To Connect Them to Their Sensory: Talking to Edwin Torres

When you’re an award-winning graphic designer, how do you go about shaping your own collection of poems? When you’re an internationally renowned performer, how might sound patternings mark out both the most sensuous and most abstracted aspects of the printed page? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Edwin Torres. This conversation, transcribed by Phoebe Kauffman, focuses on Torres’s Nightboat book In the Function of External Circumstances. Torres, a recent Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of seven poetry collections, including Ameriscopia (University of Arizona Press), Yes Thing No Thing (Roof), and The PoPedology Of An Ambient Language (Atelos). His latest poetry volume, XOETEOX: the infinite word object, will be published in fall 2018 by Wave.

¤

ANDY FITCH: Could we first bring in your background as a designer? In the past, you’ve mentioned a dynamic tension between potential depths of the poetic line and an implied simplicity of the designed geometric surface. You also have addressed, both in the case of the Russian Zaum you found, and the Nuyorican childhood you experienced, meaning and rhythm “set against each other…in the guise of language.” So I’d love to hear about analogs or differences you experience amid your work in the poetics of sound and the poetics (also the profession) of design. We could bring in performance as well, including experimental performances decentering the author’s embodied presence at times, and discuss these in relation to design. Or even this physical In the Function of External Circumstances book seems quite “tall.” Could you describe why that tallness and sense of extended vertical flow seemed to fit?

EDWIN TORRES: So I have a two-year arts residency at The Drawing Center in SoHo. For “Open Sessions,” 40 artists are selected, and we visit each other’s studios. They don’t really give you a space. What they give you is a focused opportunity to interact with other artists. I bring it up because, at the end, there’s a group show and that show’s work is on my mind right now, which connects with your question about design and verticality. So I’ve been exploring forever this concept of sound in language. But with a visual institution like the Drawing Center, I’ve been looking at how to manifest language in visual form. I’m not a “drawer” you know: I mean, it’s not with my hands that I “draw.” They said they don’t expect me to move words from paper to the wall. They included me with this group of artists because of my writing, the experiential aspects of my work. In the writing, there’s a spontaneity, a bit of an improvisational nature, which is akin to drawing, in some aspects.

For the final show, I’m doing this piece which uses the sound waves of me reciting a poem that I’m displaying. It’s, in a way, static feedback. I’ve processed my voice, so you can’t really hear the words at all. It’s just a [Mimics radio static] kind of thing. That plays on a speaker while you’re looking at this book which, as a text, has been printed on translucent paper. You can see the printed text through it, but more as an impression, not with ink. A few letters are in color. Basically, I’m treating the poem as a visceral, sonic creature you’re holding in your hands. You can see words if you hold the book further away, but it’s not really about reading the words, just feeling them — not like braille, just the actual letter form. That’s my graphic design background, where I want to bring the alphabet and fonts beyond the scope of language, beyond the encrypted ideas of logos, where you’re holding it in your hand while you’re hearing how it sounds.

I want to bring the language to life, both in my performances and in designs I incorporate into my books. Whatever the mode of presentation, my question becomes: how can the language not get in the way of the content? How can we have the words on the page appear as just words on a page, because it’s a quiet piece? And then how can we sometimes have an additional element intrude on the page — and how does that impact the viewer? How does that create a dialogue with the person sitting there, turning the page? Or onstage I’m trying to get you to not just be watching a TV show. It’s more like: where can I reach across the stage and get into your brain? Sometimes it’s a quiet, beautiful piece about love or family or whatever, and sometimes it’s a weird, beyond-language, sound-oriented piece, where I’m moving around onstage. Maybe there are some props. It’s about giving language the possibility to transform, and what that means to everybody in the audience. They bring their own histories to it, and to what they want from that moment. Sometimes poetry readings are very self-aware and turn into: “Look what I’ve done! I’ve done this piece and now thank you.” I fall into that trap sometimes, that desire for immediate gratification. We all do on some level. Maybe my slam poetry background is part of this, too. But I’ll also question: how can I do that without giving you the final answer, so that we don’t have an ending in sight, so that I’ve actually opened a little doorway for you, and now here you go, do whatever you want with this?

This also goes to the invented language of something like Zaum, where you’re straddling a few different languages or a hybrid language. Hybridity has always been part of what I’m about, where I want to not just cross the borders of Spanish to English, but to cross to this other space of sound, and receiving. I think sound and design, the simple format of a poem on a page, can hold so many possibilities. The Nightboat book isn’t as design-y as my other books. The poems do dictate what they want to be on the page, though within a very structured format, like the 6×9 page size. But what can we do to give the reader something familiar (a page) and then bring in the bold font, the italics, the space, the illustration, all that stuff? How do you create another landscape for the viewer, for the receiver, to travel on? My typography teacher in college told me that the thing with text font, as opposed to headline font, is that good design disappears. You don’t want people looking at an ad or layout and saying that the spacing is weird or something’s sticking out. It should just be content and the rest disappears. That’s actually a lot more difficult than it sounds, because you’re involved in kerning and making it perfectly spaced so that it doesn’t command attention. That’s a highway, a pathway, to what the content is. So how do you let the writer get out of the way, allow the words to travel for you? Sometimes that works for me, and sometimes it doesn’t. I can’t help but put the “I” in there, but can I do this in a way that brings you somewhere else, so that you use your own “me,” your own “I”?

For one specific example of how this all plays out, if we look at a poem like “The Law of the Apple,” could you describe the history of this poem’s making? Did it only become this particular poem when two discrete fragments or projects came together? Or alternately, at the book-length level, variations on a circle motif start each chapter, and I wondered to what extent this design concept helped make the overall manuscript cohere.

So how do you put together a few human emotions in either a long form or on one page, like “The Law of the Apple”? I felt like: OK, don’t just do that for the sake of doing it, if there’s a story you can actually tell. But I didn’t have the second part for a while. [Laughter] I had this other writing that felt much more personal, much more about a failed love of sorts. There is a certain line of heartbreak in this poem, in this book, and there is a certain amount of heart-found. That’s why I dedicate the book to my wife, even though not all the love poems are about her, but about the idea of love, the sense of love, about the sense of connection, in a way. And then for the poem’s second part, the sentences don’t have italics, don’t have capitals at the beginning, but are still using the trope of sentence structure — to break from the poem’s first part, which has no punctuation.

With a lot of writing (and not just mine), you create something and then go back to it years later and try to analyze it. At first you had thought intuitively: Oh, that feels right. And then as you get older, you realize: Oh, that’s why I did that. In a way, you’re calling your younger self out. It’s like: OK, I know what you did there. When you’re actually doing it, there’s a certain amount of trust and faith in your own process without you knowing what that process is. I like that sense of the not knowing, and the sense of trusting your journey, and knowing you don’t know exactly where you’re going, but that you’re on your way.

Language is very material for me, and should include its mess. It should include the mistakes that form the words. That’s my complication on hierarchy — where I’m not giving you a final crafted piece. I’m allowing you, the reader, your own chances to contribute to the mistakes and to make the piece your own. That ties back to “The Law of the Apple,” where we have this somewhat scientific first part, or very theoretical first part, of how we have bodies and what we do with ourselves. At the end, suddenly, the writer basically says: this entity called “gravity” is now a creature, an animal, and it’s going to tell us a story. Then we break from that theoretical sense of perspective and science and go into this very like: “Why did you do this to me? Why did you leave me? Did you fall? What happened to us?” But it’s this sense of a lovelorn letter at the end that corroborates the scientific part at the beginning.

There was a certain sense of alchemy to this book, where I was mixing things up and seeing what worked and what didn’t. And as I was putting it together, the designer in me wanted to have chapter beginnings, without knowing what those beginnings should be, so that’s where the circular logos came from. This book has a lot of Earth, a lot of interstellar allusions to space and all and awe. The sense of galaxies and planets and everything was prevalent in my head. The circular logos came from that place, connecting also to Asian cryptograms and many different sciences coming through in those little logos — simplified, but still contained in circles. Geometry comes into that, but geometry fails us at the same time. Those circles don’t fit exactly right. That sense of failure also connects to this heartbreak throughout the book, and also the sense of discovery.

Towards the end, one of this book’s longest pieces turns in some ways Buddhist. It’s very transitional, where something becomes something becomes something, very processed. That “A Most Imperfect Start” poem starts with this simple metaphor of the athlete touching the ball and what he’s thinking about, how the ball becomes something else and so forth. It’s good to have that piece near the end of the book, as this synopsis of themes I’m talking about throughout — of transformation and journey. I went on this kick of exploring what I was doing inside my work, which was process, and bringing a certain sense of aliveness to that exploration.

When you mention process, I remember a familiar trajectory across the book, where we’ll start from this theoretical, abstracted, rational-sounding tone, though somehow that breaks down along the way. Instead we get experience, which might or might not include disappointment, but which definitely delivers some type of transformation.

We get the sense that this person has been through something, and now he’s pulling out.

And in part my questions about design probably come from the book’s David Abram epigraph foregrounding “the sensuous breathing body” as “a dynamic of ever-unfolding form,” itself more a process than a fixed object. That sense of processual embodied presence keeps playing out, through lovely lines like “feet are a pattern migrating / across darks left by ripples of breeze” — with their elaborate synesthesia, their sensorium of immersive details and poetic displacements compressed into this swift description. So both at the book level and in the most localized touches, David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous title stuck with me. Your book often seems to cast that spell of the sensuous and to wake us up from it, providing space both for experience and for contemplation at the same time.

Yes exactly. Again that all comes from my performance background. When the Roof book came out a few years before this one, people saw me as a Language poet. All the terms were funny to me, because there are so many different territories to occupy with your work, but people want to familiarize themselves with where you fit. I don’t really think of myself as a Latino writer, but Latinos do, because of my last name. As a writer who has been asked to occupy certain territories, I purposefully don’t tie myself down. I’m interested in a few different things. In this age of identity, in this age of relevance, what does your work mean, what are you putting together, what is your whole project? I’m happy to have my life be my project. Some confusion happens when people don’t quite know where you fit, but running underneath all of that is the experience, the sense of taking a moment and breathing sound, sight, the senses totally into that moment. If you can do that with a word, or a line, or a three-page poem, great. The idea is to bring to readers the sense that they, too, can allow their sensory experience to match the world they live in. Maybe that’s the long-term experiment.

People’s use of technology makes them more and more shut off. And this book comes from a time when even iPhones were not quite as popular. But I was sensing this disconnect from people, with them just being in their own worlds. So in a way, I want to bring you to the sense of the experience. I’ll be doing these performances, and I know that I’ll be connecting with people who are different than me. People will ask “Are you a shaman?” or this and that. Again, that’s another title that they want to put on the experience. To me, it’s just connecting the experience of us being in the same room, and that room being on this Earth, and that being our connection to the Earth within each other, and in the air. To have that sense of elemental connection is really important artistically, and also just as human beings. Poetry can do that, and poems have done that to me. And the lived experience happens the minute the poem is created, as you rewrite it, as you say it aloud, as you hear something out loud, as you perform it onstage. A poem has so many lives. So within that sense of something strange, how can you allow the audience their own experience? The poem opens another door to connect them to their sensory.

But there’s also a definite synesthesia when I’m not there performing it live and the person is holding the poem in their hand. They’ve never met me. But on the page, you still can allow that moment to happen. The poet is trying to get this information out, and hopefully that information connects. I think it takes years, it takes a while to understand where your experience allows you to pull out this word, to pull out that word — to get out of your own way to allow the work to have its own sensory experience. I love that the David Abram quote acknowledges this fact that the tool we use for communication is the same tool that becomes who we are. There’s no barrier. There’s this animalistic being that we embody in language, and we can allow ourselves to acknowledge that. That acknowledgment doesn’t always happen, but we have this huge power at our fingertips to let it go. That sense of creation and destruction has always interested me: where the opening can be absurd or Dadaistic, but also can be narrative, and where this beautiful love piece can provide the same thing. It’s coming out of you, but has to become what it is, and you have to get out of the way. Part of this is that you’re destroying yourself in the process. In that destruction, the new creation emerges in the reader. I know that’s a very dramatic way of putting it.

Well if I had to think of how particular words could present some sense of pivot or hinge or threshold, “this” and “that” stand out. [Laughter] That may sound arbitrary, but with “Tree” for example, early in the book, we get incantatory repetitions of “this” and “that” — these indexical terms, operating like photographs in some sense, pointing to what lies before the observer, relying on something beyond the artist’s imagination, something shared.

Oh, I like that. It’s also funny to me, because Anne Waldman once said I use “this” too much. This was years ago, in another context. I was trying to use “this” as some sort of cop-out and she was helping me clarify how there’s a way to use it and not use it. “This and that” can pretty much encapsulate the body and the sensory. The phrase is alliterative. They are both four letters. It’s a definite “in and out.” From that maybe comes this idea of the edge. The last few years I’ve been writing a lot about the transitory edge, the edges we occupy, the borders that we exist in and out of — not only politically, but also just creatively and as human beings. There’s a fair amount of skin talk in Function of External Circumstances. The poem “Do Not Be Swayed By External Circumstances” has a permeability that connects language to the transformative journey. So maybe “this and that” are very quick signposts or soundposts along the journey, giving the reader and myself the ability to follow up on these language tangents that sometimes get wild. I’m not quite sure where they’ll go, but I always can come back to “this” or “that,” and won’t lose you totally.

In terms of a transformative journey, In the Function of External Circumstances offers this emergent theme of the nomad, of never fully arriving, of always having been “already gone,” of celebrating its own willed project of “calamity.” Could we discuss this idiom of the nomad, maybe in relation to the “external circumstances” of your title, and in relation to this book’s external circumstances of work, travel, death, drawing?

Yes, the nomad has been prevalent in my work since the beginning. Brenda Coultas asked me about the nomad’s place in my first book, Fractured Humorous, and I’m still the nomad. There’s a seam of belonging that allows me to keep traveling, literally and figuratively. The nomad appears in various scenes during my life. In the beginning, I found myself traveling from slam poet to burgeoning experimental poet. Then I found myself physically traveling and writing about being here and not there. Then a few years after that, I started wondering: What character is this like? And I’d write these broad performance pieces based on characters I encountered — whether real or imagined.

For more than two-thirds of my poems, I don’t know where they come from. That is: they appear as inspiration from somewhere more fleeting than here. They’ve sort of traveled to me. So I don’t know, for example, where the piece “Motor Priest” came from, but it had this really crazy language, a very performative piece. I first did it as if I were on a cross, as Jesus Christ. That was my early-version performance. But it evolved into this broader performance piece where I go onstage running around. Basically it’s a piece about this nomad caught in a sewer of an apocalyptic future. He feels that he belongs, and he’s like, “I’ve done this in my life, and I’ve done that in my life,” but basically he’s left alone. It’s a sad tale, and it’s my commentary either on fame or celebrity, or just religion. There’s a lot of faith-based experience that I write about, probably from my family background, Pentecostal Christian. That’s fueled a lot of my questioning. At the beginning, I had anger about that, about the need to believe. But then I realized everybody has their path and is entitled to find your way. So along the way, there were characters I’d invent, talking about fitting in or not fitting in. Writing those poems, I realized that Motor Priest is a nomad, and I should just own that and sort of perform that search.

As you said before, the beginning of this book questions, maybe a bit more naively, that nomad figure, and then as the book goes by experience and life enters the writing, where maybe the nomad becomes a little more complex, and it just continues along that way. I lived in the East Village from my early twenties until I got married. I was there in the late 70s when it was really dangerous and cool and everything, and there were all these characters — even before I was writing poetry. Back then I won these graphic-design awards. I was doing all this lettering by hand. That was my whole life, until I realized that you’re designing for other people, whereas poetry gave me an avenue to try to get across my own thoughts. Along the way I had met all these characters, and they stayed in my head, and I would write about them, years later. These characters were all nomads. Those New York neighborhoods were full and are full of figures who have lost their way. Being in a city like New York gives this sense of a huge community that has so many different kinds of people and so many different kinds of success and failure, destruction, creativity. We all are nomads, even though we sort of have found each other, and we’re continuing to travel, and to go on our way.

Then in the book, the “Underneath the Southern Cross” piece presents a literal nomad. My wife and I are traveling through Australia for two months, so here’s a journal from a nomad finding his way. This whole book provides an extension of what happens in that piece, with this sense of continuing to travel. Along the way, the sensory, the sense of beginning with the sensory, becomes a survival mechanism for the nomad. You’ve gotta live on the street. You’ve gotta know what’s around you. How are you going to get by? How are you going to get over? From my Spanish background, growing up in the Bronx, there’s this sense of just getting over, of how you break down those rules, how you figure out the next steps you’ve got to take, to literally make it through the day — and how human that is, and how survival-based all of those notions are. One poem from the second section, “In the Speed of Slow,” takes one moment and stretches it way, way out. I’m writing about the characters trying to say something. They go back to saying it over and over in different ways. We’re discussing the speed of rain, of bullets. Life gets in the way of this moment. The title itself breaks down the syntax of language, of science, of the bio-weapons in there. By the end of the piece, we haven’t moved too far, but we’ve traveled a lifetime.

Again in terms of stretching out in a poem, it did interest me how the nomad often gets connected to the solitary figure, the “loner with a burrow.” And we could approach this vector of topics from a variety of angles. First, having stayed in Fitzroy for some time, walking that same Brunswick Street stretch you discuss, sensing I had reached one of the coolest, coziest, and charming parts of Australia, but still feeling a sense of isolation, or maybe of depopulation, of Australians displaced by Europeans, or just of the Pacific’s vastness lurking beyond those few blocks, I wondered how much your literal experience within this one particular place shaped that journal project — which often seems to present a sequence of discrete, singular, islanded experiences, perhaps coalescing at times, but never beaten and blended into narrative. Or we also could talk about your experience of coming across as “exotic” in Australia, versus coming across as “different” in the U.S., and the potentials and limitations for the singular within the exotic. Or we could altogether abstract and depersonalize the “I” amid this broader inquiry into “the architecture of one’s space,” with its “Avenue Me” and “Me Island” and things like that.

Well that sense of being alone in the middle of a lot of people is also very New York City, which I love. I love how in the middle of Rockefeller Center you can eat your lunch alone in the center of the universe. I love biking on a Sunday morning up Park Avenue and passing everybody just walking. A lot of places in New York where I allowed myself to get lost and just walk around basically guided everything. So again for Australia: I don’t know anybody here, and I love that. Maybe that speaks to my particular make-up. I have a sense of comfort in being alone, and I know not everybody has that. I’ve learned that in life. At the beginning I was like Why can’t you just be alone and do your own thing? And then I realized people have their own way of doing. I’ve always felt comfortable. That could be from my family background. It was easy for me to just be in my room for hours. I didn’t feel like I was ignored. I was just really happy to be with my imagination.

So this “Southern Cross” piece picks up in another part of the world, another big city, with Melbourne not as big as New York, but still an urban environment. By this point I had traveled a bit with the Nuyorican Poets. For this trip to Australia, three other poets and I first performed at the Sydney Arts Festival. That’s a whole other chapter, because traveling with these poets is so great. We’re each so different from each other. At the time, spoken word is still new in a way. It’s like: Oh, these people are doing these things with language and words onstage. Wow. This was before it was commodified. It was not monetized, yet. It was just this pure, beautiful art form. There was that sense of the emergent, of new experience artistically. I was bringing part of New York with me, part of where I grew up.

Here I am walking down these streets, seeing all these cafes with their lattes. Starbucks wasn’t big back then. Coffee wasn’t a brand yet. It was just coffee. So this was unusual to me, like: Oh, they make it so fancy. That was my naiveté. But I wasn’t naive to the human experience outside my culture, so it’s like: OK you guys, we’re all sort of lost. There’s a shared sense of loss, but also a shared sense of traveling together. So here I’m this nomad again, trying to experience what’s happening around me, just really curious about how we all are so different.

By that point, in New York, fellow Latino writers had approached me saying: “Oh Edwin, you should be doing more for your people.” There was that sense of being given this mantel to carry, this sense that you have to say something for somebody else, and I felt like: Well, why? My writing up to that point talked about process and identity through process, more than identity geographically or nationally.

I know now, after a little more experience, that you’re always representing your own in many ways. There are many ways to talk politically about what you’re doing. What are you doing in language that is making you stand apart, or making you fit in? What are you saying that is talking about the other person not fitting in? There are a lot of ways that you can talk about this sense of right or wrong that don’t have to go back to the normal, expected trappings of identities or all that stuff.

So when I got to Australia, by then having been told that I needed to represent my people, here I was an outsider. My skin was browner than everybody else’s — not by a lot, but I knew I was different. It wasn’t like I was totally exotic, but I was a Puerto Rican writer. Am I exotic in New York as a Puerto Rican? No. Is an Australian exotic in New York? Yes. I was making these geographic jumps. What does it mean to be exotic? Who cares about that, with all the categories and the boundaries and the labeling, the sense of familiarizing yourself with what makes you happy, or gives a sense of well-being? I find myself gravitating more towards the not-understanding. I like not being understood, so I went towards this exotic sense of fitting in or not fitting in. My senses in general were more attuned, from that point, after the Sydney Arts Festival. Melbourne happened after that, walking through the cafes, walking through the art community — that’s when I had this sense of the exotic. From that point on, throughout the whole trip, I wrote down things about not fitting in. What does that mean to me? Do I care about fitting in? Towards the end of this piece, there’s one part about the mosquito bite on my thumb. That was written on the airplane, watching the islands underneath me, trying to figure out where I fit in, where I belong, literally passing over the place where I just was, liking that sense of displacement, poetically. You’re not landing yet, and you never want to land. You give the reader, and also give yourself, a chance to continue the travel. If you put your foot down, you’re done moving.

We’ve discussed an emphasis on solitariness, but could we also supplement that with the generative potential of love within this book? Again with a sense of design in mind, “One by One” impressed me by delivering fierce emotional clarity amid this much more expansive, ambitious overall collection. Could you discuss how/why these engagements with love seemed an essential component to include in Function of External Circumstances?

Right, right. The middle section of that poem came from a dream. The two stanzas at the end about consumption and hunger give this wrapping-up of: what does all this mean? Actually, the book’s title poem, “In the Function of External Circumstances,” also came from a trip with my wife, to Nova Scotia. This sense of clarity came from literally being stuck in the mud together, persevering and surviving. I felt that the nomad needed to have some grounding. I’m writing about all this process, about how one thing becomes something else. So where does the intellect move out of the way for the heart or the body to come through? Where do the senses support the intellect? For me, that’s when you are connected with someone. Can you share your faults? Your dreams? Your everything with somebody else? This book comes out of being happily married, and lucky to have found somebody who puts up with me. I wanted to include how our heart sometimes knows more than we do. And when we don’t let it do that, that’s the brain talking. The connections of the organs, the interbody highways that we try to manifest as we get older, interest me poetically. It’s sometimes hard to write about love or the heart without being clichéd. It’s hit or miss. I think it’s just important to get it out there. As time goes by, you get more succinct with your message or with possibilities. Some writings in this book make me grimace a little. Maybe they’re a little too honest.

But there’s a piece in the book about when I first met my wife in the Nuyorican Cafe, and it’s short, kind of beautiful, clearly a moment of inspiration. Some pieces provide a sense of how the nomad’s history keeps changing, literally with every step, giving a sense of travel or movement along the way. You reach out and try to connect to a sense of heartbreak, or of love found, whatever it is. There’s a sense of shared life that we borrow from each other, as we turn the pages.

Sure I also love how individual poems throughout your work teach us how to read them as we go. They don’t fit a genre but establish a pattern, which you then might break. For example, “In Line with What’s” first stanza ends on the statement: “Sharp angle to my height, a question.” Then the next line offers: “Could that be it? A question?” A question becomes a statement but then becomes a question again — repeating while always shifting register. I appreciate how this poem teaches the reader to read it, and also suggests that anybody could read it, can come in with any context they want.

That actually touches on what I was talking about with identity. I want to present a piece that allows you to read it with your own background, and doesn’t weigh you down with my representational abilities. “In Line with What” is a good example. The designer in me is designing language, designing a sentence structure. You start somewhere and mess things around, and you let readers enter with their own flow. Once I have some style in my head, the content just falls out of that. That poem wrote itself. I kept questioning what I was writing, and I left the questions in there. I felt like: This poem is about this idea of the question. At the end, the poem is about my hand and what I’m writing, and it ends on “start,” with a certain sense that the writer knows what he’s doing: allowing the syntax or whole format to slip in on itself, giving you more openings, giving you more portals to reach into. That’s how I’m interested in approaching identity. For sure, I write a lot of poems about Puerto Rico and being a New Yorker in Puerto Rico, and vice versa. That lives in its own way. But for me, a poem has a lot more legs when it also speaks to the experience of the reader, regardless of who you are, sitting there with the page, whatever your background is — and then it still doesn’t give you an answer. It allows itself to live in two different lifetimes.

In this book’s later poems, language and identity often appear almost as a riddle, with an emphasis on “divine mystering,” on reaching for “the missing who haven’t been.” And all of the sudden Flaubert appears, suggesting (to me at least) an exhaustive search for le mot juste, for the perfect syntactical poise that Flaubert supposedly tortured himself for days to find.

That’s this heavy piece towards the end. This came from a talk I was sitting in. I don’t know if the talk was about Flaubert, honestly. It was about something akin to one of his works, and I just wrote all these notes about death and about who you are with your secrets, and your relations. There’s a section towards the end where I talk about the father. I’m talking about Flaubert for a minute, but then I go to my own father, to this scene of a man confessing himself to a brother. My dad died when I was 10, and I’ve had all these notes about him since then, and this section of the poem was about how I felt a need for the sentence “I saw a man.” This distances the viewer, or rather, the writer. I’m not giving you all you need to know about my experience. I’m just telling you what I’m witnessing, because it’s too enormous for me to really come to grips with. And then I answer that by saying “This is building a story,” and then I try to explain what that story may be.

This piece has a lot of my entry into what theory or poetics can be — not really knowing what that might be, knowing I was naive about that. But Flaubert connects to that. The piece is about experience, about honoring. Part was written about a funeral I was in. I equated the funeral to this sense of loss. It was a friend of a friend. It was not somebody connected to me, but it was still this sense of loss so permeable in that kind of atmosphere. So how do you imply creation? How do you imply loss? What does it mean to know that you’re not quite sure? Then at the very end, with this sense of walking on the poem itself, to let yourself possibly enter: that felt like a really strong way of honoring the “theory” I was getting at with the Flaubert. I give this sensorium of language, of myself in language, trying to make sense of destruction, creation. What does that mean to me? Well, maybe let yourself walk on it. Maybe you can possibly even enter it. It’s giving you a little bit of a nudge to maybe do something, but I don’t want to force you to do anything.

There’s also a little bit of a snide comment there, from my background as a slam poet and traveling with the Nuyorican poets, when we felt like we were animals at a zoo with people gawking. So when I say “let yourself, possibly, enter,” I’m telling you, somewhat sarcastically, to dare yourself: can you possibly let yourself think, let yourself feel? The entrance, the portal I talk about is a sensory one. Do you dare yourself feel this? Do you dare yourself come into this emotion of what the writer is writing about? The work that really permeates, the work that really works to move on, is work that touches buttons, or at least creates portals that allow you to enter in your own way.

As we move towards this book’s end, “True to You” works really well to suggest that letting go, that falling, leads to us finding each other. So even for the nomad, do traveling, departing, always imply or seek some sense of connection? I did note Oedipus appearing not long before, and the nomad here always packs all these family and infantile-like memories, intimacies, familiarities, making for slightly less of a light traveling. Or in terms of artistic affiliations, we also could discuss the collaborative “Liminal Skin” section, as well as your own personal experience with Nightboat.

“Liminal Skin” came from a collaboration with a composer. I wrote a few words. She wrote some music to channel this, and then I wrote more words. The poem’s rhythms dictated the minimalist aesthetic. I knew I was writing about, in this part of my life, love and search and everything. Her piano pieces were so beautiful, so minimal, and I was trying to figure out where the words would fit between the tones almost. And I’d been working with this sculptor, Nancy Cohen, years before, and she just got into sketching more during this point in her life. I said to Nancy: “I have these poems. I think it could be really great if you worked with them.” I gave her the collection, and she saw a maze. She saw a connective visual of maze and search and walls. She had this idea of walls made of honeycombs. Those are the sketches, the arcs, the portals that are also walls and also porous, which I thought were a beautiful metaphor for this section.

For Nightboat, I worked with Stephen. I actually had published, when I was editor of Rattapallax Magazine years before, a few of Kazim’s poems, so of course I knew about Kazim. They didn’t really commission the book. I came to them with it, and said I loved Nightboat. I didn’t know if they were possibly interested, but I told them I could design it. I didn’t tell them how it would look. I didn’t know yet, but I saw it in my head as a complete package, so I didn’t want to turn it over to another designer. Stephen was very, very open and supportive. He and Kazim said: “Edwin, just do what you do and just give it to us.” There was a lot of faith, a lot of trust in what I was doing — which was really, as an artist, as a writer, so valuable, to have people believe in what you’re doing, and to then move with it.

And I just want to end by saying that we need our champions of support, in any aspect of our lives, but especially as artists, as communicators among the realms. We need people who can allow our life experiences a forum to be heard. Nightboat’s grace and measure gave me time to present where I was in my life, and for that I am eternally grateful.

FacebookTwitterEmail