Experiments with Caryl Pagel

Ana and Emily discuss the editing process at Rescue Press and the inspiration behind the book Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, with the author and editoress herself, Caryl Pagel

Emily Cameron: In your book, Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, there’s a lot of discussion about spirits and connecting to the spirit/spiritual world. A lot of people consider this a pseudoscience; do you believe it is science or pseudoscience?

Caryl Pagel: I’ll separate my answer into two different things that I think: One is that I don’t believe in cliché ideas of ghosts or apparitions. I don’t not believe in them either, it’s just that I would not testify to any of that. But, I do believe that anything can be approached using scientific method. People still call things like psychology pseudoscience. A lot of these ideas and the people I talk about and researched in the book, like William James, were kind of on the forefront of psychological practice. So, yes, I do believe that it’s science, and I believe you can use science to approach things that aren’t measurable or possible to even know about. In the same way that scientists can study dream activity, and we might not ever have any solutions, we can study the idea of what happens to the soul after death. Those might be impossible things to ever figure out, but I think that they can still be approached using the same techniques of questioning and measuring and gathering evidence. It’s proof one way, proof the other way.

EC:  How did you become interested in the subjects of clairvoyance and clairaudience, like the ones in your book?

CP: I was always interested in that kind of thing, but I became obsessed with it when I encountered a group of texts which were these scientific journals from the late 1800s. They were the proceedings for the Society for Psychical Research, which was this group of scientists who gathered all of these stories about clairvoyance and telepathic activity and apparitions, and all this sort of unknown phenomena. Their goal was not to say, “This exists” or “This doesn’t exist,” but to just gather all the stories from the people that they could and try to figure out if there were patterns, and which testimonies seemed to be familiar to other testimonies. They were trying to collect evidence. And so I read these journals, these scientific texts, and I became really interested in these ideas. I became interested in them as this subject matter that is unknown, and the stories and people’s accounts are what were interesting to me. It’s a great party trick to ask people if they’ve ever seen a ghost, or even asking people about things like coincidence, or if they’ve ever had a near death experience. People have great stories about that. It was the content that drew me in, but it was the form, the act of storytelling around it, that kept me there.

EC: In your book, you have the “Botched Bestiary” poems, which are similar to accrual poems; do you think this form of hybrid literature disrespects or defaces the original work(s) like some people do? Do you think it adds more to the original(s)?

CP: I don’t know if I have a general opinion on that. I know for me, with those particular pieces, they came from a place where I was doing a lot of research on writing about animals and animal artwork. There are a lot of artists who are interested in the animal body and the human body, and the human as a machine or hybrid bodies with medical technology, and people living longer. There’s so much nowadays, that our bodies are changing in response to our environment, and a lot of that comes across in the visual art that I was looking at, at the time. I was thinking of some of these ideas that the artists were using, like collage, and a goat’s head stuck on a collage like Rauschenberg does, or different shapes on imagined animal bodies. Even things such as taxidermy where it’s half one creature, half another creature. This has always been in our imaginations. That’s where I started to write like that. I started thinking of the text as a body, and something that could be manipulated and rearranged and sort of refocused. So I think that there is a certain manipulation, or botching, or re-stitching something together. I also think of it things like heart transplants; these things in which we are taking pieces, not just in the art world, but also in the physical world. There’s hybridity to our contemporary lives in some way. These are the ideas that were swirling in my mind when I started to take parts of texts. That’s why the quotes are still in there, because I wanted it to be obvious. I thought of those quotes as a surgeon leaving a scar of where the surgery was done. In terms of general erasure projects and collage projects, sometimes you can abuse the original text by doing projects like that. Just like you can originally write a really bad poem on your own, you can also ruin other people’s things. There’s a million ways for it to go wrong, but there’s also a million ways for it to go right. A lot of my book was thinking of writing as an experiment.

EC:  Could you break down what the editing process at Rescue Press is like, and describe how it might be different from other presses?

CP:  I don’t know exactly how other presses work, but for us we basically collaborate with each author on the terms of their own piece. So, with the novella, Penny, n., we got the manuscript, and I read through it and made notes, I would call the author and we would have these long conversations about certain scenes or certain sentences, which was fun. We’d talk about these characters as if they were really alive, and we’d wonder, “What would Penny really do in this scene?” or we would ask, “Is that the right word?” It was a lot of conversations and dialogues, and some of the suggestions I made ended up in the final piece and some of them didn’t, depending on what the author felt like was right for the work. To contrast that with our newer novella, which is called Last Word, this piece came to us very polished and the author had spent a long time with it over the course of time. So, I didn’t have as many edits on that and he didn’t have as many edits on his own work either because he had already done all of that work and had a lot of other readers. It just depends on the project and what the author is up for, which means for some of them we go back and forth on all these different drafts and some of them we don’t do that much with. We think of editing as a service we can offer to people, which a lot of middle level presses or even other small presses don’t do anymore. They just publish your book. They don’t read it a bunch of times or help you edit it at all. And a lot of the bigger publishing houses will edit it without consulting the author, and they’ll just say, “You have to make these changes.” We try to offer ourselves to the authors and say, “What can we help you with?” or “What do you want to do with this?” It is very much a collaboration.

Ana Garcia: You must receive many manuscripts from authors who want to be published. What is the voice you want to give to them? What are you particularly looking for when you consider work for publication?

CP: It depends on a bunch of different things. It depends on what genre I’m reading, so in poetry sometimes I –at least, lately- am prone to writings that are more adventurous, wild or strange. In fiction, lately I am in a mood for traditional things. What I’m looking for on a manuscript changes depending on what I am interested in at the time, but also really strong writing, regardless of genre or style, can tell me the intention behind it and keeps me interested while reading it. When Rescue Press started, I was interested in hybrid genres, which I still am, but that was one of the reasons why we started, like one of our books To Be Human Is to Be a Conversation, is a piece that is part memoir and part poetry, there are photographs and questions, so it is a documentary text that is very interesting. I’m interested when people are mixing mediums and playing around.

AG:  What is the most challenging part of editing an author’s piece? Are there any aspects in particular that you get tired of?

CP: That is one of the qualities I look for before I accept something. We publish about 5 books every year, which is kind of a lot for a small press, but also it’s not that many books. When I decide we are going to publish something, one of the things I think about is “Is this a book that I want to read one hundred times?” Because that is the editing process: you read it over and over again, and you collaborate with the author. In the process, sometimes your life changes or sometimes you’re reordering everything, or cutting huge parts or encouraging people to write more into it, so there are many things that can happen. Some manuscripts don’t need much work at all, but I pick things I know I won’t get tired of, which is hard because there’s a lot of good work out there and it’s quality writing, but I know I can’t read it a hundred times. However, this helps me to read out what I want to publish, too.

AG: Does the writing change a lot when it falls into the editors hands?

CP: It depends a lot on the book project, so some of them we’ve done massive amounts of work in collaboration with the author, and some of them we’ve changed one word. A lot of it depends on how much the author is willing to work with us and hear our opinion. So I would say that it is very different for different books.

AG: Rescue Press varies a lot on the aesthetics they choose for their books. What do you take into account in a book to choose how it should look like?

CP: One of the things that we do, but not all small presses do, is that we really try to make a physical object that fits the content, the style of the work and the author’s vision of it. That’s why all of our books look really different, a lot of small presses will use the same size, the same type of pattern for their covers, but we work very closely in collaboration with the author. Sometimes they’ll say: “I just envisioned sort of a big book for mine,” so we’ll try to make them interesting, trying to use the content to suggest other artistic representations for it, while keeping the author’s vision of it at all times.

AG:  After reading so many manuscripts, do you think they have influenced/inspired your own writing?

CP: Definitely yes! I don’t know if I could say how, though. I think just the more you read, the more influence you get. The work that I publish, that I read, influences me a lot. I just read Frankenstein for the first time, and I thought: “Wow, this book is awesome!” So all you read starts layering in your head, and there’s more like available sort of models that you can do.

AG: Now that you went to the publishing companies as a writer and not as an editor, how did this experience make you feel? Do you think that your experience as an editor prepared you for the editing process?

CP: It did. I knew what to expect and the editors for my book were great. Factory Hollow Press is the press that put out my book, and they are the amazing in every single aspect. It was such a gift to work with them, and I felt so honored that they wanted to publish my book. My editor, Emily Petit, spent so much time with my work, and gave me a million bizarre ideas for the cover. She was very patient for editing, and gave me great advice in reordering the poems. So yes, being an editor prepared me, but I was still very lucky with the people I worked with.

AG: What made you decide you wanted to become an editor? What do you enjoy the most about your work?

CP: I enjoy reading all of that work. Basically I just have been a huge reader since I was a little kid and I’ve always been a writer, too. I could not get enough reading while I was growing up. I read every single book in my house, and visited the library very often. That’s still what I do, I mean, part of my job is to read which is what I love to do. Even more than writing.

“Hi. It’s Me, Death” with Dana Levin

Tibetan Buddhism, hawks, death, dreams and Wikipedia Inspire Dana Levin to write Sky Burial.

Ana Garcia: What is your usual process for getting an idea for a poem, and then how is it for you to write it down?

Dana Levin: Ideas come primarily in two ways. One is from outside my head, like reading an article or seeing something in life, the news, or visual images. The first poem in Sky Burial describes something that happened to me: I came home and there was this hawk on the hedge, right there, and I was really surprised. Then I thought “Oh, this means something. It’s an omen!” I went up and I took a look at the symbol book, so that actually happened. With that experience and looking up what “hawk” meant, and how it started merging my internal experience with my parents and my sister being dead, it’s an example of the poem being externally inspired but ultimately coming back to what is internally on my mind. Another way that poems come to me is through the unconscious, like dream images.

The poem “Mentor” comes from a dream I had: ghosts that need reminding. Those three prose poems in the middle of Sky Burial come from dreams which seem very lofty… and I just felt like they had to stay in prose. When you read prose, there’s an expectation of reading for information of some kind, which doesn’t exactly happen when you see a poem format, it’s a different experience. It felt like I had to keep those in a prose format to be intentional with the fact that they came from just the weirdness of dreams. It was one of the things that helped me to write those.

 

Hannah Malik: What other religions and cultures did you research in your process of writing?

DL: The two main cultures I focused on were the Aztec and Tibetan Buddhism- and it’s a weird combo, because the Buddhism is very detached; everything is from the mind, nothing is completely real. They’re death-focused, but in such a way to teach us about impermanence. Nothing lasts. They do a lot of shamanic work, such as meditation to the point of imagining you cutting off your head, scooping out your brains to study the poison inside, then turning it into a golden elixir. Another imagines you chopping up your body and feeding it to your demons, it’s totally violent, but it’s all at the level of your mind… the Aztecs are completely different. They’re like a complete blood-cult and seem to me the most literal people I’ve encountered. For instance, they take captives from war, kill them, skin them and dye the skin golden. The chieftains would wear them for several days- while they’re rotting- and afterwards take off the skins and be new people; spring has arrived. To me, that’s a really literal interpretation. Blood sacrifice was practiced every twenty days to bring in the new months. I also studied things that didn’t necessarily make it into the book, for instance I studied the weird kinds of bugs found in Egyptian tombs for a while, but that didn’t end up in a poem. I read about really weird burial practices, but the only one that really came forward was the “sky burial”.

 

AG: You continuously mention websites and popular culture icons, along with more spiritual ideas such as the “sky burial”. What was your purpose in combining these two kinds of elements?

DL: I wanted to mix those details for a lot of reasons. One: that was my experience. On one hand I’m doing all of this meditation on Tibetan Buddhism and reading all of this very philosophical writing about Tibetan Buddhism approaches to death, and all of a sudden I’m on Wikipedia looking for what happens when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. I was trying to show the fact that I was having a transcendental experience but I was also having a very ordinary experience. I used to be the kind of poet who would get angry if people mentioned things in their poems such as Dr. Pepper or chips, it broke the spell for me. Now I’m more aware of how huge our digital world is, how it is part of what we are now experiencing, and how I would like to document my engagement with it. Somebody was writing about my work, saying, “I love how she talks about Tibetan Buddhism but then mentions junk food” and I liked that. But when I was younger, it would have driven me insane, because I would have wanted to break the spell of the poem. I wanted to stay true to my experience, to witness my journey on this grief. What I found very interesting about investigating for example about body’s decay, what happens to the body after it dies, forensic anthropology, is how found it very calming.

 

HM: On top of being a recalibration for yourself, is there a message you would like to convey to your readers?

DL: Yes, it isn’t really in the book, but in a nutshell what the Tibetan Buddhism says is ‘we’re all going to die, so why not be nice to each other?’ and that really resonated with me. We’re always being mean to one another in bigger or smaller ways. I don’t think that comes through the book, but I feel they should make the confrontation with death. Don’t shy away from it- it’s profound! It’s hugely transformative, and we’re a total death-denying country. We’re constantly trying to keep it at bay, from plastic surgery to freaking-out about the food we put in our bodies. We put all our death on TV, too, and I think that’s to help us pretend it’s not happening in the world.

AG: You have mentioned that you are not a fiction writer. Apart from the format, for you what’s the essential difference between poetry and fiction?

Dana: I guess that most fiction writers think in terms of character and plot, that’s how they get inspired. For me, poets are often inspired by not situations but are interested in emotional perception: the way the light might look on the wall, seeing a hawk and wondering about it. So I think the way they want to engage the reader is very different in terms of what might inspire them. I also think that you could think of poets as people who want to drop down deep, and prose writers wanting sort of fill up and expand. It’s not exactly vertical versus horizontal, but in a way it kind of is. It’s just a different way of holding inspiration and figuring out how you want to work it out.

 

HM: Is there a specific way in which you sequence your poems?

DL: Yes, I pay very very very close attention to the way I sequenced the book. Originally, I had wanted it to be circular, but I don’t know how to do that effectively. My mentor originally sequenced the book very strangely: we had agreed from the start the book would start with Auger and end with Spring, but she had sequenced very dark poems with short, unrelated ones. Her reasoning for this was to keep waking the reader up and keep them interested, and that was truly innovative for me. I didn’t quite like how the second half of the book was put together, so I sequenced that part myself, but the book as a whole is still cyclical in nature.

 

AG: You mentioned during another interview that writing this book was not part of a mourning process, it was a “recalibration.” How do you interpret that?

DL: When that many people who are close to you die in such a short period of time, I thought I was really supposed to get death. This isn’t about my personal loss and feelings, this is about “Hi, it’s me, Death. Again. Taking someone you love from you right now,” and I just thought I had to make the confrontation with death, to really see into our nature. And also just grief was an amazing experience, because I became convinced that we are born with a set of emotions: I think we are born with the grief as an emotion but it doesn’t get activated until someone close to you dies. Once of the reasons grief can be so disorienting is because most of us don’t experience the dead of a close loved one until we are older, and at that point we know what it is to be sad, and we know how it is to be happy, and the physiological experiences that go with those feelings. However grief comes with its own set of physiological experiences like exhaustion, insomnia, it’s a whole other thing, a physical feeling. Especially if you are an adult because you felt like you understood the emotional palette, and then this one gets activated and you just can’t believe it, it’s very overwhelming. I was interested in trying to look at those experiences with a more analytical eye and I think that is what I did not drown in the feelings that I was also having. Recalibration means that I have to integrate death into my life, and it has actually made me a person I like, I like what death has done to me. I’m more tempered in the ways I deal with the world, I’m a little more fatalistic, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I’m less anxious about living. I feel like before these experiences I was a hot sword that you’re making and you put it into cold water to temper it, and now I feel like I was a very hot sword and then death came and it was very shocking but now I’m stronger, sharper.

 

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. 🙂 )