STARK WEEK EPISODE 1: “The redonkulous and the sublime” — An interview with Sampson Starkweather

starkweekWEEKS: A lot can kill you in a week. Even more can eat you at your weakness. A whole week of hair growth depends on, uh, genetics? Weeks contain a finite series of burritos and an infinite burrito of choices. Hoopla, regrets, collapses, dancing so hard you have to pour a cup of ice water on your dome, other times that feeling like you have to drag yourself so hard by your own collar your shirt might tear. Huge trucks at night carrying turned-off, unblinking versions of those normally blinking signs that say CONSTRUCTION AHEAD or SLOW LANE ENDS, except the signs are big so the trucks themselves say OVERSIZED LOAD and are blinking, themselves, even though their cargo’s dark. What I would like to do is nominate Sampson Starkweather to rewrite the entirety of America’s highway marginalia, to be the official roadside spokespoet for all of America’s restless feelings. I don’t have shit to do with those decisions, so what is happening instead is that this week will be Sampson Starkweather week here at HTMLGIANT, aka STARK WEEK.

THE BOOK: Sampson’s debut book of poems, The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweatheris out now from Birds LLC. It’s really big. Like almost 400 pages. Who does that? It’s what it says it is. 4 books. All the feelings enacted in the opening paragraph happen inside of its four books, which are categorized as “poetry/life.” Sure, yes, yeah.

WHAT’S IN IT: It’s a book I’d give to someone just coming to poetry and to someone who feels totally burnt out on poetry. Those are kind of the same readers, I think. That’s why the whole week. Starkweather’s poetry is the existence of a nonexistent photograph of Andre the Giant jumping off the top rope. In his introduction, Jared White mentions “bass-voiced sexy soul-singer slow jams” and “punch-drunk Harlequin-robocop masculinity.” The poems have angry leaked dreams and love before roads and a pistol-whipped desire and the world’s saddest TV and offensive hurricane names and corpses wrapped in huge tropical leaves on islands named after them and that’s just in the poems you can read on the excerpt page.

WTF IS GOING ON: Over the course of this week, we’re going to feature a series of guests talking about Sam’s work in each of the books within T4B—1) King of the Forest, 2) La La La, 3) The Waters, 4) Self Help Poems—and also we’re going to hear from the awesome artists who made the covers for each of these four books. There will be criticism, talk of process, grand sweeping theories, tiny insightful scalpels. You’ll get to read some of Sam’s poetry. There will be some talk of what goes into, in 2013, putting out a 400 page book of your poems that is actually 4 books. Maybe there will be some interaction, multimedia, surprise. Buy a copy of the book if you want to follow along closely. I promise it won’t feel like being stuck on a brokedown bus at a rest stop in Connecticut. There are poems that feel like that, but not in this book. Here’s a list of who’s coming at you: Matt Bollinger, Ed Park, Bianca Stone, John Cotter, Melissa Broder, Eric Amling, Elisa Gabbert, Jonathan Marshall, Amy Lawless, Sommer Browning, and Jared White.

WHO IS SAMPSON STARKWEATHER ANYWAY, IS HE THAT GUY WHO DID THAT THING GUYS DO: The reason a lot of people want to share and talk about Sam’s huge ass tree-killer is because he and his work (which are impossible to unspoon from each other, which is how it should be) is like getting the best high five of your life from Teen Wolf. He is loved and easy to love and easy to mistake in rural supermarkets for Javier Bardem. He’s a longhaired poet surfer with a heart of messy pizza and manic kindness. Thank the exhausted fucking stars he is with us and with poetry. Enjoy STARK WEEK.

HOW DOES STARK WEEK BEGIN: To begin STARK WEEK, I talked to Starkweather:

1) Hi Sam. Welcome to Stark Week. This is how it starts, with an interview of you. Our interview starts with the “who is Sampson Starkweather and what’s going on, what is this stuff all over my arms, is this sap” portion of the interview. So let’s start at the start. Four books? Why? Why buck the prevailing model of slim little precious supermodel books? More importantly, why buck it in this beautifully thunking doorstop fashion?

Sorry about the sap “this forest / is unusually horny.”

cowboysamIn the end it came down to precisely the opposite of your question: “Why not?”  Why not 4 books in 1? Why not a 328 page monster poetry collection that sounds like a seminal lifetime work by some famous, award-winning, about-to-die poet who now tends a garden, published by some big-ass conglomerate press like Penguin, but is actually by some dude with a ridiculous name that no one has heard of (and sounds like a character from Game of Thrones) and has yet to publish a full-length book, on a small indie poetry press that, oh yeah, he just happens to be a publisher/founding-editor of? It seemed ridiculous, audacious, absurd, unheard of, taboo, laughable—in other words, perfect.

As far as “bucking” (prevailing models of poetic output), I’ve been thinking about this thing C.D. Wright wrote in an introduction to some poems from the book she recently chose for the PEN Poetry Series, which essentially is about upending the orthodoxy of the poetry machine, and creating community, all of us, a tribe of young American poets who do many things to keep ourselves and poetry alive—start journals, presses, reading series, meet our future wives there, go over poems at bars, argue about books or find ways to transform our jobs and bills and friends and problems (domestication, idleness, bliss) into poetry. All of the messy glorious useless things we do to make our poetry a way of life:

They are creating a living poetry, in post-literate, post-campus environments. This interests me. This vitality. This upstartedness. This side-winding path to something over the next rise, something significant.”

I love that, and that people in positions such as C.D. Wright recognize and are interested in this unglorified tribe, this punk-ass kenotic existence. It taps into an ethos I think Birds is born out of, basically by building something that you believe in, not for a job or fame or money or validation or whatever quantifiable goal, but simply to feel more alive and connected, and by doing that, and being true to it, other people will find it, feel it, respond to it, and it will grow (which is what I mean by community).

This book is a microcosm or product of the pressure that produced the press and what it represents: feeling frustrated and powerless against the PoBiz and the current capital “P” poetry publishing models which we felt tended to publish innocuous, cookie-cutter contest books, without investment and commitment in producing and promoting them, cheaply, without attention to detail and aesthetic concern for design, art, materiality, layout (with regard to the relationship of content and form)—the contextual components or elements that make up the physical experience of holding and reading a book. We decided to just get up and do something about it. Make something beautiful, fun, brave, bold, weird and as awesome as possible. We even had a lame acronym for it for a while, B.A.A.D.D.S: Be Awesome And Do Dope Shit, which was less about being cool and more a battle cry or internal reminder to be ourselves and  do what we want and believe in.

The Collected Books of Jack Spicer was a big influence on why and how we published my book the way we did—it forever shaped my idea of poetry and the book (especially the idea that poems cannot live alone any more than we can). I found that idea of books within books thrilling and potentially infinite, which is to me a kind of perfection or stand-in for poetry: the abolishment of time.

In fact I think even the books themselves don’t believe they are real, they are like one of the poems that ends Some of the scarecrows made a mistake and were real. 

Bolaño and Borges were also influences; they would invent books that were never written by poets that never existed, and you were dying to read or meet them. I’m not sure how that relates exactly, but I felt like my books (or manuscripts), which I’d been writing for a decade, were books that didn’t really exist or only existed as the story or myth of them. It gets pretty meta (World Peace), but to me, since they were not published, and only existed as a Word DOC or something on my shitty Dell, and only occasionally took on a life at readings or maybe when a friend published one or wrote me an email about them, that maybe I was writing these unwritten mythic books described by Borges or Bolaño, and likewise I often felt like I was one of those poets who didn’t exist, who was made up. Publishing them all together seemed unreal and mythic and impossible and I loved that. In fact I think even the books themselves don’t believe they are real, they are like one of the poems that ends Some of the scarecrows made a mistake and were real.

2) Jared White’s introduction talks about how these poems were borne of isolation—the poet alone in the woods—and you and I have talked about their genesis of achy heartitude. But I think of you as not alone at all. As actually one of the friendliest, funniest, most social poet bros out there. What gives?

Yeah, I was like a lazy unproductive Thoreau with Internet access and a ‘92 Camry with 246,000 miles on it. Which is to say, a lot of the poems were born in a time when I was literally and metaphorically living “alone in the woods,” and that isolation allowed me to go further and further inside myself. And you know, it can get dark in there, but it’s also the place (condition of solitude and inwardness) where a lot of our poetry comes from … I think we probably all have two sides to us, like the moon. To quote Walt Whitman: I contain multi-dudes.

I mean extremes, polarities, contraries, and paradoxes, which are the tension lines my poetry tends to tightrope walk on. Ecstasy and doubt. Dancing at a party without a shirt on and taking a shit in the woods. The same way we run on two different (seemingly opposing) currents of energy, extravert and introvert, there are also two kinds of poetry, a public and a private.

Real poetry is just energy; the language comes later (and is transferred during the performance or reading of it.)

samandmikeMy energy comes from social interactions, conversations, parties, friendship, dancing, joking, playing language games, testing the weird limits of the body and the heart like a kid’s chemistry set. And to me that is a kind of poetry, a living poetry you can’t touch. And that side is the friendly, funny, social po-bro you’re experiencing. On the other hand, there is a private kind of poetry, which for me requires time, solitude, quietude—an internalizing and transforming of all that energy into ideas and music (through language). And the poetry which is produced is a giving back of energy, a gift to the world or whoever finds it. Real poetry lives between the two or because the two coexist. Real poetry is just energy; the language comes later (and is transferred during the performance or reading of it.)

I have this poem that ends “Fuck it, I always choose the party / & carry some songs that will make it all // disappear,” which is about a lot of things—decisions, an inner Post-It note to myself to live in both worlds, not to be seduced by loneliness and “achy heartitude,” and that there is a magic or cleansing or redemption that comes in the confluence of the public and the private. Eileen Myles talks, in her poetry novel Inferno, about how poetry is like a party, and I totally agree. She says something about how, like parties, our poems too must end, and afterwards you may have done something shameful, dorky, or dumb, said something regrettable or too much, but the beauty is, and we must remember this, that you can always go back and fix it. You can learn to have grace, and that’s heaven. (Hell Yeah!)

3) Three years ago on HTMLGIANT I said that your poetry feels like a gameshow hosted by a monk. A battle cry and a cat call. Plus I said that your poetry makes me feel like: “whatever we’re here for, we aren’t here to feel embarrassed.” This was about your chapbook The Heart Is Green From So Much Waiting, poems from which ended up in The Waters, book three of the First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather. Which is maybe my favorite, except Self-Help Poems is maybe my favorite, except La La La is, except what about King of the Forest, Mike, well, OK, damn. Which book is your favorite, Sam?

I like it, it’s like poetry’s Sophie’s Choice. I’ve always disliked the word “favorite.” Maybe it’s because I’m neurotic, but there is too much nuance, circumstance, and context to have a favorite anything. Besides, we’re always changing; how boring to be moored to the permanent. I’d rather be like that red balloon the boy loses in that black-and-white movie, only I’d like to constantly change colors based on how I feel.

redonkOkay, sorry for my Woody Allen moment, but what I mean is that I have different relationships with each book, but for the sake of the interview, I guess right now my favorite book would be La La La.  I sort of think of it as the underdog, like the other books are bigger, more ambitious or serious, while La La La is more playful and light and like an escape from all that serious darkness, but I think that’s important too. I’m probably making this up, but I feel like I read some study about how people live longer who play games, smile, and have more of a sense of humor throughout their life, basically playing around, laughing. A certain dedication to nonsense and absurdity is necessary to survive. Well I think that’s true of poetry too, or at least for these 4 books—that balance of the “redonkulous and the sublime.”

Also because I’ve been doing a lot of readings lately, and it’s the book that is the most fun to read aloud. It’s shifty, pop-y, and funny, and I can sort of sing it, which is what the title is about—that part of the song when the words won’t due to convey the feeling or meaning, so the singer just makes up sounds that feel good and sound cool “la la la.”  It’s also probably the book that is closest in form and tone to the poems I’ve been writing since TFFBOSS. Especially the linebreaks, which are short and playful and constantly creating double entendres and mini-poems within poems, like those Russian dolls, only if those dolls were like different versions/iterations of Prince.

Finally, they have the lines that get most stuck in my head. Sometimes my girlfriend will call me and just randomly leave a line from the La La La’s on my answering machine, and that has to be one of the dopest measures for poetry ever.

Especially the linebreaks, which are short and playful and constantly creating double entendres and mini-poems within poems, like those Russian dolls, only if those dolls were like different versions/iterations of Prince.

But in case the other 3 books read this, I’d say that King of the Forest is the best book and the most ambitious, The Waters is the most complex, personal, and lyric, and Self Help Poems is the realist, like if that book had a chest tattoo it would be that Tupac line “truest shit I ever wrote.”

4) Some poems that poets write have narrative in them. Some poems are like no, I want sentences. More poems come by going, no, no, images for me; their brothers go eh, nah, gimme jokes. Or their aunt’s poems have colloquial language deployed for poetic sideswipes. Their uncle’s poems go more with aphorisms, and other uncles with analogies. Meanwhile over in the garage are black sheep poems fucking with white space and collage. And then there are The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather, in which there are poems that do absolutely every one of those things, like you are every poet, like Being John Starkweathervich. How do you put everything in poems into your poems? Does it have anything to do with what you call “transcontemporations,” which are to regular poems “what Robocop is to normal police officers”?

robocopmalkHa, I dig that. I feel like that movie would just be that scene where Malkovich falls out of the sky (his own brain) and is walking on the Jersey Turnpike when some drunk dude drives by and yells, “Hey, Starkweathervich! Think fast!” and nails him in the head with an empty beer can on a loop for 4 hours. Or maybe some mashup of RoboCop and Being John Malkovich.

What you’re talking about is what I like about poems—that anything can happen, that they are this ecstatic freedom, the threshold’s threshold, and about creating a sense of freedom and possibility, and oh fuck how did this whale get in my living room and where the hell did it learn those ridiculously dope dance moves kind of moments for the reader. Which comes from trying to surprise yourself and always trying to find new ways to write, while letting your way of writing at the moment go along its own path until it ends or exhausts itself.

I like poetry that blows down doors and then we all enter these rooms together and maybe it’s like an art gallery in there, or maybe it’s a nightmare or black hole, or maybe it’s a party and we start dancing or crowd in the kitchen, smoking, talking, drinking, laughing, talking more like if you stopped the world might stop. If poetry is magic, then how cool to have all these tricks and powers, all these spells to draw from depending on what the situation may call for.

I think I’m also interested in approaching subject matter, themes, mythologies and my obsessions from various angles and using different methods and techniques—sort of a Rashomon of poetry. By exploring the themes from different perspectives, and with different styles and forms, it creates a multitude of meanings and layers and a kind of infinite ambiguity—an ouroboros of meaning or truth. Truth is like water, it moves, changes form, you can put your hand right through it, you can drink it or be drowned by it. I think that paradox or negative capability is one of the effects of “being every poet all at once.” Of course it helps to have 4 books to try and put the whole world into or try to do everything that poems can do.

If poetry is magic, then how cool to have all these tricks and powers, all these spells to draw from depending on what the situation may call for.

The RoboCop  analogy or “transcontemporation” is really more specifically about The Waters—a window into the process, a footnote or framework which you can choose to either enter or ignore. I tried to write an essay about RoboCop as a kind of metaphor for poetry since the source or content of the poems (memory, emotion, imagination) is so human, but the form, the poem, the language, and way words work is like a machine—half man, half machine, all cop—but it was terrible. In the end, my poetics are the poems themselves, so I just let them do their thing.

5) OK, book time. Uh, hate to break it to you dude, but you self-published your book. Haven’t you heard that self-publishing is bad? Like, you won’t get elected president now? Like you and Arnold Schwarzenegger will never get elected president? Granted, you self-published this book as part of an amazing collective called Birds, LLC, which has put out lots of really high quality books by people who are not part of the collective, and which is probably the smartest model for an independent poetry press we have going, but still. Give a passionate defense of self-publishing to some random white dude in a pink buttondown who makes, like, magazine rankings based on Pushcart wins or something.

Starkweather/Young 2016… keep the dream alive! Don’t underestimate my campaign of paying taxes with poetry.

But yes, it’s self-published—I am the enemy of art. It reminds me of this story Ana Božičević told me about how she read to an audience of one, and when she finished reading, the guy says to her, “Wow, were those self-written?” How great is that? It’s such a ridiculous question that it’s sort of genius. When I hear “self-publish,” I think about that story, and how if it seems insane to ask if something was “self-written,” then why is it so crazy when we hear something is “self-published?” It’s just taking another step towards ownership of your art, ideas, and seeing that vision through—the shape, size, texture, art, spine, design, font, etc. is just as much a part of the final product or experience of the art as the words, stanzas, titles, and lines.

tinytowerI don’t know, part of me thinks, “why defend it, the books defend themselves.” Seriously, I mean the best defense would be to just reach into this screen and grab the books and start reading them (there is probably an app for that). But on the other hand, I get it. I mean, there is a reason that people distrust or frown upon self-publishing, and that’s because so much of it is so bad, (then again, so is the majority of non-self-published books). And the pub biz has created a sort of boogieman and stigma around self-publishing, which comes down to money, the market, and keeping their position in the tiny tower of power that is literature. I’m sure I can NOT unpack all that, but I think it makes sense that MFA programs and university presses that are tied to them, and the contest publishing system, would want you to need them, to establish a value system that would keep them desirable, which has something to do with a sense of validity and of being chosen, and all the American bullshit of being number 1, the best, winning, prizes, awards, degrees, etc. That is a big market, but it doesn’t necessarily produce the best or most original art. I’m generalizing of course.

It comes down to taking your art into your own hands, ownership over the entire process, and in poetry, where there is already little to no risk, power, or money involved, why the fuck not? I mean, when this happens in the music industry, those independent artists are seen as badass heroes and pioneers, and fighting for their creative freedom etc., but in the lit community, it’s like you are a pariah or shamed for taking the same entrepreneurial independence in your field.

I should say “self-publishing” probably paints a different picture than exactly what we’re doing at Birds. We are actually more of a collective, since there are five of us, and we make decisions as a group and publish other poets than ourselves. It took a lot of work and planning and experience to get where we are now as publishers; we all come from publishing/editing/marketing backgrounds, we edit each of the books vigorously, and we collaborate with a huge network of designers, artists, programmers, other poets and presses, bookstores, distributers, etc. and believe that marketing the books we work so hard on is essential. But we try to do so with creativity, imagination, and by putting ourselves in the shoes of the reader or other poets.

It comes down to taking your art into your own hands, ownership over the entire process, and in poetry, where there is already little to no risk, power, or money involved, why the fuck not?

There is of course a long history of self-publishing of poetry in America, from some chum named Walt Whitman to some of my personal heroes: Spicer, Duncan, the San Francisco Renaissance, White Rabbit Press and the whole mimeograph movement, and of course the Objectivists, Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, WCW, Pound. In fact on the dust jacket of The Objectivist Press’s first publication they had this little ditty which I think we’d subscribe to:

“The Objectivist Press is an organization of writers who are publishing their own work and that of other writers whose work they think ought to be read.”

The passionate plea is simple—no one is going to care as much as you, no one will work as hard or be as invested. So if you want to do something awesome, DO IT. Don’t wait for someone else to do it for you or think that someone else will have the passion or commitment or vision you will. Poetry is its own reward, but you have to get involved and participate; you can’t just sit in a little room typing on a Mac and sending that out waiting to be rewarded.

6) Let’s just put it all out there: you were a little nervous about STARK WEEK appearing on HTMLGIANT. There were a few different reasons you were nervous. Can you explain them as honestly as you can without risking your score in the terrifying lifelong video game beta test tentatively entitled

A dillion reasons, but basically I was just self-conscious about a week dedicated to “me” or about my work. Which is ironic, because I actually wrote a poem about that a while ago called Human Week (being a nerd, I was watching Shark Week and thinking how cool it would be if the Discovery Channel had a week for us like that, using that cool deep ominous movie-trailer voiceover)

it appears
I’ve grown
a shark’s fin
I circle
but so does
the sun
a victim of form
and fear
I must go
and sad
but still
into the cold
dark world
with a dumb
for a week
to me

So thanks to HTMLGIANT, I guess I don’t have to wait anymore. I guess the more I think about it, the more it feels right, like a fitting gesture to get a bunch of poets, artists, and friends to collaborate for a week around my book, since that was the same sort of collective and collaborative and fuck-it-let’s-do-it-anyway spirit the book was created with in the first place.

7) Speaking of: I think you are one of NYC’s premier poetry gurus and should start a private workshop where you blam secrets on people. Like you should pour a bunch of sand in your apartment and adopt an epic surfer mystic persona. What would a Sam Starkweather poetry “workshop” look like? Is “workshop” even the right word? Why should we get together with our poems, why not just hide with them and smoke them?

Thanks, Mike. I’m not sure about guru but I do love to try to help people (poetically speaking) and learn from them and have an instinct to want to go further—there is this Catalan surrealist poet named J.V. Foix who refused to be called a poet, but insisted on being called an “Investigator of Poetry.” I’d say I’m something like that, like a Magnum PI of poetry.

I once got to sit in on a workshop with Diane di Prima, and when she walked into this sterile institutionalized-feeling classroom, she said “How the hell can you think in here—we need to throw some goddamn paint on the wall!”

Instead of workshops, we could call it life—a classroom of the outside, meeting at bars, bringing marked-up manuscripts, talking until you need to eat or meet the next group of friends or go to the reading, then talking after the reading about the reading where gossip meets something like shitty but beautiful lit crit, or critiquing style & performance, asking the reader for the crumpled poems, or writing long emails about a poem or idea when you should be at work, breaking off at a party discussing poems, poetics, a manuscript, what you’re reading, meeting at a friend’s apartment for a book club or a private reading, having poets crash at your place, staying up until 5am talking about poetry, life, books, music, smoking, drinking, relationships. It’s romanticized I know, but I think all of this (a lifestyle) can stand-in for what we think of as a more intuitional workshop.

I’m into the aesthetics of amateurism. I once got to sit in on a workshop with Diane di Prima, and when she walked into this sterile institutionalized-feeling classroom, she said “How the hell can you think in here—we need to throw some goddamn paint on the wall!” I love that. I think it’s that sense of rebellion or breaking the rules, and of J.V Foix’s insistence on being a kind of lifelong detective of poetry (the crime of the century) or mystery, that I would embrace and try to encourage.

I actually did teach a workshop recently, as part of a conference in D.C., that I called “Self Help Poetry Workshop: Poetry as Magic,” and for the description I did a cheesy late-night Infomercial type ad-copy for it, which actually would probably be close both to what I believe in and what a class might be like if I lead it:

algreenpilatesTired of boring, predictable, and clichéd poems? Tired of being rejected? Tired of being alone (ala Al Green)? Rilke was right–almost–you must change your poetry! Expand your transcendence!! Enlarge your dreams!! Strengthen your line breaks!! Lose 20 pounds!! Think of this as Pilates for your imagination (towels not included). We will be discussing strategies, techniques, practices, and examples of how to create and use SURPRISE! (both in ourselves and the reader) to create magic, tension, energy, and to keep the reader excited and constantly on their toes. Because to misquote Robert Frost, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” 

8) You could give this book to someone who’s never read poetry, but that’s not a big deal. Like you could give any book of poetry to someone who’s never read poetry, strictly speaking. People afraid or scornful of it. But there’s a pornography-style “I know it when I see it” feeling about your poetry to me. It’s of the sort that reinvigorates my love of the shit. Interestingly, I think the same poetry one is instinctually inclined to give to someone ripe for roping into poetry’s graces is also the kind of poetry one is inclined to press upon one’s most jaded poet friends. Is that weird?

Nah, I think I get it. I have always had this little test in the back of my mind—if I was reading a poem at a reading in some bar in Brooklyn or Kansas or wherever, would the bartender dig it, would they stop and listen? Which is not to underestimate bartenders’ intellectual appetite or anything. It’s just that they have to sit there whether they want to or not and listen to tons of readings (which, let’s face it, can be super boring), so if you can move them or entertain them or do whatever it is that poetry does to us when it’s working, then it’s working. But at the same time, I think of myself as a bit of a poet’s poet, because as someone who is constantly reading, hearing and thinking about poetry, I know how easy it is to become jaded or bored, so I try to write things that excite or surprise someone, like me, who will probably die at a reading, right there with the bartender.

I think the best poems transcend understanding or pre-conceived perceptions. It’s a feeling, like when you hear certain music that you can’t describe, but it runs all through you and makes you happy or sad or want to dance or whatever. A friend linked to some poems of mine recently, and this person tweeted back, “I don’t understand it, but I like it.” I think that’s great—a perfect description of the way art works.

I think the best poems transcend understanding or pre-conceived perceptions.

9) A follow up: I’m interested in your thoughts on Kathleen Rooney’s recent exploration of Jack Handy and contemporary poetry, an essay in which you’re quoted at length. A poet friend of mine said the essay made him feel grumpy, like that poets should aspire to be more than Jack Handy ripoffs. Like poetry shouldn’t be desperate to compare itself to friendly touchstones in order to attract more readers. Me, I (annoyingly, milquetoastedly) liked both Rooney’s essay and my friend’s point. I’m of the feeling that anyone who is destined to be saved by motherfucking poetry will be saved by motherfucking poetry. And our po-life gets way sunnier once we give up sweating that. But I also thought Rooney’s breakdown of a particular contemporary aesthetic strain via the Handy context was pretty brilliant. What do you think?

Well, first of all, I think it should be read in context (and probably important to consider its audience). I don’t think Kathy was saying poets should aspire to be Jack Handy rip-offs. I think in an attempt to teach something and motivate students, she tried to use an analogy that they could relate to and stumbled onto an insight she wanted to explore further.

I think because the lens happened to be a populace touchstone, it lent itself to a broader national audience, and if that article leads someone to some killer poetry, which is a window to more killer poetry (which would not have been discovered otherwise), which I like to think would make their head explode, then that is good.

Personally, I think the article was useful, especially as it relates to an influence of form and style. To me it is about pushing against the poem’s form. So if it’s prose, I wanna fuck with what that means, use the reader’s expectations against them to create surprise, humor, and a sudden expansion of meaning or possibility. If it has short line breaks, what if I told a story in there, etc.

Poetry can be about the ugly or the irrelevant, and without sentimentality, and essentially is making fun of the people who insist Poetry MUST BE THIS.

I think there is a link to what Jack Handy was doing, which went against popular culture’s notion of what poetry is/was (especially in the late 80s), which tended to be super cliché and faux wisdom sprinkled with nature references at the end of some little narrative. Which parallels to what a lot of the poets in the article and what poets like Nicanor Parra do, which is to flip those clichéd notions of poetry on their head and subvert the reader’s expectations to show that poetry can be about the ugly or the irrelevant, and without sentimentality, and essentially is making fun of the people who insist Poetry MUST BE THIS. Parra says fuck that, poetry is about freedom:

Write as you will
In whatever style you like
Too much blood has run under the bridge
To go on believing
That only one road is right.
In poetry everything is permitted.


STAY TUNED FOR EPISODE TWO OF STARK WEEK, COMING LATER TODAY, FEATURING: Matt Bollinger discussing the cover of The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather!

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  1. SampsonStarkweather

      The tags on this alone is kinda a poem
      Tags: Amy Lawless, ana bozicevic, Bianca Stone, birds llc, Dancing at a party without a shirt on and taking a shit in the woods, Ed Park, elisa gabbert, eric amling, Jack Handy, Jack Spicer, Jared White, john cotter, Jonathan Marshall, Kathleen Rooney, Matt Bollinger, Melissa Broder, multi-dudes, robocop, sampson starkweather, Sommer Browning, stark week, The Objectivist Press

  2. bartleby_taco

      kind of surprised/bewildered that these posts have been receiving so few comments. this interview is great. can’t wait to read this book.

  3. Mike Young

      thanks taco dude!! i think people are just stunned silent by the awesome of her majesty’s s.s. starkweather

  4. bemightee

      it’s funny i was just looking at this book a few days ago. this interview was really informative and a lot of fun to read i esp. enjoyed the quesitons. looking forward to the rest of stark week.

  5. INTERVIEW: Adam Tedesco | Dirty Chai

      […] I heard a great interview with Sampson Starkweather—his first book was published by the press he co-founded, Birds, […]