As part of a continued partnership through the Queer Art Mentorship program, performer and writer Jess Barbagallo sits down with her mentor, poet Stacy Szymaszek, to talk about performance, poetry, and a canine muse named Bluet.
I first made contact with Stacy Szymaszek, poet and current artistic director of The Poetry Project, in August of 2011. I had just been accepted into a program called Queer Art Mentorship to work on a poetic essay involving grief, imagined absence, and sometimes my dog, Bluet. Stacy was to be my mentor and I found the prospect daunting, never having identified as a poet, and at times even ambivalent about my status as a writer. She emailed me about setting up a good time to meet and chat. When I replied in typical self-deprecating fashion, she assured me not to worry: “We can talk about solipsism and formlessness.”
This interview is a continuation of that conversation, a slice of the friendship we have formed over the last year. What continues to impress me about Stacy is her unwavering generosity to fellow artists (and canines) and her extreme commitment to be with the present. But mostly it’s the deep sense of romance she brings to work and life, a cool hunger I experience in lines like these, culled from Three Poems—For Hart Crane (2000):
I am peninsular
suitcase of biographies
watery love life
Evocative and true, Stacy continues to teach me the power of being spare, or yearning countered by restraint.
Jess Barbagallo So I wonder—did you do any writing today? I am so curious about the development of practice or discipline. How do you conceive of yourself practically as a poet? What are the parts of the day or methods you use that add up to the whole—being able to say, “I am a poet”?
Stacy Szymaszek I didn’t do any writing today, or yesterday, and I probably won’t tomorrow. It seems that my most sustained effort is to not write, to get out of it whenever possible. However, its draw is powerful and I am in the practice of heeding the call whatever its frequency. My work in the past several years has been very influenced by the idea of the poetic journal or day book. I feel a tension between wanting to be the writer who works some hours everyday and the reality that I just can’t psychically sustain that. I do call myself a poet, distinct from my output. Practically, I have many credentials, but I called myself a poet when I had nothing more than a sense that it was where my intelligence resided. I’m thinking of Williams’s “the poet thinks with [her] poem.” I have a sense of and trust in my own pace. Poetry is not commodified, I’m not waiting to get paid, no one is tapping their foot waiting for my next book or reading. Paying attention to the way poetry, or language, ebbs and flows for me radicalizes my daily life. I pay attention daily. I’m guessing that your question is coming from wanting to be more disciplined as a prose writer. How does your practice change when your genre changes?
JB Well, I don’t know if I’m disciplined as any kind of writer. I write from desperation . . . literally something needs to break in me or around me to release writing. Or I will create situations that lend themselves to a breaking—whether it be a complicated emotional entanglement or the fear of losing face by over-committing to projects or problems out of my league. I’m an actor as well as a writer and I can never tell which comes first. Writing has always been performative for me, as acting has always been the search for some language I could pour my freakishness into. Ironically, it’s playwriting that is most challenging for me these days, really hearing other voices. But maybe it’s because I have been doing it much longer than I’ve been writing prose or poetry, so I’ve got the bar set higher for myself. Today, I wrote on my grief essay for hours, after not having touched the thing for almost two months! I was surprised that I could return, that I still had something to say, that I could see more than I did before. But I’m often self-conscious about how simple my mind is. I remember when I first read your book Hyperglossia, I was a bit awed by what you can do formally, that a part of your practice is understanding how to set language on a page to maximize (or minimize) effect. I feel so conventional. Sentence, sentence, sentence. Do you feel pressures to be original? Like is there an unspoken competitiveness to be “fresh” in the poetry scene?
SS I love the idea of acting as a search for language because you’re taking into account how multivalent communication is. I became interested in what I could learn from acting when I was writing Emptied of All Ships and Pasolini Poems because I developed and inhabited these two different personas; James the sailor and Pasolini himself. I used some of Augusto Boal’s Games for Actors and Non-actors, and would dress a certain way, listen to certain music, to get myself into “character.” But it was to sit at my desk to write, a performance for myself to access the language for the page. None of what I was doing was being documented as part of the texts, but at the time I really needed the page to be a place where I could be the man I wanted to be. Up until I wrote Hyperglossia, I wanted to be textually male, and then in that work things get all inclusive (pan- would have been an apt prefix as well as hyper-). Eustace is folding all living things into the dead self. I just read from Ida at an event celebrating Stein, who continues to awe. The sentence holds just as much promise as the line break. Now, I actually can’t believe I haven’t recommended Gail Scott’s prose work The Obituary. I think the writing I’m interested in dismantles time, and any genre can do that. It’s about sequence and jarring expectation. I don’t feel pressure to be original. My motto is, do my work, see if anyone is interested later. I don’t want to make generalizations about the poetry scene—no, I do; no, I can’t! I think there is unspoken competitiveness for other things, something akin to glamor, but to be original or “fresh”—no. Personally, I could never begrudge another poet for writing something that is astonishing in form and/or language. When you are young, you get the message that you’ll find what you’re good at, your calling, your gift, and if you work hard, you’ll make a living, you’ll have success, recognition and respect. That hasn’t been my story, and it hasn’t been the story of a lot of poets, so I see a lot of hurt in the community, or at least behavior I frame in that context to understand it and have some empathy. Some people are really graceful about it and some people act out.
JB I want to hear more about the acting out! I’m such a gossip, it’s terrible. I’m trying to think if the same resentments abound in the theatre community. I know that I am no longer jealous of the things I once was, I’ve sort of started to believe that it’s all the same review, it’s all the same theater. The stuff to hang onto is meeting really good people, or being moved in some surprising way by something I agreed to be a part of. I felt that in the final hour of the Poetry Project Marathon Reading. I felt that we were so close and actively moving each other, even after the crowd had dispersed and most people had gone home. Sharing art publicly is so weird though. I was trying to pick through my brain for my favorite performance or some moment I could use to encapsulate this idea of being a part of a greater whole in a transformative way. I know when I perform with Half Straddle, there have been a couple moments when I was actually brought to tears in a completely unexpected way. Like I could stand back from the thing I was saying or doing, and hear it and be utterly moved. I’m trying to figure out if my own work can move me like that, or if I’d need to like myself more for that to be a possibility.
SS The reason I’m bringing it up is because as the Director of The Poetry Project, I constantly think about the general reality of the poet at this place and time and how I, through strengthening the infrastructure of The Project, might be able to make a positive impact on those who identify as our community. All of our administrators are poets and artists, in order to keep us close to the art and the art making, to keep that connection at the very center of all we do. Everyone wants to feel dignified. I always bear that in mind when a resentful person appears. I’m glad you were part of the final hours of the New Year’s Day Marathon Reading, where I was literally moved to tears. I read an elegy for my recently deceased dog. I remember feeling my public face give way to my sorrow and exhaustion, realizing I couldn’t stop it, which ended up being a really sweet communal experience. I was crushed and embarrassed and suddenly I was bolstered by friends. It was totally bare and fantastical at the same time, like a near-death experience, a transitional space. It actually had a very cathartic effect. The “unscripted” can do that. I practiced reading the poem so that wouldn’t happen, running not so much through the words but the emotional experience. In retrospect, I was trying to rule out a public display, which I don’t really want to do. I have a particular dislike or even phobia about crying in front of people. Do you? It’s a sense of self-control I have that was useful as a child but is not so useful anymore. Have you read Andrea Fraser’s essay, “Why Does Fred Sandback’s Work Make Me Cry?”? It got me thinking about works of art that have caused me to weep. The first time it happened to me was when I saw Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein at the Met. She wrote of it, ”...it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.” And I identified with her, through some deep shame.
JB I haven’t read [Fraser’s] essay, but I would like to find it now. I’m not embarrassed to cry in public. If anything, I worry sometimes that I don’t have access to a deeper well of emotion in myself that some actors can access immediately. That paper skin we try to cultivate in acting school. But reading my own work, I think the fear is that I might be the only person who feels the resonance of the experience I’m trying to express. It’s like sending someone a love letter that for whatever reason they can’t be open to. And that has happened to me many times, so I get the feeling I am only writing to myself or jerking off, even if that was never the first intention. Sometimes I have described my plays as gifts and then been struck by the pompousness or perversity of that. Define gift. My earliest experience of this shame probably happened when I was in third or fourth grade and I wrote this profile of my mother. We had some assignment to write about a parent. And I tried to observe her as closely as I possibly could and when she found what I wrote it made her cry, so I threw it away and showed up for class empty-handed. I have a tendency to be brutal, but to see some beauty in that and go there anyway. Perhaps my mother found the portrait unsympathetic. I know I was trying to communicate how complex I found her to be and that I loved her for those imperfections I observed. Much of my work has been an argument for complexity and an attempt to salvage the uglier things in the world. I am attracted to them because I feel like I’m not being lied to when someone makes a mistake or behaves inexplicably. Have you ever gotten into trouble with your writing?
SS Poets who approach the craft with the intent to innovate language and form and what can be given voice to are perceived as a threat to society. Society is a form that relies on artificially preserved methods to control experience and the poets come in and say, no, that’s not how we want to communicate, that’s not how we think. Kenneth Rexroth wrote an essay about the place of the poet in society that speaks to poetry as a disruptive force. Those in power always strive to control the way we communicate. It’s the quickest way into a person’s head and then into their thoughts and actions. So, by way of its disruptive nature, my writing places me in trouble. As my work gets more diaristic, I do worry about things like, what do I really want to say about my parents, my partner, my sex life, my gender? What experiences are going unrecorded and why? I’ve said a lot that has come out encrypted but it’s like I’ve entered into the era of my own decoder ring. I instantly had a positive response to the “brutality” in your essay on grief. To portray someone unsympathetically, as you describe with your mother—and you have no reservations about portraying yourself unsympathetically as well—reveals a yearning to be seen, a documentary of the “ugly feelings,” (this is actually also the title of a book by Sianne Ngai), we all repress. I was particularly struck by how well you represented the experience of being young, queer, and polyamorous, a form of living that is disruptive. Whenever I use the word butch these days I feel like I have to duck but I really came up identifying as butch—this says nothing about how you identify, but what I project into your essay, and there is ample room for it, is my own archive of grief around loving and being loved by women who ultimately preferred to be with bio guys. There is such complexity of shame and envy and curiosity and triangularization that you lay bare. It’s perverse but absolutely not solipsistic.
JB I think the scariest thing about laying so much bare is hearing the question, “Is that really how you see me?” And from it, knowing I’ve been reprimanded and feeling as though I got something wrong, that some part of comprehension got broken in me. In that way, I wonder if writing has brought me more pain than pleasure, although in the moment of writing I know I am happier than in most of the moments I spend doing other things. But then, I feel the catharsis I am able to experience by putting words down on a page can almost immediately be negated if I have to reckon with pain, if I make someone feel pain. And the older I get, the less turned on I am by cruelty. Cruelty is exhausting! Lately I like horror. I’ve been reading Brian Evenson’s latest collection Windeye, and he’s dedicated the book to “my lost sister.” It’s such an intense dedication. And every story, read through that lens is sort of like being in the middle of a prism that takes you nowhere except maybe deeper inside yourself. The stories become this meditation: “Everyone will leave, and I will keep walking, alone.” I wonder what the value of that is. I don’t even know how to name it. It reminds me of a terrible class I took as an undergrad, a weekly lecture loosely given on architecture, by a complete non-professional. One week we discussed whether or not the artist has the same responsibility as the architect who must build a solid design so that his buildings will not collapse on the heads of its occupants. Do you encounter work that collapses like this? Work that you would deem irresponsible? I mean, where do your values come from as a writer?
SS The term “values” is so culturally mired. My values are words values, how they work together in a piece or how their friction holds them in some interesting relationship. I approach them like colors on a canvas. I think behaviors, actions termed amoral or irresponsible, can be looked at through the lens of queerness. One of the blessings of my queerness has been that it has opened up a realm of play that I feel wouldn’t be accessible to me otherwise. I’m interested in the gaps in meaning, where the wall doesn’t align with the floor. These spaces are powerfully generative, and can generate horror as well. I love horror films. What does that mean? The perpetrator is often portrayed as someone whose gender and sexual desire are out of alignment, their desire is unsanctioned. Even as a circumspect person I have to identify with the criminal. The way we see things is really our art. I wonder what it would feel like to plant yourself in “broken” comprehension as a homeopathic remedy.
JB I’ve always been worried I was too middle-class to ever call myself deviant; as close as I want to be to dirt or perversity, at the end of the day I will long for something clean and pristine. I have often sought this balance in women I’ve fallen for. I don’t think I’m capable of being in a relationship with a train wreck. I encourage too much chaos on my own. Too combustible. How does home life influence your creativity? Do you think you actively set up situations to prioritize your writing or do you allow your domestic life to determine you? This is something I am very curious about right now – whether or not there should be some division between life and career.
SS It never occurred to me that I could have a career, because I had no “marketable skills,” and that scared me, but not enough to go to any lengths to acquire any. I wanted to read and write poems and have friends and lovers. So I worked undemanding drudge jobs with a lot of people who were also making art. Then when I was 30 I got on the path that lead me to Nonprofit Arts Administration and the land of permeable boundaries between life and career. I have metaphorical orange cones I can throw up when needed, but overall I work best when I’m holding things simultaneously in my consciousness. I think of it as documentation for the archive, the archive of my time as me, and I work and move rapidly between things, so whether I’m booking a reading for The Poetry Project, getting a line of poetry down, applying for a grant, taking a picture or making a list of the 25 things I have to do, it feels like the same work ethic. I’ve set up everything in my life to prioritize poetry and poets.
JB Did you ever want to be something besides a poet? When I was little, I told my second grade teacher I wanted to be a sculptor and move to Egypt. In a funny way, I feel as though I have done that. Art-making is like building or shaping to me. And I create exotic space for myself in that way.
SS When I was really young I remember wanting to be an artist. One of my grandmas painted as a hobby and had a lot of art supplies that I could access. My father can build anything, a true craftsman, and had an elaborate workshop in our basement—tools, machinery, varnishes and glues—so I was always around people who were making things. My grandma had that Betty Edwards book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I’m not sure how direct the connection is but by the time I was a teen I had realized my limits as a visual artist and became more interested in psychology, which is what I started to study in college. But my answer to the question is really that I want to be a private investigator. I talk about it all the time and people think I’m kidding.
JB This is definitely news to me. Of course the relationship between writing and investigation or observation seems clear to me . . . have you ever read Harriet the Spy? I know, I bring in all the highbrow references. (laughter) But seriously, I do wonder about the lesbian camp fascination with the private eye. Not to imply that your dream is camp. Is it the perfect storm of being at once inside and outside an event? Like you get all this access of interrogation (I’m imagining you in a fedora and trench à la Bogart), but the cool distance of being someone else’s tool.
SS No Harriet, I had all of the Nancy Drew books. And then Cagney and Lacey on the TV. My fantasy reaches out to include being a forensic psychologist, and an undercover cop, like Serpico. I’ve always related this directly to getting to the scene of the crime and trying to piece a story together. I have a strong sense of justice. But I’m a poet because I want to leave the gaps in the story and not posit them as the truth. That’s poetic justice.
To learn more about the Queer Art Mentorship, or to apply to be a mentor or mentee, visit the website here.
Jess Barbagallo has performed with Big Dance Theater, Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf (and its Dyke Division), The Builders Association, Half Straddle, and Red Terror Squad. Jess has written the plays Grey-Eyed Dogs, Jess and Joss Are Doing Well, I’ll Meet You in Tijuana, Saturn Nights, Good Year for Hunters (to premiere this summer at the New Ohio Theatre’s Ice Factory Festival) and Men’s Creative Writing Group. Jess was recently named a 2012/13 BAX Artist-in-Residence. Ongoing: Without Me I’m Something or Karen Davis Does . . .. She has an MFA from Brooklyn College.
Stacy Szymaszek is a poet, editor, and arts administrator. She is the author of the books Emptied of All Ships (2005) and Hyperglossia (2009), both published by Litmus Press, as well as numerous chapbooks, including Pasolini Poems (Cy Press, 2005), Orizaba: A Voyage with Hart Crane (Faux Press, 2008), from Hart Island (Albion Books, 2009) and austerity measures (Fewer & Further Press, 2012). She is the Artistic Director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, where she also curates their hallmark Wednesday Night Reading Series.