Thursday, August 19, 2010

To Make It Matter Again:
An Interview with Michelle Taransky

Michelle Taransky was born in Camden, NJ. Winner of the 2008 Omnidawn Poetry Prize for Barn Burned, Then, selected by Marjorie Welish, Taransky lives in Philadelphia where she works at Kelly Writers House, is Reviews Editor for Jacket2, and teaches writing at University of Pennsylvania and Temple University.

GL: I’d like to talk about the epigraphs to your book (or more specifically, to the first half of your book) since these two particular quotations seem to have an especially ars poetical function for your work. One is from George Oppen and one is from Charles Bernstein. Oppen’s goes something like this: I seem to know what I mean to do, and seem to be myself; I would like to get the thing said, I would like rather to get it thought, to grasp it—I look at things and they become large, like barns, I feel lost and yet they are not big enough—merely a little clumsy, reminiscent and clumsy. And Bernstein’s pithier contribution: I care about poetry that disrupts business as usual. The Oppen quotation (an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Frederic Will) seems to position the barn as a figure indicative of potentially visionary perception in your work (perhaps a fundamental aspiration), while the Bernstein quotation obviously has more mischievous and critical implications. In other words, one epigraph is constructive while the other is deconstructive. Could you tell me about these two (conflicting? complimentary?) impulses in your work? And could you also tell me why you selected these two particular quotations to introduce your work?

MT: For me, these epigraphs foregrounded the poems as both processes and events, the materials and the things. They suggest, or introduce, the barn's potential to be both archetype and particular.

Oppen positions the barn as a figure, the barn as many barns, and the barn as a holder of the unknown. To approach the barn like Oppen was, for me, a way to come to know the strange, as well as the stranger. "I never knew any barns," Oppen writes later in the same letter to Will, "If there were any barns in my background it seems to me that I would be writing at this moment about barns--- It occurs to me that many people have."

The Bernstein quotation continues: "I care most for poetry as dissent, including formal dissent, poetry that makes sounds possible to be heard that are otherwise not articulated [...] by form I mean ways of putting things together, or stripping them apart, I mean ways for accounting for what weighs upon any one of us." I wanted to deal with this counting and accounting Bernstein points to by writing without a "predictable measure." It's this choice that continues to disrupt while revealing that thinking and looking closely may be a clumsy business, and that it's ok to care.

GL: In Bob Perlman’s astute and enthusiastic blurb on the back of Barn Burned, Then, he credits your “fluency in frame-scanning, collage, and abstractions to alert readers to the depth of tinder we live amid.” It’s a lovely bit of analysis, but I’d like to hear about the techniques of “frame-scanning and collage.” How did the use of such techniques influence the composition of the poems?

MT: The poems move the barn and the bank from their original locations---- these jumps in frame and context and place ---- they make clear that "techniques" are being used, are a part of this work, are included in these operations. The poems, like barns and banks, are constructed, made things, where thinking through is a visible element like a nail or beam or joint or brace.

GL: Your book, as I alluded to earlier, is split into two sections: “Burn Book” and “Bank Book.” Could you tell me a little bit about the bifurcated structure of the book as a whole? Why did you want to keep the barns and banks (at least partially, nominally) separate from one another?

MT: The thing is: I separated them. But (as you note) they are, at the same time, not separate. Just as a field can flood, a barn can burn, or a calf can get sick, there may be a run on the bank or a robbery. When I started the project, I knew the barn had burned. But, I did not consider the bank then, it wasn't there then.

The bank began to figure itself during an indepentant study I was doing with the amazing Dee Morris at Iowa: "Poetries of the Left." We were reading Cary Nelson's Revolutionary Memory project and I came across this line from Genevieve Taggard: "They sold the calf. That fall the bank took over." That line changed the incomplete narrative implied by the title: "the barn burned, then ..." to "the barn burned, then there was a bank." Grammatically, the "then" in the title is a conjunctive adverb meant to connect: to join words, phrases, clauses and ideas. The Taggard line that repairs the broken speech and moves the narrative forward is among those shifts where the working it out "made the bank take place."

While writing Barn Burned, Then, I discovered all sorts of ways barns and banks may be linked in the poem--- and I discovered all sorts of ways barns and banks are linked in the world, including: there is both a barn swallow and a bank swallow, there is a barn called a bank barn, and there is a bank called Farmer's Bank. I think this means there are more links, in both the poem and the world.

GL: Part of what’s at stake in this fascinating collection is an analysis, or exploration of the dubious and exploitative foundations of our economy—the way we, or those of us complicit in our political and financial power centers look for “A way to get more for less. To stock up on the stolen / For the shortage that is always coming again” (“Theory for Building Where Fault”). There’s a spirit of philosophical and political critique in this book, but at the same time the book is far from polemical, in part, I think, because your poems are skeptical of maintaining any one particular rhetorical strategy for too long. The poems are full of un- or semi-punctuated, enjambed lines and phrases (Perloff’s “floating modifiers”), fragments of language juxtaposed against complete sentences, etc. How do you manage to use language that so complicates our ordinary patterns of speech (which “disrupts business as usual”) as a vehicle of political and philosophical critique?

MT: In a conversation with Sarah Louise Green (The Offending Adam issue 13), we suggest the "the beggar's way of speaking" (from "The Bank Holds") as the book's description of it's method of telling (or not telling). This is the kind of speech that asks with each breath: at what cost? Here, language (like barns and banks), is not safe from disaster and its disruptions. Here, the stutter of saying it (wanting to or having to) and associated anxieties get into the work and the working out it proposes. Like the poems press the impulse to hoard up against an impending loss, the full sentence being beside the fragment might mark the ways language is or is not an available currency.

GL: So what does Michelle Taransky make of the contemporary poetry scene? What kinds of writers, publications and projects are you taken with at present? What trends and tendencies in contemporary poetry do you find most intriguing? Contrarywise, what aspects, if any, of contemporary poetry do you find troubling?

MT: The work CA Conrad is doing in Philadelphia is amazing. His Urchin series, which gathers poets in public places in Philadelphia to read the work of poets like Niedecker, Oppen, O'Hara, and Spicer animates a community of writers as active readers that is continually nourishing and informative. If you haven't read (or tried) his (Soma)tic Exercises, stop reading this interview now and go right now to this (Soma)tic Poetry Exercises page. Send me your poem. Write your own (soma)tic exercise and send it to me. Philadelphia is full of innovative programming: the EMERGENCY reading series curated by Sarah Dowling and Julia Bloch, that engage poets in dialogues about emergence and poetic communities; the New Philadelphia Poets consistent push for poetry to happen in more and more places around the city; as well as Kelly Writers House's energetic revisioning of reading format and what is or is not possible for writing programs. It's a joy to write in this city among so many other poets who love writing.

GL: So what’s new with Michelle Taransky these days? What’s the next great project that your cooking up in your poetry laboratory? Who are you reading these days? Watcha thinkin’ about? Do tell.

MT: I'm working on two series of poems: SORRY WAS IN THE WOODS, and EPHRAIM GOLDBERG.

My father (an architect) and I are at work on a public project: the WPA: Whitman Park Artpsace. To be built adjacent to Walt Whitman's house in Camden, NJ. the WPA's mission includes fostering and supporting the literary arts in and around Camden. We're also working on a series of transcribed walking pieces built around buildings in Philadelphia and Camden.

The books and treasures on my coffee table:
Neighbour by Rachel Levitsky (Ugly Duckling Press), Sarah Dowling's first book Security Posture (Snare Books), Thinking Poetics: Essays on George Oppen edited by Shoemaker (University of Alabama Press), the noulipian analects (Les Figues press), aaaaaaaaaaalice by Jen Karmin (Film Forum Press), HOW by Emily Pettit (Octopus Books).