Tuesday, July 13, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Jessica Smith

Jessica Smith is the editor of Outside Voices Press and Foursquare Magazine. Her first book, Organic Furniture Cellar, was released in 2006. Chapbooks include bird-book (House Press, republished by Detumescence), The Plasticity of Poetry and Telling Time (No Press), Shifting Landscapes (above/ground press), butterflies (Big Game Books) and What the Fortune-Teller Said (a+bend press) (Full bio: http://looktouch.wordpress.com/about-the-author/). Photo credit: K. Lorraine Graham

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
First off, I have only one book: Organic Furniture Cellar. I published it in 2006.

When OFC came out, there was a lot of excitement and support and a lot of backlash and bile. Since I saw (and outlined in the introduction) a specific aesthetic/social place for OFC in the poetics community, I didn't expect the kind of backlash I got. It was disturbing. OFC was weirdly polarizing, even within a community that considers itself experimental. I didn't like feeling like my work and I were a battleground for various peoples' little wars. OFC was idealistic. Poetry is petty.

After OFC, I haven't wanted to publish or engage with that wider poetry community. Instead, I keep to a small group of friend-poets who support me and my work and who inspire me to keep trying new things. I hardly ever write anymore, but when I do, it is for them, not for a wider audience.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I didn't come to poetry first. In elementary school I wrote stories and plays. I came to poetry in junior high and it proved a more challenging medium for me. I continue to write poetry because I don't feel "done" with poetry as a medium. It's so flexible. I don't feel the same need to write in other genres, nor do I find them as malleable to my need to make things look (or feel or smell) certain ways. Visual art would probably be the next medium for me if I switched from poetry-- not another literary genre.  

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?
I outline and draft first-- I have an idea for a project, I outline the poems that will fit with the project, and then I wait to see how the poems take shape. With some projects the poems just need to literally "take shape"-- I get an image of the shape of the poem in my head and try to replicate it. It usually shifts somewhat between the draft and the computerized version, and then it usually shifts a bit more during editing. With the project I'm mentally working on now, there are no shapes (the poems are narrative webs) so it's more like weaving together threads of stories. I'm not sure what all the stories are yet or how they interact, and I'm not good about putting things down on paper until I'm pretty sure of them, so the project is perpetually stalled. I've been working on this project-- mentally-- for probably 3 years, but have only written 12 finalized pages of it.

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?
I work on a book or chapbook as a set of poems from the beginning. I don't believe in suturing chapbooks together to make a book unless the chapbooks (published separately as chapbooks) were initially conceived as parts of the book (rather than as unique projects). A book is a book. A chapbook is a chapbook. An individual poem is an individual poem. Each thing has its own necessary length and character. None of these things is better than the other. It's not necessary to write "books." Personally, I like the chapbook form best-- a collection of related poems or a serial project under 30 pages. I feel like I can do "tighter" work by focusing on one particular subject or project and that it's usually a short project (not to be confused with a short poem). I think my best works have been condensed works (bird-book, butterflies, blueberries).   

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy the social mixing that happens at readings, whether I am reading or listening to someone else, but I dislike poetry readings as such (http://www.looktouch.com/poetics/silent.pdf). I dislike the politics of poet-audience interaction where the poet is a "man speaking to men" at a podium. I dislike it when poets read over time and have obviously not timed themselves and have no respect for the audience's time. I dislike listening to poetry without seeing it. I don't, say, download podcasts of poetry readings. The social gathering element of a poetry reading is the most appealing part for me.

I enjoy doing readings that are more interactive (with the audience or other readers) or where I have the equipment to show my poems as I read them (as I feel that reading visual poetry aloud without showing it is a terrible disservice to the poem-on-the-page).  

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?
This question might be better addressed by my interview in Area Sneaks (http://areasneaks.com/index.php?id=34). 

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?
I can't speak for the role of "the writer" in general.

Writing Organic Furniture Cellar, I felt that my role as a poet was to change language and perception in order to instigate larger social change-- a continuation of Language poetics. At this point, I don't feel like my job as a poet takes place within a larger sociopolitical realm. Instead, I feel like my job is to comfort or inspire one reader. Just one. I don't know who it is, or if they're even alive yet, or if they've been dead for centuries and I missed them. But if I wrote one poem that one person connected with, that would be enough. So I have started writing single poems addressed to specific people, like correspondence or like valentines. This isn't publishable work; it doesn't necessarily appeal to an audience greater than one. But it's satisfying to write a line directly to someone else. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both. Although I self-published Organic Furniture Cellar, the feedback I got from other editors was essential.  It went through five editors and changed significantly over the process-- becoming more mature, full, and daring, rather than what one might expect, which is for an edited book to become less daring in the way that MFA workshop poems are often watered-down to appeal to a wider but less courageous audience.  To be "difficult" is not a bad thing. 
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Do not accept work (for magazines, publications) from writers who are not also editors. This advice wasn't given in so many words nor do I follow it, but I think it's good advice. Poets who aren't also editors do not understand how much work goes into publishing their poetry and often act like divas. It's unacceptable. 

A similarly good piece of advice is "publish your friends," because publishing is a big investment of time and money and you don't want to do it for some jerk. Luckily, we are often friends with people whose work we like or identify with. Honestly, most publishers follow this advice even if they don't admit to it, and hundreds of poets go around thinking that their work isn't any good, when they just haven't made friends with the right people or have been brainwashed into thinking that they can't self-publish. That's silly. Someone needs to pull back the curtain-- the wizard is just some energetic poet with a bit of cash and the patience to publish other peoples' work. There's no magic. Anyone could do it.  

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 don't have one. I try to handle some poetry business every day (editorial correspondence, of which there is a lot, layout/design, mailings, etc.) but that quickly eats up any time I'm able to carve out for poetry. I am eager to cease all editorial projects and focus on my own work again.  I don't know how people (ehem, rob) are able to have jobs, write poetry, and be editors all at the same time.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I wish I knew the answer to this question.  My work has been stalled for years and I am not sure where to turn to make it actually happen. It's not that I'm not inspired or that I don't know what I want to write about. I have outlines and diagrams and some words for my next book-length project, I just don't have the time and clarity of mind to sit down and do it.  

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

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?
Of course! In fact, poetry hardly ever inspires me to write poetry. Nature does, certainly-- especially highly organized nature (guidebooks to birds, flowers, etc.; botanical gardens with their little labels for everything).  And art: painting, sculpture, installation art, performance art, folk arts, fabric arts, book arts. Four things appeal to me in art and nature: detail, collection, repetition and craft. I enjoy seeing collections of things, like Robert Morris's 1968 "Untitled" collection of threads (http://flickr.com/photos/looktouch/tags/robertmorris/). I love impossible detail and craft, as is demonstrated in folk arts like quilting and embroidery or in works like Itchiku Kubota's Landscape Kimonos (http://subclassz.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/the-textile-art-of-itchiku-kubota/). And I love repetition, especially things that seem to happen organically, as in Tara Donovan's work (http://www.acegallery.net/artistmenu.php?Artist=8) or Katie Sehr's (http://www.katiesehr.com/

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This changes-- when I wrote Organic Furniture Cellar I'd say Christian Bök, Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, Steve McCaffery, and my undergraduate friends Ric Royer and Chris Fritton. But that was a highly theoretical work, and I'm more interested in community, empathy, and the handmade or unique book-object now. There's a group of female poets whose compassion, support, poetry, and inspired use of materials keeps me going: Michelle Detorie, K. Lorraine Graham, Gillian Devereux, Elisa Gabbert, Maureen Thorson, Katy Henriksen, Hoa Nguyen, Robin Brox, Dorothea Lasky, Alixandra Bamford, Kathryn Pringle. I like the work of Robert Grenier, Alice Notley, and Stephen Ratcliffe these days. 

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a second book. 

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 would like to be an installation artist, but I don't have the training or the financing. If I'd gone to school for that and had time and funding to begin a life in that field, instead of going to school for poetry, I might feel more comfortable spending a few hundred bucks on materials and making something, but at this point I don't feel comfortable enough with my skills to make the investment. Instead, I think of poetry as sculptural and as installation-- I install words on the page with care. I also make small installations involving words, like Veils (http://krikri.be/festivals/infusoria/jessicasmith.html).

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It's cheaper. Anyone can get a bit of paper and a pen or pencil. You don't need any special materials. It's like why so much of the world plays soccer-- all you need is a ball. 

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

There are two "last great books": Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (finally got around to this after years of having it recommended to me, and got to it at an interesting time in my life) and Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which was recommended to me by my friend Maureen Thorson (Big Game Books editor and DC poet) and is one of the best novels I've read in years.  As for films, I haven't had the time or peace of mind to sit down and get lost in one for awhile.

19 - What are you currently working on?
I just graduated from my second Master's program (in library science) and am in the middle of looking for a job and moving. For me, poetry is something that I do when I have time-- when I can pay my bills, when I don't have a thousand other things to do. It seems like a frivolous art, so it's certainly on the back burner for me right now.

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