Why did you title your new collection Mary Oliver?
The short answer, what I tell people when approached at events, is that I’m using the name totemically. There’s an essay in the back of the collection, called “On Mary Oliver”, which deals with the title. Here’s a representative chunk:
“There is a gentle gibe here that I’m sure you’re picking up on. That’s definitely a layer of skin. Fame, ego, poetry and the interplay of these, as well as my own attitude surrounding them, are things I grapple with frequently, having to remind myself that I am not the center of the universe, that people deserve to be appreciated for their art, that this will result in hierarchies, and all of it’s okay, even if I disagree with the opinions of others, even if this isn’t what I want the world to look like, because I tried to control the world and many things wound up devastated. Giving the title over to another human’s name, specifically, a famous poet of perceived authority, has become a device through which I can do some of this grappling”.
I created an Instagram account for the book which features a FAQ, specifically around the title, because I foresaw a lot of feeling people could catch over using her name, especially as she passed away once the book was already with the printer. I haven’t caught as much shit as I thought I might, which is probably more a testament to my relative obscurity than anything else.
Before I switch topics: is there anything else you’d like readers to know about your new book?
Mary Oliver is the book I had to write to get sober. A lot of the work involved in recovery is right there on the page, if you’re looking for it. This doesn’t mean it’s ABOUT recovery. Though I resist about-ness, the book very much is about a shortlist of things I avoided thinking about for most of my life.
It’s important that I mention that my chapbook on Ursus Americanus press, Misrule, is a sister volume, or fascicle, to the body of work that Mary Oliver is comprised of. The latter grew out of and then back into the writing and completion of the former.
What are you trying to accomplish with your poetry?
Sanity, transcendence, joy, an expansion of language, a better understanding of myself. This seems like a lot, but I’ve experienced all of these through poetry.
Do you see a connection between poetry and prayer?
Yes, by not prayer as petition, rather, prayer as a focused and methodical practice of bringing one’s consciousness into alignment with higher consciousness. I try to treat treat poetry as a spiritual practice.
What experiences that have shaped your worldview and approach to art?
Growing up in a house where hard drugs were used and sold
Being recruited into a Maoist organization in my early twenties
Reading Rimbaud and Comte de Lautréamont in seventh grade
Eating a sheet of acid when I was fourteen
Recording audiotapes to send to my father in prison
Watching all my friends go insane and/or die
Watching Bjork perform on Coney Island
Watching my mother paint
Overhearing a friend of my mother’s describe Fellini’s Toby Dammit
Having immigrant grandparents
Only listening to Cat Stevens’ song Tea For The Tillerman for three months straight
Walking by Tony Smith’s The Snake Is Out every day for twenty years
Medicating my way through 30 years of life
Being visited by Yamantaka during an overdose
Workshopping with Bernadette Mayer
Buddhist visualization practices
Answering the door when the FBI came to arrest my father
Seeing John Singer Sergeant’s Woman with Incense at the Clark Institute
Making pause tapes before I knew what they were
Playing in a grindcore band
Being in Manhattan in the early eighties
Having to revisit psychoanalysis after seeing Haneke’s The Seventh Continent
How would you describe your worldview?
I’m an actively empathetic Marxist. I can be very cold in my analysis of the world around me, yet every day I try to make myself more capable of helping those in pain, even when I am. I have a sincere desire that all sentient being be freed from suffering. I also believe this is a suffering bardo. It’s a big part of what we’re here to do. I believe some things about the world are getting much better. Nothing will truly be fixed, however without most things getting quite bad, for the first world, first.
How important is context, in regards to your work?
Not very. Ideally, as with almost all work I admire, everything you need to know about the poem to experience it as intended is present in the work. That’s taking for granted a lot. I’m well aware of that. It’s an indulgence I find necessary to afford myself, as an artist. I’ll also acknowledge here that this indulgence often necessitates some measure of labor for the reader. I believe McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” is just as important a concern as the relationship of content and form, especially in terms of art which seeks to position itself outside and/or in opposition to the sphere of commerce: a fool’s errand but worthy aspiration. I’d like to believe that my poetry reaches towards this goal while avoiding the trap of prescriptive emotion.
What are some books you’ve been blown away by lately?
Joseph Donahue’s DARK CHURCH
Bridget Talone’s Soft Life
Joseph Mosconi’s Ashenfolk
Shira Dentz’s the sun a blazing zero
Julia Madsen’s The Boneyard, The Birth Manual, A Burial: Investigations Into The Heartland
Melisa Machado’s The Red Song
Marty Viola Cain’s Kids of The Blackhole
Edgar Garcia’s Skins of Columbus
Jennifer Nelson’s Civilization Makes Me Lonely
Joe Hall’s Someone’s Utopia
Richard Lucyshyn’s I MADE FOR YOU A NEW MACHINE AND ALL IT DOES IS HOPE
Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death and A Drink of Red Mirror
Matthew Kirkpatrick’s The Ambrose J. and Vivian T. Seagrave Museum of 20th Century American Art
Helena Boberg’s From Sense Violence
David Nutt’s The Great American Suction
What artists, or artistic trends, in any mode, are currently infuriating you, in good or bad ways?
I’m not sure being infuriated is ever a good thing, so I find myself constantly working against that tendency. Living in late-stage imperialism is at once a funny and wildly depressing experience. To quote Bill Callahan, “There is no love where there is no bramble.” I think social media has, on a number of levels, both crystalized and obscured the fact that every facet of life within capitalism is now transactional: your parent dying, a photo of your cat, your thoughts on apple butter, and your new poem. Of course this is infecting art. This isn’t a new problem, but the daily record of it transmitted to me is at the very least upsetting. To be clear I have no aversion to technology. I should leave my infuriation at that. I don’t want name names or expose the heft of my chip. Reading some of my other answers probably gives a sense of what I seek and seek to avoid.
May all sentient beings be free from suffering and the source of suffering.
Are you afraid that there won’t be another poem?
No. As there will always be math there will always be poetry, one often indistinguishable from the other. I feel no bravado about my writing, but have a belief in poetry that is close to, if not, religious. For me, everything outside of that belief is oblivion.