About the Author:
Elaine Equi, author of Click and Clone (Coffee House Press, 2011), was born in Oak Park, Illinois, and raised in Chicago and its outlying suburbs. In 1988, she moved to New York City with her husband poet Jerome Sala. Over the years, her witty, aphoristic, and innovative work has become nationally and internationally known. Her last book, Ripple Effect: New & Selected Poems, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and on the short list for Canada’s prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize.
Among her other titles are Surface Tension, Decoy, Voice-Over, which won the San Francisco State University Poetry Center Award, and The Cloud of Knowable Things. Widely published and anthologized, her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, The Nation, and numerous volumes of The Best American Poetry. She teaches at New York University, and in the MFA Programs at the New School and the City College of New York.
Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist
Canada’s prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize Shortlist
Elaine Equi in conversation with Greg Purcell
Greg Purcell: There are a lot of sequence type poems in your new book. I know some poets, when writing an interrelated series of poems, who think of certain poems in the series as “hubs” around which the other poems act as complements. How do you approach writing poems in bunches?
Elaine Equi: It’s fairly new for me to work this way. I usually don’t plan out in advance what I’m going to write about, so it came as some surprise when these “sets” started arriving. I’d finish one poem and then a few weeks or months later, another related one would appear, and I’d think, “Oh, that’s like a sequel or a spin-off.”
Eventually, I ended up with a series on clones, one on dreams, one on movies, one on reading over people’s shoulders in the subway. There are several portraits of different women, several prose poems. They were kind of like different files that I kept adding to over time.
I tried to make the structure of the book reflect the way these groupings evolved. I didn’t want to put all the poems that talk about the same subject together. I wanted to show the sporadic nature of their conversation—the way they’d drift off, then come back and start up again.
Greg Purcell: Like much of your book, the poem “Locket Without a Face” plays with this “autobiographical Elaine Equi” and weaves it with a theme of literal transparency, and the dreamworld very powerfully. Autobiography, transparency, and dreams: is my reading of this poem and the manuscript very far from the mark?
Elaine Equi: You’re right about the dream-weaving aspect. I wanted to leave a portal open between fantasy, the virtual, and the real world, so they could mix and mingle. At the same time, I also wanted to write specifically about some of the ways technology has destabilized our old way of life.
I have a poem about a woman who feels her body has been “Replaced by files, codes,/ A social network/ held together with pins.” In one of the clone poems, the speaker points out that the double used to be seen as a usurper of one’s rightful identity, “But now everyone is so busy./ No one really cares which one of you shows up.”
There’s even a piece about the conventions of reality TV and how in today’s overcrowded and ultra competitive market, “wanting” has to be ramped up to “really wanting” and “really, really wanting.” I’m not foolish enough to think we can stop technology, but I did want to hit the pause button in order to ask some questions and register a few complaints.
Greg Purcell: Do you think your poems are becoming increasingly interconnected?
Elaine Equi: I don’t think so. I try to give each book a different focus and/or style. It was fun to do all the dream poems in this one partly because I happened to be teaching a lot of the surrealist poets at the time. We had a blog in my class where everyone could post their dreams anonymously and we even tried some experiments in lucid dreaming.
Now I’m teaching a lot of super short poetry: fragments, haiku, concrete stuff. My next book may be very austere and plain.
Greg Purcell: “The skinny girl was a military general in a country ruled by a giant inflatable cat.” This line of yours delighted me at once. What do you think is a poet’s responsibility to her imagination, especially in an atmosphere like our own, in which critical evaluation often precedes composition?
Elaine Equi: I have no responsibility to my imagination and my imagination has no responsibility to me. When we get together, it’s strictly for pleasure. I’m not really a believer in the purity of one’s artistic vision. In fact, I’m rather suspicious of that notion. If I feel any sense of responsibility when writing, it’s to the reader. I try to communicate as clearly as I can.
Greg Purcell: Your poem “A Subliminal Woman” spooked me a little bit when I was reading it last night by a single lamp. Do you believe in ghosts?
Elaine Equi: I’ve actually seen a ghost, so I do believe in ghosts. But they don’t seem scary or angry like Hamlet’s father (though I guess they can be). I just like the idea that certain parts of the past continue to hang around. Ghosts give us an intangible sense of what came before. They’re the perfume of history. One of the things I like best about New York is that the past is still fairly close to the surface.
Greg Purcell: You have a series of poems about reading over people’s shoulders on the subway. Do you often read over people’s shoulders on the train?
Elaine Equi: In general, I like to sneak a peek at what someone is reading, not just on trains, but anywhere. When I read—and I don’t think I’m alone in this—I usually hear the words in my head. So when I read over someone’s shoulder, I feel like I’m hearing the same words they are, and it’s almost as if I can read their mind. I mean they might be thinking about a million other things too, but I like the cheap and easy sort of instant sense of clairvoyance this habit provides.
Greg Purcell: How do you do it without anyone noticing? Do you take notes? How is it done?
Elaine Equi: My technique involves a lot of glancing over, making a quick mental note, and then looking away. People will definitely get annoyed if they think you’re staring at their crotch, or breasts, or even the added appendage of their book. As soon as they’d get off the train, I’d jot down what I could recall. A few times, if someone seemed suspicious, I’d even say something like: “That looks like an interesting book. Is it good?” No one ever said: “No, it sucks.” Everyone seemed happy with their choice of reading material.
Greg Purcell: I have a tremendous sense of pity when I consider clones. It’s the same sense of pity I have for the tremendously obese. What’s your take on clones?
Elaine Equi: That’s really interesting. I see clones in an entirely different way. To me, they’re fast and light on their feet because they aren’t weighed down with a lot of psychological baggage the way we are. Even the clone of an obese guy would carry himself in a sprightly manner.
If you look at some of the classics about doppelgangers, like Dostoevsky’s The Double, the double is always a little quicker and funnier than the sad sack protagonist because he isn’t hampered by the same sense of shame, guilt, and insecurity. He knows he’s got the edge.
The clones in this book aren’t meant to be taken literally. They’re figurative. I wrote them thinking of the many disposable versions of ourselves that get created these days. There are business clones, literary clones, chemical clones, and of course, information clones made up of statistics on everything from our medical records to our shopping habits.
I wouldn’t want to clone myself (I don’t even have kids), but there is something appealing about the idea of being “me without myself to blame,” as I say in one poem, I know we don’t have human clones yet, and it may be just a case of the grass is always greener, but if there were human clones, I could easily hear myself saying: “Clones have it easy. Clones have it good. They’ve got nothing to complain about.”
Greg Purcell: “Nowhere is there a poet/ who sings the sanitized decadence of our times.” Should one even try? Or is The New York Post already doing this better than a poet could?
Elaine Equi: Well, The Post is very good at what they do which is why I included a “Post Sonnet” made of fourteen of their amazingly catchy headlines in my book. But that’s no reason for us poets to give up.
In “Designer Gloom” (the poem you quoted), I was complaining about this new kind of clean cut goth – buff vampires, werewolves that wax their chests. Doesn’t it seem odd that the more mechanized our lives are, the greater our appetite for magic and fantasy becomes?
I’ve been reading a lot of Hawthorne lately and he really captures the way an older, more superstitious mindset was influenced by the Industrial Revolution. It’s so fascinating! I wish more people would write about the way the digital revolution effects us.
To get back to your idea of responsibility, for a moment, I know I feel an obligation to reflect upon the cultural moment we live in. So, in answer to your question, yes—we should definitely try!
Greg Purcell’s poetry has appeared in The Agriculture Reader, Lungfull! Magazine, Open City and in the anthology A Best of Fence: The First 9 Years. He organizes the St. Mark’s Bookshop Reading Series and writes about poetry and science fiction on his blog, The Supercollider.