A Conversation With Alice Bolin

Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. It is a New York Times Notable Book of 2018 and a New York Times Editor’s Choice book, is on the list of Kirkus’ Best Nonfiction Books of 2018, and is an Edgar Award nominee.  Alice has published poems, stories, and essays in numerous publications, and is the former Poet-in-Residence at Idyllwild Arts Academy. She is currently a Creative Nonfiction professor at the University of Memphis.

 

Delany Burk and Kalista Puhnaty sat down to interview Alice about her recently published essay collection, Dead Girls, a large portion of which was written during her two years as the Poet-In-Residence here at Idyllwild Arts Academy.

 

Q: You write in many of your essays about the sexism that is present in the media. Do you think it is improving with the “Me Too” movement and the issues that are being brought up surrounding that?

 

A: I do think that it is improving, and that there have been a lot of changes when it comes to representation, and more diverse stories, but we have a really long way to go. I also still think stories that are supposedly combating sexism often play into it in certain ways. Even with the Sharp Objects thing, where a lot of it is just an excuse to just watch violence against women, and also watch women be ravaged by their past trauma. I don’t necessarily know if staying in that mode is doing us any favors, and I would like to see just more diversity in stories, not only in terms of representation but in terms of the kinds of stories we tell, and more experimentation with plot and structure. It is happening in some ways, like–I don’t even want to use this example–with anthology series like Black Mirror, changing the ways that people consume TV, which is really cool, and we aren’t as stuck in this season arc thing. But I think that we still have a long way to go, that’s my basic answer.

 

Q: Do you think that the fascination with dead girl shows, and stories like that, have anything to do with the “damsel in distress” theme from many older stories?

 

A: Yeah! It has everything to do with that. That sort of overlap between fairy tales and dead girl stories, and the ways that they always feel fairy tale-esque, harkening back to those attitudes about women, about women needing to be saved or helped by men. We still feel really comfortable with that narrative, of “Oh, let’s get a dad to come help,” but that’s what’s interesting about dead girl shows. The dads are the heroes and the villains, and that tells us something about our culture that we didn’t know before, which is ultimately sort of the good thing about them. But yes, it definitely harkens back to that damsel in distress image for sure.

 

Q: Why do you think that serialized crime shows are so popular, when a majority of people don’t know about real cases of women disappearing and dying, especially with the killings of women of color and trans women often going unspoken about?

 

A: I think our conception of what a mystery is has everything to do with the identity of the victim, and probably the perpetrator. When I lived in Los Angeles, two guys were shot right near my house and their killers were never caught. What they said in the newspaper was, “Oh, it was probably gang related,” and that they were two Latino guys, and that’s all we ever heard about it. That’s a mystery, we don’t know who did it, but it wasn’t treated like a mystery. Gang violence answers the question. “Okay, mystery solved!” When a white girl gets killed you feel like, “Oh! Who could have possibly done it?” because we don’t think that white women deserve violence in the way that we think that other kinds of people deserve violence. Or maybe because that’s just not our image of a victim of a violent crime. So that’s part of it, the allure of “the perfect victim.” Also, I have read literary theory stuff about serialized fiction even in the Victorian era, you know, Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but also journalism. Once the daily newspaper would come, people would follow these cases that were salacious, and serialization is kind of this method of getting people addicted to narratives, where once you have that cliffhanger, people start to fill in their own ideas of who did it, and what the answer is. It is perfect for these kinds of stories. I think that it has to do with structure too, there’s something about it that has been around for 200 years.

 

Q: Is there ever a time where having a dead girl in a story can be justified? And If so, how do we write stories about dead girls in a way that doesn’t fall in the same pitfalls that other dead girl stories do?

 

A: I don’t really feel like I’m the arbiter of what kind of stories people get to write. I even met the writer Megan Abbott who has written a bunch of literary… you might say literary thrillers, and they all center around female characters, and female rage you might say, and she explicitly said about my book, even though she liked the book, and she gave me a blurb, she said about my book that she doesn’t necessarily agree, and she thinks that we need to keep telling dead girls’ stories, and keep exploring that idea, because that’s where we’re going to find some answers about why this violence is so prevalent. Which I think is valid. I respect that opinion. So basically my answer is I don’t know… but I think there are ways that dead girls shows, and dead girls stories can kind of reveal our feelings towards women, and our feelings about crime and about who is the perpetrator and who is the victim, in ways that other stories can’t because they’re so outlandish and over the top and even fairy tale-esque, and magical. They kind of illustrate our really messed up interest in these stories by being so over the top. I think Twin Peaks is the perfect example of that.

 

Q: What other criticisms have you received for Dead Girls, and how would you address them?

 

A: I think that the biggest criticism that people have of it is that it is not all about dead girls. There need to be more dead girls in it, that it’s too personal, and there’s not enough analysis of that phenomenon in it, and it’s a little bit of a bait and switch. Which… whatever. But I think for me that was not the book that I was interested in writing, was a critical analysis purely of this dead girl phenomenon, not that it would be difficult to write. But I also felt like, “Well there are endless dead girls, I could write about that forever. Where do I find an end to that story? How do I find my way out of it instead of just staying in it? That book could be 1000 pages long. How do I find a resolution?”  And the only way that I could do that was sort of veering off course, and examining other stories, maybe examining alternatives to that story and thinking about my own stories and the ways that I have sort of been complicit in the kind of oppression I was critiquing. That was how I found my way out of it. I’ve talked to women who are really cool who are like “Oh I’m so excited for your book, I’m a PhD student and I’m writing about violence against women in literature for my dissertation” or something and I’m like, “That’s great…” and you know I think that can exist alongside my book, and be kind of an alternative. I’m not the only person who is writing about this stuff but that’s kind of my take about it.

 

Q: You seem to have a fascination with mystery; have you considered writing a mystery novel or story? If so, how would you approach it?

 

A: Yeah! I want to write one about Idyllwild. But the thing is, I do like mystery and mysteries, but what I like more is that kind of mood, a really noir-ish or thriller-ey tone. And I love that in books that really have no mystery or the mystery is kind of missing, like books by Shirley Jackson, or Patricia Highsmith. I think those books, or even books like Toni Morrison, or “Ghost Story” books where you feel like there’s a mystery and you are reading it like there is one but ultimately the mystery is never going to be solved. That’s the kind of book I’d like to write. And maybe about Idyllwild. I think it would be the perfect setting. It’s so creepy.

 

I moved to Idyllwild from Koreatown in LA, which is the most densely populated part of LA, and I never felt worried about walking around at night because there were always people everywhere… but here? No. I’ve written about it a little bit, I think it’s so perfect for that creepy mood. That’s what I’m more interested in, because I do want to question our addiction to mysteries.

 

Q: Has teaching influenced your opinion on women in media?

 

A: I mean, teaching has influenced sort of everything that I think, but… Basically I think one thing that teaching helps me do is be more open-minded towards kind of practical ways that representation is important or sticking by what I believe in in certain ways, where maybe even if I like a book, or an essay, I’m maybe not going to assign it if I think that it could be offensive or marginalizing towards my students. And it is more important for me to represent more diverse and interesting voices because that is what my students need, and also what they would appreciate. So I feel like in some ways it has put me more in a mind of how I can be more responsible for my own choices, and the media that I’m personally consuming and recommending or assigning. Because I have this weird kind of power where I can make a group of people read books that I tell them to, and so I want them to read books that do have good representation of women, that don’t have damaging ideas about women, unless that’s something that we want to talk about.

 

Q: You’ve dug quite deep into many aspects of the media that are considered shallow. Are there any rabbit holes you’ve gone down that didn’t make the cut?

 

A: Lots of them. Yes, tons. Especially stuff about music and country music. There’s none of that in the book but I have written lots about country music, because I think that country radio is really fascinating and especially actually how it relates to women and female artists and the kind of values that it perpetuates to its audience. Also stuff about reality TV, there’s a little bit in there but I have, much more to say about MTV. I think I am probably going to be writing about stuff about media in my next collection, especially women and social media influencers, stuff like that is something I am really really interested in and love to write about.

 

Q: What is your opinion on the media’s obsession with bad mothers?

 

A: Hmmm. I feel like the media probably has pretty equal obsessions with bad mothers and bad dads, but they’re portrayed in different ways. I think we villainize women more for being bad mothers, like it’s almost perverse to be a bad mother. But to be a bad dad is sort of expected. It’s like, “Oh, sure.” It’s sort of a cliche, where a bad mom is like gasp, “So shocking!” and that’s something that in fairy tales, usually the mother is dead. But there might be an evil stepmother, or there’s this witch figure off in the wings and there clearly is literally or figuratively a stand in for a bad mother or an absent mother. I think it has a lot to do with our anger towards women, and towards our own parents. That’s something I talk about I think in the dead girl show essay, that the Philosopher Julia Kristeva, her theory of the abject had to do with this anger, maternal anger, anger towards our moms, she was a psychoanalytic theorist, so its like this Freud thing, but I think that it’s kind of gross, right? That’s really my only take on it, I really like stories about moms, and about moms who are in the picture, and who are good moms. I think that’s actually much more interesting than bad moms… Bad moms can be interesting too. That’s what my student at Idyllwild said to the class once: “To get writing ideas, I google ‘I hate my kids.’” I was like, “How many stories can you write about people who hate their kids?” but still, that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.

 

When The Wise Man Speaks

Grace Vedock explores the conflicting drive of creative passion and its often exhausting nature in this piece.

I don’t mind sleepless nights
utterly unmanageable
afraid of drowning in
piping hot cups of coffee

So wind me up, watch me go
seventy-five down the metro
and moving from predator to prey
has not been easy, but natural

Rather mindful indeed, and not
an ounce of shame to show
proud and pearly whites
or matte black silhouettes

I’d play for you if I could
the melody of a thousand notes
the key change of a single song
if I mustn’t choke back
the fear (a dangerous
concoction when mixed
with passion)

To this day, I am
convinced that
He sang it better.

Executive entanglement, I’d like
to say, yet words fail me;
you belong on the couch
feet on top of mine;
tucked, frightened, and ready to run

The yellow pencil trembles
while I grasp it
I beg to communicate
a foreign and mental narrative
Pen for me not ten verses, but one.
The scraps of memories that live
in the darkest corners
and compartmentalized
into the ephemeral seasons

When pure bliss was mine,
I didn’t know.
Brilliant ideas rarely appear
in the “comfort zone”

But who you are is not
who I want you to be-
you belong to the people
who love you
hopelessly lost
in the labyrinth
of life

When you took a shot
at change, it worked.
You transform the intolerable
into the sentimental,
much like everything else:
Ideas that didn’t die.

 

By Grace Vedock

Grace Vedock is an aspiring poet. When she isn’t finishing her schoolwork, Grace enjoys looking to outside sources of inspiration for writing. Throughout her high school career, poetry and literature have been of great interest to Grace. On her own time, she decided to study and begin to write poetry. A handful of her poems have been published, most notably by Crashtest Magazine and The Noisy Island. She has an acute desire to share her poetry with the young readers and writers of the world.

Artwork by Sumin Seo.

Gregory Robinson talks Mixed Medium

The Creative Writers were fortunate enough to gain an insight into the fascinating world of Gregory Robinson’s unique prose-poetry.

Everyone has an obsession. Gregory Robinson channels his fascination of silent films into his book of prose-poetry, All Movies Love the Moon. This book takes readers on an entertaining journey through the evolution of silent films. The creative writing majors of Idyllwild Arts Academy were fortunate enough to Skype with Robinson and ask him questions about his writing.

 

When and how did you get interested in silent films?

Robinson: It started when I watched The General with a friend who was really into silent films. It was amazing. Silent films have so many surprises, and they break many of the rules that they ultimately helped to establish. Also, as a literary sort, I loved that silent movies ask you to read. As I started to watch more, I noticed how essential the title cards are, and I love how they blend in with the design of the movie. The more silent movies I watched, the more I got into them. Now I’m a big fan. My wife and I go to the silent film festival in San Francisco every year.

I was wondering if you wrote the book in chronological order? Or did you go all around?

Robinson: I totally went all around. I was really worried that the texts would sound detached, and that it wouldn’t be a cohesive piece, but recurring themes eventually emerged on their own.

At what point did you know you were writing the book?

Robinson: I sat down one night and wrote one about the movie Sunrise, and it just sort of clicked. After that, my goal was to write one [prose-poem] a night and write 100 total. I wrote about 50, and just over 30 made it to the book.

You write prose poetry, which is a hybrid combination of two genres (prose and poetry). Hybrid writing, such as this, is not something you generally find on the bookshelf of your local Barnes and Noble. Because of this, did you ever feel like a misfit writer?

Robinson: I thought it would be an unpublishable book. I was not sure if there was an audience, and publishers often don’t want to publish an image and poetry book–it’s really expensive, for one thing. It is also not quite traditional prose or poetry. With prose poetry, I felt like I was not writing in any genre. I was just writing quick quips. I felt like I was writing other things that other people weren’t doing. It’s not so radical, but it did feel different.

How did you find someone who would publish something so unconventional?

Robinson: I found Rose Metal Press as I wandered around at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference, and I bought The Louisiana Purchase by Jim Goar. Rose Metal Press looks for hybrid works such as flash fiction and image/text combinations. I only spoke with them for a few minutes, but I knew they would be a good fit for me. I had my book mostly written at that point, so I sent it in during their open reading period.

In the book, the speaker references imagined conversations with Ralph Spence, a prominent title card writer in early 1900s. Would you mind describing what it was like to talk with Ralph Spence?

Robinson: I never actually met him; he died a long time ago. In the book, I have some imaginary dialog with his ghost. I can say that he was a very important guy. He knew everyone in Hollywood and lived a movie star lifestyle, including mansions and limousines. His job was to “fix” movies with words. They called him a film doctor, and I love the idea that words could make a movie better. His tagline was “All bad little movies go when they die go to Ralph Spence.” He was not a nice person, though. He had a wife and child that he neglected and he ultimately died alone. He had a grandson, and I did talk to him, but that was the closest I got [to speaking to Ralph Spence]. Spence’s grandson knows very little about him, nor does anyone else.  I drove to find Spence’s grave once, but it was mostly grown over. So, the lesson from Spence is that you should write down your stories. At some point, people will want to know who you were. I want to be able to know Ralph better, but I don’t think I ever will.

Was this book supposed to pose more answers to questions about silent movies, or more questions?

Robinson: I hope that I asked more questions. The book should be playful and fun, while dealing with serious issues. In fact, I think the book is kind of a bad place to go for real answers. There are facts scattered throughout, but there are also partial truths, and things that I might like to be true.

What is your definition of immortality? Movies contain an essence of immortality because they last forever, so I was wondering what your definition is.

Robinson: I love thinking about silent movies ahistorically – so rather than considering them immortal works, I try to look at them as if they were created recently. This lets me talk about silent movies without being nostalgic.

What was your favorite movie to watch and what was your favorite poem to write?

Robinson: My favorite poem didn’t make the collection. In fact, I do not think I even submitted it to the press. It was The Passion of Joan of Arc, which is probably my favorite silent movie. My wife is named Joan, and the poem was more a piece for the two of us. My favorite movie to write about was The Woman in the Moon. I love all the scenes, interactions, and innuendos, and what they thought a rocket ship would look like.

What is the future of written word? Do we have anything left to say?

Robinson: I think we do. I love to see authors play with genre and look forward to works that combine genres. For example, think about all the genres that are available – play writing, cookbooks recipes, and obituaries, which aren’t typically creative, but are fertile soil for someone with creative ideas. Take the dullest thing you can find and make it into something amazing. Those are the kind of things I love to read.

Pink Weddings with Kristina Darling & Carol Guess.

Ana Garcia experiences grown-up fairy tales in “X Marks the Dress: A Registry,” a new poetry book by Kristina Marie Darling & Carol Guess.

Kristina Marie Darling & Carol Guess. X Marks the Dress: A Registry. 2013.  100 pages. $15.15. ISBN: 0985919159.

Kristina Marie Darling & Carol Guess bring a wonderful collection of poems in their book X Marks the Dress: A Registry. These poems explore various themes, such as relationships, identity, and love, but the authors manage to write them in such a way that the collection reads like a short story. Darling is a recognized author of seven other books and is the winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award; Guess has published another twelve books, some of which were nominated for the Lambda Literary Award. This collaboration resulted in one of the most interesting and catching poetry books I’ve come across this year.

From the very first poem, we are transported into a vintage, pink world that gives the sense of being part of a fairy tale. However, as one moves on, we realize that this is more of a bittersweet story, like what happened before the characters could live happily ever after. We get to witness scenes previous to the wedding and how they affect the vision we have of ourselves, the experience of becoming parents, the fights the couple has, the struggles we go through trying to regain our sense of identity. The authors do a perfect job keeping the readers interested, drawing them into a knot of experiences and emotions that get more and more complicated. While reading this, I found myself feeling nostalgic, as if I was looking at the wedding album of someone I knew very well, knowing that their lives weren’t exactly a perfect fairytale, but that there is still a bittersweet love between them. This is a book that can be enjoyed by anyone, because even if the reader is more into fiction stories than poetry, X Marks the Dress: A Registry, can be read as a plain, sweet short story.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book was the experimentation with various formats to take us on this journey. Filled with prose poetry, appendixes, footnotes and line breaks, it creates a very unique and creative reading experience. For example, the poem “A History of Wedding Invitations: Glossary of Terms,” just consist of various definitions of many concepts that surround the idea of weddings; however, they are not “formal” definitions that we would find on a dictionary: the writers here played with the concepts they have been working on the book so far, adding their own original ideas to these concepts, making it fun to read. Or in their poem, “Appendixes,” where it just consists of footnotes, but there’s not text at all. Yet, as we read the footnotes, we can have an idea of what the “invisible poem” would be about.

Even when the formatting is so varied, it does not make the poems hard to follow, which comes back to my earlier point that this book can be also read as a short story. This is the perfect book to have a date with on a weekend. This book must definitely be part of your bookshelf!

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. 🙂 )