Monday, July 18, 2011

12 or 20 (second series) questions: with Deborah Poe

Deborah Poe is the author of the poetry collections Elements (Stockport Flats Press, 2010) and Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords, 2008). Deborah’s writing is forthcoming or has recently appeared in Bone Bouquet, Jacket Magazine, No Contest, Fact-Simile Magazine, Peaches & Bats, Sidebrow, Colorado Review and Denver Quarterly. Deborah is a member of the Dusie Kollektiv (5), fiction editor of Drunken Boat and the curator of the annual Handmade/Homemade Exhibit. For more information, please visit

1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook ,,clitoris,, ,,vulva,, ,,penis,, was published by furniture_press in April 2004. I found with it the potential of the chapbook and my fondness for cross-genre play, as the pieces were somewhere between prose poems and fiction shorts. The chapbook’s publication introduced me to the magic of small-press design, book arts and hand-sewn beautiful text objects.

My recent work’s difference to my previous is perhaps best explained in terms of its reach. My first book, Our Parenthetical Ontology, was fairly language-focused. Meaning, it focused on language’s capabilities (and incapabilities) to connect human beings. I was reading quite a bit of literary theory and philosophy while I wrote the book. I think one can see the poems weaving through ideas, asking questions, knocking themselves against the constraints of binary answers.

There is an urge to take risks and to experiment, an attentiveness to language, a weaving of the abstract and concrete and a resistance to closed texts that I think continues in my work. I gravitate more now, I think, to projects or serial work. With Elements and the last will be stone, too, the points of departure for the poems—the starting points—are elements on the periodic table and art pieces (loosely) around death. Those points of departure lead, or branch out, to human experience. Such objects or entities connect to the world differently than in OPO and carry cultural weight and meaning. I attempt to dig into those meanings.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think I found my way through this world with the inclination and drive to work with language as my medium. But I believe I came to poetry more confidently. When I was about 5 years old, I used to make up stories on the way to Austin, Texas. As soon as we would arrive at my grandfather’s house on Lake Travis, I would sneak next door to my great grandmother’s, making my way to her sliding glass door by running below the rock garden ledge. She and I would act out whatever stories I made up on the long drives there. One time I made up a story around murder and used the word damn. She went to my parents; I felt very betrayed. As ridiculous as it might sound, I am quite sure this impacted the view of myself as a fiction writer. Whether it was in part due to my great grandmother, Brownie, and I’s history, or because poetry just came more easily to me later, I came to poetry on the page first. Poetry is still a more comfortable space for me.

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?
Once I have the project in mind, the writing starts quickly. It is hard for me to answer a question on cadence because I don’t know how it is for others and can’t find the precise place on a spectrum. I believe it’s fairly quickly that the writing initially manifests. Generally speaking, I strive to research or read the night before I will draft a piece. As I mention in Shome Dasgputa’s reading project, I often read a book either conceptually or formally tied to what I will write the following day and let it seep into writing when I wake up. I believe reading in this way comes to inhabit the pieces I write in mysterious ways.

For poems like the elements and the stone poems, I did quite a bit of research. Sometimes research notes get scattered across a page, and then I work on drafting from that page. My first drafts do appear close to their final shape, as I think about the design of the poem while I research and take notes. And the design, the look of the poem, has usually assumed its form in this world by that point.

On a good day, and in terms of poetry, a solid draft emerges with a day’s work. But I craft and re-craft my work. I revise work in my collections a lot.

Some of my handmade books are different. I mean some of those handmade pieces are more process- or response-based, and they are not heavily crafted or revised. For example, I just completed China Animals, The Palace Museum, Xi’an and Beijing for writer friends, which are handmade books that begin to process my notes from various cities I visited during a recent trip to China with Pace University.

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 would say I am usually working on a “book” from the very beginning. Even when I’m doing a handmade book, I often have some sort of driving force for it—there’s a sense of it becoming its own embodiment. As an example, I recently did a piece responding to the book Daughters of Juarez. It possessed it’s own spirit, design, language. It included vellum and linen paper, so the poem could be read page by page or entirely differently in traces. The piece itself ended up going into the last will be stone, too (the non-vellum version).

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
They are not counter to my creative process. Much like my handmade-housed work takes on a different material aspect or spatial embodiment, the readings too allow my language to come into the world in a different way. There’s a physicality to my work during readings that I enjoy very much.

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?
The single most frequently engaged theoretical concern in my work is seeking (undoubtedly in vain) some reconciliation between identity politics and the postmodern (“deconstructed”) human subject. My own experiences of displacement, moving every few years while growing up in a military family, have made me sensitive to questions around cultural identity, home and belonging. I am frequently suspicious of entrenched identity politics, yet I understand very well the vital necessity of witness. My work, I think, frequently pushes against ideological frontiers to reach beyond identity politics. I am fascinated with the “in-between” and the potentialities of language expressed from liminal spaces. I try to provide material opposition to binary ways of thinking about identity and difference.

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?
The writer’s medium is language. The role of writers? To use language thoughtfully. To attempt to get out from under the inherent binary nature of language. To challenge. To point out how language is being used around the world to oppress human beings. To undermine troubling dominate discursive practices.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have not had a difficult time with either CustomWords or Stockport Flats Press. Work with Stockport Flats was an amazing experience. The editor, Lori Anderson Moseman, is creative, meticulous and brilliant. There was much back and forth, all of which I was grateful for with Elements in terms of layout, design and accuracy.

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

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?
During the school year, I make every effort to block out a couple of mornings to write. During the summer and during holidays, I generally try to arrange a block of time away from email, Facebook, etc. to devote myself to whatever writing project on which I’m working. Last year I had a writing residency, and for the past several years I have been in Port Townsend during the Port Townsend Writer’s Workshop. Both spaces in the northwest have proved to be very productive spaces for me. My best mornings begin immediately in writing. I work best in that twilight space between dreaming and waking.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Exercise tends to open me up, and so I will sometimes go for a walk or a run and return with fresh eyes. Music is very important. Research online. Reading books.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I have many homes. The smell of evergreens or sea air in Oregon and Washington. The smell of the ground in spring or summer, driving down a highway between south central and east Texas. Curry cooking in New Yorkish. The smell of my books. My loved one’s skin.

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?
Many forms influence my work. “Nature” and science influenced Elements. Art influenced the last will be stone, too obviously. Art has been an influence since I began writing poetry. How could it not be? Music runs under everything. I rarely write without it. I feel a strong kinship, in terms of aesthetic sensibilities, between downtempo electronica and dub and my best poetry.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr’s American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language was an extremely important book for me. It includes work by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lucie Brock-Broido, Barbara Guest and Lyn Hejinian.

The essays and manifestos in Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry (edited by David Mason, Dana Goia and Meg Shoerke) have been significant. This book, like the one above, is a reference to which I return again and again.

Friends and associates—their work and the work they recommend to me—are important for my writing life. I am particularly compelled right now with the work of and exchange with Claire Hero, Lori Anderson Moseman, Kate Schapira, Brenda Iijima, Kate Greenstreet, Bernadette Mayer, Layli Long Soldier and Elizabeth “Frankie” Rollins.

In the last several months I have read and very much appreciated: Kevin Prufer’s National Anthem, Juliana Leslie’s More Radiant Signal, Dawn Lundy Martin’s Discipline, Cynthia Arrieu-King’s People are Tiny in Paintings of China, Michelle Naka Pierce’s Symptoms of Color (a Dusie chap), Alan Loney’s the books to come, Raul Zurita’s Inri and TC Tolbert’s Territories of Folding. Friends recommended almost all of these books. I read voraciously, and the books I admire become important for my own poetry in a variety of ways particular and broad.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to: set foot on every continent (I’ve been to Asia three times, Europe several); to speak and read Chinese with moderate fluency and to translate at least one Chinese poet; to publish a collection of short stories and a novel; to spend six months in a Buddhist monastery.

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?
A chemist in a lab. This is how I came to Elements actually. I had joked about this alter ego for so long, and one day I finally realized I could, in a way, be chemist in a lab—on the page.

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

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I read Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 during my winter break. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a great one. Films. We watch a lot of films. I would say Icíar Bollaín’s También la lluvia, Even the Rain (2010) and Lucretia Martel’s La mujer sin cabeza, The Headless Woman (2008).

19 - What are you currently working on?
My hybrid novella, Hélène, is in circulation and was recently shortlisted by Tarpaulin Sky. Also in circulation is my third poetry collection the last will be stone, too from which the four-part edition for the Dusie Kollektiv comes. Besides working on getting these two books picked up, I’ve begun an experimental detective novel about a girl murdered in the south.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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