rob mclennan author bio ; extended bio

Thursday, November 21, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Lauren Shufran

Lauren Shufran is a PhD candidate at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she studies Early Modern English lyric and prophecy. She received her MA and her MFA in poetry at San Francisco State University. Inter Arma, her first full-length book, is out from Fence Books this year.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It didn’t! (goodness, was it supposed to?!) – except perhaps to the extent that that publication offered an event through which to practice letting go. The book is still teaching me a lot: about how to be with it and how to let it occupy its own space, about my own reactions to the responses I’ve received, certainly about my occasional revulsion to the text-as-object when I pick it up. I don’t think I’m alone in saying one wants one’s work to be out there, and part of the conversation, but one prefers not to be the one to broach it. It’s a balance, this; and it’s as much about one’s relation to the social as it is one’s relation to the quiet labor on the other side. So perhaps I can say what my first book changed is, simply, my relation to the book.

My current project is as insistent upon poetic form – its historico-socio-political consequence, but also its violence – as Inter Arma was; I think form will always be a paramount concern for me. In ways this recent work delves deeper because it’s attempting to trace formal evolution – through wars and crusades and colonialism and trade – from classical Arabic forms like saj’ and qasida and muwashshah, through the troubadours, to Renaissance lyric, to spirituals, to hip-hop (there are a lot of gaps and a lot of other threads and a near-impossible undertaking all implied there). In ways I feel a lot freer with this project; it’s not a text in which I feel as implicated because it’s more interested in retelling an inaccessible history that almost entirely precedes me than it is in negotiating our modern “holy wars” that I am currently affected by and affecting. But then, of course, we are always only writing from the present-tense of self-incrimination.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’m not sure I ever “came to” poetry; sometimes I’m convinced we haven’t even met yet. Perhaps there was something to being born and raised in Buffalo and realizing one day that the Poetics Program was almost in my backyard; certainly there was something to the series of communities – including that one – that I showed up for, and sometimes didn’t, in the years following. In retrospect, I can probably say that it was poetry’s much lengthier history, and the feeling that there would be infinitely more to examine and respond to, that caused me always to choose to engage in it before any other kind of writing. But there’s an echo in this answer, too, that’s insisting that all three are kinds and degrees of fashioning; and I’m as interested in the impossibility of distinguishing them as I am in insisting that I “chose” one over the others.

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?
The starting always takes longer than I would like the starting to take. I don’t think in terms of single poems; I think in terms of questions, or conditions, or discontents that I think poetry might answer – or at least help me turn over. I mean I don’t begin a project without that impulse toward interrogation, and I tend to think of poetry as the ultimate model of attention. Almost always there is reading in excess; there is a kind of perversion in perpetually choosing the unanswerable and thinking textual overdose is the thing that will solve it, and for whatever reasons I embrace that. I also embrace the fact that I inevitably forget almost everything I’ve read as I turn to do the writing. Another reason the process is such a slow one – or I can say this, at least, of Inter Arma and my current project – is I believe that if the work is going to try to negotiate violence, then it’s important the work have violence inflicted upon it as it is coming into the world. Call it sympathy pains; call it a question of hierarchy in victim / criminal / witness relations. Sometimes it takes years to torture a poem until you’re sure it’s got nothing else to say – or that it never was, after all, withholding anything. When it’s mute and at its most butchered – when it’s the diametrical opposite of beautiful – is when it’s “done.”

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 jumped the gun on this one! The book, yes. It is always the book for me. It emerges from preposterous questions; the project, in part, becomes all the ways in which it will fail, and all the things its failure will reveal.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
One confession is that readings terrify me. Which is really counter to the work itself. I write most of my work by speaking it aloud, almost always while standing with my laptop at the kitchen counter, usually while rocking back and forth, sometimes while pacing, it’s good for the prosody. The texts obsess about sound and they want to be experienced that way. Certainly the terror has something to do with fears of fraudulence – that public readings are precisely that opening for exposure. That said, I say yes to all the readings I can because the truth is I love readings more than I dread them, since the weeks before every reading are always the most productive weeks for the work. And productivity trumps anxiety every time.

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?
Inter Arma’s questions began with one aspect of our cultural imaginary: I wanted to understand why it’s so easy for us to conflate portrayals of, and discourses around, the terrorist and the homosexual. I spent a lot of time reading responses to 9-11, to Park51, to the repeal of DADT. I read studies on military hazing rituals; I went back to the Greeks: I read Carol Burke’s wonderful and disturbing Camp All American, Hanoi Jane, and the High-and-Tight alongside Aristophanes. I wondered how all of this was an extension of the “Arma” of Ovid’s Amores. I wondered about the relationship between breaking form and breaking step and the figure of the scapegoat. About all the ways that poetic form might be an extension of all social relations. Of course I haven’t stopped thinking about violence. The current project comes out of work by philologists and scholars on the lyric such as the late, and inimitable, María Rosa Menocal. Inter Arma was certainly more interested in what we have to say (as misinformed as that saying is) about Islamic culture; this current project wants to touch, instead, our muteness about it. I mean I want to recall our indebtedness. And our indebtedness to Islamic culture is great, and one of those debts is, of course, poetic. So the project is thinking about credit and deficit and obligation, about hospitality and the gift; but also the enormous problem that is History. Positive or corrective revisionism isn’t immune either, and the work is trying – mostly, right now, by way of parody – to be pronouncedly aware of that. 

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 my more pessimistic moments I think all writing can do is point to the thing that needs considerably more attention, and hope that someone is following the direction of its pointing. In my more optimistic moments I think all writing can do is point to the thing that needs considerably attention, and hope that someone is following the direction of its pointing.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I haven’t had – or given myself – much opportunity to work collaboratively in that way. Inter Arma is my first full-length book, and it’s really just been a few months in the world now, and that experience was very sweet. I found a really wonderful slash-and-burner in Brent Cunningham, who generously looked the book over just before it was going to print and (just as generously) suggested huge cuts to help me finalize the textual torture. Rebecca Wolff, the editor at Fence, was a really careful reader and open to all suggestions and counter-suggestions. I don’t know if I could think about working with an “outside editor” as anything other than a kind of collaboration, so in a way this is, for me, a question about that. And I like to think I see collaborative projects on the horizon, yes.  

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I spend a lot of time on my yoga mat and I get much of my best advice there – advice that has less to do with being a poet in the world and more to do with being a human: and thus, of course, to being a human poet. One of my teachers has taken to reciting this Rumi quote as of late: ‘Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’ Which I guess is less a piece of advice than it is an invitation. I think it’s been echoing for me because I am simultaneously certain of its truth and entirely skeptical of its position. But it causes me to think about valuation and about hospitality; and so I think its unintentional advice is that I sit with these two really important terms.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I am trying, always, to write as though there is no difference, and so there need be no movement between, because there is only one writing. I can’t imagine what the appeal would be in holding the two apart enough that one would have to become an adept in transition.

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?
One of the most important teachers in my life finally convinced me – after many years of saying so – that so much of the writing takes place in the not-writing. On these terms I’m writing all the time, which is how I validate all the ways I predictably fail in keeping a writing routine. I have very slow-cooking projects that only go into high-heat when I am asked to do a reading or to contribute to something. They also go into high-heat when I start feeling depressed, the cure for which is almost always turning to my own work. I feel blessed not to have particularly ‘typical’ days right now, and so I’m not going to jinx myself in speaking to that one.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I do dishes. Since inevitably, the moment my hands are too wet to type, something comes. Or, you know, the phone rings.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I grew up in Buffalo, where the General Mills plant continues to produce unfortunate cereal. And so: Cheerios.

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?
I think I would tend towards McFadden’s thinking, at least in terms of my own process. I listen to music when I’m metrically stuck (Eminem, for instance, who has mastered the anapestic lyric), but I don’t think much about, say, painting or film when I’m writing; and I have an ongoing set of questions in my head about the ethics of recourse to a “natural” world for the work when a) we already have to question the term, and b) what do we want, or what can we ask, from the beautiful right now? I have different answers to these questions every time I pose them to myself, but my reluctance remains. Certainly, the lived world of the political transcribes itself; I think the texts are probably some combination of the literature I am reading and the news I am reading: which is all to say, yes, the language has its origins in language.

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

In my other life, from which this life is inextricable, I’m a graduate student, working on eschatological thought and lyric sequences in Early Modern England. So those texts – the ones to which I have to keep returning – certainly find their ways in. For obvious reasons, I’m interested in how writers have thought about the end of the world, and why they have imagined that writing is the best way to spend the meantime. While I’m feeling a little distant from it these days, my poetry community is in the Bay Area, and the list of poets there whose work has influenced mine is as long as the number of poets who have lived and passed through there in the last ten years. In ways I think we are all asking that same question, about the meantime, and its spending – even if we’re not putting it in those terms – and the conversations that I’ve had with those poets over the years have been individually and collectively invaluable.

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

Eat both bread and cake in the presence of Marie Antoinette. At the same time. One in each hand.

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 would be a truck driver. In Montana. With daily lunch breaks in Glacier National Park.

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

I’m not sure if my choice to write is “opposed” to other things. If the writing takes place as often in the not-writing as in the writing itself, then the difference between writing and living becomes rather imperceptible. What else would there be to do, then?

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

I will fail you on the film. I fail everyone on films. As far as texts, I just had a very lucky week that included Blake’s “Milton: A Poem” and Brian Cummings’ The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I suppose in my responses to the above I’ve begun, a few times, to answer this. It’s an abridged history of losers in both love and war, which are indistinguishable events. I hope it will eventually replace every Houghton Mifflin Harcourt textbook on every high-school syllabus, at which point students will finally – again – learn history by way of poetry, the formal and generic qualities of which will cause them to question the notions of ‘fact’ and ‘truth,’ and raise some small hell in their classrooms.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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