things that you publish connect to your own writing and your own experience of poetry and art?

LW: I think those conversations that we had as an editorial board, those really heated discussions about what makes something the best. We were talking earlier about “what does the best mean?” Those kinds of discussions really helped me hone and articulate my ideas about what I value in experimental work. I think that because I don’t really work in sound and I only curate it, it makes me think about how I transmit sound in a page in a way that I wasn’t really thinking about before working with that magazine. In poetry a lot of times you’re thinking about meter, and you’re thinking about iambs and trochees, and now I’m thinking more about discordant musicality rather than really fluent music.

Slammin’ Down with Andrea Gibson

Sabrina talks poetry and activism with Andrea Gibson.

[box]Andrea Gibson is a slam poet whose work focuses on social and political issues such as gender norms, sexuality, and war. She additionally works with a group called “Vox Feminista,” a group dedicated to expressing these issues through performance art. Andrea has published six books, four of them self-published and two of them through Write Bloody Publishing in 2009 and 2011, and has won awards at the Denver Grand Slam, the 2004 National Poetry Slam, and the 2006 and 2007 Individual World Poetry Slam. [/box]

Sabrina Melendez: What is your definition of slam poetry?

Andrea Gibson: Slam is a competition that was invented in the mid 80’s by Marc Smith, a construction worker in Chicago who wanted poetry readings to be more engaging, more interesting to audiences, more passionate and exciting. Spoken word poetry is an art form that has become more popular because of slam competitions. Everyone defines spoken word differently. For me, spoken word is the art of reading a poem out loud in a way that emotionally and authentically represents the mood of the poem on the page. It requires a willingness from the poet to enter the poem with her whole self, and to essentially live that poem into sound.

SM: What do you think is lost when poetry is written down rather than said aloud? Vice versa?

AG: I don’t think anything is lost in either direction. I think they are simply different ways of expressing. On the page, for example, the emotion of an entire piece can be contained in a single line break. On the stage, the poet’s voice might crack. I believe both the page and stage are places where a poem can live fully.

SM: Do you consider yourself an activist through your poetry and if so, from what point in time did you begin to consider yourself so?

AG: I started competing in poetry slams in the same year I joined Vox Feminista, a radical performance group of women, trans, and genderqueer people bent on social change. Vox is a group that is as committed to direct action as it is committed to creating art the inspires people to live in a kinder more compassionate way. It’s not that I think art in itself is inactive, but I think to best serve any social movement, that art has to at some point inspire
direct action. Vox’s motto is to “Comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” and I have in many ways adopted that as the backbone for my writing.

SM: How did you launch your career as a poet? Any advice for people interested in pursuing slam poetry?

AG: I discovered poetry slam in Denver in 1999. I competed for several years with the Denver slam team. I owe more than I can name here to the poets in that community. We travelled to National Poetry Slam competitions around the country, and I was doing a lot of local events as well. In 2003 I started booking my own tours and for the next couple of years did a ton of very small shows featuring at poetry readings and slams in any city that would have me. I was on the road constantly, selling just enough chapbooks each night to buy gas to get to the next city. In 2005 I lucked out and met my current manager, Christen Greene. Christen’s roster, except for me, is made up entirely of musicians– so my career has been structured a little differently than some of the other touring poets I know. When asked to give advice to people wishing to pursue a career in spoken word I often say: 1) write your heart out, 2) write even when you don’t feel like writing 3)come to every single performance open and attentive and electric with the knowing that each stage is a blessing and a privilege, 4) perform your poems to as many people as will listen, in as many venues as you can, in as many cities you are able to travel to, and 5) have an online presence in which your work is readily available for people to find.

SM: In one of your previous interviews, you admitted that you have horrible stage fright. Do you have any coping methods or rituals for before you go on stage?

AG: Yeah, stage fright… you would think after 13 years it would go away, wouldn’t you?? It hasn’t, and honestly I’ve tried just about everything and have not figured out a good way to deal with the pre-performance stage fright, but once I get on the actual stage I’ve learned to channel that nervousness into the emotion of the piece. It’s sort of a meditation in removing my ego from the whole experience and just letting the poem exist and run through me. Typically by my 3rd poem of the set, I’ve stopped sweating through my shirt.

SM: Does your poetry just spew out when you write it or does it take a long time?

AG: I write out loud. I write running around my house, screaming at the walls, jumping on the couch. So yeah, I guess you’d call that part a spewing. What takes time is the piecing together at the end. Linking metaphors, linking rhythm, having all the spewing tie together in a way that works in a whole piece. I’m especially particular about the sound of a poem, until it flows in my ear like a song, it doesn’t feel finished.

SM: Sometimes you use music behind your poetry and sometimes you don’t. What is your take on that? Are there certain poems that stand better alone, and why?

AG: I started using music behind my poems because I have so many incredible musician friends I wanted to collaborate with. Also, when I’m writing I almost always have music playing in the background, so it just felt fitting to add that layer on stage. That said, there are some poems that live best alone. This year I’ve had the opportunity to perform alongside poets who never ever use music with their poems, and I’ve found that single voice on stage incredibly alive and refreshing, more raw and gutsy, in a way. So my use of music may shift a bit in the future.

SM: When you think, do you think in pictures, feelings, or words?

AG: Feelings.

SM: Any recurring dreams you’d be willing to share with us?

AG: I am 4 years old. My father is watering the lawn of the local bank where he’s the janitor. A very very tall cat in a suit and a top hat walks up and throws me over his shoulder. I scream for my father. He looks at me, smiles, and keeps watering the lawn. He, for some reason, can’t see the cat. I keep screaming. The cat carries me to a huge ice house in the middle of the forest. He locks me inside. And then I wake up. (This is what I call the “Bad Cat Dream”. I’ve had it since I was 4 years old. If you have any ideas on how to prematurely remove a dream from your dream life, please let me know. I’d love to never see that cat again. 🙂 )

John Albert: Stranger than Fiction

John Albert talks process, publishing and personal stories from his past.

John Albert has played drums in the band Bad Religion and written articles for magazines like LA Weekly, Hustler and BlackBook. Albert’s memoir of his personal struggle with drugs and finding his salvation in baseball, Wrecking Crew: The Really Bad News Griffith Park Pirates, was derived from an LA Weekly article that won the Best of the West Journalism Best Sports Writing Award in 2000. It was published in 2005 to great acclaim. John currently resides in Los Angeles.

Wrecking Crew was your debut book. What compelled you to write it in the first place?

I was actually compelled because I was offered a publishing deal to write it. It started out as a cover story for the LA Weekly. The story was optioned by Paramount Pictures at the time, and my new movie agent made a deal to do a book. I thought there was no way there would be enough material for an entire book, but it was an opportunity so I took it contrary to my doubts.

I know that when you’re publishing a novel you’re forced to rewrite the rewrites and edit and rearrange the rearrangements. It’s a long and arduous process. Do you think this process differs when publishing a memoir?

I am not sure what it’s like with everybody. One of the things I did, which I can’t recommend enough, is that I joined a writers group. So before I turned in chapters I would have already read and discussed them with other people. I think my reading chapters about sex and drugs to these dear old ladies really made the work with my editor a whole lot easier.

It’s been seven years since Wrecking Crew was published. Do you think putting out such a personal story has changed the way people interact with you?

Maybe initially they were aware that everything said and observed was material for story. I have done it again periodically with short stories that detail the lives of friends. But I think people love that, they really want to be talked about. We offered to take things out of Wrecking Crew and or change people’s names. Nobody wanted that no matter how depraved their activities were.

When writing fiction I know that you’re free to take creative liberties with the story and descriptions. How faithful do you feel you have to be when you’re writing nonfiction?

This is a great question. I know quite a few people who have written high profile memoirs and confessed that they seriously embellished events. I did not. Even when it was suggested by people in my writer’s group, I stayed very true to the events. I think that came from working as a journalist. Lucky for me the truth was – to quote your dad [Brett Gurewitz], “Stranger than fiction.”

Do you think you’ll ever delve into fiction?

I have two short fiction works being published in the next month. So the answer is yes. I found the process to be freeing and requiring less homework.

I heard they might possibly making a Wrecking Crew movie? True or False? If so, would you be up for a starring role?

They are continually trying to make it into a movie. This is the fourth time. Right now the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman owns the rights. And no, I would want a big movie star to play me because I want the film to be both successful and good. I have no talent or draw as an actor.

Strange Routes with David Shook

Becky Hirsch talks life and learning with David Shook.

Visual art by Samuel Lee

[box]David Shook is a poet, translator and Idyllwild Arts Academy alum from 2004. His work has been published in Oxford MagazinePoetryPN ReviewWorld Literature Today, and others. He has translated many authors works into English, including Víctor Terán, Oswald de Andrade, Roberto Bolaño, and Mario Bellatin. Shook currently lives in Los Angeles, where he edits Molossushis online journal of international literature, and publishes Phoneme Books. Here he sits down in Birchard Writing Center to talk with Becky Hirsch, a junior at Idyllwild Arts Academy. [/box]

BH: As a translator, someone who’s had experience at Idyllwild and at Oxford University, and has lived in other countries, do you see any particular differences in poems from different languages? Do you think any language is better at expressing a certain kind of poem? And do you have a language in which you prefer to read?

DS: I believe in a basic universality of expression across all languages. I don’t support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that language is entirely responsible for shaping thought. I think there’s a murkier relationship there. I do think, of course, that some languages have a greater facility of expression. It might be easier to write a poem in Zapotec about a traditional palm wine, but that’s mostly a matter of practicality. They happen to have a word for “palm wine” and every time I’m talking about it in a poem I have to say “palm wine,” which doesn’t sound very nice. In terms of reading, I love English language poetry. I think it’s the best in the world. That said, I’m not sure the best poets in the world write in English.

BH: English has a history of just being a conglomerate of languages, kind of thrown together with a thousand synonyms for every word. Is that what helps it write “the best poetry in the world”?

DS: Most languages absorb ideas, absorb words, absorb descriptive bits, even structural bits from other languages. Partially, it’s a socioeconomic thing. English is spread around the world. It was and still is a great language of empire, and [there’s a lot to be said] about that, there’s a whole political argument to be made. [That imperial history of the language has] produced art and enriched the English language. You’ve got Singaporean English (Singlish), where you incorporate Chinese grammatical markers into English and it works. It makes sense. It’s its own effective system of communication.

BH: You’re mind seems to jump around countries really easily. I know you’ve spent time in Mexico, spent time in Africa, and spent a good chunk of time in California.

DS: And I’m from Texas.

BH: That’s a whole other country.

DS: It is. It’s its own world.

BH: So how do you feel that all that movement, and all that personal experience with other countries and other areas and other kinds of peoples, writers, and writing has affected your world view?

DS: That’s a big question.

BH: Yeah, but you do seem as if you have a handle on it.

DS: I can’t say how it has affected my worldview but I know that it definitely has. All of these experiences, just in terms of basic subject matter in my work, come up again and again. I think that more than anything, and this sort of comes from my background in linguistics too, I’m sort of interested in the multiplicity of voices that surround us on a global scale but also on a much smaller scale, you know, the multiplicity of voices in Idyllwild, California. There are all sorts of people here, a radical mix of people, not just among the student body but the people in town. I was talking to someone in town this morning who buys forty pounds of peanuts each week to feed the squirrels, like an old squirrel lady, instead of an old bird lady. I guess there’s that same interest, ultimately, that I’ve been fortunate through circumstances, work and life, to get to experience and explore a lot of different places.

BH: Do you see a difference in the kind of people you’ve experienced in Idyllwild versus the kind of people you’ve met in other parts of the world?

DS: I would hesitate to say that I think specifically here there’s a great, respectful and supportive community for young artists, for the curiosity that’s required of the artist. There’s a sort of nurturing that creative people need and the freedom and the leeway that they need to experiment and explore, which is unique and admirable but certainly this isn’t the only place in the world that has that.

BH: You call it a nurturing and respectful place for young artists. How do you feel about your time personally at Idyllwild Arts?

DS: I reflect on it fondly. I haven’t been here in quite a while. I think I was last here in 2005. My time here was unusual. I was only here one year. It was a strange year for me but … I think a lot of my lifelong friendships, at this point in my life, were made here at Idyllwild. On my street in L.A. there are four alums and we all still dialogue about our art, about what we’re doing and it’s been neat to see everyone come into their own as artists post-Idyllwild, and not everyone has become an artist by profession but you can see the artistic growth in all the people I met at Idyllwild.

BH: How did you come to Idyllwild? What was your road to get here?

DS: It was my last year of high school and I’d been serious about writing poetry since the summer after my sophomore year of high school. I’d studied at Stanford with the Wallace Stegner fellows, with Gabrielle Calvocoressi and Matthew Dougherty, two great poets. Now Gaby’s actually in L.A. I see her all the time. But I’d been writing poetry, at that point, my junior year of high school, I was in Texas, really unhappy and I basically just begged my parents to let me come study writing. I was very much a student that wanted to be here, someone who was very invested in it. It wasn’t always easy. I feel like I did have some frustrating experiences. I felt like even coming here, I was very focused on poetry and I very much new what I wanted to do and the forced experimentation in other genres and in other things, although I now see it as very healthy and even then I recognized that as much as I might have grumbled and complained about it.

BH: It’s a difficult experience, coming here as a one year senior. I think it takes a while until the faculty are really convinced that your focus really is your focus.

DS: And rightfully so.

BH: How do you think the school has changed since you left? Do you feel any difference in the place being back here now?

DS: There’s been turnover in faculty, especially in creative writing faculty. I think you guys have a really good director [Kim Henderson], I think Katherine [Factor, the poetry teacher] is a really great poet, I really admire her work. She tells me about you students all the time, about what greats poets you are. Even having been a student here and aware of the quality of our writing, I was very impressed, especially this afternoon when we were doing our book blurbs and just talking about book reviews. It just continues to impress me, as familiar as I am with it. The biggest thing that hasn’t changed is that spirit of community and curiosity and creativity. It’s still here and I hope it will be for a long time.

BH: Do you have a favorite Idyllwild story from your time here as a student?

DS: I have a lot of good stories. I had a car. I was a boarding student but I had a secret car, because Idyllwild’s just too small, I couldn’t stay here on the weekends. So I had a car and I’d hide it in town and I’d leave. I’d go to L.A. or even all the way up to Santa Barbara, so there were a lot of good times. There’s once we almost got arrested in Hemet. We decided to come back up to the school during the day, which is a little riskier. We’d normally try to do it right at dusk so people couldn’t recognize us on the drive up the hill. So for some reason we got the idea that, to disguise ourselves, we should dress up in black face. And we got pulled over by the cops, in black face, at the train track in Hemet. And immediately we were surrounded by six cop cars and they called out on their speakers to turn the car off and put the keys on the roof. It was pretty scary. More than anything I was scared they would call the school to validate our story and then it’d come out that I had this illegal car. But it didn’t happen. We sort of talked our way of it.

BH: What were they arresting you for?

DS: Apparently that week there’d been a string of convenience store robberies in Hemet, perpetrated by men in black face. Incredible coincidence. But that’s a fond memory that took place just slightly off the hill. But more than events, I think a lot of the conversations that I had at Idyllwild still linger in my memory. And just laughing a lot, having a good time, enjoying the company of fellow writers and even our teachers.

BH: It seems like you have been able to make a fairly decent living in your art, which, you can tell from the experiences of other alumni, isn’t always the case. You can’t always make it in your art form. Whether it’s book reviewing or poetry, at least you are connected to writing.

DS: Certainly. I’ve also worked a day job in community-based development but I think I’ve always been fortunate in my ability to work and hold jobs that don’t inhibit my writing life. If anything they feed it, they teach me things, they allow me to keep curious. And tonight at the reading I’ll be reading an excerpt from an essay about dancing with the president of Burundi, and you know if I hadn’t had a day job I wouldn’t have been able to dance with the president of Burundi, so I think there are ways, as difficult as it is to sometimes admit to yourself, especially in an economically unfeasible field like poetry, there are ways to stay sane and to keep writing and to still make a living. But you’re not going to do it selling poems. I think it’s important to be realistic about that.

BH: And think outside of that straightforward path.

DS: Exactly. I think one of the biggest things I wish I had known as a student at Idyllwild is how important it is to be entrepreneurial and pursue all sorts of ideas. Most of them won’t pan out but every once in a while they do and I have silly stories, like writing my moustache wax sponsor and trading poems for haircuts, but there’s also more serious ideas. Presenting yourself as a talented poet or writer can land you a job writing copy for an ad agency, and making money for it. Just the idea that, as a writer, you’ve got to be an entrepreneur, a self-promoter, so that you can continue to do what you want to do is really important.

BH: From the work I’ve seen on your websites like Molossus and MANIFESTOH! and just going out and finding book reviewing as career path, it does seem like you have worked really hard to keep yourself in the writing business.

DS: I’m also very skeptical of the writing “business.” I avoid the writing mega-conferences. I’m somewhat repelled by the occasional, or more than occasional, provincialism of writers. While that’s great and it’s really important to support your work, I think we need to get outside of that and break the boundaries open. Why stay within any sorts of boundaries?

BH: Do you mean genre?

DS: I guess I mean more in terms of life experience. I mean don’t let being a poet or being a fiction writer limit. If anything, it should open up your life experience and possibility. It should open up your imagination not just on the page but in the way you live your life.

BH: I think for all writers, any job you get influences your work and it’s all educational.

DS: And I think it’s important to maintain that attitude.

BH: That sort of entrepreneurial spirit.

DS: Also just that the things that you’re doing that aren’t writing can feed into your writing. That they’re not necessarily contradictory.

BH: So what kind of other occupations have you had?

DS: I’ve mostly worked in community-based development, in East Central Africa and indigenous Latin America, but also in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Southern Mexico, which is also where I translate poetry, also in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa. That’s most of it. Most of my professional experience is in that development field. I’ve had other shitty jobs, of course. In college I’d evaluate graduate students from abroad, I’d evaluate their English to see if they qualified to be TA’s, which was a lot fun. But I’ve had all sorts of terrible, tiny jobs too.

BH: You had something of an unusual route through college to finally graduating from Oxford with an MFA. How did that come about?

DS: At Idyllwild I was an exemplary college applicant. I probably applied to fifteen schools, had a bunch of scholarships, and just kind of burnt out and decided to reject all of them. And I moved to Costa Rica and worked at an orphanage for about six months. But then through family and through my girlfriend at the time I wound up at the University of Oklahoma, which six months before I would have found laughable. But it turned out to be a great place. If I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have been able to intern at World Literature Today and start publishing in major literary magazines as an undergraduate, which is basically how I built up my resume for Oxford and also my early, large-scale publishing experience, beyond editing Parallax, was there. So it was a little strange, but it was great. And I think state schools are a great choice for writers. They’re so much cheaper and there’s a lot of great writers often in these regional institutions that we kind of overlook in applying to schools. Just the opportunity as an undergraduate to be conceptualizing issues of a magazine, to be in contact with Pulitzer winning writers was huge for me and it wouldn’t have happened if I had gone to a more brand name school.

BH: Since college and since graduating from Idyllwild, you’ve joined some pretty prominent literary groups like the National Book Critics Circle, you’ve been published in Oxford Magazine, involved with World Literature Today, and those are all pretty big name institutions. What would you say was your most valuable experience?

DS: I think most of my most valuable personal experiences have all come through translating. There’s a really deep bond that’s formed when you translate someone’s work and some of my sweetest and deepest friendships are with poets whose work I’ve translated. Especially people like Víctor Terán who writes in Zapotec, a poet who’s been marginalized most of his career because of his language, to be able to translate him and to make his work more widely available beyond the prejudices of the contemporary Mexican poetry community. It’s been really valuable. My friendship with Marcelo Ensema Nsang, the Guinean poet who was tortured in the 70s, is another really special friendship that’s come out of that. I think those are, if not my favorite or most meaningful literary experiences, definitely some of the most meaningful ones.

BH: You just mentioned the documentary you just made [about Marcelo Ensema Nsang].

DS: In Equatorial Guinea in West Africa. Yeah, we made that in March. Hopefully we’ll have a first cut at the end of November and then submit to festivals next year.

BH: So is that what’s up next?

DS: I guess there’s a lot of stuff up next. That’s definitely on the docket. Also, I have a new non-profit publishing house that’ll publish books in translation, from Mario Bellatin to Stalin. We’re doing Stalin’s poetry that he wrote as a teenager, translated from the Georgian, the first literary translation. Then I’ve also got a new series of manifestos that I’ve been translating. Most of them are from the 20s to the 60s, more or less, but some later, 70s and 80s. The manifesto, it’s one of the most fun literary genres there is but because it’s kind of a strange genre it’s most often translated by academics with no real sense of poetry. So that’s been a really fun project and in November, I do a really big reading in L.A. And of course I’m still trying to place my own poems. I have a new book-length translation project as well and a new book I’m working on of travel essays. So, a lot.

BH: Your story is  excellent for someone looking to someday find a way into writing professionally and I just want to thank you so much for your time.

DS: Of course.

Life and Poetry with Chase Twichell

Chase Twichell discusses life, poetry, Buddhism and more with Becky Hirsch.

[box]Chase Twichell was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1950 and earned an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1976. Her books of poetry include Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon, 2010), Dog Language (2005), The Snow Watcher (1998), The Ghost of Eden (1995), Perdido (1991), The Odds (1986), and Northern Spy (1981). She lives in Keene, New York, with her husband, the novelist Russell Banks.[/box]

What writers most inspire you? What writers do you think your work is most like?

I’m most moved by writers whose expression of the truth is as straightforward as possible (as Einstein put it, “as simple as possible but no simpler.”) There’s a big difference between language that’s complex and language that’s complicated. I have increasingly little patience for complication. Human life is crazy enough as it is! For quite a few years now I’ve been reading the ancient Chinese and Japanese poets (in no particular order): Han Shan, Du Fu, Li Po, Basho, Issa, Ryokan . . . I love the way their voices feel intimate and confiding, yet could come from any century at all. That’s immortality! I’ve learned a lot from them about how much you can leave out, and how to keep the focus outside of the self and its private dramas. As for more modern and contemporary poets, I’m a huge fan of Robinson Jeffers for his ecological prescience, Elizabeth Bishop for her imaginative daring, and early Merwin, particularly The Lice and The Carrier of Ladders for lessons on how to write absolutely clearly.

No matter how much or how little autobiographical your poetry really is, your collection Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been reads like an autobiography at some points. How do you describe your work to friends or family who know the part your life that you have written about? Do you ever feel the need to explain yourself or your work to them?

Many people assume that the voice in poems is that of the actual poet. Funny how that same assumption is rarely made when it comes to novels. But poems are fictions too, and often get at their crucial truths by making things up. Lying, in other words! Although there are a few things in those poems that actually happened to me, most are either wholly or partially invented. Not in an effort to camouflage anything, but because there were better images, more direct paths to the mysteries I was exploring. Poetry is, after all, a form of exploring. We don’t write because “we have something to say” but rather to find out what it is we have to say. My mother once got quite upset about something she read in my poems. She said she’d had no idea I’d gone through X, Y, and Z. I said, But Mom, I make it all up! And she responded, O, I’m so relieved!

Have you ever written in another genre besides poetry? If not, what you imagine your fiction or dramatic writing would be like?

I tried to write stories in college. It was hopeless. My teacher said I began each one in the middle and ended it in the middle of the next story. He was completely flummoxed. My mind just doesn’t see the world as narrative, I guess.

With inspirational art teachers in your past and many years teaching experience yourself, what do you think is the role of teachers in a young person’s artistic development? What is your educational philosophy?

I don’t think it’s possible to teach someone to write good poems. It’s certainly possible to teach people to read, to be more sensitive to language, and to pay closer attention to their own. But the making of poems involves a weird kind of insatiable curiosity that’s very inconvenient, far too inconvenient for most people to pursue beyond the fantasy of being a poet. It’s a pretty strange thing to do, if you think about it: devoting one’s life to pondering minute distinctions between this phrasing and that. But a good teacher can speed up an apprenticeship, and streamline a young poet’s reading so that they don’t waste time reinventing the wheel. A teacher can also be an early audience, a reality check, a source of encouragement, which is hard to come by.

What was your scariest moment in writing?

My scariest moment in writing is (not was) every time I think I’ll never write another line, which is often.

Your work contains many memorable phrases – “horses where the answers should have been” and many others. In your writing process, do these phrases come first and jump start the poem or do you find them in the midst of writing the poem?

Both. Sometimes a poem begins with a rhythmic phrase, or a few words locked together for reasons still mysterious to me. Sometimes a poem is born of the sheer need to say something, though I may start with exactly zero in mind. I think everyone’s different. Most often, the right words will emerge after many false starts and wrong turns, but if I’m stubborn, they eventually make themselves known to me.

How did you meet your husband?

I was teaching in the graduate program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, which was about as far from my New England background as you can get and still be on the planet. I was disoriented and unhappy,  though there were many things I also loved about it. It was a great job with great people. Russell (Banks) came to town as a visiting professor, another Yankee in alien territory. So we naturally found one another. It took me the entire semester to figure out I was in love with him. We were best friends first, so it was like an old-fashioned courtship. I feel lucky to have met him that way.

Do you feel as if discovering Zen Buddhism has made any important differences in your writing?

That’s the big question! I could write a book about this (and may have to). My study of Zen has put me through the poetry meat-grinder. It has called into question just about every assumption I’ve ever had about the self, memory, and the making of art. Zen holds (this is the bouillon cube version!) that what we regard as our “self” is a fiction that we spend a lifetime building and then maintaining. The only problem is, it’s a phantom. The work of Zen is to learn to see the world (including the self) for what it really is: constant flux. If we can relax into endless change, we can let go of what we cling to in order to feel permanent. Impermanence is scary, after all! For a number of years now I’ve grappled with this alternative view of “reality” (for lack of a better word) and have fought an internal battle between believing in the truth of Buddhist insight (which seems intellectually obvious to me) and failing to be able to directly perceive it that way. The poems went through a sort of carwash during this time: only the essential, no decoration, no dust, no distracting stories! But now I find myself beginning to reassert my oldest convictions about things (which don’t contradict what Zen teaches, but put a radically different spin on it): that we are a strange and self-destructive species, that the earth was Eden, that the mind is the inventor of our reality, that we know next to nothing about our universe, and that poetry is the path I was born to walk on. When I came to consciousness, it was under my feet. Why me? Who knows? It’s just one of the things I’m stuck with, like narrow feet and a crazy love of dogs.

The Art of Contraception with Susie Wild

Isaac Dwyer reviews the eclectic collection of short stories by Susie Wild, The Art of Contraception, and speaks with her about love, losers, upcoming projects, and performance.

[box] Susie Wild, a noted bohemian writer living in South Wales, as well as editor for the literary journal The Raconteur, has published an eclectic collection of stories that succeeds in captivating and entertaining its readers. Focusing on individuals who suffer from issues from the sexual to the familial, The Art of Contraception clings romantically to the reproductively unfortunate. [/box]

Beginning with the tragic story of Rob Evans, an obese sloth who takes vacations in the tub and dreams of an underage love interest, readers temporarily find their egos comfortably elevated. This throne of narcissism is swiftly brushed out from beneath their buttocks, however.  They realize how easily they could become like the poor creatures they laugh at when Archie appears – and sweeps them right back into reality. The perspective from which they see Archie’s desires is nearly opposite from where they see Rob’s – suddenly, they’re expected to sympathize:

“He pulls hard on his nicotine stick, feels the rain soaking through his open jacket, his black shirt. It washes away the wine from his freckled skin. He sticks out his tongue to catch raindrops, and feels a thirst long forgotten, a thirst for life.”

The lack of dialogue in Wild’s book serves us well in highlighting the emptiness of the characters’ lives through in-depth descriptions of every detail that surround their measly actions. Through this hyper-examination, we can be brought both to quiet sympathy and to raucous laughter.

The story of Tanja, a pregnant woman who suffers from “the overpowering need that would compel her to stop the car to consume handfuls of dirt grabbed greedily from the side of the road” is one that is both hilarious and unsettling. Readers of The Art of Contraception are sure to find themselves in uncontrollable fits of laughter as well as being emotionally touched.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Susie about her book, while she was in Wales, getting ready to go to India. Corresponding through e-mail, we talked about her opinions of love, losers, upcoming projects, and performance.

 

Some of the characters in The Art of Contraception, most notably Rob Evans, show that the desire to reproduce can come out in any of a variety of interesting activities – such as taking vacations in a bathtub. What do you believe are the sources for romantic desires? Are they just biological urges, or is there more to it?

I don’t think that there is one simple answer in this case and I don’t think I am an expert. Certainly I feel that some of the feelings and developments of love come from biology – breeding and survival. Yet love is a very complex emotion and part of what I write is an attempt to describe and understand the good and the not so great aspects of this invisible entity that so dominates many lives and cultures. There are so many kinds of love, and few are the sweetened Disney kind of film fairy tales. Some people do get those firework moments, but others couple together because of loneliness, laziness or boredom.

 

In the case of Rob Evans, really he is just a man trying to understand the object of his affection in much the same way most young infatuations go. There are darker undertones of course, but in essence his is a tale of daydreams and an unrequited crush that goes very wrong for him.

 

Next to your satirical comedy, you also reveal some oddly depressing characters – such as Archie. Why should we care about the losers? What function do they play in our society?

 

I think, to an extent, we are all losers if only occasionally to ourselves, our parents or indeed our lovers. We all have fallibilities, insecurities and disappointments, even those at the top of their game. While I was studying for my various undergrad and postgrad courses I worked in a number of rough-around-the-edges bars and met a lot of people down on their luck. Some just had a tough week or month or year, others never found their way back to where they originally wanted to be. Even so, it didn’t always turn out terribly for them. For some, missing out on the things they had their heart set on meant they were free for unexpected opportunities that came their way soon after. Others tried to sit the bad times out and they never left. I am a great believer in going after what you want, and that persistence can change luck, but I’ve also learnt the hard way what an exhausting disheartening struggle it can be to get around those bends.

 

Then again we may only like to read about ‘loser’ characters because of good ole Schadenfreude or the joyous reassurance that someone, even someone fictional, is worse off than you… and, as life’s great philosopher Dolly Parton says, ‘if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.’

 

Are there any particular personal experiences that you have had with contraception that inspired you to write this book?

 

(If I had wanted to share them I’d have written non-fiction ; ) Having read the book you’ll also know that these stories hinge on all kinds of relationships from the sexual to the familial.)

After university I actually worked for a number of years as a journalist for a youth advice charity website that had very frank peer-to-peer discussion boards on all aspects of teenage and student life including sex, so I used to have interesting, sometimes hilarious, sometimes disturbing and often explicit discussions with my colleagues about the plights of our clients on the early shift, moderating their posts and chipping in advice and helpline numbers. My work is inspired as much by such anecdotes, news stories and snippets from the world around me as it is from my own personal experiences and imagination.

 

You nearly always mention your enjoyment of performing at dives and dance halls – what is it about these environments that contribute to the performing experience? Is it the people?

That’s just the kind of gal I am. I’d rather have a decent pint of real ale than champagne. Also performance poetry and live literature over here isn’t the most glamorous of games. You perform in cramped rooms upstairs from or at the back of Old Man pubs where sound systems don’t work and there is always some sort of weird and loud background noise and the stage is also probably the walkway to the toilets. Or you are in a marquee during a British “summer” in Wellies and a waterproof. Once in a while I get to read in a bookshop where they bring me tea and cake or a Private Members Club with good wine as part of the payment, but these are rare treats. Sometime it is the people, my favourites are the ones who buy books, I also especially like that couple arguing in the corner and her, there, vomiting on my new boots.

 

You casually mentioned that you’re going to India – I’m extremely jealous. What is it that draws you there, and have you got any exciting adventures planned?

As well as writing books and poems, I also work as a journalist and arts critic. As such, thanks to Wales Arts International, I am heading over to India to write about Hay Festival Kerala, but prior to that I have tacked on an extra week’s writing retreat on the South Indian coast, and I can’t wait to get out there! Usually I like adventurous exploration when I travel, but for the first week of this trip I am aiming to get some much needed R&R and selfish, sun-soaked writing, sleeping and reading time.

 

What’s your editorial vision for your new literary magazine The Raconteur? What are you looking for in submissions?

I joined as Associate Editor a few months ago and the first issue in the new paperback format, America, is out any day now with launch parties in Swansea and Cardiff when I get home from India. Dylan, Gary and I look for new writing with passion, skill and wit from both established and emerging writers. Our next issue will be themed Beauty and will launch in May 2012. We are accepting submissions now, but do visit our guidelines before briefly pitching considered ideas.

 

What have you been reading?

I’ve been stockpiling books of late. I have a stack of novels that I’m working my way through – I just finished Remainder by Tom McCarthy – but I’ve mainly been reading a lot of short and flash fiction including Lorrie Moore’s Collected Stories, Andrew Kaufman’s The Tiny Wife, and Nik Perring’s Not So Perfect. I have an ever-increasing pile of review books glaring at me, neglected, but in India I shall also be taking my Kindle (Murakami’s IQ84 is on there, and so is Ali Smith’s There But For The which I pre-ordered ages ago but then got side-tracked from). I’ve also got a soft spot for Nasty Little Press poetry pamphlets.

 

What inspires you?

 

Life, dreams, creative and intelligent others, watery locations, adventures, hangovers and pillow talk.

 

 

The Hay Festival in Kerala: http://www.hayfestival.com/kerala/en-index.aspx?skinid=20&currencysetting=GBP&localesetting=en-GB&resetfilters=true

To submit to The Raconteur, visit:  www.theraconteur.info