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.