Sunday, August 30, 2009
QUESTION: "Nod Often" is without a doubt one of my favorite poems by you. It's a bleak torrent in the true meaning of torrent being an incessant, powerful outpouring. The tear in the purple earth is where the crisis seems to give way like a devastating forecast. What do you not mind sharing with us about writing this poem?
CAPLES: It's funny-I wrote that poem in late 2007 and hadn't really done anything with it because I wasn't sure if it was any good. It was the second poem I wrote after I'd finished Complications and I guess I felt like it looked like the poems in the "All Chemical" section and I didn't know how I felt about that. I thought I was done worrying about form as such, but this resolution was formed while the forms were changing of their own accord. The absence of change bothered me because I live in fear of getting good enough at a particular kind of poem that I can coast on it forever. You can go pretty far in the poetry world if you can give your own little twist, however faint, on some generally accepted mode, and you can keep peeling off poems long after talent has outstripped poetry. But the form came of its own and I finished the poem, which rarely happens at this point unless it's something I'll end up using, so I kept it around. I haven't written any others like it since, so my qualms appear to be unfounded.
"Bleak torrent," as you call it, is good. I was going through a bad time for reasons unrelated to poetry. And, of course, this was written when Bush was still in power, though really very little has changed under Obama, geopolitically speaking. And the militarization of the police to quash free speech; the insane lack of gun control; polar bears still not being added to the endangered species list; climate change treaties which, even if they achieved their tepid goals, are laughably insufficient; carbon trading; tasers; the inability to close Guantanamo; banning of gay marriage in California-you name it. I think it'd be foolish to deny we're better off under Obama, however, and I do think he's trying to improve things, but only certain things. Other evils of capitalism he seems quite at ease with. But still, it's hard not to like the guy as a guy; he's magnetic but seemingly human, and he's restored some dignity to the America's international standing. Not that I'm a patriot, but I don't have much choice in being American and it's pretty embarrassing when you travel.
I'm gassing on about this I guess because I'm not sure what to say about writing it. I'm working on a poem right now that I don't know if I'll finish, but in it I talk a little bit about writing poetry: "it's a combination of toil/ and automatic dictation." It sounds like Alexander Pope, but that's as good as I can describe it. Many of the phrases are automatic as is the general sequence of "events" or whatever you'd call them. The title came first, a few days later, the phrase "señor citizen," which generated the first bunch of stanzas; I remember there was some particularly vexed case going on on the US/Mexican border, which I think accounted for the manifest content, if you will, plus it's obviously built on "senior citizen," giving it a sonic plausibility even as undertones of the elderly seep into the automatic phrase, and the "sleep with you," also automatic, must be a degraded or accelerated form of marriage for citizenship. The first stanza emerged after the second, from the juxtaposition of "señor citizen" with the title.
Parts of the poem were more deliberately composed to bridge more spontaneous lines. Occasionally, as here, I have an earlier stack of phrases that I didn't know what to do with-"weakened weekend," "overdose overdoes," "needless needles"-and they suddenly find their calling. These phrases weren't automatic so much as noticed, and I literally discovered "needles" in "needless" from a typo in a document I was proofreading. "Automatic," for me, is most often this sort of slow accumulation. Yet, the poem is, I think, a bleak torrent; I was a bleak torrent at the time so the poem reflects this. And it reflects various obsessions of mine, like the poisoning of the Earth's water supply. I imagine water'll be scarce enough to become the basis of the world economy; I only hope it comes after I die. Genetically-modified food is another Earth-destroyer. The thing about tv was a spontaneous insight I had at a friend's house (I don't watch it at home and now that the digital conversion has happened, I literally can't, which is fine by me.) Commercials and reality tv treat viewers like complete morons; there's a contempt and loathing of the audience/consumer-often manifested through the fake absurdism that's become advertising's chief mode-that contrasts with the way tv used to conduct itself. It used to pretend to care about the people it was trying to sell things to, total bullshit, of course, but now the lameness of the viewer-and the viewer's acquiescence in this lameness-is presumed. So I thought it was a funny way to put it.
QUESTION: Magdalena Zurawski says punk rock saved her poems. Tell us how hip hop is an inspiration for you?
CAPLES: This hip hop thing has been a weird development for me. I don't know if you've ever seen any "hip hop poets"-there are some good spoken word people who might fall under that rubric, but in general, anytime I was confronted with a hip hop poet, it was someone who couldn't rap who wanted to use the slang. Someone who couldn't achieve hip hop, in other words. So I was a little skeptical about what a poet could borrow from hip hop.
That said, I'm immensely interested in what rappers do with rhyme. In our poetry world, rhyme has been as dead as it can be since-at the very latest-Weldon Kees. He was already something of an anachronism stylistically. Anything else has been Richard Wilbur-type reactionary rhyming, or Charles Bernstein-type "look how dumb these rhymes sound" things. (Thom Gunn, however, managed to do something with it.) But what rap shows is that rhyming isn't played out; it has a vibrant existence, just not in our poetry culture. Part of rap's success with rhyme was to think beyond the end-rhyme. There are lots of internal rhymes, the shifts between rhymes don't always follow a couplet or quatrain pattern. There's also much use of slant rhymes-probably most rhymes in raps are slant rhymes these days-and rhyming phrases rather than simply words. A very simple example of the latter occurs in a Mac Dre song in which he says something to the effect of being high off "a catpiss blunt" and in a car with "a catfish front." ("Catpiss" is a kind of cannabis whose smell evokes cat piss, though it's by no means so acrid.) But the phrases can be much longer.
I've spent the last four years writing on Bay Area rap for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Given time constraints, most of the music I listen to is rap, and I spend a lot of time running around various Bay Area hoods for writing purposes. And I've made a handful of close friends within this artistic milieu. So the stuff is on my mind a lot. Inevitably I've picked up bits of slang, not on purpose so much as through a combination of osmosis and simply trying to make myself understood in a world not my own. In the past couple of years here in Oakland, the word "lightweight" has come to signify something between "a little bit" and "sort of." I was interviewing a rapper and had my camera with me. One of his teen protégés asked me if I did photography as well, to which I automatically responded "lightweight," to the extreme amusement of everyone.
I tell this story because the slang is very attractive yet there's something ridiculous about someone like me using it. It would be easy to steal some of this slang-the more straightforward or obvious examples at least-and seem like a very inventive poet, but why do this? It's dishonest and unoriginal. It isn't my language, though I've found it creeps into my conversation outside the hood from time to time, handy words like "lightweight" or "a minute" to signify a long time ("I haven't seen him in a minute"). But I try not to do this. The one word I did self-consciously use in a poem is "grapes" to signify "marijuana"; it seems so incongruous with weed in a sense-compared with, say, "spinach" or "broccoli"-but "grapes" came in with strong, purple-colored weed that took over out here. Maybe once is ok, but the problem with that sort of thing is that few people who read my poems know that that's what "grapes" signifies.
In any case, what happened to some of my poetry after awhile wasn't related to slang at all, but rather to flow. What happened was, as I wrote "Chanson de Goo Goo," some of the material came to me in a flow-the rhythm of which I later realized came from a rap by Shock-G, with a little bit of one by Saafir, the Saucee Nomad. And the rhymes came out of this flow (not the other way around). This has happened a few times since; I'm working on one right now that contains a passage based on a flow by Dotrix4000, probably my best friend in the hip hop scene out here. But I haven't chosen these flows so much as they've chosen me in the course of a poem. I don't know if any of this counts as "inspiration," but it's how the hip hop has affected my work.
QUESTION: So you're saying you've internalized the tools? You were talking about the achievement of rap using rhyme in ways different from mere end-rhyme, and I feel that too of your poem "Silence License," also in your book COMPLICATIONS (Meritage Press, 2007). "soda / odor" for instance. Although my FAVORITE is "onion / noise" as if it could rhyme, and THE NOISE of the onion would know, right?! You're the perfect poet in many ways to be talking about this with, which makes me happy to be doing so. I've had fights more than once with poets in our experimental circles who balk at the mention of rap as poetry, to say rap IS poetry. When I would talk about the historical context of rap coming to us on the tree of fast-rhyme oral histories from West Africa, the answer then is, "Oh, so it's like folk art." To me this is another stamp of pedigree talking, to say "I'll accept it, but not as fine art." Anyway, that's probably too long of a debate into class and race. Back to your poems. I'm curious about the dedication to Michael Palmer for "Chanson de Goo Goo" in COMPLICATIONS. You pay respect to others too with different poems in the book, Philip Lamantia, Barbara Guest, and others. Not to mix these questions too much, but, how do these poets inspire you, while we're on the subject of how and what inspires the poems of Garrett Caples?
CAPLES: I go back and forth on how to characterize the relationship between rap and poetry (both forms of verse, perhaps). I have no problem with people calling rap poetry, though, on the other hand, I don't privilege one over the other. That is to say, rap doesn't need to be poetry, because rap is rap, perfectly valid in its own terms. And yet-how can they not be related? A lot of rappers I know consider themselves poets, so it's clear at least some of them feel the relationship. As a poet, in any case, it's useful to see the continuities and the distinctions. The fact that rap is for the most part recorded, and recorded with a beat, while a poem, for the most part, is written on a page, is important to keep in mind. A good rapper can use his/her voice to accomplish much that isn't possible in the poem in the sense that you have to write poetry whose voice will emerge from the marks on the paper. You can't rely on someone hearing your poem the way you think it goes; you need to write the poem so that it goes the way you want it to without you being there. I recall reading a poet once complaining about how her poetry instructor would read her poems fast, when she meant them to be read slow. Within your poem, you can shift its tempo, speed up, slow down, etc. But you can't just insist on the proper speed at which your work should be read. All this is to say that the rapper potentially has more control over the way the rap goes because he or she delivers it in oral form, whereas the poet can control some of the way the poem goes, but must leave a great deal open to the reader's various proclivities. If you can't accept this, you need to find another line of work.
The dedications are pretty straightforward, devoted to poet-friends like Andrew Joron, Brian Lucas, Jeff Clark, a handful for my girlfriend Anna. "Mildred Begley" was my great-aunt who died in her 80s. She was a wonderful person and I was sad because she's the type of person who slips through history, making her mark on her immediate friends and family but leaving nothing behind. I thought maybe I could preserve something, even though it's not a very straightforward elegy at all and doesn't give much sense of her as a person. I also enjoyed using her name as a title-it sounds like an Anthony Trollope novel. As for the older poets: "Dub Song of Prufrock Shakur" is dedicated to both Philip Lamantia and Robert Creeley, who died within a few months of each other. Mostly Philip-inspired, as we were pretty close, but Creeley is certainly in there. I remember telling Barbara Guest I liked Creeley's work, which she really hated, as it turned out. But I told her that my interest was largely formal, which is true; obviously our vocabularies and sensibilities are quite different. She approved of this, saying something like "That's very wise," a typically dual-edged type of Barbara statement. Barbara is the subject of "A Young Girl Recalls Meeting Erich Von Stroheim," as well as the speaker. It's based on her actual experience and, being a huge Von Stroheim fan, I couldn't resist writing it after she told me the story. She was still alive when I wrote it and I showed it to her; she approved, thank god. Really it's kind of audacious writing a poem in the voice of a living master, but again, I couldn't help myself and I'm very glad I wrote it as it was one of those stories that she never got on paper and it deserves telling. "‘I Have Seen Enough'" is another one about Philip but dedicated to Nancy Joyce Peters, the co-owner/publisher emeritus of City Lights who was married to Philip. I got to know her only after he died, when I helped her put his papers together for the Bancroft Library. This was basically the beginning of the process by which I eventually started editing for City Lights, so it was a real pivotal moment in my life. That poem was one of the few that was actually written more or less in the time it takes to read it. Everything in it-the strange encounters with birds, etc.-really occurred.
I feel like I'm both going on too long and not really answering the question. In terms of inspiration, Creeley influenced me on the level of the line, while Andrew Joron influenced me on the level of the word (when I read The Removes it made me feel like a lazy poet so I tried to step it up afterward). Barbara's influence is mostly in her fearlessness and continual variation. Philip may be the biggest influence but not in an obvious way because I think my poetry isn't very like his; he's inimitable and I wouldn't even try. But his influence was about being a poet and what that meant as a practitioner of an ancient tradition. He also taught me about poetry as a life as well as an art. And perhaps most of all, his own disregard for any careerism, his intense pursuit of his own interests regardless of fashion, and his strict standards of what to publish profoundly influenced me. It made me drop all the purely formal exercises in favor of sitting back and waiting for the poem to come, not forcing it or using a formula simply to generate product. You write less poems this way, but they're a hell of a lot better. And whereas I was driven by the desire to try forms, now the forms declare themselves fairly early in the writing process.