Interview with Maggie Nelson at The Conversant

My interview with the author of The Argonauts, The Art of Cruelty and Bluets is in great company: the entire new issue of The Conversant is full of interviewers (Caryl Pagel, Andy Fitch) I admire and interviewees (Kiki Petrosino) I adore. Thanks to the editors for accepting the piece.

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New Perch

Hey folks, thank you to Kevin Craft for offering me a contributing editor role at the nimble yet distinguished journal Poetry Northwest. I’m gonna be contributing reviews and essays, as well as keeping a regular column on their blog on poetry and poetics.

Here’s my first post at Poetry Northwest, a reflection on one of my very favorite poets, Mei Mei Berssenbrugge (thank you to Melissa and Cassie for the conversations that grew into these thoughts).

And here, just for the hell of it, is a photo of Mei Mei Berssenbrugge:


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Recent Publications

An interview with critic and editor Eric Weisbard on the twentieth anniversary of his editorial project, the monumental, contrarian and delightful SPIN Alternative Record Guide, up now at Berfrois.

A meditation on death, time, oppression, lost loved ones, and God up now at Young Adult Catholics in honor of All Souls’ Day.


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#tbt: Barbara Guest’s “Collected Poems”

Here’s a review I wrote for Pleiades (29.2: 2009) on the occasion of the publication of Barbara Guest’s mighty Collected Poems, edited by her daughter Hadley (who was also a fabulous resource for interviews, cool old photos and memorabilia, and uncollected texts which I refer to in the piece– thanks Hadley!).




Barbara Guest, The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest

Edited by Hadley Haden Guest

Wesleyan University Press, 558 pages. $39.95

collected guestAt the crack of the 1950s, Barbara Guest moved to New York in a convertible. She was penniless, bringing along only her wits and a painter boyfriend she’d met through Henry Miller. She was a smart, reticent young woman, who wrote smart, reticent, painterly poems—a natural person of culture, an observer, an outsider. In the belly of the loud male-dominated scene of Abstract Expressionism, she took up art criticism; she married twice; she went to parties with Frank O’Hara; she drank at the poets’ bars and the painters’ bars; she befriended artists like Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Mary Abbott; she wrote on their canvases or they worked side by side. The first poem in her first book (1960’s The Location of Things) drops the reader all at once into the astounding familiar:

Why from this window am I watching leaves?

Why do halls and steps seem narrower?

Why at this desk am I listening for the sound of the fall

of color, the pitch of the wooden floor

and feet going faster?

Am I to understand change, whether remarkable

or hidden, am I to find a lake under the table

or a mountain beside my chair

and will I know the minute water produces lilies

or a family of mountaineers scales the peak?

The answers to these questions—the forty-five years of poetry that make up Wesleyan’s new Collected Poems of Barbara Guest—are easy to miss at first look. In fact, Guest’s body of poetry is best characterized by what it leaves out. Her twenty-odd volumes siphon away assertion, scorn biography, challenge denotation, skip exposition, temper humor, and warp experience. What’s left is Imagination, the same visionary strain of Keats and Adorno, Stevens and Baudelaire; a pre-postmodern sort of ecstatic displacement, from the world of facts into the world of interrelation. Her work glows.

Although she shared a nest with the New York School poets—with Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch—and although O’Hara was a passionate advocate of her poetry and a devoted friend, her poetics (or her “comportment,” in Susan Gevirtz’s phrase) fundamentally differs from theirs. She doesn’t fit in, and never founded, a particular avant-garde school. Her mixture of heavyweight aesthetic theory, gorgeous musicality, and a reticent, private voice has never really been emulated. Although the much-missed Sun & Moon Press afforded a national audience for her work from the late 1980s to the 90s, her early volumes have been hard to come by and her poems are underanthologized. There are other poets of Guest’s generation (Jack Spicer, Philip Whalen, Edward Dorn, Aram Saroyan) who have also been unjustly neglected. But Guest is a better poet than all of them, and this Collected Poems is a terrific volume gathered rather too late: after an unbelievably productive final fifteen years, Guest died in Berkeley, two years ago, at age 85.

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Stories of the Big Bad Winners

wall_streetI’ve been trying to pin down what it is that bugs me about The Social Network, Wall Street, and other movies about the flaring egos and larger-than-life ambitions of our world-shaper class. David Fincher, Oliver Stone, and other directors attracted to stories about power suggest the forms, at least, of moral critique—Fincher’s Mark Zuckerberg or Stone’s Gordon Gekko are callous, calculating, and hungry, not loveable. But these movies are in love with the very power they critique. They instruct us that the powerful are art’s only worthwhile subjects. In them, little people are just that. (Bothering to include and humanize the little people—the objects of these giants’ will—is part of the reason I loved Boiler Room much better than these much more celebrated films.)

the-social-network_houstonSometimes I wonder why history—across cultures, across power systems—seems to be dominated by similar sorts of winners: arrogant, nimble, forceful, manipulative, whether in the emperor’s court or in the halls of Harvard. Activists, journalists, or dissident artists—those who spend their time and define themselves in opposition to this type of elites—can make the mistake of totalizing these folks’ power into wisdom, of imagining them as all-seeing and brilliant adversaries. But the winner class isn’t actually all that wise, or at least not necessarily. The “best and brightest” in this country gave us Vietnam, the echoing economic catastrophes of 2007, the Iraq War and its fantasies of a swift and seamless transition of Iraq to a neoliberal vassal state.

This class does, at one level, dominate history. Perhaps the fact that they haven’t annihilated the whole human race yet attest to the fact that “common” people, as a collective or as ingenious, restless, impatient, creative individuals, have agency too—a sort of counterforce—maybe not equal or opposite but wise (or capable of wisdom) in a way the class of winners can never be.

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#tbt: American Poetic Hybridity, Then and Now

As Norton is pushing its new edition of Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry, it may be that the press’s 2009 anthology, American Hybrid, is vanishing into history. But this anthology–Cole Swensen and David St. John’s hypothesis of a contemporary lyric existing between “traditional” and “experimental” poetries–is still in the air. Contemporary big-press/big-prize American poetry is gravitating toward its own conception of “hybrid” poetry, a learned, skeptical poetic voice that steers carefully between James Merrill (in his virtuoso word-painting mode) and John Ashbery (in a fairly normy post-Stevens reading of that poet). This is a “hybrid” project if there ever was one–I think of Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections and Adam Fitzgerald’s The Late Parade as exemplars–and it suggests to me that this now almost-old-fashioned-feeling idea (whose “traditional”? whose “experimental”?) is still alive. With that in mind, I thought I’d repost a review of American Hybrid I co-wrote with the delightful and serious Michael Theune for Pleiades 30.2 (2010).


On American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, Swensen and St. John, eds (Norton, 2009). A Critical Conversation by Jay Thompson & Michael Theune.

American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry anthologizes work that situates itself in the middle space formed by what is often conceived of as, as editor Cole Swensen calls it in her introduction to the anthology, the longstanding “fundamental division” in twentieth-century American poetry. Formulated in a variety of ways (Romantic vs. Modern; New Formal vs. Language), this division typically comes down to a divide between more mainstream, traditional poetries and more avant-garde, radically experimental poetries in what Swensen calls “the two-camp model.” According to Swensen, the poetry in American Hybrid is new insofar as it hybridizes “core attributes of previous ‘camps’ in diverse and unprecedented ways.” Swensen notes,

The hybrid poem has selectively inherited traits from both of the principal paths… Today’s hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental modes such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or a villanelle. Or it might be composed entirely of neologisms but based in ancient traditions. Considering the traits associated with “conventional” work, such as coherence, linearity, formal clarity, narrative, firm closure, symbolic resonance, and stable voice, and those generally assumed of “experimental” works, such as non-linearity, juxtaposition, rupture, fragmentation, immanence, multiple perspective, open form, and resistance to closure, hybrid poets access a wealth of tools, each one of which can change dramatically depending on how it is combined with others and the particular role it plays in the composition.

American Hybrid brings together the work of 74 contemporary poets whom the editors believe have been doing such hybrid work, presenting each poet with a brief statement about their work, a paragraph of professional biography, and a sampling of approximately six pages of poems. According to St. John’s introduction, all of the poets included in the anthology had three books published when reading for the anthology began in summer, 2005. Many of the anthologized poets are well-known, including Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, Mary Jo Bang, Norman Dubie, Alice Fulton, James Galvin, Forrest Gander, Albert Goldbarth, Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Robert Hass, Lyn Hejinian, Brenda Hillman, Ann Lauterbach, Harryette Mullen, Michael Palmer, D. A. Powell, Bin Ramke, Claudia Rankine, Donald Revell, Rosemarie Waldrop, Marjorie Welish, C. D. Wright, Charles Wright, and Dean Young. But American Hybrid also includes some relatively younger poets and/or lesser-known poets such as Joshua Beckman, Molly Bendall, Killarney Clary, Martin Corless-Smith, Andrew Joron, Myung Mi Kim, Stefanie Marlis, Jane Miller, Jennifer Moxley, Rod Smith, Dara Wier, and Elizabeth Willis.

The following conversation took place via e-mail during the fall and winter of 2009-2010.

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Repost: How Can We Say “God Loves You” to the Oppressed?

This piece was published in the Spring 2015 issue of The Inbreaking, the newspaper of the Seattle Catholic Worker, and I thought I’d share it again here. Thanks to Peter Gallagher and Shelby Handler for comments and feedback on an earlier draft.

Mary Antona Ebo, F.S.M., lifelong civil rights activist and marcher in Selma

This winter, at the closing of the Chanukkah gathering of a Seattle Radical Shabbat group in a little craftsman house in the Central District, an attendee brought out a list of names.

The names were of unarmed people of color killed by the police in America, and it was long: it stretched back more than a decade and made its way around our circle of thirty more than three times. Seattleite John T. Williams, a hearing-impaired Nuu-chah-nulth woodcarver shot to death only four seconds after being ordered by an officer behind him to drop his carving knife, was on the list. Tamir Rice and Michael Brown were on the list. One attendee, her voice full of tears, asked us to remember that each name we heard was more than a name: it was someone’s child, best friend, lover, parent, companion—someone whose loss to state violence left a tear in the fabric of many anonymous lives.

The Radical Shabbat group, a gathering of lefty Jewish folks, is “working to practice and reclaim our Jewish ritual in a space that holds our values,” including the value of work against oppression. This list of victims ended an evening of conversation and reflection on the lessons of the Chanukkah story, making literal and human the tensions of the story of the Maccabees’ rebellion against Greek domination. How can we work against the violence of an oppressive state?

At the close of this excruciating litany, the attendees said the mourners’ kaddish for these victims of state violence. I listened but couldn’t join in: I was the only Catholic in the room and, though I grew up with Jewish folks in my extended family, I’d never learned these words. I went home with a hard knot of grief in my throat and my head tangled with questions. The Shabbat space showed its participants the trust of letting us sit in our grief and rage: not forcing a happy or positive meaning onto this list, but to feel, even if only for a moment, the terrible individual cost of our society’s criminalization of people of color. Later, I looked the words of the kaddish up: “B’rikh hu,” goes one passage, “l’eila min kol bir’khata v’shirata, / toosh’b’chatah v’nechematah, da’ameeran b’al’mah.” “Blessed is he / beyond any song and blessing, / any praise and consolation that are uttered in the world.”

“Beyond any song and blessing”: the God remembered in ritual, petitioned and honored in prayer, revered (so I as a Catholic believe) in the incarnation of Jesus, and seen in the animating power of the Holy Spirit, can seem unbearably distant sometimes when we’re confronted by state violence. In the world to come, we’re told that “the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8). But in this life, the oppressed endure grief, agony, violence, spiritual degradation, and dehumanization, alleviated by no revolutionary miracle.

Eleanor Josaitis, "Detroit's Mother Teresa"

Eleanor Josaitis, “Detroit’s Mother Teresa” (1931-2011)

How can we (I write as a white middle-class able-bodied male citizen, enjoying just about every privilege American society has to offer) say “God loves you” to the oppressed? The daily life of an oppressed person is an experience—to quote Father Gustavo Gutierrez, Peruvian priest and founder of liberation theology—“of exclusion and nonlove, of being forgotten, of having no social rights.” What does it mean to tell an oppressed person that God loves them? I’m honored to have shared the space of mourning with the participants of Radical Shabbat, but I claim no special knowledge on the history and spirituality of Jewish anti-oppressive politics; I face this question as a Catholic. If the great truth of God’s love isn’t going to seem like an empty and meaningless piety in the face of the grinding reality of oppression, what actions must accompany it?

Father Gutierrez, who for fifty years has done his theological and political work in the slums of Lima, Peru, “between the sufferings and the hopes of the people with whom I live,” has a simple primary recommendation. Gutierrez writes that “Christian theology must be grounded in the reality of human suffering and exclusion if it is to be at the service of discipleship and transformation.” To follow Jesus’s teachings and to act from the trust of God’s abundant and self-communicating love means understanding that oppression is not fate, but a system created by people, and that the degradation and violence it forces onto the lives of the oppressed is “against the meaning” of the free, gratuitously beautiful gift of life. To me, Gutierrez’s recommendation leads to three conclusions.

First, Catholics must acknowledge that the suffering of the oppressed—the criminalization and state murder of young black men, the abandonment of the poor, the prohibitions against immigration even for those fleeing violence and poverty, the murder of trans people—is not merely a backdrop to their lives or ours, but a call to solidarity. As Christians, we find our fullest humanity in the radical love of our neighbor, and we affirm that we touch “the suffering flesh of Christ” himself when we minister to the most oppressed, when we strive to build their power and center their concerns.

Second, to follow the call of God’s love means following Jesus’s message toward social, not just individual, transformation. In the words of Pope Francis, “God, through Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing” between all people. I believe that Jesus—by his words, actions, and life—teaches us that another set of human and political relationships is possible, one that refuses the “structural sin” in which those of us with privilege participate. What would this human-centered society, as opposed to a society of the marketplace imperatives and of state oppression, look like? It’s hard to even conceive of, but, in the meantime, it’s a truly radical assertion to center human dignity, autonomy, and freedom in our politics. When, as Pope Francis writes, “the categories of the marketplace” are made into absolutes, “God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement.” This is a God I am glad to love.

Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador (1917 - 1980)

Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador (1917 – 1980)

Finally, to truthfully say to the oppressed (and show by action) that “God loves you,” I believe that we Catholics should courageously explore the consequences of what the Church calls its “preferential option for the poor.” Catholic theology defines this option as centering the needs, concerns, questions, and conditions of the poor in our faith life, and examining our society’s policies and institutions in terms of their impact on the poor. A shallow reading of this teaching simply suggests that “we” the church must minister to the needs of “them,” the oppressed. But, carried to its logical conclusion, this teaching can and should challenge Catholics to center the voices of those most affected by oppression when that oppression is being addressed.

What might this look like? Well, here in King County, youth of color are resisting—through education, protest, and direct action—the county’s plan to invest $210 million in a new youth jail; the community most affected by mass incarceration is speaking for itself and saying no. How can Catholics listen to these voices, and build their power over that of self-proclaimed experts and employees of carceral institutions?

Or, for another example: in a church that remains deeply sexist and exclusionary of queer and trans folks, how can those of us who enjoy gender and cis-gender privilege build the power of women and queer and trans communities, internationally and locally? For all his lucid and serious criticism of capitalist ideology, Francis’s opinions on reproductive choice, the role of women in the church, and the humanity of queer folks are largely awful, including his recent offhand comparison of modern “gender theory” to “nuclear arms,” for how both threaten to disrupt “the order of creation.” Liberation-oriented Catholics must clearly and definitively say no to such ideas, and the practices they lead to. Our call is not just to find common cause with oppressed communities, but to strengthen them by addressing systemic injustice and by centering these communities’ politics, cultures, and ways of knowing.

As Catholics concerned with a genuinely human-centered politics, our work must be within our faith communities as well as in the world as a whole. Authentic faith, Pope Francis writes, “is never comfortable or completely personal…. [It] always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values.” And so, remembering the mourner’s kaddish, I grieve for the victims of police violence—and for the hearts of those officers who, for one terrible instant, were the state’s violence, fear, power-numbedness, and hatred personified. In this grief, I strive to act not because I feel morally superior, or because I feel the oppressed to be saints idealized by their suffering, or because I feel those who oppress are inhuman, but because God is good, and in the words “God loves you” I hear a call, impossible to ignore, to fight for the liberation of all people.

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