Wednesday, November 06, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Eric Sneathen

Eric Sneathen is a poet living in Oakland. His first collection, Snail Poems, was published by Krupskaya in 2016. New writing has been published by AMERARCANA, Mirage #5, baest, Bathhouse, and New Life Quarterly. With Daniel Benjamin, he organized Communal Presence: New Narrative Writing Today and edited The Bigness of Things: New Narrative and Visual Culture (Wolfman Books, 2017).

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 wish I could go back in time and ask myself this question while I was writing and revising Snail Poems, part of which were written more than five years ago. What did I think I was doing? Was there a conceptual framework? I knew what I needed, at least: a writing project that I could pursue outside of the graduate student classrooms of UC Davis. The first reading of what became Snail Poems occurred at Woolsey Heights, a Occupy-inflected house reading series in Berkeley. It was a packed house. People were there for that night’s main event: a reading by Kevin Killian, who had invited me to read with him. I remember Brent Cunningham and Juliana Spahr in attendance, two writers I adored. Seeing them there, I had to leave the crowded room before the reading; I almost puked in the bushes out front, my nerves were so exclamatory. After I was done, and Kevin had finished reciting his gorgeous essay “Activism, Gay Poetry, and AIDS in the 1980s,” Amy Berkowitz came up to me and asked if she might publish some of the poems as a chap (as a “chap”?) for her DIY press, Mondo Bummer. It was the magic of Kevin that made my entrance into poetry-land so consequential, but it was snails, too.

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

I didn’t much care about or for poetry until I read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in a survey class late in my undergraduate education. (This was years before I started writing anything.)  I knew “Howl” craved emobodiment, and I gave the poem mine by reading it aloud, unprompted. Did this poet just write about motorcyclists getting fucked and screaming with joy? Because I was studying at UC Davis, I moved to what was at hand: the poetry of Gary Snyder. No motorcyclists there, however, but I kept looking for them. In my last quarter, I took an “advanced poetry workshop” with Joshua Clover, who asked us to pick one poet in Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell’s American Poets in the 21st Century to devote ourselves to. Having read “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache,” I picked Juliana Spahr. I probably wrote an awful paper about her work that quarter (sorry!) because I was graduating that quarter and was working two or three jobs, but it was a decisive turn for my writing.

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?

It turns out that it takes me several years to write my books. Even though it’s a shorter book, Snail Poems took maybe five years (in addition to the lived experiences that I drew on and that prompted the book in the first place). I’m currently working on three other manuscripts: two books of poems and a novel/memoir. So it’s slow — I guess? I see that some people are able t produce a book every year or two, and that’s just not my pace. Maybe that means my work isn’t especially timely, but that’s snails for you. There’s an argument to be made for anachronism. One of the reasons to read writers who are further along in their careers is to see how they adapt their style to conditions — whether lexical or political — that did not exist when they were inventing or refining that style. 

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?

Usually, a poem begins with language. Even when I’m doing more conceptual or procedural work, where else to begin but with language? I mean only that some line will occur to me, and it’s my pleasure (someone else might suggest “duty”), as a poet, to pursue where that line might go. As a student and a lover of books, I think in terms of “books.” But thinking in terms of books doesn’t help me write, and the question of whether or not this is a book (which seems like a question of quality, ultimately — is this good enough to be in book?) certainly doesn’t help at the very beginning, when there are still so many unknowns (e.g. will I care about this project next week? will someone else publish a book in this vein, freeing me from the obligation of doing so?).

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

Readings were very helpful to the process of writing Snail Poems, which sought a perhaps ridiculous intimacy with those little creatures, snails. I’m 6’3” (6’4”?), and it’s something to see a tall guy address a tiny thing with compassion, interest, reverence, and whatever else these poems might offer. I’ve learned a lot from other poets’ readings — NourebeSe Philips, Brandon Brown, Lucas De Lima, among them — so maybe someone will learn something about my poems by hearing me read them as well. But also: Lauren Levin and I went on tour with our first books a couple days following the 2016 election. Reading our books at that time was its own experience, related to but distinct from our books circulating in the world as such. Lauren read parts of their book The Braid and pronounced the aftertaste of Reagan’s legacy as it exists in our mouths today (foul!). Often there were tears, quickening heartbeats, red faces during these readings. I didn’t enjoy these readings, but these reactions — as a index of what is possible for poetry — became part of the stakes of writing. I think about those nights when I sit down to do my poems, yes.

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?

Thank you for this very modest question. Oh my. Well, one of the questions I have for my own practice is what to do with the tension between the local and the not-local. What is the “not-local,” for example? Being a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, I think about the tension between Oakland and SF, between Oakland and Berkeley, between the Oakland I experience and the Oakland I do not. Also, how has the internet made local concerns more or less important? How do current debates about poetry get reflected or manifested within local contexts? How does the local show up in my work and the work of my peers? The Bay Area has a long history of resplendent and/or avant-garde and/or socially-engaged writing. As the resources that supported the poets and poetry within those traditions change, how will it change how we relate to our writing and one another and the political horizons of our work? I have lamented, that with the closure of Oakland’s small press Timeless Infinite Light, the Bay Area no longer has a queer press. Presses that will publish queer writers, sure, but...

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?

The medium of poetry is language. Poets use language as a tool. This tool can do many things. It does many things imperfectly. Language is one of the tools we have. Language is a tool we have. It is a tool we have had to have. Are there limits to what we can do with it? Does it matter that our enemies also use this tool? What is the price of language?

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

For Snail Poems, I was lucky to work with fellow poets on revisions for the book, the editors of Krupskaya: Brandon Brown, Jocelyn Saidenberg, and Stephanie Young. We had some amazing conversations in the process of getting the book to print. I don’t remember any difficulties. The manuscript didn’t change all that much in the process of getting it to print. But transforming Snail Poems as a product of my singular endeavor to one of collaboration and mutual support — that was quite exciting and changed how I related to the book.

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

Revise while the poem is still fresh and the ink is still wet. I’m not a great editor of my own work once it’s been settled on the page for a while, so this one has been helpful for me.

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 always easy, but it’s necessary. As a graduate student who also writes poems (once a Master’s student, now a Ph.D. candidate), what choice does one have? I keep changing my approach to creative writing — and readers can see this across the different sections of Snail Poems — in part because of the difficulty involved. It’s attractive to me. I don’t think the different forms are necessarily this accumulating display of mastery so much as different turns of a kaleidoscope, magnifying and distorting different elements within the matrix of whatever I’m working on.

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 wish.

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

I just keep reading and reading. I’ve got a hunger for finding new poets with deep catalogues. I don’t really get “writer’s block,” but that’s partially because I think the writing has to come with a genuine sense of urgency. By working on a few different writing projects at the same time, there’s almost always something I can turn to, given that I have the time to do so. I’ll also add that my most fledgling poetry project uses a voice and a form that I can turn to without much fuss. The casual voice, long lines, and more direct talk about my life afford me enough constraint and enough liberty to turn to that mode easily.

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?

Pop music, totally. I like to listen to one pop song for hours at a time and trance out a bit. Today I’ve been listening to Robyn’s “Honey.”

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

The work of my peers and my heroes. Not surprisingly, the work of New Narrative writers has been a great inspiration to me. Someone once said that Snail Poems is a kind of New Narrative book, which tickled me. I didn’t know much about New Narrative when I wrote it, other than Kevin Killian is very generous, Dodie Bellamy is a great writer, and Robert Glück looks hot in these author photos. In general, as with pop music, I gravitate to the work of women and people who don’t identify as men. Maybe it has something to do with being gay. Maybe it has something to do with my family life. I also point to an interest in my “peers,” because, as I said, I’m interested in how other folks are reflecting on the conditions of the Bay Area in their writing.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a few different manuscripts. One manuscript, currently titled Don’t Leave Me This Way, uses archival materials related to Gaétan Dugas and Randy Shilts to reanimate the AIDS epidemic in terms of the Shilts’s fraudulent story of “Patient Zero.” It’s sexy procedural poetry that’s informed by Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups, Wendy S. Walter’s Troy, Michigan, NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, among many other women writers. (Here’s an excerpt, published by baest). There’s a second poetry manuscript, Minor Work, that’s been coming together as well, focused on cats and domesticity. (Here’s the title poem published by The Believer, and two more from New Life Quarterly.) Most recently I’ve taken up prose, writing what I’m calling a “shadow dissertation,” a novel/memoir called Glen Coco, after that most celebrated character from Tina Fey’s Mean Girls. My dissertation takes a scholarly long view on New Narrative writing, but what if I wrote a New Narrative “novel”? What would that look like? I was very lucky to have a couple of pieces published locally, including by Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian’s Mirage #5.

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