Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Autoportraits: Conversation with Stacy Szymaszek
LH: You left Milwaukee and a job as literary program director of Woodland Pattern, for a job as program coordinator at the Poetry Project a few years ago. Recently you took over the helm of the Project from Anselm Berrigan. Was this something you had imagined?
SS: I wouldn’t say I imagined it, some days it still seems outrageous to me - but I liked what I was doing and naturally I was looking for ways to continue to challenge myself professionally, ways for my work (the range of it) to positively impact the writing community. I was open to seeing where I could go with the Project. Once I got here it became clear that Anselm had an idea about how long he wanted to do the job, so I knew there would be an opportunity for me to become the Director. I considered Anselm to be a colleague before I even met him, and then he visited Milwaukee to read at Woodland in 2005 and we had a nice dinner at Three Brothers, talked shop. Some kind of transmission occurred there. When the Program Coordinator position opened up he knew me as someone who had a particular type of experience and cared about/for the Project (and poetry, and poets) in a way that places like this need people to care – call it stewardship.
LH: Woodland Pattern fills a vital role in the Midwest...but I'm sure the Midwest also fed your poetry. Has that shifted? Also, do you see a similarity in the roles between the two institutions?
SS: Yes, the Midwest as locale was important to the ethos of Emptied of All Ships, important to the formation of GAM: A SURVEY OF GREAT LAKES WRITING (the journal I edited there for 4 issues. I did issue 5 last summer in Brooklyn, called simply GAM now), important to my personal lore. Midwest as locale is not hinged with the writing of Hyperglossia, the long poem I started in Milwaukee and have continued in Brooklyn. I’ve really taken my time with HG but I have to finish it for publication (Litmus Press) in the next few months. I do feel like a shift is likely which may be why I’m lingering with HG – uncertainty about what I’ll do next and the fear that the job might consume all of my psychic space. Based on the kind of work I’m currently looking at and reading I think my next book will engage my present environs but I have my inner Milwaukee (corner bars and church steeples as Niedecker noted!) fiddling with my axis.
I do see a similarity between PP and WP. I think you can pick that up from my answer to your 1st question. They have me in common, and I’m not being flip when I say that. I mean, I learned most of what I know about poetry and a how to live a life in poetry there and it made me well-suited to work for the Project. There is shared attention to the same aesthetic roots; both serve as community builders with dedicated staff and volunteers and readers and writers and listeners, rippling outward; both serve as hubs for the constant struggle to restore meaning to language; both face challenges of small nonprofit arts orgs, similar budget sizes… It’s actually more interesting to contemplate the differences.
LH: George Bowering said recently that he thinks Woodland Pattern is the best poetry bookstore in North America…which begs the question of books, bookstores and sales. Is it fair to say that the PP has the luxury of being a space of performance, gathering…is there something to this?
SS: I didn't know that George said that, but WP does bring out the demonstrative in people, especially people who visit from other places. By the way, they used to have a Canadian poetry section that is now mixed in with the other poetry. You should try to go someday. Publications (PP Newsletter, The World now The Recluse) are an important arm of the Poetry Project's mission but no, we don't function as a retail bookstore. A teacher recently wrote and wanted to bring a group of grade school kids to the Poetry Project for a field trip some morning but I was perplexed about what to show them if they weren't coming to an event. The Poetry Project is actually a small, overcrowded office on the 2nd floor of St. Mark's and when we have events either in the parish hall or the sanctuary those spaces become the Poetry Project. We're really quite focused, as you note, on being a public forum. It's about the work; the poet and the audience churning in this fairly unembellished space, and then everything that happens after as a result. Existing as a gathering place is important in a Democratic sense (especially when the meaning of this word is being obscured, diminished, forgotten) but if you are using the word "luxury" in contrast to a place like WP I would point out that they have more control over their space and that manifests in their ability to run the Experimental Film Series and the Alternating Currents concert series, reading groups, continual art exhibits in the gallery, have that book shop... whenever they want. The center and the project. Another conversation.
LH: You say you think “a shift is likely…” do you mean personally? In your poetry? In the world? In the intersections of these things??
SS: All connected though I meant to indicate a shift in my poetry. Hyperglossia is so intensely interior. So here I am, nearing 40, over-stimulated in NYC. One thing I’ve noticed is that I’m less focused on “knowing myself” (a former preoccupation) the older I get. I’m more interested in time, and perspective of time really starts to shift when you get into middle adulthood. The past takes on a fictive quality and has elasticity of interpretation. It seems less like something I have to “get out from” - so the way I inhabit daily life is with the idea that self and time are these consensus realities and I’m on the look out for the perforations. “If all time is eternally present …”. (Eliot)
Paul Blackburn’s work holds a lot of energy for me now, as poet and as “subtle father” (Bob Holman) of the Project: “Personally, I affirm two things: / the possibility of warmth & contact / in the human relationship: / as juxtaposed against the materialistic pig of a technological world, / where relationships are only "useful" i.e., exploited, either / psychologically or materially. / 2, the possibility of s o n g / within that world: which is like saying 'yes' to sunlight.”
LH: Do you find that your poetic has changed since moving to Brooklyn? Does NY offer you particular aesthetic challenges? Does it enrich your view?
SS: It’s odd to live in a place without having the ability to picture it. I’m totally lost in Brooklyn. Don’t understand its shape or coordinates. I’m actually not very adventurous so I have a few neighborhood places that I can walk to, not so bad since one of them is the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve never been a pedestrian before and obviously driving is a good way to learn your city and make spatial relationships. Emerging from the subway in a different place without understanding how I got there, very odd. I do better in Manhattan. Wait I haven’t answered your question, or have I?
LH: Well enough, and yes I do understand the particular mapping that happens. There is something compelling to me about those spatial relationships, particularly in New York. The sense of experience and personality layered literally—in terms of speaking/walking subjects—and also intrusively, in the way that surfaces are always being marked, fleetingly with shadows, light, color, posters, gashes, tears. Are you also interested in the street as a site of composition? Visually, or in terms of your poetic?
SS: Yes, the street as site. Of course Blackburn was very in tune with the NYC street vibe. I’m also really interested in Marcella Durand’s work for the way she represents the palimpsest of NYC in her work. She has two outstanding books due for publication. As I said, I have never really been a pedestrian/carless so I have to grapple with a really annoying (to me) “street shyness” – it’s really hard for me to take pictures because I don’t like to draw attention to myself. I’m kind of uptight out there and am working on adapting my (slow) pace, or figuring out the functional relationship there and how the city can be a new site of composition for me.
LH: I’ve been focusing on the energy of the body moving through the city, but that’s looking out I realize, and we’re supposed to be thinking about self-portraits! Did you see the recent New Yorker piece on Sabrina Harman’s self-portraits at Abu Ghraib?? It’s disturbing and far from your project, but it does speak to our cultural obsession with the self-portrait (see earlier post) and how entrenched we are in it as a practice. I think your portraits break out of this surface obsession in their dense emotional reality. They allow for complex, unexplained, unfiltered emotion, something that it seems to me contemporary poetry has trouble with… was this something you were aware of?
SS: It is disturbing, not only in her obsession to photograph injury (and not to document any wrong-doing) but then she needed to be in the photograph, smiling, thumbs up, like a tourist. A severe and creepy disconnect.
I wasn’t consciously thinking about using self-portraiture to allow for emotion or to compensate for lack of it but I’m not surprised you find it there. I think in all of my work I’m going for emotional impact and not in a cheap way. I actually think it’s a challenge to figure out what is moving beyond the surface level. In poetry I find it more in the way the work moves, the sound-scape of it more than in anything posited as “emotional” – a poet who knows her material, which is language, is capable of getting to me. As a self-portraitist and in general someone who is fascinated by people’s “facades” I can look at 50 shots of my face and recognize the one that conveys complexity.
That series of photos in the OMG book are really photos of me proposing another gender story. The bathroom, all those faucets & mirrors, is such a powerful site for transformation, playing with identity. It’s where we go to ready ourselves for the world, my favorite place to take pictures. So the intensity is there in my desire to be both more than what I am and less than what I am. A restlessness but also with a sense of freedom through posturing so people can see what I need them to see of me in that moment.
LH: We've talked about photography before, and I know you have an ongoing project of self-portraiture (and now a chapbook). How did your interest in photography/self portraiture get started? Is there something liberating about a poet looking out? And what happens when the looking out is then refracted back?
SS: I only started taking pictures in 2006. Before that time I didn’t have the Internet at home or a cell phone or a digital camera. When I moved to NY I was fascinated by how these technologies facilitated community and interaction while at the same time complicated it. So I got a camera and I was smitten - with my girlfriend, the camera, my friends, my social life, the areas of the city I dwelled in - so a lot of it came out of documentary impulse, and an erotic one. My interest in self-portraiture, or more aptly in literature, persona, is evident in my poetry as far back as Mutual Aid where I’m kind of positing myself as geologist anarchist Kropotkin, then James, then I cast myself as Pasolini, and in Hyperglossia I manifest as Eustace.
It was a natural extension for me to turn the camera on myself, to play with digital depiction of my body. I really love Mapplethorpe’s “Autoportrait” polaroids so the OMG title is in homage to him.
You know that I participated in a group where the challenge was to take a self-portrait everyday for a year. I only got to about 160. I just don’t have as much energy for any photography at the moment, and I feel like it’s time for me to actually learn something about how to use my nice camera before I proceed. Throughout the daily self-po process I really got into controlling my image, using the fact that I’m fairly photogenic, and don’t have a poker face, to make provocative pictures. I just remembered this story. When I was a freshman in college I was interested in a guy and I called his room and started a conversation with him, he asked me to point my picture out in the directory so I did and he was like, oh sweeeet, and came right over. I opened the door and his face dropped and he walked away. Fantasy, right. It’s really a funny kind of power. He thought he was going to get laid and a wide-eyed “overweight” lesbian opens the door. I wasn’t the one who was surprised.
I don’t think I feel liberated by taking pictures but it is a nice contrast to thinking about language (though image-making is just as mysterious), and as I am a pretty desk bound writer I like that the camera gets me moving around, engaging with my environment differently.
LH: I want to pick up on the idea of literary personas, as well as Hyperglossia. But first, I should ask how the chapbook evolved?
SS: Well, Brandon Brown started a new press called OMG and he likes my photographs. He wrote to me and told me about his idea for this project. I sent him some photographs and we decided upon 8. I sent him a list of poets I thought would provide great responses to the pictures. He wrote to them and once they agreed he assigned everyone a photo to work with. He’s the perfect editor; inventive, responsive, careful and reliable. And, I hear people are actually buying it.
LH: It's a great project. I love Killian's piece where he conflates time and enters you into a meta-Ginsberg-narrative...and has a lot of fun. Fun is something I wish poets had a lot more of. Thoughtful fun. Is that something that having the space between poem/idea helps foster do you think?
SS: I’m not sure I follow what you mean here. But I can comment on fun. I’m glad that you feel that way. In part, I think that it’s such a successful book because of the relationships I have with the people we asked to participate. There is substance there, to varying degrees, and people felt free to romp and tease and flirt. I complain about this to my colleagues here often enough but Milwaukee writers, artists, filmmakers were really better at having thoughtful fun. But here we have so many factors against even gathering in our (small) apartments.
LH: I guess that’s what I’m getting at—the sense of the relationship between the image and the narrative. There is a leap, and I wonder if that leap is about collaboration, or giving oneself over to a kind of translation or interpretation, or just how can that enter our poems more?
SS: I think it’s about both collaboration and giving oneself over to interpretation. The more “give” a poem or an image has the better. That’s a value I bring to my work and look for in other work. It’s about disinvesting in the monocular, which is why it’s “innovative” – read, threatening to the status quo because it reinvests in a society that can support radical difference between members. The circumstances that led me to take the picture of me and the Ginsberg poster in my bathroom had little to do with what Kevin saw but what he saw deepened my own reading of it. He saw the humor of it and took it to the nth degree. I keep thinking this all comes back to generosity.
LH: I can’t say for sure because I know you, and I know many of the poets who responded to your photos, but I think that the images and responses don’t rely on special knowledge. That is another aspect of the project that appeals.
There are some allusions in the response texts that could be seen as “special knowledge” but none of the pieces are “insider.” Tim Peterson lifted some crazy things I said to him via email or in person - he wanted me to approve it before he sent it and I approved! There are a few moments within that add an extra layer of meaning probably just for me but these people are all good writers so their responses are really… generous.
LH: Your first full-length book, Emptied of All Ships, was a minimalist investigation of language, and an inter-textual engagement with Woolf's character James, from To The Lighthouse among other things. It was also a response to Niedecker, wasn't it? Can you tell me how those poems began?
SS: Calling it an inter-textual engagement with Woolf's James makes too much of it. I was reading To the Lighthouse around the same time that I was starting to write the poems that would become EOAS. Also was reading Moby Dick, Some Mariners of France (Meade Minnigerode, 1930) The Sea Around Us (Rachel Carson) and a book on catastrophic geological events. I had all these sexy French names that were too attention grabbing, the last thing James wants as it wouldn’t behoove his situation at all to be “Gaston”. So I remembered Woolf’s boy and his longing.
I was also reading Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, a book I became familiar with through Karl Young and of course Woodland Pattern had it, an old kind of ugly edition. The bookstore was particularly amazing at that point in that there were a lot of treasures waiting for the resurgence of innovative poets that happened @2001 - and if you were in sync with the ethos of the place it seemed magical how it had everything you needed in any genre. Anyway, I have a chap called Mutual Aid and it turned out that I was writing Some Mariners within Mutual Aid and realized I had 2 different things going on so made 2 books.
It’s really interesting to think about how it was a response to Niedecker. The poems that were crucial to my development as a poet who could write EOAS were the short poems of Louis Zukofsky and Susan Howe’s Singularities. I was certainly aware of and attuned to LN’s work but hadn’t had the kind of experience as a reader that I was having with these two. It was just a timing thing, a conflation of intense readings (the time and focus I had then, ah) and 10 years of trying to be a good writer – I finally got it, and it had to do with sound and the line and the page. I think that Niedecker’s work ethic (“What would they say if they knew / I sit for two months on six lines / of poetry?” Her excision of the superfluous) and her ability to express a radical political consciousness therein is powerful. That’s what I wanted and what I got from her. She’s in the groundwater around Woodland Pattern, and I’m really happy that I was part of the Niedecker Centenary Celebration in 2003. When I left WP they gave me a Jonathan Williams portrait of her, taken in Milwaukee, 1967.
Check his portraits out. Erica was the one who told me that Williams passed and I automatically welled up and she was like, oh shit, I didn’t know you knew him – but I had never met him. He is part of the reason I got a camera.
LH: Congratulations on the impending publication of Hyperglossia, a text that I heard you read from at belladonna in 2006 I believe. Can we leave this interview with a sampling from that?
SS: Thanks and sure:
he is greeted]
women with casks tiy of cedar oil
his charm is se that he reminds each of someone
nominated spadces on their mattresses
this Eustace from before
Stacy Szymaszek was born in Milwaukee, WI, in 1969. She is currently the Artistic Director at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery. Her chapbooks include Mutual Aid (gong, 2004), Pasolini Poems (Cy Press, 2005) and There Were Hostilities (release, 2005). She is the author of Emptied of All Ships and the forthcoming Hyperglossia (both with Litmus Press). She is the editor of Gam, coeditor of Instance Press, and was one of the editors of the "Queering Language" issue of EOAGH. A new work, Stacy S: Autoportraits, featuring her self-portraits with accompanying texts is just out on OMG Press and Orizaba: A Voyage with Hart Crane is forthcoming from Faux Press.
at 9:15 AM