Thursday, April 21, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Tony Iantosca

Tony Iantosca is a person who writes poems and teaches English composition and creative writing at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Poems have appeared in 6x6, Lungfull!, ThoseThatThis, Death and Life of Great American Cities, a Perimeter, among others. His first full-length collection of poems, Shut Up, Leaves was published by United Artists Books in November 2015. Previous collections include Team Burnout (Overpass Books) and Naked Forest Spaces (Third Floor Apartment Press). He holds an MFA from Long Island University in Brooklyn.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook helped me begin to think of single poems as part of a larger project, and then to think of what that larger project's main concerns are and how to work with and sometimes against those concerns. Other times I try to write poems that make fun of the tendencies that I see in my own writing and interests. But none of that would have been possible without seeing the poems presented as a book. It makes palpable and literal something I tell students all the time, which is that they should look at their writing in the third person. With my most recent full-length book, Shut Up, Leaves, it felt good to make use of the process I'd used in compiling poems for smaller chapbooks 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I first came to poetry during high school. I was part of the creative writing club in my high school. I'm not sure what attracted me to poetry as opposed to another genre, but I had some very dear friends in the creative writing club. It was generally the student club that more punks and hippies joined, so I liked it for that reason too. 

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 don't generally set out to start a writing project. I normally decide after I've accumulated a handful of similar poems that any given project should continue and expand. It's interesting to see how all of the reading I do--which is by no means limited to poetry--can begin to shape the concerns I grapple with in the composition of a new set of poems. It takes quite a long time for me to know if the final shape of a poem should resemble the lines written hurriedly in a notebook, or if I should isolate and foreground only a few words or sentiments. So sometimes the final looks identical to the mess in the notebook, whereas other times everything's been rearranged, often because I'm trying to fine tune the lines to be identical to the poems which came out right the first time.    

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?
More recently, the poem begins with speech. I'm interested in how speech can become unmoored from its original context and setting. It's hard to generalize about whether or not short pieces become longer ones, or vice versa, but most recently my poems exist as parts of a larger series. The long or serial poem helps me figure out how many different ways there are to express the same idea. As a lot of my poetry deals with received ideas about the world, this can mean that I take notes on stray phrases I hear on the street, or that I work through outlining a literary trope in the abstract and try to make it sound a little off. I used to do much more compiling, but even then I feel like I must have been writing the same poem a million times in a row.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings, though recently I haven't been doing that many. Last year I didn't attend that many readings either (I needed a break) so that might have something to do with it. Public readings are definitely a part of my creative process. They help me hear what's working and what isn't, but so do one-on-one meetings I have with friends who've been kind enough to read what I'm working on and tell me what they think. I'd also say that hearing my friends give readings is helpful, somehow, though I'm not sure how. Maybe because it keeps me in touch with the greater poetry scene in New York. 

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?
Many of my poems retell familiar narratives, but do so in a way that attempts to call attention to the assumptions present in those narratives. In doing this, the reader might be able to examine what types of cultural assumptions exist in American literature as a whole, and they might be able to ask how that reflects on our world and where we are now. I'm referring to assumptions about the supremacy of the individual in our society, and how that tendency may seep into the figure of the author or the singular protagonist in our literature. Often when one articulates what a speaker or author assumes about reality it can sound totally insane. Other poems articulate tendencies that may exist instead only in a societal or political narrative (as opposed to in literature). How can I as an author inhabit such ways of making meaning while also defacing them? In the midst of such concerns I still try to show, or reveal, a subjectivity behind these broad narratives and assumptions, and that's me and my actual worries and concerns and heartbreaks. Hopefully that prevents a reading that sees these cultural tendencies as totalizing.

But those are only the most recent concerns. I have other projects that attempt to say exactly what I mean in a way that escapes the idea of the poem--plain unadorned speech. Some poems in Shut Up, Leaves are very emotional but try to keep sentimentality at bay. As I mentioned before, it's worth it to make fun of feelings while expressing those feelings at the same time.  
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?
It's both the larger culture's task to figure that out and the writer's. I really think that poets in particular should not think of poetry or the poetry community as an inaccessible, specialized domain, even if that's comfortable for us. Doing so reinforces the isolation from the larger culture that writers often feel and sometimes disingenuously bemoan. At the same time, changing the larger culture and all its problems is a process that would necessarily change the poetry being written within that supposed culture or "subculture." I think both should happen so that we can one day teach poetry to people starting from preschool. Maybe that way I would never have to hear another person say "I don't get poetry."   

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

It is essential. I've been meeting intermittently with the poet Lisa Rogal at this place in Brooklyn called Junior's. We have a beer and exchange long poems and help each other find ways of structuring them. We've both been working on long poems recently, so it's a particularly good match. She's been a huge help.   

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Once you've accumulated a whole bunch of writing that you know works well, go back and read it and figure out why it works well. 

Another great piece of advice is to try to undermine comfortable tendencies that you have in your writing as you're writing something new. If you feel yourself wanting to write a line, try thinking and writing the opposite of that line. I've found this helpful for myself because it opens up some other space, other ways of seeing, that never would have occurred to me. I forget who told me this originally. It was probably Lewis Warsh

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?
Unfortunately I don't have a typical writing routine. I can go a long time without writing, which both helps and hurts. A typical day begins with me waking up and eating granola, listening to the news, and looking out the window. After that I get on my bike and go to teach or plan a lesson or tutor someone. In between classes or tutoring sessions, there's often a lot of time. Sometimes something comes to me during those intervals, and sometimes this will happen every day for a week and then abruptly stop.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If that happens, I make myself write and make myself accept the fact that whatever comes out is likely going to suck for a little while, at least until I can get back into some kind of practice. I go back pretty often to Bernadette Mayer's Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters. I also like to return to Today I Wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms (translated by Matvei Yankelevich). Something about those two books reminds me how many possibilities are available to writing, even if both authors are working with very different concerns.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Old rugs.

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 of my friends are painters and many are musicians, still others study philosophy. Conversations with them about their own work influence me tremendously, even though I probably can't name directly the way that influence happens.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I'm reading an excellent book by my friend Bruno Gulli called Labor of Fire. It's been helpful to think of writing and poetry as labor, and not to think of labor as a concept limited or restricted by economic structures, but as something that precedes and exceeds those structures.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I'd like to go into one of those caves carved out by the ocean.  

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?

If I could pick any other occupation, I'd like to be the park ranger in a public park in a city somewhere. I think it would be nice to spend that much time outside. Also that way I could let people get away with all sorts of activities that are prohibited in public parks at the moment. But maybe that would get me fired.

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

I wrote a paper in college about the hip hop duo Pete Rock and CL Smooth. I wrote about their hit song "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)." The teacher loved the essay and told me I should major in writing. At the time I wanted to become a professional activist, but I figured there were other ways of doing that and being a writer at the same time. Writing essays was also a lot of fun, and then as time went on I began to take poetry much more seriously.      

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book was called Story of the Lost Child, the last in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series. I think it's the best of the four books by Ferrante, especially the section about the author's experience of the 1980 Irpinia earthquake. Also, Matvei Yankelevich's Some Words for Dr. Vogt, recently out from Black Square Editions, is great. I also read George Oppen's Of Being Numerous, which I'm told is related to Matvei's book somehow. All of these have been important books, and I imagine I'll go back to them quite a bit over the years.

I saw a good film about the vigilante groups in Michoacan, Mexico. They arose to combat both the state police and armed forces and the drug cartels. It was ultimately a failed project led by a pediatric doctor who decided to arm his community, and the director does a nice job making sure the audience feels no allegiance to anyone.      

19 - What are you currently working on?

Most recently, I've been working on a set of poems under the heading "Bad Poetry." These poems tackle political issues that arise in everyday life. I'm interested in whether it's possible for me to write an overtly political poem, and whether that poem can pose as a bad poem (by feeling unedited, or lazy) while still somehow working. It's hard to fake laziness and it's equally hard to make a poem have a message without the poem being kind of boring. So the poems take lots of editing. Maybe they'll never be published, and maybe there's a good reason for that, but I think it's important for me to play with text in this really difficult way if only to keep the broader experiments outside of this project moving along.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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