Jen Levitt: There were so many things I was struck by at the SPACE launch, but first I have to say that I just love your poem in the magazine. I’m a big fan of purposeful repetition and vernacular in poems, and the playfulness of"astronaut men, necromancers, cavemen / men in this room" juxtaposed with more serious ideas about masculinity and suffering and sadness really resonated with me. Anyway, I was wondering a few things: 1) How did you interpret the SPACE theme and how does it show itself in “Integrating”? 2) Is this form usual for you–using the whole page, spreading out, your attention to space–or is it particular to the poem? 3) I find it really bad-ass to start a contemporary poem with the invocational “o” (at least that’s how I am interpreting it). How did you decide on that?
Charity Coleman: “Integrating” existed before SPACE happened. I feel like it found a good home. Housing is an issue. (orbits/poeticsofspace/firmament.) The theme fit because, well, space? it’s basically everything and nothing… + spatially, “Integrating” is doing some airy things that my work doesn’t do lately (my poems lately are left-justified like a police lineup all shoved up against the wall looking kind of desperate). Also, it went through two bad titles before this one. Do titles ever fall at your feet? are they fun for you, or a bummer or what?
I love the past tense of “What It Was Like, Being a Girl” – sets us up for a narrative rift / riff and some really real disembodiment… I am amazed by your poem / I was transfixed by your reading, and then you pulled that superhuman disappearing act the minute it was over and I was like: who was that.
Did you try to get those textures in yr poem or did they just show up? You know how things just show up sometimes?
‘O’ has always had an archaic appeal for me, I’m glad you like it. it was a last-minute insert / a yawn. The 'O’ I think ended up in there because of a little self-deprecation and self-awareness: I often feel like I am preaching when I write these poems that contain Things I Care About, and then I think of the oratory tradition and its formalities at least in the ye olde canonical sense which I can’t be too serious about because of obvious historical baggage. I mean, I feel like I’ve been swinging from Walt Whitman’s beard trying to get him to come out of the closet and also why wasn’t he a woman.
JL: My poems are definitely mostly left-justified as well, which is a way of feeling formal I guess, or that there’s some type of structure in place, and it really took me a while for me to push myself to feel comfortable in more spacious, or airy as you say, forms. Reading Siken’s Crush helped me a lot with making autobiography feel almost mythical, and I’ve tried to emulate his spacing across the page in a few longer poems about childhood. I love Rachel Zucker’s work, and Museum of Accidents is another example of how poems can take up the page, be bold, and maybe her poems aren’t airy as much as disobedient in a way, like refusing to fall in line or conform to a particular form.
As for titles–I feel like they either come very easily or they are impossible. My funnier poems, or my poems with comedic elements, are the ones where my titles come easiest. Long titles, I think, lend themselves to comedy, to stating facts in a funny way or with a kind of flat affect. Often what starts as a first line ends up becoming a title for me. But other times, I find titles extremely difficult. When the first line doesn’t become the title, or when I don’t want to simply sum up the poem or give it a thesis but get at things from a slant angle, that’s when I find titles to be the hardest. I like it when titles repeat a phrase from the poem but use it differently than how the phrase works in the poem itself. In Begging for It Alex Dimitrov more than once used the last line of the poem as a title, which I found totally bold and cool.
Writing about Things I Care About and preachiness: I think we definitely have to talk about this. I feel the same way. In particular, I am taking Danez Smith’s “Open Letter to White Poets” extremely seriously, given the recent events in Ferguson and beyond, given the indispensability of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, given where we are as a country and my experiences as a teacher of high-school students of color. I definitely have been wanting to write about race, and that was one of the things that impressed me at the SPACE launch–that white poets as well as black poets are in fact writing about, or trying to tackle, the ever-present racial tensions in this country. But on the other hand, I don’t think everyone has something to say about every topic, and while in fact I feel I’m more equipped than many in that I have spent my career teaching students of color, and we are constantly talking about race, class, privilege, education – after eight years I still can’t find what I feel is a good way in, one that isn’t co-opting my students’ words or highlighting first and foremost my whiteness in a silly, self-deprecating way, or that isn’t bending over backwards trying not to offend, which I think is another tricky part of this whole endeavor, the debilitating self-consciousness that many white people bring to discussions of race, in poetry and outside of it. I find it hard not to be preachy or didactic or overly self-conscious when trying to talk about the issues I care about. What’s your take on white poets writing about race, or why few white poets have been successful at it? Or, if you want to point to white poets who have written about race in interesting ways, I’d love to know. As it is, our black poet friends are of course holding it down, no one more so than Morgan Parker, the phenomenal guest editor of our issue, whose “I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against A Sharp White Background: An Elegy” and especially “Song of the Carefree Black Girl” are two of my favorite recent poems about the intersection of race and gender.
What’s the point of poetry for you? Why write at all? For me poetry has always been a place to make sense of my personal experiences, and overtly trying to talk about Issues has never been particularly interesting or productive for me. But maybe that’s exactly the point–racial tension is something I personally experience and talk about with my friends pretty frequently, so that’s probably the angle I have to start from.
Regarding your disembodiment question, I think nearly all of my poems are directly or indirectly dealing with feeling very separate from my body, or that my body is not doing what I want it to do/ letting me be who I want to be.
CC: Your comment about “bending over backwards trying not to offend” comes on the heels of my having read the NYMagazine interview with Chris Rock where he talks about the conservatism (hyper-sensitivity, rather) on college campuses– “you can’t say 'the black kid over there’. No, it’s 'the guy with the red shoes’. You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.”
That phenomenon (bc yes it exists / I’ve done it) offers one example of why there does not seem to be many white poets addressing race… they’re/we’re all tiptoeing around the red shoes maybe. On a related note, I loved Cathy Park Hong’s essay “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde.” Agitation.
I’m into your teacher-world. I imagine it’s really hard not to exist in the moment when you’re surrounded by young people who are just figuring out what it means to be a human, a living changing person not yet congealed or fossilized by disappointment, right? I mean, you can’t really rest on your laurels or whatever, you have to be vigilant! If they see that you are fossilized then they will bust yr chops.
The Space launch was the most enjoyable reading I’d been to in a while because it felt like everyone solidly brought honesty, heart, and wit. I walked out of there feeling REVIVED. I think it was a revival, not a reading. And maybe that’s the thing – we need revivals every now and then. Poetry revivals! we hear each other, we see each other… it felt good.
“Why write at all?” is a tricky question because it often comes from a place of insecurity, capitalist valuation, and feeling like ‘woe, the diminished returns of my not-so-mighty pen’… I write because I always have, even when I hate to do so. It comes from love, kind of.
JL: Calling the SPACE launch a revival encapsulated exactly how I felt about it too. So, for the past few weeks my students have been talking about the danger of having a “single story” of a person or group (based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk) and we’ve been reading personal essays about people dealing with others’ assumptions of them and what their responses have been. So not the lightest fare, and the class discussions, though interesting and productive, have left me feeling low, like there is too much negativity to combat, and I’m not doing a good enough job of reinforcing hope, or something along those lines. Anyway, in turn the students have also been writing about struggles they have faced/a time when someone made an unfair assumption about them based on their race, ethnicity, age, gender, etc. and their reflections about it. Today was the day they shared their stories with the class. One girl who is normally pretty quiet started to read a kind-of letter to an aunt who constantly puts her down. During the reading, she started to cry. The other students, of course, rallied around her, and one of the most outspoken and jaded students shared how close she felt to everyone in this moment–how hearing the story of someone she barely knew really moved her, and she would always remember this moment. It also felt like a kind of revival in a sense, and it speaks to your point about why write–because you always have, even when it hurts/you don’t want to. I think it also helps build community and foregrounds our similarities as well as our differences. In this moment the students really connected with this girl’s story, and more importantly, they cherished the opportunity it created for them to connect.
Lately I am worried that all my poems are basically transcripts of my day, that literally they all start and end in the same place. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but given that we each have the same two or three or four themes that we are obsessed with, say, how do you go about not saying the same thing over and over? Or, do your themes/obsessions change?
CC: I want to say that I am grateful that you shared this anecdote about your class. When I was in 6th grade, my teacher, who was black, called us out on racism, our own intentional or unwitting racism, and I remember the indignation and humility in that room. He was the best teacher, Mr. Larremore.
I remember my 1st grade teacher, Ms. Avila, used to have us sing “Ebony and Ivory” every day before leaving class. You shouldn’t feel bad about yourself as a teacher. You’re not supposed to save the world, not really (just a little bit)… just be honest, I guess. and funny. Aren’t you funny?
I cannot ensure that my poems do anything. They are doing the same thing/s, yes, and even the funny-looking ones are still family. What are two or three or four themes that you are obsessed with? or have been obsessed with? do you read fiction?
Do you learn from your writing?
JL: I try to not talk about teaching too much, but the confluence of real-world events and student-world conversations about real-world events has just taken over my waking hours, lately. And yes, I am funny. With students, I mean. Ha.
Your story about your teacher is great–and by that I mean, it’s so amazing he did that and that it resonated with you. I went to private school most of my life and had one black teacher from fourth grade through college (a professor whose class I ended up dropping)–isn’t that nuts? I had a great African teacher in grad school (her name was Immaculee Harushimana, and she was from Burundi). But I also remember my third grade teacher’s assistant in my public school, a black woman, telling a student, a black girl who volunteered to read from these kids’ newspapers we would read out loud as a class each week, that she wasn’t a good enough reader yet to read in front of the class. I remember the girl’s name and that her braids were always perfect. Even then I think I knew how damaging that must have been to her. anyway that memory has stayed with me all this time and is probably one of the reasons I went into teaching in the first place.
I’ve been meaning to ask you, what is your day job? And do you like it?
I think my obsessions are: issues of gender, particularly my life in middle school, which was just me being awkward (and not much has changed since then!); what it’s like to be an adult and living in a city in 2014 and our relationship to urban life and technology, etc; pop culture and TV shows; and having conversations with / channeling dead poets (Dickinson, Bishop) but talking to them as if they were alive now. Who knows. I’ve had a hard time writing new poems lately, but I really need to.
Do you learn from your writing? Tell me everything! And also, what are YOUR writing obsessions?
CC: Jen, do you like your name? because you do not “seem” like a “Jennifer” at all. This might be adding to your being obsessed with issues of gender! Let’s change your name! There were 3 Jennifers at my high school who basically wanted me to DIE, and then there was a Charity as their sidekick! Can you even believe that? I went to a high school that was … well, it was a MAGNET school, like it had this fierce magnetic pull that attracted all the absolute dregs of teen-humanity. I wonder if private school was any better.
Do you like Pope Francis? Are you Jewish? Have you ever seen a ghost?
As for your questions, I work for the filmmaker/poet Jonas Mekas. I have been helping edit/proofread his written diaries for eventual publication. It’s a big project and will be a brilliant book that all creatures should read. What if you and I had a day where we sat in the same room and ignored each other and wrote poems?
Would that help you at all? I get stuck and unstuck.
What do you think of this concept of a “poetry community”?
I learn from my writing, yes. It keeps me in check / my mistakes and oversights really start making themselves known if I’m not careful and sometimes I’m not careful while writing, I get kind of twitchy and posturing, it’s so obnoxious. I like when I feel somber and a bit sad and kind of funny all at the same time.
Oh, ps what are my writing obsessions hmm well, in short: mortality, miracles and mundanity.
JL: Yes, let’s change my name. Three Jennifer bullies in HS sounds awful–is there like a single person, a single girl in particular, who liked her HS experience? I mean, yes, the popular girls seemed so happy and carefree, but I’m sure they hated it too. Ugh. Ellen Page apparently does this thing where ppl send her pics of their dogs and fish and other pets and she renames them. Maybe she can help…
Your job sounds heavenly! A job where your boss makes you soup!
I used to hate the term poetry community. And I think in NYC things can sometimes feel very competitive and faction-y. But I think in other places, it seems…calmer. More humane. More supportive. My friend Lizzie Harris just had her first book of poems published (it’s a great book called Stop Wanting) and she did a reading in Cambridge that I went with her to, and it was like in this small room, a psychotherapist’s office or something I think, and anyway it was a small space but it just felt warm. But then again I loved my experience in the MFA at NYU and met many great friends through it. And I was just at a reading at The Poetry Project recently (why had I never been there before?) and felt such a sense of camaraderie. So I may be changing my mind about the term 'community.’ I also think that’s why we both liked the SPACE launch so much—it did really feel communal.
I want to move to the woods too. Like more and more everyday. I am not handy though. I don’t like tents all that much – but a cabin maybe? The desert might be tougher, but I’d consider it. Open skies. Long horizon lines. NYC is simultaneously my favorite and least favorite place on the planet.
I was raised Jewish (loosely) and had a Bat Mitzvah but am not really practicing much now.
CC: I dunno what “poetry community” means but I am trying it out / trying to figure it out. What do people need or desire from one another? sociality? validation? camaraderie? support? love? Uh oh…
Competitive behavior makes me want to be a nun.
We’re all gonna die!
I never had a Bat Mitzvah because I am not Jewish. I had a weird submersion in hippie-Christianity as a child, a witchy mother and spirit-things and a maniac Jesus-guy for a dad… really absurd. I’m pantheistic for sure.
I just found this note to myself:::
“In writing about tiring of what I know, I end up learning new things and I forget to be bored.”
JL: Pantheistic is a great word. I think I’m sort of laissez-faire about religion, like “everyone, do what you want as long as you’re not hurting someone else,” Which in a way is pantheistic, maybe?
Also, are you going to the “Poets who love Poets” reading thing in Feb? Whatever we decided “community” did or didn’t mean, I think this must count as one.