I Like Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz A Lot: Part 4

Posted by @ 3:00 pm on December 3rd, 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 the train to Queens, the circular nature of writing about writing, and performance as process.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3| Part 5 (will work after Friday)

Several of the poems mention your commute from Queens to Manhattan to work and in that writing I sense a certain undertone. I’m not sure if it’s bitterness or fatigue or resignation. How does being part of the bridge/tunnel crowd affect you?

I always through the “Bridge and Tunnel” crowd meant people from New Jersey but a quick trip to Wikipedia has indeed proven I am indeed, technically “Bridge and Tunnel” as I live in Queens. Fantastic… As I may have mentioned before, you are the first person to point out the theme of “subways” in my writing, something I didn’t even see, so that was really neat. And it’s true that I believe the subway has taken on a special meaning for me.

In Manhattan, there is such a mix of people riding the subways – workers, tourists, students, messengers, nannies with their babies, old people with their bagels, etc… etc… When you start climbing into the outer boroughs, things really start to slough off, and you are left with a core group of people, the neighborhood people. Queens is a working class borough, and when you enter into Queens, the train consists of working people – sometimes they are office workers like me, sometimes they are construction workers, sometimes they are hospital workers still in their scrubs, and so on. There is this uniting spirit of being workers. The subway is our way to get to work and our way of getting home.

Okay, so writing that all down seems dumbly obvious, but I guess when you see if in practice, it gains more meaning.

The last five stops in Manhattan before you enter Queens sees entire populations of people leave the train, usually wealthier people, people who look better rested, wear better clothes, play games on their iPhones as they wait for their stop. Staying on to Queens, you see a whole other population of people, MY population of people, my neighborhood: people wearing the same Payless shoes you have in your own closet, wearing the same $8 sweaters and $5 skirts you bought at the local ABC Superstore, who join you in reading books with “Queens Public Library” stamped on the spine, whose kids seem so much happier when those Manhattaners leave, so they can get up out of their seats, spin around on the subway poles and point & laugh at the skyline of Manhattan as a fades out of view.

I think it was Sherman Alexie who talked about how confusing it can be to want to be successful, and coming  from a poor / working class background. After all, to succeed means you stop being what you were. If you are working hard & saving money with the hope of eventually leaving your neighborhood, then what does that say about how you feel about your neighborhood? Can you be proud of something you want to escape?

The subway for me brings up these issues. I am proud that I am one of the tough-nut outer borough workers, and feel a sense of unity when I nod at another tired worker happy that we finally got seats after those Manhattaners left the train  but that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes wish I had nicer shoes, or a better night’s sleep, or that damn newfangled iPhone…

Why do so many writers write about writing? It seems like a very solipsistic thing to do and yet the practice is pervasive. Can we simply not help ourselves?

Writers write about their lives, and writing is a big part of writer’s life, so in a sense, we really can’t help ourselves!

The key is to find a balance though. You don’t want to focus on writing about writing so much, that you are ignoring – perhaps purposely so – the other parts of your life that aren’t so overtly poetic.

You are funny. Does humor come naturally for you, or do you find you have to work at it?

I think in general I’m funny person, but that’s perhaps because I’m naturally looking for the humor in things. I also think the best humor comes when it’s grounded in truth. My funniest pieces are often my truest pieces. Once you give the reader or the audience (or maybe just yourself) permission to laugh at something that was previously really traumatic or embarrassing for you, you’ll be surprised how far you are willing to open up about that experience.

You perform a lot of your poetry. What kind of work goes into performing a poem? How do you play to the audience? How on earth do you memorize so much of your work? In watching some of your poetry, you really exaggerate the performance of certain parts of the poem. How do you develop that cadence that switches between performing and Performing?

My poet pal & fellow slam scholar Susan B.A. Somers-Willett once gave what I thought was a great definition of the difference between a “poetry reading” and a “poetry performance”: At a poetry reading, you don’t feel compelled to applaud after every poem; at a poetry performance, you do. That’s a really smart distinction, and an important one. You don’t NEED to perform your pieces all the time. You can just have a reading, where the audience can sit back and listen to the whole scope of the work you are presenting, and then applaud at the end. On the other hand, I do come from a slam background, which has poetry performance as an integral part of its DNA. It is proof that you are working towards that connection with the audience, that you aren’t just writing poetry to hear yourself read it.

Performance is another tool I use to edit my work. I help run a poetry slam in New York City called the NYC-Urbana Poetry Slam, and for last few years, I’ve only performed brand new work on that stage. Every night I’m there, I’m debuting a poem. In a neat sadistic twist, I’ve also added a self-imposed rule that all the poetry I’m debuting, I also must have either recently submitted to a lit journal or will be submitting within the next few days. It has been a great exercise in humility, I have to admit.

Some of the poems I spent so much time craft & perfecting just die on stage, and I realize afterwards all the tiny ways they failed to actually connect with the reader / audience were likely because I was obsessing too much on literary bells & whistles instead of the meat / heart of the piece. Other times, I’ve half-heartedly submitted poems I thought for sure only worked on the stage to literary journals I felt certain would reject them – if only to live up to “if you perform, you must submit” rule – and ended up absolutely gobsmacked when I learned that the poem had been accepted, proving to myself, yet again, that I might not have the best idea of what is good in my own work.

In the Venn diagram of “page” vs. “stage” I try to fit snuggly in the center chunk – but erring on either side is no sin, provided I strive for a balance.

In terms of answering your questions about how I perform, it should be noted that the narrative quality of my work lends itself to easier memorization, since most of the time I’m just telling a story. I am also very forgiving of myself if I don’t get the exact word / wording correctly, as long as I keep up the spirit / tone of the piece.* And I always let the piece dictate the performances – some pieces are going to be louder, some pieces are going to be quieter. As long as your performance is in the service of expressing and/or expounding on the intent of your poem as it appears in the page, you can’t go wrong.

Performance poets are playing to the audience in front of them, and they will use any tools necessary to help get the point of their poem across. This might mean changing a word or two, or breaking down longer more complex sentences  into easier to digest chunks in performance (essentially, changing commas into periods). I don’t see this as being disrespectful of the poem. I see it as being respectful of the audience.  If you listen to the recordings of “page poets” of old (Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, e.e. cummings), you’ll see their live performed works don’t match their page work exactly. So there!

* – Another criticism leveled at slam poets / performance poets is that the performance of a poem is sometimes different from the page version of the poem, which leads people to believe that performance poets don’t value the page poem as being important enough to stick to faithfully. This isn’t really true.

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