I recently met up with Matthew Siegel and Tracey Knapp, and emailed with Lisa Ciccarello, leading up to a reading by the three poets this Friday, February 20th at Alley Cat Books. You can read a relatively extended profile of Siegel, whose debut collection Blood Work is out this coming month, in the San Francisco Chronicle. Knapp and Ciccarello also have first books forthcoming and had great things to say; below are some of my favorites:
I think I started writing because I was transcribing Depeche Mode lyrics in my very morose teenage journal. But then I just started to get interested in languauge, and I guess it stopped being tragic lyrics by an 80s band.
I had one or two books of poems in high school, but I didn’t find contemporary American poetry until my freshman year of college at Binghamton, and my brain exploded. Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Sharon Olds. But especially Strand and Simic. Because they were a little strange. And even today, you think that you grow up, and that your voice maybe matures and changes, but I think my poems are a little weird, and I think that what really drew me to them was their strangeness.
Most of the stuff that’s in my journals from when I was a teenager is terrible, of course. But I do see things, like I see where sound is bouncing up against each other, where I’m writing things that really don’t make any sense but I’m playing with alliteration, and I’m playing with rhythm, with no guideposts; no one taught me, this is called iambic pentameter, and that is assonance.
Even when I was a visual arts major at Syracuse, I wanted to learn how to draw really perfectly, and throw onto the potter’s wheel a perfect vessel. I wanted to master the craft before I started to abstract things, or make them messier, and I think that’s kind of how I approach everything. So I really wanted to learn the formalisms in craft so that it maybe informed… I was making an active decision not to write sonnets or formal poems, that that was a choice. My poems still exist within a vessel, it’s just not a traditional vessel.
TRACEY KNAPP: I graduated from my master’s program 9 years ago, and I’ve been combing through these poems over and over again, bringing them into workshop with Kim (Addonizio), and either I’ve got to finish this, or I’m never going to do it. And I got a scholarship to the Tin House writers’ workshop two summers ago and Dotty Lasky was my teacher, and she was like, you’ve got to finish your book, Tracey. You’ve got to move on to the next thing. It’s done. Go home, spend the month of August working on it, and start sending it out right away. And that’s what I did. I was like, I have to do it. 8 months (later her book, Mouth, won the 42 Mile Press Poetry Award).…
MATTHEW SIEGEL: The version that I started with and the version I ended up with are very different.
TK: For three months that was the only thing I was doing. When I got home I had a spreadsheet (laughs). But it changed pretty significantly.
MS: Yeah, it has to. I mean even the year since I had the book taken til a month or two ago, it went through… to somebody else it probably didn’t go through much at all, but to me it’s like I cleaned up three or four poems a little bit, you know, I pulled a stanza out of one poem! That’s like taking out the sledgehammer.
TK: You have to be ruthless, I think.
MS: You have to be brutal, a little bit.
MS: As you get to know it better, you get to see where its flaws are. Well, maybe not its flaws. There were poems that were done, and then I made them more done.
TK: You have to go through a state of emotional disassociation with it. You have to stop treating it like it’s your baby.
MS: …I think even just (after) a certain amount of time, once you write it and you’ve read it at so many readings or whatever, it doesn’t feel like it’s yours anymore so you can be a little bit brutal with it.
TK: I’m going to do this, I’m going to pull it together, I’m going to dedicate a year to sending it out, and when it doesn’t get picked up I’m going to be like I told you so. That didn’t happen. And then I spent three months after I won the book prize, freaking out. Because people were going to actually potentially read my book (laughs).
TK: The life of writing is not just writing.
MS: It’s mostly not writing!
EVAN KARP: How long have you been working on this book?
LISA CICCARELLO: I started writing the poems that ended up being the project that became this book right after I finished my MFA in 2007. I had written the majority of the poems that went into this by 2009, with a tiny addition to the project in 2011. For some reason I didn’t want to admit that I had finished a book, perhaps because I didn’t want to be barred from ever writing another “At night” poem, but by 2012 it was clear I’d moved on to another large project & it was time to let go of this one.
EK: Did it change incarnations/structure/come out as a chapbook?
LC: In my mind it was always a series of connected poems that I was free to grow as I saw fit. The poems were all titled “At night,” but as I wrote more of them I started to see other categories they were fitting into (such as, dealing with marriage), so if the poems had any of these additional markers, they would be titled “At night, by marriage” or “At night, the perfect inside is outside” or, if they dealt with more than one recurring theme “At night, inside the house, the dark has a sound.” Two chapbooks were culled from it; “At night, the dead” (Blood Pudding Press, 2009) & “At night” (Scantily Clad Press, 2009)
EK: How has the project of the book been different than working on chapbooks?
LC: Since my chapbooks have always been project oriented & this book is also a “project book” the only real difference was in the scale — it’s obviously so much easier to arrange 9-20 poems into the ideal reading experience than 50-80. So I lay all these poems out on the floor & arranged them physically, trying to craft a larger narrative or movement from all the self contained pieces.
EK: What’s your book about? To what extent is your book not about something?
LC: I’m embarrassed that I can’t answer this exactly, like of course there should be an answer & someone knows it, but that someone isn’t me. The book (or rather, the poems contained within) was a way for me to explore my fears & insecurities & angers, & in sharing them, or rather, in shaping them, find a way to thwart them. The poems, as I see them, are a way for me to play out various narratives, a way for me to have power when I felt powerless.
EK: Do you know Matthew and Tracey? How did you guys hook up?
LC: I don’t know either of them, but Eric Raymond, a close friend of mine I’ve known since I was in college, set this reading up & I’m really excited to hang out with them!
EK: What role has reading publicly and/or workshopping the book played in the composition of your book?
LC: Because I started working on the book after leaving the workshop setting of grad school, I never had anyone workshop it. I shared many of the poems as I wrote them & a few ppl saw the book in its final (or near final) stages, but no one made suggestions, so everything I did, from writing to arranging, was on my own.
Many of these poems were also written before I was doing any readings, so I find they sometimes work better on the page. However, now I craft most of my poems to be heard, editing by reading it out loud.
EK: What is one of your favorite lines or parts in your book, and what do you like about it?
LC: Oh lord, if I can’t guess what it’s about, I certainly can’t pick a favorite part. I would say, however, that lines that “sting” or that make you say ugh, to my mind, are my favorite parts:
I got an eye that speaks its mind but a body that does what it’s told.
In the dark I said show me your belt & the night began again.
There is no such thing as freedom. Want is a kingdom without end.
I’m waiting to be an animal for you: your frothing horse.
It is too late to save the dead. It is too late even to speak the words of the dead.
Perhaps that is because if a line causes you to have a visceral reaction, I’ve passed something very real from my life into yours.
EK: What kind of writing do you do? do you want to do? How do you describe what you do to yourself when you are doubting what you do (what gives you heart)? What does heart have to do with what you’re doing?
LC: So many parts to this q! I write out of sincere self-interest, without regard to anything outside of my own needs & pleasure. Writing is entirely self-directed & selfish for me at the start. I hope that never changes. Because I write only what I want, when I want, there’s never any need or room for doubt. I think doubt only comes in when you think of things outside yourself — will this be popular, will others be moved by it, will this make money, will people think I’m smart, am I considered part of this group, will this work survive, etc. But if you love your idea & are excited to work on it, where would doubt have a foothold? If it did manage to creep in, however, I’m very good a deferring responsibilities to a later time, so I’d likely tell myself “well, just finish it & then you can see what you have & if it’s any good or not” & by the time I got around to trying to figure out if others would be moved by it or see me as smart or whatever, I’d at least have completed it!
EK: What are you working on now?
LC: I’ve been really interested in collaborations with people outside of the poetry world, mostly illustrators, so I’ve got some projects in that vein. One of my closest friends, Gregor Holtz, is working with me to build an app game based on one of the poems in the book, as a kind of teaser/trailer; I’ve got a small batch of poems that my friend & constant collaborator, Emma Trithart (who is designing my book cover), is making animations for & I’m working on a project I started right before the heavy revisions of the book happened, which was a small collection of poems about money, about the absurdity & misery of it, that will be illustrated by my friend, the incredible Kate Bingaman-Burt.
EK: What is a book to you, now, and how is that different from when you started this thing?
LC: I had no idea how much trouble & doubt a book would cause me. A book is the most public & obvious & permanent record of my writing I’ve had to face so far, & I was staggered by how nervous that made me. I think I was able to defer that dreadful feeling for so long by just imagining the poems as poems for their own sake, not heading into a book, but moving forward I’d like to be able to face all that doubt & nervousness & deal with it long before the final hour.
Lisa Ciccarello, Tracey Knapp and Matthew Siegel: 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20. Free. Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St., S.F. (415) 824-1761.