Wednesday, July 08, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Eric Baus

Eric Baus was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1975. His publications include Tuned Droves (Octopus Books, 2009), The To Sound (Verse Press, 2004; Winner of the 2002 Verse Press, selected by Forrest Gander [see his 12 or 20 questions here]), and the chapbooks The Space Between Magnets (Diaeresis), A Swarm In The Aperture (Margin to Margin), and Something Else The Music Was (Braincase Press). He edits Minus House chapbooks, and currently lives in Denver.

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 gave me a chance to send something to strangers whose writing I liked. Often that would spark up a conversation and sometimes a friendship. It was also nice to have random people I didn’t know contact me about the book in various ways.

My new work is still mostly prose blocks. Some of the most recent work is longer. Maybe there’s more of a sense of tonal contrast between individual pieces within manuscripts instead of having a more consistent tone throughout. I’m trying to fold in more disparate threads into the sequences I’m writing. I hope my writing is getting weirder and messier.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

Probably reading the Beats in high school, then accidentally reading Artaud and Daumal because translations of their books were published by City Lights. Actually, I was reading bits and pieces of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction pretty indiscriminately at the time, but I became more and more interested in the various textures of language beyond summarizable meaning. Some of that was because I was reading writing in translation that I had absolutely no context for, so my initial engagement was to intuitively work with the surfaces of language and see what that did to my thought patterns. My understanding of reading became more about pursuing a series of cognitive experiences. When I began writing, I tried to re-create my most interesting reading experiences, and that ended up looking like some version of poetry.

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?

My writing process is really inconsistent and varied. Sometimes things come quickly, sometimes I’ll work with a piece for years. First drafts often change entirely, almost every word, in some cases. I often write over the top of existing pieces of writing, doing cover versions or palimpsests until the source material frays and recedes.

I don’t take notes for poems because the poems don’t usually begin in an idea-based space. The ideas/themes usually come later, out of the constellations of images and sounds and processes. I do sometimes “take notes” by rehearsing certain syntactical patterns that I like.

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?

Sometimes it comes from me listening to recordings of other poets, for example, Barbara Guest reading “An Emphasis Falls on Reality” and hearing her particular voice saying the word “pictorial.” Sometimes it comes from writing over another piece of writing. Sometimes it comes from cutting away at a larger piece of my unfinished writing until the poem is comprised of a few small gestures. Most times it’s a combination of several processes and sources. I’m interested in creating texts that eventually feel unified, so what usually happens is that I make a big mess, then start shaping the text into a skeletal narrative and/or sound pattern.

I try not to begin writing a book. I try to invite as much variation into writing for as long as possible. Then at some point, I start seeing the larger patterns as a book.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I like having the opportunity to see/create connections between poems written at different periods of time from different manuscripts. Arranging poems in different sequences for readings feels like a kind of writing.

I record myself reading practice drafts of poems in order to work with the sound patterns. I listen to a TON of recorded readings from UBUweb and PENNsound on my computer and on headphones when I’m walking around. Those habits inform my writing a lot more than the performative aspect of the experience of reading before a live audience.

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?

I don’t have a systematic approach to theoretical concerns. They’re more like worries than coherent agendas. My current concerns are pretty practical: How to best attach language to personages/figures/pronouns/entities/animals so that there is a sense of continuity in a piece of writing, something or someone to make the language feel connected and emotionally resonant. Figuring out how to deal with some version of narrative comes up for me a lot. I’m always concerned about the effects of sequences and series.

The title of Reuven Tsur’s book “What Makes Sound Patterns Expressive?” is a pretty good question to consider.

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?

Poetry moves in the larger culture in subtle, complex, often very delayed ways. In my experience, writing drifts somewhat away from authorial intent and the immediate literary community and has a life of its own, so I’m less invested in trying to micromanage its effect in the world. I think writing in a way that foregrounds the complexities of human relations while suggesting the possibilities for connection is a good goal.

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

Both times it’s been pretty minimal in terms of intervention from outside editors. I’ve been given suggestions about a few line edits, but always had the freedom to pick and choose how I wanted poems to appear. It’s been great to work with editors and artists on book and cover designs. I think of the visual appearance of a book as part of the writing itself, part of its reading atmosphere. I’ve been lucky to work with editors at both Wave and Octopus who have similar ideas and who have been willing to make books that look and feel (to me) like the poems I wrote.

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

I can’t think of much specific advice right now. Mostly, I look around me at writers who are doing great work and living their lives with integrity and I try to quietly steal their methods for continuing to write and stay sane.

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 really have a routine now. I mostly write in short patches. I tend to write late at night. I edit and mulch writing anytime I don’t want to do other kinds of work.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Watching films, rewriting old writing, taking close-up photographs of cotton-y things I find on the ground, listening to recordings on PENNsound and UBUweb, listening to things people say to me and around me, paying attention to my own physiological and psychological changes.

12 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

I am pretty unsentimental about my stuff because I’ve moved so often. I am tempted to say particular books I own, but my bookshelves are in such disarray I don’t think I could find anything specific in time. I guess I would probably have to start over from scratch. I will have to be careful around fire.

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?

Films by Charles and Ray Eames, Bruce Conner, Maya Deren, Bill Viola, Claire Denis, Agnes Varda, etc. make me think about editing and arranging sequences of images in new ways. I watch nature documentaries by David Attenborough all the time. I love David Attenborough!

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

A short list would include Gertrude Stein, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Nathaniel Mackey, George Kalamaras, Renee Gladman, Bhanu Kapil, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, John Yau, Lisa Robertson, Tan Lin, Selah Saterstrom, Sara Veglahn, Dorothea Lasky, Noah Eli Gordon, and Andrea Rexilius.

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

I’d like to write a really long, continuous poem. I’d like to write a good, old-fashioned, left-justified poem that use lines breaks.

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 wasn’t allergic to lots of foods, I’d be a cook or a baker. If I wasn’t allergic to most animals, I’d work with animals in some capacity. The most likely alternate life for me would be a librarian, because it’s the only job I’ve had except for teaching that didn’t make me feel crazy at the end of the day.

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

I used to be interested in visual art, but it was too messy, too expensive, and I didn’t feel excited by what I made. I have had the most intense and rewarding experiences around reading, and I wanted to participate in that somehow. I wanted to figure out how to create effects in language like the writers whose work made strong impressions on me early on.

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

Fred Moten’s Hughson's Tavern is completely amazing. I just watched and loved Agnes Varda’s film The Gleaners & I.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I’m writing a new manuscript with characters named Minus and Iris. There is also an entity called “the ur-mane” which keeps popping up.

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