An Interview with Andy Frazee
A literary university press offer exposure for the students; the gap between writer and publisher blurs, has been blurring, as more and more one partakes in the work of the other. Why should an MFA only prepare a person for a profession in teaching? People enroll in ever-growing programs in order to write anyway (right?), not necessarily to teach. Writers, however, thrive with publishers. As mentioned later (in the interview), Ted Berrigan could staple together as many copies of his Sonnets as he likes, but everyone I know owns the copy published by Penguin. Why should this job be left up to a person with a business degree? Expanding an MFA degree to encompass, or at least introduce students to the business of books would not be difficult. Those who write have stakes in that buisness whether or not they are involved, so why not be involved?
The opportunity to be so involved in a press was exciting. Being part of the working relationship from the inception of making a manuscript into a book was rewarding and something I’m happy to have done. Below is an interview with the 2010 winner for poetry (published in 2011), Andy Frazee, whose book is available on Amazon or SPD.
More information on Subito can be found on the website.
Stephen Daniel Lewis: One thing that surprised me about The Body, The Rooms was form. Not only that the form steps away from more standard types used in poetry, but the layout morphs section to section; sometimes even within a section the reader will see an evolution of the employed form. It was exciting to see how the usage of space encompasses the content in a way that seems inextricable.
I’m wonder what process led to this? Did the content come first, did it happen the other way around, or was it simultaneous? Also did you have specific reasons in mind for including elements that rarely surface in poetry (such as the explication that undercurrents the poems in the “Cartography” section, and the Dramatis Personae in the section titled “That the World Should Never Again Be Destroyed by Flood”)?
Andy Frazee: In general, content comes before form for me—not in terms of precedence, but in terms of chronology. For the most part, the content first comes in the form of journal entries and notes, which I at some point return to and cull for interesting phrases and ideas. A lot of the language in both “Cartography” and “In this Element of Capture,” for example, came from a series of sketches I’d written trying to re-write Eliot’s “Prufrock.” Both of those sequences have gone through many different formal manifestations, and I think this has a lot to do with my own attempts at trying to restrain an impulse to make the poem too organized, too logical. I often introduce some rudimentary form of chance operations to thwart that impulse—so at a certain point in the evolution of “Cartography” I listed out each individual sentence and dispersed them randomly in four-line sections over several pages. In the end, I go with what my gut tells me works, and that ultimately seemed to.
I think it’s important to bring as much of the world into the poem as possible, and also to experiment with elements that poetry may exclude. And in this book, I wanted to experiment with how this exclusion can be made visible—hence the dividing lines, brackets, and italicized lines. Robert Pinsky’s essay “Responsibilities of the Poet” has been a great inspiration in my understanding of this—though I think he considers this integration of what poetry excludes more as an issue of content (as opposed to an issue of form) than I do. “The culture presents us with poetry, and with implicit definitions of what materials and means are poetic,” Pinsky writes. “The answer we must promise is ‘no.’ Real works revise the received idea of what poetry is. . . What poetry must answer for is the unpoetic.” Whatever you think of Pinsky’s own poetry, I think this stands as a challenge to any poet, even those who are themselves experimental or avant-garde.
That said, it should be noted that William Carlos Williams and Jack Spicer, in Kora in Hell and “Homage to Creeley / Explanatory Notes,” respectively, spearheaded this tactic of including “explanations” with poems—and that’s not even to mention Coleridge in the Ancient Mariner or Milton’s explications before each book of Paradise Lost. So either I’m in good company or not working hard enough to uncover what is truly “unpoetic.”
SDL: I don’t want to seem to label this book as experimental but it is in fact different in numerous ways from poetry distributed by large (and therefore widespread) publishers. How do you feel about working with a small press, chapbooks, online publishing, etcetera? Or more generally, does it seems the most viable way to circulate new poetry? I like referring to this article when conversing about small presses because I like the sentiment that the writing is meant to be read regardless of financial issues editors or publishers might face. Another question I often ask myself following the small press question is: does it matter?
So I guess that is getting at what you think poetry should be doing though.
AF: I think small presses definitely matter, and are the lifeblood of poetry. Really, it’s the larger publishers who are the latecomers—think about how manuscripts were circulated in Elizabethan England, or Whitman typesetting the early editions of Leaves of Grass. I recently listened to a recording of Ted Berrigan reading The Sonnets in which he mentioned how the first “edition” of that book was self-made—and I, for one, can’t imagine a world without The Sonnets, the fact that my copy was published by Penguin notwithstanding.
I thank God for small presses, and not only because that’s where my work has found its home. I mean, reading that article, you can tell how much meaning running a small press has added to Adam Robinson’s life, and how much he’s willing to sacrifice to do it. Maybe that’s what poetry “does” in the end. It’s beautiful, putting poetry out in to the world, even when (or especially) it’s not your own.
Maybe I’m naïve, but I thank God for the major presses, too. Look who’s publishing Ashbery. Look who’s publishing Lauterbach. Those places don’t need to publish poetry at all, let alone work with one or more feet in the avant-garde—but they do it anyway.
SDL: I like the way you put that in its historical context. Latecomer isn’t a bad thing, like you say, keeping work like The Sonnets in print (and keeping it cheap and therefore accessible) really is a service offered by larger publishing houses that doesn’t seem feasible for smaller publishers.
SDL: Back to the book though. The first section, “The Books Of,” is syntactically the most difficult section, so it initially seemed oddly placed considering that it will be the first set of poems readers will encounter.
Yet I love the placement of this section because it does two things: it assaults readers as opposed to easing them into the book, and also sets a particular tone. It isn’t quite a “frame” showing people in which way/mindset to read the remainder of the poems, however the section does create an “environment” or “space” that influences how the book is read. I like working against readers’ accommodation; it gives the text more presence, which is reminiscent of more classic poetry (I’m thinking Milton since you mentioned him above). Simultaneously, repetition and line breaks give this opening section a near chant-like quality, bringing readers back further even than the ties to classic poetry, reminding us of poetry as oratory.
So 1) Did the organization of the sections happen in a sort of ahistorical vacuum (as much as that is possible) or was it done as a reaction/homage to poetic influences?
And 2) What influences you? No only writers, but other subjects, things that seem very unrelated to poetry.
AF: I appreciate what you said about the poems creating a particular environment or space, because that’s really the way I think of poetry, and books in general (and books of poetry specifically). It think less of a book as an escape than as a shelter–a place removed from the everyday, yet also couched within it.
The book was organized over the course of a couple years, as I took out pieces and added new ones; it also was strongly influenced by the insightful advice from the wonderful poet Donna Stonecipher, who saw patterns and themes in the work I wasn’t fully aware of. One of the comprehensive exam reading lists for my PhD focused on the book of poetry as a discrete aesthetic unit, and so I’d spent plenty of time analyzing how different books of poetry were put together. Early on, I really wanted the long autobiographical piece “That the World Should Never Again Be Destroyed by Flood” as the second section in the book, mirroring what I take to be the brilliant placement of the long prose piece “91 Revere Street” in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. In the end, that just didn’t work, and having other people comment on the order really helped to focus on the reader’s experience of the book. It’s funny, but I actually think that first section is the most accessible! And so its placement was intended as something of an invitation into the longer sequences that comprise the majority of the book.
To answer your question more specifically, while I wouldn’t say the process of organizing the book was completely ahistorical, in the end, it was more about what worked thematically and, I think, emotionally, for the reader. That said, I did have some books in mind as I was thinking about how to organize it: Auden’s The Orators, Spicer’s Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, Susan Howe’s Singularities, Barbara Jane Reyes’s Poeta en San Franscisco, and Julie Carr’s first two books. All of these books work with sequences, and they display a formal eclecticism I find really exciting.
As for influences: one reason I love poetry (and, I guess, writing in general, and art in general) is that everything I do, perceive, think, and read can become part of my work. I mean, the scrap of a overheard conversation one hears in a coffee shop won’t help an accountant do his or her job–but it can certainly become a part of mine. We’re allowed to be dilettantes in that way. So I like to read widely, particularly in nonfiction: psychology, science, religion, politics and current events. I’ve just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, which was great, and am trying to finish Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization. I also have a slightly embarrassing love of self-help books and new age-y kind of books. But in the end I think what matters to the poem is less whatever its initial influences are (though those are certainly important) than what is happening on the page, how the words, phrases, and sentences are relating kinetically.
SDL: You mention above bringing the world into poems as much as possible. One way the poems in this book do that seems to be through autobiography. Autobiography offers readers pathways to understanding and relating to the poems. Was that part of the thought process? How, if at all, does relate-ability play into your writing process?
While on the subject, what do you think about the perception of poetry needing to address Truth? (an example: The separation of author and narrator in fiction often is implied, while the speaker of a poem is almost always read as being the author also, as if the experiences of a poet shouldn’t be fictionalized.)
AF: I think my use of autobiography gets back to what I mentioned earlier about what a poem can exclude. I do think that autobiography is perhaps the most direct way to, as you say, offer readers a pathway into the poem. Or, I should say, I think that autobiography signals such access for contemporary readers. “That the World Should Never Again Be Destroyed by Flood,” which to me is the most blatantly autobiographical of the pieces, was really written–and composed in that split-page format–in response to my feeling that contemporary poetry, particularly the more experimental poetry I was interested in, didn’t really give me a way to emote about my father’s death. The formal challenge I set for myself was to compose a work that was both straightforward and “experimental.” So I guess I think about being relatable in that way: I want readers to get into the piece, but also I want the readers to be challenged. Combining autobiography with an inclination toward formal experimentation is one way, I think, to do that.
In an episode of Charles Bernstein’s radio show Close Listening (I’ve been listening to a lot of downloads from Penn Sound on my long commute to work!), John Yau, in response to a question about accessablity, or “ease” in poetry, responds that one must learn how to read a poem, just like one has to learn how to watch a movie, or TV, or read a novel. I like that–and I think that’s what I like about experimental poetry in particular: you have to learn how to read each new poem. That’s part of the excitement for me.
As far as capital-T Truth goes, particularly in relation to autobiography, I think Rimbaud said it best (though in French, of course): “I is another.” Or: “I” is another. I am not this letter on the page, though this letter also corresponds to “me” in our conversation. (A conversation, of course, which isn’t really a conversation, since I’m typing this on a Google doc!) In short, the hybrid nature of the “I,” as corresponding to something outside the page, and in another sense being completely alien to that thing outside the page, is a potentially rich source to investigate and play with. Who was it that said “art is the lie that tells the truth”?
I think this also gets at your earlier question about the Dramatis Personae in “Flood.” In some sense, everything on the page is a fiction and a performance. On another level, I try to get at the truth–the “reality” may be a better word–of the reading experience, which is something I think that “Cartography” tries to engage. Though the reader is absent–hypothetical, even–to me in the composition of a poem, and I am absent to the reader in their reading of the poem, some kind of meeting takes place on the page, however indirect. I find thinking of the truth in terms of the reading experience, and also in terms of the materiality of the page (which is, of course, an integral part of the reading experience) to be a source of great inspiration.
SDL: I think that is a great way to approach truth in poetry (not that anyone needs to do that). But you’re right, the larger experience is the materiality of the page; the meeting takes place there. Sometimes that experience is downplayed, or made to seem less important than either the experience of writing poetry or the analysis of poetry, while it is actually, as you say, a very integral part.
In the section of the book “In This Element of Capture,” parts of the poem are taken from press articles. For me, you offer a clear example of what would make Ezra Pound happy when working with appropriation (the “make it new” thing). However, as incorporation of appropriated texts becomes more and more common, I sometimes think that the lines of plagiarism are being crossed (or at least stepped on), but without creating anything interesting (interest being subjective, I know, but still…). Do you have any strong feelings about appropriated texts, or any reason for using them in this book?
AF: What’s interesting for me about appropriation is the cutting-and-pasting (in my case, literally, with a computer) of text from one source into another. Knowing the source text in that case is a key part of understanding the poem. It’s important to know–I hope–that the appropriated text in “In This Element of Capture” is from newspaper reports, and that they were newspaper reports about bombings. In that way, plagiarism is something different from appropriation for me. Plagiarism signals not making the reader aware of the source text; appropriation (again, for me), hinges on the relationship between the source text and the new text that appropriates the source text.
The Cantos is an interesting test case, since Pound isn’t always (or often) particularly clear about the sources. Maybe it’s because those poems “make it new” that they can get away with that. It’s also why reading The Cantos with a companion book that explicates the references can be rewarding.
I think that appropriation can be a powerful way to illuminate the connections between people, places, and texts. When Zukofsky appropriates the texts of William Carlos Williams in “A”-17–including poems, correspondence, inscriptions in books–and collages them with his own work,, the appropriation is really a beautiful signal, not only of homage, but of respect, even love.
SDL: Is there anything else you’d like to say? Anything I didn’t ask?
AF: Thanks, Stephen, for your questions and your interest in my work–I really enjoyed the interview.
SDL: Thanks again for taking time to chat via Google Docs with me.
Subito Press is a nonprofit publisher based in the Creative Writing department at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Each year the press holds a contest which culminates in the publication of one book of fiction and one book of poetry. The press is headed by a member of the creative writing faculty and populated by a rotating group of MFA students.
Subito is ran as a studio class (it can be taken instead of a poetry or fiction workshop). The process goes something like this: The students read through the manuscripts submitted during the reading period and narrow the number down from approximately 80 to 5-10. Those 5-10 manuscripts are submitted to faculty members who then decide which will be published (which offers some consistency within the press). The students then correspond with the authors regarding edits, layout, contracts, etcetera. The students are taught layout programs while simultaneously researching publishing methods (we focused on digital ones, I was thrilled to be able to talk about Adam Robinson), and also researching a bit about the process of finding funding and printers for the books.
About Andy Frazee:
Andy Frazee is also the author of That the World Should Never Again Be Destroyed By Flood, selected by Dan Beachy-Quick as winner of the New American Press Chapbook Competition. His Pushcart Prize-nominated poetry has appeared in 1913, Eleven Eleven, Cannot Exist, BlazeVOX, and other journals, and his book reviews and criticism regularly appear in Verse and The Quarterly Conversation. The son, grandson and great-grandson of farmers, he grew up in rural Central Illinois. A graduate of the University of Illinois and the University of Georgia, he currently holds a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellowship at Georgia Tech.
About Stephen Daniel Lewis:
SDL is skilled and can accomplish jobs sometimes.