Happy Monday, Poetry Lovers! Today we have another conversation for you between Chris Martin, author of Becoming Weather, Steve Healey, author of 10 Mississippi and Earthling, and Lightsey Darst, author of Find the Girl. All of their books are on sale (20% off) through 4/29 by using the code POETS20 at checkout!
The Company You Keep: A Conversation with with Chris Martin, Steve Healey, and Lightsey Darst
Chris Martin: Since this will be more like a triangle than a dialogue, we have room to place something in the center of our shape and work around it. I’d like that word to be company and you can imagine it fording from the ghost mouth of Creeley, because I take the usage from him. Company as “are we having company tonight?” Company as those kindred, those listening, the company you keep, whose writing permeates your own or makes it possible. And to start us out, I will also be thinking of company as the working life of poetry and publishing. It just so happens that I found my company at Coffee House Press when I was 20 years old.
I’d racked up enough extra credits to take a trimester off from Carleton College. It was winter and I knew that sitting around reading and drinking would be the death of me, so (on the advice of my sister) I applied for an internship at Coffee House, not really having any idea what I would find. Turns out I found the beginning to my life as a Poet. First of all, there was Chris Fischbach, then Editor and current Publisher. He saw I was dying to learn about poetry and each week he tested my resolve with another book from his personal library, the next one always more challenging than the last. Much of the material was straight out of CHP’s own stacks—Elaine Equi, Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Joseph Ceravolo, Eleni Sikelianos—I could go on indefinitely. I fell in love with Ted Berrigan through the CHP homage Nice to See You. In no time at all, I had company. It meant everything to the young poet I was and I carried that sense of company with me into my first book, which invokes both Padgett and Berrigan in the very first poem. It traveled with me from Minnesota to San Francisco back to Minnesota to Brooklyn and it remains very much with me on this gorgeous spring day in Iowa City.
Steve, your first book, Earthling, contains an acknowledgement of the musicians you were listening to while you wrote it. I remember thinking, exactly! Our words are permeated by literary and extraliterary voices, by various company. Can you talk a little about your sense of company and your choice to make that company known?
Steve Healey: That list of musical accompaniment for Earthling was a last-minute idea, and actually I think it helped me start writing my second book, 10 Mississippi, which feels more self-consciously open to both literary and extraliterary company. I started to see my poems as conversations I was having with all kinds of other texts, contexts, forms, authors, and so on. Often I’d signal the conversation overtly, through epigraphs or sampling or by doing a kind of unauthorized sequel to a well-known text; other times the conversation would take a ghostlier presence, quietly recycling some familiar language or referencing some recognizable motif.
I started to see these poems as collaborations—not literally co-authoring with someone else, but made through a collaborative poetics. And then I started seeing this collaborative energy in a lot of recent poetry. I think many writers are letting go of those Romantic and Modernist notions of the private imagination, the individual talent, the self-contained genius-artist; instead, we see our work participating in larger networks of public language, mixing not only with other poetries but also with other discourses and genres not traditionally considered poetic. We’re not so much inventing or conquering new worlds of language but doing something with the language that already exists and subsumes our daily, plugged-in, mediated lives. Whether it’s sampling, remixing, recycling, recombining, collage, cut-up, documentary poetics, intertextuality, imitation, homage, pastiche, parody, sequel, variations, allusion, referencing, paraphrasing, epigraphing, creative translation, homophonic translation, punning, Flarf, spam poetry, erasure, etc—all these techniques have in common a willingness to be in conversation with other texts, to let go of notions that poetry should be absolutely pure and original.
One of the things I love about Coffee House Press is how much of this collaborative spirit you can find in the work of its authors: Mark Nowak’s documenting and sampling, Patricia Smith’s interfacing with topical news stories, Marjorie Welish’s obsessive quoting, Anna Moschovakis’s mixing of different discourses—just to name a few examples. Of course many of these techniques have been in practice for centuries, but I think there’s a new willingness among twenty-first century writers to reclaim and embrace them.
So yes, I love the idea of keeping company, and Chris, I love how your nicely-named “chorus” at the end of Becoming Weather signals a hodgepodge of voices backing up your lead vocals. Lightsey, your wonderful book Find the Girl (which includes a sort of chorus of lost girls) must have many kinds of company inhabiting it, yes? And how about your next book project?
Lightsey Darst: I’ve never been able to write poetry from a blank page. So ever since I began seriously to write poetry, I’ve worked from my own free or automatic writing, moving it around, repurposing it, collaging it, adding to it. When I was first doing this it felt a little crazy because I couldn’t talk about meaning the way some people could or say what a poem was “about”. I could guess at what I’d meant when I first wrote the line, and I could say something about why I’d put it where I had, but these intentions slid over each other and all the other intentions in the poem, creating a shadowy matrix of meaning and content.
Over time, I started to enjoy these effects. I started playing with hinge points, thinking about surprise and disappointment and about the politics of a broken line. And I started using collage from other sources, and playing with what that meant. And I discovered I wasn’t at all alone in making poetry this way—that what I did had not only a history but a vibrant present.
So that’s my story. I’m not sure why I can’t write any other way, or why so many people write this way now. Has something changed about meaning, about the relation between meaning and speech? I don’t know. I know you have to work with what you’ve got—and we’ve got this multivocal moment.
Though at times, of course, it’s important to work against what you’ve got…
Chris Martin: The multivocal moment, I like that. Especially as this, too, takes part in it. It seems to me that our virtual lives instantiate the company of this moment. The distribution of the conversation has exploded. Nexuses like Facebook enhance (or enforce, clearly there is a dark side) this latent social tendency in contemporary literature. My attention is drawn to several authors, artists, and musicians working to critique this enforced sociality by creating company on their own terms, working both with and against what, for better and worse, we’ve now got. Our books don’t end upon publication these days. They become an instant, evolving archive of conversation, shooting out tendrils of allegiance that grip and split indefinitely. Our books take on unforeseeable shapes and it’s all we can do to Google ourselves daily to keep up with them. Or not. I love the unpredictability of company these days.