Say It Hot: An Interview with Reb Livingston and Ravi Shankar
This interview, mediated by Jen Tynes, took place via email between March 5 and April 24, 2007.
Reb Livingston is the author of Your Ten Favorite Words (Coconut Books, Fall 2007) and Pterodactyls Soar Again (Whole Coconut Chapbook Series, 2006). She's also the editor of No Tell Motel and publisher of No Tell Books. With Carly Sachs she co-curates the Burlesque Poetry Hour.
Ravi Shankar, founding editor of the international journal of the arts Drunken Boat and poet-in-residence at Central Connecticut State, has published a book of poems, Instrumentality (Cherry Grove), named a finalist for the 2005 Connecticut Book Awards. He has appeared as a commentator on NPR, written poems, reviews and essays for such publications as The Paris Review, Fulcrum and Poets & Writers , and read his work in many places, including the Asia Society and the National Arts Club. Along with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, he is currently editing an anthology of contemporary South Asian, Middle Eastern and East Asian poetry, due out with W. W. Norton & Co. in Spring 2008. You can read an interview with him at Jacket magazine.
Buy Wanton Textiles by Ravi Shankar and Reb Livingston.
J: I'm interested, first of all, in the way you went about collaborating on Wanton Textiles, and to what extent you think the process is relevant to the work itself. Erika Howsare and I have been doing some somewhat long-term collab work, mostly by email, and I've found it interesting to note how the "I" of those pieces -- even when our individual writings are in correspondence form or otherwise clearly dilineated -- is modifed by all kinds of factors (from place to mode of writing to awareness of the collaboration process itself). In Wanton Textiles, I notice that the first several pages created a definite sense of two people corresponding (There are sections addressed to Ravi from Reb), though oddly -- the letter-like pages from Reb are, even in their mysteriousness, very personal, individually voiced. The sections that read as responses are line-broken and, though intimate in their own way, seem much further removed from an author or personality. In keeping with the title and cover, there seems to be a seduction going on -- the Reb letters calling the Ravi (?) poems out. And I say "Reb letters" and "Ravi poems" here instead of assigning authorship, exactly, because the construction and assignation of voices here seems so intentional, so part of the piece and worth considering in its own right. At one point, about midway through the book, I lose track of which voice is which, if there is, in fact, a division -- a conversation between two voices. The nicknames and pen names also add to this sense that identity shifts, that, in fact, some of these letters are written to a place -- the landscape and city -- as much as a person. So back to my question: can you talk a little bit about your sense of "self" or voice in this writing and how it relates to the collaboration process?
Reb: There's three combined veins going on in the chapbook, first a long poem that both Ravi and I wrote and edited together via e-mail over the course of a year. The single poem is a blended voice and can be read alone here. For the chapbook we interspersed the long poem with individual postcard poems written the following summer after completing the longer piece. To help distinguish between the three in the book, I used different fonts. The long poem has an elegant, perhaps sophisticated [deadpan!] font, Didot, and the postcards are done with Lucinda, a font resembling correspondences. For the "Reb" postcards I used a script variation (Lucinda Handwriting) reflecting the more personal and for the "Ravi" postcards a more old-fashioned and official-esque style (Lucinda Fax) -- the kind a courier might open and read aloud at your doorstep. To me, each of the three directions are connected and building on each other, although in completely different and at times frustrating angles. I was concerned that what was happening might not be so obvious to someone not intimate with the book's creation, so I did my best to make it clear, without over-explaining, over-labeling. I hope.
The "Reb" postcard poems and "Reb" lines in the longer poem (which became blurry in places with editing as we both tinkered with each others lines) are definitely more unguarded, personal, open -- mystery aside. Part of that is drastically differing styles, how do cats and dogs learn to live together? Another part is the expectations and boundaries within the longer co-written poem and the postcard correspondences. Sometimes the interaction is very direct, at times indirect and in others completely disconnected [maddening!]. Are the poems and lines struggling for control or merely desperate to be heard on their own terms? Do they want to be joined together or admired from afar? Tenderness or validation? Are the poems and lines offering a warmth to each other? Are they generous? Is there a level of phoniness at play? Yes, landscapes and cities are often incorporated in the poems, but to me the bigger idea of "place" is the place these interactions intentionally carve out. Where are the poems putting themselves? Why the incredible distance? There's a lot of talk of meeting up, but never an encounter. Could they not get their acts together or was that never the point? What is touchable, what is off limits, what is delicate, what is sturdy enough for the dryer, what places itself in "dry-cleaning" only space, or a wear once and disregard and what is so stiff and scratchy it's only meant to be regarded, never worn?
Perhaps what the chapbook does is show two very different selves, what they are on their own [blindly groping, sad, directionless, inconsolable] -- and what they could achieve in unison [self-awareness, responsiveness], if even for a very brief moment before inevitably falling back into the fractured, flawed selves.
J: Yes, I did definitely notice the fonts and use them as one kind of "guide" -- it's interesting, though, how the organization of the manuscript subverts and complicates (all for the better, I think!) the divisions and thus the identities. In the first pages, the way the poem sections alternate with the letters signed by Reb suggest a correspondence. Though the poem voice is talking about Lycra and the miseries/mysteries of the body, its lack of address or salutation, in contrast to (and seemingly in conversation with) the letters signed by Reb make it less corporeal, a sort of over-voice. What's really interesting, meaningful, and yes, hot, for me about this part of the "correspondence" is the sense of an individual drawing out and addressing directly and personally this abstracted voice. Though I hadn't guessed the breakdown entirely correctly, I imagined that perhaps you and Ravi had been in cahoots creating EACH of the voices -- that the "Reb" letters were just as collaborative as the rest. Because this poem seems, to me, to be interested in how conversation defines self.
So can you tell me a little more about your sense of the "place" of this poem? You talk about postcards -- did you actually use postcards for corresponding? Do you think it matters whether there were actual postcards (as opposed to, say, email pretending to be postcards) in the making of this book? That is, how does the physicality of the making process shape the reality of the product for you, specifically in this project? And talking about the physical of course leads us to the fabrics. I'll get to that shortly, but if you want to start talking...
Reb: No, we used fake e-mail postcards, the entire chapbook was written, edited and proofed via e-mail. All of my writing was done from home. I haven't been to all places mentioned or alluded in my postcards (for instance, Oklahoma) and while I have been to Tahoe, I never got in the lake. As for Vegas, I swear I never met up or got busy with Harold Bloom. Honest. But if I did, I imagine it would be a lot like how I described. Crusty old men cannot resist me.
This may sound dopey, but for me traveling is heavily connected with textiles. I put a great deal of thought into what clothing and shoes to pack yet despite all planning, something often goes awry, usually involving shoes. Wherever I stay, I'm very conscious of the fabrics; towels, robes, bedspreads, sheets, carpets, curtains. Fabrics can either bring comfort and security or wreak havoc, chafe, itch, poorly fit, etc. Fabrics can tear, accumulate scents, stains, other fibers, hairs -- all remnants from the journey. Most can be mended or washed, but occasionally textiles are destroyed or lost, often the most beloved and cherished item.
I wasn't necessarily conscious of any of this while writing my half of the book -- my process is very intuitive, I follow the pull and work -- afterwards when there's enough distance I can analyze, recognize patterns and come up with reasons why I went a certain direction. For instance, I didn't pick up on how often clothing was making it into the longer piece until practically the end.
Ravi: OK, just wanted to ring in on the collaborative process a bit. In the interim between promoting Instrumentality and finishing work on my second ms. I had been aspiring towards collaboration, in the hopes that it would enlarge my pinched horizons a bit and keep me writing through the fallow, dust-bowl months between projects. I have a done a handful of these exercises and each time, the shape, parameters, and volition of participants has varied, but inevitably they began the same way. I came up with a series of potential first lines (which I’m including below) and sent them to my collaborators, empowering them to choose one and continue with it. That’s how Reb and I began – she chose the one with Lycra, fortuitously, and we began to stitch a quilt, patch a hole, graft vinyl to silk. That first long poem that referred to was born out of that and the exercise, which began discretely began to converge. There was a sense of revelatory giddiness in the exchange, an idea of pleasure deferred or deferral pleasuring itself in the absence of touch. Subconsciously, certain tropes began to emerge – Penelope waiting for Odysseus while weaving his burial shroud, or Lady Chatterley pining away for her gardener Mellors, reveling simultaneously in the impossibility of ever being together and the utter, urgent need for it. That the life of the mind needed the life of the body, but the imagination could somehow sustain both. So the lines began to twine, entangle, and while our particularly syntactic and ideational proclivities remain initially intact, as we went forward, they began to blend. I’d pick up an idiom from one of Reb’s lines and turn it, transform it, make it mine or other; and in some cases, Reb would return the favor or reclaim her line, else leap from the implication into something even further afield. I think there was throughout the process both a sense of coquettish competition (anything you can do, I can do better) and a foundation of mutual respect (anything you do, I will respond to), which resulted in a wonderful friction – tugging, teasing, reveling, retreating, absorbing, rejecting – and this continued on into the revision process, where we treated none of what we individual wrote as “ours,” but the entire poem as one cohesive lyric. And so we changed lines, our own and the other person’s, indiscriminately.
The postcards, as Reb alluded to, came later, but from the sense of longing that had been built into the longer poem. They weren’t physical postcards though they might as well have been, since they came from literal or figurative distance. I was away at the MacDowell colony or on the road during much of the summer, and so it was through this telescoping sense of time that I addressed the postcards, and like any correspondence, they were disproportionate and inconsistent. So Reb wrote three postcards to me before I even wrote one back and that dynamic got absorbed into the conversation. The self lagging intention, the meant-to-do courting the meant-to-be. Those more discrete sections were meant to punctuate the completely blended longer poem, so that some trace of each consciousness remained, even while being subsumed by the collaboration itself. The postcards were almost like a residue of the guiding principles of masculinity and femininity that were critiqued and ultimately abandoned in the poem itself, even while they bespoke of distance and closeness, of questions and more questions, of observation from our “actual” lives and elaboration into the personas we had begun to inhabit in our correspondence. Maybe the analogy would be to a method actor getting into character to prepare for the actual performance, except in this case, the chronology had been reversed: the actual performance had already happened and so the postcards were almost a means of getting out of character and back into the more familiar idiom of our selves. Place of course had much to do with this transformation.
In any case, here are the starting lines I gave Reb, from which she began our Wanton Textiles:
Rasp, scrape, reverb, the loop bounce stuttered
Overturning a Balinese gong to use as cutting board
Yes, Lycra can improve your performance
Burnt-out taxis rust like lozenges on a tongue of rain
The discordance between thinking and thought
Slither a tether between top and bottom
At the pasture for failed seeing-eye dogs
The castle looms blue upon the porcelain plate
Incursions into the fabric of the seawater revealed vitreous lemons
Turn, hover, bulge as newspaper mâché, billow
I know no knot not nautical in nature
Graze on the face like a fly on honeydew
Give me wings and a wagon wheel for a belt buckle
Reb: For historical accuracy, I was only given the following four first lines to choose from:
Rasp, scrape, reverb, the loop bounce stuttered
Overturning a Balinese gong to use as cutting board
Yes, Lycra can improve your performance
Burnt-out taxis rust like lozenges on a tongue of rain
J: I'm interested in the link that both of you are beginning to discuss between the fabrics theme which emerged in this book and traveling, between traveling and identity. On page 15, in a postcard, Reb writes, "...and then I remembered if faced the other direction eventually there would be a familiar abode that I would always know and so begins the foot voyage. In beautiful pinching stilettos." This got me thinking about a little weekend-radio story I heard on NPR several weeks ago, a report back from an American couple who pilgrimaged to Mecca. Both were really struck by the physicality of their trip -- not so much the walking itself, but the unsanitary, crowded camp sites, the pilgrims pushing and trampling over one another, the sense of never being alone, pilgrimaging en masse. The couple seemed conflicted, still, about how this shaped the "spiritual" element of the trip -- did it contradict or diminish, emphasize or create? I'm interested in the ways not only the physical and metaphysical interact with each other in Wanton Textiles. The book begins in the desert, but it's Vegas. The sex of the book all seems theoretical, hypothetical, and more powerful because of it. Both baggage and "refuse" become important -- what do we do with these things, how do we use them, how do we get by whether on the road or seated in the suburbs. The section of poem on page 18 tries to "stretch, recover, uncover, unstitch, redo, wallpaper with wet tongue, unrepentant as Mohammed, arms akimbo, caverns craved..." That is, this voices seem simultaneously engaged in laying things bare and developing artifice (both sometimes via fabric), which I find pretty potent and engaging. Can you talk to me about the "real" and the "fake" in these poems? The trash and the treasure and the fuzzy line between? How the vestigial reincarnates?
Reb: The simplest trips always seem to end by scraping the car on a pole in a parking garage. Just when you think you've made it, let your guard down -- crunch, bye bye paint job. Trips are a lot like sex and relationships, they're never how you imagine, expectations are rarely met -- even those most basic. The dress on the mannequin looks different on you -- of course it does, its hips are 36", yours are 42" -- how on Earth could you identify with that? You're not a statue! Statues represent the dead. On the other hand, expectations are a necessity, else you're walking around like an fool, sticking your tongue in light sockets, crying about the foul taste of your crispy tongue. How do we protect ourselves, prepare, for the many letdowns we self-create? Do we subject ourselves to a life of lowered expectations and set in motion a constant presumption of failure? What a miserable way to live. The balanced accept the letdowns are always coming. Do they always have to be letdowns? How many times afterward do we say "it's better that I didn't get that or this happened instead because now I have ________." What if we did married that boy in the fourth grade? I didn't hear the story on NPR, but if I had to guess that couple had "little kid" expectations of what a pilgrimage to Mecca would be like and I imagine a lot of people have the same. We think we're smart, we think we're sophisticated, but generally we're kids eating the entire Easter basket Sunday morning and learning the hard way by barfing all afternoon. I definitely came to this collaboration with "little kid" expectations. That probably the most useful result of any experience -- being disabused of certain notions.
Recently I traveled to Prague. On my flight I read two travel guides and soon my mind blended all the sites together. On my first full day there I decided to walk to the Charles Bridge and blindly go from there -- soon I was standing on the steps of the Church of St. Nicholas, which I recognized from my reading, but couldn't discern it from all the other cathedrals mentioned. I went in not knowing what I'd find and was dumbstruck, bowled over, utterly enchanted. I instantly wanted to join that church, pray in it everyday, began planning both my wedding and funeral -- dogma be gone. After 30 minutes of gasping, I referred to my handy guide book that described St. Nicholas as ". . . perhaps the supreme example in Bohemia of the way in which the Catholic Church of the Counter-Reformation sought to seduce the public by appealing directly to the senses rather than the intellect." Click -- that is what I want my poems to be, that experience is what I dream for my readers -- step inside expecting nothing and find everything. Hell, that's who *I* want to be. Stick your theory in your arse and stand in front of a classroom, like a ridiculous mannequin if that's what you want -- I'll hang with the rest of the feeble masses. Mmm, my tongue tastes like smokey peppermint.
On my last night in the city I attended a marionette show with a woman I met on the trip. I wanted to hear a Mozart concert at the Municipal House, but she had her heart set on the marionettes and I wasn't feeling especially passionate one way or another, so I agreed to her pick. I thought it was OK, I wasn't expecting the bawdiness, the puppeteers groping the female puppets, but whatever, when in Prague . . . but my evening companion came with big expectations and was sorely disappointed -- we left at intermission and drank ourselves silly.
There's a lot of "junk" in my office, I want to create collages – so I'm saving cards, magazines, pictures. Aren't some people going around to fast food restaurants and taking the frying oil to fuel their cars? What about natural fertilizers? I think there's a lot less trash in this world than we think. We're not using what we have, we're looking around for something better. Another miserable way to live. We treat people like refuse -- usually the ones who love and care for us most. Probably cause they don't live up to our expectations, our narrow points of reference, our mounting inability to conduct ourselves decently.
I can only speak to what I wrote, but everything I wrote was real -- especially the things that never happened. That said, I think there's definitely a layer of artificiality at play in Wanton Textiles.
J: Amen & I hear you. Re: artificiality, I like how you let the threads of making show, the exposed call and response that collaboration allows for. Ravi wrote earlier about borrowing and adapting idioms from each other -- I love those little moments in Wanton Textiles when we (audience) get to see the idiom shift, see the language turn over and show a second or third or seventh side. I think this is also happening in the content -- discussion of how to dress, to appear, how to approach. Did you experience -- in this project and in collaborative writing in general -- a different kind of self-consciousness or self-awareness than when writing solo (or on other projects)?
Ravi: Regarding fabrics and refuse, trash and treasure, I think the very notion of a collaboration has certain interesting parallels to each. First, there’s the idea that we’re quilting something together, but that process is polyvalent and there are multiple layers: the patchwork, the batting and the backing, all being quilted together by hand. So that’s how I think of the triad of syntax, theme and momentum for example, forces that are at odds with each other some of the time, or in synchronicity, but brought together by the needle and thread. So the silk of a certain diction is stitched together with the rough-hewn and leathery diction of another part, and the thing we are making is both sum of its parts and something that transcends its particular elements. In a quilt, what is personal and idiosyncratic and probably should be thrown out becomes part and parcel of its value. The old handkerchief becomes one square and the baby’s bib becomes another. Literally trash transmuting to treasure. I don’t think I was thinking of this particularly at the time, but certain quilt patterns come to mind now: Hearts & Gizzards, Tangled Garters, Crosses and Losses, Air Castles and Circle Saw.
That word refuse was an important one I think, for its multiple connotations. Something discarded as worthless, for sure, the bit of experience that we cannot quite make sense of or do without, the throw-away affection that has abnegation at its crumpled core, the trace of ourselves on another, transient and disappeared too quickly, except in memory, where it is recycled, the trashiness of the pick up and the letdown. Of course part of the point is the conservation of energy – nothing created, nothing destroyed. Diamonds no more than compressed coal. But the other meaning of refuse is also just as important – to decline, spurn, rebuff. How tactfully to turn away from an unwanted advance. How to preserve the right of first refusal. How to contradict the self’s suggestion that something might be unsavory, that behavior that might be judged or condemned in someone else should be allowed regardless. And what does it mean to refuse to refuse? Is disembodied appetite the corollary of Emerson’s transparent eyeball? Finally, there’s also re-fuse, to make something combustible again, to add a wick, else to allow something to melt together. In the best of all worlds, this is the sense that I hoped we achieved. A liquefaction of each of our individual personalities and perspectives into something smelt, blended, greater than and more.
I guess that to me is the difference between writing solo and writing collaboratively. In the former, you are caught in the barricade of a solitary room, trying to find light and claw your way out into the open. You’re trying to tame something, or wring something out, or like a magpie, bring bits together. But when you’re writing together, there’s a new attention that’s born of playfulness, of genuine surprise and revelation, and the lack of isolation is like ventilation or bouncing a big red rubber ball. It energizes and permits things that wouldn’t be possible in one’s own work. For instance, I am fairly certain that I would have never straddled the western canon on my own.
J: I did some editing work for an artist who grew up during the Depression and was -- in part because of this -- interested in using the things we tend to throw away or disregard as art materials. He told me something funny about this: He'd been making some sculptures and things using the aluminum from coffee cans and found he really liked using them, and then Folgers etc. started selling more coffee in "brick" form instead, so the cans were getting to be very difficult to come by. He was, in fact, going to great, dumpster-diving lengths to sniff them out. I was interested in how his aesthetic enjoyment of a thing was developed by and then in some conflict with his instinctively ethical notions about using what's available. A bit of a topic shift here, thought I think there's some "American Dream" connection -- I like how mediation of experience becomes a focus in Wanton Textiles. The D.H. Lawrence epigraph ("Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot") is a seductive idea, makes me think of one of my favorite Jerry Lee Lewis quotes (he's quoting Revelations), "Either be hot or cold. If you are lukewarm, the Lord will spew you forth from His mouth." Do you think that you -- or the voices in this book -- agree with it, though? On one hand, there's some definite wisdom in knowing when to experience, observe and keep your mouth shut. On the other hand, it sounds a little like the notion that a writer should only write when they are inspired, etc., and that doesn't seem like an idea inacted in or by this book. On the contrary, it seems like both voices are putting a great deal of effort--even in the "cold" moments-- into creating something to say to one another and thereby keeping the line open, so to speak, staying connected in whatever way possible. When Reb describes considering straddling the western canon all night long "so I could write I considered it and gaze upon your face learning of my consideration" and when Ravi describes the morning garbage pick-up, these seem like exploratory acts, "hotness" and "something to say" arrived at, of course, through writing. What do you think it means, as a writer or a person or the voices in this book, to "be still" and to "say it hot"? No one wants to be mediocre, but do you have to risk lukewarm-ness -- working even when you don't really "feel" it-- in order to make something good? Any American or Un-American dreams you want to share?
Reb: When this chapbook was just the long poem, minus the postcards, I sent it to two editors for publication consideration before deciding to do it myself. One said he wanted "saucier" and more "extreme." The other said he didn't see a "dramatic-ness...oratory." I thought a long time about both of those comments. I decided those weren't paths I was interested in taking with this chapbook and my discussions with Ravi and what he wanted confirmed my stance. That doesn't mean those aren't valid paths, no doubt some people see the title "Wanton Textiles" and the cover and expect to find hardcore thread on spool action. Other will come expecting a "love me or I'll just croak" angle. I'm not particularly into porn, if I'm feeling especially frustrated I'll watch my Gladiator DVD or turn off the sound and switch on some professional wrestling -- show me the pumped waxed flesh and let my imagination do the rest thank you very much. And I absolutely despise the hokey trials and tribulation films where after two hours of suffering the lovers finally get together, so they can make love once and then one promptly dies in a horrible, senseless tragedy. I cheered when Jude Law died at the end of Cold Mountain. Talk about agony.
Not that I believe that's exactly what those two editors were proposing -- but I think they were responding to the chapbook's pace, the ebbs, the dynamics, the disappointing lack of butt fucking. The kind of movies I find hot are Lost in Translation, Swimming Pool and Donnie Darko. They're slow-paced, drawn out, deliberate and take great care with their presentation. Don't make me endure Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction or its countless imitators. For Christ's sake I'm not in middle school anymore.
J: In the inter-review that Erika H. and I recently did for La Petite Zine, Erika, at one point, tells a story about watching The Shawshank Redemption in a hotel room after having been walking and writing in rural New Mexico for a week or so -- she says that she was "totally blown away by the violence traditional 'gripping' narrative does to time." I tend to be most aware of skewed time in biopics, and generally more in movies than writing, though this week I've been reading variations of the Cinderella story -- oral tellings for the most part that have been eventually written down -- and it's interesting and sometimes jarring to me to see what gets the emphasis, what's huddled off under the guise of "two years later," etc. These stories make me very attentive to how time functions in my own work and whatever else I'm reading. The correspondence aspect of Wanton Textiles certainly emphasizes time, while the blocks of poem that intersect with them seem to take the reader out of time a little, or create a sense of two simultaneous "time zones" (not to mention the likely separation by time zones of the two writers). Can you talk a little about how you thought about time in Wanton Textiles?
Reb: The entire chapbook was written over a span of almost two years, not that we wrote two years straight -- there were long breaks, the longest in 2005 when a daughter was born to Ravi and a son to me. The long poem was written while I was pregnant and the postcards didn't come until after both children were born. Towards the end of my pregnancy I became adamant that we finish the long poem. In total loose end mode, I need to take care of all the serious business, from writing projects to home improvement -- when it came time for baby -- that's all I wanted to concern myself with. The same thing kind of happened with the postcards, we talked about doing them for months, but got a late start -- I wanted to release the chapbook the same time as three other No Tell Books titles, so again I was Dave Chappelle with the Wrap It Up box.
Although I don't think any of that shows in the final work, in fact as I mentioned before, the pacing is rather unhurried. Perhaps because both of us were in two different zones so to speak, each could indulge in his/her own momentum. I thought about time somewhat in the postcards because it was a kind of a journey record, but still kept it rather ambiguous. I don't think time ever crossed my mind in the longer piece. Guess I'm guilty of the "two years later" guise -- I had my own ideas of what needed emphasis, damn the rest.
J: Reb, what was it like and how do you feel about handling the publication of your own work? In what ways was the process or your approach or concerns different than the other three books you were (impressively) publishing simultaneously?
Reb: Overall it was positive and I'm likely to do it again at some point. While I didn't try especially hard to place it at another press, it became clear early on that wasn't going to the best route for this particular project. At the same time I was working on three other titles for No Tell Books so the decision to add Wanton Textiles to that list seemed obvious. There was no reason to get bent out of shape dealing with editors and publishers when I myself am an editor and publisher and could easily do it myself. I enjoyed doing it, laying it out and picking a designer (in this case, the fabulous Charles Orr). I've become a considerably less angry poet now that I do many things myself. Doing it myself means nobody is holding me down -- I'm told I have problems with authority. I'm in the early stages of a new manuscript and my plans for it are kind of, I don't know, weird. It's too premature to think about how to go about publishing it, but I do know that if I'm unable to find a publisher on board with my ideas, I'll do it myself. I find myself incredibly agreeable and easy to work with. For me, publishing is a means to get the work out there. Whether my press or somebody else's press does it isn't especially important. Yes, it's nice to have somebody else publish it, if they truly believe in the work, support and nurture it, treat it as art first, commodity second (or ninth or one-hundredth). But if that option isn't available, the second is pretty good too.
There have been a handful of stumbling blocks created by my self-publishing, primarily with the more traditional review outlets who have antiquated (to put it kindly) concepts of legitimacy. Can the publisher be trusted if she published a title that she half wrote? How many cats does she own? Since the press also does print-on-demand, another "flag" is raised. Can No Tell Books be a "real" press if it uses Lulu for printing and distribution? Contrary to some reports, I'm not loaded and all the financial backing comes from my personal funds -- six titles so far has bumped the cost into the upper four figures. None of those books would have ever seen the light of day if I tried to go about it with any sizable print run with distribution and warehousing costs. I get pretty annoyed having to explain that to people who know the business. Very few poetry titles are being published by corporate publishers and not so many by university publishers. Most poetry titles only sell a few hundred copies (or less). There's no reason for me to put on mom's red power-suit and carry around dad's cracked briefcase playing very important big-time publisher.
Publishing four books at one time was too much. I over-extended myself in a serious way and am paying the price now, all my upcoming projects are behind, specifically the next Bedside Guide. Also, I've mostly only been able to give Wanton Textiles support in the capacity of a publisher, not so much as an author. I am disappointed with that.
J: How many cats do you own? Kidding. Your comment about supporting the book as an author, though, has me thinking about readings and Wanton Textile's oral/aural presence. Have you done any readings from this? Do you think of it in terms of sound, what it's like to read aloud? I keep bringing up my collabs with Erika because they are the most long-term and extensive collabs I've done -- I remember when we were first writing The Ohio System we went through a period of reading it aloud (which we had a few opportunities to do because we were both in Providence the) to folks like a back and forth, call and respond. At the time there were pieces I'd written and pieces she'd written, though we'd often switch it up when we read, mix them around, etc. Later, though, after we had highly revised and smooshed and worked it over, and it was published and I decided I wanted to do a reading from it (and she wasn't available), it seemed pretty natural to read it as one voice. It was as one-voiced as any of my writing ever is, I think. What would your dream presentation of this book, beyond its covers, be like? How do you think it should exist off the page?
Reb: One kitty cat. Yes, I have done readings from the chapbook, a few with Ravi and a bunch by myself. No reading has ever been the same, whether together or solo, we're/I'm always trying something new. The best one together was probably at the Anchor Bar in New Haven, CT where we had an attentive (although perhaps a little too serious) audience. We read the postcards, in order, and if I'm remembering accurately, parts of the longer poem. We did some minor explaining at the beginning, which I realize is probably necessary, but I really hate explaining and setting up poems -- I think they're better just read. But people expect an explanation and it's only polite, I suppose. When I've read alone, I've done parts of the longer poem, but never Ravi's postcards. Maybe I'll try that at my next reading. I've been hesitant to do that. The best solo reading I had was at my home at the No Tell Books release party in December -- I only read my own postcards. It was a warm, well-fed, well-lubricated, comfortably seated audience of 30 or so. They got the funny parts, the sad parts, the silly parts. They were poets, fiction writers, lawyers, computer people, salesmen, family and friends. Any dream presentation would have to have an audience in a setting like that. I love home readings in inviting, friendly spaces. I plan to have them for all future No Tell Books releases.
Ravi: Yes, the specter of time, right? I'm a few missives behind and just now coming to American or un-American dreams, which is a result not just of my pathological over-committedness but also because I just found that I will be teaching a summer class in the Shandong Province in China, which is unexpected and exciting and necessitates me turning my special brand of speculative bs (well, we'll go visit Confucious' birthplace and a few monastaries and eat sea cucumbers) into something parsable by a course description booklet. So pardon my delay but I think that the dream of China, now realized, is essentially un-American, and I hope to return with relics of Mao Zedong to disperse along the New England countryside.
Hotness and luke-warmness and coldness....well, yes, I think the act of collaboration involves a certain amount of writing through and beyond any notion of brilliance, because the kind of nestled-in, monomaniacal polishing and buffing that we might do on our own work, polishing the facets of a line until it gleams like an amethyst, is not really possible or desirable in collaboration, because, first of all, you're required to respond. It's like being in a relationship, you can't just sit on something and get to it in your own due time (though probably I tried), and so you're forced to write through your insecurities to arrive at something that propels the initiative forward.
I love the idea of being still and saying it hot. Like what Reb was saying about the drawn out and the deliberate, being poised on that moment, and poised, and poised still, langorous but urgent, simmering but one notch of the stove's dial away from boiling, and I think Wanton Textiles prolongs and attenuates and extends any potential closure, points in fact to an infinity of coupling, could have, if we didn't have the parameters of time and space in a book to contend with, gone on forever. Because who gets to say when something ends when you are collaborating, right? I'm not sure how we ended except that we both felt like our long poem had run its pace and had covered enough ground that it was beginning to speak back to the beginning of the poem, like a snake eating its tail, and so that was as good a point as any to end it.
And of course seduction and the deferral of pleasure is very un-American.
The time question, yes, I’m aware that I run on IST (Indian Standard Time) so that an hour late is early for me and that sensibility brought itself to bear on Wanton Textiles, surely. Sometimes days would pass without an addendum by me, other times hours, but Reb is right, it was composed over two years. Probably if it were up to me, we’d still be working on some inchoate version of the long poem, but thankfully Reb had an editor’s eye on the stopwatch and really her instinct reflected an uncanny sense of when our process was really wound up. The chapbook pub date was another shadow cast by the gnomon, and certainly the concept behind the postcards is one of distance separating the speakers, but the long poem, that actually was more time-bound in its way, feels, when I reread it like a leisurely swim in a sun-flecked laguna with some rapid doggy-paddling when a fin or a hand appears, but more or less, back-float and dilation of the pupils into the movement of constellations. Of course the notion that inherent in our particularized aesthetic sensibilities is an encoded notion of time is also there – narrative and lyric time is probably vastly different for me than it is for Reb – so when we were combining lines it was like an acrylic painter daubing on top of an oil painter then being color-washed by a spray painter. Collisions of time zones. I actually like how the part that seems the most distant in time and space, the postcards, was actually when we were closest and working most rapidly and the long poem which is mostly of one piece was actually stitched together over a couple of years.
J: Ravi, maybe we could end with your thoughts on the last question I asked Reb -- What would your dream presentation of this book, beyond its covers, be like? How do you think it should exist off the page?
Ravi: So after this, I’m all caught up? Amazing. Did I mention how fun it was to write collaboratively. I feel like in all of my answers that might not have come across, but it was. And performing from it has been fun too. I agree with Reb – we actually gave two readings together from the chapbook (actually, now that I think of it, three, though the one in Atlanta was not your typical reading, since it was in a large group – I think I got two postcards out, Reb one, before the egg timer went off and we were swept from stage like beer bottle labels). The first one at CCSU was not your ideal reading, partly because of the venue, a Barnes & Nobles masquerading as a down-home campus bookstore and therefore antiseptic, partly because of the jitters of our first reading together, partly because of the audience, or lack thereof, the few students and Book Store manager present were mostly perplexed I think and my colleague and good friend who sat glowering the back had just recently tried to take a swing at me (long story), so the vibe was all screwy. The Anchor Bar reading was just the opposite – and the presentation of the work seemed very good to me. Reb and I both read the long poem, which is what I prefer, interspersed with the postcards. I prefer reading from the long poem because that was more intrinsically collaborative and I like to read her words and have her read mine, because, as previously alluded to in this discussion, ownership is dual in this textile. In fact, I would encourage Reb to read my postcards at her next reading – that’s part of the point, isn’t it? And the venue, the Mermaid Room, a small, darkly lit room in the basement of the oldest bar in New Haven, and the eager audience, and the other readings all conspired to make that reading shimmer. We had a thing going, an electricity between breaths, a sense that the poem was alive and lively, transmogrifying as we read it, and that was pretty dope. There was also a broadside made of an excerpt of the long poem and I thought that was a nice existence also. So, to sum up, in a dream scenario, to adulating audiences the poem might be vocalized in two voices but harmonized the way we intended it – as a cohesive, stitched together, multiple yet singular chapbook. Then members of the audience would shower orchid petals, gift certificates and silken items of clothing upon us.