Poetic Comedy, September 11, Truth, the Lyric, Mississippi, the Persecution of Gabe Gudding by Trent Lott Radio, the Cohabitation of Poets, and Prison Teaching: An Interview with Mairead Byrne and Gabriel Gudding
MAIRÉAD BYRNE immigrated from Ireland in 1994. She was a journalist for eight years, in Ireland and the United States, has had two plays produced and four short books published in Ireland. Her poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Britain, the United States, and on the Web, most recently in The Denver Quarterly, Epoch, Poetry Ireland, readme, and A Fine Excess: 50 years of the Beloit Poetry Journal. Her book Nelson & the Huruburu Bird will be published by Wild Honey Press in 2002. She was awarded a writing residency by the Saltonstall Foundation in 2000. A graduate of University College, Dublin, Trinity College, Dublin, and Purdue University, she was a visiting fellow to the Institute of European Studies at Cornell University, 1999-2001, and is now Assistant Professor of Poetry in the new MFA program at the University of Mississippi.
GABRIEL GUDDING's poems have appeared in places like The Nation, Conduit, The American Poetry Review, Fence, Iowa Review, and stuff. He's started creative writing programs in two prisons, and has taught both fiction and poetry writing at Cornell University and the University of Mississippi. He has won The Nation Discovery Award, the Agnes Lynch Starrett First Book Prize, and a Constance Saltonstall Individual Artist's Grant. His book of poetry, A Defense of Poetry, will be published in the Pitt Poetry Series in September 2002. He was educated at Evergreen College, Purdue, and Cornell Universities."
Kent Johnson: It's said that Gabriel Gudding is a very funny poet. I have a question first for you, Gabe, and then one for Mairead: Gabe, do you think you are a funny poet?
Gabriel Gudding: It's like asking if I think myself handsome or well endowed. Or if I share the opinion that I have penetrating green eyes. Superego's answer: not for me to judge. Id's answer: of course you are being an agent provocateur here. Ego's answer: This question is really unfair. If I write something and then read it out loud, people sometimes laugh. That's nice, bully for them, big deal. Look, your question is a very common challenge. It's a challenge peculiar not only to comic writers but to anyone outside the dominant mode: you don't get, for instance, people walking up to, I don't know, Louise Gluck, saying, "Professor Gluck, Sir, do you think you're a poignant poet?" And there's a reason for this. Decorous poetry, or "grief-work" poetry, or dignified poetry is what we expect from a poet. I.A. Richards noted, most effectively in Practical Criticism, that certain audiences have certain "stock responses." And here the social is tied, as Bakhtin noted, to the aesthetic realm. Most audiences demand from poetry dignified emotions, the high and the noble, poignant, the elegiac and nostalgic, dignified desire and dignifying despair, contrition or well-turned shame, these things constitute the dimensions of stock response in Euro-American poetry culture. Anything that falls outside that narrow emotional register, we tend to call "shocking" or "funny."
KJ: You can't be serious! Expectations of a high and noble tone may have been the hegemonic stock response in Euro-American poetry culture in 1892, but half the poets in today's America are test-tube babies conceived of Gertrude Stein's eggs and Frank O'Hara's jism. Why are you being so defensive?
GG: The act of asking someone whether she is a funny poet is -- to my paranoid mind -- an act of policing. But I know you are ironical, otherwise I would do violence or get high-minded and quote Foucault, after he was asked whether he would call himself "gay": "Do not ask me who I am and do not demand that I remain the same. Leave it to the police and bureaucrats to make sure our papers are in order." I notice, for instance, that you do not ask if I write funny poetry. You ask, rather, whether I am a funny poet. You ask about my identity rather than the rhetoric of my poetry. And this is commonly done to poets. In fact, this is commonly done to anyone who needs to be disciplined. And poetry is a language that needs to be disciplined (the foregoing word is a verb, not an adjective, by the way). It is in fact the most disciplined discourse in the literary scene. In the dominant tradition, the lyric tradition, poets are identities first, and are considered monologists: they hold the stage and their work is, essentially, an exercise of the lyric self in a lonely display of emotion, emotions unmediated by social relations. Deep down you are afraid of me, otherwise you would not police me in this manner, Kent Johnson.
KJ: Let's leave me out of this, please. And also please stop referring to yourself as "she." Let your partner refer to herself as "she." You are a man. But talk more about rhetoric...
GG: In fact, poetry is a rhetoric. Yet poets make claims for its vatic status all the time: Henry Gould claiming poetry is "deep calling unto deep," and he resorts to the example of literary figures, such as Mandelstam, rather than to individual poems, or Alan Dugan saying it's this voice he's heard in his head since he was 16, or Emerson declaring that the poet simply tries to write down what is already there, as if he were just recording it. This reclamation of the vatic is a way of conferring authenticity on the *poet. It avoids discussion of the social and political uses of poetry; we would rather see Mandelstam or Whitman as vatic identities rather than political writers. It is interesting that poets of witness are policed for their identities first. Writers who engage politically, as comic poets necessarily do (even if simply through an engagement with the politics of aesthetics) and as the poets of witness do, are policed first by their identities -- which to me is the wonderful thing about the Yasusada corpus. Someone like Reznikoff is interesting to me because his objectivist courtroom political poems, which Mairead brought to my attention, are so powerful and yet he is considered a person of relatively low charisma. He is not attacked, really, for his identity because he is writing from an appropriate and fairly non-contentious social position: if his poems however had been published in a post WW2 victorious Germany, say, his identity and social position would matter a great deal, despite the fact that his poems are not invested with the typical rhetorical devices demanded by stock response. I mean look at the issue of gender among great political poets. Amiri Baraka has his whole life's affiliations and identities mapped out chronologically in The Baraka Reader (the Black Nationalist period, etc etc [must find my Baraka reader]) because he is in a contentious relationship with the predominantly white male poetry establishment. I think it's interesting that great political poets who happen to be minority women, such as Lucille Clifton or Gwendolyn Brooks, do not have their identities policed as strongly as a minority poet on the opposite side of the gender divide. They are mistakenly believed, by people who do not read their poetry, to occupy a less threatening political position. The same is true of "comic poets": when most people think of contemporary comic poets they think of Edson, Tate, Knott, Dugan, Collins. When in fact the greatest comic writers today are, in my estimation, women, by dint not only of their political position in a patriarchal world, but their rhetorical genius and inventiveness: Linda Smukler, Barbara Barg, Wanda Coleman, Terri Ford, Mildred Tremblay, Rachel Loden, Denise Duhamel, Lynn Emanuel, Bernadette Mayer, Caroline Knox, Maxine Chernoff, Sharon Olds, and, of course Mairead Byrne. Louise Gluck, by the way, has written some hilarious work.
KJ: That's fascinating. And I'm glad I asked the question the way I did. So now, Mairead, do you think Gabe is a funny poet?
Mairead Byrne: I love hearing Gabe read and watching the expressions on people's faces as it dawns on them that these poems are funny. There is a raptness, an attention, almost a pricking of the ears, a beautiful mix of expressions from bemused concentration to borderline delight. Then a brave someone breaks the tension and laughs. Yes, there is always laughter. I have to say though that Gabe takes his fun very seriously. If you hurled it, it would have the approximate weight of an antique printing press. But Kent, I must ask you: why does your question remind me of the old joke: "Well enough about Gabe, let's talk about you, Mairead - what do you think of Gabe?" I hope you will answer my question.
KJ: Well, now just you wait a second, I
MB: You know what Virginia Woolf said about that word. But I'd like to enter the conversation by engaging with the issue of identity raised by Gabe. Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks may be less disciplined by their identities as Black, as women, or as lesbian, than Baraka is, but only in the fundamental sense that women's identities are conventionally blurry in public arenas. The "predominantly white male poetry establishment," as Gabe terms it, may be less interested in Clifton and Brooks, and therefore less likely to engage in discourse, or combat, with them. But there are other arenas. The "predominantly white male poetry establishment" does not represent "most people." In the classroom this semester, for example, I have seen students lock horns with Baraka, yes, but also with Clifton and Brooks. Baraka's "When We'll Worship Jesus," Brooks' "The Mother," and Clifton's "poem to my uterus" are shocking to students in surprisingly similar ways. Neither Jesus nor ovaries should be mentioned in poems, either for attack or celebratory purposes. I'm convinced if we pursue this line of thinking far enough, "Jesus" will eventually become "ovaries," in any case. "Most people" is as likely to mean "myself in a less enlightened incarnation" as it is to mean the "predominantly white male poetry establishment," or indeed most people. I don't for a second think that the name Alan Dugan springs to mind when most people think of contemporary comic poetry. Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss would be more likely. Most people don't hook "contemporary" to "poetry" at all. Rachel Loden sent me the sales figures, from the New York Times, for Alan Dugan's hopefully inaccurately titled Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry.
week ending Oct 28 - 60 copies sold
week ending Nov 4 - 10 copies sold
week ending Nov 11- 20 copies sold
week ending Nov 18 - 250 copies sold
The bumper crop for the week ending Nov 18 is a product of Dugan's winning the National Poetry Award. But, as the New York Times points out, "the winner in the children's book category sold roughly half again as many copies in the same period (470), the non-fiction winner sold about 14-15 times as many (4,900), and in any ONE of these four weeks, the fiction winner sold about a hundred times as many copies as the Dugan book did in the four weeks total." That's bad - but on the other hand, I'd like to know those 340 people who bought Dugan's book in those four weeks, and in fact I probably do. The poetry community in America is tiny and that's great: never underestimate the capacity of tiny things to change.
KJ: What, even if you're as tiny audience-wise as Reznikoff?
MB: Charles Reznikoff's audience was and still is even tinier than Dugan's. Black Sparrow, that champion press, sold an average of 85 copies of Holocaust per year in the 20 years of its availability. An average of 119 copies per year of Testimony were sold, 1978-2000. During his lifetime, Reznikoff never proved attachable to the centers of power offered by the poetry world. He is considered to be one of the Objectivists, but that identity is more salient now than then. He was Jewish and his work engages intensively with Jewishness, that may also be a factor. The work of this man, so little known, communicates with students in a way no other poet I have ever taught does. I wanted to include Testimony or Holocaust in a lecture course for 120 students I am doing this semester but Holocaust has been out of print since 1995. I'm hoping Black Sparrow will reprint it in 2002. Reznikoff published and distributed his books himself; it is wonderful to come across them in a library such as Cornell, to which he sent each as it was published. If you and Gabe would like to be the Ginsberg and Kerouac of this interview, I'd be honored to be the Charles Reznikoff.
KJ: Mairead, I was merely trying to get the light and easy questions out of the way But since you seem intent on getting to the meat of the interview, well, OK, I'll go ahead and ask you one now that I was saving for later: Is TRUTH the aim of your poetry? And also, do you find it at all funny that a well-regarded younger poet of Ireland has ended up living in Mississippi, where there are (or so I have read) more chickens as pets per household than anywhere else in the country?
MB: Truth is not the aim of my poetry, though a certain type of accuracy has always been important to me. I have a background in journalism, in common with Reznikoff. He was trained as a journalist and didn't work as one. I worked as a journalist but wasn't trained as one. My idea of accuracy involved referring to the Irish Sea, between Ireland and England, as the Irish Ocean. Sub-editors didn't like that sort of thing. But for me it was more tactful and economical than going into the colossal differences which seemed to separate Irish and English culture at the time. Many elements of my aesthetic come from journalism: the accuracy, tact, and economy which I have mentioned; also an affiliation to the articulacy of structure. Why spell something out if the composition of the piece, its structure, order, shape, position on the page, etc, can carry the bulk of the "telling"? Juxtaposition was my major strategy as a journalist; I also used parody a lot. I have a long time interest in the found poem - Reznikoff, of course, is the master of the proliferating, systematized found poem. I sometimes removed all visible traces of myself from interviews - Studs Terkel was also an influence - just as Reznikoff does in Holocaust and Testimony; but like Reznikoff, I scored and arranged the pieces. Much more than I have been able to achieve, he deals in silence, in the tact of not speaking. I like my found poems because they are completely cold as far as my presence is concerned. This aesthetic is my souvenir of reticence. My poems can also be quite voluble, even ecstatic. But I remember, before I left Ireland, a poet called Joan McBreen said to me, "Your poems are not lyrical." I was surprised but it seemed true. In the context of Irish poetry it was sort of like hearing, "Your poems are not poems." It was time to go.
KJ: Well, that's interesting, because you published a couple years back a gorgeous little book called The Pillar, and there are certainly lyrical moments of luminous order therein. Or, say, the amazing poem entitled "Grooming," whose occasion is a frankly somatic hairiness, but out of which you comb a language something akin to A Child's Christmas in Wales. And what about this piece by you, one I just love, which is lyrical in pretending to not be lyrical, a little "Jubilate Agno" to your Cat Gabriel, as I take it. What I like so much about your poetry is the relaxed, almost off-handed mixing of the lyric and the ironic, the weave of them; sometimes that mixing makes things funny, and sometimes it makes things moving. And it seems to me that this is very different from the great bulk of "experimental" writing today, whose penchant is for the intellectually hyper-earnest and emotionally hyper-chaste. Are you sure you are a "not lyrical" poet? Well, here's that poem:
This love helped me develop my visual thinking abilities
This love helped me better understand problem solving
This love helped me better understand document design
Interacting with other lovers helped me learn
This love helped me understand society and culture in new ways
This love helped me understand academic experience in new ways
This love helped me understand ways audiences affect my loving
This love helped me understand material in other loves
Assigned lovers helped me love my own lover
Assigned lovers helped me understand lovers discussed in class
This love helped me read and evaluate love critically
I understand the methods of evaluation used to grade my love
Methods of evaluation used to grade my work are fair
My lover treats love with respect
I did my best work in this love
I contributed to the best of my ability in this love
Texts and other course materials helped me love
My lover motivates me to do my best love
My lover explains difficult material clearly
Love assignments are interesting and stimulating
Overall, this love is among the best I have ever taken
Overall, this lover is among the best lovers I have known
MB: This poem is basically the student evaluation form I used at Purdue one semester. The FlashPoint version, which you quote here, substitutes the word "love" for the word "course." I've since reverted to an earlier version, which makes no changes at all to the form:
This course helped me develop my visual thinking abilities
This course helped me better understand problem solving
This course helped me better understand document design, etc.
When I read this poem, I sometimes hear a very sad voice attempting to articulate a relationship but failing miserably because of rhetorical limitations. It's a type of love poem from a student to a teacher, one which is amply marked by what David Lloyd calls "the unexpungeable melancholy of the pedagogical scene." It's nothing to do with Gabe, except that he probably used a similar form.
KJ: How about that Well, could you now answer my clever little bit about Mississippi?
MB: In Mississippi, as you put it, there are chickens in the parlor instead of Irish-speaking pigs. Sometimes they stand out beside the red wheelbarrows. In order for a chicken to pass from the parlor to the yard in Mississippi, it must file many applications, pay a fee, canoodle with the right folks, and get its permit stamped in three different colors of invisible ink. And yet one can never say the word "chicken" out loud. As Alan Dugan says, "You just shouldn't mention her name." It sure is funny to have ended up, if I am up-ended, in Mississippi a couple of hundred yards down the road from the grave of William Faulkner. When I was first invited here, I was wildly excited: it seemed the most glamorous place in the world. But then I hadn't left our apartment for a while. It's a riveting place, most unlike anywhere I've been in America. It's consumed and tortured by history and questions of identity. If I ever had to leave the South, I'd be very sad to be stepping away from this African-American America. At the same time, I was handed an ID card stamped "Outsider" when I crossed the state line. Furthermore, I'm nowhere sweet enough for the South. In Ireland it's considered the epitome of tact to lacerate oneself mercilessly and to excoriate those one respects and loves. Not in Mississippi though. I now have to go to some orthodontist of the soul who will wire a smile into my face. But I'm still Irish enough to say, "Well- regarded -- who? Younger -- who? Are you getting at me?" But how about you, Kent? How are your dealings with folks? Do you pay dues at charm school or slug your way through the days?
KJ: I think you know me well enough from my previous life on the listserves to know that the answer to your last question is "Both." As for "younger poet," I consider, in my advancing age, anyone under say, 55, to be a "younger poet." Incidentally Gabe, did hear that the maximum application age now for the Yale Younger Poet award is now raised to 57?
GG: Well that rules out Stanley Kunitz.
KJ: It does? I didn't realize Kunitz was that old Anyway, Gabe, you have written lots of hilarious poems about butts, sexual organs, scatological matter, Language poets, and many other cabinet of wonders-like objects. In my estimation you are as funny as, or funnier than, all the male poets you mention above (especially Billy Collins!), and, believe me, much brainier and less predictable, though you don't mention Koch, who is the greatest. But your startling, ranting outburst in defense of the comical leads me to ask, and please don't take this in any sort of personal way: Do you think the responsibility of the "comic poet"-- or of poets who tend to write comical poems-- has changed in the wake of September 11? Is there still a place in the culture for sense- deranging poems about the arses of peacocks? As I said, this is a very serious and, I think, worthwhile question. And Mairead, if you could follow up Gabe's answer: Since everyone is talking about how everything has changed so deeply, can you talk in a more global sense about how you see the world's frightening new situation affecting poetry's function, meaning, direction, or whatever the right abstract noun would be.
GB: Interesting you should mention the poem "On the Rectum of Peacocks." Paul Gallo, a conservative radio talk show host with Supertalk Mississippi (a station, I'm told, funded by Trent Lott) invited me on the air three times during fall semester of 2001 in order to excoriate me for teaching smut to U Miss undergrads, and at one point Mr. Gallo read that poem aloud -- to 40 of 80 counties in the state of Mississippi -- as evidence of my depravity. Mr. Gallo was apparently incensed that I was teaching blue material to students of my comedy course. He, in his words, had "done some research" on me and had discovered the poems that Jack Kimball and Mark DuCharme had included in their "Funny Business" issue at The East Village (www.theeastvillage.com). The course in question was one on the theories and varieties of comedy, and a great deal of the course material were poems that broach taboo subjects -- you know, like race, sexuality, and violence. Mr. Gallo wanted to know what the heck I was up to. At one point on the last show, he called me a "racist" because I refer to a fish in the poem as an Italian. (Mr. Gallo's last name is Gallo, after all). He read the poem poorly, what's more, but it was probably the widest audience I've ever had for a reading. I got great pleasure out of his reading that poem, I have to say, because I knew that Gallo could not make head or tail out of it, that he hated the poem, and that, best of all, Gallo's producer could be heard in the background laughing to my poem! Gallo was reading the poem in disbelief because it was tasteless and senseless, ostensibly, and his own producer was enjoying the poem! *That, for me, is the power of, as you say, "deranging" art: people laugh and look despite themselves, and in so doing learn a little more about who they are, *what they are. So, you ask: is there a place for it now? I dunno Kent, comic poetry, or deranging poetry, as you call it (a term I like) is, I imagine, at its best precisely when there IS no place for it -- isn't it? A poem such as Auden's "September 1,1939," perhaps the most widely circulated poem on listserves after 9.11, in many ways speaks for a group: it expresses a wide-ranging sentiment. Deranging or comic poems, as opposed to poems of a decorous nature, stuff like valor or grief, are often critical of a group, registering some substantial dissent with the status quo or mainstream sentiment. Comedy is something for dissidents. It attacks propriety. And that's something that Paul Gallo couldn't understand: how can literature be improper? "On The Rectum of Peacocks," is about, I suppose, the backside of beauty, and it reflects, I guess, the idea that talent is an essentialized construction conferred on those who write according to the rules of aesthetic and social propriety. It is improper literature attacking proper ideals.
KJ: So tragedy demands impropriety?
What I'm saying is that a time without impropriety is dangerous, and a dearth of impropriety should especially be feared in a time of nationalism and "war" (which by the way this is not: this is a time of American bombing, not war). Dearth: after 9.11 Ben Stiller cancelled his guest appearance on SNL, the comic strip "Boondocks" was suspended for a while, and the The New Yorker declined to run cartoons in its first issue in the aftermath of 9.11. A typical idea about comedy is that it's frivolous escapist cast-off literary chaff, that it does no cultural work and bears no meaning -- or at least that's what freshmen in my comedy classes say during the first week of classes.
Please. Propriety resides in our courts, our police, and in our worst poets. The purpose of propriety is to stop revolution. Impropriety more now than ever is needed. What is more necessary in a time of military propaganda than the derision of consensus? Even if it is aesthetic consensus? Comedy fights all idealized conceptions of a group, and it certainly fights all idealized uses of emotion (poignancy). Poignancy is after all akin to nostalgia; nostalgia being a form of idealized memory: what we see in the propagandist efforts of America's major media is a turn toward poignancy (stories of 9.11 heroism, grief, loss) and away from comedy, a turn that perfectly parallels this community's efforts to manufacture consent in a time of military mobilization. American sentimentality, afterall, is one of the deadliest aesthetics on record. What do I mean by "sentimentality"? Well, for instance, I don't know how many times I've heard, as an American in America, the phrase, "We will put this terrible tragedy behind us." In the days following 9.11, it was said dozens of times by everyone from Colin Powell to Bush Jr. to Governor Pataki of NY State and Mayor Giuliani. But I'd heard it dozens of times over the last few years anyway: when an "honor student" dies in a car wreck, a plane goes down, a bus slams a pole, we hear the words "terrible tragedy" and are encouraged to "put it behind us." "Tragedy" is a concept has been cathected by the most sentimentalizing features of American culture. It's as if it's the only catchword, idea, or event that will allow us to form even the rudest conception of history as a community. As a result, American public displays of emotion are melodramatic, because they are serving a surrogate cultural function: they are not about emotion, but about our inability to comprehend our own brutal history: tears and sentimentality, in other words, seem to be the only cultural response Americans can muster in response to our own actions. We're essentially, that is to say, babies. On September 17th, Scott Segal of "All Things Considered" reported on impromptu street memorials in NYC near ground zero. One in particular caught my attention: Segal said it read, "When we weep, we endure." I think this is interesting insofar as the comic view is exactly the opposite: comedy doesn't cause us to aspire to something lofty, and it doesn't mimic suffering; instead, comedy mimes durable beings engaged, often, in acts of misprision, folly, or emotional, spiritual, and physical destruction. The point of comedic art is that the writer can make us laugh at these things. Comedy, that is to say, does not teach us to suffer; it teaches us to endure. It shows us up as humble and profoundly resilient creatures. And I think that is the role of "deranging" poems in such a time: to remind us that we ought not consider our cause noble, just, good and honorable when we cannot help but laugh at butts, violence, vomit, and cussing.
MB: To be frank, I entered the classroom with a certain eagerness on September 12th, the day after the attacks. I felt, as a poetry teacher, I had a job to do: a necessary and valuable job. My students were very willing to sift through poems, selecting what would be immediately useful to them. We had just completed a unit on war poetry: poems which had perhaps seemed remote to them became incandescent. I was angry and disappointed any time classes were cancelled that week. On one occasion, I stood in a bleak crowd outside a church on campus, excluded, silenced, unable to hear what was going on, but standing with the others in a stiff attitude of servility and attendance. That was hopeless, and nothing like the lambent, courageous words of ee cummings, Muriel Rukeyser, Genevieve Taggard, Nelly Sachs, and Reznikoff. I was also happy that at the moment the planes hit I was writing poetry. I was in bed writing a poem called "Looking for the Burning Bush" on my laptop. When my working time was over, I went into the study where Gabe was and he said, "Hey, two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon." We followed events as best we could on our computers, we don't have a TV. Listservs proved to be prime providers of information, as well as intense and powerful communities, in the days that followed. There is plenty of reason for self-hatred in relation to our puniness and marginality. But poetry was not something to be contemptuous about at that time. One other thing: my student Zhanna Koushhova, who is from Kabardino-Balkaria, was, along with the other students, ravaged and stunned by the attacks. She also spoke about her sense of guilt: because she had known catastrophes which had resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, yet the events of September 11th were writ into her spirit much more compellingly. Why was this? Not simply because these were Americans, nor that this was New York and Washington, but I think also because of the surreal and awesome beauty of the attacks, their casual making of what was previously only imagined, their busting out a hole in imagination, how they made us all feel helpless: the grandness of human evil, maybe reminiscent of the glory of the mushroom cloud rushing up to meet the bombers over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
KJ: Well, on that sobering idea, let's switch to something perhaps a bit more domestic and anecdotal: There is so little written on the domestic politics and psychological aesthetics of cohabiting poets-- a useful and potentially rich topic it seems to me, especially given the large copulation of poet-partners. I mean population of poet-partners, excuse me... But I don't live with a significant-poet-other, and never have, so for this question here is my proposal: That both of you place your conjugal heads together, formulate a fascinating question on the topic, and then answer it. (Ah, what an easy job interviewing is...) And the question is:
MB: Gabe and I have copulated largely but still when it comes to putting our conjugal heads together we're at loggerheads, which is interesting, considering what loggerhead means in prison slang. We have a phenomenal daughter, Clio, and have worked hard to keep our family of four, which includes my daughter, Marina, together. At the moment we're struggling with the whole job situation. Our fields are very close: we're both poets; I have a PhD, Gabe has an MFA; we have influenced each other's literary and scholarly interests. I have just started a tenure-track job at the University of Mississippi; Gabe is hell-bent on getting one, which threatens separation for us. It's very difficult. Careers and finances don't mesh like bodies do. In the real world neither of us wants to be passive whereas in bed, I'm quite fond of it, and even Gabe likes it on occasion. As far as collaboration is concerned, I am a great believer in rhetoric - I believe that the conventions of the teacher/teacher relationship, or the business partner relationship can help us; the conventions of the heterosexual partnership don't really help us much at all, and spill over unhelpfully into our other endeavors. I remember reading a story about an artist, possibly Duchamp, who would kiss his wife goodbye each morning, then cycle around the block and return, at which point his wife would greet him, "Bonjour Monsieur Duchamp," or whatever. Then, at the end of the working day, they did the whole thing in reverse. The story is only good if you see if from the man's point of view. It begins to be weird if Madame Duchamp is the one hopping on the bike and handing her coat and hat to her husband/secretary on her return. Rhetoric, being a convention, favors men. Nevertheless, it is the "bicycle" of this story and bicycles are organic, gendered entities, as we know from Flann O'Brien. You use what you have. Gabe and I have worked together on various projects: the ezine SUBMIT YOU DOG, teaching in the prison, and we have registered the name for a web journal we want to co-edit. It has been damned difficult. I believe we could do great things together in defiance of that damned difficulty. Gabe quotes Bukowski's epitaph to me: "Don't Try". Well, my peripheral vision was poor the day we visited Bukowski's grave and all I saw was "Try." I haven't formulated a question for you. Maybe Gabe will.
GG: ...Mairead, Kent wanted us to make up a question..
MB: ...Look, I know that, okay?, I...
GG: ...the question is, umm...
MB: ...no that's not quite it, Gabe, the question is how...
GG: ...no, not "how" but "what": What is it that keeps...
MB: ...Wrong! What, I mean How is it that we manage to...
GG: ...manage to do anything at all together? Like, without tearing each other's head off?...
MB: ...Yes, how do I put up with your head?: you're obsessive, short tempered...
GG: ...least I'm not compulsive. I've heard you chew gum over on your side of the study...
MB: You see, Kent, we share...
GG: ... we share a study. Sometime we share a computer. We share paper, envelopes, stamps...
MB: ... we share ...
GG: ...we share ideas and interests and opinions...
MB: ...our six years together have been quite productive. We've produced a lot...
GG: ...We've produced books and poems. And Clio. Wow, Clio: she's a live thing, right!...
MB: ...but it's not easy. We argue a lot. It's tough, for instance, teaching ...
GG: ... the prison course. When I team-teach with Mairead I turn into a control freak...
MB: ...I have to remind him to ...
GG: ...treat you like a colleague, because I...
MB: ... get testy ...
GG: ... yeah, get testy, in a way I don't when I team-teach with people whom I don't...
MB: ...sleep with...
GG: ...yeah, Mairead and I share nasty thoughts about one another. She's hot...
MB: ... huh, you're hot, too, very hotsy...
GG: ...you're a hotsy totsy...
KJ: OK, that's enough. I think George Plimpton will get the idea.
MB: As I said, it's difficult.
GG: Indeed, it's very difficult. We have to balance being lovers and colleagues, moving between two very different ways of speaking and interacting, making sure that one side of the relationship does not harm or hinder the other side. It's like juggling a cotton bud, a brick and a bra.
MB: I don't find the juggling difficult, just the different weights. Conversation between men is a brick. The voice of a woman in public should be a cotton-bud. A man's private woman is a bra. I think there is an old idea in Minnesota at least that a man should talk to men and a man's woman should keep out of the way. It enrages Minnesota men, I've noticed, to have (their) women disrupt their conversation. It's a public/private thing, and it's what has largely inhibited married women from publishing poetry, in Minnesota at least. Historically, partnership with men is diminishing for women, whose identities have traditionally been sketchy, legally and in the public domain. Doing this joint interview with you is a little bit innovative, though much more difficult than doing it separately. I feel like I butted my way in! It's a lot easier for a woman to speak when she's not in a partnership; that may be increasingly true for men too, as Gabe's aposiopetic episode above indicates.
KJ: As it certainly does. So now for my final question, and thank you both for your time and testiness. You both, as you mention above teach poetry in correctional institutions. Would you recommend to other teachers of creative writing that they do this? And how is teaching a poetry course in a prison different from teaching a poetry course at Cornell or University of Mississippi? Where do you feel more "comfortable"?
GG: Well, first of all there is generally no compulsory reason for the inmates to be in the class, and the absence of compulsion completely changes the classroom, as you know. In a university, whether Cornell or U Miss, there is almost always a small group of students there to fulfill some requirement. In the past I have found that in such situations, "teaching" and "learning" get filtered out, the result being usually some kind of continuous low-key trauma to the classroom and to me emotionally. When teaching, I think constantly of my time as a student at The Evergreen State College, and what a charged, furious, intelligent, and curious group of students my peers and teachers were, how we were all students in the best sense of the word's etymology ("one who is eager for"). Walking into a prison classroom whether it's a maximum security facility like Auburn, where your students are all violent felons, or a minimum security "dormitory" situation such as in Holly Springs MS, where the students are almost all enrolled in Bible College and are there primarily on drug charges is, for me, just like walking into an Evergreen seminar again: it is like I have a swingle torch lodged my nose and a roman candle spiked my butt and the students are all going to light me up, insofar as I know that something fascinating is going to happen, as a matter of fact I feel like each of my students has a swingle torch in his nose and live powder balled in his fundament. It isn't just the adrenaline and Dante-esque experience of walking into a place devoid of basic comforts such as privacy and personal safety; it's that students who are inmates know implicitly the value of what you have to offer, they are there with bells on, they are preternaturally disciplined, founting over with questions and challenges. They are also, as at Evergreen, incredibly politicized, as they should be, since the American judicial system is at base inexpugnably racist. So, it is especially sweet to teach politicized students, whom one more readily finds in a maximum-security facility: politicized students in a university are a rarity. And one especially welcomes this in a prison where two-thirds to four-fifths of your students are African-American. And the final thing that gives a prison teacher pedagogical succor is that your students already know the importance of writing, as it is their one means of contact with the outside world. But then there are the thrills and challenges of teaching with other teachers. I love team-teaching, and I team-taught at Auburn. Mairead and I do team-teach in Holly Springs. It's very hard to team-teach with your lover, as you can imagine, but it's something I'm excited about doing each week. Mairead?
MB: Teaching in Marshall County Correctional facility takes me out of Oxford one day a week. I'm still in a classroom, though it happens to be a brighter and slightly better equipped classroom than the classrooms I normally teach in. I turned back to academic life when I was in my late thirties. Up to then, things had been rough-and-tumble, and I had always worked across the arts, as a journalist writing plays, or a poet collaborating with painters, or in arts administration. I love teaching and literature but I miss being out and about. I find mobility in the prison in the same paradoxical way that Gabe finds a lack of compulsories. I suppose the prison teaching is our luxury, and it's expensive. As you can guess, I also put a very high value on the fact we're doing it together. We're also always trying to engage other teachers and visiting writers, and members of the English faculty at the University of Mississippi join us regularly. I feel as if I'm coming bearing unglamorous but useful gifts. I feel like a working poet, sort of the poet equivalent of a country doctor, handing out and picking up poems all day long. The prison class is the only all-male class I ever taught. I don't have to worry if I'm being sexist by calling on the men all the time. It is a strange meeting: the meeting of these guys and myself: quite tenuous but quite respectful and very polite. For me, it has that old excitement of the new, and the possibility of building something, i.e., a program which develops. This is good, useful, practical teaching: Yes, I'd recommend it to other creative writing teachers. Creative writing is gold anyway. In prison, it's platinum. One way teaching creative writing in prison is different from teaching at Cornell or the University of Mississippi is that we have to do all the photocopying. We bring things in. We bring things out. There are no casual encounters with students. We can invite them to Christmas dinner but they won't come. Comfort isn't an issue: you just work till you drop. In one of the 5-minute writing exercises we set for the students at Holly Springs, we said: "Write about the most interesting thing that happened during the week." At the end of the 5 minutes, some guys read pieces about how nothing interesting ever happens in prison. But one guy said, "The most interesting thing that happened this week is that I was comfortable, on Tuesday, between 8.30 and 8.37am." In prison teaching, in addition to David Lloyd's "unexpungeable melancholy," whereby the student will eventually overturn the hierarchical relationship, there's a lateral dimension too: some day the prisoner will get out. I'm only beginning to realize how much is at stake.
read Mairead Byrne's work in issue #6 >>
read Gabe Gudding's workin in issue #6 >>