Jack Christian talks to Ben Kopel about Victory, an energetic, noisy book of poetry which turns it up to 11.
Ben Kopel’s Victory comes to readers as a collection of poems rooted deep in the artistic life-force. Their energy is their singularity. It is what causes their swerve. Likely many poets who have grown up with rock-n-roll can relate to the desire to make a poem that works like a guitar-anthem, or really that works not like the words the singers sings, but the noises he howls. That Kopel sets out to do this might not be particularly remarkable—he’s not the first to want to—but the way that he succeeds, over and over again, in various measures and phrasings, through seven sections of poems in this debut album, is what I’ve come to see as the victory implicit in Victory.
When I listen to a rock-god sing his or her guts out, then, later when I see the lyrics printed somewhere, I’m susceptible to a disappointment where the power of the voice seems not to be matched by the words sung. Kopel has written the words that I always wished were in the songs. These poems do a magical thing; they don’t fool around with aspiring.
Jack Christian How did the poems in Victory come together? What did you tell yourself were the parameters of the project? What did you think about as you tried to organize them?
Ben Kopel Victory was written over a five-year period, but it wasn’t until about two years into it that I even realized it was becoming something resembling a book. Some people have very specific ideas and instincts in place when they sit down to write. There is a whole to be achieved, and they sit and they write their way towards it. Others just write sixty to eighty pages of material, and ZAP! it’s a book. I’m personally situating myself somewhere in the middle.
Jack Christian talks to Mark Leidner about growing up reading and thinking in terms of B-52’s, not birds.
Some notes about reading Mark Leidner’s Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me:
The cover features a wrap-around collage of a basketball player dunking on the Twin Towers. When I opened my book for the first time, out fell a postcard that shows the same image. So, the irreverence is doubled and for-serious.
A page in, there’s the dedication, FOR ALICE. Even the font it’s written in, its seraph corners and its thickness, its printing in all caps, says something about this book’s boldness, and something about the ways in which these poems mean.
If you think about Berryman’s Dream Songs, or, really, just the line where Henry says, “I have a sing to shay,” then that might be a piece of the equation.
The poems in Beauty Was the Case are long, but the words are never difficult.
For a moment in my first read of the poem “Blackouts” I thought Mark had found a way to write a poem that never ends.
This is Big Idea poetry in the entertaining, hilarious way Big Ideas should prove very hard to talk about.
Caryl Pagel on the visionary poetics of “writing the trance.”
Caryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death takes place where scientific exploration, archival research, and poetry combine. When I read her work I’m reminded that all imaginative writing is a quasi-scientific experiment into the way meaning accrues. Here the poet puts forth a hypothesis of swerving, clanging syntax, and caesura. An inquiry is made into the void and something is carried back.
These poems continually find new gestures for entering the unknown, new schema for staring into a shadow until something almost nameable appears there. Her work gets at the heart of so much poetry: the desire to communicate differently, the desire to join the worldly with the other-worldly, to take what may only be glimpsed and pin it down and stare at it, to imbibe that energy and then leave through an open window. At the heart of this, I think, is the attempt to make the imagination real, to translate it from ephemeral to tangible. As such, these poems’ gift is twofold: as documents that we might watch and learn, and as an implicit call toward experiment as a means of writing and living—such that we might transcend like they do.
Looking at the interview we have compiled, I am struck by Pagel’s great, green hope for what words might do and her companion belief in literature’s ability to bring us into more contact with what we can barely know. We corresponded for a few months this winter and spring, and I was frequently afraid of stumbling in the attempt to keep up with her intellect, her reading, and the ways in which she synthesizes ideas across disciplines, genres, and whole centuries. But, similar to the speakers of her poems, she was a patient, friendly guide.
Jack Christian How did you get started working on the project that became Experiments? How did the book get its title?
Caryl Pagel I remember that the poem “Table Talking” came first and was written while reading a biography of William James that I found in the Provincetown public library, which led to an interest in the Society for Psychical Research—a late-1800s group of renegade scientists who investigated many of the ideas I was thinking about: apparitions, patterns of grief, clairvoyance, collaborative research, testimony as proof, etc.
The title is appropriated from an essay by Hereward Carrington, one of the members of the SPR. Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death suggests the extreme and crazy generosity of certain scientists (or artists) who commit everything, including their own body, to their life’s work (or in this case, literally, to death’s work). The title phrase also brings to mind W.G. Sebald and Sir Thomas Browne’s writing on burial, Japanese death poems, taxidermy, autopsy, telepathic testing, operating theaters, and ultimately that moment (in art and writing and love and life) where something transitions from living to dead—a moment ripe for experimentation and soul expansion and magic.
I like to imagine writing as a physical body of work born of the mulch of the mind, made of salvaging and re-harnessing old and unforgettable phrases, mistaken memories, fleeting feelings, ways of knowing, suspicions, and unanticipated association. In this way one might make a gift, or circuit, of death. There is Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade, Whitman’s “look for me under your boot-soles,” or Niedecker’s “Time to garden / before I / die— / to meet / my compost maker / the caretaker / of the cemetery.”
Jack Christian speaks with poet Emily Pettit about the workings of chance and the unexpected in her fast-paced poems.
Emily Pettit’s Goat in the Snow was published by Birds LLC in January of this year and was Small Press Distribution’s fourth best-selling poetry book for the month of January. These are poems that perform their spell in such a way that they leave a reader in a warm confusion in which one is likely to welcome more confusion. That is not to say the poems are obtuse or needlessly difficult. The only difficulty that I found was reading slowly enough, similar to remembering to pace oneself through an excellent meal. These poems are remarkable for the ways they manage to find pleasant, thoughtful intersections of the mundane and the sublime, the thought and the spoken, the private and the public. They are written about the imagination and in praise of it. And they are also careful. Reading Emily’s work, I am conscious of how precise and well-groomed her poems are and how generous she is to work so hard that I can believe these poems took no work at all.
Jack Christian There’s always a story to first books, in how they come about, in how they are often culled from years of poems and enough material really for several books. I know you’ve published two chapbooks previously, How (Octopus Books) and What Happened To Limbo (Pilot Books). And so I wondered how you conceived of Goat in the Snow.
Emily Pettit I started writing Goat in the Snow in college. I was writing poems, and then I decided I was writing a book. One night with my brother (Guy Pettit) and his wonderful friend Rory Jenson, I was discussing my constant desire to be a “fly on the wall” and Rory said, “Be a goat in the snow.” He said it like it was an obvious truth. And I said, “What?! What did you just say? Rory! I’m going to title my book that.” And I did. A later challenge I encountered was writing a poem titled “Goat In The Snow,” knowing that it would be the title of my book.
Christopher DeWeese on writing what you don’t know you know and his new book The Black Forest.
When a person is lost in a forest, he will begin to walk in circles. This is evident in Christopher DeWeese’s The Black Forest, which was published by Octopus Books earlier this year. The difference is that when lost in The Black Forest, I’m pleasantly reminded that existence and telling-about-it require a certain circumlocution. Through these poems, a paradox arises, where their performance is both a means of navigating the forest and the forest itself. The forest and the poem’s place in it remain inscrutable and undefined, but although I am certain there are terms of this existence, at the same moment I am uncertain what those terms are. Thankfully, this is also the situation of each poem’s narrator, who undertakes a sort of line-by-line conjecture, a literal laying of ground on which each poem proceeds. At which point a mysterious form of traveling begins, and I’m glad to follow the voice that emerges to tell about itself in each poem. As I journey through, these poems renew my sense of poetry as a process of being and being as a process of creating. I feel invited to wander, as DeWeese’s narrators do, through land, history, and also through the self.
Jack Christian The poems in The Black Forest make me consider the “I” in poetry. I find there’s a particular pressure on the I in these poems—they read to me like dramatic monologues in which the speakers seem to be interested equally in spinning and unraveling. How do you think of these speakers and their personas in these poems?
Christopher Deweese I’m really interested in how titles and first lines create a context for a poem’s readers to understand and inhabit. I think part of the reason there are so many book-length sequences and “project” books being written and published these days has to do with context: if the book’s structure establishes some kind of context for the poems to fit inside, it takes some pressure off each individual poem in terms of the work they have to do to “make sense” or provide some sort of foothold for the reader. And of course some poets use biographical paratext to establish context. When readers know the poet was a soldier for many decades, many of them will bring a different contextual understanding to the stuff of the poems. Part of each poem’s “sense-making” will come from outside itself.