Saturday, July 31, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Alexander Jorgensen

Alexander Jorgensen was born and raised along the foothills of Western Massachusetts. An incessant traveler, he has lived and worked in such places as the Czech Republic, China, the Galapagos Archipelago, India, and Kazakhstan. His visual poetry and writings have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in LIES/ISLE, Shampoo, Grasp, Drunken Boat, Moria, Otoliths, The Return of Kral Majales: Prague's International Literary Renaissance 1990-2010, and The Last Vispo Anthology. "Letter to a Younger Poet," correspondences with the late Robert Creeley, appears in Jacket #31. He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2008.

The photo is courtesy of David Yan. It was taken in Beijing in 2006.

1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

It didn't, and this was probably the best result that could have possibly happened. I was residing in Prague at the time, received a gracious blurb from the late Robert Creeley. It was clearly a case of naïveté on my part, looking back in hindsight, as I mistakenly thought that I had “made it,” as they say. Of course, I hadn't even made more than a baby step. I can say, however, that I was lucky to work with some wonderful individuals whose patience and advice saw the project through to its conclusion. In terms of appreciating the logistics and time that goes into publishing a piece of work, I learned lots. The heartbreak that followed led to some maturity, which is important for a writer, I think. I began to focus more on the process of writing, and its appreciation, as opposed to merely outcome - which has made for richer and more diverse work. Given the amount of travel and learning that has taken place since then, a more determined and intentional approach to my work, it's my feeling that I am today able to communicate with greater acuity and vigor. I am concerned with doing good work more than ever, which, for me, seems to be working well.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

As a young person, I read the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickenson, W.B. Yeats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Walt Whitman – an odd mix of things, really. What they did, I thought to myself, I want to do that; and entirely because of how their work made me feel, which was “emboldened.” I don't come from a particularly educated family background, so I think, at least in part, and for some terribly mistaken reason, I also came to view a knowledge of poetry as an indicator of social class. Clearly, I felt inadequate. Over time, and necessarily as my own appreciation for poetry grew, I better came to understand that poetry is not an exclusive space – but, rather, an expansive one.

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?

Nice question, and I am sure my response is going to sound rather hackneyed. Some poems quite literally jump out onto the page in a matter of minutes. Other poems seem to possess me in a sort of hypnotic daze for hours, and I obsess with these as one does when one's encountered a memorable space. There are, of course, those poems that require a sort of gestation period of days, months, years; these are poems for which time is of no matter and they tend to not permit me wriggle away from them until they have had their say and have arrived in what seems their entirely designed form. These things tend to be intuitive for me. I pay attention to overall symmetry, focusing on every part of a poem. Think of it this way: From my point of view, every poem has the right to its own individual song and, as a form, chance at perfection.

I tend to be a perfectionist with regards to my work, which means that sometimes a piece of work takes far longer to complete than I might like; but, again, I am relying on my intuition and sense of symmetry. In simplest terms, and this might require some deference on your part, I consider my work as a composer of music might; i.e., there are notes, phrases, rhythm, tones, consonance—even subtleties that act as counterpoints. There is a lot of attention to detail and, to be honest, sometimes it isn’t the easiest thing trying to convey concepts derived byway of my travels.

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?

There may be something queer about me, indeed. Rarely do I find myself genuinely entertained and when so usually for reasons others often find peculiar. I am engaged by the uncommon. Perhaps, it has something to do with the schooling I received at Montessori. Most of what I do in life, except for those moments when straight-jacketed by the mundane, is explore. When something pops its head up, my head twists round and there I go exploring, traveling to where ever it, and in this case we are talking about writing, takes me. I am not writing myself out of life, as Burroughs might have done, but rather writing myself into life. A word or expression, something witnessed, a daydream that lingers, and the possibility of each's hinge-pin possessing a multitude of contexts – this is how a poem starts for me. I tend to filter the world through emotional subjectivity. I am fascinated by speech patterns and the tools with which people communicate.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love the experience of sharing my work with an audience that is present and well engaged. Along with reading my work, I often share some of the conditions or history from which a piece sprang; and I know that some readers aren't always as patient as I might like them to be with regards to a poet offering this kind of additional information. Given that I view life and work as inseparable, I view both offerings as integral to the process of showcasing work in this fashion. To be honest, I find myself reading work aloud as I am creating or editing a piece, so being able to read pieces that I am not entirely confident in with a group does assist in my working through or reworking a piece to its desire maturation. Additionally, I love being able to discuss pieces with individuals who either liked or didn't like a particular work. Feedback has frequently proven itself to be of important value, I think.

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?

First, what I put together, if I can call it that, reflects just how it is I receive the world—not only how it is perceived, in terms of perception, but how information, stimuli, is received. Usually in blasts—think 10 televisions playing at once—some programs set on equations being processed. I consider context in everything I do. I try to convey an emotional residue relating to what I felt at the moment of genesis—and I tend to filter the world through an emotionally engaged filter as much as an intellectual one.

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?

In many ways, speaking solely for myself, I view being a poet as belonging to a cast of a sort – a tradition born out of a cultural need for moments of sobriety amid the many profundities that perplex us out there. I try to remind folks of just how apples once taste, and perhaps the ones of my youth; do so in order to suggest that we have agency and that agency requires responsibility and a bit of gratitude. I think being an individual is among the most difficult and lonely tasks for which few are prepared. It is hard being compassionate, but think it an important exercise, and think that many artists are, in fact, doing just that – demonstrating compassion – in their work, and what is offered is not bound, necessarily, to any essential standard of taste. I am very duty-oriented with regards to art and, naturally, it reflects how I see the world.

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

I have most often relied on my own instincts with regards to a piece, and have often found outside editors a distraction. Often, I quite literally find that what is happening internally, and I am speaking of the way ideas gather and take shape, might best be described as a crowd of clamoring voices bending towards each other in search of a way or lead; there is that attempt at synergy, at the coalescing of tones. As something begins to germinate, my job, as I see it, is to provide enough space in which a piece might develop with the necessity of overt shaping. On rare occasion, when I find myself stuck in ditch, let me say, with regards to my work – think in terms of a breech delivery – I will approach someone I deeply respect for counsel. No writer, I truly believe, can be reticent with regards to their work; they must struggle – must do so even if it takes longer than one might wish.

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

Without sounding crude, but while still acknowledging the importance of your question, I would offer something a friend once said: “The only way to say 'fuck you' to someone who doesn't believe in what you are doing is to be persistent and to succeed.” It is one of the pieces of advice I remember having remembered and having repeated again and again. Actually, it was a piece of advice given by novelist Diran Adebayo in 1999; he was visiting Prague and we were sharing my flat. This, along with the private correspondences with Robert Creeley, gone through during those terrifying moments of insecurity we all know well as writers, has made for a more intentional individual who's sensitive to both the importance of creating substantive work and to that process by which one is informed by both that work and its struggle to come into existence.

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?

I write whenever I can. My schedule is ever changing, in part because of travel and work, but I write incessantly – recording notes and observations on everything from napkins to pizza boxes. I think most often, however, I tend to write late in the evening till early morning – and usually buzzing on cups of coffee and cigarettes.

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

I'll read work by authors I admire, the energy of which usually provides me with a kind of challenge and, therefore, greater motivation to do vital work – or, and this is what most often assists me in the creative process, I will work on visual poetry. In my case, both poetry and visual art tend to feed each other – and I initially began experimenting with visual poetry in order to augment traditional forms of poetry I found limiting; for example, there have been instances where a poem seemed to require more than what words on a blank page have been able to provide. Whether it be writing poetry or prose, or completing visual projects, expressing my particular poetic sensibility is a primary concern – I attempt to share what I presume, and perhaps mistakenly, a consuming world – and I am talking about the greater world, not just what is over generalized – might require as part of a regular “dietary requirement.” It's a difficult thing, indeed, competing for someone's attention amid the harangue that is hyper-informationalized culture.

12 - Have you had a lucky charm?

Though sometimes taking longer to deliver than I might have wished, faith has brought me to those places – and I am referring to both the internal and to exploration outside myself – to which I have most wanted to visit. I suppose there are two kinds of faith on which I rely: a faith in something outside of myself, which is something very private; and then faith that, as long as I persist, thus honoring the creative process in which I so depend, I will be heard.

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?

Personally, I am not sure how I would be able to create anything worthwhile without a broad interest in and descent knowledge of other art disciplines. Yes, I am inspired by music, cinema, painting, writing, design – even by dance. In my case, so much of what I do depends directly on what I perceive as possessing symmetry; and this is something that I have learned from studying the art. A poem possesses an architecture, there are tones comprised of such things as iconography and metaphor, its psychological disposition, there is its musicality, the phonology of language, and then there are questions related to how one emotes what is required in order to enable a piece to resonate and thus expose itself to its audience. Directors Kurosawa, Lynch, Kubrick, and Jan Svankmajer; the painters Otto Dix and Egon Schiele; composers John Cage, Bach, and Thelonius Monk; and I couldn't live without comic books, as the concept of the superhero is definitely part of my iconography.

Likewise, I am inspired by our attempts at actual communication, and even if that be little more than a gesticulation, something I know something about from having traveled a bit. Regrettably, and this is an opinion, I think too often language is used as a means of disappearing from the “human experience,” as it is called – that words often prevent us from revealing ourselves in terms of creating an interconnectedness and better understanding. Returning to the arts, townies—and then with friends Subhashis Gangopdhyay and Bobbi Lurie, two poets I much admire and respect.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I enjoy reading theological texts, find myself doing a lot of that as of late. I have an interest in history, philosophy, and politics—do so, in no small part, because of the amount of traveling I do; and travel has been inseparable to my work. In fact, it is fair to say that travel has been something that I have depended heavily upon, often visiting some of the most remote locations on earth. With regards to authors that never fail to inspire and influence my thinking with regards to writing, and I am making a very narrow short list here, I find myself returning to Kenneth Patchen, Samuel Beckett, Robert Creeley, Gertrude Stein, and polemicist Christopher Hitchens. As far as contemporary writers go, I very much enjoy the work of Andy Nicholson and Deborah Poe, and find myself awaiting new offerings with great impatience.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Visit Bhutan. Have a relationship that can sustain itself through difficult times. Quit smoking cigarettes and give up drinking alcohol; alcohol has been a great nuisance, truth told. Create a piece of work for those individuals I care deeply about. I think I'm probably young enough to state that there are heaps of things I haven't done yet and, most likely, haven't considered doing—which means there is probably reason for optimism.

16 - 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 think that I would love to run a small cafe with a constantly changing menu. I love to cook, have spent a fair amount of time learning a number of dishes, about this and that related to the culinary experience, through travel—Chinese, Tibetan, Czech, Siamese, Kazakh, and others; and I enjoy making people feel welcome—am very particular about such things. Likewise, a small organic farm, with kids running about and goats and chickens, is something I still hope for.

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

In short, and think that I feel confident saying this has been said before, that I must have read this before, but I genuinely feel that I am predisposed to creating – rather than, say, solely writing, and there be no one-upmanship involved – poetry. In many ways, I view Jackson Mac Low or Kenneth Patchen as models for what it is I am attempting to achieve with regards to my work.

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

I am a constant reader of poetry, short stories, and essays of all kinds. I particularly enjoy the writings and intellectual fervor of self-described contrarian Christopher Hitchens, regardless of whether my own political leanings are in accord with his own on any particular occasion, so I will say he is always somewhere close by. For most recent great book, and actually it was a re-read, I will say Kenneth Patchen's Albion Moonlight. Every page of Patchen's work is filled with what I will simply describe as hazardously delicious and exceptionally engaging; it is spellbinding. With regards to film, I have recently viewed Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in the American West—and then a nice documentary on filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. On all fronts, genius is inspiring!

19 - What are you currently working on?

Apart from an exhibition of visual poems at Anglo-American University in Prague, planned for August and early September, and a new manuscript of work tentatively entitled We Lose Our Days by Preening Them, being happy seems most apropos these days.

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