An Interview with Justin Marks and Paige Taggart
Justin Marks writes marketing copy for god. His first book is A Million in Prizes. He is also the author of several chapbooks, the most recent being On Happier Lawns. He is a co-founder of Birds, LLC, an independent poetry press, and he lives in Queens, New York, with his wife and their two-year-old twin son and daughter.
Paige Taggart’s chapbook Digital Macramé was recently released by Poor Claudia. On the horizon, Polaroid Parade will emerge in chapbook-form from Greying Ghost Press soon. She was a 2009 recipient of the New York Foundation of the Arts poetry grant. Recent or forthcoming work can be found in the following journals: No Tell Motel, Glitterpony, Forklift, Ohio, Bateau, So and So Magazine, Sink Review, RealPoetik, Sentence. Peruse her blog.
In early March of 2011 Justin and Paige were interviewed over e-mail by Bookslut. They discuss, among other things, a new kind of wildlife, fated moments, poems as black diamond ski slopes, phone “notebooks,” the poem declaring itself as a force-field, wandering around in the domestic realm, the flip-chap as a chapbook to the second power, and the un-fucking-canny similarities between Digital Macramé and On Happier Lawns -- and the singularity of each of them.
Poor Claudia just published your double chap -- Paige’s Digital Macramé on one side and Justin’s On Happier Lawns on the other. How’d this split chap come about? Did you pitch the idea to the press or did they contact you with the idea to pair your work together? It’s great looking, btw. It’s hard to describe the construction. It’s hand sewn, hand cut, each side of the cover with a circle cutout. It reminds me of portrait photographs -- the black-and-white child profiles inside the oval window -- except in your oval windows, there are words. Maybe the words function as your profiles. Maybe that’s what you’ll look like to yourself when you look back in 40 years.
TAGGART: Hello Liz, Nice to meet you. I’m glad you like the chapbook design, I am really happy with it as well. Justin and I both sent work to Poor Claudia for consideration, without either of us knowing the other had done so. I had poems in the third issue of Poor Claudia’s journal and then met them at AWP in Denver and loved their aesthetic and vibe so I decided to send my chapbook to them to see if they’d dig the work. Not too long after they sent an email addressed to both J and I with their idea of doing a double-split chapbook. I couldn’t see at first who Justin was, and I was thinking ah man who is this dud(?)e, what if I don’t like his work(?), reading on my iphone hides the CC name, then I hit “details” and it was indeed Justin Marks, I literally spun and pounced around with enthusiasm. Justin and my boyfriend (Sampson Starkweather) are best friends and I’ve admired Justin’s work for a while. My mind could fully commit and understand Poor Claudia’s vision in finding our work compatible. Justin’s sonnets (On Happier Lawns) were written under the influence of Sam’s poems The Waters and Sam’s La La La(s) were inspired by Justin’s sonnets and about half of Digital Macramé were poems imitating the La La La(s). So by some hyper-extended stimulus my poems were thus connected and maybe even gestured towards On Happier Lawns. Isn’t that how a new kind of wildlife is bred?
MARKS: Yeah, Paige has pretty well covered how the chap happened, the magic of it all. I was at work when I got the email from Poor Claudia and literally started shaking I was so happy and excited. Definitely the best ever day at the office. And to think I sent my manuscript to them only after some significant push from my good friend and fellow Birds, LLC, editor, Chris Tonelli.
I admired the work Poor Claudia had done, but for whatever reason didn’t think they’d be into my stuff. I’d had these sonnets around for a while, I wrote the majority of them before my son and daughter were born, but after the kids came along I had pretty much zero time or energy for poetry. I’d become really disconnected from the community, had no idea what was happening any more. I knew the sonnets would be a big part of my next full-length book (if I could ever pull it together), but for whatever reason it hadn’t occurred to me to make a chapbook out of them. Then I randomly ran into my old friend Bill Drury while I was out for a walk with my kids (which, looking back, seems like an especially fated moment because he lived in Manhattan at the time and I live in Queens and he just happened to be riding his bike down a street in my neighborhood as I was walking my kids home from the park). We hadn’t seen each other in about a year. He asked me if I had anything coming out and I just kind of chuckled and said no. But when I got home I thought about the sonnets, pulled them out, spent a couple weeks dusting them off and putting the ms together. I was so rusty, I couldn’t figure out a title. Sampson and Paige suggested On Happier Lawns, and I’m eternally grateful for that. Meanwhile, I had sent the ms to Chris and he said I should send to Poor Claudia.
It just blows my mind how uncanny it is that this happened, how much I admire Paige’s work and that we get to have a chapbook together without any coordinated effort. Plus, in addition to the wild awesomeness of having a flip-chap with Paige, and being bowled over by how that all went down, the whole experience has been especially amazing for me because it, at least in my mind, marks my re-engaging with poetry and the small press community. It feels great to be excited about and by and involved in poetry again!
In looking at your work, there’s a big difference in terms of its speed. Paige, your poems rush forward so fast that the experience of reading them is like watching the landscape from a speeding car. You’re not going to catch all the details, but the point isn’t the details of the landscape anyway, it’s the general impression of the terrain (or maybe the point is about the speed itself). In comparison, Justin, your poems are much slower. Most seem to take one idea or emotion and hold it up for examination and follow it all the way through to its end. This made me wonder about how these poems get made and whether the pace reflects the process. How do you make your poems and how do you revise them once they’re made?
TAGGART: I do write my poems in full-acceleration. I’m not one who collects lines, I know that Justin tends to do this, I can’t come up with a line and just stop there and feel like that is something to work on/with/or towards, I’m not able to do that; my writing style is much more compulsive. Once I begin writing, the poem is already in the position of play, the language already exists in my mind/imagination, and when I start writing is where the poem begins for the reader, and occasionally there is probably some mutual pre-existence of the feeling behind the poem for the reader, too. The actual writing process happens very quickly. I like your “watching the landscape from a speeding car” analogy and I think this is true because of what language can do to us. Language has always been more in charge of me than I am in charge of it. I have to work really hard to try and find the right balance of letting it follow its own will or way but also controlling it for the poem’s sake. I usually put the poem aside for a day or two, then go back to work, and I usually need a lot of help from my trusted editor. My tendency is to not want to do the hard work of editing; I’d much rather produce new work. But I also want the poem to be like a black diamond ski slope so I inevitably revise to make the flow look as natural as it felt when it first came to me. I like words, but often I don’t know how to use them correctly, and I write words that sound like the word I really mean but are not the correct word; for poetry this mistake can often be a gift. I like drinking too much coffee too, and really intense actions, and brutal honesty, and specific phrases or words -- like “horse-drawn carriage” or “cardboard.” Words conjure self-reflections that make impressions turn on themselves, and a lot of the time I’d like to be removed from the world, and then bounced back in or time-travel. It’s important to get away with feelings.
MARKS: I work very slowly. A line -- or more specifically a phrase -- will come to me, I’ll write it down in the “notebook” on my phone, look at the lines I’ve jotted before it, maybe move some around into little fragments that might become something, but most likely won’t. I have filled many, many documents on my phone with what I am sure is some of the worst writing ever.
I haven’t always been this slow. I wrote a lot of the poems for my first book by simply sitting down and writing full drafts, then setting the draft aside, coming back to it and revising. I still worked pretty slow, but looking back it feels like it went much faster than I now. Toward the end of writing that book, however, I started doing things more like I do now, which kind of sucks because I love writing and ideally would like to always be doing it, but, unlike Paige, when a line or two comes to me, that’s it. I don’t see anything else. It’s not just that the page is blank. My mind is as well.
But lately I’ve been doing things to force myself to write more, or at least create scenarios in which I’m more likely to write, or even just look at what I have written and try to move it forward. After I get the kids to bed, I’ll take whatever I’ve written on my phone that day (if I have indeed written anything) and type it into one big document I keep on my computer. In that document are some relatively promising pieces and I just try to see how what I wrote that day might work with what I’ve got going. It’s a lot of half-building up then tearing down again. Until recently, this has resulted in a poem once every 1-3 months.
Lately, though, it’s been less, for a couple reasons. A friend mentioned to me not too long ago that she was excited to see how having kids has changed my writing, but what I realized is I haven’t really written about my life in any substantive way since having kids. So I’ve been making a concerted effort to do that. I feel good about it right now, it at least is something to work on, but only time will tell if it’s any good.
The other issue I’ve been facing is that the style I’ve been working in -- at least for the time being -- seems to have run its course. It was a style that evolved out of the sonnets. I started feeling like 14 lines wasn’t enough, so I took the “sonnet” form I’d been working in and started writing roughly two page poems which people I’ve shown the work to refer to as the long sonnets. I wrote about four of those that I feel pretty good about. But the most recent poem I wrote in that style was totally DOA. So now I’m writing short, compressed poems again, but not in the sonnet form of my chapbook. I’m fumbling around, trying to take what I’ve learned and push it forward.
My pace seems -- so far -- to work for me. I mean, it is what it is. But I do sometimes wish I was more like Paige. It must be an amazing feeling to be able to let go and let yourself be led on by the language the way she describes.
That’s funny that your production pace really does synch up with the poems’ presentation on the page and overall feel. Recently I was trying to figure out which poems to include in a manuscript and which to leave out, and my friend suggested listing three words to describe my collection -- and then only including the poems that could be described by one of those three words. If you had to assign three words to the work that you’re doing right now, what would they be? And how do these words describe your work’s primary aim at this point?
TAGGART: “Gold,” “outlaw” and “woven” were the first three words that came to me, in a kind of burst. “Gold,” I’m not so sure about. Woven certainly though. I love flags; alas it’s about creating texture and material and then parading what represents you around. How lines get woven together, come back around again, create a surface appearance but also an underlying idea. Build-up, cross-pollinate, veil and unveil, this is what I like to do. The title to the chapbook Digital Macramé demonstrates this sense of the woven. Since macramé is a knotting technique, it felt appropriate to use this word. It’s a free-forming craft. I’m a craftswoman, and I think this immensely influences my poetry. I think an inevitable “aim” that contributes to the adjective “woven” would be to have my work somehow display this quality of maker, to show the process as a primary point of existence. A true material art that is comfortable taking on a “digital” appearance.
“Outlaw” yes, “outlaw,” as in not prescribing to any set of rules. As in doing whatever I want and letting the poem escape itself. The poem declaring itself as the force-field. Maybe even taking on the role of the offender, due to the unwieldiness of my grammar; I would say that a serious grammarian would be very offended. A wild outlaw, as in lacking supervision, the poem destroying boundaries, forthcoming with great intensity, as in my personality contributing to the bending of time like Annie Oakley.
I realize though that you asked about the “work that [we’re] doing right now.” The chapbook is a part of a larger manuscript. Some poems I’m working on as of late are “island vs. mainland” poems. An appropriate word to describe these could be: collapsible. Something folding in on itself. Being broken down, almost inward. Like babushka dolls, theories fitting inside of one another, a big place taking over a little space. Collapse, I would say collapse. Not in a bad way though, not irreversible collapse. Not collapse to make damage, but to create a new empire and change. To create a cleared space with which to build two distinctly different communities. That’s what the aim of the “Is Land” philosophy is. To look at land and point to it, and say look, look at what we are doing to that mass, that is where I build a home, and a community. And the other feeling behind “island,” is a mind-vacation.
MARKS: Wow, that’s a tough question. At the risk of sounding utterly ridiculous, I guess the first word would be domestic. A friend recently asked me if any of my new work was domestic because, he said, good domestic poetry is something that’s lacking these days. I don’t know if it is or isn’t. “Domestic” is a term I associate with “confessional” or something like that, something very mid-twentieth century. But I took it as a compliment. My work does deal a lot with relationships, marriage, day-to-day life and all that. Like I said before, I’m making an effort to write more about having kids, which is obviously about as domestic as it gets, and my chap is called On Happier Lawns -- lawns and happiness seem like pretty domestic ideals to me. I’m definitely wandering around in the domestic realm.
I guess the second would be impressionistic, or maybe intuitive. There is a thing, a vibe or wave or whatever you want to call it, that I’m trying to go with without thinking too much. I used to think I needed to have my subject, and I once even had a teacher articulate to me what she thought my subject was. At the time, it was one of the coolest things I’d heard about my work. Very encouraging, just the kind of confidence builder I needed. I felt somehow validated, like I was finally a “real” poet and had found “my voice.”
Ultimately, it became detrimental. I started thinking too much about writing in accordance to “my subject.” So it was then that I decided to just do whatever the hell I wanted, whatever felt right. I started not worrying about “saying” something so much as conveying a feeling, and finding the language at the time that felt right for doing so. Around that time I developed an internal mantra for describing my work to myself: “It didn’t have to be like this.” By which I meant I wasn’t trying to create poems that were well-wrought urns that a reader would feel just had to be the way they wound up or they would be failures. I wanted the reader to feel (and I wanted to believe/do believe) that what wound up on the page was just one version among any other equally successful ways (or not) the poem could have turned out. That there was something of the moment to it, even if that moment came slowly and through lots of rewriting… that the words and lines could have been different, but that that moment still somehow held up under careful and repeated reading, or if it didn’t “hold up” it at least continued to be enjoyable and worth returning to (even if only as a memory). I have no idea if the work actually reflects this, but to some degree it doesn’t matter. It’s the feeling that allowed me to produce the work I did. And it’s still, more or less, what I’m trying to do.
After all that, I guess I’d describe my poems as sad. I’m not sure what there is to say about that. I like bringing the idea/possibility (and sometimes even reality) of happiness into my poems, but to me, they’re still preoccupied with an overarching sadness… that life, especially an individual’s life, is the most beautiful gift ever, but is also incredibly painful and, most likely, meaningless in the grand scheme of things. That we all are going to die. That this life is all there is. That love is the most natural and profound feeling ever, but at the same time, and perhaps because it is such a natural joy, is so phenomenally difficult to maintain in any sort of healthy, functional way. Or even in a dysfunctional and unhealthy way. That loneliness can never truly be overcome. That perhaps the only definite result of love is grief. That our efforts to help one another, to foster some sense of community, seem to fall short, to even cause more harm than good in many cases. But also that, somehow in spite of all this (or perhaps despite this), we still find ways to not totally destroy each other, to forgive and to continue loving… I don’t know… I’m being a sap. None of this may actually come across in my poems, but it’s all stuff I feel and spend a lot of time thinking about.
How has your work being “bundled” with another writer’s work (as opposed to being “individually wrapped”) changed the way you think about your own work and/or changed the way you feel like people might experience your work? Maybe it hasn’t at all, but I feel like -- at least in the way other people experience your work -- there’s probably some sort of effect.
TAGGART: On a more personal level having my chapbook “bundled” with J’s really validated an indescribable feeling of compatibility that I’ve felt toward my peer’s work. Partially because these two great dudes in Portland, Drew and Marshall magically selected our work to go together. For me, Poor Claudia being far away from the “New York Scene” and still seeing a connection to/&/between our work made me experience a feeling of the circle extending far beyond the limits of what the mind is capable of comprehending but the heart can always feel! It’s difficult to explain. Mostly, it made me recognize that my work had a home in the world and with a really awesome neighbor, it felt so right. I think it will certainly change not only the way people approach our work but also who approaches it. J and I have a lot of overlap in our supposed “audience,” but there’s also a bunch of people who would buy his book and not know who the hell I am, and possibly vice-versa. In other words, it automatically extends the audience; I’d like to think it’s a chapbook to the second power. It’s also a little ironic because I think there will be some assumptions made that we “collaborated” on the book; however, I’ve mostly stood in opposition to collaborative poetry. My personal taste for an individual’s poetry has always been much stronger than when I see some of my favorite writers collaborate. I generally think the quality goes downhill because the stakes are lowered when you are only held partially responsible. This isn’t an across the board judgment. I’ve read some really great collaborations too; take, for example, The Pines, and Lily Ladwig’s and Anne Cecilia Holme’s chapbook I Am A Natural Wonder. All and all I think we benefit from being paired together. Possibly someone will read them back to back then sit down and write their own poems spawned by the dual effect of a Taggart/Marks trance, and that’d be great, I’d want to read the shit out of that shit.
MARKS: I think Paige’s answer does an amazing job of conveying what this experience has been like, but what I’d add to that is that having our work bundled has in some ways renewed my faith in some sense of… I don’t know… purity? I mean, Paige and I each had no idea the other had sent to Poor Claudia. They had no idea that her and I had any knowledge of each other’s existence. In other words, I can’t see any real political bias in them choosing to bundle us. The choice, from my (biased) perch, was based purely on aesthetics, which I find insanely refreshing.
Of course they knew Paige from their journal, and they knew me from Birds, LLC, which might explain some of their interest in us as individual poets, but that they saw our work as in relation to each other enough to have it be, essentially, the same book I think speaks volumes about something beyond all that. Something…pure…or at least as close to that ideal as I have recently experienced.
To be honest, it hasn’t really changed my sense of how people might experience the work. Despite all the un-fucking-canny similarities, I see each chap as very distinct works. And I think people will read them that way. So, for me, it’s kind of like if we each had poems in a journal together… except that the only people in the journal were us. You can read one chap and ignore the other, or maybe you’ll read both and find one way more to your liking than the other. Whatever the case, I think it’s all great. It’s just that much more for the reader to engage in.
But what I think is maybe the coolest thing is that Paige is a woman and I’m a man. That sounds obvious, but with all the (necessary) attention VIDA has been calling to how much men get published versus women, I love the idea that this chapbook is kind of this equal pairing of a male and female poet who are at different points in their work and experience but yet there’s this similar conversation happening. I have no idea if that was part of Drew and Marshall’s thinking, or if that specifically had any bearing on their editorial decision, but for me it doesn’t really matter. The stars just fucking aligned.