An Interview with Cara Benson
Cara Benson is a poet, performer, teacher, and activist. She’s the author of (made) (BookThug, 2010) and the forthcoming Protean Parade (Black Radish Books, 2012). Her chapbook “Quantum Chaos and Poems: A Manifest(o)ation” won the bpNichol Prize. “The Secret of Milk,” a treatise on the possibilities of lyric advocacy within the tainted world of agribusiness, is just out from eohippus labs.
Benson is a committee member of the PEN Prison Writing Program and teaches poetry in a NY State Prison. Her poem “BANKING” was chosen from the Boston Review by Kevin Young for the 2011 Best American Poetry. She edited the interdisciplinary book Predictions for ChainLinks and is featured in the Belladonna Elders Series with Jayne Cortez and Anne Waldman. She is a member of the Dusie Kollektiv, Black Radish Books, and the Belladonna* Collaborative.
Cara and I have been talking by email. This is an excerpt from that conversation.
I’m interested in the unusual layout of (made) and how it developed. Do you come from a visual arts background? How would you like people to read the large word present on many of the pages? I like the way that big text seems to function simultaneously as a title, a shout, and an afterthought.
I don’t come from a vis. art background but I’m definitely drawn to work visually in an entirely untrained manner. I think the basis or history for me is play. I really need to be invigorated by work, receiving it, making it, being with it. I’ve seen so many poems at this point that I want to break habituation, and exploding the visual is one way for me to activate the molecules in the letter clusters. So, (made). It is dealing with planetary concerns, issues of making, and so it is horizontal. The landscapes of the pages came very early on in their making. So the shape also informed the content. I love how you describe the large text on the pages! A shout and afterthought, as well as title. Could also be an address, like a postcard.
I was just watching again the video of your reading from (made) for the BookThug launch. Amazing to hear the poems freed from the page so dramatically! What is the relationship between writing and performance in your work?
While I was a bit of a writer in public school, I was also a big talker. An entertainer. I loved being present to a classroom conversation, sensing the openings for derailing it. Calling us all to attention. And of course, attention to myself was probably part of it. Which I don’t want to shame myself for. I used to think humility meant you turned red in the face, saying aw shucks, shyly kicking the ground when receiving praise. I think it can be a kind of humility to offer oneself publicly. Those things we say and do can be limits, even the attempts at ambiguity and openness, although they can also be pebbles initiating ripples, echoes, something that moves out and away from us. Anyway, I came to poetry as a performer. Nuyorican’s and Gargoyle Mechanique in lower Manhattan. Mona’s on Avenue B I think it was. Knitting Factory back when it was on Houston. Other spots in Loisaida. I didn’t pay attention to how things looked on the page. Oral riffs and rhythms on the back of overdue rent envelopes were common. When I moved out of NYC, I also left behind those phenomenal venues for that kind of speaking. So I turned to the page. Now I go back and forth and find overlap and not. When (made) came as this box of books, I was initially a bit scared. Now what? What to do with these things? How to enter this writing and literally breathe it. So the breath, which is in the book, entered the performance of it. And that freed me up to use the book as a score, a jumping off point for all sorts of humming interpretations.
I had the pleasure of seeing/hearing you perform Jen Karmin’s aaaaaalice with Jen and a group of other poets at the Poetry Project last fall and I also enjoyed reading Geof Huth’s description of the exhibit Real Estate: Architextural Works that you did with Jon Lathrop. How important is collaboration in your process as a writer and as a performer?
I love collaborating, especially when I (don’t) get my own way. Which is to say it is generative, challenging, and perfectly confrontational to ego/agenda. It is another way to avert my will imposing on or limiting the making. Well, Jon, my partner for that project but also my romantic life partner, might have other things to say about my willingness to cooperate! Generally, though, I find the process of responding to and incorporating and gesturing toward and with others to be an opportunity to grow as a person and an artist. It requires that I be secure in my own skin so I’m not always looking to get credit but to let the work be the thing. Which is not to say that when I’m doing individual work that I’m not attempting to, oh for lack of something better than words, serve the art/writing. It’s just that sometimes the best and most artful thing I can do in collaboration is to be quiet at the right moment. While, again, that can also be true of my individual work, what comes forward next in/from that space will be “mine” and not a collaborator’s. My ego doesn’t usually sign up to give away credit. It is more than solely averting, though. We are, of course, also social creatures and so biologically predisposed to cooperate as much as we are to compete (and the percentages on this are contested, from Kropotkin to Adam Smith, how Darwin is interpreted, etc.). Anyway, there is a significant part of me that just plain adores, is nourished by, playing with others.
When Coldfront named (made) one of the “Top 30 Books of 2010,” John Deming wrote that the poems “feel like important memories, or memories of dreams you know you won’t access by falling back asleep, no matter how much you want to. They haunt with their brevity. The poet provides the details and spares the story.” You’ve said in a video interview that the narrative moments in the book provide “a place for the reader to rest.” Could you say a little more about how narrative is functioning in (made)?
There are narrative operations and connecting elements throughout the book. We are in this soup, say, of experience, and I can draw out of (my) life a variety of storylines constellating the same moments. So what is a frame I impose and when is it that something appears, like a face slowly surfacing from a pool of milk? What happens in that moment of recognition/naming? There is an accumulation of details. The barbed wire, satellites, misanthrope, sports heroes, ice floes. They add up, then let go.
You teach in a prison. When did you start doing that? Do you have other teaching jobs as well?
The prison class started at the end of 2005. Sometimes I struggle with what to say about it. I mean, in many ways it really isn’t any different from another classroom. And then, it is very different. My awareness of my role is heightened. No matter what I might think about whether this is unjust, corrupt, modern day slavery, how do we deal with criminal behavior, what is individual what is systemic, etc etc., fact of the matter is that the students right in front of me are in a singularly disempowering situation. This might manifest in a number of ways. For example, yesterday there was a new guy. His edge was very hard; he was testing me at every turn. There are times to move past that quickly and times to let that play out a little bit more before attempting to steer it into the energy of the group conversation. Like I said, any classroom. Yesterday was tricky, though, because we’re in the middle of a longer project right now. We’re using the text of Bernie Sanders’s filibuster from last December to make poems. So we’re doing a variety of things with his language. This particular day I happened to be talking about Sapphic meter to see if we might make our own extant fragments as a contrast to how we’d been working on it, having already done some revolution will not be televised versions and collaboratives and erasures and rhythmic repetitive rant chants.
So I’m in the middle of dactyls and trochees and I haven’t been sleeping well because Spring is on and he’s interrupting, and like I said his energy was, well it seemed to me that he was angry, which some might say was a reflection of my lack of sleep. Either way it is understandable and nothing new and there is usually room for that, but he keeps on, he’s asking me, what does politics mean to me and what do I know about the Black Panthers and some lady came into another prison where he was to teach poetry and took all their poems and they supposedly got stolen so if he gives me a poem it better show up where I say it’s going. Which is fine and absolutely part of the process; the issues he was getting at aren’t anything we don’t usually talk about on any given day, but he couldn’t know that yet. And he wouldn’t have any reason to trust me yet. Nor I him. Anyway, after some tongue biting on my part, we got to the place where he wanted to recite one of his own poems, so he did. Then he asked me to do the same with one of mine. So I did. That seemed to level something in the room.
We look at an immense amount of enviro-politico-socio-identity-gender-race-economic issues/art/writing, as well as complications of those categories and of categorization generally. And I’m often nearly anarchical in my approach to classroom structure. So to write about a scenario where I’m bringing Official Verse Meter and frustrated with interruptions might misrepresent how the class generally rolls. Or to assume that OVM wouldn’t or shouldn’t be taught. All of that’s in the way but also the very point.
I think a lot about group dynamics. How to be part of something where the exchanges are “equal” without being unsensibly prescriptive. It’s what we’re working on on the planet, right? Of course not so successfully at this point on the global scale. So the microcosm of a group in a room, I’ve shown up to that room in the prison and been silent for chunks of time. I’m extremely conscious of the fact of my power in that situation, and one of the goals is to acknowledge and support theirs through the writing. However, I do have experience and knowledge and information and material to offer. Don’t we all? How to give what I have and also receive. There are plenty of times when the energy someone is endowed with at a given moment takes precedence in the room and we all witness? allow? participate in its, er, dominance. Freire talks about always scrutinizing oneself. I can paralyze myself in that process and talk myself out of any given action because a) I don’t know if I really can know if or how what I do does or does not play into hegemony and b) nothing seems to do anything to crack oligarchy, oppression, etc. -- at least systemically -- anyway. So, I just keep going in, like the late Janine Pommy Vega always said to me: “Cara, you just keep going in. Bring poems. Willingness. Dig deep and be honest.”
Otherwise, I teach in a variety of venues. There are the one or two day gigs as visitor for a College writing program or a place like Toronto New School of Writing. For a handful of years I was a visiting poet in the public schools. I’ve done the adjunct stint at a few Colleges but am less apt to sign up for that these days. I have grad students through Prescott College. I’m working on a larger relationship with that College so it feels, at least at this point, that this will be more of a reciprocal situation. Of course I’m getting paid for this and did for the adjunct. But we all know that Presidents and upper administration of Universities and Colleges are usually overcompensated financially while much of the actual work is done by poorly paid adjuncts with no benefits or job security. Same as at corporations, all across the working board.
We can’t know in advance what your lifespan will be, but what are the things that you’d most like to see happen in your lifetime? And what do you imagine will be the state of the world at the time of your death? Can you imagine it?
It would be tremendous if the fear that drives the greed, prejudice, cruelty, consumerism, and other toxic attitudes and behaviors so prevalent on earth was abated. I think this would go a long way toward shifting how we treat each other, the planet and all its spaces and inhabitants. Not teleologically speaking. I’m not positing a specific static utopic state.
There was a scientific study reported on at the end of 2010 to be published this year (I don’t know if it’s out yet) that found that conservatives and liberals have different brains. The conservatives were found to have larger amygdalae, an area in the brain associated with fear. Alternately, they had a smaller anterior cingulate, a part of the front of the brain that is connected with courage and optimism. How this developed isn’t known yet. Is it nature or experience? Possibly considering the dynamic formation of the brain and its neurotransmitters, it is a bit of both. Anyway, I know that really incredible work has been done with PTSD sufferers and other trauma survivors. I would love to see that kind of healing on a much broader level.
I could likely paint a number of reasonably imagined scenarios for the world at the time of my death. My mom used to have a saying that bugged the crap out of me. We’d all be playing cards, sometimes some of us begrudgingly. To keep us engaged at the end of each round she’d call out "It’s anybody’s game!" in a lively sing-songy tune. I’d be down 200 points and huffing No, no it’s not anybody’s game Ma. I really don’t remember percentages of comebacks or have anything quite like a statistical or philosophical argument here. I just want to hear her sing that again and have it be possible.
Where do art and advocacy meet? I hear this question in all of your work and you address it directly in The Secret Of Milk...
This is such a huge consideration in my life, and for so many poets/artists I know. I spiral around it. Some days I feel so strongly that poetry, with all its ineffability and particularity, is perfectly suited to effect something like a paradigm shift. Other days it seems like we’re spilling out of a thimble into a sea of disinterested scrawl and sprawl and commerce. Then of course I don’t want to demand of the writing or making that it has to tackle, well, anything.
What is the balance between individual and society? I want to consider larger concerns, and yet I am not in a position to speak for others. I can only speak to things/ideas/issues and for/from myself, such as I am -- even if I’m working with all source material and thinking the author is dead. That’s not the whole story even when the work I’m sporting says it is. Besides, I need to value myself. Should I not do any of that publicly? Should I not make the poem of the slender stem in my hand because it doesn’t tackle oppression? Just a silly example, but I think resisting an economic or systemic or political or post-structuralist -- an ideological -- read/requirement of the poem can be a radical, er, ideology. I’m definitely not after solipsism. Then -- and here is more of the spiraling in action -- I’m all too easily of a mind where playing with syntax or fabric seems like the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Or, to switch vehicles, an ignorant neutrality on the moving train, which of course isn’t neutral at all, is it. If you’re “against theory” it’s really just because you haven’t looked at what’s underpinning your own work/status. More than that, though, doing nothing “beyond” the art to address the incredible inequities piling up on the planet also isn’t neutral. There are days when I get really mad at artists with their complicit and precious galleries and personas or theorists or writers who think because they’ve read Lacan or whoever that they are somehow avant or radical anything. What’s at stake? Even the installation artist. Or blog posts that say “but is it art?” -- they’re such bullshit.
And they’re not, right? Or at least not categorically. Critique is needed on all fronts, I know. Holding the space for conscious cultural/artistic creation is crucial, I know. Without theoretical considerations we’re sunk, I know. So this is some of what I’m tackling in The Secret of Milk. More specifically, can lyric language take on factory dairy farming? Should it?
Kate Greenstreet’s books are The Last 4 Things and case sensitive, both from Ahsahta Press. Some of her video poems can be viewed here.