The education of the ear
“The sound must be true before anything else can be.”
Sheila Davies Sumner: Before I ask about your new book, would you describe how you first came to poetry or how you came to love it and what trajectory your poems have taken over time?
Joel Craig: I had numerous flirtations with poetry in high school and I remember writing poems and submitting them to the school’s annual journal. I bought a fully rhyming book by C.K. Williams and read it a lot, but that was sort of like having one record and saying you’re really into music. My registration happened late for the second semester of my freshman year at Iowa and I was struggling to find classes—I needed a class that wasn't music and wasn't core, and my adviser pulled up a class on W.S. Merwin and his contemporaries. I had no idea who Merwin was. The professor, an archivist, had recently been employed by Ohio State University to work on the lot of Merwin papers they had just purchased. He only taught two books; a collected Merwin and the Vendler anthology. I was introduced to John Berryman, Richard Hugo, John Ashbery, James Tate, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath and Charles Simic—those are the ones that stick out—the American contemporary poetry basics. Amazed by Berryman’s Dream Songs and “The Wheelchair Butterfly” by Tate—I didn't know you could do that with words—I wrote poems again, and even gave some to that teacher. He was gracious and gave me feedback on one, encouraging me to take a poetry writing class, which I did a couple of times. I dabbled here and there over the next few years, but it wasn't until I spent a summer largely unemployed in Minneapolis that I put serious time into writing.
Certainly my poems evolved over time. The White House is evidence of how they've grown from minimal, painterly sound exercises into denser sweeps that aren't afraid to get at or into multiple characters. That couldn't happen until I’d largely quit poetry for a few years to focus on deejaying. When I started again it was so hard to get into the poem space and my standards were much higher. It took a couple of years to feel good about the process, to understand I was making something worthy of an audience.
SDS: Yes, I noticed that characters are initiated or deepened through syntactical layerings and switchbacks which carry narrative -- an image, observation, aphorism, symbolic theme, a constellation of views. It’s very effective. A line from “High Park” gets at what I mean: “Words carving through my mind / occasionally taking a wrong turn / through labyrinthine caverns.” You seem to let that happen in your poems.
JC: Funny, those lines almost didn't make it, but the personal truth carried in them won in the end. The key is for each turn or decision to build off of the previous so you never leave the sense of the moment. The audience is more apt to follow a sure-footed guide, so whether or not the guide has actually been there becomes irrelevant.
SDS: In my first reading of The White House, I found myself slowing down to accommodate the tone and mood and rhythm of your poems. This cohesive medium seemed to be musical –– and for me it created an experience that was dependable and constant –– a trustworthiness. This music gives range for your poet’s voices to roam, and I relied on it to lead me through the diverse language of the poems. Could you say something about the ways your creative process collaborates in relationship to music, sound, sonics?
JC: Music is where it’s at for me, so I’m glad the urge was prompted in you. To me, music is the primary layer of experience and intelligence in poetry, what makes it such an inclusive contact to anyone open to the participation required, the patience. The way we take it in, what makes it enjoyable, is so personal to our history and maturity with it, which fascinates me. On the one hand there seems to be a simple equation—the more we listen, the better we become at listening and the more we are rewarded. On the other, there is so much music to hear, different reasons for exposure, the accidental, the purposeful, so that the basis for the experience, our taste, is always evolving, even when we aren't trying. There are different states of listening, too, such as rehearsal or improvisation, where you are listening in a very different way to the parts of around you, cognizant of the moment but imagining the whole. Actually giving a musical performance requires listening that is a variant to that of the audience receiving that performance. So the education of the ear can happen in myriad ways.
I spent years studying voice, singing in different choirs, and that was my window into art-making, of what process involves. Trying to place the voice you are responsible for, the voice that literally resonates within your skull into a performance of multiple parts unified, demands particular concentration—a multi-tasking. This is also true of DJ-ing where you must be aware of both the track being presented to the room, and the multiple tracks sampled in the cue before sensing the fit (a kind of improvisation)—music you hear and discard, the music you merge with what the audience is already hearing. Both of these processes have fed my ear and made me comfortable with the process required to make poems. It takes a lot of work, requiring many decisions about what you don’t include in order to arrive at what you do, and those decisions are best made quickly, for me. The goal of the process being for one idea to grow out of another, reformulate and lead to another new idea while also achieving an inner cohesion; a balancing of recognition, rhythm, and association that can lead to “aha” moments for the audience. The sound must be true before anything else can be.
SDS: The “musical density” of this tone makes possible a certain depth and wide margin of feeling. Pronouns and tenses can change but the tone holds –– it’s like a solution in which ambient emotions are buoyant, submerged, diluted. I’m curious how you nurture feelings that may emerge while writing a poem? Or when you might choose to encourage or delay emotional development within and across your poems?
JC: Your reading is so attentive, thank you. I like to think in terms of a monologue of collective voices, and tonality is certainly a key to whether or not it’s successful. Emotional substance allows for dynamic capacity and renewal. Moods and temperaments become a palette for the audience’s (as well as my own) emotional reflexes to draw from. I don’t mean to make it sound technical, it’s not, but I think it can be a useful way to describe the interactions that are possible, or that I aim to make possible. I really have to feel my way through it, nurture the development if you will, and that process is largely intuitive, even kinetic—there’s no scheme. There is obviously conscious manipulation toward an overall emotional power, but I’m more interested in the stuff making emotion happen in life, relationships, authority and weakness, novelty, memory, our flexibility in receiving stimuli and having experience—internal and external—on any given day during any given hour, how we feel, use, and express these experiences, how we are guided or bound by our own state, and what the outcomes are. For example, anxiety is something I’ve dealt with throughout my life, so the fact of it is constantly present in my poems. To be functional while anxious is hard—it elicits boundaries to expression, snuffs spontaneity, leads to predictable internalization—but in a poem the barriers can be turned into directions. A predictable structure in my emotional being can be allowed progressive developments, I think, by inhabiting the voices of others. A charged emotion can be stated, juxtaposed with observation or thematic material, reshaped in the process of improvisation. That’s one example, but I’m interested in all registers of emotion and the dimensions that are possible for and because of them.
SDS: Yes the anxiety is palpable. It’s released and indrawn, a kind of pulsing, which accelerates a reader’s ability both to contain and to live the anxiety.
JC: A certain level of discomfort can make you more curious, too.
SDS: At first I made a political association to The White House but as I read, different meanings occurred to me –– for instance, a white house that reflects wavelengths of visible light. I noticed your diction and metaphor: “instructions for building a paper house”, “consciousness that leaks like a house”, and “the house of dread”, as well as the many references to floors and doors and windows inside rooms where all kinds of people enter, live, love, and leave. What are the ways this title influenced and shaped the book?
JC: The title fell into my lap as I was visiting with a friend recently returned from spending a month in New Zealand. He capped an hour-long description of the trip, his impressions, with bewilderment at the fact of brothels, legal brothels, existing in Auckland—and how they are not diminutive places. The most famous is called The White House and it was a replica the White House. I was reminded of a record I loved also called The White House by The Dead C, a New Zealand noise outfit. The album cover was a creepy photo of (I assumed) the White House, but it seemed more like it belonged on a cheap postcard. I’m still not sure which one is actually represented on the cover. No matter, the coincidence and the layers around it seemed a good sum for the poetry I was making—I’d already written the poem. It became my working title and it stuck. I became more conscious certainly of my description of interior spaces, or landings as I came to think of them.
SDS: One of my favorite poems in this collection is “Stargazing”. It has a personal transcendence, an off-the-ground ecstasy: “My sweetheart / brings molecules and reads the sky out loud / we should be satellites!” Or, as you wrote in another poem, “we could drift out into space so easily.” There seems to be so much humor and playfulness here.
JC: Again I’m tickled at your reference, as that poem nearly didn't make it into the book. In the end I think of it as a charming little pop song that breaks the longer narratives, allowing a different spirit for them to rub against, perhaps providing unexpected resonance via the metaphysical.
SDS: There are ten poems in The White House that share a stanzaic pattern: a single line which more or less extends to the center of the page, followed by a block of indented lines. Here’s one example from “Street Dad”:
I sat for a moment, staring at my knees as I tried
to put broad, wide images
into small, tidy words.
And another from “Stars As Eyes”:
I could go to her house but I’m afraid of what I might find. I sidestep
the explanatory conversation, just a plain
Saturday night. Presenting a succession of facts
she is surprised by the inability to explain
why she must go. Both inward and outward
consciousness leaks like a house.
While reading these poems, they became more and more concrete, taking on the shape of spoons or dippers in assorted sizes. It was as if the stanzaic form was feeding me the poem’s content. Which really impressed me. And which, at times, became an edgy experience: would that single line be strong enough to bear its subject matter? This was the way I entered and played with the form and I wonder about your own experience: what it offered you in terms of symbolism, poetics, imagery –– or something else?
JC: Ten years ago I saw the poet Lewis Warsh give a reading at Chicago’s wonderful, unfortunately defunct Discrete Series. Having never encountered his work before, I was completely stunned by how good it was. I bought a copy of Touch of the Whip, and became transfixed by his poem “We Wrote a Letter to Jesus,” which carried some incredibly long lines into a standard five-space tab. Some lines would only carry a word or two, which in my line of work as a graphic designer is a mistake (we’re taught to avoid widowed words at all costs), but some lines would extend into what seemed to be a stanza of several lines, so I was left to wonder at his intentions. How much of this was the result of the book layout vs. intent? But I was drawn to the effect—the way each line was a jump from the previous, propelling the poem forward—enough to try and make it my own. I exaggerated the tab, and was attentive to complete each line rather than allow an arbitrary break. What I wound up with was two distinct margins and what seemed like two automatic points of entry, and just this simple idea felt liberating. I love your idea of a spoon, of being fed—I hadn't thought of that. A friend once described it as axes falling down a page. It certainly seemed to accomplish both a density and momentum I’d never felt capable of. It allowed for the rapid inclusion of different imagery, while multiple voices could coexist and build simultaneity of feeling, becoming one.
SDS: In “Cabbage Alley, you've written the couplet, “A beautiful poem / just fell over”. I’m reminded of how easily inspiration can evaporate or collapse into its opposite.
JC: Absolutely, and more often than not I find that’s why it’s so important to be mindful of opportunities and be willing to gamble for them. Here’s a lyric I love from Harry Nilsson’s The Point:
Flying high up in the sky, I wonder why I have to have another
Point of view to see me through
But now I think I'm gonna fall, I hope this isn't all
And on top of that I hope it's not the last time
SDS: Writing Process: Do you read your poems aloud? If so, what relationship does that have to your writing and revision process?
JC: Reading aloud is key to my process—it allows me to cut through the turbulence and solve not only the musical problems, but the extra-musical problems within the line, then throughout the poem as a whole. Especially when writing long poems, there can be a fine line between sustaining a viable voice and just babbling some hectic phrases. Perhaps by solve, I mean sculpt. I’m always beginning with such a weird mixture of things, so much raw material and potential, but not necessarily a goal. My actual voice allows for connections to manifest themselves more readily, while musical possibilities can be tested—it’s functional thinking.
SDS: I listened to a reading you did at the Iowa Lab with Nick Twemlow. How important is the voice you read with? Do you experiment with different timbres and attitudes? Does a poem tell you how to read it? What’s the difference between reading aloud in order to revise a poem and reading aloud in the public performance of a poem?
JC: It’s hugely important to me how I present the voices in the poems when I read. It’s a part of the process that continues to evolve, too, as I try to get better at it. I do experiment in subtle ways. I’m no actor, but I do find the voices becoming clearer in my head as I have more opportunities to present them, so I try to put myself at the service of the personalities they contain. The primary difference between reading aloud while working on a poem versus performing one is always going to be pressure. Nerves. It’s taken a long time to feel remotely at ease in front of an audience, especially one with many unfamiliar faces. I used to experience nearly crippling stage fright, but over time I had some breakthroughs, especially through involvement in poetics theater—those experiences especially challenged me to face my fear.
SDS: Poetics Theater?
JC: John Beer directed and/or produced several poetics theater events over the years. I was cast in performances of Drip Drop, created as a collaboration between John and Robert Lax, and directed by John for the Discrete Series. Also a performance of Louis Zukofsky's Rudens and Fiona Templeton’s Bluebeard, both directed by Fiona Templeton for Returning from One Place to Another: A Poet’s Theater Showcase, and later The Dust of Suns by Raymond Roussel, again directed by John for the Chicago Poetry Project.
SDS: Many of your poems are in the present tense, a right now sensibility, which offer a bracing immediacy. One of the lines in “So Far So North” verified my reading experience: “With circulation of image comes the shock of the assembled moment.” For me, the assembled moment, with its present tense, took on a quality of cubism –– being truly held within moments of simultaneity and continuum. Does this reflect how you see the world or is it more an effort to offer possibilities in how we see the world?
JC: I have a tattoo on my left arm inspired by Ferdinand Léger’s The City, populated by poetic symbols. Also, I had a monthly DJ night for six years called Right Now (just saying). I’m a tactile learner. Studying cubism helped me to visualize narrative experiments that baffled me in modern literature, so it was formative. It became a kind of key. So the epiphanies it offered when I was much younger are likely just part of my DNA now. The appeal of cubism to me is the possibility of expression: once certain doors open the light remains. But it’s one thing to borrow effective details, and another to transform them into a language of your own. The latter is more motivating to me.
SDS: The opening poem in your book, “Schema” is small, quiet, and opaque, represented by an anonymous yet universal figure: “He was born as his name implies / as though distortion weren’t enough / in itself to frighten good, innocent people.” Would you talk about the placement of this poem as it contrasts with the introduction to The White House, and then seems to inaugurate the rest of the poems in your book.
JC: The sequence of the book was already final before John (Beer) wrote the forward, though I feel any poem would have provided just as much contrast given his absurdist take, which references, I like to think, a conversation we had years ago about Polish absurdist theater, and specifically a play, The Madman and the Nun by Stanislaw Witkiewicz, about an imprisoned radical poet who has a fiery affair with the nun who counsels him, resulting in rambling, topsy-turvy mayhem. I saw it performed around the time the first poems in the book were taking shape, and I was taken by how an innately humane story could be so finely crashed into senseless power and hubris. I was amazed at how well it spoke to our post-9/11 climate—the nonsense of righteous indignation. The he in the shorter poems like “Schema” hopes to personify the anti-spirit the collective I will spar with.
SDS: Would you talk about your other involvements with poetry in Chicago and elsewhere? I’ve heard about the Danny’s Reading Series and would like to know more about how the series is run and how so much listening influences your work.
JC: Functionally the reading series is pretty simple. It’s at a nice, candlelit bar that has a nice sound system and a staff that is incredibly supportive of what we do. The poet Greg Purcell and I started it twelve years ago. We tinkered with the format and at times really had to educate our audience on how we wanted that space and time to be—which was, for a couple of hours, the high temple of poetry. In the ensuing years I've had the pleasure to co-curate with several amazing people in John Beer, Chris Glomski, and Nate Zoba. While life has taken them other places, they've each left an indelible mark on the series, and myself—each is an important friendship. It’s also been a vast poetic education: hundreds of poets, their styles and personalities. It’s made for an amazing immersion into contemporary poetry, and beyond that the formulation and progression of a community. I don’t know if I can say how it has affected my work other than to say it has motivated me in myriad ways—not just in the exposure to some amazing poets, but also countless conversations. On a basic level the realization over time that we’re all just people on different journeys helps to ground me, rid me of the measuring stick that has always been a hindrance.
I’m also the poetry editor for MAKE: A Literary Magazine, which I've been doing for six or seven years now. It’s been a treat to help and watch it grow, see this lovely team of people grow it into a journal with incredible production value. Both have taught me that to contribute on any level is a privilege, and I really mean that.
SDS: What kind of poems are you currently writing? Has any one of the three forms featured in The White House claimed your exclusive attention? Are you experimenting with hybrid and/or classical traits?
JC: I’m largely throwing paint right now, trying to figure out how to make the longer sort-of multiple narrative style swing more, whether that’s grabbing the beat out of the air or actually taking some. There’s so much disheartening culture that needs responding to right now, so I’d like to find more clarity via dissonance perhaps by playing with even more modal manipulation, emotional triggers, to see how the voices come out, see how far I can pry open the doors to the spaceship—the one visiting from Saturn, to borrow from Sun Ra.
Joel Craig is the author of The White House (Green Lantern Press, 2012), and the chapbook Shine Tomorrow (Lost Horse, 2009). His poems have appeared lately in Boston Review, GutCult, A Public Space, TYPO, and Rabbit Light Movies. He co-founded and curates The Danny’s Reading Series and edits poetry for MAKE: A Literary Magazine—where he lives, in Chicago, Illinois. He is reading at Studio One on Friday, November 1.
Sheila Davies Sumner has an M.F.A. in Poetry from St. Mary’s College of California. She has also written short stories which appeared in Rampike, Alcatraz 3, and in the graphic-story magazine, one of one, published by Burning Books. In addition, she has written and produced radio dramas, commissioned by New American Radio, including What is the Matter in Amy Glennon, which was nominated for the International Prix Futura Award.