Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Responding to Harvey Hix’ 20 questions got me to finally sit down and address a set of questions that had been posed to me by David F. Hoenigman for Word Riot. It was a piece that took longer, especially in what I’d characterize as the ruminating stage, precisely because its questions were more writerly, i.e., about the personal process of writing & its place in my life. I wonder if, as an interview, this project might not seem less interesting to a lot of readers precisely because it’s more personal.

What projects are you currently working on? 

I’m at work on a half dozen sections of Universe, which is the next major part of my long project, Ketjak. The Age of Huts, Tjanting, and The Alphabet were the first three stages of this project, and Universe is the next. “Ketjak” is also the title of the opening poem in The Age of Huts, and continues in The Alphabet. It’s the Balinese word for “monkey” and is the title of a ritual performance the Balinese do for tourists based on the Ramayana epic. It was actually cobbled together by Western folklorists to give the Balinese a means of extracting some cash from the auslanders above & beyond gamelan. So it’s an allusion back to the tale itself, to the powerful cumulative sound of the ritual, and to the process of globalization, where everything is brought into the circle, but on the worst commercial terms.

When and why did you begin writing?

I began in fifth grade. My teacher that year, Vance Teague, had us write for an hour each week, every Wednesday morning. There were no rules, no genre limitations, just write. It very quickly became my favorite time at school.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

When I was a teenager, about a couple of years before I seriously started to try to do the real stuff, as distinct from the kid writing projects I did in school.

What inspired you to write your first book?

Crow, which was published by Ithaca House in 1971, was written very much under the influence of William Carlos Williams & especially of Spring & All, which Frontier Press had brought out in 1970, after having been out of print for over 45 years.

Who or what has influenced your writing?

When you get to be in your sixties, that list becomes too impossibly long. Williams was certainly the first & in many ways deepest influence, but Spicer & Zukofsky & Creeley cannot be denied, all of my language poetry cohorts – Rae Armantrout & Barrett Watten in particular. Most recently, I’ve been influenced by the Flarf Collective, tho I can’t say I’ve written anything that would qualify even remotely as such.

How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

Under Albany, which is as much a memoir of growing up as it is an explication of the first poem in The Alphabet, goes into this in painful detail. My work with the Grand Piano collective has more. Suffice it to say, I write to know who I am.

Do you have a specific writing style?

I’m a straightforward realist.

What genre are you most comfortable writing?

Poetry. Criticism.

Is there a message in your work that you want readers to grasp?

It sounds silly to say “Be Here Now,” but I think that’s the message of all good writing.

What book are you reading now?

Last night I was reading Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day & this morning I spent awhile reading around in My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer. P. Inman’s Ad Finitum is to the left of my desk here & I will be poking around in it again later today.

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

There’s the Flarf Collective again.

What is the most misunderstood aspect of your work? 

The presumption that I’m a “difficult poet.” I was pleased the other day when Andrew Ervin reviewed The Alphabet for The Philadelphia Inquirer and said reading my work was no more difficult than looking out of the window of a SEPTA train here in Philly. It’s a trope that Ervin borrowed (sans attribution I would note) from Barrett Watten’s original introduction to Tjanting in 1981, when Watten argued that a “bus ride is better than most art.” It’s good to see that some people are getting it, that you can just read what’s there and that will tell you everything you need to know about my work.

Ervin dropped me a note when this appeared on the Word Riot site to say that he had not seen the 1981 edition of Tjanting & had come upon the transit trope independently. Given how long that edition was out of print before Salt reissued the book in 2002 (with a different Watten introduction taken from the early drafts of The Grand Piano), Ervin’s correction makes sense. I am intrigued – and pleased – by the parallel, given that they’re descriptions of different books more than a quarter century apart. Hopefully one could say of both, as Watten concluded his first intro to Tjanting, “It is possible, in fact, to read this book on the bus.”