An Interview with Reb Livingston
Reb Livingston is the author of God Damsel (No Tell Books, 2010), Your Ten Favorite Words (Coconut Books, 2007) and co-editor of The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel anthology series. She’s the editor of No Tell Motel and publisher of No Tell Books. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and son.
In September 2010, she was interviewed by Elizabeth Hildreth over e-mail about her poetry collection God Damsel. They discuss, among other things, Sumerian scriptures, the story of Damsel and all her other parts, Reb’s wacky little baby, medical benefits for subjugation, tree vaginas, poetry as a gift economy, and psychic plungers.
God Damsel, Reb, it took me a long time to finally start this interview. Your new book is called God Damsel. I contacted you a while ago about doing an English-to-English translation of one of your poems and you said that the poems in God Damsel were actually translations of a sort. Can you explain how you started working on God Damsel and what the poems were inspired by?
As clichéd at it might sound, I was experiencing an ongoing depression and was attempting to write my way through it. I was reading a lot of spiritual texts and prayers, some on the recommendation of my friend and poet, Jill Alexander Essbaum, and honestly, none of them were doing it for me. So I started rewriting them, sort of. Many of these texts, Sumerian scriptures, Christian prophecies, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, etc., were already translations so I translated the translations. I use the term “translated” very loosely, I slowly worked through the texts replacing 99% of the words and keeping, for the most part, the rhythm and structure. This was an intuitive process, I didn’t consciously think much about how I was translating these texts, whatever came out, came out. To be perfectly blunt, I channeled these poems from someplace either completely outside or hidden very deep inside myself. I’m not sure which. Or maybe the answer is both, same thing. The next day or week when I’d go back to a poem to edit, I almost never remembered what I wrote. The editing process was where all the conscious decisions happened. I’m not claiming to have blacked out and I certainly didn’t use alcohol or drugs while writing. I always had a very clear memory of writing, just not of what.
I thought it was so funny because I sent my translation back to you, and you were like, "You totally get me!" or something of the sort. I was so happy, but at the same time I was thinking, "Oh my God, really? Because I have no idea what the hell you're talking about, Reb." I felt like my daughter when we go to Chinatown and she's listening to people talk and then walks up to strangers, yelling, "Chung Pao! Yao! Mee Kee Gai Po Pan!" I'm always like, “Oh boy, here we go. We're gonna get punched.” Is this manuscript guided mainly by sound? To me there was a story weaving through, though one I couldn't necessarily describe. Tom Beckett described God Damsel as “a fractured, fractious and funny allegory, which just might get biblical on your ass.”
I was thrilled by your translation of my translation of a translation. Punching you never crossed my mind and I’m betting your daughter walking through Chinatown is picking up on a lot more than you’re giving her credit. If I had to guess, you too, in some way, translated/wrote intuitively, but afterward your questioned yourself because it didn’t make “logical” sense. When I started writing these poems, I had no “story” or themes in mind. I just wrote. It wasn’t until over half of the poems were written that I started to recognize that there was indeed a story, a much more interesting and perceptive story than I ever could have thought up if I was writing with my thinking cap. Sound certainly is a big part of these poems, but I don’t consider it the guiding force. From my vantage, it’s the story of Damsel and all her other parts clashing together.
I asked Tom Beckett to blurb God Damsel because of the thoughtful review he gave of my first book, Your Ten Favorite Words. He was one of the first men to recognize what I was trying to do. I will forever appreciate the consideration he’s given my work. What sometimes happens at readings when I read from these books is that people come up and say, “hey, I really like those sex poems!” which basically makes me want to cry. On one hand, I’m glad people like the poems and everyone brings his own reading to a poem, but it kills me when they’re reduced to “sex poems.” The ones that people seem to find the “sexiest” are really sad and painful. Even the funny ones, especially the funny ones.
This book is pretty large for a book of poetry. How long did it take you to write this and what was your process? How did it differ from writing Your Ten Favorite Words?
God Damsel took me about two and half years to write and about six months of editing. My process for Your Ten Favorite Words was different in a lot of ways. I was much more conscious during the writing process. Some of those poems were triggered by lines in other poet’s poems or blog posts. Others were based on ideas, thoughts or feelings that I knew I was experiencing. There was no mystery to me where any of the poems came from.
I thought it was interesting that No Tell Books published this book. I felt when reading this book, “This is Reb's baby, Reb's out-of-bounds baby." What drove your decision to self-publish?
I was quite happy with the work Bruce Covey at Coconut Books did on Your Ten Favorite Words and Bruce wanted to publish God Damsel. There were some hurt feelings that needed to be smoothed over when I informed him that I’d be putting the book out myself, but... you’re right, God Damsel is my wacky little baby and I wanted complete control. I figured that over 80% of the poems were already published in magazines and rarely doesn’t a week goes by where someone asks me to publish his book, so I could do it justice. The book was ready and I know how to put together good books (says everybody who wants me to publish theirs). So why not? I have no interest in an academic career, no need to jumps through inane hoops to prove my legitimacy to a hiring committee. I’m an artist and I do whatever I see fit with my art. If I wanted to be beholden to a bunch of inane rules designed to keep me in check, I’d re-enter the corporate workforce where at least I’d earn a salary and medical benefits for my subjugation.
Can you talk about the artwork on the front of the book? It's a giant collage and... I'm at a loss to even describe it, but let's just say it seems like a perfect fit with the language and tone of the book. Who did it? What made you choose it or the artist to work with?
Mary Behm-Steinberg did the cover art and the illustrations inside. At an AWP, she gave me two beautiful and creepy chapbooks she designed for Macahu Press. As soon as I saw them, I asked her to design God Damsel (which wasn’t even finished at the time). When Mary first sent the cover design, I thought, oh my god, no fucking way (especially considering the tree vagina with the snake, which isn’t nearly as obvious in physical book form since that part is on the spine). I thought about the cover for a few days. Why did I have that reaction? What was really unnerving me? Then it clicked: my mother totally wouldn’t approve. The raw feminine sexuality would repulse her. That’s when I knew this was definitely supposed to be the cover.
I was talking to Kim Gek Lin Short, telling her that I owed you an interview and I felt so bad about taking so long, and she said, "Yeah, it would be nice for you to do it. Reb does so much for so many people." So every month that would pass, I would hear Kim in my mind, "Reb does so much for so many people." Argh. Bad interviewer! You really do though. How did you start No Tell Motel and how do you balance press stuff and your own writing? And your family!? Or does one feed into the other?
That’s very sweet of Kim to say. I read with her and Hugh Behm-Steinberg in Philadelphia this past summer. Beforehand she held a gathering at her home. She and for that matter, Hugh, are poets who do things for other poets. They’re my kind of poets.
Yes, every week I feature a new poet at No Tell Motel, publish 1-2 poetry titles a year at No Tell Books and write about poems and poetry a couple times a month at the literary blog We Who Are About to Die. I try to help promote No Tell poets at the No Tells blog and Twitter. Over the summer I was the Sunday Poetry Editor at The Best American Poetry blog. I used to co-curate a DC-based reading series with Carly Sachs. Once upon a time I wrote poetry articles for The Happy Booker. I have done a lot for a number of poets and will continue to do so. I don’t feel any need to downplay my contributions out of a sense of insincere modesty. I spend a great time of time, energy and even money doing this. I believe poetry is a gift economy and to keep that economy moving along, those who participate need to contribute in some way in addition to attempting to reap the benefits (as paltry as they may seem). I say this not as an attempt to make anyone feel guilty for not doing enough or anything at all, but to point out that without poets donning second, third and fourth hats as editors, publishers, reviewers, interviewers, curators, hosts, etc., we’d all be limited to reading our poems to ourselves in the bathroom mirror.
That said, you bring up balance and that’s also a very good point. Since it’s a considerably smaller percentage of poets who bother to give to this poetry economy than those who participate in the “publish me” aspect, there’s always the potential for the poets who give (more than their own poems) to be seen by the other poets as those who exist primarily to serve them. I’ve honestly had poets tell me that they don’t think of me as a POET, but as a publisher and I’ve certainly felt that way -- I’ve allowed it make me feel bitter and unappreciated. That’s my fault for putting myself in such a position. I am a one person press (by choice, something I do not want to change) and it was positively stupid of me to publish five titles a year for two years straight when I first started out. Now I publish 1-2 titles a year and that’s much more manageable. Instead of reading submissions for No Tell Motel year round, I only read 1-2 months a year. I co-hosted a monthly reading series in DC for two years (during the time I was publishing five titles a year). Sometimes it was really difficult to figure out daycare and it took me over an hour to drive into the city. When my co-host, Carly Sachs, moved to NYC I held the readings we already had scheduled and then I stopped. Some people were upset with me, they wanted me to go on and on without any thought to the toll it was taking on me. I could go on about thoughtless poets who just want me to do everything, but if I allowed that to happen, it would be my fault. I have control over what I do and don’t do, not anyone else. I find it incredibly easy to overextend myself. I believe we all have a lot more control over balance than we take responsibility for. I also think it’s important for people to give to charities, but unless you’re incredibly wealthy, I don’t think it’s smart to give away 90% of your salary because how are you going to eat and where are you going to live? If your contributions prevent you from taking care of yourself and your family, you’re no saint in my book, you’re an asshole. For a while I was treading kind of deep into asshole territory deluding myself that it was for some greater good that I allowed myself to be mentally, physically and psychically destroyed. I don’t do that anymore. These days I turn down a lot of opportunities and projects. Some people understand. Other are incredulous.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that many of the opportunities I have today are, in some part, due to my own contributions. Many people who know of me, know me from No Tell, the Burlesque Poetry Hour or some other project I worked on. Doing work for others certainly opens doors. It hasn’t been anywhere near an “equal” amount if measured against what I’ve done, yet it’s a lot more than if I did nothing. Besides, the key word is gift. When we give gifts, we’re not supposed to keep track, compare the costs or expect something in return. That’s not the point. When I get into one of my I cook and I clean and what do I get? moods, I remind myself of that.
Okay, before we go, tell us what you’re working on right now.
No Tell Books recently published Bruce Covey’s Glass Is Really a Liquid and will soon publish Lea Graham’s Crushes. As for my own work, I’m slowly plodding along on some new poems. When I was writing God Damsel, it really flowed, like a broken pipe gushing. Now my writing like a stopped up toilet. I’m desperately searching for my psychic plunger.
Elizabeth Hildreth lives in Chicago and is a regular interviewer at Bookslut. You can read her blog here.