Thursday, September 03, 2015
Lo Galluccio interviews poet Marc Zegans whose new collection “The Underwater Typewriter” is being released on September 25th on Pelekinesis Press.
Lo: What compels you to write poetry? Has it always been the same thing?
Marc: The word compels is a good one. When I was a kid, I never imagined that I would be a poet. Rather, I came to poetry on a long and sleepless September night, while I was living in Allston during my mid-twenties. At about three in the morning I felt forcibly compelled to sit down and start typing. As soon as I took my seat, a channel opened. The next thing I knew the sun was coming up and I’d written a poem.
This need to open a channel and write continued sporadically for several years. At a certain point though, I realized that something deeper was going on. My compulsion to write during this period was driven by an insistent desire to enter the slipstream. My need to visit this place was powerfully felt, but psychologically naïve. I didn’t then have a conceptual framework for characterizing or exploring this space. I had no idea of the shadow, even though the material in Mum and Shaw (a play directed by Colby Devitt whose script was based on a collection of my poems) was entirely about reclaiming and unifying the remaindered archetypal bits of our-selves about which Jung speaks.
Shortly after the production closed, life got very hard and I was forced to stop writing poetry for nearly a decade. I started to write poems again, following a bout with cancer and a difficult divorce, because doing so was necessary to my survival. I’d describe that phase of my life—one strongly represented in The Underwater Typewriter—as coming to my unadorned self through poetry. Simply put, I had to write poems in order to find my way back.
The phase I’m in now is different. I’ve broken surface. I know how to make poems. I’ve seen the darker side of life. I’ve recovered the parts that allow me to meet the world with humility and kindness. So now I feel compelled to make poems because poetry has become my language; it’s my fundamental means of expression, inseparable from whom I am, and it’s the way in which I can extend a hand, shine a light, and “manage to love.”
Lo: What other poets have influenced your work?
Marc: My deepest and earliest influences were not poets, but blues singers, especially rural and talking blues; Ray Charles, who’s a category on his own; Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, both of whom I nod to in the Underwater Typewriter. These were all sounds that I absorbed very early in life and that have stayed with me. I had a different kind of experience when I was about fourteen, one that woke me to the possibility of a path for me. I was lying on the floor, listening to WPLR in New Haven and the afternoon DJ spun Tom Waits doing Emotional Weather Report from his Nighthawks at the Diner album. I loved the sound of spoken words on air. Waits rapping with his audience, a piano and bass comping behind him, opened a door for me, a path to my own voice.
As time passed I continued to by shaped by encounters with spoken words, Hank Williams’ recitations, The Last Poets, the sampled voices on David Byrne and Brian Eno’s brilliant album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, early hip hop. Nuyorican Poet Miguel Pinero’s lower East Side Poem freed me to open my lungs to full volume and simply to tell it like it is.
Of course I’ve been influenced by and learned craft from many brilliant and beautiful poets who write for and have written for the page, but all that came later. I couldn’t be who I am if it weren’t for the blues, and if it weren’t for Tom Waits, and for people like Jim Carroll who walked both sides of the music-poetry line. I still remember the first time I heard Carroll’s song, “People that Died.” It still haunts me.
I have been very interested though, as people (you among them) have begun to write about my collection, The Underwater Typewriter, to discover which poets they name in connection with my work. You spoke about Ashbury and O’Hara, two from the New York school, and you’re right about that, especially O’Hara. I don’t want to say too much more about specific influences because I’m really curious about the connections that reviewers will draw, and I don’t want to pre-emptively limit their inferential field.
Lo: Do you think it's important to study as a poet -- to get an MFA or PhD?
Marc: Poetry is a rich and varied quilt, and it doesn’t prescribe the particular means by which we contribute our patches to the larger fabric. For some, “first word, best word,” will always comprise their finest and perhaps only means of finding and sharing their voices. Others will find their voices shaped by hardship or beauty or the mix of the two, rather than by formal instruction. For them, the academy will be beside the point. Others will be autodidacts. They’ll work hard to hone their craft, and to transcend successive iterations of themselves, but they’ll do it on their own terms.
The pianist Randy Weston, now in his late 80s, framed this idea brilliantly, perhaps forty or fifty years ago, when he said, “The thing about Jazz is that each man is his own academy.”
In other cases going through a formal degree program might make eminent sense. If a poet is interested in formal experiments in language, or in extending the capacity of language to do certain things, then rigorous study and strong conceptual skills will be critical to the development and expression of his or her art. If a poet wishes to operate within a tradition or to have the tools to subvert it effectively, intensive study will matter greatly. Getting an MFA may make sense for other reasons as well. If a poet’s nature is social and if his or her work develops best in the context of critical dialogue, then an advanced degree is a wise choice. People go for advanced degrees for non-artistic reasons as well: they lack confidence; they want a social network, validating credentials that will open doors and perhaps get them past the gatekeepers; they want an income and see teaching as a path. There’s nothing wrong with any of these latter motives, but they have nothing to do with making poetry.
Lo: What are your favorite poetic devices?
Marc: I don’t have favorite poetic devices per se. I look for a form and a means of expression within that form that are organically suited to what I’m trying to express. The particular devices that emerge in a given poem are a consequence of seeking this organic consonance. When the poem works its mechanisms are integral to and inseparable from its truth. When it doesn’t, they’re just devices. That said, I do have an affinity for internal rhyme and for slant rhyme. I don’t seek these out or use them consciously as devices, these sounds simply correspond with some frequency to my felt sense of the music of the line.
Lo: You use space very deliberately in your work on the page. Do you believe the spacing of a poem is as important as its content?
Marc: It can be, but isn’t always. It depends on what a poem needs. If the poem needs a particular visual design, a particular use of space, then you have to find a way to meet that need. If the poem is all in the words and the marks, then choices about space don’t matter for its effectiveness.
In The Underwater Typewriter, choices about space were tremendously important both to the presentation of individual poems and to the unfolding of the book as a meta-poem. I was very fortunate to have a very patient partner in book design, Mark Givens, who spent countless hours with me working out a means of meeting the visual parameters of the individual poems and achieving a coherent visual aesthetic in the layout of the entire collection, one that followed clear principles, but that was fluid enough to admit exceptions and porous enough to breathe.
Lo: Do you consider yourself to be a surrealistic poet?
Marc: A number of folks who’ve read the book have responded to the material and to its underlying poetics as surrealist. I was certainly influenced in my shape poems by Apollinaire and I’ve soaked up surrealistic images and ideas over the course of my life. From this perspective, I think it’s fair to say that certain poems in the collection, and perhaps the premises of the collection itself, are surreal, however, I wouldn’t consider myself to be a surrealist poet. I don’t identify that way. I think Keith Flynn, the editor of the Asheville Review, got something right when he identified the surrealist connection, but drew analogy not only between my work and Apollinaire’s, but Revardy’s as well. Revardy was a contemporary of the surrealists, but he never identified himself as one, and his later work strove for spiritual and emotional purity. I’m looking always for truth and for meaning, if that arrives in a surreal cloak, then it does. If it arrives as a simple description of a moment in time, then that’s the way I’ll write the poem.
Lo: What are your favorite poems in The Underwater Typewriter?
Marc: I made a choice early in the writing that The Underwater Typewriter would be an honest if not exhaustive account of the range and variety in my voice as a poet, both in terms of my substantive preoccupations and in terms of the ways in which I have gone about making poems. In that sense the poems in this collection are of a piece. To pick or name favorites would be to privilege or diminish one part of my voice or another, and for better or worse these poems were all honest vocal expressions when I wrote them. This said, the poems in this collection were written over a period of years, not months, and I changed as a person and, consequently, as a poet during the interval between the oldest poems and the newer material.
There are certainly poems in the collection that I never would write today, because I’m older, wiser, have wider ranging and sharper skills than when I wrote earlier poems. At the same time, poems from a younger voice do things that poems from an older voice cannot, and those things matter. Accordingly, I decided to bring out these younger voices in the text in a way that cohered. To fulfill this decision I made a choice to select and edit the older material to include in the manner that I would select and edit the poems of a younger poet with whom I was working. In particular, I’d strive to find and hone the voice present in the younger poems in a manner consistent with their nature and on their own terms. This was a scary decision, because it left me vulnerable and exposed, and it created tremendous tension as I tried in shaping the book to hew honestly to these principles. In the end, I think it achieved a much better result because the book was fundamentally honest and because it was rooted in love.
Lo: How did you arrive at the title of this collection?
Marc: If you read the acknowledgements, you’ll see that Lisa Donnely is the one person who knows the secret of The Underwater Typewriter. I think, at least for now, I’ll leave it that way.
Lo: How important is it for a poet to write about societal movements as opposed to his/her inner-workings?
Marc: I believe strongly that as individuals we have to create what we’re called on to create, and that it would be arrogant beyond measure to suggest what a poet, or poets collectively, should or should not write. Going back to the large quilt metaphor, there’s need and room for it all, and we serve poetry best when we embrace its diverse possibilities. Implicit in your question, I think, is the query when if ever do we as poets have an obligation to speak truth to power, and do we have an obligation by participating in social movements to empower others through our voices? Or perhaps more simply, under what conditions do we have to raise our voices in the public arena? When posed in these terms, the answer again, I believe, is personal, but personal in a particular way. If I as a poet feel the call to speak; the call to shout out; the call to cry out against an injustice, then I must speak and I cannot be cowed by fear. If I have as a poet things to say in the world, then I am obliged not to be complicit in my own marginalization and in the marginalization of the poetic voice. If I want to live my right life as a poet, then whether I am writing about social movements, or about my inner workings, I have to work as a strong poet in both Bloom and Rorty’s sense of the term, as one who will discover and share his original voice and not let that voice be silenced. And that is where I arrive at the end of Too Fucked to Drink.
Lo: In one of your poems P (un) k Poets: Too Fucked to Drink you repeat this like a chorus:"The times demand Williams not Whitman." Do you mean this literally and if so, what about the two poets makes you arrive at this declaration?
Marc: Too Fucked to Drink is a direct answer to Allen Ginsburg’s Howl, or more accurately it’s a response to how the context in which Howl was written, what it did and could do, and why our resources and options as poets, needing to Howl once more, are categorically different from what was possible at the time Ginsburg howled for Carl Solomon. Ginsburg’s Howl arrived at a moment the social conservatism and moral strictures of post-war America had become unbearable, when the repressive tone of the common culture demanded a response. In Ginsburg’s case, and that of his closest literary allies, this response arrived in several packages: appropriating the infrastructure of mainstream society for its own purposes; subverting its morays, and calling out the Holiness of all that straight society would make marginal, Howl being the definitive case of the latter. In Ginsburg’s making Holy the typewriter, and through it all that the typewriter can name, he was engaged in a thoroughly, though not self-consciously, modern project. As with the Rock ‘n Roll it pre-figured, Howl is a dialectic encounter with the voices of alienation, suppression and control, one that not only cries out from the abyss of despair, labeled mental illness (Ginsberg met and became friends with Carl Solomon while both were residents at the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute), against repression, but which restores to us our bodies, in all their acts, as sacred, as holy, as inviolate.
By the time I was coming of age in the late seventies, we were on the cusp of a new conservative turn in Western public and political life, one that would bring the rise of the “Christian” right, Reaganism, Thatcherism and the culture wars. Of course the foreboding sense that we were about to enter a repressive redux made us want to Howl, but the terms were different. The Howls of punk rock, which presaged academic post-modernism, were not dialectic yawps. The early language of the music, “pretty vacant,” “blank generation,” “no future," “devolution,” “voidoid,” pointed to the fact that as much as we would like our Howl to mean something, to provide a counter premise that would lead in dialectic form to a meaningful correction and cultural re-synthesis, that in a real way, the idea of historical imperative had come to an end, and with it the potency of sub-cultural manifesto.
Rather than being directed outward in a form that might, perchance, crumble repressive institutions and produce a novel and meaningful reconfiguration of our social life and institutions, our rage took the near chaotic form of slam dancing, later ritualized in the institution of the mosh pit—lending wry truth to the mathematical observation that chaotic systems are well behaved if you look at them from sufficient distance. In a post-modern, conservative world, we could not free ourselves via a Howl that took the form of Ginsburg’s poem or anything like it. Our liberation, our power, our overcoming of repressive forces would have to come on different terms, and yet, lacking a shared viable structure of meaning against which to pose our rebellion, we had no fucking idea what those terms might be, hence: punk rock.
Even as I was slammin’ at the Mab, listening to the Dead Kennedys and the Sex Pistols, and working on singles with bands like Crime, as the studio apprentice at Different Fur, I realized that I was swimming in the primordial soup for something larger, something from which a better way to Howl could grow. It took two or three decades to work out, but eventually it became clear to me that the means lay in an experientially driven, non-foundational neo-pragmatism, pitched somewhere philosophically between the lines taken by Richard Rorty, before he turned cultural critic, and Hillary Putnam. In practice what this means is that we can look to our experience for clues about how to make meaning and how to act, and that we must do so with deep and passionate commitment, while maintaining a fierce, ironic self-awareness of our limited perspective and fallibility. We cannot look to the times for motive force, as modernists on both sides of the cultural and subcultural coin necessarily did, but as socially committed punk rockers, to ourselves.
The poem Too Fucked to Drink proceeds in three sections. In the first, I take us to the formative core of the punk experience in San Francisco, the place where Howl was first read by Ginsberg and put on trial for obscenity, and where I came of age. I give us the punk Howl, and the emergent repression against which it was being raised. In the second part, I examine the situation and the possibility of vital poetic response from the modernist perspective. It’s at this point where I assert, within this frame, that the times demand (William Carlos) Williams, not Whitman, linking the claim to the compression of language through texting and tweets that Williams’ poems forcefully anticipate with their short lines and spondaic feet.
To wit, consider the first two stanzas of his poem, The Poem
It’s all in
the sound. A song
Seldom a song. It should
Be a song—made of
This pressure for the short-line contrasts sharply with Whitman’s long, lively vines that came to entrance Ginsberg, and to which Ginsburg turned for inspiration in the shaping of Howl, having also internalized and considered Williams’ short-lines as a powerful alternate means of making a distinctly American poetry, and to whom he and Ferlinghetti turned for the validating forward to the original publication of Howl and Other Poems.
When I say, then, that the times call for Williams not Whitman, I’m pointing first to the historic pressure for compression, that makes it hard to imagine writing (so long as we situate ourselves and our choices in “the times”) in long lines, as Whitman did and as Ginsberg elected to do as well. Following this gesture, I’m opening us up to the question of whether, if we want to Howl as boldly and originally against repressive forces now as Ginsberg did then, might we do better to turn for formal inspiration to his other great mentor and the originator of the short American line, Williams?
Within a modernist construct, the answer might be literally and decisively, as your question wonders, yes; but it is precisely the modern frame within which oppositional sub-culture thrived, that had by 1980 been broken. We could no longer take solace in some firmly rooted knowledge of what the times demand, because of our belief those roots had gone to rot. To proceed then, we would have to look to other sources—to our direct experience and to ourselves, without external solace--for ways to Howl, for ways to make meaning and for ways to free ourselves and others from the very repression Ginsberg Howled against. To this end, I move in the third section beyond the Williams/Whitman debate and the implicit construct that framed it, by bringing in other voices who display other, deeper ways to Howl—John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Clarence Gatemouth Brown. Having offered, “A different kind of Howl, a wolf moanin’ at midnight, I turn to the question of whether in our deconstructed, post-modern, its just text, any narrative will do, critic privileging world, we should just shut up, “muzzle the grit,” to which I shout, now drawing on Rorty, the oft described Clown Prince, a passionate no. I run, instead, throughout this section, long-lines wrought in equal measure with love and with irony, and put the question of what we will make as poets, finally standing in our own shoes.
Marc Zegans is the author of The Underwater Typewriter, the poetry collection Pillow Talk and two spoken word albums, Marker and Parker and Night Work. As a spoken word artist he has performed everywhere from the Bowery Poetry Club and the American Poetry Museum to the New York Poetry Brothel—which Time Out New York described as “New York's Sexiest Literary Event.” Marc lives near the coast in Northern California.
Lo Galluccio is the former Poet Populist of Cambridge and author of “Hot Rain”(Ibbetson St. Press), a prose-poem memoir, Sarasota VII on Cervena Barva Press, and Terrible Baubles on Alternating Current Press. She is also a vocalist known foremost for her Knitting Factory CD, “Being Visited.” She will be performing on October 14th with a new project, “Lo and the Black Swans” at The Outpost in Cambridge.