WHAT IS THE WORST LETTER IN THE ALPHABET?
WHAT IS THE WORST LETTER IN THE ALPHABET?
Hello. I’m reporter Michael Klam, and it is my great pleasure to interview myself for The Nervous Breakdown. I was told by the mighty Rich Ferguson to read the other self-interviews on TNB, but I didn’t. My ego is far too big for that, cosmic big, not like the cosmos of yesterday (we are the only galaxy, etc.) but “Kepler huge” like the infinite cosmos with all of its bits of dust and muck that barely fit into the pinky toe of my self-awareness and enlightenment.
Woah, woah, woah! Hello? Editor Michael Klam checking in here: Was that last sentence a run-on? Should I fix it? Should I consult Strunk and White? I don’t think it makes sense.
Autobiography in ten words.
Brawled my way into the world. Survive is my language.
What’s the strangest place you’ve ever written a poem?
In a Porta-Potty at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, drunk off my ass on the first beer I’d ever imbibed. The poem didn’t make it past the cutting room floor for my first book, but that feeling of MUST WRITE A POEM NOW before I’d even really started identifying as a poet (I still thought of myself as a fiction writer, ha!) was exhilarating. Though the beer probably contributed to that.
In your most recent collection, The New Testament, you wrote in one of your poems, “Hustle”: “I eat with humans who think any book full of black characters is about race.” Overall, your work seems to revolve around issues of sexuality, love, violence, masculinity, family, spirituality, mortality, and race (among other things, of course). When someone attempts to categorize you exclusively as a “homosexual” or a “gym rat” or a “Southern black man” or a “’religious’ poet,” etc (while misrepresenting or failing to acknowledge the other parts of your identity), how do you resist such curtailment or oversimplification of your identity?
Well, I don’t exactly “resist” any identifiers because I don’t automatically think of it as “curtailment” or “oversimplification.” So yes, the parenthetical phase in your question is of utmost importance.
When did you write your first poem?
I wrote my first poem in 1967 when I was a freshman at the University of Southern California. It was my first time away from home, the war in Viet Nam was going full force and I was a confused, angst-filled adolescent who didn’t know what I thought about anything. I had a huge crush on my French professor, Dr. Robin Blake, and one day — I usually sat in the front row of class — he saw that I had scribbled the beginnings of a poem on my notebook. He stopped and picked the poem up off the notebook and said to the class that Ms. Bogen had written a poem and that it was pretty good. For the rest of the semester, I would strategically leave poems on the side of my notebook although he never singled me out again. I probably would have stopped writing but at the end of my freshman year I became the first freshman to ever win the (college) award from the Academy of American Poets at USC.
When did you start writing poetry?
I was drawn to poetry quite young. In the first grade I wrote a ‘poetry collection’- think rhyming couplets and magic marker drawings. When my teacher caught onto how I was spending my time, she allowed me to go ‘on tour’ to all the other first grade classes to present my work. This was my first poetry reading. I continued to read poetry throughout childhood and into adolescence, where I got simultaneously got very into sonnets (penning a few on the kitchen floor of my childhood in cleaning solution) and pop punk lyrics (Fall Out Boy, Brand New, Taking Back Sunday). Even a few years away from its general angst, I’m still a big fan of the genre- there is something piercing, illuminating and revealing (from a cultural standpoint) about a lot of pop punk and emo’s lyrical themes and qualities. More recently, I’ve paid a lot of attention to the poetry of hip hop- hip hop is doing a lot of important work right now. I would be remiss to not mention the lyrical and performative prowess of artists like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper.
What is the best advice your mother ever gave you?
No one will ever remember how clean I kept my toilets; use your time for something else.
It’s so good to get a chance to talk to you about your first book of poems, Trouble the Water. So I wanna try something a bit different. I’m not that interested in asking the usual questions and just talking about writing. Let’s talk about your influences outside of literature as a way to frame the conversation.
Yes! Thank God. Haha.
Why Chaos Theories? What is the significance of the title?
Many tenets from chaos theory appear in these poems. After reading a little bit about it, I became obsessed with the way in which chaos is actually a type of order. This contradiction continues to fascinate me and seems an apt metaphor for human emotions and relationships, and maybe even a metaphor for the writing process – or at least my process: through my poems I attempt to force order onto the disorder of the world. Plus I love all of the scientific language: strange attractors, bifurcations, butterfly effect, turbulence, dynamic systems, sensitivity to initial conditions, and on and on… There is so much gorgeous language to mine.
March 18, 2016
Do you imagine an ideal reader?
The ideal reader is someone who, upon reading a poem, goes immediately to find someone, another ideal reader, and she says, “Listen to this!” and reads the poem aloud as if she herself had written it. I grew up with parents who said often, “Listen to this!” And I listened. Maybe I’m someone’s ideal reader—I hope so!
Who is Soraya?
My poetic other who has been inspiring me since around 2003. Ah, revealing error, I meant to say 2013, when I wrote this book, but 2003 is actually the year I began seriously publishing in journals and started composing my first books, although I’d been writing full-time for about eight years prior to that. So 2003 was really the year I felt legitimized as a writer and knew for sure that was to be my career until the end come what may. Anyway, Soraya gave me license a few years ago to indulge in the exuberance of language, to break the shackles of narrative sense, to abandon linear logic, to give way to the free play of pure pleasure. Soraya is unrestrained joy, lack of inhibition, poly-everything, chockfull of every gluttonous pleasure countering the made-up envelope and container of our mortal lives. Soraya is immortality, lack of finite being, the dissolution of my congealed identities in the very processes of imagining and writing.
You have a book out with Great Weather for MEDIA, tell me about it.
I am very proud of this book. It is a memoir of sorts. Mostly stories and poems about my childhood and growing up poor, but also stories and poems about my life into adulthood. Dealing with addiction, dealing with epilepsy, dealing with the death of loved ones, remembering the path that got me here. Really though, I say fuck a lot and I try not to say too many dumb things.
So I heard your new book, A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora, is about whales. What is your favorite whale species?
How can I choose just one? I love humpback whales for the way they sing. I love North Atlantic right whales because they don’t engage in any of that inanity that most other animal species engage in, where the males fight one another to see who gets sexual access to the females; instead, everyone just makes love with everyone elese, and everyone is happy. I love bowhead whales for their wiliness, their longevity, the jaunty upside-down Nike swoosh of their mouth shape. I love sperm whales for their stolid squareness of brow, their quintessential Moby-Dickish-ness. Also for how damn loud they are. Good on them for being so loud. But I love the quiet whales just as much, and I love the slow lumbering whales just as much as the fast twittering ones, the light-fleshed whales just as much as the dark.
So, what are you wearing?
I like how you got saucy right at the beginning of this interview. I like your style. I like the cut of your jib. I’m not sure what a “jib” is…sure I could look it up…but I like the whole thing. I’m wearing blue plaid pajama buttons, Target slippers, and yesterday’s socks and shirt. I spend a lot of days like this…though, honestly, the slippers are more of a colder weather kind of thing.