Monday, August 30, 2010

Della Watson talks with Steffi Drewes for her Sept 3rd Studio One Reading

Della Watson: Let’s start at the beginning: What did you eat for breakfast?

Steffi Drewes: This morning I made a mango coconut raspberry smoothie and immediately decided I should have one of these every day.

DW: Good god, that sounds delightful—much like your poetry, which seems to have a jazz-like quality, as root sounds repeat and mutate. How does sound develop in your poems?

SD: It usually starts with a single phrase or line, or a couple of words that sound like they belong together even though they signify totally different things or emotional contexts. I try to pay a lot of attention to word connotations, because I want there to be multiple interpretations available to the reader. But I basically start riffing off that one word combination or image and see where it leads me. I do like the comparison to jazz because there is definitely a sense of play and improvisation, of tuning into the words and trying to establish a balance (or rather a tension) between logic and mystery, pleasure and peculiarity, beauty and discomfort—in sound and context. The story unfolds itself. I try not to let a preconceived narrative interrupt the language.

DW: You and I both received our MFAs from art schools. Do other art forms have a role in your poetry?

SD: Absolutely. I have always sought out museums and galleries as sanctuaries and sources of inspiration. In grad school, getting to my classes involved walking past installations of student work or in-progress critiques of all kinds—architecture, sculpture, fashion, painting, photography—so I was constantly surrounded by creative energy. Taking book arts and photography classes also informed my writing, in terms of visual presentation, collage and splicing techniques. I like thinking about the overlap between the visual and literary art worlds—the shared vocabularies, the possibilities for collaboration. I had a great experience collaborating with a photography student and would love to do something like that again. Right now, I’m working on a series of poems with the working title “Installation” that is very much in conversation with the practices of visual art-making, gallery installations, and everyday scenes that strike me.

DW: Tell me about the “Horizon Line Drawings” series.

SD: It was part of a writing exercise I started a few years ago. Each poem was originally named for a day of the week, but I renamed the series because each poem seemed like a simplified account of the day’s events, like an outline or line drawing. For me, “horizon line” was about the fact that I wrote them at the end of each day, looking back long after sunset and tracing where I had been. I assigned them arbitrary numbers because titling them with days of the week felt just as arbitrary, yet numbers seemed to indicate that there were many more entries, either existing or yet unwritten.

DW: There’s a phrase in your poem “Days Before the Tunnel Failed Us” that struck me as interesting: “how these nets are nothing more / than loops and loops of vowel sounds.” I’m gonna go out on a limb and identify this as a statement of poetics. If you care to join me on my limb, answer this: Are you the fish or the fisherwoman?

SD: As far as writing goes, sometimes I’m the one swinging the net and sometimes I’m the one getting caught—but I can usually escape! To be perfectly honest, I didn’t have a poetics statement in mind when I wrote that. In fact, I’ve revised that section of the poem multiple times but always kept that phrase the same. Ars poetica? Maybe so. For now, I will happily join you on the limb.

DW: So while we’re out on that limb, tell me, do you consider yourself avant-garde or experimental? And for that matter, do you ally yourself with any of the poetry “camps”?

SD: Only those poets who like to go camping, because it is important to have allies and I enjoy being outdoors. But I don’t find the labels all that helpful when it comes to my own work—maybe because I’m so deep in it. Every poem I write feels like an experiment—that’s what keeps it exciting for me. I try to challenge myself and my readers with different forms and rhythms, phrasing and narrative structures, but maybe that impulse to try new things is a reflection of both my attention span and writerly intention. I wouldn’t keep writing if it felt predictable and safe.

DW: So while we’re out on that limb, tell me, do you consider yourself avant-garde or experimental? And for that matter, do you ally yourself with any of the poetry “camps”?

DW: So while we’re out on that limb, tell me, do you consider yourself avant-garde or experimental? And for that matter, do you ally yourself with any of the poetry “camps”?

SD: Are you in need of a hard yes or no or “I am X” for this one? I seem to have received this question several times. . .

DW: It must be an email glitch. Just ignore any repeat questions.

DW: So while we’re out on that limb, tell me, do you consider yourself avant-garde or experimental? And for that matter, do you ally yourself with any of the poetry “camps”?

SD: OK, now it’s just getting funny. That’s probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve received this question via email. It’s almost as though the computer refuses to accept my vague question-dodging answer. As if it is imperative that I answer this question. Nothing like a little ghostly technological persistence to make a girl batty and doubt her words!

DW: So while we’re out on that limb, tell me, do you consider yourself avant-garde or experimental? And for that matter, do you ally yourself with any of the poetry “camps”?

Interviewer’s note: At press time, Steffi Drewes’s email account was still being bombarded with the persistent poetry-camps question. We fear that Steffi may be haunted by this question for the rest of her life.

Days Before the Tunnel Failed Us by Steffi Drewes

Sunday, August 8, 2010

In Case You Missed the Devota, Shimoda, Baus Reading

Steven Fama's take on the night here

And some photos:


photos c/o Trevor Calvert. Thanks Trevor!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Don Mee Choi talks with Dot Devota for Friday August 6th's reading

DON MEE CHOI: As I was reading your poem “Insurgency,” published in Action, Yes, I thought of Ch’oe Sung-ja’s poetry, a contemporary Korean women poet I translated in Anxiety of Words. I found the relentlessly abrasive, rebellious images and thoughts in the poem breathtaking. Then I started to think that a brilliant line such as this “An idiot asking a valid question in a world that didn’t have to be a world because it was already validated as one, its own, Hall of Fame” could only be written by an insurgent translator of some sorts, living in a time already realized—“children’s books will be best. Small cabins will not be kind. Neither will the cockpits of planes.”
How did you come to write “Insurgency”?

DOT DEVOTA: The “Insurgency” poems came after writing a series titled “Defenestrations”. There was very little planning—titles came to me and I began writing to them. I was a dog with its nose to the ground following a scent, turning corners every once in awhile but all the time not looking ahead or even up.

Of course the title “Insurgency” comes from news coverage on US wars. I grabbed the title like a toddler who picks up the word “fuck” from their parents—having very little idea as to what the word actually means but by spilling it over and over again they become a part of the condition of that word. Because it is obscene, gets attention, and for the toddler it has consequences. As soon as the “Insurgency” poems started “Counterinsurgency” poems began appearing on the same page. So I had these mutinies trying to distinguish themselves but with similar characteristics or “tactics” they were completely indistinguishable. The titles become bogus. The poems might as well not be titled at all, or maybe they should just be called “Fuck”.

DMC: Any thoughts about being or posing as an insurgent translator?

DD: I think of the insurgent translator as engaging in armed resistance by taking a foreign language and making it ones own. Although I feel pretty weaponless. Poetry not being much of a weapon in the US. Being a poet here feels like being a soldier without any arms or legs to wield weapons. Maybe that makes the poet a war vet, having lost recognizable human form during battle, possibly becoming hyper-human simultaneously, because they were totaled by the experience—thus lineation in poetry.

DMC: And what about the “Fat Ghost” of the “Insurgency Day”? I’m curious about this fatty ghost. Fat with curtains or something else?

DD: Fat with its ghostness, I suppose. As an invisible entity getting larger, becoming monstrously invisible, taking up all the space but invisible nonetheless. It’s infuriating!

DMC: Your manuscript, The Division of Labor, was one of the five finalists for Omnidawn’s full book poetry contest. Are you distributing it elsewhere? If you were to say to a publisher of your choice why they should publish this manuscript, what would you say? Any insurgent thoughts will be most appreciated!

DD: I imagine the insurgent wouldn’t abide by rules of poetry publishing. I’d ask myself, “How do insurgents get their concerns across, their demands met?” Do some literary beheading. I imagine I’d have to break in through the air vents of Bookthug’s office, or into the Waldrop’s basement, or as literary anthrax sent to New Directions. It would be easier than finding my capitalist spirit and trying to sell anyone anything. I know people say “but lots of writers peddled their manuscripts door to door.” But this is largely a folktale passed down to us by people who mean well. I’m not a man doing business on a golf course. My poetry is my sex. It’s how I plan on sleeping my way into a book. A lot of insurgents have great PR—videos from undisclosed desert locations, and car bombs always get attention. But really, more than anything, I would want a friend to publish it, and I would say to them, “You are my friend and I want to die. Take these poems they belong to you now.”

DMC: Last you traveled to Lebanon and Syria. Why Lebanon and Syria? Who translated your poems that appeared in As-Safir? Did you get to read with the translator? Would you be able to show one translated poem here?

DD: After writing The Division of Labor, which eventually turns its gaze towards the Middle East, I needed to go. As Americans, we’re constantly being inundated with all this information about the Middle East, but we have very little understanding as to what it’s actually like there. I needed to see what was going on street-level. My boyfriend Brandon Shimoda and I contacted a bunch of Arab poets there, such as Sabah Zwein (who translated our poems) and Etel Adnan (who also lives in California and Paris) and asked if they wanted to meet. Originally, I had full funding from the University of Montana’s Arab Studies—a program specifically designed to promote conversation and cultural exchange—but then the US issued a travel warning and suddenly the school pulled my funding and refused to answer my calls. It was the same week that Obama gave his hyped-up Cairo speech to the Arab world, talking about the need for dialogue and understanding but simultaneously issuing warnings and bans making it impossible for me to go as an academic. I went anyway.

Brandon and I were asked to give a reading in Damascus in a basement for about 200 Syrians. They were the best audience you could imagine, because they are actually alive at poetry readings—yelling out, trying to read along, drunk, asking to have the poems afterwards like it’s the set-list from a concert, demanding to be won over by the writing, i.e. engaged.

DMC: You have recently embarked on a much longer trip, a journey back to the land where your grandmother, Dot Devota, had once lived. How does your grandmother’s identity as a rodeo star overlap with yours?

DD: The land—280 acres in mid-Missouri—is still in my family, bought by my grandparents in 1940, although it’s not a working ranch anymore. But it’s beautiful country, very Tarkovsky-esque. It has hidden pastures and quicksand. My grandmother wasn’t a rodeo star herself, just gave birth to them. Rodeos weren’t really popular in the US yet when she was growing up. Still just a bunch of cowboys then. But as for our identities, I’m not sure they do overlap. More than any identity, it’s about connection to the land. Having the exterior landscape mirror my interior landscape. I feel like I was sort of kidnapped from the country before I was even born, exiled from a time and place I had never experienced, so it’s not nostalgia and it’s not idealizing the past, because it’s alive and still in my bones. More like abduction from a way of life—having been taken to a city and given possibilities only to scheme my way back, except now I’m horseless and without farm skills.

DOT DEVOTA fled Oklahoma during the dust bowl. Her poems can be found in Boonville, MO.

Don Mee Choi's first book of poems, The Morning News Is Exciting, is now
available from Action Books. She has
translated When The Plug Gets Unplugged (Tinfish, 2005), Anxiety Of Words
(Zephyr, 2006), and Mommy Must Be A Fountain Of Feathers (Action Books,