Ian Dreiblatt is a poet, translator, trail mix assembler, and mixtape technician. His book forget thee is available now from ugly duckling presse, and wherever fine literature is sold. His translation of Dmitrii Furman’s Spiral is forthcoming from Verso Books. He is TV Commercials Correspondent for The Believer and spends his spare time seeking out orange-vanilla seltzer in cans and living 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?
wait, how is this one question? my first chapbook did not change my life really!, tho it made me happy to see it published and each publication feels, on some level, like an encouragement to continue pretending to my own legitimacy as an artist and thinker. my most recent work is different from a lot of my stuff — it has a kind of narrative, even characters and settings — while still I think sounding, as they say, like me.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry very young. I still don’t really understand what rhyme is, but when I was a kid I think it drew me in, the way there was rhythm and things snapped into place. like construx, or something. remember those? but I don’t know. I’m into language and into languages, and of the art forms made of language I guess I feel poetry is sort of “freest,” for me, in its relation to how we think, talk, remember, forget, and live.
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’m pretty slow. I wouldn’t say my work comes out of copious notes but I edit intensivishly. maybe it’s like a video of people surfing?, wanting a finished composition that makes sense and reflects contemplation and formal thinking, but also has some of the exhilarating energy of the present tense.
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?
I work both ways. a poem begins anywhere one can speak of.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
yes! the absence of readings is one of many things that have made the past year such a fartfest. the way you can feel language bouncing off people and get a sense of how the work is sounding and landing is crucial to me. also I, like Michelangelo, am something of a party dude — I mean I like the vibe of hanging around festively after a reading, but I also really value the very old-fashioned notion that poetry offers a kind of glass thru which we can refract our social energies and hopefully experience in different, clearer ways the frequencies that constitute them.
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?
o my god, I hope my work is not trying to answer any questions, I don’t think it’s remotely equipped to do that. I am unfailingly bewildered by life. but theoretical concerns, for sure. I’m deeply fascinated by mechanics of language — etymologies, the profound differences among languages and idiolects, the tension between writing and speaking (one of the major concerns of my book), the misty pragmatics that make it possible against all odds to communicate, the profoundly weird fact that it is possible to think. my writing tries to keep pace with a whole cascade of questions, about justice, about transcendence, about other writing that it’s engaged with. I don’t really know whether these are theoretical concerns tho!
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 attend to language and to make trouble.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find it wonderful. the editors of my book, Daniel Owen and Lee Norton, rescued it from a thousand obscurities and provided an invaluable meadow in which we could sit, sipping jolt cola & shooting the shit with the manuscript.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“take it easy but take it.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
within individual projects I write with a lot of focus, but I also enjoy meandering among a few modes: original poetry, original prose, and translations (mostly from the russian and various ancient afroasiatic languages). when I write original prose, it tends to spill out pretty readily — I as a columnnist at the believer, I have a fucking blast as the “tv commercials correspondent,” somehow. (the pandemic has severely waylaid this writing but more of it’s coming atcha soon!) in critical essays, too, I find a sort of logic generally declares itself, and that it’s usually fun and not too difficult to hold the whole piece to the standards of that logic. translation is a whole nother bowl of beans: in some ways, it’s just writing (people can be hesitant to realize that if e.g. they don’t know french they’ve never read a word Proust wrote), but it can also feel like a kind of game (like, sometimes it’s like doing a crossword puzzle, which I also love a lot). the dynamics of freedom one feels in translating literature are very different — you can’t just say whatever you want, but you are totally liberated from having to figure out what you want to say. in poetry, the clocks become a forest — I think the defining characteristic of poetry may be its hypersensitive relationship to time — and the air unclenches; there’s so much freedom of movement, gesture, sequence, resemblance, and connection. so I write and enjoy writing all three but I definitely feel different about each of them. as for what I see as the appeal, I dunno, I love pears but sometimes you want an orange? I love oranges and sometimes want a pear. life et cetera.
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?
no real routine. I definitely work much better late at night — sometimes I’ll sit down to try and get something out, and from 7pm to midnight it’s just like hauling stones uphill, slow, taxing, a little fraught. and then something kicks in — fuck if I know what — right at midnight, and from twelve to four or whenever I feel fascinated and spry and electric and can get a huge amount of work done. by the morning it feels like a dream. always been this way, dunno why. a typical day begins me with looking at the big pine tree on the other side of the window I sleep next to. what a cutie. am also very big on coffee, but usually not first thing.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I write letters to friends. (I happen to be friends mostly with beautiful geniuses, lucky me.) it jostles the language and gets things flowing again.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
burnt wooden watches. also give it up for petrichor, am i right.
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 mean, of course! I don’t know whether “life” counts as an answer here (if “science” does, it should!). music oh absolutely, in too many forms to list. (for the past six months, just about every day I’ve put on mahlalela, an unoverplayable tune from the 70s by Hugh Masekela and Letta Mbulu. it will not fucking quit, and while I could hardly claim to be making work too closely connected to it, I feel like I’m learning something about time and simultaneity and feeling on every single listen. poetry and music are directly comparable in some ways and I’m deeply influenced by all kinds of stuff. like I say above, I’m also profoundly fascinated and indeed influenced by what, for lack of a less stuffy word, I guess I’d call philology, or language science, which I follow the clueless buoyancy of a true amateur. I love movies and some of them have influenced me; a particularly intense influence on my new book is the late-soviet science fiction movie kin-dza-dza!, ony of my very favorite works of art in any medium. I spent the early days of the quar evangelizing for it as necessary lockdown amusement to any- and everyone I know. social thought, too, especially the two-hundred-or-so-year-old conversation about how we can smash racial capitalism and build hearths of the wreckage. that project has never been more urgent.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
uh oh here we go. those who know me well know that the bible — the jewish bible in particular but not exclusively — is a favorite text of mine to revisit, transfigure, contemplate, rant about. Osip Mandelstam. Gertrude Stein. Louis Zukofsky. I have been working for a long time on a critical essay considering the work of the poet Asiya Wadud — it’s almost done and her writing, which has continued emerging in the time I’ve been writing, has only deepened for me in its vitality and fascination. one of my heroes is Mark Nowak — a great writer and also a lodestar in demonstrating how one’s writing and one’s political commitments can be comrades. another writer whose thinking along those lines in particular I admire deeply is Marie Buck. thruout the quar I’ve been meeting every other week for a long zoom hang with my friend Eugene Lim, whose weird novels are obliquely luminous and frankly indispensable; our long talks (we call them “podcasts” but we two are the only listeners) have become a touchstone and deeply impacted how I think about writing (even tho we hardly talk about writing at all, it lumbers around the unspoken margins). my partner Anna Gurton-Wachter is an incredible writer and just totally the best; she and her writing are both indispensable to my working and living. and too many other people to even hope to name, honestly. I cannot possibly leave out Nathan Austin, MC Hyland, Adjua Greaves, Alex Cuff, Thom Donovan, Cam Scott… I’m positive I’m still leaving out a huge number of people. I am really into writing and writers.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
ride the trans-siberian railway, meet Clark Coolidge, learn every language, permanently end capitalism and build hearths of the wreckage
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?
this question sort of positions “writer” as an “occupation,” which is pretty funny. I sometimes think I would be great at running a small, eccentric diner, and like many people I feel periodic bursts of regret that I never became a professional friend of dogs / walruses / gorillas / other dogs.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I do not agree that writing exists in opposition to doing something else. like all writers, I do a lot of things.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
the last great book I read was slipping, by Mohamed Kheir and translated from arabic by Robin Moger. I loved it so much I blurbed it, declaring that it “shows us that the living and the dead haunt each other equally—every city a necropolis, every song one of mourning—through a music suffused with the feeling of ‘all the singing I’d ever known run together in one moment,’” and calling it “a crushing and deeply political lament, with a many-angled architecture that recalls Gonçalo Tavares, and the deepest feel for gauzy intersubjectivity this side of Mulholland Drive.” ha ha, shut up, me! but ok. the last great movie I (re-)watched was Juzo Itami’s tampopo, a ramen western that’s sort of about food and sort of about movies and certainly about a tender-hearted cowboy helping a sweet widow turn things around at her hapless ramenya and ultimately, I think, about how to live with pleasure. I also really enjoyed Andrei Konchalovsky’s dear comrades!, a powerful depiction of the novocherkassk massacre of 1962 with an unreal performance by Yuliya Vysotskaya. (I also recently watched prometheus and alien covenant and they felt like some kind of weirdly drab punishment. why the fuck don’t these people wear spacesuits when venturing onto an actual murder planet?)
20 - What are you currently working on?
couple things. for my tv commercials column, I’m working on something that involves MF Doom, one of my absolute heroes, whose death last year I’m still struggling to make sense of. I’m putting the finishing edits on a translation of a book called Spiral, a look by the social scientist Dmitrii Furman at the uses of democratic rhetoric to suppress actual democratic movements in post-soviet russia, forthcoming from verso books. and I’m working on poems, what I hope will have enough surface tension to be a new collection, tho I don’t want to say too much about them yet.