An Interview with Jason Koo
Jason Koo was born in New York City and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He earned his BA in English from Yale, his MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston, and his PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri-Columbia. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, he has published his poetry and prose in numerous journals, including The Yale Review, North American Review and The Missouri Review. He currently lives in New York, where he teaches at NYU and Lehman College and serves as Poetry Editor of Low Rent.
In December 2009 and January 2010, he was interviewed by Bookslut over e-mail about his debut poetry collection, Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009). They discussed, among other things, why lunch is sad, the desire to be fed intravenously, the “No Feelings/No Chocolate Chips in Poems” memo, competing with Rachel McAdams, the lameness of “Hi, Koo,” pantoums with Gunny Scarfo, Leigh Stein’s Frenchness, and why it may or may not be seven years until you see another book by Jason Koo.
Hi, Jason. Let me start off by talking about how I found you. One of the first poems I read was “I’m Charlie Tuna” in North American Review. I read it and was frozen in my tracks at this passage:
I’ll be sitting at home, eating a tuna salad sandwich,
when the awareness kicks in: Well this is a little sad.
The 2 PM light, weak through the trees, the crooked
cloth napkin on my lap, crusted stains in the creases:
I’ve had the same experience. Not to steal your thunder, but the SAME experience. I remember it so specifically -- looking at the sandwich (egg salad in my case) and feeling this wave of deep sadness and near despair come over me, and then the sandwich feeling so small in my hand and me feeling suddenly so ashamed and wanting to be rid of it, like not wanting it to be associated with, as they say in Catalan, “el tu”: the you, your being, who you are, all the things that make you up. I relayed this feeling (which I’m sure is some sort of phenomenon being researched and written about as I’m typing this) to my friend, who said she loves that I had such a moment and recalled it so vividly and, even more than that, likes that I have the sandwich as a perfect objective-correlative now. Then she asked me, “What is so sad about those situations, I wonder. Is it the mayo? The choppedness of the eggs/tuna? Is the sandwich an inherently depressing food delivery system?” My answer: No clue. What’s yours?
It’s funny, I’ve never thought of food as a source of inspiration for my poems, but lately everyone has been pointing this out to me, as if I were obsessed with eating. I have a lot of obsessions, but eating is not one of them. I hate lunch -- it’s such an interruption to the day. Since I like to write in the mornings, the onset of the lunch hour, or what I’d like to call the lunch anxiety, is so annoying, because it means I have to stop writing and feed myself and take a shower and generally get on with my day. I have to take off my pajama pants. Flaubert wrote all day and night and I’m sure never took off his pajama pants. I don’t appreciate having to feed myself in the middle of the day in order to keep my consciousness going at a high level. But anyway, to answer your question: the sandwich itself, whether tuna or egg salad, is not inherently depressing; it is the act of eating lunch alone in your apartment that is depressing. Breakfast is eaten in the morning, when the light is purer, fresher; it’s usually eaten in a rush, or with only a groggy consciousness of what’s going on, so you don’t have time to get depressed. And since it’s the morning, you’re aware that other people are most likely also eating at home, or groggy, or sleeping, so you don’t feel like a loser. Lunch is different. The light is louder, more intrusive; you see all the dust in your apartment, the stray hairs, the cat fuzz (if you have a cat). The volume of the world outside your window is oppressive: you feel everyone out there, out there. But here you are inside, chomping on some chips. Lunch is the perfect acoustic for your solitude: in this state, at this hour, you can hear just how little you matter. When I wrote “I’m Charlie Tuna” I was living in Columbia, MO and eating tuna fish sandwiches with barbecue chips and a pickle almost every day -- to save money, presumably. Lunch for me has always been just a meal to get through, so at different stages of my life I’ve hooked on to things that I liked and could bear eating repeatedly -- until I couldn’t. Before I got to tuna fish sandwiches I went through phases where I was eating shit like Hot Pockets and bologna sandwiches. Recently I went through a Trader Joe’s chicken burritos phase -- until I couldn’t stand heating those frozen fuckers up anymore and moved on to their Thai noodle boxes.
But New York makes lunch more bearable; there are so many great little food stands around and cheap places to eat, and everyone is right there with you, chomping along. But Columbia, MO -- that is a veritable purgatory of lunching. I’d sit in my cramped one-bedroom apartment looking out the window at the dead light on an oak tree, at the traffic on the street beyond that, at the First National Bank parking lot beyond that, at the Wal-Mart beyond that, at the mall, the motels, the highway, and I’d think, I’m supposed to be an inclusive, Whitmanian poet? Because at the time, I thought of myself this way: I wanted to write a super-generous and generative and wildly inclusive poetry, a la Whitman and the American Romantics: Crane, Stevens, Ashbery, Ammons. But the chomping on those barbecue chips and the orange on my fingers would not let me believe this: all that said was that I was contained. The drama of that poem and, in some sense, my whole first book involves how to wriggle free of that feeling of containment -- how to smite it and feel open and alive.
I didn’t get the sense at all that the narrator in this book -- or you, hell, you’re the one who said it -- is obsessed with food, as in liking it too much. In “There Is No There, There” you start out:
It’s a day you feel like dying
And you stop at McDonald’s
on the long drive home
for what could be your last meal.
Although food isn’t intrinsically depressing, when you’re down or lonely, the thought of eating is super depressing -- there’s all that stabbing and chewing that needs to be done and all those lonely crunch noises. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed thinking about eating (what to eat, when to eat it, how to make it) I start mumbling my lunchtime mantra: “I wish I were on an IV. I just wish I were on an IV.” And then my husband’s like, “Can you… maybe… stop saying that?” But I loved how the poems captured that. The grind that can be what we call “eating.” The (as Major Jackson said about these poems) “inner malaise that permeates modernity.”
Well, now I can say I’ve had the same experience as you, because I’ve had that same desire to be on an IV. This is blatantly disrespectful to people who are actually on an IV, but there it is. And I can just imagine Tom Colicchio from Top Chef regarding me with that wonderful look of amused disbelief on his face, as if to say, What? An IV? When there’s all this amazing food to be eaten? Don’t get me wrong, I love dinner, I love the ritual of cooking and opening a bottle of wine and talking and sharing and relaxing. But I usually eat dinner after eight, when my work day is done. Before that there is so much to be done that eating just gets in the way. And you are right about the chomping and grinding: when you’re eating just to feed yourself, to put some food in your stomach, as during lunch, you get reduced to something sub-human and pathetic. You can see this most clearly in airports, where so many people are traveling alone and needing to put whatever they can into their stomachs at whatever price before they board their plane. They’re just sitting there, dumbfounded by their chewing. There’s nothing more tragic and hilarious than watching people eating alone in public places. Especially big fat burritos, anything with lots of sour cream in it or drip potential. I love the word “masticating” because it really captures the tragicomic nature of this act -- it sounds like you’re doing something violent and masturbating at the same time, which you are.
So, when I was reading your book, I kept singing that Lou Bega “Mambo #5” song in my head:
A little bit of Monica in my life,
A little bit of Erica by my side,
A little bit of Rita’s what I need,
A little bit of Tina’s what I see.
Sorry. That’s a terrible reference. I never should have admitted that. But there are so many girls, so many names of girls, and so much love. You even tie food and love together in “Self-Montage with Noodles”:
He would glance at her longer
than necessary, lingering
in his hello, thinking to say, So you like noodles
this is where it started for him, on the stairs, perhaps
he wanted her from the beginning and love was longer
consideration of that desire, opened by his wife and neighbor
fucking, sounds he imagined like slurped noodles, […]
Who said it couldn’t be done? You cover all the love bases -- romantic, sexual, familial, even that Whitmanian love for community and America (e.g., baseball, Lindsay Lohan, Motel 6, Starbucks, BBQ chips, The Mirage). It’s unusual, almost old fashioned, in that way. Poems aren’t supposed to have feelings or chocolate chip cookies in them. Maybe you missed the memo that’s been circulating since 1989.
I think the memo’s been going around longer than that -- at least since the 1970s. But there any many poets who still write with what Keats called the “true voice of feeling”; and it’s funny, every time one of their books comes out, people have this stunned reaction, like they never knew poems could have that kind of effect on their emotional lives. Kim Addonizio’s Tell Me is a book I know many people love, but they always seem kind of embarrassed by it, as if that were like loving Titanic or something. And the lovers of this book who aren’t poets, they’re so sweetly tentative about their love, they get the sense that “real” poets would scoff at their emotional gullibility -- and yet, they swear by it, they’re willing to be made fun of for revealing the secret of their love because they’ve had an experience with this book, it’s spoken to them in some dark hour of despair. And there is a real power there. I wanted that for my own poems. I wanted to write the kind of book that people would turn to when they can barely move, when they’re stuffing themselves with white powdered donettes and watching The Notebook four times in a row -- I had a student who did this. He wrote about it in his notebook, saying he was in an “emotional coma” and only Rachel McAdams could help him. Well, I wanted to replace Rachel McAdams; I felt my poems should be able to do a better job of speaking to this guy’s pain. Or else why write? People talk about the ground that poetry has lost to prose over the last two centuries, but think about the ground it has lost to Rachel McAdams. If you can’t compete with her, how can you stand next to Rilke and Amichai and Dickinson and Levis, poets who speak to human beings in their bleakest state?
I used to want to write “happy” poems, cheerful, perceptual poems with humor in them -- like Billy Collins or the younger Kenneth Koch. The earlier incarnation of my first book was called Open Sky and contained poems about driving around making connections between things. I wanted the tone and verve of Stevens in “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” But then I fell in love with a woman who’s favorite book of poetry was Tell Me, and when I went through the dark times, Tell Me was what I was turning to most often. I realized there was a disconnect between the poems I was writing and the poems I depended on when I was in pain. But I didn’t want to start writing dark, despairing poems exclusively -- that wasn’t in my nature. I still valued humor because of the surprise and transport it gave you in poems; and most of what was happening to me in love was both awful and hilariously absurd. This combination is rarely captured in poetry; you only find it in poets like Dean Young and Mary Ruefle, or younger ones like Josh Bell or my friend Jason Bredle. And at this time these poets became very important to me.
Ooooh, I love Tell Me and Rachel McAdams and The Notebook (book and movie) and Jason Bredle’s poems and powdered donettes, though even more than the powdered ones, the ones dusted with cinnamon and sugar. As far as 1989, that’s about when I started writing poetry, so that’s when the memo was passed to me I should have said; it was circulating long before then, true, true. Most langpo = not so emo. It’s funny the distinction you mention above, the poems you were writing and the poems you depended on. I make a distinction about poems I lightly enjoy and poems I use. My husband is a painter and he’s always looking for the perfect music to paint to -- usually it sounds just a tiny bit more musical than TV static/a washing machine; it keeps his senses company, but it’s not so powerful that it would (perceptibly at least) work its way into the art. There are a lot of poems like that being created by contemporary poets (and poetry-generating computer programs). They’re cool and fun and have all these nonsequiturs and surprising turns. They’re my ambient noise. But the poems I go back to again, the ones I use almost as reference material, are the ones that give me a strong sense that a human mind is guiding the poem toward a purpose that resembles communication. How much does the work of those poets (Young, Addonizio, Bredle, Ruefle, Bell) inform your work now? What is your work now? And how long did you work on Man on Extremely Small Island?
I love that question, “What is your work now?” That should be a question I ask myself every day -- a question we should ask of each other every day. It’s beautiful and the most relevant question a human being can ask. Not “Are you happy?”, as I used to think; one’s happiness is largely a condition of one’s having real work to do. Since we’re making distinctions, let me bring up a distinction my old teacher John Hollander used to make between “labor” and “work.” “Labor,” he said, was something you did because you had to do it; it was onerous and draining and didn’t push you to evolve. But if you didn’t do it, you wouldn’t, you know, eat. “Work” involved your whole being; it might be something difficult and challenging and time-consuming, but you welcomed this because you felt your identity catalyzed by that pressure. In Hollander’s mind, you had to put up with all sorts of “labor” activities simply to get yourself in position to do your real “work”; so for him -- and for many writers -- the “labor” might come in the form of preparing syllabi and grading and attending faculty meetings and serving on committees, simply so that he could go on having the teaching job that allowed him enough time to do his “work”: reading and writing poetry. This example makes a fairly easy distinction between the “labor” of teaching and the “work” of writing; but what’s harder is separating “labor” and “work” in the business of writing itself.
Take my first book: it represents what I think of as my work, and each poem within it represents that work; but putting that book together was one mother of a labor-intensive process. The production of the book itself into a physical object was exasperating. C&R gave me total control over how the book turned out, which was great; but the downside was that I got almost no creative or editorial feedback. So I ended up having to make decisions about the width of the margins, the size and type of font for the poems, the poem titles, the page numbers, the first title page, the second title page, the epigraphs -- decisions I was not expecting to have to make. This might sound simple, but it’s not, especially if you’re not a professional designer; you don’t have a real idea of how things are going to look when they’re in book form. I had no idea that 12-pt Garamond -- which looks pretty small on an 8 ½ by 11-inch page -- looks huge on a 6 by 9-inch page. I wasn’t sure how to design my title pages, where to put the titles and name and how to big to make them. So there I was with a tape measure going through all my poetry books, comparing the designs and making these decisions on the fly. And when my manuscript went from Word to Adobe InDesign, all these little things got screwed up that normally get screwed up like the tabs for my indented lines that I’d spent hours setting when I prepared the manuscript for production (so they wouldn’t get screwed up). C&R’s designer was doing the best he could to make sure all the tabs were correct, but you can only stare at tabs for so long before you go crazy, and he only had weekends to work on the manuscript, so ultimately it was up to me to make sure everything came out right. Also, I didn’t have a proofreader; and honestly, could a proofreader even be expected to make sure all the tabs were correct for a poem like “2046 Love Songs of Wong Kar Wai”? That’s not in the proofreading manual. I went through so many rounds of corrections for the book before it was ready to be sent to the printer; and most of the time I wasn’t even looking at the words of the poems, I was checking tabs and margins with my tape measure. I think my girlfriend started to think she was dating a tailor. And my thought during all this time was: I’m not enjoying this. It wasn’t the work of poetry, even though I was preparing my first work of poetry. This was definitely labor, but clearly necessary labor if I wanted my book to look right.
So what I’m spending a ridiculously long time trying to say is, there is all this labor tucked inside of work, it is very difficult to separate the two. You can do all these things in service of your work that actually prevent you from doing your work. It took so much labor just to get my book accepted for publication. Years -- about seven in total -- of printing out poems and grouping them together and writing cover letters and putting stamps on envelopes and addressing the envelopes and sending the poems to journals and writing checks for book contests and hunting down little binder clips -- the other day I found this hoard of binder clips in my desk drawer and wondered what the hell they were for. All this was time that could have been spent working on new poems. You’ve got to slog through this if you want to bring your work into the world, if you want to get a job that can give you more time to write; but it is not the work of poetry, which for me remains the act of sitting in front of a page, trying to figure out how to turn words and sentences into lines, how to communicate something, as you say, to myself and to others. I’ve gone a long time without writing a poem -- much longer than usual -- because so much of my non-teaching time has been taken up lately by laboring over the book’s production. But I’ll be at the Vermont Studio Center in January and plan to get some new work done there. And what I’ll be asking myself is, What is your work now?
It’s funny, you wrote this long answer about the grind of publishing, and I just read this post by Justin Taylor on HTML Giant in which he discusses submitting work and what it even means to “publish” in this day and age. In any case, I’m glad you went through all of that trouble, if only to get the first line of every one of your poems into print. I have compiled a few of yours and sculpted them into poem form. I have also submitted this to The New Yorker without your consent. They should be contacting you soon with galleys.
SOME OF JASON KOO’S FIRST LINES
Today I’m thinking of all the people not in love: I’m with you!
You know you’re doing well
when the most tenderness you’ve felt in months
comes in the form of Lucy Liu
touching you on the back in a dream.
I think I must be sitting on the kneecap
of a giant woman […]
She emails me this
face in her new hat.
You can’t. And because you can’t, make sure
To watch the game alone.
When you came back, Casey was tearing up
the league in April. What a difference a year makes,
Rick Manning would say, last fall he couldn’t hit
dick with ducks on the pond, but this spring, dicks,
ducks, all go down quietly.
And now I’m watching Fair Game on HBO
growing excited at the prospect of seeing Cindy Crawford’s
Mail trucks are rumbling
Men are shoveling pizza slices into ovens
Effingham, IL, let’s just let it all out.
Sometimes you need to call a fucking ham
a fucking ham.
I actually read your entire book out loud. Is that weird? Whether it is or isn’t, I did. And in doing so, I noticed that the first line/stanza of each poem always seems to function as the anchor for the entire poem. I generally hate overly nosy crafty/process questions; it’s like with relationships -- mystery and under-analysis: Good. Absolute honesty at all costs and compulsive examination: Boo. But in this case, I can’t help myself. Are the first lines always the first ones you write? In other words, do the first lines always stay first or are they ever moved up from later stanzas during editing? What I guess I’m saying is it seems that an unusual amount of your attention is directed toward these first lines/stanzas -- not complaining, just noticing and admiring. If you tried to make a poem out of someone else’s first lines, you might find yourself crying a little. Or taking a nap.
Well, I’m sure this composite poem would get rejected by The New Yorker because they always reject my work. You should cut it down to about eight lines so it will fit in the two inches of space they leave for poetry. Maybe you should just submit “Sometimes you need to call a fucking ham / a fucking ham” and call it “Not An Effing Haiku.” Or just “Hi, Koo,” as my students are always saying to me, as if they’d discovered a joke no one ever used on me in high school.
Your instincts are right: many of the first lines and stanzas in the book were actually written first and the poems were born from the momentum they created. Only two of the examples you quoted were originally later lines that got moved up -- the kneecap line from “Man on Extremely Small Island” and the email line from “Cell" -- when friends saw that I could cut some lines in the beginning that were unnecessary set-up. But of course those first lines and stanzas I said “actually” came first didn’t always come first -- there were often ghosts of other lines and stanzas I tried out then erased. I try to find the entry into the poem that will afford the greatest possible movement and space for what I’m thinking of writing. Sometimes this comes quickly, sometimes I putter around for days, even weeks writing lines and stanzas before I get something that feels like an opening. Because the key, really, is not the first line: it’s the second one, and the third.
We should say “movements” instead of lines because I think more in terms of how sentences move through lines than I do by line. The second and third movement go back and forth in my mind as being the hardest of the whole poem; so much is being relinquished here, so many avenues of possibility given up with each line you write; and by the time you get to that third movement, you’re pretty much on a track. So, with that understood, you really need to pay attention to that opening -- it really has to be an opening, something that moves inevitably into something else that’s not going to close too soon. You want those second and third movements crouching in the first. But the nice thing about the opening is that you can keep scrapping it if it doesn’t work. You haven’t really begun anything yet if you write twenty first lines or stanzas in a week and none of them worked -- you haven’t touched the poem yet, it’s still waiting there in your head, a “constructing egg,” as Kenneth Koch says. But once you get that first line or stanza down that excites you, that gets that little hum inside you going, the poem has begun and you need to catch that wave of momentum with the second and third movements. This doesn’t need to be done all at once, in a flash -- I hate that idea -- but it needs to be done steadily, with precision and resolve and confidence, over a period of successive days or you will lose the poem. Of course by “you” I mean me because I have no idea if other poets have this problem. In fact, I think my process is pretty different from most poets because I write my poems very carefully over a period of days, totaling one or two weeks, sometimes more, rotating them in my head to see them from as many different angles as possible. I try to build any potential revisions into the composition process, as if I were pre-empting them. I only do this once I have that third movement down and feel like I’m safely inside the poem; from that point on, I’m confident about where I’m going and I just want to be sure I’m not missing any opportunities. Sometimes the poem will be done and I’ll sit there thinking of how it might be expanded or condensed, trying to stay inside the flow of the writing mind -- because once I’m out of that mind, it’s almost impossible to revise. When I was younger I lost some promising poems because I tried to write them all in one sitting -- this is the lyric model tied to the idea of lightning inspiration that I have come to hate because it makes you speed down the road with no time for the scenery. Lose the car, take a chopper! The chopper’s got a better chance of being hit by the lightning anyway. I realize this is a bad metaphor for me since so many of my poems take place in cars; and many of them were actually born in cars, the first lines or stanzas came to me on long road trips -- I can think of the Effingham poem, and “There Is No There, There,” which you quoted earlier, and “Anti-Odysseus.” Maybe I’ll just recommend that poets take long drives in their cars, only going a few miles above the speed limit.
I just got my NYer rejection not so long ago. It took so long for them to send it (maybe 180 + days?) that I was certain they were preparing the galleys and told everybody so. Certainly a delay like that could only mean: Serious Consideration. But, nope: Standard Rejection. I love your slow and steady wins the race idea. I think you're right in assuming not many other poets create that way. I too like to at least get an entire draft down at one sitting. But I started working on this collaboration with another poet this summer, and it occurred to me: I'm only putting down a couple lines a day, and yet, at the end of a week or two, I have a poem. This isn’t rocket science, but it was, for me, a huge revelation. I always feel silly to just put one or two lines down because there is that lack of trust that the momentum will continue. I think that's it's absolutely true when you use the word "confidence" above -- you need the confidence that the poem will continue to move and that that movement will, in the end, be meaningful. Speaking of collaborations, have you ever done any? Any plans to?
No, unless you count the pantoums I wrote on napkins with my friend Gunny Scarfo back in college -- I used to visit him at Columbia and we’d go to these diners late at night and bust out the pantoum, feeling pretty great about ourselves. Back then I was really attracted to the idea of collaboration, especially using funky forms like the pantoum where your collaborator had to react to the ridiculous lines that you wrote. So, after the first stanza (where we’d trade off lines), Gunny and I would trade off stanzas, meaning we’d always have to use the second and fourth lines from the other’s just-written stanza as our own first and third lines. Wow, it gives me a headache just to think about this. Anyway, I liked the idea of poetry as a conduit for creative friendship. This is why I was so attracted to poets like Hart Crane and Ashbery, Koch, Schuyler, O’Hara. But none of the collaborative poems I wrote ever turned out well -- at least I didn’t think so; maybe Gunny would disagree. I never felt that same spirit of discovery and excitement writing a poem with another person that I felt when writing poems by myself. This was really disappointing, I have to say, because I expected that writing poems with friends would be this amazing experience. I also thought I would be good at it, with all of my schooling in the “New York School”; but I wasn’t, I sucked. The more I tried to come up with inventive, witty lines to throw back at Gunny, the more I wrote dull crap. I guess I just don’t have a process that responds well to this kind of creative give-and-take, which, again, sucks, because I feel a little left out when my friend Marc McKee tells me about his long email-poem exchanges with Jason Bredle, or when I look at A Pocket-Sized Map of My Heart, the collaborative chapbook by Bredle and Leigh Stein, another friend of mine. It’d be so much fun to do something like this with any of these poets, but I worry that they’d stop being my friend once they caught wind of the shit that I was sending them. How could you ask me this question? Didn’t you read the title of my book?!
Right: Man on Extremely Small Island. But that title doesn’t mean that there are no other people on that island with you. There could be hundreds of extremely, extremely small people on that extremely small island with you. Speaking of titles, when you’re working in Vermont on whatever your “work” will be when you’re there, can you, for me, tentatively title it Gunny Scarfo Back in College?
I can’t believe you can’t collaborate well, even with your good bud Gunny Scarfo. Your poems feel like a big old party. Even the quieter ones feel so social to me. I don’t believe that you can’t. I’m sure you can. Maybe it’s good but just feels bad? Which, I guess, may mean it is bad. Or at least the process is bad for you. What do I know?
I’ll tell you what I know: I just wrote about Leigh Stein in an interview I’m doing with Nate Pritts, about how amazingly talented she is and how I just was reading her chap. Also my friend Kathleen saw Leigh at a New Year’s Eve party, and I was so jealous and I wrote to Kathleen, “I love Leigh’s work! And she looks so French. Is she?” And Kathleen writes, “Scottish and Irish, she says.” And I wrote back, “I’m not sure why she’s denying her French peoples, because she’s so clearly, clearly French.” And Kathleen writes back: “TOTES.”
Will you tell Leigh she can come out of the closet (or armoire) and bring the baguettes with her? We’ll love her even if she’s French. We’d love her if she were a monkey. And also can you keep writing awesome books? And one more thing: Maybe not wait seven years until you publish the next one? I realize it takes what it takes. But maybe, for me and other anxiously awaiting readers, you can step on it a little; what do you say?
Okay, I am not sure I would love Leigh if she were a monkey. That is just gross. Maybe if she were a llama. Someone at lunch told me today about a cartoon she recently saw in The New Yorker that had one llama saying to another, I llove you. That’s a Leigh Stein moment.
I’ve never really thought about her Frenchness before, but I know what you mean, she has that look and sensibility like she belongs in a French New Wave film from the '60s. Truffaut would have made her a star. Now, who could do it? Wes Anderson? I can see in her The Fantastic Mr. Fox. She could be a fox. Let’s not quote that last line out of context. I might get in trouble.
I like the idea of hundreds of extremely, extremely small people on my island with me. Although maybe Swift would say he has a copyright on this. I also like that you say my poems feel like a “big old party,” even the quieter ones. I’ve never been conscious of this, but I’m definitely attracted to the idea of a poem being both garrulous and inward at the same time. I love James Schuyler’s description of Mayakovsky’s poetry as an “intimate yell.” That is one of the most beautiful descriptions of anybody’s poetry; it makes you understand in a heartbeat the magic of Mayakovsky’s voice and love, love, love James Schuyler’s mind. Two really neglected poets, for different reasons. They’re both on the island with me, though Mayakovsky is not at all happy with being extremely small.
As for the seven-year wait: it’s not up to me! I would love to have published my first book years ago. Then again, it wouldn’t have been as good; well, it’s hard to know how “good” it is, really, but it definitely would have been different, not as full of epic heartbreak. It would have been nice to have published a different kind of first book when I was younger. I have a couple of long poems -- one a letter-poem to James Schuyler -- that I still like a lot but could only have been published before this book. They got pushed out of this book as years passed and newer, darker poems moved in. This is not at all the first book I imagined publishing. Who knows how long it will be before my second comes out? It might take longer than seven years, what with the way I write and the changes taking place in publishing. Sorry to depress you. I’m actually already in Vermont -- this interview has bled into Vermont! -- and just finished my first post-book poem. It felt weird to write it, because I was conscious of writing a poem for the first time in a long time without a book in mind. It’s called “Sent Dad a Golf Trunk Organizer” -- sorry, Gunny -- and is about how little I’ve actually accomplished and how I keep making these stupid lists in my notebook to create a feeling of accomplishment. When I sat down to generate some ideas on the first day here, the phrase “Sent dad a golf trunk organizer” was the most interesting thing I found in my notebook over the past three months. So yeah, I need to get down to work. To “step on it a little,” as you say. I need to make myself interesting again.
Elizabeth Hildreth lives in Chicago and works as an instructional designer.