I Like Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz a Lot: Part 2

Posted by @ 3:00 pm on December 1st, 2009


I like Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz so much that every day this week, I’ll be posting excerpts from a really long interview between Cristin and I about writing, New York and her forthcoming book Everything is Everything which will be released in January 2010 by Write Bloody Press. In today’s excerpt, Cristin talks about raping giraffes, slam poetry and bridging writing communities.

Part 1 | Part 3

Many of these poems reveal what could only be termed as a fetish for bizarre trivial matters. What is that about? Also, I have to know. Is the stuff about giraffe rape true? How on earth did you come across that bit of historical knowledge? Do you go looking for this stuff?

Ha! “Fetish for bizarre trivial matters” – I like that so much!

It’s true, I’ve always been a bit dotty for non-fiction & history. I blame PBS.

Still, I think this obsession really blossomed in high school when I was named captain of my high school academic team. Some competitions came with study materials (which made studying for them so much easier), but other competitions were just generic “quiz bowls” where you just had to know random facts. One of the poem in “Everything is Everything” — “Reliable Answers for Nerds” — is about some of the most common “random facts” that get used in competition, where really you should just know them, kind of like Scrabble nerds (which I am as well) just needing to know the two letter word list (aa, ab, ad, ae, etc..) in order to be considered a real player.

Anyway, we learned that the best way to acquire knowledge about random facts is just to keep chasing a vein of facts that is interesting to you until the bitter end.

So, for instance, the fact about there being giraffes trained to rape humans, which appears in a handful of poems in “Everything is Everything,” came about this way:

I first read about them in a book about serial killers (why I was reading a book about serial killers is a whole other story). In the book, they mentioned that one of the world’s first serial killers (who poisoned men for money in Ancient Rome) was executed by rape by a specially trained giraffe. And I was like, “W-W-WHAAAT?

So then I began searching for information about giraffes trained to rape to see if they were pulling my chain, and it turns out it was true, and that that only one guy in Ancient Rome figured out how to do it.

And then I began reading up on that guy to see HOW he did, and so on and so forth.

If you just keep chasing down what you think are the most interesting parts of a story you are hearing, you’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn in the process.

The downside, of course, is that now I know a tremendous amount of information about how to train animals how to rape humans, which is appropriate dinner conversation in absolutely no context… and yet, it was all I could think about for like two weeks straight. Thank God for poetry – the perfect exorcism for your weird thoughts!

I’m always interested in the ways in which slam poets talk about the slam scene. So many slam poets seem very bitter about the scene and its inherent politics. In your writing I see some of that weariness but more than anything I see an abiding, unabashed love for slam poetry. Is that an accurate statement?

It’s true. I do love the poetry slam community – warts & all. And it’s also true that there is quite a bit of bitterness and (deserved) self-criticism when it comes to the poetry slam movement.

The Poetry Slam community has a lot of fears about the poets & poetry that comes out of it – and a lot of those fears are contradictory. We fear that the movement has become stagnant, just rehashing the same themes in the same tired way. Conversely, we fears that it’s changing too much, that the poets & poetry that once succeeded wouldn’t stand a chance next to the hip, glib, TV-friendly poets & poetry succeeding today. We fear that slam poetry is become too commercialized, and that outside people – publishing companys, TV producers, etc… – are dictating what’s good and not about the slam. And conversely, we fear that slam poetry is too isolated, that the work isn’t getting outside of our cloistered events & products, and that mainstream America, as well as Academia, have no idea who were really are or what we really do.

Having really studied the movement when researching for Words In Your Face (my history of the NYC poetry slam), I realized that these debates / fears / criticisms have always been a part of the movement, and always will be.  It’s healthy, and natural, and a good sign that people still care about the work being created in their own community.

And that word – “community” – is the real thing for me. There is a deep sense of community in the Poetry Slam movement, both pride in the work being created in your community and the larger pride in seeing the work being created nationally. We are a community of artists, who represent each our own cities & neighborhoods in way that I don’t see reflected in a lot of other genres.

In 1998, my first year competing in the poetry slam, I saw a team of poets from Detroit who were all auto factory workers.  They performed group pieces in which some of the poets imitated the sounds of the machines they all worked on, while the other poet tried to have his poetry heard about all that rattle and din. I was 19 years old, and seeing that just about blew my mind right out of the back of the venue. I felt so lucky to have been given that sort of intimate insight into the lives of these men.

Now, do these men have university-press books out, do they teach poetry in MFA programs, or write essays in The Paris Review exclaiming or declaiming this translation or that anthology? No. But these men took their vacation time from the factory to perform poetry, poetry that they took time from their long hard day to write. And that is the heart of the poetry slam movement to me – seeing poetry in places you never thought you’d see poetry, and shining a spotlight on it.

Write Bloody is a press that is somewhat different from many publishers in that they really put their authors to work and in particular, demand that their authors tour quite extensively. Why did you choose to publish your work with them?

Write Bloody is run by a fantastic poet & friend, Derrick Brown, and he has down a wonderful job bridging the performance poetry / slam poetry world with the publishing world. The books he creates are beautiful, well-edited and well-crafted, and his choices of poets has been flawless as well: poets who burn up the page as well as the stage, and who are wonderful hardworking ambassadors for our movement.

Thus, I’m really thrilled that Write Bloody asked to be the home for all of my books: not just this latest one, but also the four books previously published ones as well! I know that the books they produce will be beautiful, and I love being a part of a family of road poets who have gratefully included me on their tours and in their events.  I am also happy that my experiences on the other side of the arts world – my experiences with literary journals, conferences, grant-giving organizations, etc… — might also help to introduce this press to people who might not other know about it, and open lines of communication between the performance world and the literary / academic world that might not have been opened.

I like having those sorts of relationships in the arts – where you are giving back to them out hopefully as much as they are giving you!