“Resistance is one of the most important acts in life.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
How has your day been so far?
I just had an orange and I’m having a cup of coffee and I was reading Deborah Landau’s new book earlier and admiring it.
I’ve heard great things. I have a copy I haven’t read yet, but I liked her recent New Yorker poem, and I've enjoyed her work in the past.
I liked her first two books too.
One of the best side effects of having started Divedapper is getting review copies.
Yeah, of course, who doesn’t want books of poetry?
It’s done this thing where I’ll go into a bookstore and think, “well, I didn’t spend all the money that I would’ve spent on these dozen books this month, so I can spend all of that money now on these other books,” and so in reality I still end up spending the same amount but I get twice as many books.
Exactly. I never feel bad buying books.
Yeah! I feel like it doesn’t count if you spend your money on books or kids. I feel like those two things don’t count.
Or good champagne.
Hah. Okay, I want to start with American Boys, the online e-book chapbook. That was a really unique project. You incorporated screen shots of texts in with the poems, and having it all online too was an interesting move.
Yeah, it’s interesting that’s what people remember being my debut because the full-length collection had been taken the summer before that chapbook came out, the summer of 2011, but of course it wasn’t out yet.
Oh, Begging for It was taken already?
Yes, a year before American Boys. And then I didn’t really want to have any of the poems from Begging for It in the chapbook. I thought that would be very boring. It excited me and freed me that the chapbook would come out before the book because I could do anything. In the process of writing those poems I became interested in digital ephemera, the kind we all carry in our phones, and also the ephemera that isn’t digital, like childhood photographs. The ephemera we just sort of carry naturally, maybe somewhere in the back of our head. They began to fit into one another as the project took shape. When I say "digital ephemera we carry in our phones," I mean literal screen captures of conversations, photos that you wouldn’t post anywhere or show anyone but keep for sentimental or personal reasons. And then the Americana theme tied it all together. I mean, I wanted to make something accessible and sexy and very serious, but with a wink.
It’s interesting too because you talk about how we have this ephemera, and the stuff in the book is very of a certain moment. Even those iPhone screenshots are from an older OS, they say 3G at the top. It’s only been four or five years, but today it already seems very much of a past moment.
It’s nostalgic already, exactly. I knew that would happen and I like that. I really wanted that image, of the 3G iPhone, to be the cover, or is it 4G? At some point I got worried that Apple was going to sue us. Of course they wouldn’t because it’s poetry, where there is so little to gain in terms of money. But I was kind of hoping that they would, you know, and it would sort of be an Andy Warhol moment. But that didn’t really happen. No lawsuit. Though I still think that cover is an Andy Warhol moment. You know, the nostalgia of the packaging of our commodities as it changes through the years—I respond to that. Capitalism has certainly engrained that in me but when you turn it away from money and toward some sort of emotive place where you can make something out of it. That’s where it gets interesting. Commodity packaging can be like a photograph. It reminds you of the 80’s or the 90’s or in this case, 2012.
It’s a cool thing where the format of the book itself is in a way doing what the poems in the book are also doing.
It turned out that way, didn’t it? Even while it seems really contemporary, that entire chapbook is tinged with nostalgia. For the past, for the present, and my favorite nostalgia, which is the nostalgia for the future.
That’s fascinating. And you obviously have a sort of unique story too in terms of your socio-political background. You came to America from Bulgaria when you were a—
I don’t know if it’s that unique, to be honest. It doesn’t interest me creatively.
How old were you when you came here?
That’s a complicated question but the short answer is six. Then I spent some summers in Europe and then came back here when I was eleven. I don’t like talking about my childhood, not that it was a bad one by any means; but, it’s also something that I struggle with in the poem. The first few poems in the opening section of Begging for It sort of deal with that feeling of displacement when you’re younger and you don’t really feel like you have a home. I think that’s manifested in a more interesting way in my new poems—displacement, but not a displacement tied to a story of origin.
I’m not really interested in the immigrant narrative in my creative work. I even wanted to cut that first section of Begging for It, a lot of the childhood poems, but Martha Rhodes convinced me not to. Retrospectively, I think it was a good choice to keep those childhood poems, but I’m never going to write them, or versions of them, again. Which isn’t to say I don’t like them. I’m fond of them, but I don’t know who that person in them is. I don’t know who the person who wrote them is either. It feels like a million years ago. One of the great things about being an artist is that you’re in charge of the narrative of your life, and I don’t mean what actually happens to you but how you understand and perceive what happens to you, which of course alters the way that experience is translated and transformed in the act of making, and also the way in which you yourself live with that experience. Forget about audience for a second. I’m interested in remaining interesting to myself first.
That makes sense. And I think that the more interesting way—which obviously isn’t to say an immigrant experience can’t be written about interestingly—but I do think one of the more interesting ways it manifests in your work is the obsession with America and Americanness. Your book ends with a poem called “I’m Always Thinking About You America.” It’s a very overt fixation.
I suppose it is. I guess what I’m saying is that, as a writer, that’s not where I draw my power. And I do think people ask me a lot about it because it’s kind of what you’re pointing to, the fact that America is very present in my work as a character or as an idea. It’s very easy to say, oh, you’re an immigrant. As if it illuminates so much. To quote Alicia Silverstone in "Clueless," “as if.” I think my best poems resist those easy readings.
I guess it reminds me of how, say, in a lot of Woody Allen’s films, New York City could be said to be the protagonist. You could say that America is sort of the protagonist of a lot of your poems, I think.
It definitely is a character. I have a very troubled relationship with America like every other thinking person. I think the fixation one can point to, this America in my poems. It isn’t always simply an allure or even purely lust. There is that, but it’s a complicated equation. I’m not glorifying America in the poems. I’m trying to understand an ideal and an idea of a place, a state of mind, a fantasy, a reality, all of these things that America has been sold to be and made to be. And to ignore the allure or our own desires, my own desires about America—it would be a lie. And at times the allure itself is a lie. But I can’t understand, or rather, I don’t understand America yet. So I keep writing about it.
If I knew how I felt about something I’d never write about it. What’s the point? I mean, you have to realize, I knew of this place, I knew of America way before I ever saw it, before I came here. I created my life here before my life here began. America has been in my imagination since the very beginning. It’s like that really fuckable ex-boyfriend that just won’t go away and he’s the reason you can’t quit smoking. It’s great sex but it’s all going to kill you eventually.
Haha, sure. You have that line, “America is about finding something to worship,” which could be one of the taglines of the collection.
It’s true. It’s either God or money or sex or drugs or…what else do we worship as a culture? I wish it was art. But we’ve taken our greatest vices and put them in this one place. America as the worst place on earth and the best place on earth. That’s what it’s sold as and that’s also how it’s criticized. It’s one extreme to the other. I’m trying to understand that.
You feel that duality in the poems. You have another line, “The country we’d left for still felt at war.” It’s omnipresent. We’ve been at war or bombing people pretty much my entire lifetime.
I can’t remember a time when America wasn’t at war.
You’re singing a very different song than Whitman when you’re singing about America.
Right. I think Whitman had a very complicated relationship with America too, but of course it was a very different country then. Ginsberg points to a lot of the trouble that America creates. I grew up reading both of them quite religiously. Their voices are always in the back of my head and you know, American Boys is dedicated to Ginsberg.
That poem in American Boys about meeting Ginsberg has the line, “America was beautiful and bloody like a boy,” which I love.
It’s a wonderful poem. I wanted to talk about that too—the poets you invoke in these two collections aren’t necessarily the most voguish poets for a literary poet to invoke in 2015. You’re talking about Rimbaud and Crane and Ginsberg, these poets who believed madness bred insight, who were sort of situated on the outside looking in.
It’s a fascinating strand of American poetry and they’re among my favorite poets too. The most ecclesiastical of our canon who had all of this energy. I think in my academic experience, especially with Rimbaud and Ginsberg, people treat them as poets for young people. You know? These are poets to fall in love with as a teenager.
I remember reading Hart Crane’s letters in graduate school. Of course I had read Hart Crane’s poetry. I mean, Hart Crane, what a mystery. The poems and the life and then I read the letters and just had some really intense identification and interest in him as a poet, as a person. The same thing happened with Rimbaud when I read his letters and it made me reread the work which I’d read, like you said, as a teenager. Those poets, Ginsberg and Rimbaud, you’re saying that young readers, teens, really respond to them, and I think that’s true. I think those poets are crucial.
I do too.
I think that those poets are huge. It’s funny because when American Boys came out I started getting emails and tweets from a lot of teens who were on Tumblr and sort of found my poems through Tumblr. They would just write me and say, “I really like this line,” or, “I think this poem is cool.” There was a kind of interesting thing happening where if those lines weren’t Tumbl’d, if the work didn’t have the kind of online life that it did, so many people, and mostly young people, wouldn’t have had access to those poems. Somewhere in my mind I knew this while working on American Boys and it was really important to me that it was exclusively online and not in print.
It’s interesting to me that Ginsberg and Rimbaud sort of also appeal to that kind of younger reader. I was flattered that happened with the chapbook from the beginning because I care about those readers. I think that teens and young people are marginalized in our culture in very specific ways. Their fire and subversion are not encouraged and they’re constantly told they don’t know anything or told that they don’t matter yet. There’s a particular group of young kids that go to poetry and I was part of that group. I’m 30 but I still remember that person who was in his room at 18 reading Rimbaud and feeling completely isolated from the world and that no one was listening to me. And some of those kids write me now, because thankfully we have the internet, and I’m glad that I can say “Yep, I see you. It’s OK that you’re angry. Stay angry. Do something. And don’t listen to anyone if that’s what you need to do to survive.”
But those poets, Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Crane, they were also my entryway into the idea of the other and the idea of celebrating the other. It wasn’t music or dance or painting that made me feel like I could actually be the person who I wanted to be—extremely introverted but still, with something to say. It was poetry. Reading Rimbaud gave me confidence and I think that’s really important for young kids, especially. I think about those readers all the time because I was one. I’m still one, in a way. I have to remind myself that resistance is one of the most important acts in life. As Whitman wrote, “Resist much, obey little.” If I had a tattoo, that would be it. And this cool kid from Britain emailed me a while ago with a photo of a tattoo he got after my poem “Sensualism.” I Instagramed it, if you want to see the photo. I couldn’t believe it. It meant a lot to me that the poem meant that much to him.
I think that’s a great point—people who don’t necessarily see their day-to-day lives reflected in dominant media can find themselves in poetry. That was certainly true of my story. I want to clarify that I wasn’t necessarily saying that by invoking these poets you were targeting young readers.
Oh no, I didn’t think that. I understand what you’re saying. I guess I was just responding to how, in some ways, those poets are really interesting to me because they do have that kind of following. I have a huge respect for youth culture.
There’s a lot of power there. There’s obviously an intense energy when you first have a dog-eared City Lights copy of Howl. Nothing feels so revolutionary and so illicit and so subversive as that little paperback.
It’s true. It can be life-changing.
It was for me. It has been for millions of people.
That’s the power. And see you can say “millions” because it has actually gone into that kind of print run. When I teach Introduction to Creative Writing, I always include that poem on the syllabus knowing full well that “Howl” is going to completely baffle them. Sometimes it enrages them, sometimes it fascinates them.
I do this thing where we read it all as a class and often times we do it outside. It’s a communal reading and I just say, “let’s start here and you read however many lines you want, everyone reads however many lines they want, then you can stop and the next person can pick up.” At first the students are reading like two lines, three lines, five lines, so completely startled by the syntax and the language itself. They’re self-conscious. And then by the end of it, something happens. Something happens when you read “Howl” in a group of young people who have never read it before. Some of them, many of them are seduced by that thing in poetry that is ineffable, impossible to explain. That thing where language becomes your home. So abstract, right—but so real, you feel it.
They have an experience and they’re not interested in the meaning. The experience of the poem and of the language has entered them in this way where they’re receptive to things that they weren’t receptive to before. That’s such a powerful moment. I never ask what it means, what do they think this poem means? They’ll come to me afterward and ask, “what is he talking about here?” or “what’s happening in the country that is making him write these kinds of things?” That kind of curiosity is really important.
I also like to teach that poem because I want to encourage students and young people to dissent. To question and not to cooperate. Because they’re also at a time in their lives, at the very beginning of being an adult, where everyone is telling them to cooperate and to accept norms. You know what word is great for that time? “No.” That’s a very powerful word. As powerful as “yes.” It’s been more powerful than “yes” in my life. I also don’t believe in a power structure in the classroom (and reading Foucault has really informed my teaching and my views on this). It’s there inherently. I do everything I can to equalize the room and to let them know that I’m also there learning from them and that they have every right to say “no” to me.
That’s so valuable, being able to watch that moment of poetry, of people having that experience of switching over from reading a text to just being the recipients of an incantation you know? I am of the belief that there’s poetry for everyone. You know what I mean? There’s a poem for everybody and there are poems to which anybody can connect, and so that’s the moment as an instructor of poetics you go in search of. You highlight well why “Howl” is such a useful poem to get to that moment.
Absolutely. There’s a Lynn Melnick and Brett Fletcher Lauer anthology that’s coming out for young readers, and I think that’s a really important project. I remember being a really young kid reading mostly poetry and then pre-college, maybe first year of college reading Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero for the first time. I was the same age as the narrator and I was a freshman and I just remember reading it and feeling seen, you know? I didn’t have the same life at all. I didn’t live in LA, I didn’t go to a small liberal arts school, I wasn’t rich, but emotionally that book really spoke to me. It’s not necessarily about relatability. We have all had that experience of being seen by a work of art that feels as different and far from us as possible, yet knows something about us. It tells us something about ourselves. That’s another thing I try to encourage in students. Question relatability. Be critical of it. You will be surprised what you may feel seen and known by. I don’t relate to Rimbaud or Ginsberg because they were gay. That’s not it.
I want to talk more about this idea of poems as incantation because that’s definitely a deep source of power in your poems. You deal with prayer a lot.
Sex and God.
I was just talking to another poet, Ada Limón, about this, because—
I love Ada.
Me too! And she talks about her poems either being pleases or thank yous. I like to think about the most rudimentary form of prayer being “help me, help me, help me, thank you, thank you, thank you,” and it seems to me that a lot of your poems play with this idea of prayer in a sort of nuanced way that’s tied deeply to the body and tied deeply to the way the body asks and needs and receives.
I think my speaker, most of the time, is in trouble. Existential trouble, romantic trouble, spiritual trouble and—the poems are always written from a place of struggle of being in the world.
I was raised Christian Orthodox and Catholic both—kind of strange, I know—and I remember as a young kid constantly being dragged to church and also to cemeteries and graves. My grandmother would take me to visit all the dead, all the family, and you know that was just a totally normal thing to do every Sunday afternoon. Bring the dead some kind of offering or attention. Maybe talk to them a little bit. And then these services, I mean the Christian Orthodox service, it’s just very flashy, you know? It’s a very emotional service and I think that my first fascination with imagery or the imagery that seems to stick with me the most is that imagery of the church and the graveyards and the priest singing. Those are two places, the church and the cemetery, where I remember first understanding what aura is. Before I even knew the word.
I was always very troubled in those environments because they’re highly emotional spaces and I didn’t exactly know what I was responding to but I knew something was happening inside me. That imagery has stuck with me throughout my entire life. It seems to come up whenever I’m writing about these experiences where my speakers are in trouble. And you know, I’m not a Christian, I’m not Catholic. I’m a deeply spiritual person but in an entirely different way. I’m not religious. But to believe that only what you see is real—that’s a sign of complete naiveté. The church was sort of the first institution that brought up these questions, these existential questions of life and death and I gravitated toward those questions the most because they seemed the most difficult, the most unanswerable and the most important.
And of course I was completely unsatisfied with what I was told as a kid. So I had to try and find some answers for myself and figure out what any of it meant. I think that was poetry. That’s sort of when I found poetry. I realized that poetry addresses all of these things without the unnecessary dogma. Without lying. And uncertainty is the highest form of truth, I think. It’s our human condition. What do we actually know? I really don’t think much. The most dangerous person is a person who thinks he knows. A poem that knows something and is trying to show us it knows something is usually dead to me no matter how well crafted it is. But to admit you don’t know is not valued in our culture. There’s no capital or award attached to not knowing. Yet I think it’s important to live in, to make, from that state.
It’s interesting too what you can do as a poet by incorporating these elements of religion that are such a fundamental part of our cultural lives. It’s almost radioactive. If you harness it correctly it can be tremendously useful and powerful and interesting, but then if you’re sloppy or clumsy in your handling, it can also ruin a poem, totally devastate it.
Right. I think it is dangerous. I think that we have to constantly push ourselves to—if we’re going to use iconography or images that have been around for centuries, we have to complicate them. We have to use them differently, right?
And that’s an interesting element of your work, taking what is already out there and known and re-appropriating or complicating it. The language of Begging for It is not written the way that you see a lot. It’s a unique voice.
We’ve been going for an hour. Do you want to tell me what you’re working on now?
Sure. Right before you called, I was looking over something I wrote yesterday.
Yeah, Sunday mornings tend to function that way for me. I’m going to have my orange and my coffee and if I’ve written something in the last week I’ll sort of look it over. I’m kinder to myself on Sunday morning. I’m working on finishing a book. I’ve been working on it for maybe, I don’t know, three years. It’s basically done but I have a very hard time letting go. So, not yet.
That’s great news.
For the most selfish reasons possible, I’m excited about it.
Well, those are the best reasons. Thank you for actually doing your project, which I think is so important for all of the reasons that we sort of circled around in this interview. I think it’s important to give poets a venue to talk about their lives and their work, instead of just formulaic interview questions about promoting a new book.
I wholeheartedly agree. Thank you for saying that—that means a lot to me.
We’ve got to be on each other’s side.
That seems like a good place to end. You know, every year that idea of “does poetry matter” comes up, and most of the time the dominant culture is not on our side. That’s ok. It has never been on our side. This is another thing teens and young people know. I think that as poets we really need to support each other a lot more and not tear each other down, whether that’s on social media, at our readings, whatever the case. Just take ourselves with a greater seriousness, not necessarily our own work because everyone takes their own work seriously. But just to acknowledge poetry is so much greater than all of us, than any one of our books. It has been beneficial for me, while writing this new book, to think about what it means to have a life in poetry rather than what it means to tweet or post about poetry online. I’m saying this as someone who is active online, but poetry doesn’t live there. It doesn’t live on a page either. It’s internal. It’s in the body itself.
And because I really believe in it and what all of us who are writing it are doing—forget about the dominant culture, we have to start being more compassionate toward each other and telling each other, as poets, that we matter. Maybe no one else will say that to us. And perhaps I’m also thinking about this because in the past year I’ve been a little quiet, I’ve gone through some personal changes and none of it has been really easy. It sounds cliché and if it is I don’t care. Poetry is what has helped me the most in life. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for poetry and the work of other poets.
That’s a wonderful note to end on.
Thank you for doing this and taking an hour from your Sunday.
Interview Posted: June 1, 2015
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