Rusty Word Interviews


A CONVERSATION WITH JULIANA SPAHR

-- LOSS PEQUEÑO GLAZIER --

June 30 to July 4, 1995
Buffalo and NYC


GLAZIER: Juliana, there are a couple of things I'd like to touch upon, including your work with Leave Books, your many poetic and editorial activities, but first, could you say a little about how you came into this, should we call it the poetics world? What I mean here is where you grew up, significant influences along the way, milestones in your reading and writing...

SPAHR: I'm not sure how I came to the poetics world. Somehow I just ended up there. I did have these moments in junior high and high school where I would just read poetry--standard stuff like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Poetry felt and sounded strange to me and that interested me. Sometime in high school I became interested in punk rock and hard core and atonal music. At the time I viewed poetry as an extension of what was going on in hard core: both aimed for the transformation of the everyday. Transformation of the everyday was something I was really committed to at the time as I grew up in a place (Chillicothe, Ohio) where the everyday meant factories and industrial waste.

LPG: Then you went to Bard? What kind of program were you in?

JS: I was in what is called the "languages and literature" program. There are really only four majors at Bard. "Languages and Literature" is the catch all for humanities.

LPG: You studied poetry at Bard?

JS: When I went to Bard I immediately started working with Robert Kelly. He was the resident poet and anyone who wanted to do poetry had to go through him. I am very fond of Robert. It was he that introduced me to Gertrude Stein's work, to French surrealism, to San Francisco Renaissance, to language poetry. One my favorite Robert moments is that he once told this workshop I was in this story about taking a tape of Robert Duncan reading "Poem Beginning With a Line from Pindar" and played it over the phone line, recording it at the other end. He then kept recording the tape over and over through the phone lines and it got more and more distorted. In the end all that was left was this pattern of sound. I think Robert was using this as an example of the power of rhythm but I remember thinking at the time this is about static, about distortion, being interesting.

LPG: How was working with Kelly?

JS: Robert has this amazing way of taking everything around him in and then being able to spit it back out. This makes him a great teacher and a wonderful reader of student work. I always get a little worried when people ask me about working with Robert because the next question is usually something like the how-could-you-as-a-feminist-work with-him type (or sometimes ruder variations on this question). But I feel amazingly lucky to have worked with someone who took the act of writing so seriously, who read every small poem I turned in with such attention. I mean I escaped through Robert that horrible degrading or ignoring of work by women that seems so common among older male professors.

LPG: I think your phrasing of these concerns here is generous. In terms of some of the negative feedback, was it Kelly's poetics? Have people suggested you should have gone to go to an institution where you would've worked with a woman?

JS: A lot of Robert's reputation is self-cultivated, I think, through his work. It is also based in part on his life-style choices. But I always figure that a person's lifestyle really isn't any of my business unless it is harming someone. I find when gender issues enter Robert's work they are complex and diverse. But still undeniably, a lot of his work makes me uncomfortable. I believe too much in repression to find it a comfortable space for me. But I don't think that discomfort is necessarily bad.

LPG: At this time, what were your strongest influences towards a feminist poetic?

JS: Writers like Gertrude Stein, H.D., Mina Loy. Basically the major modernist writers. Bard's curriculum at the time ended at modernism (except in Robert's workshops).

LPG: Once you arrived in Buffalo, what were your impressions, your reaction to it all? As a city perhaps, as a place certainly, and also as a program or constellation of people at work. Important connections here? How did it strike you as a poetry scene (feel free to insert a different word here)?

JS: I remember right after I arrived going to a reading by Liz Willis and thinking there are amazing poets here that I have never heard of before. It was a great moment. When I arrived at Buffalo it was by default. They gave me more money than any other graduate program I got into. I knew that Robert Creeley was here which was a big plus and I knew that Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe had taught here briefly (or were going to be teaching in the case of Charles). So it seemed like there was some sort of poetic activity here. When I got here I took that seminar that Charles first taught that had something like 10 books a week to read on it--.

LPG: Yes, I can remember reactions to the syllabus! People who were used to following closely a very limited number of texts, and here was Charles pointing in gads of directions at once--and they all fit!

[Note: see Bernstein's syllabi in the Electronic Poetry Center.]

JS: And I, who imagined myself fairly well read in avant-garde traditions, realized that I had a lot of catching up to do. That seminar was wonderful. I learned so much from it and got introduced to tons of new writers. It was also great to have one of my first graduate seminars be this crazy class where you read a whole bunch of books of mainly contemporary poetry each week. I felt that I was learning something that was crucial and important to me. I remember at the time thinking maybe this going to graduate school thing isn't such a bad idea--.

LPG: I would be very interested in who among these many writers that Charles had on his syllabus were the most exciting for you...

JS: People like Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Susan Howe, Bernadette Mayer, Tom Raworth, Michael Smith, and others--there were so many.

But also through that seminar of Charles's I met all these Buffalo writers who have become important to me personally. People like Elizabeth Burns, Brigham Taylor, Mark Wallace, Bruce Holsapple, Mark Hammer, Jeff Hansen, Liz Willis, etc. So when I first arrived it felt like a poetry scene was in the process of being made. That is what it was. All it took was a little money and the hiring of Charles and Susan. Then things took off.

LPG: Had you been fully aware of the work of Charles and Susan before Buffalo? Did you have specific expectations from the Buffalo Poetics Program? How were Susan and Charles different from what you might have expected?

JS: I had read them but I wouldn't say "fully aware." I remember reading My Emily Dickinson and The Artifice of Absorption when I first arrived in Buffalo because they were the two books that everyone was talking about. My expectations of the program have been exceeded a thousand times. I had been warned that graduate school would be a bunch of brief-case carrying zombies who wouldn't read poetry. I've found the opposite to be true. I had expected my seminar reading to be pure drudgery, which it is a lot of the time, but never with Susan's and Charles's classes. Their seminars were always places where I would constantly leave the seminar with something new and interesting to think about. Both are great teachers. The kind of teachers where you leave their classroom and go straight to the library to look up some book they've mentioned because it seems crucial to keep thinking.

LPG: Did you have a preconceived plan of who you wanted to write about while here at Buffalo? I believe this was Stein, correct? (Though very early on I think you were working on a Kelly project?) How did these plans grow and expand?

JS: I came to Buffalo planning to work on Stein actually. I had done an undergraduate thesis on her work and planned on using that as a base for the dissertation. My dissertation as it now stands uses Stein as a base and then also discusses the work of Lyn Hejinian, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Harryette Mullen. I did do a paper on Robert's work for a seminar taught by Joseph Conte. (I believe you were in that class also.)

LPG: If I remember correctly you had been active in publishing at Bard. Can you mention that? (Was this your first experience with publishing?)

JS: I didn't do much publishing at Bard. It is something I regret. I kind felt poetically isolated at Bard. There was a group of poets behind me at Bard--people like Drew Gardner, Tim Davis, and Brian Kim Stephans--who were really active with publishing stuff. I was always jealous of them. After I graduated from Bard I worked for Station Hill for a year. The job was overwhelming. I felt like someone had dumped this huge project in my lap. I didn't get a good night's sleep for a year.

LPG: What kind of project was it? Were you involved in editing?

JS: My title was managing editor but in a press that small it meant that I did everything from typing in manuscripts to balancing the books. I did little editing. Sometimes a manuscript would come through and the staff as a whole would discuss it but mainly George and Susan Quasha made those decisions. They were at the time transitioning from a literary press to a more new age/body work/buddhism press. I didn't feel like I had much expertise in that area. I also don't think I have much understanding of what sells, which was justifiably of constant concern to them. The one manuscript that I told them I didn't think they should do became their best seller.

But I learned an incredible amount about publishing that I wouldn't have learned otherwise. I don't think I would have had the ingenuity to figure stuff out on my own without that year's experience.

LPG: Then of course the next question has to be about Leave books, your first publishing activity at Buffalo which, among other credits, received a significant write-up from the Poetry Project Newsletter. What was its inspiration, who was involved in the beginning, was it difficult to make it happen?

JS: Leave books was started by Mark Wallace and me. It has had a great instability of editors in its four years. Brigham Taylor and Elizabeth Burns joined during that first year. Pam Rehm and Kristin Prevallet sometime during the second and third year. This last year the staff was Kristin, Charlotte Pressler, Jennifer Karmen, Marta Warner and me. Kristin has done a great deal of the work over the last year and a half. While we tried many times in many different ways to run Leave as a collective it always ends up with someone doing more dirty work than anyone else. But, like an aging hippie, I still want to believe in the collective. I just haven't figured out how to do it yet.

LPG: It didn't get confusing to have so many editors?

JS: I think all these editors has been one of Leave's strengths. I like how it looks like we don't have a stable publishing agenda. Different editors have brought weird and different work to Leave. I like that moment where you are working to typeset this work you don't really appreciate and suddenly it clicks and the piece makes sense. Fortunately this happens more than the reverse for me. It is what makes editing and its physicality worth while. I'm always confused by those people who edit a journal or a press and they hate everything. I'm always suspicious of their motives if they are not pleased by reading other people's writing.

LPG: _A Poetics of Criticism_ was also a Leave publication, correct? But one on a much different scale. Was this geared to giving voice to different "Leave" editorial voices?

JS: Mark and I started doing this project for what I imagine were similar reasons. We were tired and bored by a lot of academic criticism. And we looked around and saw a lot of our peers doing interesting, innovative criticism but there being few venues for publication. Also this genre of innovative critical writing is what is important about the Poetics Program. I mean Susan and Charles and Dennis and Barbara Tedlock are certainly important writers of innovative criticism.

LPG: Are you still involved with Leave? Or, even if you're less active, do you ever worry (and I think this is the case with many editorial presences) that the series will be diminished without your participation?

JS: Leave is this project that always seems to be dying and yet still lives on. I'm not sure what is going to happen. At one time it looked like it would just be abandoned. Now it might exist in some mutant form with Kristin and I doing books independently but still using the name Leave. I don't worry that much about the series being diminished without me. For the last year or so Kristin has been doing more of the work than I have and she has done an excellent job. And I wouldn't mind if someone would come along and make Leave into something entirely different.

LPG: Were you also an editor for Poetic Briefs?

JS: I still am something called a co-founding editor (other co-founding editors are Brigham Taylor, Bill C. Tuttle, and Mark Wallace). Basically Poetic Briefs has always been Elizabeth and Jeff's vision. We used to get together before Jeff set each issue and discuss various articles and what we should concentrate on for future issues and stuff like that. Then when Elizabeth and Jeff left Buffalo they became the editors and the rest of us became the co-founding editors. It means that we are supposed to send articles regularly.

LPG: Now on to the "New Coast." The New Coast conference [a four-day poetics conference which took place in Buffalo from to March 31 to April 3, 1993] which gained much attention, is another event you were very much involved in. This was a big event! Certainly crystallizing some of what Poetics at Buffalo meant, or aimed at, or partly aimed at, at the time. A kind of necessary reckoning, it seems to me. But then of course there are many considerations (an act of editing) involved in conceiving such an event. What was the genesis for that, who was involved, and what kinds of "aims" or thoughts did you have in organizing it?

JS: The whole event was Peter Gizzi's idea. He really wanted to bring a bunch of younger poets, poets who for whatever reason probably wouldn't be asked to read in the Wednesdays at 4 series, to read in Buffalo. [The "Wednesdays at Four Plus" Series is the "official" reading series of the Poetics Program, and focuses on bringing major, usually more established, poets to Buffalo.] He asked me to co-organize the event with him. Our idea was to get people who were emerging--people who had maybe published a book or two with smaller presses or had been editing for a couple of years. The best thing about doing this conference was that I had to sit down and read everything I could find by younger poets. Buffalo's Poetry Rare Book room was a huge resource for this project. I loved doing this reading.

LPG: How was it putting together such a large event?

There was a huge act of "editing" that was involved. And while I loved the reading I did for the conference, I hated this part. It was very difficult to put the conference together. Peter and I made list after list and kept discussing people's work endlessly. Just the other day I found this list of names on a match book that we had frantically made while eating lunch one day. We wanted to try to make the conference as representative of the country as a whole as we could. We were somewhat limited by expenses--it obviously costs more to fly people in from the west coast. And we had more people from Buffalo at the conference than from anywhere else for obvious reasons. The politics in such an event are unimaginable. Everyone kept pointing out what mistakes we had made in not including so and so. I hated getting my mail everyday because I was scared another person would write in complaining about the decisions we had made. I was worried all the time about having too many people from Buffalo and at the same time worried that people from Buffalo would feel excluded. It was kind of horrible for me. I would never do it again. Finally, I don't think either one of us when it was over felt like we had this ideal conference. There were a number of poets that both of us would have wanted to add. But we couldn't invite everyone and we just did the best we could at the time. This feeling that the conference could never be whole, could never adequately represent prompted the two volume issue of _O-blek_.

LPG: This is an impressive collection. Literally hundreds of pages...

JS: I liked editing this book. I find people's statements about their work interesting and helpful. I'm not sure that gratifying was the word. It was difficult to get people to respond. Then when we finally got responses, we had very few from women. I had to write all the women again and beg them to write something. And then there were a lot of problems getting a manuscript of this size typeset correctly. Peter was working on it when I was in Korea and kept frantically trying to call me there which was difficult because the person I was staying with only had a phone in their office. He was in the middle of moving to Providence. He totaled his car driving back from the typesetter's one day. He and Gale Nelson finally got it typeset and when I got the manuscript the statements were arranged alphabetically and the subject headings, which I had worked on for a long time, had disappeared. I wanted the subject headings in there badly because I felt the book would be too difficult to read without them. This took a huge amount of extra work on Gale and Peter's part. In other words, it was the most difficult book I've ever worked on to get into production. But in the process of working on this book, I never lost interest in the work. I can't defend some of the decisions that were made as to who got excluded from the book or the conference but I do believe that in both projects a lot of really excellent poets were included.

LPG: It was it difficult to draw these "lines"? Were these lines drawn in terms of a poetic vision clear to you and Peter?

JS: This was not only difficult it was horrible. I still feel haunted by some of the decisions we made. I think the vision was clear to Peter and me but both of us felt that good poets and editors were not being included. We just reached this point where we had to call it quits and couldn't invite any more people. There were a number of poets that both of us were wanting to add at the last moment, poets whose work we had somehow missed, and we just couldn't.

LPG: Now I'd like to ask about Chain, the magazine you co-edit with Jena Osman. First, congratulations! I know you received a prestigious grant for your work with the magazine, a Gregory Kolovakas seed grant. Chain, to me, seems to take you into a new terrain. There is a bulk and should I say "authority" or if not authority then "geography." It's difficult to describe except to say that Chain brings with it a weight or depth of consideration that truly qualifies its publication. At Chain's outset, what did you have in mind?

[Note: see descriptive entry for Chain in the Electronic Poetry Center.]

JS: I think Chain for me has a lot to do with the feeling that came out of the conference that editing was really difficult and unfairly hierarchical. In fact Chain started because of a conversation in which Jena told me she never wanted to ever edit anything and I told her that I thought that would be an interesting way to edit. So we started this project that would try to in some way disrupt or expose the difficulties of editing. It was this that prompted us the form of the chain letter for the first issue. We wanted something that we wouldn't have to edit, that would spread out without our volition. Even for the "Gender and Editing" section we accepted everything that we got. We still try to be an inclusive as possible. When we sit down with a pile of manuscripts we don't ask questions like "is this a good poem?" but instead ask "does this poem fit the rubric of the issue; does it tell us something about the rubric that we might not have previously considered possible?"

LPG: I recently had a person send a submission (for RIF/T) and the writing was rather Frost-esque, etc., not to make a judgment call but just NOT in the arena of given concerns. I sent it back with a kind note and almost immediately got a reply something like: "What's wrong with it? You don't think it's poetry? Should I not be writing?" And I felt terrible. The place the person was coming from was not egocentric, the contrary, I inadvertently threatened the position of their self, which had obviously not been my intention. Aren't you still faced with that editorial black hole of "this piece of writing really does not fit into our vocabulary"?

JS: Yes. You are right. That black hole does still exist. To a certain extent you can make whatever it is you are editing represent many different voices (the EPC and Rif/t are good examples of this) but that doesn't mean that you can represent everyone. But that note is a good example of what can be painful about editing. No one wants to be responsible for whether someone writes or not. But then that poet shouldn't be putting that responsibility off on you. That is something everyone has to decide for themselves.

LPG: Do you find that editing takes time away from writing?

JS: Actually the opposite. I like to be busy and being busy tends to feed my poetry, reading other people's work feeds my own (I am a horrible thief). I know a lot of people who have found that graduate school has done horrible things for their own writing. Rachel Blau DuPlessis tells this story of being in graduate school and every year writing shorter and shorter poems. But I think partly because the Poetics Program was there, I felt that my academic work and editing work feed my own work.

LPG: You have had your work published in a number of magazines in the last couple of years. Where are you with your own writing and where do you see your writing moving?

JS: That is a hard question. I guess I am interested in continuing to take direction from language poetry's concerns with the political necessity of alternative linguistic concerns. But I also think my work is a lot more driven by story or some sort of narrative than a lot of language poetry. I am very interested in exploring what poetry can tell us about how we see things that might be overlooked by the more standardized genres (that was my interest in making Chain/2 about documentary).

LPG: What advice would you give to a person new to the "poetics world"? How does one "enter"? How does one proceed?

JS: I always see poetics world as being like a conversation. The best thing to do is to enter that conversation in some way. Charles Bernstein always advises younger poets to do reviews and to start editing something. I think that is good advice. Reviews are good things to do because they require you to enter into the conversation through someone else's work. Also a lot of journals that tend not to publish work by younger poets will publish reviews written by younger poets. Editing is good because again it is about taking someone else's work seriously. Also, a lot of poets self-produce and self-publish their first books. I think another important thing to do is to look at poets of your own generation, to cultivate a conversation with poets who might be doing similar things.


Last modified: June 1997
Loss Glazier (lolpoet@acsu.buffalo.edu)