DJ Dolack is the author of WHITTLING A NEW FACE IN THE DARK (Black Ocean, 2013). His video reviews and Tourist Trap, NYC series can be found at Coldfront Magazine. He teaches writing at Baruch College and lives in Jackson Heights, Queens.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’m not sure yet. I don’t see a major change coming, but I’m excited to get out and read these poems to people, even if that means a rather solemn ten minutes of their evening. This collection has been tinkered with for a while now, so getting it into people’s hands is a great release, but also terrifying. We’ll see. I know that it looks great: Black Ocean’s publisher Janaka Stucky allowed me to make some nontraditional design choices -- mainly the cover -- which was composed by my sister-in-law, Stefanie Augustine, and Joshua Harmon really knows his shit when it comes to type setting. I’m incredibly happy with the result.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’m not sure how it ended up this way. I’ve always been a big fan of non-fiction and cnf essays, but I’ve never truly enjoyed writing fiction -- at least not to the extent that I have poetry. Fiction always seemed so prescribed in comparison. And I think there are moves that good poetry can make that trump anything I've ever experienced in fiction, reading or writing. Now, I'm certainly not well-read and really can't go too far with this, but when good poetry hits, it annihilates. When good fiction hits, it's good and I'm fulfilled, I suppose. There is certainly something to be said for narrative construction and how we as complex beings can be reflected within it or affected by it, no doubt. It’s just that I’m not into narrative as much as I am in the smaller moments that can express the same emotive gestures or ideas, but also, in my opinion, go deeper and create more resonance. I think it has a lot to do with the construct of the poetic line. Though the substance is less, the weight can be far heavier. There’s a more significant density. I don’t know. You can make this argument for prose, I’m sure. But it’s not quite the same 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?
Slow is quite an understatement. I have grown glacially slow in any sort of process, any kind of project, but I’m actually digging this pace more and more as I get older and feel less of a pressure to write so many poems and publish so many books. My real life is taking over, and I’m happy to allow it for a while. When I am writing more regularly, things start out with simple lines, little fragments, notes, etc. jotted down on all sorts of media: actual paper, my phone, emails to myself, Google docs, etc. But that’s actually the part I enjoy least -- getting the ideas out and trying to record exactly what’s going on in my head, or trying to capture what I’ve just seen. It can be incredibly frustrating to get something wrong, which I obviously, more often than not, do. The fun part comes when I sit down and begin to piece it all together. I might have concepts or more developed ideas, but those usually give way to how well the lines do or don’t come together. I love uncovering the threads and building from there. There is a lot of tweaking, a lot of connecting and changing grammatical structures, but the original lines usually come out looking very familiar. It’s been interesting over the last few years to realize that my ideas rarely appear with any linearity; it’s more of an interrupted continuation -- a series of episodic concerns.
People who actually read the Whittling poems will notice that there are a lot of repeated lines in there -- or images, language, little bits of chorus sort of strewn throughout the collection. I noticed this kind of late in the process of writing these poems but I just went with it. Sometimes I won’t feel like I’ve gotten something quite right, and I feel free enough to try it again. Or maybe some phrase or image begs to be used again in another situation so I’ll use it. I think it builds a cohesiveness to the collection as well. Little callsigns or maybe concepts I’ve been struggling with. I’ve seen this a bit in other collections and it’s something I appreciate. I also tend to think of it as a band using the same instruments or recording processes on a single album. It’s quite easy to hear how the songs on, say, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde belong together vs. the songs on an album like Desire. It’s the same artist, and the songs on the respective albums mostly share instruments, but the effects, tone, mood, studio air, and mindset to each album are all distinct. You can feel that cohesion, and it helps build the artifact which of course, if it’s worthy, comes to stand for much, much more.
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?
Any poem worth being a poem probably begins with a good first line, something to drive you right through to the other side and you’re in. It should be like that dunk tank thing at a street fair. That first line fires the ball and hits the target.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I definitely don’t think about reading or performing while writing, but there can be a good amount of assonance and sound structure going on in the poems that I don’t try to stop unless it becomes too much. It can get schticky. So I have to keep an eye on that, but it can also help when it comes time to read the poems aloud.
I do like reading a lot, but it’s become quite difficult to have faith in poetry readings these days, especially in New York City. The scenester cliques here have gotten out of hand, and I feel like a lot of the readings that get touted are altogether not very representative of the quality of NYC poetry. This is also probably an affect of Facebook casting shadows and spells as well. I certainly don’t take issue with writing circles, scenes, or collaboration, etc. -- those things are obviously a necessary part of the poetry and small press cultures most of us function within. But with NYC, there’s a nepotism that really gets to me, and more specifically the fact that people can be seemingly blind to quality of work, opting instead for the clever or chuckle-inducing poet that can marshal the irony parade for the evening. Partying or taking staged Instagram glamour shots with someone is sometimes more likely to garner buzz around here than the quality of your work. And that’s sad and embarrassing, but it’s becoming more and more true. I’m happy we all have friends and groups of friends and support and people to get wasted with, or prance around on Facebook in the name of tagging and this pseudo Frank O’Hara romanticised lifestyle. Well done. We’ve all made it into the Urban Outfitters catalog! But I’m sorry, it doesn’t necessarily translate into being a good poet. It’s style over substance in many cases, which is a shame because there are some truly great writers here doing some terrific work. I think it’s easy to see these little cliques amalgamate into some castle of hipness that feels impenetrable to some younger poets, so much that they feel they need to bow down and knock thrice the secret code at the gates. Ultimately, I think if people read and write critically, this kind of thing only has so much weight. I have faith in that. I have faith that at some point, criticism and conversation will once again trump hipness. But ugh, it’s a long wait.
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 questions in mind when I write or draft, or even edit really. I don’t feel as though I’m deliberately trying to scratch an itch or address some kind of question. I guess it’s more about trying to build the mood of a situation or experience -- the notion that cannot be described. This is usually where words fail -- where language fails. But I enjoy trying to wring as much out of it as I can.
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?
I don’t think it’s difficult to see where poets fit into the larger culture, particularly in the US. And that’s really nowhere. I mean, it’s not altogether hopeless, and perhaps it’s even good because it also allows us to function outside monetary influence. For the most part, poetry is invisible in the larger popular US culture, which is mostly fine with me, considering how fucked US popular culture is becoming. But Donald Dunbar from Portland has some really great things to say about this stuff, and it challenges me to think more positively and clearly about how to proceed with my work, and with promoting the work of good poets, good poetry. We’re all responsible for this thing. We should be more active.
On the other hand, if we look at something like tv shows, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc., it’s easy to say that other kinds of writers have recently had quite a significant impact on our culture. These are huge markets that affect consumer culture and drive cultural conversations, and the network decision makers really look to the writers of these shows to keep them going. Now that’s not to say that all of those decisions are being made based on the quality of writing. A solidly written show like HBO’s Enlightened gets canceled, but Girls is renewed and can do no wrong for the network. Why is that? Because people are forever enthralled by branding and commodification, soap opera shit with bells and whistles and sex -- stuff that is interesting enough to push our boundaries, but that’s not too heady. Girls can make a point here and there about extended adolescence, eroticism, self-efficacy, etc., but much of the time it isn’t really saying anything, is it? People watch it because it fetishises being a twenty-something with limited responsibility in an already overly-fetishized place like Brooklyn. Plus cultural taboo? It’s a no-brainer, but it isn’t always good writing, per say. It’s good entertainment; it’s marketing. The semiotics of watching the show, and being a part of the show’s audience, is what sells it to the viewers and keeps it on TV. (Though I did like that episode with Patrick Wilson quite a bit.)
So, to me, what is the role of writers in our culture, overly-simplified? To write more challenging work that gets disseminated through the currently viable streams. Am I a writer? No. I occasionally write poetry. I’m not good enough to be one of those writers. But I’m also not striving to be. I know I don’t have the talent for it, nor the interest in it. It’s kind of like when John Kruk was asked about being an athlete and replied, ‘I ain’t an athlete, Lady. I’m a baseball player.’
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I don’t have much experience with it, but I have to say that Black Ocean’s poetry editor, Carrie Olivia Adams, was very kind and very easy to work with. I was happy to have an objective eye on these poems and get some feedback, particularly after holding on to them for so long. I do feel it’s essential to producing good work. Carrie was very gracious, and I appreciated her comments and suggestions. That said, she didn’t really try to do too much. I’m not sure how it would have gone if she suggested an overhaul. As any writer, I can get quite possessive and contrary when it comes to these things.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Go beyond influence; don’t try to mimic what’s being published. I don’t know who said that or when I heard it, but it’s been necessary. It’s easy to get caught up in the poetry fads, like funny ironic poems or that awful precious pseudo-surrealism phase we just (hopefully) emerged from. There are surely instances of thievery and influence in my poems, but I try to move beyond mere simulacrum.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s not so difficult, but it’s an incredibly different zone. I wrote a few reviews for Coldfront magazine and, though it was enjoyable, I have recently decided to lay off. I can be too critical and write a lot of what I consider to be truth, at least at that time. It’s not until later when it feels like I was too harsh, too contrary. I do think it’s absolutely necessary to maintain a good critical dialogue, and through this have some kind of quality control, particularly in poetry. But the critical review is becoming so rare. A lot of reviews right now can be ass-kissing, clique-defending, solipsistic vomit. I still feel the need to take people to task, but lately I haven’t had the energy to do it. I like Michael Robbins’ writing a lot because he’s not sponsored or tethered to anyone. I think he articulates his discontent well and points out the false logic of the crowd mentality that tends to sell things like books and music these days. And when he praises, he’s clear and honest, not elusively sycophantic like so many ‘critics’ can be. It’s incredibly important, regardless of whether or not I agree with his aesthetics. I wish writers did more of this. I wish poets did more of this. It might force them to realize that just because someone is fun to get drunk with doesn’t necessarily mean their poetry is any good. It will just make us better poets, and in turn help the discussion of poetry in the larger social context.
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 don’t have a routine at all these days. In the past, it’s always been a nighttime activity, and I suppose it still is, though there is no schedule. The subway commute helps a lot. I can clear my head and kind of zone out enough to either play a videogame or compose lines. Sometimes I can do both, but what amazes me is the shit that you have to tune out on a NYC subway in order to achieve the quiet space in your head. It can be like going through an hour of straighjacketed brainwashing each morning before work -- Axl Rose in the Welcome to the Jungle video. Anyway, sometimes I write lines there, or think about what I’m going to do later. That’s about as close to a routine as I get these days.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I suppose I always go back to a group of familiar poets just to get the blood flowing again and restart the emotive engines. That tends to include Berryman, Larry Levis, Frank Stanford, maybe some O’Hara to get some tonal balance. Some contemporary poets that I return to often are Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Kate Greenstreet, Peter Jay Shippy, Paul Legault, Darcie Dennigan, Joshua Harmon, and Sarah Goldstein’s Fables. For a while I was writing these poems with my friend Allison Titus and it was very helpful to engage with those because of our process. We would send each other lines and both feel free to change things around and add, subtract, etc. It was great for writer’s block because you had new material coming to you but also had some ownership over it. So these little sparks would go off and maybe lead to other, more tangential lines. That was a really fun project and we should probably start it up again.
Damp cardboard. My father has been a cookie distributor for 20 years now, and I have often worked with him in the heat of summer, where the back rooms of supermarkets can smell of humid, decaying cardboard on concrete. It’s not easy work and you’re constantly on the move, but the backrooms of supermarkets are all quite similar. They all have connecting attributes, and cardboard is one of them. There’s a sweetness to it that reminds me so viscerally of the home, New Jersey, my father, and a very basic idea of what I am carved from. I can sense my DNA in that pulp. He’s supported my family for 20 years, walking through that scent everyday. I can be on another continent, smell it, and instantly recall what it was like to be 15 again, working with him on a 90 degree day in July.
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?
New York city is all over my writing. It’s all over pretty much everything I do. I never thought I would live here and now it defines me in ways that I’m afraid to address. It’s in the imagery, the language, the pace of the poems, and it’s probably been the most effective influence on the writing. One day my wife and I will escape from here, and I will pine for it all again.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There’s nothing better than getting through a really great, random issue of the New Yorker, particularly if it’s got some sports article by Ben McGrath. I also really love that Best American Non-Required Reading series. It’s always got a bunch of gems. I don’t know, lots of nonfiction stuff. It takes my head away from work, from poetry, from teaching, etc.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
This is impossible to answer, but I suppose it involves living elsewhere. California or a beach far out on Long Island.
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 honestly never think about this.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
What one can observe about me rather quickly is that I am mathematically inept. I lack all understanding of the concept. This has influenced things. I also have a very difficult time hiding my concern, boredom, or annoyance. I have a terrible memory for facts unless they truly intrigue me, yet I have an apathy problem as well.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I saw that Matthew McConaughey movie Mud on a long flight back to New York, and while it wasn’t necessarily a great movie, I really did enjoy it. I thought it was well shot, pretty well written and I respected it for not overstating its ideas, which many movies are apt to do. It was a sweet kind of movie, and perhaps even a bit twee, but I liked how it ran these disparate notions of love along side one another, especially because the main character was a 14 year old kid who had to figure shit out for himself.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am learning how to write poems again. Which is to say, I’m working on nothing at the moment. I need to block everything out and really start from scratch. I need to get off Facebook, to disengage from what other people are writing or doing. I need to focus and I need to meditate or something because the brain I have right now is not nearly the same as it was three years ago. I need to figure out how to settle down and settle in. I’m working on it.
[D.J. Dolack reads in Ottawa on October 21, 2013 with Kate Greenstreet and Paige Ackerson-Kiely as part of The Factory Reading Series]
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