Virtual Polyvocality! Put that in your smoke and pipe it.

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

Like all art forms, including history and science, poetry is ultimately a long conversation.  Current practitioners take on inherited formats, respond to them, answer them, contradict them, and so on, usually.

As we are singular in so many ways, it is fitting that Bay Area host one of the most vital ongoing conversations between poets anywhere – and amply on display in Sarah Rosenthal’s A Community Writing Itself:  Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area.

This collection of conversations with an eclectic selection of prominent poets working here now will stimulate your brain pan and send your hand shooting out for another cup of coffee, to keep the talk going in your own head, not least of all!  Rosenthal is the author of Manhattan and sitings.

MEH: Why did you choose to do a book of interviews as opposed to, say, a collection of essays, or a more traditional nonfiction book that develops a single thesis?

SR: I was drawn to the collaborative nature of interviews, partly because collaboration is a central theme among experimental writers. Many experimentalists challenge the notion of writing as a solitary act. In fact, a writer uses a shared language and is a conduit for many voices—every text she has ever read; even every voice she has ever heard or imagined. Writing is an act of participation.

Most writers would probably agree with that statement, but I think it’s more prominent in experimental writing. Collaborating to create texts is one way experimental authors foreground this polyvocality, so the interview format seemed perfectly suited to my project. And I’m fascinated to see, in the completed collection, another, virtual conversation taking place amongst the interviewees, when they mention each other’s work or describe a shared concern or source of inspiration. Even their differences, for example about how they relate to being denizens of the Bay Area, create a conversation, a sense of counterpoint.

I also thought the informality and intimacy of the format would help make the writing discussed in the book more accessible to readers unfamiliar with the terrain. Experimental literature is incredibly rewarding but it can be hard to know how to enter if you’re new to it. I thought if readers sensed they were listening in on a conversation, rather than reading a formal treatise, they might find it more inviting to enter this world, using my questions as a bridge.

And I wanted this book to be an argument for the vitality of face-to-face interaction in an age when we all, myself included, conduct so much of our social and cerebral life over the Internet. Tea and cookies and interesting art on the walls, interruptions and conversational riffs and the occasional joke, were an essential part of these interviews. Of course many readers are downloading the book instead of reading hard copy, but regardless of the delivery system I wanted to offer the traces, sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle, of live encounters taking place.

MEH: You seem enthusiastic about the work of the poets you interviewed. Do you worry at all that the book could be seen as not critical or hard-hitting enough?

SR: I did think a lot about how a generous stance toward the authors’ work bumps up against notions of hard-hitting critical analysis. One of the things I love about experimental writing is that it’s about opening up to the unknown. It’s about questioning and exploring; it’s not about trying to have the truth all sewn up. So the generous stance of the intrigued witness, rather than the critical stance of the interrogator, makes sense to me—especially since, as a poet myself, I really am a fellow traveler.

In addition, I knew from teaching creative writing and from past interviewing experience that if you want someone to open up and share their deepest, most creative thinking, you need to set up an atmosphere of trust and friendliness. So I wasn’t striving for the perfection that the notion of hard-hitting analysis suggests—on the part of myself, or the interviewee, or the reader. My goal was rather that we all bring what we have to the encounter, and in the process enrich our understanding of contemporary writing and its relationship to the self and to the world. That said, I was very much after rigorous discussion. One thought that guided me was that discernment and judgment are two different things. In my analysis and questions, I strove not for judgment, but very much for discernment.

MEH: In what ways did this project fulfill, and in what ways did it subvert, your expectations?

SR: It fulfilled my expectations in that from the outset, I trusted the format. I knew that given my own experience doing interviews and my appreciation of the work, along with the incredible intelligence and creativity of the authors I interviewed, if I prepared adequately the conversations would have the richness and depth I envisioned. Also, the pattern I established from the start proved effective: after completing each interview I edited it and submitted it for magazine publication. The interest that magazine publishers and readers demonstrated in the project along the way provided great momentum.

The project subverted my expectations by taking several years longer than I’d originally envisioned. I hadn’t accounted for the fact that once I embarked on a serious nonfiction book, I’d want to read everything under the sun connected to each author. Nor was I realistic about all that’s involved in editing transcriptions, getting the authors to sign off on them, writing an introduction, and every other aspect of publishing a book of this nature. The project’s timeline also had to stretch to accommodate events that happened along the way—various teaching and writing gigs, publishing my first creative book, marriages and births and deaths and all those other life markers that make everything else come to a screeching halt.

But while the book had to accommodate my life, it’s also the case that I learned to accommodate the book. I forced myself to speed up my process: initially I took three months or so to prepare for an interview; by the end I’d halved that. I eliminated or shortened the breaks between various phases of the work. I gave up other projects—teaching private writing workshops, studying Spanish and visual art—and in general got a lot better at saying no to opportunities and requests. And even though I wrote and published a lot of creative work during that period, including my first perfect-bound book, I’ll never know how much more I would have produced in the time consumed by this project.

MEH: How has this book affected your approach to your own writing?

SR: These authors’ work and the conversations we had about it became sturdy pillars supporting my own writing practice. By the time I finished grad school (I got an MFA in poetry writing at San Francisco State) I already had some good writing habits. But when I left the reliable container and built-in community of grad school, it was initially challenging to find ways to keep doing creative work—especially since it’s not something I or most writers make a living at, and it’s not always understood or valued by the larger culture. I saw a number of fellow grad students give up writing after they’d completed their degrees, and I felt an urgent need to shore up my practice.

Witnessing at close range how these writers attend to their own work and constantly evolve in their relationship to it, year in and year out, gave me a great way to do that. Some of the moments in the conversations became almost mantras, like when Brenda Hillman says, “There is a particular beauty about the regularity of the way that an artist works in relation to a day. If we are making art, we somehow keep on in a daily, drastic and joyful continuing. How do you continue? That’s your job: You get up in the morning, you let some energy get through you somehow.” And because I spent considerable time inhabiting twelve very different creative worlds I had ample opportunity to reflect on what each might have to offer to my own practice. The form that Stephen Ratcliffe’s creativity takes is really different than, say, Barbara Guest’s or Nathaniel Mackey’s, but all have been useful to think about in relation to my own.

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