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1. 1. You write both fiction and poetry. What can a poem “say” that fiction can’t? And vice versa? And how does your method for each differ?
* For me they genres overlap. I like the documentary aspect of narrative so that often shows up in whatever I write. Most of what I publish features narrative, as I see that as a useful tool. “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” Muriel Rukeyser famously stated (she wrote both prose and poetry). Narratives are useful not merely because they document our Universe, but also—perhaps more importantly—because new stories challenge the narratives that we live our lives by and don’t realize it, that we don’t question ourselves. Until a real writer comes along. This is one reason why people continually demand new stories. 19 year old Mary Shelley’s Frankensteins story is has been a best-seller since its publication and is retold every year on stage and screen precisely because it offers a counternarrative to the worthless lies of technocrats and politicians who tell us that to submit to endless capital and technology is the final solution. Frankenstein, like Moby Dick, warns us otherwise.
* If a narrative is more of a socially negotiated agreed upon series of conventions (dialogue shall be placed in quotation marks in America, but not in England, for example; the narrator shall be first person or third person, etc., ) etc., all the conventions of narrative reflecting the negotiations of literary tradition, then poetry is seen as a more autochthonous, individualist, maverick—not adhering to or following upon Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy, the elements of which remain so influential in narrative forms of storytelling, theater, movies, novels. The sources of poems are more wild, more diverse: poetry comes from conversational speech and public speeches, from prayer, utterance, spells, sayings, proverbs, mnemonic phrases and words, images and notions, whims—not insignificantly, poems often come from the rational intellect being defeated, unsuspected emotions rising to expression, the calculating mind replaced by something more primal. If narratives speak through socially agreed-upon conventions and work to subvert social expectations, inventing new stories, then poems can simply start from that place—beyond conventional, customary language. That’s why most readers cannot abide poetry. It’s only for those willing to go off-road, bushwhack, go off the grid and get outside boundaries. Of course there are poetic conventions and traditions also, but you’re asking me to draw a line between poetry and prose.
* To make it brief, my methodologies overlap in many areas related to writing. This relates to one of your questions below. Where they differ is, perhaps, that in in narrative the novelist or storyteller keeps going back to the story till it is done with her or him. The poet goes to figures of speech.
2. 2. If I may paraphrase, you said in an interview with Amy Uyematsu in 1997 that you were interested in voices and the rhythm of the spoken language, that you find the way people talk poetic. Sixteen years later, have these rhythms changed? How?
Have rhythms of Americans speaking changed since 1997? Not really, I think. Maybe people are more tentative, more subdued, by economic cycles of dispossession and waste and income redistribution from the working class to the rich. Maybe Americans sound more tentative. I usually work with specifics. This past year we lost some great poets, Jayne Cortez in December 2012, and in the past year Amiri Baraka and Wanda Coleman. What voices do we have that can speak truth to power like they did? I am grateful for our California Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, for example.
3. 3. Your work has been called experimental. Do you agree or disagree? Why? If not, what is considered “not” experimental today?
Experimentalism has been a feature and methodology of 20th century Modernism, going back to the late 19th century. I don’t disagree that it’s a feature of my work; I’d disagree that any original writer is not experimenting with innovation in some aspect of her or his work. It’s a standard feature, like 21 speeds on a bike. What is considered “not” experimental are prose fiction writers who don’t alter much their accepted conventions of paragraphing, sentence structure, POV, etc. Often those prose fiction writers are selling conventional stories that don’t challenge prevailing narratives in our lives (genrefied, murder mysteries, romances, etc.) to insecure readers. Related to the third part of question #1 above, I enjoy employing techniques of contemporary poetry when I am writing prose, and deploying techniques of prose fiction in hybridized books I write (such as World Ball Notebook) that are marketed as poetry. I can tell you which one sells more.
4. 4. Sir Philip Sidney says in his Defence of Poesy that “[Nature’s] world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden,” and this is a good thing because it gives people a moral standard to strive toward. Do you think this is true for poetry today? During Sidney’s time, poetry was under fire because it was considered the “mother of lies,” a waste of time, a force that made men sin, removed real courage and valour from reality and puts it into poems, etcetera… Today fiction writing and poetry attract critique in the university (and lose funding) because we live in a world increasingly centered around science and technology. If you had to give your own Defence of 21st century poetry, what would your argument be? And what line would we still be quoting five hundred years in the future?
Contemporary poetry is so diverse as to include Kenneth Goldsmith’s work and that of like-minded conceptualists—he once retyped an edition of the New York Times and published it as a book—to (UC Davis professor) Joshua Clover, Juliana Spahr and (UCSC professor) David Lau who argue for “poetry and writing committed to anticapitalist and antistate politics” to neoRomantic lyric poets who might argue that their tender little quatrains are the last bastion against industrialized processed feeling. It’s very diverse, out there in Poetry Land. My defence of poetry—and literary writing in general—is that it’s democratic. It’s not all bad, it’s not all good. Some of it’s not going to work. Some of it is. Some of us are going to suffer and die and we’re not going to win. Keep your eyes on the prize. Some of us are gonna win. Some of us will get there. There’s only one way to get there. That is to go.
But I don’t care about one line somebody (I don’t know who that would be) would quote in 500 years. If they are quoting any of us in 500 years, good for them, it has done its work—because it serves their needs, whatever they may be, 400 years after Global Warming.
5. 5. What’s the most important thing you took away from your time at UCSC?
My girlfriend at the time; we got married in 1980 after graduation. Yesterday, I got a chance to tell her that she was my favorite person.
A.) Happy Crowd of Faces and Bodies
Pink face coughs up turquoise clouds and dust balls
Cleaved face allows direct looking into both of their eyes
The cleaved nature of their face means that skins of animals like gray squirrel and raccoon are the lining of their wounds (the inside part of their face)
Orange face, what orange on their face! Such cheer and good natured friendliness, a glowing orb chest
Ropes that look like twisted green, brown, red and yellow cloth are like borders around images, or snakes moving around them, but also like veins or roads or sinew
Some of them have been torn apart, those retain some of their cheerfulness but alarm also shows on their faces
“Wow, I’ve been torn apart, my natural state is to be devoured. You all should know that we spend most of our existence in a state of spread rather than a state of unity. Unity is brief”
Some might have grease stains on their embroidered clothing, capes, sarapes, tunics and shirts. Some of the shirts will be full of animals flying in all directions like cave paintings.
Some of the faces’ chests will be caves.
Some of them will appear to be wooden women and men; like their bodies are made of carved wood with multicolored sinew joints.
Some will have slippery and shiny skin, some will have skin that’s opened and full of pustules–their eyes will be open for you to look at them, or their skin will be made of eyes that will look at you
Some will have saffron colored handkerchiefs in their hands that they will stretch between their fingers, and their fingers will be stained green from holding and stretching the handkerchiefs
Many will have shades of sage grays under their eyes, like effluvium of glared vision sprayed out of their eyes
Many will have stone animals that they wear around their necks, others will be the things that others wear around their necks
Some will have fat rings of paint circling around their collarbones to their shoulder blades
Some will be painted bright colors, some will have bright colored skin
Some will have bleeding gums from disease or lack of care. These flares of pink and red will communicate smells
Some will wear bundles of bones and ochres, others will paint themselves with bone black and red ochre
Saffron, teals, oranges, vermillion, turquoise, corals, pinks, ultramarine, blueish whites, blacks, lime greens, simple greens, cerulean blues
Many will be disintegrating and incomplete. They will not ever complete themselves or their own meaning
Hair will vary greatly, most hair will be black or gray and straight or wavy
Some hair will be covered in clay, white clay or red clay
Some hair will have stamped images made with white clay by painting a design on their palm, then pressing the wet design onto straight hair
Some will have great jewelry made of silver shapes, some will have hard and sharp adornments and have their hands full of objects
Many will force you to look into their eyes or face until your own face comes into question
Some will have bent bodies, some will have straight bodies, some bodies will be run through with braided cloth in many colors, some of the cloth might actually be intestines dyed with plant stuffs like indigo, onion skin and madder root
Some of them will inspire some amount of terror because they will be the living manifestations of bodies ruined by violent acts
Others will be terrifying because they will be the living manifestations of what will happen to all of our bodies
Some will be terrifying because of our irrational fear of unpredictable behaviors, or our fear of irrational and unpredictable behaviors
Some will be so generous of spirit that they will give you energy to roam the room
Some will obviously be the hills of Los Angeles
Some will belong to the history of California
Some will have backbones as long as the continents
Some will recline across vast patches and tufts of land
Some will have hearts that open into yours
Some will be eating hearts
Some will split open, some will split you open
They will not be of a personal nature, or an allegorical nature, instead they will be of a gateway nature, one that allows one to pass through
Their attitude will be that of allowance, of invitation to take a step into
Some will have candles or lightbulbs, some will hold and light other types of lights
Some will sit in small burrows located inside others’ burrows
Some will have clothing that has folds where other clothing can be found
Most will be worlds unto themselves, hosts of all life
The room of their bodies and faces will be full of turbulence and stillness
No lyricism, no fanciness. Plain faced truth even if it doesn’t appear to be plain on the gross level, the faces will be easeful and presently plain
Some will sit and some will stand, some will be contorted by all types of things, boxes, caves, old age, deformity. The truth of bodies will be there for us to see
Some of their bodies will appear mechanical or wooden, some will be puddles on the floor, soft jackets of skin
Some of their skin will be radiant, some will be smooth and beautiful, others will have beautiful skin of eruptions
Some will have fur on their skin and the faces of animals
Others will have masks of animal faces or twisted faces
Some will hold metal things, rusting in their hands
Stains will be everywhere in the happy crowd of all kinds of faces and bodies
The faces will be serene in the happy crowd
The happy crowd will have endless depth and scale
The flatness of the depiction will speak to the essential limited view of our own perceptions, painted food and painted hunger
It will also speak to the abundant spaciousness of our connection with painted images, that our perceptions are a flat gate to real dimensional realities
1.) YOUR FACE WILL BE LIKE:
Clowns or spirit types, portraits, in large hi res photo prints, buffered with drawings, maybe ceramic objects.
Large portraits evoking large ideas of emotional states, obliquely referring to outdated and old iconography of lost traditions and inaccessible feelings. Hidden feelings, hidden cultures, all layed out through a manifesto of portraiture.
Sacred plants, foolish or contorted poses, layered clothing that hides the body or exaggerates it. Dirty or messy organic backdrops, enigmatic or ecstatic pointings to.
2.) Like gray blue plants, crisp and ashy
Like self regulating storms, building and ebbing, waving like fingered oceans
3.) I (my shivvering plant self) came out of an offshoot of the root of my rhizome, which has often used personae to establish and unhide dimensions of the fringe, dark connections/metaphysical connections unique to Los Angeles.
These connections include honoring the natural fibers of los angeles and the original aesthetic of the basin as cultivated and invented by the tongva people, harmonic resonances established, invented and amplified by thousand year projects.
Mestizo overlaying projects also created their own harmonics
The project in this context is an act of reclamation of an aesthetic value system, not traditional but living.
It’s also a clown project though. XXXXXXXX the past with its emphasis on cosmologies peopled with saints or supernatural presences, point to this new thing. It’s these personae that anchor the place that’s really the subject of the photo.
Sacred clowning, like sacred sainthood is an exalted place in human perception. Clowns occupy a frige space on the opposite side of the spectrum of saints. They’re dirty saints, creative and fecund. Getting into things , messing shit up.
The interrelatedness of them all make them a society. The individual attributes of each, often contradictory make them deities. “You can alway tell a god by their hilaritas” they have multiple attributes but maintain both sides if the “hilar” derivation being both full of hilarity and being hilarious.
Sacred clowning is a Native American practice. One power is that they are irrespective and sometimes disrespectful though not ignorant of power structures. They disappear, they reaffirm “no-soul”
These clowns challenge power by pushing through older harmonics, older perennial patterns. The power structure that down trods these patterns of life is non-living–while the fringe society that acts and re-enacts these works is more powerful than power structures.
“Funny Soul makes this world.”
4.) Risk of humiliation as clown is target of laughter. Clown cracks open people as zen master cuts off student’s finger. “Now you understand”
5.) Archetypical and can be consulted as a living embodiment of ancient human harmonics. A refined body language that enacts the symbiosis between human and non human earth.
6.) Outside Society: The clown is a representation of the egoless non participating human spirit–that which is apart from social convention, whose personality is unformed and ego undefined by the desires and reflections and self judgements triggered by society. Clown reaffirms existence of turbulence.
natalia ginzburg, alicia partnoy, jayne cortez, charlotte delbo, yoko ono, emily dickenson, cecilia vicuna, lisa chen, claudia rankine, wanda coleman, bhanu kapil, sharon doubiago, grace krilanovich, chris kraus, yosano akiko, dolores dorantes, yasmina reza, vera johnston, rosa luxemburg, grace paley, mei-mei berssenbrugge, anna seghers, mari sandoz, clarice lispector, helen potrebenko, jen hofer, marisela norte, karen yamashita, c. d. wright, ntozake shange, carson mccullers, flannery o’conner, gertrude stein, tsering yangmo dhompa, renee gladman, mary shelley, lynne tillman, virginia woolf, sei shonagon, lynda barry, sarah menefee, elena poniatowska, claribel alegria, nancy morejon, margaret randall, susan howe, rebecca solnit, allison hedge coke, rossana rossanda, muriel rukeyser, anuradha mahapatra, etel adnan
Ha! My wife arrived late as always, so sat in the foyer listening to the audio piped out with Gloria Alvarez, Jose Lozano and Laura Longoria, as well as others who joined us later at Pete’s on Main Street for wine and overpriced fare. I had put her name and Tisa’s on the guest list (the Poetry Society of America and Red Hen Press organizers ‘allowed’ 2 guests) but you had to arrive a half hour early before they gave your ticket away.
Kate Gale of Red Hen and Louise Steinman of the library greeted those who arrived early, per instructions, for the soundcheck. Red Hen authors reading Wanda’s work this evening included Wanda’s husband Austin Straus, who along with Wanda had interviewed me on their KPFK 90.7 Pacifica biweekly Poetry Connexion in the mid-1980s. Other Red Hen authors who read were Charles Webb, Ron Koertge, and Douglas Kearney. Longtime stalwarts of L.A. poetry (and Red Hen authors) Deena Metzger and Eloise Klein Healy, current—and first—Poet Laureate of L.A. were in the house—as well as a whole range of poets, as well as members of Wanda’s family (the Evans). The event kicked off with a recording of Wanda reading a poem dedicated to Los Angeles; SRO, maybe 245 people—some of those folks we used to see around town making the scene are older now, gray, hunched with age. I know a bunch of them, like me, live in a Los Angeles partly underwater, with memory fishes swimming through Gorky’s, Al’s Bar (Cecilia Woloch wiped away tears when she was at the the mike, she mentioned reading at Al’s Bar with Wanda and punk bands, in the 80s), the Atomic Cafe, the Troy Cafe, Beyond Baroque and Phillipe’s (still standing), Midnight Special and Dutton’s Bookstores, Rhino Records, Freeway Records, the Women’s Building (I remarked on to Terry Wolverton afterward, she’s Red Hen author of a text on feminist poetics and author of Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Women’s Building). Kate Gale and Louise Steinman welcomed everyone with introductory remarks.
Suzanne Lummis sent out a tremendous reading of Wanda’s archetypal ode to L.A., “I Live for My Car.” [Here’s Wanda reading “I Live for My Car” etc.: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Coleman-Wanda.php%5D A striking black and white photo of Wanda graced center stage throughout. Michael Datcher or someone asked Austin who took the photo, but Austin couldn’t remember. By chance, perhaps, Austin was using a small black and white taken of Wanda when young as a book mark among the materials he was going to be reading from, and before he went on stage, it slipped from the pages of the book in hand and he turned and gave it to me for a second, saying, “Wasn’t she beautiful?”
Douglas Kearney and Terrance Hayes read first, Douglas slamming performance hard out of the gate—just as he does with typography and the visual element in his print versions. They spoke of their debt to Wanda as pioneer poet, her national bravery “speaking truth to power.” Stephen Kessler, down from Santa Cruz, and Charles Webb told tales from the old days; Webb mentioned riding in a car with Austin before Austin had met Wanda, and Austin was already in love with Wanda’s poetry (“Isn’t Wanda Coleman great?”). David Cherry, Don Cherry’s son, gave us all music on keyboard and kora or ngoni or some Malian stringed instrument, interludes, interspersed, beautiful. At the end of Brendan Constantine’s reading of Wanda’s cinemagraphic poem noir, David Cherry emitted reggae dub sample and phased it out.
I was trying to think of something to say, words to place at the base of the pyramid of Night. Words to lean like flowers on one wall of Death. Someone, Laurel Ann Bogen or Cecilia Woloch? read “Angel Baby Blues”—
Adelle and Jack Foley, from the Bay Area, reminisced recording Wanda for their KPFK program decades ago; they read a syncopated mix of two Wanda pieces, alternating. Laurel Ann Bogen said she met Wanda in 1976 and Robin Coste Lewis made moving mention that when coming up Wanda Coleman was the only black writer she’d ever heard of to come out of her neighborhood, and gave a wonderful reading of a poem by Wanda exemplifying her actual “quiet poetics” counterposed to the tags and labels (of ‘angry black woman’). I went in with “Q & A for Gil Cuadros,” saying Wanda’s passing meant we live on in Less Angeles, more Monrovia, more Culver City, Less Los Angeless, more Lynnwood and City of Vernon, more Petaluma and less L.A., more HP and more Bushwick and Fort Greene than L.A.—we have to pick up our game. Austin closed out the evening with both personal and moving tributes, his latest book love poems written with Wanda. Austin gave away his Wanda cartoons, cartoons he’d drawn about Wanda that he said she liked, but I forgot to get any.
I went out, said hellos, met the wife and spoke with some, we walked down 5th to Main, and I had overpriced burger at Pete’s with nice garlicky fries, and a nice kid, grad of Columbia MFA, who was talking to USC Phd grad student publisher of her forthcoming chapbook, had a bit of wine and when I asked her about living in NYC versus living in L.A., she said, “I used to think place was important, but now I think it’s bullshit. I think you just have to have your own aura, wherever you go.”
And I was thinking, “Good luck, kid.”
A weekend of tributes to Wanda Coleman
By David L. Ulin Los Angeles Times Book Critic
January 20, 2014, 11:02 a.m.
If you want to know how much Wanda Coleman meant to the poetry community of Los Angeles, consider this: Her memorial service Sunday (called “the world’s first improvisational memorial” by her husband, Austin Straus) lasted four hours.
At times, it felt like everyone who had gathered at Santa Monica’s Church in Ocean Park would get up to speak, to read a poem, to sing a song, to honor the life of a writer, who as poet and critic Bill Mohr recalled, “always took the singular to the plural: We are literary L.A.” Even Coleman herself made an appearance, in the form of a couple of riveting video pieces; “I’m talking to me, the me that exists in my imagination,” she declared, when asked for whom she wrote.
The Sunday memorial was the second Coleman tribute of the weekend; on Saturday afternoon, in association with Red Hen Press and the Poetry Society of America, the Central Library’s ALOUD series hosted a celebration of her work.
National and local poets, including Terrance Hayes, Douglas Kearney, Suzanne Lummis and Laurel Ann Bogen, read favorite Coleman pieces: “In That Other Fantasy Where We Live Forever,” “Angel Baby Blues.”
“She did not traffic in phony uplift,” observed Stephen Kessler, and yet, this only made her, as both poet and personality, resonate all the more. “I just want to say,” Lummis noted, after reading the poem “I Live for My Car,” “people talk about Wanda’s rage, but there was a lot of love in that woman. The proof is right here in this room.”
Lummis is right: Coleman was complicated, forceful, but in every way that matters, she was motivated by love. That love could be fierce — Hayes recalled her telling him off onstage — but at heart it was idealistic, driven by a vision of the way things could be. “Wanda went ahead of all of us,” remembered Sesshu Foster, “and she explained a major portion of what this city is about.” Without her, he continued, “we’ll just have to pick up our game.”
This sense, that she was the trailblazer, that without her we are fundamentally diminished, resonated through both of the weekend’s memorial events, albeit in different ways. Perhaps it’s easiest to break it down by saying that one focused on her professional life and the other on her personal life — and yet, what they really have to tell us is that there was no division between the two.
Rather, Coleman, lived it as she wrote it: sensitive, righteous, full of generosity and spirit, dedicated to building and sustaining a Los Angeles poetry community. “Remembering her makes me proud to call myself an L.A. poet,” said Cecilia Woloch at the library, a sentiment echoed so often that it became a kind of refrain.
Whether in her work or the work she admired — participants on Sunday included a flutist who played a favorite piece by Debussy, the vaudeville act of Sharon Evans and Rick Rogers (Coleman’s sister and brother-in-law) and poet and performer Eric Priestley, who described meeting her during a 1960s production of Jean Genet’s play “The Blacks” — what emerged was her engagement, her sense of humor, her sense of justice, the full scope of her influence.
I lost track of the poets who reflected on how Coleman had helped them, whether in terms of publications or readings, or in having them as guests on “The Poetry Connexion,” the KPFK radio show she co-hosted for many years with Straus.
It all ties into her belief in writing as the “highest form of politics,” a forum in which we reveal the truest essence of ourselves. Coleman was always about that, about unveiling herself, her city, her circumstance, about saying what no one else was willing, or able, to say.
“I expect my ashes to be scattered like pollen,” she once wrote, and over the weekend, downtown and in Santa Monica, one could see the outcome: a writing community in which, thanks to Coleman, a thousand flowers bloom.
Issue #14 (www.calibanonline.com) is dedicated to Wanda
Coleman. Her passing in November was a terrible loss.
Wanda was one of the great original voices of our
generation. “On Theloniousism,” her brilliant 1988
essay, is reprinted in its entirety in this issue.
#14 is full of diverse and stimulating work, both
writing and art, including a number of new voices.
I hope you enjoy it.
What does war stand for?
War stands for our surrender to ordinary stupidity, conformity to lame social norms.
What does poverty stand for?
Poverty stands for our impotence.
What does the largest mass incarceration in U.S. history stand for?
It stands for the turning of the wheel of history on the necks and backs of our people.
What does the shooting of some kid by the cops, by L.A. county sheriffs in an alley in City Terrace at 3 AM or 4 AM stand for?
That those people walking down the alley hopelessly, walking or pacing back and forth at the far end represent somehow ourselves, viewed indistinctly.
What does disdain stand for, when others disdain to answer you or respond to your greeting or query?
Disdain stands for our daily compromises, drastic or less drastic compromises we’ve made with injustice and social conformism so survive this way, to get to this point.
Some of it was everywhere.
Vines bedraggled trees, dry creeks, rice fields of mud and water white geese and mallards at sunset. Their heads underwater.
Dave spun the iron rod and inserted it in the orange glow attached to our National Debt.
Hannah coughed into her elbow as if speaking to unforgetting in American Deserts.
Sophie went to Bishop trailing a great shadow in cottonwood filigree across the Eastern Slope.
Marcus paced slim and attentive to a dapper pyramid of teleological frisson emitting gleams.
Sara and Citlali walked over to the corner bar where the owner recognized their paperwork.
Olympia tended a fire of lemon scones and granola earthwork going back to the Civil War.
Emmy oscillated between going to meetings of the Kale Network beyond flaming pink sunsets.
Caius Bill wore a black dog named Snipes that had tiny eyes on one side of his large head.
Only a cracked ice puddle in front of the Taco Loco “restaurant” the sidewalk looked.
I recognized the startled look white people gave as the coffee breakfast Apartheid Imagination.
Larry glinted ruefully in the garnet cape of Old English Lettering perhaps Middle German Prog Rock.
Asher moved right along there, moved right along there, almost age 21 minors not allowed.
From the Toyota Citlali shot sunset hill rays and billboards: “Meet your new breast friend.”