At an Intersection (Alef, 2002), Window on the City (BlazeVOX, 2006), The Edge of the Underworld (BlazeVOX, 2010), Compulsive Words (BlazeVOX, 2010) and American Songbook (UDP, 2013). His trilogy, Memories, Dreams and Inner Voices (Station Hill, 2012), includes Fleeting Memories, a UDP web-book, and Inner Voices Heard Before Sleep, an Argotist Online ebook. He is also the author of three Dusie chapbooks, The Star-Spangled Banner (2011), Close Your Eyes (2013) and Foghorns (2014), and is co-editor of Bernadette Mayer’s forthcoming collected early books from Station Hill. He lives in Brooklyn and works as an editor of U.S. news and political articles at The Wall Street Journal.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, At an Intersection (Alef Books, 2002), was published when I was relatively old, in my 40s. Before that, I wrote many books’ worth of poetry, but I never thought about publishing a book. I didn't even start trying to publish a book until I was 38. I was happy with what I had written, but I didn’t feel that it had to be published. After my first book, I guess I became addicted to publishing and wanted to get my work out there (though most of that earlier poetry has never been published).
My recent books, American Songbook (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013) and Close Your Eyes (Dusie, 2013), feel very much of a piece with what I've been doing since the early 1990s. Close Your Eyes is a sequel to Memories, Dreams and Inner Voices (Station Hill Press, 2012), which was written from 1991 to 2005. American Songbook, which was written from 1999 to 2013, uses the same compositional procedure as most poems in Window on the City (BlazeVOX [books], 2007), written from 1995 to 1997, and Compulsive Words (BlazeVOX, 2010), written from 1999 to 2007.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I started writing as a teenager, poems are what came out. I wanted to be a novelist, but poems are what came out.
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?
For many of my poems, I create careful sketches and then compose the poems using the sketches. I often spend far more time creating the sketch than composing the poem from the sketch. Sometimes, I compose totally different poems from the same sketch and choose the one I like most. The compositions usually are similar to the final poems, but shorter, because I cut anything I don’t like.
In general, I've always been in the habit of doing most of my new composition during the summer, preferably sitting outside at a park, or in farm country, or on a rocky coast. For the past 15 years, I've also been in the habit of writing many books at the same time. In the first decade of the millennium, for example, I would break up the summer into parts and devote, say, three weeks to American Songbook, three weeks to its offshoot, The Star-Spangled Banner, three weeks to Compulsive Words, two weeks to the unpublished From the Mouth of the Bay, and whenever I was worn out but had mental energy, I would dictate into a recorder poems for Inner Voices Heard Before Sleep or Close Your Eyes or the unpublished Visions.
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?
A poem begins for me in an infinite number of places. As for books, I most often write a group of poems and then realize that they could become a book. That’s what happened with The Edge of the Underworld, Window on the City, Compulsive Words, The Star-Spangled Banner, American Songbook; the unpublished From the Mouth of the Bay and Trance Position; and the unfinished Sounds of Summer in the Country and Dreams of the 2000s. That’s one model. Another model is writing a book without realizing it. For years, I wrote down memories on worksheets at work and they became a book, Fleeting Memories. I wrote down dreams in the morning and they became a book, Dreams of the 1990s. With several other books, such as Inner Voices Heard Before Sleep and Close Your Eyes, I decided to write a book from the start, but about psychic phenomena that had interested me for a long time.
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 part of my creative process. I don’t think they are counter to it. I've rarely enjoyed doing readings. I'm not sure why. It might be that unlike most poets, who are teachers and used to talking before groups, I've done very little public speaking in my life and never became comfortable with it. It might be that many of my poems “aren’t in my voice” and I have a hard time reading them. There are undoubtedly many reasons.
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?
For me, the closest thing to a theoretical concern has been to try to extend the surrealist explorations of consciousness, including what used to be called the unconscious. In my books that I consider to be psychic research, I have written about dreams, inner voices heard before sleep, fleeting memories and several different kinds of visions. In my books that I consider to be composed poetry, I have mainly used different prompts (words and phrases, sounds, landscapes, emotions etc.) to displace words and phrases from what I call my “total vocabulary,” all the words that ever took root in me, including words that I wouldn't normally use and don’t really know, “the unconscious of my language.” Through that practice, I discovered what I call “compulsive words,” words that were displaced repeatedly from my total vocabulary, words that seemed to occupy a special place in that vocabulary, forming a secret architecture or constellation whose existence only becomes visible during surrealist composition. I worked with these words in my book Compulsive Words, and hope to do much more with them in the future. I have an initial disturbing theory that many of the words became supercharged in my brain through their connections to authority figures in my life.
The question that absorbs me most as a poet is this: What are the possibilities of poetry? I know that many people will consider this a despicable or absurd statement, but to me, that is the most important question in the world.
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?
To me, the poet's role in the larger culture is always the same: to make poems, to practice this ancient human art form. Beyond that, I have a hard time thinking about what the poet’s role should be. It seems so impossible to attain. Orpheus moving Hades and Prosperina to tears? David calming the deranged Saul with a psalm? Jeremiah prophesying on the gate? Homer reciting the Illiad to a hall? Sappho among friends on Lesbos? Parmenides philosophizing in Croton? John of Patmos revealing the end of time?.... There seem to be many choices.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve only worked intensively with an editor once, and that was designing the web-book Fleeting Memories (http://www.uglyducklingpresse.org/WEBBOOK-RUBY/index.html), which included many photos. That whole experience, with Garth Graeper of Ugly Duckling Presse, was very fruitful.
Altogether, I’ve had very positive experiences with my principal editors: Geoffrey Gatza of BlazeVOX, Ryan Haley and Matvei Yankelovich of Ugly Duckling, Susana Gardner of Dusie, and Sam Truitt of Station Hill. I hope to work with all of them again.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I don’t know if he ever actually said this, but I’ve taken this quote away from the great Greek and Latin translator Robert Fitzgerald: “If a syllable can be removed, it should be removed. That’s Pound’s condensare. That’s Poe’s position in ‘The Philosophy of Composition.’”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose to journalistic prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
The genres I have moved among as a writer are poetry and nonfiction prose (in Memories, Dreams and Inner Voices). I haven’t written critical prose or journalistic prose. I’ve spent my career working at a daily newspaper, but as an editor, not as a writer. To me, the appeal is that different genres help me pursue different interests.
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?
I’m free to write from 9 to 11:30 in the morning, before I go to work as a newspaper editor (where I’m not free to write). I devote that morning time to writing in one way or another, though not generally writing poems. I might be submitting poems, trying to get a reading, preparing for a reading, taking forever to answer this questionnaire! I’m always revising something or other, trying to get one of my many unfinished books into shape. For the past few years, during my commute to work from 12:30 to 1:15, I’ve been writing some conversational “subway poems.” That has taken a toll on my reading—subway rides are for reading—but it does have me practicing the art of poetry throughout the year. During the summers, I try to devote myself entirely to composition, writing one poem after another, never looking back, working on several books at once. Months later, over Christmas vacation, I type up all of these writings and transcribe many dictations. Then, the next spring, right before my next summer of composition, I do an initial revision of poems from the previous summer. It usually takes at least another year before I revise any poems to completion, so it takes me at least two years to finish a poem, often longer.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I type up things. I type up handwritten poems, dreams from notebooks, prose accounts from notebooks. I transcribe dictations about moonlight on the water or birdcalls or some year in the past like 1974. I transcribe some of the 20 interviews I did with my mother. I have to do these things sometime. It’s advancing a pawn, at the least. I could do these things for a year straight, and it would be very beneficial to me.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Mothballs. I grew up in a big house with many attics, and they were all at my disposal after my six older half-brothers and half-sisters moved away.
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 have been alternately influenced by poetry, nature, visual art, nature, poetry, nature, music, nature, poetry. Nature the most. I just want to sit somewhere and watch the world.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I was recently asked in an interview which writers and artists had influenced me. Here are the people I mentioned: Arp, Schwitters, Tzara, Klebnikov, Lorca, Motherwell, Stevens, Williams, Pound, Moore, Stein, Apollinaire, Aragon, Breton, Valery, Montale, Ungaretti, Gozzano, O’Hara, Ashbery, Olson, Palmer, Zukofsky, Coolidge, Whitman, Ginsberg, Mallarme, Mac Low, Truitt, Cesaire, Artaud, Hendrix, Johns, Rauschenberg, Ayler, Michaux, Mayer, Perec, Burroughs. There are many, many more. I hope to pull a full list together sometime. For example, Marina Tsvetaeva’s Moscow in the Plague Year just arrived in mail, part of a subscription that is running out. Nothing could make me happier. For me, she instantly leapfrogs the biggest pile of books, a thousand books. When I am bereaved, when a close friendships fails, I read her two long poems, “Poem of the Mountain” and “Poem of the End.” That’s how important she is to me.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Before I die, I’d really like to finish all of my books of poetry and psychic research that are now partially finished: Close Your Eyes (expanded version); Visions; The Star-Spangled Banner (expanded); From the Mouth of the Bay; Trance Position; Sounds of Summer in the Country; Album of Old Verses; Compulsive Words (expanded); Titles & First Lines (expanded); Dreams of the 2000s; Moonlight on the Ocean; and Subway Poems. I’d also like to write Medleys and What a Wonderful World. Beyond that, in poetry, I’m not sure. Write a surrealist work in iambic pentameter and rhyme? Hopefully, I’ll have some more ideas.
I’d really like to finish writing the history of the families of my eight great-grandparents during the time of their lives, roughly 1850 to 1950. I’ve collected so much information from so many sources, all dead now. No one can write this work of Jewish family history except me. So far, all I have to show for these efforts is the edition of my late half-brother David Herfort’s writings, Washtenaw County Jail and Other Writings (Xlibris, 2005), and several short legal memoirs co-written with my late great uncle Milton Handler. I also would like to finish my novel about decadent people in a house on the Maine coast, and to write a memoir called Half-Brothers, about my four half-brothers and their mostly tragic lives.
I know all of this is very self-centered and limited to writing, so let me add: I would like to see if it’s possible to re-enter the past, to live in the past at will. I would like to conduct other psychic experiments as well.
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?
Instead of being a daily newspaper editor and poet, I would have been an English professor, a scholar of 16th and 17th century English poetry. Of course, as an English professor, I might still be a writer, but a different kind of writer. I might still be a poet, but a different kind of poet. I should also note that my family would have liked me to be a lawyer, so if I had lived in a different time or place, I might have become a lawyer. I also was a good baseball player as a kid.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I liked reading literature more than doing anything else, first novels and then poetry.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve spent much of the past year typing and proofreading Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words: The Early Books of Bernadette Mayer, which I am co-editing with Sam Truitt of Station Hill. I’ve also conducted lengthy interviews with Mayer about the eight books included in the collection. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve carefully read this 450-page book four or five times in the past nine months. I’m not doing much composition these days, but I hope that when I return to new poetry, Mayer’s pure spring water will help me.
I’m not much of a moviegoer. I don’t usually like verisimilitude on the screen. Did I die along with Pasolini? I loved Fassbinder in a past life.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I only recently finished several years of continuous work on my trilogy Memories, Dreams and Inner Voices and my poetry book American Songbook. My mother died of drawn-out cancer during that time. My daughter had cancer. I’m a bit worn out inside. I’m working fulltime as a newspaper editor, often editing page-one political articles. I’m working on the Mayer poems and interviews. I guess I hope to “sit down one of these days” and decide which basically finished books I should publish next: the long version of Close Your Eyes? The long version of The Star-Spangled Banner? From the Mouth of the Bay and its offshoot book, Trance Position? The most important work for me to revise is Visions, the sequel to Close Your Eyes. As for writing new poems, I’m really looking forward to doing more work on Sounds of Summer in the Country next summer; I’ve always wanted to develop a poetics based on animal sounds. Maybe I’ll spend some time near the coast and dictate more sections of Moonlight on the Ocean, really follow my master Henri Michaux to the far places. Maybe I can finally begin exploring the further implications of “compulsive words.” That’s probably the most important work for me to do, has been for five years, but I appear to have a mental block about it. How long would it actually take to expand “Titles & First Lines” into a book? For Album of Old Verses, maybe I’ll finally write the last section of the 10-page poem “Tu Ti Spezzasti” after Ungaretti; maybe I’ll finally write “Nothing to Teach” after Mandelstam.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;