author biography ; extended biography ; author page

Friday, October 09, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Cara Benson

Cara Benson edited the interdisciplinary book Predictions for Chain Links just out at SPD. She is the author of the forthcoming poem books (made) and Protean Parade with BookThug and Black Radish, respectively. Other work is included in: Belladonna Elders Series #7 with Anne Waldman and Jayne Cortez, NO GENDER: REFLECTIONS ON THE LIFE & WORK OF kari edwards (Litmus Press/Belladonna Books), and Imaginary Syllabi (Palm Press). Spell/ing ( ) Bound, a tri-partite art objet with Kai Fierle-Hedrick and Kathrin Schaeppi (ellectrique press), and Quantum Chaos and Poems: A Manifest(o)ation (BookThug) will always be two of her favs. Benson edits the online Sous Rature and is a proud member of the Dusie Kollektiv.

1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
This is a great question. It didn’t. At all. That is what I want to say. But the way that it changed my life was realizing that it didn’t change my life. I remember getting the email from Jay at BookThug, and I had this wahoo moment. Then I looked around and everything was exactly the same. That’s when I realized that publishing wouldn’t save me.
On the other hand, better or worse, I have experienced the difference between being a writer with work in print and a writer without work in print. Perhaps the difference is all internal. I don’t know, though, that that’s true.
Re: recent work vs. previous work: it’s tough to sum up. Mainly because I have a number of projects in the works currently, and they differ differently. I think what is similar is a playfulness. I will hopefully always be playful, even when I’m deadly serious.
Different. Well, there are a few things that are much more visual than I used to be. Somebody said Brathwaite-esque or something like that in my use of type. Use of the page/space. I think I trust myself better. To go wherever the piece wants to go. I use more source material, research in my work now. I feel freer to experiment. I don’t mean to say that I’m pushing experimentation as a codified approach to poems. But, for me, to truly as we say blow the spot up. Trust the connections to happen for the reader if they are there within me or for me as I make work.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I don’t know that I did come to it first. I’ve written some stories. Personal stuff, even. But I have a poetic sense-making that doesn’t seem to belong anywhere else. I read Berryman’s huffy Henry hid the day and thought yup. Me too. Bazillion others, too, of course. He just popped into my head.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Depends on the project. I do hand written prompt responses every week with the poetry class I teach in a prison. Sometimes that writing comes out pretty close to what it’s supposed to be. There is something to the purity of the stream when I write with these guys after an hour and a half of conversation and reading poems and talking and parsing and then okay let’s write on this topic for seven point two minutes GO! I don’t know. It comes tumbling out.
Then there are the projects that maybe I add one or two lines a month. I might be doing research and thinking thinking lots for those one or two lines. Seems ridiculous, really.
4 - 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?
Not usually working on a book from the beginning, except when I am. That is to say I can have a sense or desire that a particular thought or topic or instigation will be a book, and it can dud out. With other projects I’m trying to shut it down, to end as quickly as possible. The current book I’m making only turned into a book when I was cramming as much as I could onto two pages trying to say okay the poem is done. The people looking at it at that time said, nice try Cara.
Keep going. That poem is now 86 pages.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love doing readings. Until the day of, then I think “Why do I do this shit? Wouldn’t I be much happier under the covers or in the woods or under the covers in the woods?”

Then I’m over it and onstage and the work has a chance to take flight. There are some pieces that seem strictly suited to performance, others for the page or within a larger page work, and then there’s the overlap. I love making a crazy visual piece and trying to translate that into a performed piece. I don’t know if you can feature an image, but take this spot for example:
How do you perform that? But I so wanted to. And have!

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Issues of polyvocality, multiple languages, language interventions, commodification and branding through/of language, digitization and dissemination of text, are prevalent in the writing that is interesting to me. Many of these questions arise in the face of the globalized, ecologically havoc-ed late-capitalism era. I want a poetry that exposes/opposes how language is used to sell us a bunch of bullshit. How multi-national corporations, the ceos boards and branders of those corps, obfuscate their greed and criminality with a tag line. Image is huge in this, too, of course.
Not all globalization is malevolent, to be sure. Interchange of cultures, communication is tremendous. Web of life, if you will, can be seen in this context. So then there’s beauty and awe. I forget that. That maybe, just maybe, making the beautiful thing is what it’s all about. Not that the other concerns can’t be rendered in a beautiful fashion. Beauty so subjective, of course. Making the beautiful thing can be difficult-er with language as the material itself is inherently semantic, symbolic, etc. Or N=O=T!
Of course, many of my answers might manifest differently tomorrow, and I’ll endeavor to surrender everything I’ve said here to that moment when it was said. thismoment [Disclosure: I asked rob to let me add something after sending this to him. Woke up, wait I forgot to say ______.] I think that is one of my concerns with writing. To directly enter experience. To have an experience. Which can precipitate much, if not all, of what I’ve said I’m after. I do think it comes first, in fact, for the writing to be effective.
I often go back to Rosemarie Waldrop’s notion, or maybe she was referencing someone, that poetry is to burn excess energy, thermodynamically speaking. That we hum once our bellies are full. So maybe all my writing is about aiding digestion.
And then there’s Other. Interaction. Celan’s handshake.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Juliana Spahr has this pie chart that shows 1/3 of being a writer is about writing. The other two thirds have to do with community, the community of writers and the community beyond writing. I might be getting that wrong. But something like that.
Absolutely, I think the writer has a cultural role. Maybe many. That’s much of what I’ve written above. There’s the old purify the language of the tribe Poundian notion. To influence the influential. To hold spaces, however marginalized, for attention to language that are/is not connected to selling a product beyond the language (issues of signification aside). Though some would say that all art can be seen as a form of selling, of propaganda.
But really, I’m not first and foremost a cultural theorist, or critic, or academic. I’m a poet. Ultimately, there is this thing that happens for me when I write. Jam. Riff. Think in tropes while typing. Find a word with my teeth or in my throat or gut that fights its way up. I don’t know if you would call it joy. But I don’t think I have the right not to do that. I get to model for others that the striving, the fumbling for freedom, is in reach. Is worth it. For lack of better terms, it’s an opportunity to share that has the potential to liberate. Gives others permission to inhabit themselves. Not egocentrically speaking. But who else am I? We can say all we want about the self as a societal construction or construction through language (luggage!), etc. and onward. Fine. At the end of the day I get in bed. Hug a cat to myself and my lover if I’m lucky.
Back to the permission. I think it’s a radical, political, and societal position to attempt and to demonstrate the attempt toward liberation of constraint. Isn’t that what constraint based writing is all about? Liberation?
I know there’s suffering. I know there are people on this planet right now in unspeakable circumstances. Eating dirt to stave off hunger. Literally. Plants and animals devastated. Do you know about the Pride of Baghdad? The zoo lions who escaped before the US invasion, who roamed starving avoiding explosions and when finally found by US soldiers were shot?! So documenting, opposing, remedying - these are intentions which drive many of us. Drive me. Where does the freedom (pleasure?) through poetry fit? It does. Can be difficult to justify in a culture that operates on the ascetic/excessive binary, but it does fit. Maybe all the more so.
Also, writing is an opportunity to test on paper alternate futures. Limitless construction of/experimentation with societal arrangements. Enact imagination that we might then follow off-page. I’m really curious about the recursiveness of thinking about future and future. How what we think/write/speak about the future affects what we do in the present which then affects, possibly effects, outcome. I think this is larger than the individual.
As a poem isn’t required to prove anything, unlike thesis or theory, it can go where it wants to go. It can enter the previously unimagined (Mónica de la Torre) or the impossible. It has the potential to rototill the way.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Depends on the editor. Some have challenged me in really productive ways. Some are just challenging.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Bhanu Kapil says comparison is fatal.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
My preference is a fusion, moving between within a piece. At least when it comes to critical prose, though I have done the more straight ahead stuff. That feels so labor intensive to me, but worth it. When I’m forced to articulate something that I’m feeling or sensing or thinking about writing, another’s or my own, I’m sharper in my creative mess as a result.
However, and to me this is a big however, it is critical for me to throw off theory when in the generative phase of creative writing. Those are considerations for revision. I need to trust that the writing and the thinking about writing and the reading about and the reading writing are all in there already when I begin. Theoretical concerns will surface. If I’m in the right state, it’s all happening simultaneously, but not as a result of an agenda on my part. This is when Ginsberg’s first thought best thought is at play. We talk in the prison class about intention and inspiration. Being in a never-ending dance between the two. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive properties.
Regarding incorporating the mind into a writing practice, as it’s interesting to think of how Buddhists talk of emptying the mind, or not taking it seriously, letting thoughts drift through, in the context of *intellectualism/rationalism*. So, then, are theoretical concerns antithetical to a spiritual experience? Is all poetry superfluous? The move to speak an imperfect one? For this I go to Anne Waldman’s notion of wild mind.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Urination. Coffee. Prayer. Not in that order.
I write every Tuesday with the guys at the prison. To feed that, as I wrote, we read poems aloud, bullshit, hear between class writing, more bullshit, read out loud more, riff ramble rant then I come up with some inspired prompt in response to the conversation and reading and concerns that have been floating and hovering and I’m thinking of what is that storm that swirls, tornado!, in the room and I say okay write your “walking around” poem (if we’re reading Neruda, NY School, etc.) or write your “narrate your environment poem” (reading Ratcliffe) or your “beat it” (Césaire) or whatever and then there’s this drop dead nothingness when everyone looks at me like wha? because it’s really hard to be Johnny-righteous-on-the-spot as I don’t always plan ahead what I think the moment will call for. That’s when I say let’s just put the fucking pen to the page and go without stopping for ten minutes. And we do. I think that’s common enough now to be called a routine.
Otherwise deadlines are really helpful. Then I will actually write in my calendar days to be working on a particular piece. Sometimes I’ll even put in my calendar “new work” so that I carve out space and ask of myself writing that isn’t accounted for ahead of time in some way. Part of any project, my own or others’. I do write on location. A pad and pen on the go to keep it real.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The mountains. I go hiking. Or read a few choice pieces by O’Hara or Edward Estlin. Eileen Myles makes me want to write.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Home is too variable and complicated a notion to be triggered by any one smell for me. I’ve never once had the experience where ah that smell reminds me of “home.” I’ve had smells trigger memories or emotions associated with places I’ve lived. They say that sense of smell is connected to the reptilian brain and so bypasses the rational mind. Which is why it is so evocative. I don’t know if I’ve ever drooled looking at lovely drapes. Well, maybe I have.
14 - 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?
All of the above.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Trek in the Himalaya if I could do it sustainably, with a sense of responsibility to the region. Nothing requiring bottled oxygen.
17 - 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 spose writing’s my occupation; it does occupy me. The writing itself doesn’t pay the bills. I do other things to support my writing habit. Like teach. Arts admin. Apply for grants. Oh I’ve certainly gone to dinner after a reading on the dosh in my pocket from a passed hat or books sold. I do get checks sometimes for publishing. Nothing that puts the ole roof over the head, tho. Not yet anyway. The teaching is absolutely part of my writing practice, I’ll say. Especially at the prison as I’m writing with them, and the continuing conversation is tremendously important in my process. Hopefully theirs, too. There’s that adage if you want to learn something sign up to teach it.
What would I do otherwise? I’d like to have been a lawyer. In some of the civilian actions I’ve been part of a lot of our success has depended upon legal support. Certainly bringing public pressure to bear on a situation is important, and I think poetry can absolutely be part of that process. But there’s nothing like a group of folks who can take the show on the road legally to convince Goliath of an alternate route.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t know if that’s for me to answer. Nature? Nurture? Bio-chemistry? Neurosis? Divine intervention? Covenant of works? Grace.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just picked up Bharat jiva by kari edwards, the posthumous publication. Soon as I’m done it will be. Oh! I really dug FOR THE FIGHTING SPIRIT OF THE WALNUT. Sawako Nakayasu’s translation of Takashi Hiraide.
The film Sin Nombre wrecked me.
20 - What are you currently working on?

An essay on writing called On Writing for a book John Madera’s putting together.
A script from the PEN Prison Writing Program for some benefit performances. In fact, I’m up against that deadline. The writing on writing is due shortly after.
The book length poem that started as two pages. It’s due out end of 2010, so I’ve got some time.
12 or 20 questions (second series);

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