Thursday, September 06, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Noah Eli Gordon

Noah Eli Gordon was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1975. He received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of six full-length collections, including Novel Pictorial Noise (Harper Perennial, 2007; selected by John Ashbery for the National Poetry Series), Figures for a Darkroom Voice (Tarpaulin Sky 2007; in collaboration with Joshua Marie Wilkinson), A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow (New Issues, 2007), INBOX (BlazeVOX, 2006), The Area of Sound Called The Subtone (Ahsahta Press 2004), and The Frequencies (Tougher Disguises, 2003). His reviews and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including: Boston Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Poetry Project Newsletter, Slope, Verse, The Denver Quarterly, 26, Sentence, Xantippe, Jacket, Publishers Weekly, Talisman, and the book Burning Interiors: David Shapiro's Poetry and Poetics. His recent poetry will appear in future issues of 1913, Practice, Court Green, Shiny, The Inxay Reader, H_NGM_N, The Modern Review, Another Chicago Magazine, and The Laurel Review. He writes a column on chapbooks for Rain Taxi: Review of Books and teaches at the University of Colorado at Denver. He has not eaten meat since around 1993, dairy since around 1997, wears a leather belt and suede shoes, smokes Export A Lights, and enjoys The Glenlivet.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I’ll assume you’re referring to the impact that the first book of my which was published has had on my life afterward, although, in a way, it’d be more interesting if I could remember the first book I’d ever owned, the first one I’d ever thought of as belonging solely to me, rather than a sibling or parent. I do remember an early fascination with something called, I think, The Big Book of Facts, which might explain my attraction to reference works. Regardless, I’m not sure that the first of my books to be published had changed my life in any substantial way. Of course, it alters the public reception of a poet, anointing one with a dubious air of authenticity. That a first book is one of the few routes to such authenticity is problematic, as I know many poets who’ve been working for years without one, many really wonderful poets. For me, there is a momentary feeling of satisfaction once I’ve learned of some success in publishing. With each successive appearance, this moment is one that loses nearly half of its duration. It’s a case of diminishing emotional returns, which is to say that my early successes taught me that success is ultimately the ability to continue to enthusiastically do what one does without regard for its reception. This is difficult at times. Yet isn’t difficulty more rewarding?

2 - How long have you lived in Denver, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

The constituent elements of this question are extremely interesting, as they yoke together some pretty divergent issues! But I like that. Let’s see, I’ve been in Denver for about two years now. Geography has no impact on my writing, at least none that I’m aware of. I do often write while I’m wandering around town, but I’ve found myself as able to do that here as I was in Northampton, MA, where I’d lived for about ten years before coming out West. I suppose there are several ways one might handle the last portion of this set of questions. The first would be to discuss the ways in which one’s own race and gender are, or aren’t, somehow made manifest within one’s work. Well, I don’t know. I can’t say. Although I tend to align myself with the notion that such things are constructs, they have, for all of my life, remained the same, by this I mean that I have had no other lens with which I might gaze out into the world. Thus, I can’t answer. On the other hand, if you mean to say how do I deal with such constructs within my own work, well, now we’re talking! I’ve got a book called The Year of the Rooster that will be published in 2011 by Ahsahta Press. I think of the book as an exploration of the intermingling of artifice and gender. It sets out to embody, via the trope of the rooster—a wholly totemic stand-in for masculine bravado if ever there were one—Judith Bulter’s ideas about gender as performance. There’s a purposeful obfuscation of pronouns throughout, as well as a sort of dissonant cascade of voices. Just as one is never certain of the speaker, so the various speakers are never certain of their perceptions of reality, which touches on some of the book’s interest in the old metaphysical conundrums of diversity and unity. I thought it’d be interesting to see how gender might intertwine with these larger questions of dead white men. But the book is really much more emotional than all that. Race is something that I haven’t really dealt with in my work. Undoubtedly, it’s whiteness that would give one the privilege to say such a thing, no? But thank you, I think I’ll work on something about race now. In fact, I just yesterday read a wonderful chapbook by Mathias Svalina called Why I Am White, which does a pretty wonderful job of dealing with this question.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I’m inclined to answer this question with the short and humorous: a poem begins for me with a word or two. Yet, the inclination belies a deeper answer, which is that at the heart of my writing there is only the desire to continually explore such a question. My poems are often an attempt to come up with an answer for myself. I type this and immediately feel like deleting it, as it’s only true sometimes, but then articulating a position doesn’t mean one has to stick with it, right? It’s funny, every time I answer these sorts of things I know that the exact opposite of what I’ve said is also just as relevant for me. There’s a wonderful interview online where Charles Bernstein ask Tan Lin a question, gets an engaging and intelligent response, and then asks the very same question, which generates again a thoughtful yet completely different response. So let’s say that there are numerous ways for me, let’s say I contradict myself, let’s hope it leads to those illustrious Whitmanesque multitudes. Gods know it leads to enough poems! Hey Noah, why do you write so much? Hey you, would you ever ask a painter to stop painting? A singer to shut up? No, you wouldn’t. As Koch says, “poems are esthetecologically harmless and psychodegradable/ And never would they choke the spirits of the world.” But I’ve derailed already the question here. I’ll offer one example, only because I’m trying to answer all of your questions in one sitting so that I might move on to some actual poem writing. The abovementioned book, The Year of the Rooster, began as an assignment I had given myself on the first day of the year in 2004. I was going to write a full page of text every day for the year, just a big block of prose, no breaks, no narrative to which I might return, etc. I got to about day five and abandoned the project, which says something about my working methods I suppose: inhabiting one’s failed ambitions. I did some violence to those few pages and put the remains aside. Next, I’d decided to try and write one ten-line poem a day for one hundred days. I got to somewhere around thirty or forty—I can’t remember exactly anymore—before having to abandon the project, which, at that point, with all of its self-induced stress, was giving me my first gray hairs. The ten line poems were gathered under the title Looking Lets Go the Thought. One afternoon, zooted on hella coffee, I realized that both of these projects were the same, that they both shared an exploratory interest in arguing for their own creation while grappling with the luxury of their remove from the world. Like a kind of artificial intelligence bowled over by its own sentience, the poems forced me to acknowledge their freedom by fusing them together. That was in 2004. I thought the book was done, but returned to it in 2006 to add another thirty pages and rework some of the original material. So, I suppose that I often attempt to write with a larger project in mind, but that I also often fail and have to figure out what that failure is asking me to do.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Here, I’d argue that you’ve set up a false dichotomy. For me, public readings—by which I assume you mean readings that I give, rather than those that I attend—have nothing to do with my creative process but are not counter to it.

5 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Did I say I was going to answer these in one sitting? Well, I suppose I’m running out of steam here, so forgive me (thank me?) for shortening my responses. I don’t work with an outside editor, so I can’t answer the question. If you’re asking whether or not I show my work to others and ask for their opinions and advice, I’d have to say not really anymore.

6 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

The process of seeing a book though its various stages of publication is a hassle, as it has always been for me. The process of writing a book is even more of a hassle, as it has always been for me.
7 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

I don’t remember.

8 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Don’t go out in the rain without a raincoat.

9 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

Right now I’m trying desperately to force myself to write both a novel and a memoir. This is difficult at times. Yet isn’t difficulty more rewarding?

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Once I’ve landed comfortably within a project whose parameters I trust, I get systematic with it, forcing a specific amount of work per day upon myself. Other than that, a typical day for me is wasted in the effort to land comfortably with a project whose parameters I might be able to trust. This morning started with me eating cereal and watching Kimbo Slice on Youtube.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I read David Shapiro or flip through The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols.
12 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

From book to book, the aesthetic and ethical dynamics of my writing undergoes a major shift to allow for a full exploration of its particular concerns. For example, Novel Pictorial Noise is comprised of a sequence of prose poems that use the syntax of philosophical proposition to explore the fragility of rhetoric, while The Year of the Rooster is a book-length poem that investigates gender performance, and A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow is a book of lineated lyric poems that collectively eulogize the loss of instrumental accompaniment in poetry. They’re all very different. My most recent book is Novel Pictorial Noise. Since I’m feeling burnt out with answering these questions, here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say a week ago about the book:

The prolific Gordon here takes his cues from Ashbery—who picked this collection for the National Poetry Series—but also from poets ranging from Rilke to Peter Gizzi. In alternating pages of prose and spare verse lines, he plays freely in the realm between theory and lyric: “Sculpture seeks articulation of the air around it. Thus, a heron thrusting overhead mutes modernism.” Each of the 50 one-paragraph prose poems starts with a proposition and then attempts to both follow through on its initial lunge and also force the reader off the most obvious trails of thought, usually by tossing in a few surprises: an Ajax bottle, Alice Neel, a “dab of wisteria” and a strip of duct tape make appearances in two lines of one poem. Gordon closes each poem with an artfully clumsy rhyming couplet—“One packs in what one can, as the real point of art is the subtle reiteration of the is, ain't it? The way I see it, we're all partially tainted”—alternately lending irony and vulnerability. While this is a difficult book steeped in canonical and postmodern poetic traditions—meaning it won't appeal to everyone—it's packed with thrills and discoveries that might engender some discussion.
The book previous to this one A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow, is a collection of lyric sequences. I suppose I could point readers to your own thoughts on that book:
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Yes yes yes. Rather than repeat myself, I’ll point you to the Raintaxi interview, where I’ve addressed this issue pretty heavily:
14 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Ha! See the answer to number nine above.

15 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I get paid to teach, not to write, not even for many of the reviews that I write, but I love teaching and wouldn’t want to do anything different, although I’ve always wanted to fly helicopters.

16 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I burned out on activism, got sick of relying on others with the music I was playing, and had little foundational skill in the plastic arts.

17 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

My friend Dorothea Lasky’s first book, which is called Awe, was just published by Wave Books. It’s wonderful! The last great film…I suppose it’d be something a little bit older, but newer to me: Spirit of the Beehive.

18 - What are you currently working on?

Well, here I was an hour and a half later at what I’d thought would be the end…okay, here goes: a book-length ambient poem currently called, One Thousand Lines from a Perfectly Functional Book, but sure to change its title soon; A novel that is the retelling of Spinoza’s Ethics through a conversation between two people walking around a parking lot and talking about dogs, an actual dog in someone’s yard, and people in a theater watching what turns out to be a film about two people walking around a parking lot and talking about dogs; a memoir comprised of one thousand short, autonomous paragraphs that don’t follow a specific linear timeline; a collection of interlocking prose pieces that feature as a recurring character The Last Saxon; an experimental novel based on techniques of erasure applied to a work by the novelist Noah Gordon (he’s the reason I’ve got to use my middle name when publishing); a book where I’m asking one hundred poets to give me a poetry assignment, and which will include both the final poems, the parameters of the assignments, and a narrative about the writing of each (four months in & I’m still on the first one!); I’ve been tinkering as well with a few other poetry manuscripts and have a few still in the pipelines that are pretty much done. Whew! Can I go now? As you can see, I’ve got some work to do!

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