Recent Work By TNB Poetry

On “Learning” by Andrew Choate, a review by Rebecca Ramirez

Andrew Choate’s Learning is unconventional by default. Indeed, by the third page, the author has invoked Henri Michaux, “The Tin Drum” (Günter Grass), and “The Last Novel” (David Markson) – each a vanguard in their own right of definitively genre-blurring, “anti-literary” works. For the entirety of “Learning,” Choate continues this referential gesture, both buoying and defending his own work, which he generates by attaching a wide variety of topics to the book’s only refrain: “Something I learned from…,” for example:

Something I learned from Living with Moths

Don’t clap a moth over your head between your palms
It could fall into your upturned shirt sleeve
and ride down your arm
possibly across your chest
and then tickling will never feel the same” (39)

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I don’t know how to do a self-interview so instead I asked my girlfriend, the poet Jeannette Gomes to interview me as a stand-in for myself.

JEANNETTE: Hi Russ, could you describe for me how your book came about and the emotional landscape it encompasses in your heart?

RUSS: Sure. So this book started from a little tour chapbook I was making for a weeklong tour I was going to do in 2012. I made a PDF version and posted the cover art on Facebook and got a message from James Tadd Adcox, who was at the time editor of Artifice Magazine, and a friend of mine. He asked if he could see the PDF version of the chap, and I said “sure” and sent it over, not thinking much about it. He emailed me later and told me he really loved it, and that Artifice was starting a book arm of their operation and he said, if I was interested, that he wanted to publish the chapbook along with some of my other poems as a book. The cover the book has now is actually the same cover I made for the original chap. Anyway, the book went through many, many edits and many rewrites since then. I think only a handful of the original poems are still in there, actually.

Interesting commentary on the minimalist poetry of TNB contributor Aram Saroyan:

Picture 1You call yourself a “woman-poet entrepreneur.” What do you mean by that?

I run the West Chester University Poetry Center and the West Chester University Poetry Conference, I edit Mezzo Cammin,, and I direct Story Line Press, I teach. I also do my own writing—poetry, articles, and reviews. I wear a lot of literary hats.

At the same time, when I speak about entrepreneurship, I mean following through on an idea: creating something where there was nothing. Like most entrepreneurs, I believe in the big dream. When I launched The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project in 2010, I wanted to do it in Washington because of the symbolic resonance of the location. Then I created the event from scratch: the fund raising, the evening, the project itself. That evening at the National Museum of Women in the Arts remains one of the best of my life.

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Why are you having such a hard time with this self-interview?

I guess because there’s too much freedom. It’s easy to answer someone else’s questions, but not so easy to answer my own, or even to articulate what they are.

 

Well, what if you just think of questions that you think would be fun to answer?

Isn’t that cheating?

601595_303967846364060_898773954_nHi, Evan, I think I follow you on Twitter.

Yes, I follow you, too. You’re hilarious. I love Twitter, but it’s also part of my job. I gather stories constantly for a daily news aggregate centered on creative writing and the publishing world, so I’m always reading, and Twitter is an amazing resource. I’m paid to use Twitter, but I’ve given myself over to it—not sure I can stop. It’s the first thing I reach for in the morning. I smoked for twenty years—I recognize the impulse.

TNB Photo 2012
 

Tell us a little bit about your new book of poetry, THE MORROW PLOTS. What’s the significance of the title, and what was your inspiration for writing the book?

When I lived in Upstate New York—way up on the Canadian border—during the awful winter, I became obsessed with The Morrow Plots, an experimental cornfield on the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign campus. The local and campus agronomists conduct important crop experiments there, and then disseminate the findings among the U.S.’s farming industry. So, it’s an important square of land, and hallowed ground in downstate Illinois. You do not trespass on the Morrow Plots. The legal and social consequences for such things are dire. The Plots are regionally revered. Illinoisans lend the Plots this crazy holiness. I was born in Illinois, and I think I was oddly homesick for the Midwest all the way up there near Canada among the defunct Go-Kart tracks and Shining-esque hedge maze that my wife and I lived behind (the area was a bedroom community for Manhattanite boaters in the summer time, and so had all of these kitschy tourist traps that would go skeletal come winter). Yes: we lived behind MazeLand.

headshots 003This is your second interview at The Nervous Breakdown. Does it feel awkward to be interviewing yourself again?

A bit, but I talk to myself quite a bit already.

 

Oh, really?

Yes, but I try to normalize it by telling people I’m just talking to my dog. Sometimes I read poetry to her, too.

 

Does your dog like poetry?

God, I hope so. Otherwise I should be expecting a visit from PETA. No matter how bad the poetry is, though, peanut butter always seems to cheer her up afterwards. I should make a note of that for my next reading: Bring large jar peanut butter.

 

What’s with the political poetry? Are you trying to piss people off?

I actually try not to offend people with my political pieces. For me poetry is about communication and I don’t want to shut people’s ears/minds to what I am trying to get across. Also, I don’t think one can write successful political poetry by screaming at people, so I try to be subtle, which is sometimes hard for me in real life. It sounds cliche, but I am interested in dialogue and hope to bring that about with my work. And, if people hate my stuff, I want to know and I especially want to know why.

 

Do you think there’s a difference in personal and political art?

For some people, yes. For me, no. Besides poetry, I also practice Butoh which is an avant-garde Japanese modern dance form which was conceived as a style of dance protest to the Westernization of Japan after WWII. I have a 25-year dance performance background and dropped all other dance forms when I found Butoh. Since Butoh is not about making pretty forms in space or having specific technical skills it is pretty much opposite of all other dance forms which makes it automatically political.

You say you haven’t been sleeping much. What do you do in the middle of the night when everyone else is snoring? 

That all depends on what’s going on around me and whether or not I am really awake when I get out of bed. I once got in my car and drove down Silver Ridge Avenue. I woke up at 5am, in the parking lot of the Astro Cafe right off the 5 freeway, in my nightgown, shivering! A huge rig pulled in next to me.  I will never forget the vibration of those particular eighteen wheels. That… woke me all the way up.

More recently I woke up and painted my bathroom blue. So much of what we do in life has no end, even when it’s over, the ripples continue to pop up and surprise us. Sometimes, I just need a task that has a clear sense of completion.  When the wall is done, the wall is done.  The next morning, I realized that I had painted water base over oil. My daughter looked in the mirror and said, “Mom, I feel like I’m combing my hair in the sky!”  Then I didn’t care so much about the paint snafu.

On a more average sleepless night, I light a candle, pour a glass of water, and write.

 

Your day job is as a data analyst. How do you reconcile the analytical mindset with the poetic mindset?

I haven’t found them to be in conflict. I often approach poems inspirationally to begin with, but the editing and revision process is very analytical, and the rigor and clarity of thought that I’ve developed in my work help me there. At the same time, I’ve found that writing poetry has improved my general communication skills a lot, and that helps me in my job.

Many people aren’t aware of the nuances of different ways of saying things, or don’t have large enough vocabularies to be able to make effective choices. As a poet, these are indispensable skills. But actually, these skills are useful in any kind of job where you have to communicate with other people. No matter how dry and factual the information you’re putting across, there is emotional content, and it’s very easy to change that or shade it by using different words.

So, it’s been a while.

About a year, I think—it hasn’t been that long.

 

What have you been doing with yourself?

Well, as you know, my second book, Obscure Classics of English Progressive Rock, came out in May.

 

It’s not… actually about prog rock… is it?

No. The title’s a bit of an inside joke on the long length of many of the poems. Sure, I dig Van der Graaf Generator a bit more than is actually healthy, but I can’t really imagine actually writing a collection about prog rock.

So your first collection of poetry, Oldest Mortal Myth, is coming out this month. What are some recent-ish first books of poetry you’ve loved? What about second books?

Oh, so many! First books I’ve admired include but are not limited to: Field Folly Snow by Cecily Parks, Into these Knots by Ashley Anna McHugh, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting by Anna Journey, 0°, 0° by Amit Majmudar, Rookery by Traci Brimhall, and Shore Ordered Ocean by Dora Malech.

How did you decide to write Dogs of Brooklyn?

I had written one poetry collection in undergrad at FSU and my first few years out of school living in New York. I published a few of the poems in literary magazines, but didn’t have much luck with a chapbook getting published. I then wrote a terrible spy novel and got an MFA. I think I was just teaching myself how to write but was disappointed when the novel also didn’t get published. I played in bands for a few years too, that went nowhere really. I was in a pretty hopeless place when I had a great conversation with my undergrad poetry professors, David Kirby and Barbara Hamby. They encouraged me to write about the dogs and my life in Brooklyn. Before that it really hadn’t occurred to me. So basically, a lot of failure led up to it. I figured even if this book went nowhere I would have honored the animals that I spent my days with and made their owners happy.

How do you feel?

Like not enough everything and too much something.

 

How will you feel this afternoon?

I’m trying to live in the moment, man.