How has your first book changed your life?
3. Stacy Szymaszek
I feel like I had a realistic sense of what the publication of a small press book of poetry would and wouldn't do to create change in my life. I was working at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee, had several chap books come out, edited 2 journals-- was and still am very engaged in the process of printing the work of others, getting my work printed. I don't know that my life has changed as much as people's knowledge of my work, my existence has changed, increased!
I've been calling myself a poet for a long time. I was 35 when Emptied of All Ships came out. I think my need for the affirmation of a book was much greater in my 20's. I remember telling my therapist that if I didn't have one by the time I was 25 I would consider killing myself, and I was speaking earnestly! Wow, to remember that kind of young inner despotism. Well, I realized that this was a vocation and first I needed to learn how to make poems.
I landed back in my hometown of Milwaukee, in the neighborhood of Bay View along Lake Michigan, by the Port of Milwaukee. I started the poems that would become Mutual Aid [gong press] and Emptied of All Ships when I was 31. THE PROCESS OF WRITING THEM IS WHAT CHANGED ME. Yes, this is the point I wanted to make. It's perhaps the only thing that has changed me in the sense of transmogrification. I invented a public self through the invention of "James." This was before the poetry community reburgeoned in Milwaukee, I hadn't connected, I had published a handful of narrative poems in feminist journals in college. I had finally accessed the language I needed and this gave me a lot of confidence. I believed I had something to contribute, so I wanted it to be out there in a book.
My focus is on doing the work, I have a will to do this work, and of course I like to be recognized for my accomplishments, but regardless the word-work continues.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
My book release and the job offer from the Poetry Project happened in the month of May, 2005. My life has changed a lot since then but specifically because of the book, I don't know. It has better distribution than chap books. One can get it from Amazon, which I think is a weird kind of credential. To be very honest I think it made my parents see me as an adult instead of a possibly "misguided youth" writing poems they don't understand. This is a significant shift. I'm not married, don't have kids, but I have this book. Their suburban friends order it from Amazon and read it because it's me and try to make some meaning out of it because they know and like me. It's a very moving kind of generosity.
What did you do/are you doing to promote sales, and what were/are those experiences like?
I say yes to almost everything that people invite me to do. I'm lucky that people have me in mind. I haven't been aggressive in seeking out readings. I'm of the mind that one thing leads to another. I feel like I've laid a lot of ground work during the past decade and now I'm enjoying the benefits. I do read frequently, I send out copies to a lot of people I think would be interested, make sure a few book stores as well as SPD keep it in stock. I maintain a vital connection with Tracy Grinnell who published the book. "Promote sales" sounds foreign to me as an author, a copublisher of Instance Press. I want to get the book into people's hands, yes, but it really is a labor of love with no expectation of profit. I did a journal called Gam: A Biannual Survey of Great Lakes Writing, with the tag line "Gam is a gift." I created a gift culture with it, encouraging the trade. In order to do all of these labors of love you need money, and when I moved to New York I needed to siphon more money into rent so Gam is on hiatus for now.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
I'm working on a long poem that I see becoming my second book called "hyper glossia"--it's very different than EOAS. I worked with a very short line, with the sense of the line as a self-contained unit. My use of the line and the page in this piece is more akin to Olson in The Maximus Poems. But the manifestation of my vision varies from project to project. There Were Hostilities is talky and documentary, the character in the poems is literally me. The possibility that a reader may love one of my books and not the other is very strong. So I worry a little about this "making a brand name" for yourself thing that Silliman talked about a year or two ago. I don't just write "about the sea."
How do you feel about the critical response to your book and has it had any effect on your writing?
The line "your audience hasn't been born yet" resonates for me with this book. It has been reviewed most satisfyingly by Laura Sims in Jacket, also by Ken Warren in the Poetry Project Newsletter and Bill Sylvester in ecopoetics no. 4/5. Ken locates me within an Objectivist tradition, which I really like, Bill locates me as a writer of the Great Lakes region and has a lot of really lovely readings of certain passages, noting the humor, which is an important element. I really want someone to come at this text as a queer text and an erotic text. There is a lot of erotic activity happening on that ship and I feel like it's being desexualized. No surprise. It's not overt enough to be picked up on by mainstream gay culture and it's easy enough to let it slip by if you're not inclined to think about it. But it's the secret of the text, except it's an open secret, like a big lavender hanky flapping in the wind. There has been no greater force that has formed my sense of otherness and my experience of loss than being gay--but also the inverse, I'm living "in the light" now. This text is born from this pain and this joy; energy born of shame and transformed into theatricality.
The critical response has affected my ego but not my writing.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
This reminds me of the "role of poet vs. role of citizen" question that Lance Phillips asks. Of course I do! And it troubles me how many poets don't think it can (an attitude unique to this country). Words are powerful. Of all the arts, I think poetry makes people the most uncomfortable and I think poetry is the most dangerous to authoritarianism. We need to speak to each other in everyday life, we employ words, for the most part, in a syntactically prescribed order. We read signs, we turn on the TV, our politicians talk to us, it's all propaganda, emotion is commodified and consumed. The poet is in the perfect postion to upset the linguistic expectation of our society. I agree with George Lakoff's belief that the Republicans keep winning because of their ability to control the language.
I'm not suggesting that poets can topple governments but I do think that we are providing an important resistance, reminding people of the multiplicity and depth and beauty of language. Here is a quote from Rexroth from his essay "The Function of Poetry and the Place of the Poet in Society": "The poet is constantly trying to make the language a more efficient instrument for the control and appreciation of experience. As soon as the forms of society come to rest on artificially preserved methods of controlling experience any such deeply critical approach to the mechanism of communication becomes dangerous to the group."
On an interpersonal level, I've heard and read poems that have changed me: magically, words can open up your ears, make you more alert, more open to noticing synchronicities, more available to the people in your life. The ripple effect of these positives are unquantifiable but cast far.
The whole topic of money and poetry and the agency of the poet causes endless mulling for me. Visual artists and fiction writers can make a lot of money doing what they do but we can't. This is on one hand a boon because what we do isn't subjected to such
Speaking of money and making a living, you're in such an unusual position, having a job that is both unconnected to academia and centered in poetry--incredible! (And your previous job at Woodland Pattern also fit that description--is that right?) I wonder about how you accomplished these feats of livelihood...
Ha! I like "feats of livelihood." Having a job at Woodland Pattern and now the Poetry Project has been my good fortune. When I moved back to Milwaukee, I had a friend who had just gotten a job at WP and I knew I had to get in there. She got me an interview and I made a flip comment about how I would clean the place if nothing else. I got hired as a part-time Education Coordinator and I cleaned on Mondays! After not too long I ended up inhabiting a self-created position or a position created for me called Literary Program Manager. It was a case of my moment of internal galvanization meeting an organizational need for change. Maybe one savvy thing I did was make the Poetry Project people aware of my existence, to draw parallels between the work we were doing. When a job became available a couple of years later I was called. This wouldn't have happened had I not put myself out there.
Can you live on what you make at the Poetry Project? And have you purposely avoided teaching, or has it just turned out that way so far?
At this point in my life I think I would enjoy teaching. I used to be too introverted. BUT at this point I don't have a masters and I'm not the kind of person that could tolerate going through the "MFA industry" (as Mark Nowak calls it in his essay "Neoliberalism, Collective Action, and the American MFA Industry"). I have taught a few workshops, given a few guest talks, been on panels, have been a mentor recently. I like these alternative scenarios. I've considered going back to school but not for writing. For now I'm thrilled to be where I am, and I do make enough to live, but not in Manhattan and not alone.
Would you say a little more about James?
James is the character that emerges in the long poem "Some Mariners" in Emptied of All Ships. I was reading To the Lighthouse as well as Moby Dick. In the "Midnight, Forecastle" chapter of MD, Melville presents a chorus of sailors, set up like a play, Sicilian sailor, French Sailor, Pip, 4th Nantucket sailor.... I started inventing names of sailors for "Some Mariners," and all of them eventually got dropped, except for James. I realized later that James is the boy's name in Woolf's novel.
All I can speak to is what I was conscious of during the emergence of this character. I know it's a bit confusing. Who is James? Is the narrator his lover? A lot of the initial building of the poem was around the prefix "trans"--across, beyond, into another state or place. Transatlantic, transonic, transcribe, the whole thing with James trans-lating Chinese poetry is supposed to be humorous underneath all that angst. So, yes, (James as) trans-sexual but really in a fantastical sense of pan-gendered, a body beyond (trans) anything we currently know. Robotics included (he has a robotic arm).
It was a narrative strategy to be both the I and the persona of James, to be able to use the word "James" as another referential. The rest is for you to imagine. I'm working with another male persona in "hyper glossia", even more overtly his name is Eustace, but in this piece the narrator is clearly a woman. In Pasolini Poems [Cy Press], I filtered myself through the Roman Poems of Pier Paolo Pasolini.
The short answer to why I do this is because my masculinity is as important as my femininity and I have a desire to represent it and explore my relationship to my body/gender/sexuality in a very imaginative poetry.
from "Some Mariners" in Emptied of All Ships:
wrote five letters
black clouds. spilled ink blotting out Balkan peninsula
pale rain. beads spatter the tarpaulin
police force wind comes. blasts and scatters them
true solar year is more than a year. pesky fraction
below night watch tower. ocean like sky
. . .
next interview: Tony Tost
. . .