Martin Rock on the Outward Manifestation of Inward Events
An interview with Martin Rock, from The Write Stuff series:
Martin Rock is the author of Residuum (2015 Editor’s Choice Award, Cleveland State University Poetry Center), as well as two chapbooks: Dear Mark (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013), which was named a “Great Book of 2013” by The Fiddleback, and Fish, You Bird (Pilot, 2010, co-written with Phillip D. Ischy). With Kevin Prufer and Martha Collins, he co-edited the Unsung Masters Volume, Catherine Breese Davis: On the Life and Work of an American Master. His poems have appeared in the Academy of American Poets’ “Poem-a-Day,” Missouri Review’s “Poem of the Week,” AGNI, Best New Poets 2012, Black Warrior Review, Conduit, DIAGRAM, and other journals. He has taught writing at New York University and Berkeley College in Manhattan, and has been on the faculty of the Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference and University of Houston’s Boldface Writers’ Conference. He is a recipient of fellowships from Centrum, InPrint, Starworks, New York University, and the University of Houston, where he is a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing. In 2016, he was awarded the Inprint Donald Barthelme Prize in Poetry and in 2013 he was a semi-finalist for the “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Martin lives in Oakland and is a member of the Poetry Society of America’s San Francisco Advisory Board.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
In the past the answer has been editor, language teacher, adjunct instructor, waiter, and cheese monger at various stages in my life. Recently I say I’m a PhD student and a book designer, because that’s what I’m doing most these days (and how I’ve been making money, which is what Americans really mean when they ask that question). And throughout all these jobs I’ve been a poet.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
I don’t know, Kant vs. Blake?
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Too bad. Do what you do instead.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I keep thinking when I only get to that peak over there, finally I’ll be successful. When I get X publication or Y prize or Z job. I felt that way when I was learning Japanese also. I thought once I could order a pizza on the phone with no mishaps then I’d really be getting somewhere. And then: when I can have a conversation that goes beyond superficial niceties I’ll finally have it, and then: when I can read a book in kanji, which I still struggle with and need a dictionary to do. So I don’t think success is something you ever “achieve.” It’s another drive, a trieb like sex and death, a way to keep the top spinning. I think our notions of success are often too inflected by the perception of our own bodies in the world, in terms of gender and race and nationality, etc… and I’d rather not let myself become too demoralized or inflated by thoughts of my own success.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Recently it’s Fenton the dog, because that’s how poems happen sometimes. It’s also kind of what’s been happening in American poetry in a larger sense, and it’s such a joyful way of looking at this whole welcome paradigm shift. In the video you’re looking at an idyllic scene of a handful of deer and then from somewhere off screen there’s a voice you’re uncertain about, and then ALL THE DEER are in your poem running full on and it’s not something you can control and the voice gets louder and you realize it’s this old white man who’s been doing the yelling from the very beginning, trying to keep the situation under his thumb. But it’s also important that it isn’t the man yelling who put all the deer in the poem, who brought it to life. It’s Fenton the dog, whose decided he’s fed up with the patriarchal hegemonic bullshit (or maybe he just wants to chase some deer, which is in a way the same thing, a shedding of the leash and the chain). So the poem is full now of energy and it’s all out of control and the earth is shaking and everything is thanks to Fenton the dog, the nonhuman actor, and really the deer and the dog don’t give a shit that they’re being filmed because they’re so completely in it. They’re engaged in an exchange far older and more authentic than anything like the keeping up of decorum or maintaining a reified sense of a perceptible “nature.” Be like Fenton, the poem tells you. Keep running; it’ll only make the old man angrier. Ammons says a poem is a walk. What I’m saying is that a poem is a walk, but it’s also a YouTube video of a walk in which a dog chases a hundred deer through the poem and the man with his leash loses control and then yells “Jesus Christ!” as an act of exasperation, once he has finally given up.
I’m related to Ulysses S. Grant, which is pretty neat (even though he was a notorious alcoholic). He played a big role in bringing to an end what to me is one of the most deplorable eras of American history, so I’m willing to forgive him his indulgences.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
Every week in the wilderness is ideal. I did a backpacking trip with my brothers when they came to visit me in Japan that included an abandoned mansion, a broken suspension bridge (that we decided to cross anyway), a missing person who was clearly living in the aforementioned abandoned mansion, which we entered, a trapdoor to the attic on which we slept for fear of the aforementioned missing person (no shit), camping (foolishly) on a riverbed and then watching all night as the water rose foot by foot to turn the riverbed into an island and nearly drown us all, one of my brothers nearly catching hypothermia, a melon sized boulder rolling down the mountainside (dislodged by one of us) to nearly decapitate the other of my brothers, and pretty much every other wilderness movie trope you can imagine (yes, including 4 men huddled together in a two-man tent because the tent in which my two brothers were sleeping leaked terribly during the rainstorm and they had to abandon it to come into the tent I was sharing with my friend and they were soaking wet so they had to strip down to their boxers and we all had to spoon because one of my brothers was literally on the verge of hypothermia). And still, it was an ideal trip. I wouldn’t trade it for anything (which I can say only because we all lived through it and still occasionally stay up all night reminiscing about our near-deaths in the wilderness). I love camping.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
Poetry is my striptease.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
I hope the answer will always be, “Enough.”
What’s wrong with society today?
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
No. I try not even to use aspirin.
What is your fondest memory?
Certainly none of the last four questions. Maybe the week in the wilderness though.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
I’m married to a woman who inspires me and surprises me all the time. I used to worry that my decision to commit to one person for the rest of my life meant I’d closed myself off to Eros and to the experience of the giddiness of new love, but now I realize how wrong that worry was. Neither of us are the person we married—I heard recently that while our cells don’t necessarily change, the atoms in our cells cycle out all the time, so literally my wife and I are completely different bunches of atoms than we were when we met five years ago. It’s possible that not a single atom that was part of our bodies at that time is still in us; fortunately we’ve both changed in ways that continue to allow us to challenge and build up and destroy and remake ourselves and each other all the time. Plus, we had a baby in December, so I expect I’ll continue to fall in love a little bit more every day.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
No more guns in America.This would fix so many things, including another answer to this question, which is an end to police brutality. And serious steps toward a solution to Climate Change, meaning an end to our reliance on fossil fuels and technological advancements that allow us to trap and restore greenhouse gasses and drastically slow the heating of the earth. Also, reparations. Not necessarily in the form of a one-time payment to the descendants of slaves, but largescale and meaningful actions to correct all the systems in America that are so clearly racially biased. I was hopeful Bernie would have a chance to start moving things in the right direction here. Hopefully the mass resistance that has arisen and continues to arise in response to Trump’s trumped-up election will create a path forward.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
I will direct you to my second response (Kant vs. Blake). And I hope so, because I’m devoting my life to it.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
Mostly I like not answering survey questions about sex when I’m having sex (and also when I’m not, like now).
What are you working on right now?
Reconciling the previous question with the rest of this interview. Ok, done.
Now I’m working on finishing my PhD and putting my next book of poems together, tentatively titled Slipperiness. The concept of slipperiness, in language, in culture, in bodies, is something I’m always working over in my poems and in my thinking.
I’ve also been reading for my doctoral exams a broad swath of historical poetry and criticism, from the Psalms through Sylvia Plath and from Plato through Roland Barthes. I’ve never read like this before, and I’m finding immense value in being able to identify currents and eddies that keep recurring throughout the history of English literature, which is also the production of Western culture. I’d always seen poems as these kind of crystalized moment-objects without seeing them in their ecological time web connected to so many other poems and ideas about poems and other moment-objects that aren’t poems at all. It’s exhilarating and exhausting and with any luck I’ll be able to carry this grand scale and consciousness of literary historicity into my life and writing and teaching well after I’ve finished taking my exams. And reading all this strict meter is burrowing into my thoughts as earworms that keep me up at night. I totally get how poetry used to occupy the space pop music occupies now.
I’m also working with the poet and editor of Brooklyn Arts Press, Joe Pan, on a collection of experimental diagrammatic translations of the contemporary Japanese haiku poet Nenten Tsubouchi. You can see some of them here. You can also hear me speak Japanese if that’s something you’re into. And I’ve just joined the Bay Area advisory board of the Poetry Society of America, so I’m excited to work with people I admire immensely to put on poetry related programming in the Bay.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I’d like to continue teaching, to be able to engage with students in discussions about poetry and culture and thinking and feeling because the complexity of poetry is one antidote to the contemporary strain of American political polarization. When I walk my dog I listen to classes on iTunes University to help me prepare for my comprehensive exams, but also because I’ve become a huge pedagogy nerd and am always looking for new tricks to keep students engaged. It’s fascinating to hear early classes being taught by professors whose books I’ve read, and to hear them working through theories in the classroom that later appear fully formed in print, and how those ideas are challenged and interpreted by the students. There’s an excellent Romanticism class from when Timothy Morton was teaching at UC Davis where he’s clearly working on Ecology Without Nature. He’s such a brilliant and engaging writer, and a phenomenal teaching model as well.
I’ve taught in a handful of colleges and universities in the past, and I taught English for years in Japan, and have spent a lot of time working with young children as well in hospitals and in classrooms. Some of my students have been educated in rigorous preparatory schools and some of them have had very little formal education, and with all of them I’ve learned something about my own relationship to poetry and to thinking and to the responsibilities we have as poets and thinkers.
I also love editing and translating and designing books and being involved in the production of literature in whatever capacity I’m able. So it doesn’t matter really what kind of work I do so long as I’m able to remain involved in the production of literature. And the nice thing about this goal is that one can, as Pound did, literally be confined to a wire cage outdoors and still compose the Pisan Cantos (though let’s not pretend that Pound is a good political model for the poet by any metric). Which is a major benefit of being this kind of artist as opposed to a painter, the kind O’Hara says all poets secretly want to be. Language is plastic but it is also ephemeral, and we carry it inside us. When we commit it to paper it becomes an outward manifestation of an inward event, which I suppose can be said about painters and sculptors as well, but I don’t see how they could physically compose their work in a cage without materials, while a poet can compose, and commit to memory. All we need is a pencil and paper, but we don’t even need that. Look at the oral tradition that exists still in countries where certain types of poetry is outlawed. Look at the female war poets of the Middle East. So I guess the boring answer to your question is that I hope to get a tenure track academic job when I finish school, but the market is so saturated right now I certainly don’t expect or feel entitled to anything. My wife and I would also like to stay in the Bay Area, which might mean I end up doing something else. In the meantime, I’ll keep scratching together a living designing books, and working on my PhD, and writing. If you’re reading this and have a job for me, please get in touch!
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
I haven’t been here long enough yet to know any kind of thoughtful answer to that question, but the obvious one is how much everything costs. Rent is too damn high.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
Depends on the night and the town. I have a midnight sketch comedy poetry reading coming up in Pittsburgh with one of the funniest men in America, Justin Vetter (who was also on that backpacking trip in Japan). That’ll be a big night out.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
The right 50 words can make 50 dollars lose all its value.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Pine needles, rain, dogs’ feet. Recently added: baby scalp.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
A year of travel with my wife and daughter, once she’s old enough to remember it.