Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Opposite of Kiss:
Three Original Poems and an Interview with David Gruber

                                                     …and bodies eroding
the only home I’d call a body

whispering out from darkened corners,
offering the opposite of kiss.

David Gruber is a graduate of Bard College, the University of New Hampshire, and the University of Denver. He holds a PhD in English, and has taught at the United States Military Academy and Bard College. He lives in Rhinebeck, New York.

Three Poems from David Gruber’s Sleeper’s Republic.


And turning towards night
whispers reports of failures and losses
from the front that blacken
all the playful beaches hot
with nude whispers continually

walking long streets
distant invasions awake


I had been that ghost wavering
on a footbridge. They cut off my head
once they broke my neck once
once they pulled my arms
tender from their sockets.

                                 I gulped down my last breaths
which were epistles addressed to you
from the trash-strewn foot of the gallows.

I soiled my pants going up that ladder.

After, I dreamed of being in your belly
when they split it open and emerging
fully-grown and blood-slick,
swinging my son by his hair,
                                             flesh to bludgeon flesh,

blowing steam from my nose and ateeter
at the edge of the earth a new heaven of stars
spread open above me as the body of a woman, the body of a child:

as we are folded in our blankets,
                                                    as we are rebels.

An Instant Heaven

Truly, these are dog days, and they try us to our limit.
But for the moment it is raining, and you are looking out
into the haze that has risen from the ground, and
another day has left dry petals in our teacups.
And the serfs are still idle in the fields. We’ve had some good
times, of course, but nothing like what I promised,
or was promised. Me, a lousy country doctor,
and you, a lousy country wife, kings of what little
we can see from the open doorway. The tractors are due
to arrive any minute, to wrap garlands around
our necks and lead us off to the tower, or maybe
the scaffold. It could be worse.

Our bad habits never really disappear but are reabsorbed,
distorted and transformed, revolutionized, born
disheveled and looking like tramps, while they wait for the day
when the low vault up the ladder again,
striking their heads on the rafters,
and hang those wreaths with the streamers that dangle
down almost to the barn floor.
The kids love it, dressed in their white pinafores.

Your face is wet with tears or snow, carrying the wooden mantle across
your shoulders as I hold my tie collection up out of the mud.
I saw you once, laughing with a gaggle of girls
behind the tavern, and I thought: “Here’s trouble.”
Pack your bags, my love, it is time to throw open the windows –
our fairy lights have burnt out but they’ve restarted
the electricity in the city. I’ll put on my dilapidated cap
and we will play at peasants again under the willow.


GL:: The title of your book, Sleeper’s Republic, brings to mind a number of fascinating associations. On one hand, sleep offers the solace of non-being, “the balm of woe,” etc, during which the mind can rest, forget and repair. On the other hand, sleep presents a state of imaginative intensity—dreams—that the poet depends on for his or her art. For example, this anecdote from Breton: A story is told according to which Saint-Pol-Roux, in times gone by, used to have a notice posted on the door of his manor house in Camaret, every evening before he went to sleep, which read: THE POET IS WORKING. Sleep is also (I’ve run out of hands now) a preview of death, the site of nightmares, and in general a routine but deranged and intimate encounter with self. I’ll stop there for now so I could finally ask you a question. What kind of sleep is it that dominates Sleeper’s Republic and obsesses you as a poet? And how does this Sleeper’s Republic (the republic you construct in these poems) parallel, distort, reflect and/or refract the ways in which we (sad humans) organize socially and politically to form our republics in the waking world?

DG: I’ve never been an easy sleeper; it seems that all my life I’ve struggled to find my way into sleep – often lying awake for hours at a time – and then when I do I am often awoken many times each night, whether by the sounds of the night, dreams, or even my own tossing and turning. As a result, I often wake with lingering threads of dreams and nightmares intermingling with the returning sensations of the “real world.” I think that this kind of moment, when “awake” means being awake both to the world and to the world of dreams, has shaped many of the poems in SR. This is the kind of awakeness where intimations of desires and denials, pleasures and sorrows, life and death, all seem to co-exist. I suspect that, at least for me, these are the moments when we can know the truest things about ourselves, and often the most surprising things as well.

And I often think that those true and surprising things can tell us something important about the way that we relate not only to ourselves but to, as you put it, our social and political republics (in the sense of commitments made and obligations incurred through our own choices and actions). Last year, I was teaching Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, a book that I had [originally] read during my adolescence; it made an impression on me then but my memory [of the book/work] had faded over the years. While reading the book, I re-encountered the passage, part of which eventually became one of the epigraphs of Sleepers’ Republic, in which Thoreau has this great pun on sleepers and sleepers, the track-ties of the railroad against which he was railing as an example of the way that the individual submits himself to the commercial needs of the state without enough concern for his own experience. He writes: “And when they run over a man that is walking in his sleep, a supernumerary sleeper in the wrong position, and wake him up, they suddenly stop the cars, and make a hue and cry about it, as if this were an exception. I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.” And this passage threw a sudden light over what I had been trying to think through in this collection, the way that our dreams and ideals make possible a quiet subversion of the “way things are” in the world, not only in our relationships toward the state, which I think is of course vitally important, but in the way that our sense of the possibilities of relating to other individuals are also shaped. The question of whether my book parallels or distorts our social/political relationships, well, I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer that question, but those are the questions I’m trying to ask in this book, and I’d be interested to know what my readers might think.

GL: A number of the poems in this book reminded me in certain ways of Ashbery’s shorter pieces. For example, poems such as “As One Put Drunk Into the Packet-Boat,” “Street Musicians,” and “At North Farm” seemed to inform such Gruber short poems as “Biedermeier” and “Bildungsroman.” Like much of Ashbery’s work, these Gruber poems feature allusive/elusive titles, associative leaps and nuanced and even obscure declarative observations about places and things the reader can only see in fragments. Yet your poems seem sculpted, less concerned with “tr[ying] each thing” and spontaneous bursts; your poems appear to pursue their own hallucinatory scenes and meditations with meticulous care. Could you discuss the ways in which Ashbery, whether as a teacher or a poet, has influenced you?

DG: Ashbery has been very important for me, and I would be remiss if I didn’t begin by remarking on his generosity to me as well – not only as a teacher, when he helped me feel like I could actually do this (write poems), but obviously his willingness to write a beautiful blurb for the back cover of the book as well. I think my poetry has always been a little more, as you say, sculptural, less improvisational, than Ashbery’s, which perhaps just says something about the differences between us as individuals, and about what interests us in poetry. That’s not to say I haven’t written my fair share of (thankfully unpublished) poems in the mode of Ashbery. I also wanted to be able to achieve what he has achieved in his poetry and understand what makes it work. In fact, for many years I wanted nothing more [than] to write a great long or book-length poem as Ashbery had done, and so I produced a number of incredibly boring, twenty-plus-page pieces.

But I recall, maybe about six or seven years ago, reading an interview with Ashbery that was collected in Michael Palmer’s edited volume Code of Signals, in which Ashbery is reported as saying something to the effect that, if one really values a poet, one tries not to write like that poet, but to write away from that poet, because what one really values is that poet’s uniqueness, and so the logical thing is to cultivate one’s own uniqueness as well. And that was really freeing for me. I think, though, that my titles have kept something of Ashbery’s spirit (I am really damning myself here, I think) in part because I love the way that they set up a tension between the expectations of the reader and what actually follows in the poem, and the way that they point towards interpretations and meanings that the poem itself then tries to dance around or escape.

I think that, yes, I have ended up coming back to Ashbery’s short poems as well, perhaps for some of the same reasons I see that I’m still influenced by Ashbery’s titles, but in my reading of Ashbery, his poems are just as meticulous and deliberate (if I may adopt your term of, I hope, praise) as mine are. That is, I’ve always thought that Ashbery means exactly what he says, in the way that I try to mean exactly what I say too. So I guess that’s something else I’ve taken from my experience of his work.

GL: In your beautiful mostly-prose poem, “The Fair Republic,” the speaker appears to mourn the fall of a certain utopia: “The ideal city we vowed to build trampled by rioters / to reach the last toy on the shelf, the first motor off the back of the truck.” That is, your ‘city on the hill’ suffers from physical and moral chaos brought about by consumerist obsessions and/or possibly a faltering of resources. Beyond this collapse the speaker looks forward to the “borderless day” and the “zone of disappearance” of the future. Is this poem a snapshot of our tottering zeitgeist, a dream-hymn to the decline of empire and terrible days to come?

DG: Ha! Well, I’m certainly happy to accept that it might be a “dream-hymn to the decline of empire and terrible days to come.” That is, if the poem can be read in this way, then I think it has succeeded in being more than an artifact of the moment in which I wrote it. And this, it seems to me, is what poetry should do: speak as much to the moment in which it is read as that in which it was written, to achieve an intimacy with its reader rather than clinging to that with its writer. And I also welcome the idea that it is a comment on the chaos that our consumer culture causes for us poor men and women.

GL: Your poem “Instructions for Antigone” draws language “from the speeches of Osama Bin Laden, Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States,” according to your notes. The language from these texts intermingles with a triptych of cinematic portraits, moving, first to last, from Antigone to Creon to a panicked Chorus that stands “in the middle of the street yelling into a cell phone” following an un-named but all too familiar calamity. These portraits are novel but not entirely re-imagined. The somersaulting ruin of the Oedipus Cycle bears down on contemporary America, where the integrity of the social contract is threatened externally by terrorists and internally by “soft and weak” politicians and executives who mismanage our calamities. The poem concludes with the now famous and haunting weather report from the morning of 911: “Tuesday dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the east…weather conditions could not have been better for a safe and pleasant journey.” This breathtaking poem forms, I think, a kind of lyrical keystone to Sleeper’s Republic, which tries awfully hard to wake up from the ‘nightmare of history.’ Could you tell me why you sought to blend these texts with a retelling of Antigone? What is it that you found so intriguing about connecting those Theban ruins with our own?

DG: I’ve always been very interested in the story of Antigone, and, re-reading Sophocles’ play a few years ago, I started to think about the way that my sympathies for the characters had shifted, or had become more complex, in response to the rise of terrorism – both the kind that comes from outside, as with our September 11th attacks, and that which emerges home-grown, as in the British July 7th attacks – and our at times misplaced, at times correct, reactions to it. I found myself much more sympathetic to Creon than I’d ever been before, as a kind of gray bureaucrat who gets the responsibility of state thrust upon him by the abdication of Oedipus, and has to deal with this kid, Antigone, who refuses to be bound by the laws of the secular state in favor of familial bonds, which are underwritten by supernatural diktat. Obviously this is in part a deliberate misreading of the play, but I didn’t set out to simply translate the story into contemporary terms, but to rethink it in such a way that it might say something about our own moment. So I found in the tension between loyalty to the law of the state and loyalty to a supernatural “law” that there were things I wanted to think about, and kind of “recasting” Antigone in this way made sense to me.

I looked to the texts of bin Laden (for the passages focusing on Antigone) and Rousseau (for Creon) as a way to think about the kind of language that might inform the way that these figures might speak to themselves about the world that they live in, and the reactions and motivations they might have for their actions. I was also, right before I wrote the poem, reading a collection of Brecht’s essays on theater, and came across his notion of providing a kind of director’s instruction book, containing notes on staging and photographs of sets, costumes, even scenes, which could be sent around to theaters that wanted to put on performances of his plays, and it struck me as an interesting structural idea for the poem; thus we get these scenes that I see as simultaneously frozen and moving, in some way. I also find it satisfying that there is a sonnet-like logic to the poem as well.

GL: How long did you spend working on this book? How did your sensibilities change, if it all, while you were putting this book together? How different is the David Gruber of today than the (slightly) younger David Gruber who first started writing Sleeper’s Republic?

DG: The book came together over a period of about eight years, although there are only maybe three or four poems that have survived that many re-workings of the collection in all that time, and themselves have been revised quite drastically (so maybe it is better to consider it younger than eight years, I don’t know). I’d say that the majority of the poems were written or significantly revised during the period 2004-2007, and the idea for the collection, or what makes the collection cohere, came to me during the 2004 Democratic national convention. It was while listening to John Kerry give his convention speech that I actually started writing lines from what would eventually become the poem “Ingathering of the Exiles.” That’s not to say it all came together as a collection right at that moment, but that I started to think more seriously about the questions that motivate many of these poems at that time. And I hope what comes across in the collection is that I’m not really interested in the bien-pensant liberal responses to the questions of politics and polity that were raised during the Bush era, and which seem to permeate much of the discourse about politics among practicing artists right now, but rather of really thinking about how those questions matter to the way that we experience even mundane things. I’m not sure how much my sensibilities actually changed during this time, aside from the inevitable changes that come with getting older and thinking more seriously about perspectives other than the ones one is surrounded by in the stereotypically-liberal grad-school milieu, but I do think that if you look closely enough at these poems as a collection, you can probably find evidence of a desire to speak to a wider audience than I had been considering before.

GL: Over the past twenty to thirty years there has been an extraordinary proliferation of MFA programs around the country. During the past ten years or so the Internet has allowed writers and editors to launch all manner of web publication with little to no cost aside from donated labor. Blogs (my apologies) run rampant. Are we drowning in poetry? Or is poetry thriving?

DG: Both, I think. We are both drowning in poetry as it is simultaneously thriving in the corners and spaces that it carves out for itself. I suppose this is in part a survival mechanism, since I tend to agree with the new-old saw that only poets are reading poetry these days. Of course, on the face of it that is not at all true, since plenty of non-poets read poetry, they just tend not to read contemporary poetry unless it falls into the Irish epiphanic-lyrical tradition, the American confessional mode, or else is translated from Spanish. But it is obvious that there is a dwindling readership for a serious-minded (though often humorous) contemporary American poetry, and so I think that is where web publication and blogs provide a tremendous service, even while at the same time inundating us with poetry that goes largely unread.

It’s hard to tell if the volume of poetry published either in print or electronically at this moment is much different in proportion to previous eras, though; I suspect that there has always been a great glut of poetry about, and it simply takes time for the important stuff to find its way to the top of the pile. Where I think we might differ from previous eras, however, is that with contemporary professional poets seemingly less interested in addressing a readership outside of the poetry world, we might not end up with anyone who is all that interested in searching out the best of what is being written now. Though no doubt there will be plenty of English doctoral students around in thirty years who will want to resurrect some of our criminally overlooked talent.

GL: So what’s new with David Gruber these days? Are you continuing to work in much the same way as years past? Embarking on new and zany lyrical experiments? Are you out to reinvent poetry? To destroy it? Oh, and by the way, what is the opposite of kiss?

DG: Like everyone these days I am busy worrying about the economy and employment, which I’ll admit hasn’t been all that conducive to writing. But fortunately I managed to finish the bulk of a new collection of poems before it all hit, and I’ve been keeping myself busy with editing and revising those poems over the last few months. The new collection is quite a bit different, in my opinion, from Sleepers’ Republic, or at least I’ve attempted to strike out in a somewhat different direction both stylistically and in terms of the questions that interest me in these new poems. I’m excited about it, honestly, although I’m not sure that anyone will describe the poems as zany.

As for reinventing/destroying poetry, I suppose the answer I should give is “both,” but in reality it’s probably “neither.” Though if one wants to be philosophical about it, every poem both reinvents and destroys everything that has come before (didn’t Frost say something to that effect?). My aim, I suppose, is to remake poetry in my own image. And a handsome image it is, I promise you.

And the opposite of kiss? Again, I think I’ll leave answering that one to the readers of this book.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Another Tongue I Don’t Know:
An interview with Jessica Bozek

          in another tongue I don’t know
          in this (one) grow goodbye (“Exhib. 2A”)

Jessica Bozek is the author of The Bodyfeel Lexicon (Switchback, 2009), as well as a handful of chapbooks, including the brand new Touristing (Dusie) and Other People’s Emergencies (Hive), as well as the forthcoming Dear Darkest Sky: Postcards (Dancing Girl). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tends a puppy, teaches writing and literature at Boston University and the New England Institute of Art, and runs the Small Animal Project Reading Series.

GL: I’d like to begin by citing your publisher’s synopsis of The Bodyfeel Lexicon because I think it provides a lucid, detailed introduction to your rich and complex book:
In this elusive debut collection, Jessica Bozek presents a system of moving parts, of animal lunges, and sudden lootings—documents epistolary and fragmented that form, re-form, and deform language. Staged as a fiction via the paratextual sleight of its introduction, The Bodyfeel Lexicon chronicles and catalogues transformation as a way of evading and understanding bodies and selves. Readers might register the shuttlings of the book’s interlocutors as playful linguistic performances of the animal transformations they devise for each other. The Bodyfeel Lexicon flies at several altitudes, the demarcations of which threaten dissolution at every turn.
Your publishers credit you with executing a “paratextual sleight,” which sounds delightfully transgressive, at the beginning of the book. They are referring, here, to the prefatory prose piece called “The Peary Assemblage: On the Remnant Correspondence and Ephemera of an Unidentified Wolf and Leon Szklar.” This piece ‘explains’ how the speaker discovered the letters—which were written by the stars of the book, Wolf and Leon Szklar—in the North American tundra. “The Peary Assemblage” seems to riff the narrative framing devices of great nineteenth-century novels, such as Frankenstein and, much later, The Turn of the Screw. These traditional paratexts usually qualify and contextualize the proceeding narrative, and thereby give readers license to cross over into a new and fabulous realm. Does “The Peary Assemblage…” clarify the impending mysteries of the text by making the book seem more habitable and/or inviting to the reader, as with the above nineteenth-century examples? Or do you see this piece as exemplifying the ensuing ironies and difficulties of the book? For example, the speaker of “The Peary Assemblage” tells us that even the most ‘diligent’ reader will never learn Wolf’s last name (a Nabokovian taunt?), and that Leon Szklar died in a tragic hot-air balloon accident! So: Is ‘The Peary Assemblage’ a literary welcome mat, or a sign telling the reader to beware?

JB: Thanks for the thoughtful questions, Greg. I’d say it’s a bit of both. Most of the letter-poems (those in the sections A Hot-Air Balloon Is Quieter, Slower and The Sequence Between Molars) were written in a fiction workshop that I contributed prose poems to. Some people in the class were frustrated by the lack of traditional narrative (this was a fiction workshop, after all), so I wrote an early version of the prefatory essay to address their concerns about accessibility. And I agreed with them that a brief lay of the land might in fact be helpful, though at that point only about a third of the book existed, and I knew I didn’t want to be too straightforward about the thing.

Because I was already interested in epistolary novels, and had written a (probably very bad) thesis on the eerie connections between Denis Diderot’s The Nun and Nabokov’s Lolita, paratextual sleights, by way of destabilized texts and the epistolary, were on the brain. The other text I was thinking about was Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters, which not only provided a compelling and discomfiting introduction to the verse-epistle (in fact, I think I read poems from The Master Letters long before I read anything classical or Cavalier), but also proved the impetus for the earliest poems in The Bodyfeel Lexicon, the letters between Wolf and Leo. I actually wrote a creative response to Brock-Broido’s language and sense of emergency as an appendix to another grad-school paper.

More than Brock-Broido’s elaborately wrought contrivances, which parade language as a teratological specimen, I was drawn to her polyvocal inhabitations and abandonments, her restless flights from one (animate or inanimate) role to the next in various settings. And what struck me as crucial to The Master Letters, the slipperiness of its personae, was akin to what I had found simultaneously attractive and disturbing in Diderot’s and Nabokov’s novels—a devastatingly gripping narrative undermined by way of paratextual appendage (in the case of The Nun by the “Préface-Annexe” that follows the young nun’s memoir and in the case of Lolita by John Ray, Jr.’s “Foreword” to Humbert Humbert’s confession). In short, I liked the way the books’ self-conscious scaffolding compelled me to read against habit.

GL: A lot of novelists will sketch their characters for quite some time before they even begin to write their stories. Did you spend time sketching Wolf and Szklar before you started writing the poems? Or did you discover them all at once?

JB: There’s a poem in Brock-Broido’s most recent book, Trouble in Mind, called “Dire Wolf.” That title stuck with me, as did the poem’s last lines: “But in the great white rendezvous, where // I was brooding / Just a while, you get to speak of dire love.” The first letter I wrote began, “Dear Dire Wolf.” That poem doesn’t exist anymore, but it created a way into a poem I’d long (vaguely) imagined—a response to Matthea Harvey’s stunning series “Frederick Courteney Selous’s Letters to His Love” by the woman Selous writes to in the poem. In the poem, Selous accuses his love of having “handwriting [that] is pretty only a bit cramped it has the look / of someone stuck in a living room surrounded by knick-knacks / and patterned wallpaper which you are.” I photocopied that poem and made lots of people read it, even people who weren’t that into poetry. One friend dreamed that Selous’s love was angry at his accusations and at his desertion. Instead of convincing him to come home, she decided to go out and have her own adventure, but one opposite to his. In the dream, she thought that the opposite of Rhodesia must be Alaska and that instead of hunting animals, which Selous details in the poem, she would be hunted by men and “taken on a plough.” I was really envious of this dream (even while I wasn’t completely comfortable with its content). I’d spent so much time with Harvey’s poem that I really wished that I’d been the one to dream a response to it. So, in a sense, I used the paper on Brock-Broido as an excuse to respond.

Something else that was floating around in my head at the same time was a snippet from W. G. Sebald’s Unrecounted. The following poem accompanies a lithograph of Jérémy Seltz’s eyes (all of the lithographs are of eyes, and I have no idea who Jérémy Seltz is/was):

          In deepest sleep

          a Polish mechanic
          came and for a
          thousand silver dollars made me
          a new perfectly
          functioning head

I was drawn to this idea of reinvention, especially reinvention in the wake of some unspoken (and probably cumulative) damage, which I think we all have to differing degrees, whether or not we’re willing to talk about it. So, this poem, like “Dire Wolf” and “Frederick Courteney Selous’s Letters to His Love,” exists as a ghost text (though, now, a not-so-secret ghost text).

GL:: The ‘relationship’ between Wolf and Szklar takes shape around absence. Absence between lovers and/or intimates can of course be oppressive, trying, give rise to despair, etc, but Wolf and Szklar seem to use this absence as an opportunity: they take advantage of their linguistic/epistolary space to construct and deconstruct themselves (as individuals and as ‘a couple’) in fascinating ways. Now, on the one hand, erotic/romantic language can be deeply private, since people often speak a specialized dialect with loved ones. On the other hand, romance and intimacy demands, at times, complete sincerity, stark openness. How did you navigate these conflicting impulses? Do you think Wolf and Szklar achieve greater intimacy by sharing poetic and mysterious language with each other? Are they more in love with language than with each other?

JB: I’ve spent so much time away (maybe a third of my adult life in other countries), so extremes—of communication, of friendship, of intimacy—are familiar territory. The first time I ever went abroad, I went to Russia for a semester. Before that, I’d hardly been out of Massachusetts, and never anywhere besides the East Coast. I had time on my hands in Russia (also, it was winter) and I was lonely, which is not to say bored—I was forever going to plays I couldn’t really understand, to museums, to the ballet because I liked watching the dancers wilt. It’s just that, even doing all of that (plus going to school, drinking tea with my host parents, and reading George Eliot novels), I still had hours alone in my room with my notebooks and my chocolate.

So, I wrote letters and postcards home, almost desperately. I made envelopes from Russian cereal boxes and milk containers and candy wrappers. I sent these off (sometimes three a day to my boyfriend), and some of them arrived in the States a few weeks later, some long after I’d returned, and some probably never at all. I received letters, but the chronology was often messed up, and this disorder and lack of context entertained me more than it annoyed me.

Then, years later, when I was living in Spain, I started to think about how much we’re willing to reveal in letters and emails, often much more than we do in person. I also realized that there were levels of intimacy—written-intimacy and in-person-intimacy—and that these could sometimes not match up. Like when you get to know someone through writing and then spend time with that person, it can be a little awkward, because you have all this knowledge of the person, but don’t quite know how to behave in-person.

So, with The Bodyfeel Lexicon, I think that I was half-consciously trying to make sense of correspondence as a stand-in for, but also unmediated form of, communication. Sometimes it is just about the language (superficial play as flirtation and dare) and sometimes it’s about the intimate space language can enable for Wolf and Leo, a space they haven’t allowed themselves to access without words.

GL:: The book’s “Appendices” feature a poetic glossary of sorts, titled “A Bodyfeel Lexicon.” The Lexicon offers a number of playful and cryptic definitions for terms either immediately or distantly related to the preceding drama between Wolf and Szklar. Here, we even get a definition for the book’s title (almost): bodyfeel n. Pathol. The exploration of one being by another as wound. Which is sad, since this definition makes amorous contact with the beloved seem like a lot of pain and misery. Is this definition somehow an ars poetica for the book as a whole? And to what extent are the definitions of ‘A Bodyfeel Lexicon” conversant with Wolf and Szklar’s missives?

JB:: I think you’re right about the ars poetica. To me, these poems came out of my predicament of often being far from loved ones, of needing to write letters to feel closer to them, but also of feeling like what isn’t immediate grows even more distant (though Facebook may be changing that—or exacerbating it, I’m not sure).

That definition you mention, by the way, I lifted from Barthes’s Camera Lucida, one of my favorite books. Barthes says of his interest in photography, “I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think.” He specifies two elements that must be present in a photograph for him to be interested: studium, or “application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity,” and punctum, or “sting, speck, cut, little hole—and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” In my own experience, I’ve seldom been more painfully aware of my own bodyfeel as when I’ve been away from everything (but especially everyone and the one) familiar.

Regarding “A Bodyfeel Lexicon” itself, this appendix I intended to operate as a piece unto itself, not unlike Marianne Moore’s Index for Observations or Stacy Doris’s index for Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, both of which make an argument for paratext as text. The fun of Doris’s index is less the realization that Robertson’s dense and wide-ranging essays on Vancouver accommodate both “primal shack-envy” and “pronoun caked in doubt,” and more the juxtapositions of such deeply strange word clusters. Both Doris’s and Moore’s subject indices resemble reference texts and suggest the principle of access to a unified whole. Like a telephone book, the index represents a totality, but an arbitrary one—alphabetical by last name, rather than by neighborhood or street. Yet, the index’s decomposition of the text-proper becomes a form of recomposition, of regrouping by letter. So, the parts stay in motion, shift shape.

The appendix might also be read as an attempt to undercut the suggestion of linearity within the letters, which necessarily act more like montage than they do like collage, since readers moving from front to back encounter the poems in a predetermined sequence. Marisol Limon Martinez’s After You, Dearest Language and Emmanuel Hocquard’s This Story Is Mine: Little Autobiographical Dictionary of Elegy are able to disrupt linearity by way of cross-referenced alphabetical entries, which—in Martinez’s case—contain narratives and evasions of narrative, and—in Hocquard’s case—contain diagrams and theories and red herrings. These fluctuating juxtapositions operate the way I hope The Matchbook Fragments do, but that’s another story.

GL: What other writers or projects influenced your work on The Bodyfeel Lexicon? How have your tastes, reading habits, and fascinations changed since you finished the book?

JB: Aside from the writers I’ve already mentioned, a few visual artists: Joseph Beuys, Ray Johnson, and On Kawara also played a role in my thinking about this book.

The cover of the book is one of Beuys’s “multiples,” a tin-can telephone that I saw on display a few summers ago in the (now sadly closed for renovation) Busch-Reisinger’s wonderful exhibition Multiple Strategies: Beuys, Maciunas, Fluxus. Beuys was an expert myth-maker, and I don’t presume to be tapping into that with the cover. But the tin-can telephone seemed somehow appropriate to the makeshift quality of Wolf and Leo’s correspondence (especially relative to The Matchbook Fragments).

And what I was going for in The Matchbook Fragments, or rather in various appendage projects that I executed in Athens, was something (approximately) akin to Johnson’s mail art. Johnson, known as the founder of the New York Correspondence School, began sending intricate collages to friends and acquaintances in the 1950s. Sometimes the addressee was instructed to “add to and return to” Johnson the piece he’d sent; other times the addressee was merely an intermediary instructed to send the piece on to a third person. Johnson created his collages and letters with a specific person or persons in mind. The link between a given piece and its addressee, or the link between intermediary and ultimate addressee, might be oblique, but it always functioned as an affirmation of interpersonal intimacy. Johnson’s coup was to facilitate a system of art that was constantly in flux and thus difficult to catalogue or exhibit. He further destabilized his pieces by way of his methodologies—he used rubber stamps, often cut up old collages to use in new works, and placed no more value on an original work than on a copy, or a copy of a copy, of that work. Furthermore, while Johnson sold many of his collages to galleries for thousands of dollars (often via hilarious, Byzantine pricing schemes—I recommend the documentary How to Draw a Bunny for a glimpse of this), he also gave them away to friends and strangers. And when someone could afford only a portion of his asking price, he simply removed a comparable portion of the work, like he would give them 25% of a collage if they could only pay 25% of his price. At any moment, compositional integrity might be sacrificed to evade any sense of art as sacred.

Then Kawara: for a while in the seventies, Kawara, whose work is obsessed with documenting existence in time, would send his friend telegrams that always said the same thing: “I am still alive.” These telegram were an affirmation that, by the time they were received, affirmed nothing: Kawara could have been dead. But he was telling the recipients that he cared enough to let them know, and that he figured they would care enough to want to know. There’s a compelling vulnerability in this gesture.

When I finished the book, I thought it was too grand, too long. The next project that stuck, a sequence of spare love poems, which moves in the opposite direction (toward the lover), is really different. The poems are short, like the matchbook poems, which were the last poems I wrote for The Bodyfeel Lexicon, which I think were a reaction against what I perceived as the book’s early excesses (early in the composition process, not necessarily early in the current sequence). The new poems are different for me in an additional sense—they came directly out of my experience teaching for a semester in the University of Georgia’s study abroad program in the Costa Rican cloud forest. What a way to end my MFA.

In terms of reading habits, they haven’t generally changed. I’m still reading work by writers who tend to be published by small presses and still going to readings where it’s normal for me to not have heard of at least one of the two or three readers.

GL: I’d like you to tell me about the poem you want to write but haven’t been able to write quite yet. Could you describe the poem you aspire to write that is perhaps still out of reach?

JB: That’s a tough question, because when I try to conceptualize before writing, the result is most often stunted or dead. I usually think about ideas only after I’ve written and as I’m trying to trace my preoccupations in a given draft (and draft is probably generous). So, while I like to be at work on a family of poems (when I’m not, I feel a bit at sea), I’ve come to understand that ideas won’t get me where I want to be. It’s only once I’m already working on something that ideas help.

GL: What pleases you about contemporary poetry? What displeases you about it? And how does Jessica Bozek help solve what’s wrong with contemporary poetry ☺?

JB: One thing that really excites me about contemporary poetry is that the lines of communication seem more open than ever—there are so many small presses, online journals, reading series, poetry blogs, publishing collectives—in short, so many ways to find out about and become immersed in what’s going on.

I was recently at a roundtable discussion at Harvard, on the state of contemporary poetry. The moderator kept returning the discussion to the idea of poetry and tradition (i.e., how are contemporary poets influenced by older poets?), but what I really wanted to hear was the participants talk about how contemporary poets are being influenced by their contemporaries (since that’s who we’re able to read more easily today). Tradition is always relevant, of course, but I think it’s less relevant now than it has been in the past, when writers would almost certainly have been reading the same things in school. Maybe the part of me that hasn’t had a coherent education (which might be a suspect thing anyway) wanted to see my distracted reading habits, my interest in literatures not just US American and British, my sense that some total picture is impossible, validated.

I’m not sure that I have a negative diagnosis about the state of contemporary poetry, but something I love is how easy it is for me to read what other people think about books I’ve just finished. That said, I’m happy to diagnose one of my own failings—namely, the written articulation of my engagements with contemporary writing. Every summer, when I have a bit more time, I say that I’m going to write a review a month, and then I don’t (or I write, at most, one). Maybe this summer I’ll finally do it.

GL: Now that you’re free of Wolf and Szklar, do you miss them? Are you enjoying your freedom? What are writing about now?

JB: I didn’t miss Wolf and Leo at first—in fact, I was uncomfortable with and happy to be rid of them. That’s one reason I wrote The Matchbook Fragments, which began as letters between the characters. But I was tired of them, and their ways of speaking, so I decided to cut them up, to separate their utterances out onto individual matchbooks, which I painstakingly made in the late spring hot of my overgrown Athens house, and then to be even more severe with these words—to remove some and reconstruct a message with the remnants.

But then, as I tried to write after the manuscript was finished, I had a hard time leaving it. I kept writing transport poems, until, finally (a year and a half later), I wrote one called “The Transport Transport,” and I thought, well, this has to be the end of it. And it was.

I mentioned the spare poems earlier—they’re going to be published as a chapbook by Dancing Girl Press at the beginning of next year. And, recently, I’ve been writing poems that look and feel a bit more like the letters in The Bodyfeel Lexicon, which is to say that they’re short prose tales set in an imagined world. At times, they revise or appropriate language from an early nineteenth-century captivity narrative, as well as from news coverage of the war on Iraq. So, they’re much more politically aware. But there are also animals (dogs, birds, beavers), always more animals, it seems.