Documenting Encounter: Stacy Szymaszek and Alli Warren in Conversation
I was a fan of Stacy Szymaszek before we met in… 2005? 2007? We can’t exactly recall. I’ve followed her poetry throughout the years, and we recently reconnected over greyhounds (me) and bourbon (SS) after Stacy’s reading in San Francisco in September. In the vinyl booth I gushed about her new book A Year From Today (Nightboat), which she identifies as an “autobiography in verse.” The book displays — in inventive, beautiful verse — Stacy’s acrobatic, expansive attention and her ability to filter the detritus and gems of daily life into an intimate yet inclusive prosody. Stacy’s visit to the Bay Area was brief and I didn’t have enough time to barrage her with questions about her writing and her life, so we conducted this interview to continue the conversation in front of all of you. —AW
Alli Warren: Maybe to start us off I can ask about how the urban environment is a central character or atmosphere in A Year From Today. The diaristic writing throughout the book is personally revealing — it gave me a voyeuristic view of a working poet’s life in New York City. Laboring, loving, reading, thinking, walking around, struggling to find time. In this way it participates in a New York School tradition and brings to bear your own perspective on what and how it means to live in this contemporary moment, full stop. And as an artist, full stop. And in an expensive city, full stop.
My interest in your relationship to NYC is genuine but also selfish. We both live in expensive cities suffering the constant throes of being rendered unlivable by capital. Has your relationship with the Bay Area changed over the years as the city has changed? Do you have a sense of a part of your poetry community being specifically Bay Area-based? When I travel to NYC to read it feels like a kind of pilgrimage, something that I hope to do biennially-ish for the rest of my life (or at least while there are still airplanes and coastal cities). What keeps you coming back to the Bay?
Stacy Szymaszek: Some of the Bay Area poets in the early aughts were the first to recognize my work, even before NYC. So my sense of myself as a poet in the world outside of the upper Midwest began there. Elizabeth Robinson and Colleen Lookingbill published my first chapbook Some Mariners on their EtherDome Press and brought me there, I think, in 2004, and I read at 21 Grand in 2005 and continued to read there annually for years, till I don’t know what happened. A lull. Also Etel Adnan and I started corresponding when I lived in Milwaukee, and I visited her and Simone when they had their house in Sausalito, so that’s a deep association. My relationship to the city is really more about my relationship to its poets. A good friend of mine moved there recently so it’s feeling reactivated for me as a site. It was great to read from my book at Alley Cat in September in part because I got to reconnect with some poets who are important to me and discover that our affection for each other has withstood the passage of time and social shiftings. These are the people that keep me coming back. I’m not in the mood to make a list today, but you know.
When I moved to NYC from Milwaukee in 2005 I was about midway through writing Hyperglossia, where place as we think of place in contemporary poetry isn’t an element. The place is psychic, the beyond, past life. I knew NYC would change my life. That’s a reason why people go there. I don’t make a distinction between my life and my writing life — I try to bring a heightened sense of attention to everything, to live full stop. To the hilt. I had to look up full stop! The end of a sentence and a complete experience or phenomena. Right away I want to think of lineation though — like I want my life to have the most exciting line breaks. So NYC and my form in its form and what the hell was going to happen on the page now that I was public? Public and pedestrian. I listened to the poets, as ever, and walked, and learned to be a seer of things outside of myself. My first book as a New Yorker with NYC as the atmosphere (and The Poetry Project as a character) was hart island, which is kind of a stylistic hinge that led me to be able to write the more ostensible journal books. I think Journal of Ugly Sites and Other Journals and A Year From Today were survival tactics. Not to diminish them formally in any way, just to note that my need to process the intensity of my days extended beyond what any friend or therapist could provide. Running the Project and tending to all the lineages, being influenced by them, the New York School, and others, was always fraught with complexity/emotional labor. Though it gave my life a complete social architecture, I felt very few could really understand the myriad pressures inside the romance of it. As a calm and patient presenting person, I needed my stress to be part of my content. It has only been seven months since I retired so I’m still acclimating to a new life where the Project is “my past.” It’s very good, and very weird.
AW: Maybe I went a little overboard on the “full stop”? It’s the first time I’ve used that phrase! I like your “to the hilt” better.
Now that you are in Montana for the time being, I wonder how that new atmosphere has affected your writing? What’s it like to be a pedestrian and a seer in Missoula? Is stress still a necessary part of your poetry content now that you’re retired? (I feel like we should hang your jersey in the rafters and give you a big ring.) I’m curious if being in a place that (I assume?) couldn’t be more different from New York City has affected your sense of yourself as a poet, or the poems you are writing or will write.
SS: My jersey is a blazer. Actually the poet Gillian McCain gave me a giant faux jeweled lion head ring (the winged lion is the symbol of St. Mark’s of course) at a point when I really needed an infusion of pointed humor. I handed this ring off to the new director with my “blessings.” Whatever Missoula is doing to my writing, I love it. It took me about a month to start writing here. I had some culture shock and missed my friends. My friend and UM colleague Prageeta Sharma kept telling me that Missoula works magic on people, this coming from someone who had also moved here from NYC. I had a pretty weak defensive stance of “I don’t need nature” so it didn’t take long before living in the mountains and frequent encounters with deer mellowed me out. These are the kinds of encounters that I’m documenting now. I can walk to the University and see no people along the way, sometimes deer, lots of pinecones, which always happily reminds me of Mayer’s Another Smashed Pinecone. But more than content or images I feel and have been told that my new work has a heightened vitality to it. It’s more erotic (I’m going there overtly), steeped in life-giving, self-preserving instinct. Stronger claiming of my butch dykeness and letting myself be loved as such. I wrote a little “A-14” riff — “upper limit fucking” — after Zukofsky. Totally exhilarating. I love that I get to spend my days reading things I want to teach, teaching, and writing. I’m able to devote most of my brain power to my practice. Admin brain is off. Recovering from burnout. Being out of the city and spending time alone. Losing track of time. Trying to make some new sense out of those thirteen years. Still, I’m compelled to write about my job, so details about what I’m teaching or things a student says make their way in. I’m having more conversations with poets living and dead, in my work, and feeling deeply immersed in my vocation. Eileen Myles, a former director of the Project, told me that when we’re actually directing we don’t get much in terms of accolades for our work, but it happens when we leave. Getting the Foundation of Contemporary Arts in poetry award this year still floored me, even though Eileen had given me her poet wisdom.
AW: I can’t wait to read this “upper limit fucking” writing!
You say it took you a month to start writing in Missoula. I often go a whole month or more without writing, so I’m envious and curious about this. I feel like poets don’t talk enough about their practices, about when and how they write, especially as we all live such busy lives and struggle so much against time. I’ve always been interested in how our working lives affect our writing lives. Can you talk some about your writing processes? Outside Alley Cat Bookstore in San Francisco after your reading, you told me that for A Year From Today you’d jot notes in a notebook during the day and type them up at night, or whenever you next had time. Do you try to put something on the page every day? Do you feel lost if you don’t? Do you think of writing as a muscle you need to use often to stay in shape?
I am also interested in whether what you call “admin brain” changed your writing practice or your writing in general during your tenure at the Project. Do you think shutting admin brain off somehow allowed you access to the erotic vitality in your new writing?
SS: Oh, I have gone months without writing. I didn’t mean to give the impression that I am disciplined, at least in that way. I left the Project end of June 2018 and also left the apartment I had lived in since 2006, just to name two of several major transitions — I sublet a very charming apartment and had an unprecedented experience of being in NYC for six weeks without a job. It gave me a chance to bid farewell to an era with some grace. Even though I thought I would be back after a semester. Maybe I had a feeling. My teaching here has now extended to be a two-year position. I realize that I’ve been remiss in telling people this. Can this be my announcement? Anyway, during the summer, I did write poems, but they weren’t good, so I had to have that “writing as muscle” conversation with myself. Also, I don’t “believe” in editing so if it doesn’t work I just move on. What is your relationship to editing? I feel like I’m being subversive by coming into an MFA program and telling the students that I’m not interested in making their poems better via line edits. I’m interested in making them better readers. It’s exciting to see them develop their own thinking in response to, say, Kyger’s “once the words hit the page they are sacred.”
After years of being deep in the book-length year-long poem zone I wasn’t in touch with my own ability to write lackluster poems so it was challenging to allow myself to proceed. I’m glad I did. I can see how that work was scratching at the surface of the psychic space I inhabit now. When I got here I had time and was eager so a month felt like a long time. The first poem I wrote was “Dispatch From Missoula” which the Project newsletter published. I make notes on most days but I don’t feel lost if I don’t (or maybe I always feel a some kind of lost and I’m okay with it.) My current process can best be summed up like this — I go about my business, I see and feel things and start to compose lines in my head, sometimes I make notes, when things start to get exciting to frenzied I make the time to sit down and if everything is on the way I like it to be I write an intense poem in one sitting. I think I actually try not to write till I achieve this particular state of readiness. (I’ll send you some poems.)
To your “admin brain” question — yes those “Project books” were written as survival tactics. Of course I think they are solid books, and they still have vitality for me, a lust for life, but maybe for a life that was slightly beyond my experience. I don’t know. As I wrote that I think I need more time to know how to narrate that particular “then” of my life. You have a line in your book I Love It Though that comes to mind: “I want to be able to continue / to love to stay alive” which is syntactically interesting and also strikes me as a good motto. Also, I love your anaphoric manifesto “Protect Me From What I Want” and will copy you by saying “I did it for the data I did it for the lulz / I did it for the money I did it for the children / I did it for the health of the chickens.” It is true that someone on the phone once asked, “Is this the Poultry Project?”
AW: I relate to your wanting to achieve a state of readiness before writing! It’s where I land too. I like to gather all the feeling and experience and charge and then let it loose. Which usually means for me that what comes out is more condensed and resolved than it would have been had I written throughout the various states and stages of feeling. For me it’s like moving through many different moods and spaces and affects and then writing at the point that feels most, I dunno, true? Resolved? Consistent?
Speaking for myself, not generally, I wonder if this is actually the right approach. Is it just my bad habit masquerading as a poetics? Does this process prevent me from writing more often, or making different or unexpected kinds of writing? Am I just doing what feels good rather than what is harder but perhaps more interesting and useful? At the same time, I appreciate how out of fashion the waiting around for readiness aesthetic seems. It goes against the corporate cultural demand for constant production. The one where poets have to act like pop stars and drop a mixtape every six months to make sure they stay “relevant” in the public eye.
How do you think about the “book-length year-long poem zone” of Journal of Ugly Sites and A Year From Today in relation to this idea of readiness? Were you in a constant state of readiness when you were writing those books, or was there another approach? If writing them was a kind of survival tactic, is there also a politics or ethics of the daily represented in these works? I can definitely see it being a kind of mindfulness practice, and a way to make space for oneself to think and feel amidst the shitstorms of the day to day and the larger world. But I also think it is a useful practice for the reader! Following your daily trains of thought and feeling and meaning-making is intimacy-inducing and inspiring. I read the writing as a kind of call to live more fully, to be present. People say that about novels, don’t they — that fiction increases our capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling? They could have done the same study with poetry, if the culture only cared about it. Am I being too dramatic?
SS: I read an interview with Jasper Johns recently and the interviewer asked how he knew a painting he had worked on for three or four years was finished, and he said, “I think you just give up.” I had the thought of that painting as a serial poem — he worked on it (think of all the iterations) till he decided to give up. I love the commitment, the suggestion of infinity. For three books, I decided to impose a 365-day time limit so I wouldn’t have to decide when to give up. I was in a more-or-less state of readiness. I inhabited the idiom and logic of the projects so I was attuned, for instance, to all things the right kind of “ugly” for JOUS. In that sense, there was an ease around writing the books that I needed because of the intensity of my job. The writing wasn’t belabored. I think that any approach that leads us to poems that we’re happy with is right. I tell my students to look out for their habitual tics and patterns, like why do you always do this thing? I don’t really ask that of my process though, because it feels like a holy state and why question a holy state! I do look at the poems I’m writing now and think, “Oh you start out formally thick and then start to spread out, what’s that about?” I don’t ever resolve anything in my head though, it happens on the page.
I don’t think you’re being too dramatic. However, I think it’s obvious from my books that I do love a dramatic quality. Some of my students (clearly I’m obsessed with them) resisted Duncan’s The H.D. Book because 1) he’s such a blowhard — I was like I KNOW isn’t he wonderful! — and 2) they thought it was going to be about H.D. We had a seance last week in Prosody and they didn’t want to summon him! Anyway, yes, thank you for asking for clarity around “survival tactic.” I think that was the raison d’etre for the books, personally — but that is not why they are interesting as poetry. I love all of the things you are saying and it is my hope that my politics and ethics are being communicated in the work. A few years ago a poet-editor described my work as having a personal logos emotionally tethered but outward in gesture and said that it was the perfect storm of poetry and politics. I’m grateful to her for reflecting that back to me because I still think of it often. Writing these books helped me pay attention, to be more present (not with my head in the clouds as I am prone), and to become more attuned to how mysterious the mundane is. I spend ample spans of time alone in a very quiet, literally quiet, place, and I am never bored. I know this is all a dream.