Thursday, April 08, 2004

THE POETRY OF Barbara Cole 

After Barbara Cole read in Philadelphia recently, I asked if she would be interested in a little Q&A. Below is the result. For those who missed the reading, let me tell you, it was pretty fantastic!
But if you weren't there, you have this Q&A, so enjoy,

Barbara, when you read at La Tazza recently you read a long poem which
you said is a continuation of your chapbook "Situation Comedies," --is this
correct? Or maybe I mean to say that the chapbook was only an earlier segment of
the "Situation Comedies," which was always intended to be longer?

The chapbook that Handwritten Press published in 2002 is entitled from situ ation come dies (emphasis on from) because, yes, I always intended for the work to be a much longer and ongoing project. Although there is still every possibility that the overarching plan might change, right now, I envision the project as having five distinct parts. The first part, eponymously titled, situ ation come dies, will be followed by other sections such as foxy moron (just recently available through /ubu editions), ear say and way to know me, both of which I am currently working on at the same time. The fifth section is not yet titled.

The attraction of embarking on an ongoing project stems from my interest in long works (originally, I was going to write my dissertation on "encyclopedic poetics;" though this idea has gone by the wayside as a dissertation topic, it remains a central interest of my own poetics). Ron Silliman's Alphabet project was one of the most direct inspirations for an ongoing project published in separate chapbooks / books. And, like Hejinian's My Life, the idea is that I will continually add on to each of the sections.

Something that struck me were two parts of a particular thread, forgive
me for paraphrasing: "a poet is not a medium" "a poet is not an open wound."
Do these two things say what you feel about a poet, and the poet's poetry? If
so, could you expand/explain? Or if only somewhat, please explain. Or if
not, well, if not, then not I suppose.

At the risk of being overly-exact, the phrases you are here alluding to actually read, "The writer is not" (as opposed to the poet). The logic for this decision stems partially from my discomfort with the notion of referring to oneself as "a poet" and, more seriously, because it is my hope that the work explicitly raises questions about what we think constitutes writing and how we define different writing practices. These statements / negations recur throughout the poem (that is, in sections beyond foxy moron as well).

So much of my difficulty with writing arose shortly after completing my MA in Creative Writing-Poetry at Temple. My thesis, almost by magic, was published within a few months of completing the program as two separate chapbooks. It was lovely at first; but then, the inevitable, now what set in. So much focus had been on the thesis and then the release of not one but two chapbooks created this enormous climax. Coming down from that was abrupt and frightening. I had no "next project" lined up and I immediately began teaching interminable hours of Composition instruction as well as working in Writing Centers. What with devoting 60 hours a week to teaching, prepping, conferring, grading papers, and tutoring "how to write," it was little wonder I had no energy left for writing. But, seeing as I had identified as a writer since my earliest memories, this phase proved incredibly disconcerting and difficult. (I write about this period at great length-perhaps too great a length-in a collaborative inter alia with Pattie McCarthy, forthcoming in Kiosk.) But, to put it more briefly, situ began partially as an attempt to re-trace such a statement. What did it mean to say that I had identified as a writer since early childhood? What inspired such a glorified / Romanticized / aestheticized conception of self?

The other major impetus of situ, which brings me back to your question, stemmed from my primary anxiety throughout my time at Temple: problems of autobiography-the easy conflation of poet and speaker; concerns about the lyric 'I'; the particular gendered history of women's writing as confessional or maudlin memoir. Writing situ began as my active confronting of these fears. If I was so worried that little wives and postcards (my first 2 chapbooks) would be read as autobiography, what if I just plunged right in and actually wrote an autobiography?? And so this was the beginning of situ.

Writerly anxieties are explicitly articulated throughout the poem. In the first section, for instance, one of the anecdotal snapshots or narrative blocks is interrupted by the question: "does this story mark me as a woman?" In foxy, the disavowals become more assertive in directly stating, "the writer is not seeking catharsis," etc.

To be honest, I canNOT remember the last time I heard a poem THAT LONG
(20 minutes read aloud?) with that much exuberance and vigilance to the
detail-oriented care of what seemed every single word written/spoken. You reinvent
for us (for me at least) the road to self discovery with the poem. There were
threads of separate image/subject/style, these individual threads which you
kept braiding from your mouth to our ears. And of course there are countless
forms from poetry's history which repeat or rephrase. But these threads were
very much your own, and each seemed to have total worlds of their own, almost
separate voices of awareness (not to say that at times there won't be unconscious
experiences which propel a thread into a certain conscious experience, but
maybe no, maybe yes, maybe no, maybe maybe maybe, whatever...) but at the same
time were each born from the same conscious being. Sometimes different ages of
one woman lived in a single moment of a single word, so it seemed. How would you
explain how you came to construct each thread's own voice?

Conrad, you are an incredibly generous listener and reader. Your choice of wording in terms of "threads" is entirely apropos as this is exactly how I refer to the different voices / sections / styles. (I have been obsessed with the "weave" since my Temple days and the notion of weaving together disparate threads which maintain their individuality continues to fascinate me).

The "aging" of the threads / personas has become an increasingly complicated question for me. Part of the original motivation had been to explore the "little girl consciousness" as it grows and evolves into an "adult (woman) writer" with an ever-increasing anxiety in relation to language. A love affair, tragedy, and comedy all rolled into one. I'm fascinated by how language shapes our stories, how our telling stories shapes our memory, how collective language shapes consciousness. As questions of consciousness and memory always bleed over into issues of temporality (ding ding ding-there's the language of the academy creeping in) or, shall I say, questions of time, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the narrative blocks, or snapshots, should sound. I don't want the voices to seem like mock child-speak. I deliberately work to blur the dividing line-is this the poet speaking now? Is this a flashback, a voice from the past? Who's speaking now? This type of ambiguity interests me as a reader and, I hope, will similarly engage my readers.

In terms of the actual HOW part of your question, the greatest thing I learned from Rachel Blau DuPlessis at Temple was a love of rigor. My academic side reveals itself in this way; I really love researching, perhaps more than writing. Williams's notion of the "beautiful thing" as library perfectly captures my relationship to books. I'm intrigued. I'm intimidated. I'm titillated. I'm terrified. Other people may like roller coasters for inspiring a heady rush mixed with nausea and the potential for head trauma. Me? I go for libraries. The research aspect of situ is wonderful for me, consequently, because it never seems to end-there are always more threads to actively think about. I've gone back and read all kinds of fascinating, troubling, bizarre, gross texts-from Mother Goose nursery rhymes and Grimm's fairy tales to teen magazines and etiquette handbooks not to mention, autobiographically, every journal and notebook I could get my hands on. I am fortunate in that I'm a hopeless packrat blessed with devoted parents who are equally hopeless packrats; this means that I have endless materials to weave into the poems-school reports, medical records, practically everything I ever wrote past the age of four. Some of it is just frightening stuff (i.e. my seventh-grade journal, inspired by Molly Ringwald's Pretty in Pink character, contains PAGES of musings and writing about, god help me, costume jewelry! It's scary but it's also this palpable record of what the mind of a twelve-year-old writer finds inspiring to write about. The part of me that adores really bad television, can't help but be enthralled).

Is this a poem you've written since your time at Buffalo?
Can you emphasize for us a certain part of you which has changed how you
read and write poetry since your time at Buffalo?

Technically, situ began the Spring before I moved to Buffalo. After adjuncting 4 literature classes a semester at 3 different campuses (as well as some Writing Center work), combined with the ordeal of completing PhD applications, I decided to give myself a break for my last semester in Philadelphia by only teaching two courses. Little wonder that I suddenly found my way back to writing once the workload lightened.

For months, I had simply collected phrases and snippets, mainly the thoughts which seemed to occupy my thinking in place of anything more "poetic" (i.e. the language of daily living: "did you get the phone?" "what do you want for dinner?" as well as everything we "read" which we don't actually consider to be "literary" such as ads, bills, recipes, traffic signs, etc.). I finally began assembling these lists along with the autobiographical "snapshots" I had been drafting in April 2000. These early stages were most influenced by Gregg Biglieri, Maggie Zurawski, and Bill Van Wert. Gregg, Maggie and I talked about poetry passionately and pig-headedly every day of my last year in Philadelphia. Bill, who had been one of my professors at Temple and had always been immensely encouraging of my work, simply never stopped urging me to "just write anything" to get me writing again. During the two years of my no-writing drought, all three reassured me patiently and urged me repeatedly to be "funny" in my writing-something I thought verging on the impossible-or at least less serious (my Temple poems fancy themselves as high-brow homages to high-modernism with little room for silliness).

But despite the official inception of situ while I was living in Philadelphia, my life in Buffalo has had enormous impact on my poetic activity. Though a doctoral program certainly offers its impediments to writing, I was fortunate in that Buffalo's Poetics Program truly encourages writing in the truest sense of the word (that is, not just spinning out academic jargon). During my coursework phase, I took 5 seminars with Charles Bernstein-each of these was highly influential on my thinking not only as a critic but also as a poet. Writing for Charles's classes got me disciplined again while Buffalo's ambitious Weds@4 readings put me in conversation with one amazing innovator after another on a weekly basis. Equally vital to my thinking and writing, Susan Howe's presence in Buffalo is a force to be reckoned with. Without being overly-dramatic, I think it safe to say that how you feel about Elvis, Conrad, is how I feel about Susan. Quite simply, studying with Charles and Susan is one of the great privileges of my life.

Finally, I must point out that the other huge influence during my time in Buffalo has been the other thinkers and writers of the Poetics Program. At Temple, I thought myself incredibly fortunate to have a circle of five friends-Pattie McCarthy, Kevin Varrone, Gregg Biglieri, Chris McCreary and Jenn McCreary-who consistently pushed me, challenged me, and made me rethink everything I had ever thought about poetry. I will not attempt to count the number of friends I am honored to consider my peers in Buffalo who have shaped my thinking, informed my poetics, and enhanced my life. There is indeed an embarrassment of riches here; easily ten times the size of the community I had at Temple. I could not begin to name each person who has inspired me here.

I guess I'm not really answering your specific question about "a certain part" of me that has changed since coming to Buffalo primarily because it would be impossible to pinpoint a single aspect or "part" that has been changed-it is all changed and yet nothing has changed. Does that sound evasive? The best I can offer you is this: the way to know me section explores the role of education and academia on writing and/or the writer. In it, each of my friends and foes, peers and professors, comrades and compatriots appears in descriptive snapshots as well as "in their own voice." So I guess my final answer is: please stay tuned.

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