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?
Okay, um, well, uh …
What is some of the best advice you’ve ever received about poetry?
Kenneth Koch, who taught at Columbia University when I was a student there, told me (and others in the class) to stop trying to prove that we were smart in our poems. He told us we should quit trying to prove ourselves with high-falutin’ literary references (though I doubt he said “high-falutin'”). This was very freeing. Another good bit of advice came from my poet-friend Aaron Anstett, who says that poetry isn’t a way to make a living, but it is a way to live your life.
Does your work as a librarian affect your work as a writer?
Oh, yes, definitely. I highly recommend library work to all writers. I spend my workday with books and readers — what could be better? I come across old books and new words regularly. Today, for example, I learned that the word nonplussed means both “bewildered” and “unperturbed.” In other words, nonplussed means both itself and its opposite. Also, because of my library work, I have access to wonderful texts and illustrations and diagrams. A cast-off copy of a 1975 book from a San Francisco museum, for example, became the raw material for a series of diagram poem things I did with my friend Daniel M. Shapiro.
What are some of your favorite literary magazines?
My very favorite literary magazines are: Spooky Boyfriend, Robot Melon , Arsenic Lobster, Red Lightbulbs, and the paper journals The Hat, West Wind, and LUNGFULL!. The fact that they have weird names probably helps. Mostly I like the style and feel of these, the poets published in them, the offbeat wit of the poems. I’m also very fond of the online poetry magazine Snakeskin. George Simmers has been putting out twelve issues a year since the 1990s! That’s pretty amazing, the stability and long-livedness of that magazine.
That brings me to my next question: what is the effect of the internet on poetry?
First, we can easily fall into poetry salons/silos/schools that are international — groups of poets who like each other’s work but have never met. I’m sure it’s cool to be a poet in New York City right now, but it can also be pretty cool to be a poet in Colorado and have poet-friends all over the world. Online literary magazines make it easy to write a little fan email to a poet whose poem grabs you. I feel like I have more in common with my own made-up salon of online poets than I do with, say, the local poetry club in Colorado Springs. But I don’t even have to choose! I can have both! I discovered some of my very favorite poets through online magazines: Scott Poole, Emily Lloyd, Sarah J. Sloat.
Another big effect is the potential for “netcessary” literature (a term I invented years ago to describe something the poet Jennifer Ley was doing — strangely, my term has not caught on). Poets and artists can make these hybrid things — “digital literature” or “poems that go” — text/art/film things, often collaborative, often incorporating chance, things that couldn’t exist on paper. Some of them are awful, of course, but some are really amazing, new and different and beautiful and funny and just what you want out of a poem,. For examples, see http://www2.coloradocollege.
How does it feel to have a book come out?
You might, perhaps, have worried that this question sounded stupid, but it is actually a question I ask myself pretty regularly, especially as I’m trying to fall asleep. Another version of it would be:
Why doesn’t it feel more wonderful to have a book come out?
The answer is that it does feel wonderful, but not all the time and not in a single life-altering moment such as when the book arrives, or when, earlier, the book contract arrives, or any particular moment along the way, maybe when the manuscript is finished, or might be finished, or gets accepted at a small press. It doesn’t feel like before the book came out I was this person, and now that the book is out I am that person, a different, happier version of the earlier person (which is how I thought it would feel). It’s more like a quiet, infinitesimal change in the direction I’m facing. But meanwhile the world has also changed so it’s hard to tell if I’m really facing a different direction or not.
You mean publishing a book doesn’t make everything in your life perfect? I don’t believe you.
I know — I wouldn’t believe me either if I were you. And I sure get tired of hearing writers — real writers with long lists of publications — complain that they aren’t getting the accolades they deserve, etcetera. That’s not what I’m saying — just — being a writer is so incremental — there’s no clear dividing line between not being one and being one.
Oh, well, shut up. Let’s get to a new topic. What books changed your life?
Julia Child, My Life in France. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre. Daniel Pinkwater, Lizard Music. Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!. Kenneth Koch, The Art of the Possible. L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz. Various biographies of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor. Ellen Raskin, Figgs & Phantoms. Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy.
What people or things noodge you to write?
Having friends who are writers is a good noodge. Green composition notebooks. Visiting art museums. Being by myself. Walking. Being away from home.
What are you working on right now?
A trifold brochure to stick into those brochure holders in doctors’ offices. It’s called “New Medical Tests” and it’s about some imaginary medical “tests” which would actually be pleasant and/or fun instead of bad or neutral like all medical tests I’ve ever heard of.
That sounds like a good idea. I would like to find something like that when I’m waiting at the doctor’s office.